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WEIRDER STUFF

About This Game

Weirder Stuff is a Trinity Continuum game using an re-imagined version of our AWS setting. In Weirder Stuff (henceforth WS) you will play a teenage high school student caught up in the weird happenings and mysteries in the northern Montana town of Shelly. The characters will begin play as normal humans and will have the opportunity to develop into either Talents or Psions. This is primarily a Modern setting with Thriller, Sci Fi, and Supernatural components.

Game System

Other

Status

Active

Full Description

WEIRDER STUFF: TRINITY CONTINUUM EDITION

Weirder Stuff is a Trinity Continuum game using an re-imagined version of our AWS setting. While we will be using the Trinity Continuum Rules (also called the Story Path System) we will be using none of the published setting. Any material I introduce from the published setting will be adapted to our setting and does not imply that the two universes co-exist. As far as we are concerned WS is a self contained Universe.

In Weirder Stuff (henceforth WS) you will play a teenage high school student caught up in the weird happenings and mysteries in the northern Montana town of Shelly. It is a modern setting which will run in a concurrent time line to our own reality i.e. the year is 2019, the president is Trump, Avengers End Game made a billion bucks in its first week, and so on. The game is loosely inspired by Netflix's Stranger Things, the teen dramas of the CW Network, and of course our own canceled Aberrant Weirder Stuff game.

**WARNING: While the game features teens it is an adult game with adult themes of horror, sci-fi, and high school. Consider it rated R to NC-17.**

The game is set in the small town of Shelly Montana. The town is a Fictionalized version of Shelby Montana which can be googled (  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shelby,_Montana   Map https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shelby,_Montana  ). If you want to know something about Shelly, and I am not available, you can look it up and see it for the most part at the Shelby website. I will note in a setting post any concrete differences and changes I make. The general public are not aware of the strange things going on in this area of the state, although if your a nerd and google every weird thing in the world there are stories of... well weird stuff happening, some of which are true.

While the characters are human, this is a game using the Trinity Continuum rules and will feature both Talents and Psions. Talents ( The Inspired from classic Adventure RPG) have always been around and there is no special classification or even understanding that they are anything more than lucky or skilled persons. For all intents and purposes Talents are just people who are good at what they do, maybe even exceptional.

Psions on the other hand are an unknown. Knowledge and understanding of Psioncs in the world of WS is just like it is in our real world, an unproven pseudo-science which is more often ridiculed than taken seriously, a staple of science fiction stories, the subject of hoaxes and charlatans running money grabbing schemes. There are those who think it is real and those who don't and then there are those who want to make it real and to use it for their own purposes. To date in the world of WS there has never been a Documented, Verified instance of actual Psionic activity.

Characters while starting off as normal human can become either Talented or eventually Psionic. Psionic characters will use a some what modified version of the Psion rules found in Trinity Continuum Aeon the modifications to those rules will be detailed later.

I wish to be clear about something, while this game is obviously an iteration of the former AWS game, it is not a continuation of that game nor is it a remake per se. It takes what I had wanted that game to be and has re imagined it into what I hope will be a better and more satisfying experience for all of us. But let me be clear, WS is not AWS. Even though there will be and are similarities with AWS, they are not the same. Internally as far as WS is concerned AWS does not exist. It is not an alternate world, it is not a story written by one of the current characters, it is not a program Sean is working on for a game. As far as WS is concerned AWS isn't a thing.

Characters based on the Original AWS Characters are welcome as are new characters. Those based on the AWS characters may have to alter some of their background to better fit into the new setting but the changes required will not be drastic.

We will be using the new Trinity Continuum Core and the Trinity Continuum: Aeon books. No other published material will be used by you the players although I as Story Teller may use some material adapted from the 1st Edition of Trinity, Aberrant, or Adventure or other non Trinity resources. In some instances I may make these additional resources available to some or all of you as the story demands.

 

  1. What's new in this game
  2. //My new number. For the Fellowship only, please. Jason// The twins both looked at their phones simultaneously, polishing that twin stereotype of sharing just a bit of the others' thoughts. They looked to each other and Devin shrugged as Marissa rolled her eyes. "Great." She vented sarcastically. "Now he has my number." "I can see it now: 3AM texts... 'Hiker struggled, slipped, fell in wood chipper. Blood everywhere. Help with clean up. Dad will kill me'." Devin smirked as he dotted his arm across the air bouncing it with every word as he spelled his thoughts in pantomime. "I'm sure he told them all he loved them before he chewed them up into kibble, so that certainly makes it okay, right?" Marissa mused, smirking. "Oh," her brother nodded in confirmation. "Totally. He's really big on love." Holding up his phone Devin tapped out a reply just as Autumn's chimed up on both of their phones. //Groovy. Marissa said she doesn't buy it. Send n00dz.// A moment later she slapped his arm. "Asshole." Their parents were currently mingling with one of the teachers from the high school. Since Misti worked there anytime there was some form of social function happening anyone who worked at the school tended to find other members of the faculty and latch on to them. Unfortunately at the moment it was Devin's algebra teacher, Mr. McRiley. If the judgemental glares from his parents weren't enough to hint at the lecture he was going to receive later, the smug tone in Mr. McRiley's voice was certainly there to remind him up. Mr. McRiley went on. "He's smart, always has been, but so far this semester his mind seems like it has been everywhere but his class work. With that awful business over the summer between him and Chet, violent outbursts like his are certainly indicators of deeper troubles. I just think he'd do much better if he was a bit more focused." "Yeah," Devin mumbled. "And if you'd quit riding my dick." His parents both angled a look towards their son that border lined on psychotic rage that only parents at their wits end seemed to be able to call up. "What? It's true. The dude is a condescending prick. I know I'm not that good at it, but what I don't need is some smug asshole slipping little quips about shitty I am at it while thinking he's managed to mask them behind his superior intellect and fanciful wordsmithing." Mr. McRiley cleared his throat, a tell that he was anxious and possibly embarrassed at being called out. "Regardless of how much you don't like me, or my attitude," that's it Devin, play the system. "Your job is to teach in a polite, professional and respectful manner. If you don't like how I act, then my parents should have been notified by now, not turn it into some vendetta of yours where you get to be a prick and I walk away not learning anything." Cherry on top. "He looked to his mother with pleading eyes. "Tell me I'm wrong, mom." Mr. McRiley looked to Devin, then Misti, then Carl. Devin wasn't at school, he wasn't sitting in the classroom and he wasn't at the mercy of of the school's or Mr. McRiley's rules. They were in public on their personal time and this smug bastard decided he'd make it into some impromptu P/T Conference? Nuh uh. This was probably the last time they would get to spend with their parents and... friends(?) and Devin'd be damned if he was about to allow his Algebra teacher to screw that up and get his WiFi and phone privileges taken away on the night they were supposed to save the world. "Well, yes and no, Devin," she smiled at her son then addressed his teacher. "Mr. McRiley we are aware of how much of a handful our son can be. He's had a few discipline issues of late and has never really adjusted to life Shelly as well as we'd hoped. However if my son has one talent it his tactless acuity for calling it as he sees it. A talent I hope he can polish one day, but until then I'm in a position, as a parent, to listen to both sides of the story. So, why don't we revisit this conversation tomorrow in my office?" "That's sounds great," Carl chimed in. "We appreciate your concern, but this is not really how we planned on spending our Labor Day. We're very serious about our children's education and if there are opportunities on either side of the educational spectrum that need addressing we'll certainly look into that, but this is not the forum, Mr. McRiley. It was a pleasure to meet with you and we do hope you enjoy the rest of your time here today." The teenager's parents both pursed their lips in frustration at their son as Mr. McRiley pressed on to another family and greeted them with a warm smile and a handshake. It was like he was on a 'ruin Labor Day' mission for all the high schoolers. "Wow, Devin." Carl nodded and forced a insincere grin from his lips. "Not even twenty minutes. Twenty goddamned minutes and we are already getting spoon fed how much our son just doesn't give a shit. Going to look great in your transcripts for... technical school? Community college? Is that what you're going for, or was just lounging around the house smoking pot until you're thirty four more or less what your shooting for?" "Dad!" Marissa's tone of urgency caught her father's attention. "Look, he's not lying. The guy a real jerk. I mean, come on, of course Devin's grade sucks, we're only two weeks into the school year. And he's already got a tutor." "You went and got a tutor," his father asked him. "Already?" "W-well, yeah," Devin was quick to follow up, crafting his lie as swiftly he could. "Proactive, right? Jason Bannon. He's totally been helping me out, but, you know... long weekend haven't been to class...," he chuckled. "What can I do, right?" "Pass your next exam," his father's digit was stiff against the bone of Devin's chest. "I want it, in my hand, and it better be an 'A'. That Bannon kid supposed to be smart, you have until Friday to get like him. Phone. WiFi. Ducati. Gone. You hear me? I'm tired of being embarrassed by my own god damned kid everywhere I go." Their parents walked on ahead as the twins trailed several paces behind them, both on their phones. Marissa looked over to brother and mouthed silently the word 'sorry', then tilted her head as she noticed he had a credit card out and was tapping away on his phone. "What're you doing?" She asked aloud. Her brother shrugged and kept tapping away. "Fuck that guy. He's a pervert. The way he talks to me and they way he locks his eyes on the ladies in the classroom, the dude has issues. So, I'm helping him out." Devin held up a worn leather wallet for Marissa to notice then tucked it swiftly back into the pocket of his Under Armor hoodie. "Holy shit! Where did you get his wallet?" She whispered and looked about in a paranoid fashion. "What do you mean 'helping him out'?" "A little teleportation magic, aaaaand platinum access on every porn site I can think of." Devin smirked and kept tapping away. "He'll thank me later." "Fucking diabolical." she grinned evily. Mr. McRiley's wallet found its way randomly in one of the coolers of a random family who were just there to enjoy their day. Credit card and all were placed back where they were found and he made sure to purple bamf it to the very bottom where it could soak up all the cold water all day and hopefully ruin anything that was in it. The spiteful little sociopath had all of zero fucks to give when it came to caring about how well the rest McRiley's day was going to go. Grinning evilly at the other, proud of their little caper, the twins merrily went on their way. They hung in the back as the Jauntsen's managed to locate Carolyn Cassidy and they were waiting for all hell to break lose as Crolyn scowled at the twins in the back while also trying to make polite conversation with two prominent members of the town's PTA. Great. The Carolyn Cassidy and Jason's dad... and the Jauntsen parents all there... all available to talk each other in a neat little circle of friendship... this would not end well, considering Gar knew their dirty little secret and the Cassidy's hated them... hell, their own parents hated them. "Hey, Deej," Laurie's voice cooed pleasantly through the static of their parents' nonsensical B.S. and polite banter when all they really wanted to was tell the others how much they didn't like them, or their weird-ass kids. "Red," Devin smiled a bit, letting just a hint of his charm show. "Hey, how's things?" "Things are... thing...ing, slowly along." She was year younger than the rest of them but there were still times in the girl's mind where her brother and the others were like giants to her. The difference a single grade made to the narrow scope of a teenager was amazing at times. "Marissa." She added in as polite of a greeting as she could. Marissa scared her, not because Laurie was easily bullied, in fact quite the opposite, but there were still those people out there who just knew how destroy a person with a few words and no matter how tough their exterior was, they carried those wounds inside for days or weeks while they healed. Marissa was one such gifted individual, able to cut people down and revisit them in a few weeks to restore her dominance... like mowing the grass of people's egos and self-esteem. She was woven from bitterness and dyed with spite into the blackest sackcloth from which only malevolence and darkness could sieve its way through. Plus she was always really well dressed and super pretty, so she supposed she hated for that too. Probably more that than the darkness and evil thing... but was mean! "Wow," Marissa snarked at Laurie's desperate attempt to make conversation with her handsome and obviously irresistible brother. "Smooth, Cassidy. So, where's your brother? Haven't seen him around yet? He lose another bet and waiting for his dress to dry?" Laurie rolled her eyes and sighed only to be met with Marissa resting a hand on her shoulder and smiling with pride. "Oh, honey, don't misunderstand, I'm not putting you down. I'm praising you. Making your brother wear a cheerleader outfit to a school game in small town dominated by small minds and religious doctrine? "Ugh," she rolled her eyes and grunted in pure praise. "You single handedly destroyed your brother's social life in a single evening. You have talent, girl. Why aren't you in my camp?" "I, didn't-" Laurie stammered suddenly realizing the perspective Marissa had put on it was accurate, if not tactless. "Oh, I remember why you're not in my camp," she grinned viciously. "Half the school wants to wreck your brother for being some freak, their words, not mine, who decided to embarrass our school at a home game by being a self proclaimed 'guy' who wore one of our cheerleading outfits, but wasn't a cheerleader. The other half wants to wreck you for thinking you could just dress your brother up in a school uniform he didn't earn and embarrass the team and the school you play for all for... what? A silly bet? Didn't consider that, did you? It's a uniform. You don't wear it if you're not in the team. Those are earned, not just tossed on because you want a giggle. You're both pretty screwed, honestly. Coach is pissed and didn't find it funny at all. So, yeah, good plan, pleb. Can't wait for the sequel." A bit slack-jawed at the revelation she looked to Devin who could just shrug solemnly. "I hate to say it, but she's right, in her own eloquent, evil way. You may have been better off walking into a church and using a lit bible to set fire to the American flag. The Coyote's are laughing stock right now and the team wasn't happy that it was one of their own who set it all up... I mean, I hate it, I do, because people around here are ignorant and closed minded, but... we have no control over how other people react to things." "But, I'll bet we totally bullied you into doing that when you go crying to mommy though, right?" Marissa folded her arms and scowled at the little redhead.
  3. Champion's Field, after Noonish Rascal scampered about, alternately munching on a pair of cored apples Laurie had given him as a treat, and flinging them about while her dad showed how to grill, starting her out with bratwurst, kielbasa, and other varieties of sausage. Jack Cassidy manipulate fork and tongs like a maestro's baton, taking the occasional sip of a local microbrew stout and giving his youngest daughter laconic instruction. Carolyn got out the buns and condiments and a pair of jugs of pink lemonade, lemonade ice cubes thunking against the plastic before setting out a wide selection of baked she and her son had made leading up to Labor Day, pies, cookies, muffins, and breads. Some to eat, some to give away, some to sell, the proceeds split with the fund that maintained The Carousel. Carolyn stretched, fists knuckling the small of her back and noticed someone she'd only seen rarely in passing at Shelly High when she was there for a PTA meeting. Jason's father. Garreth, yes, that was it. She had to admit to herself, she hadn't thought particularly highly of him. But now, he was clear eyed, clean shaven, and wore a clean shirt - it made for a surpassing improvement. He noticed her attention and tipped his bottle her way, giving her a nod. Carolyn brushed strawberry blond hair from her face and nodded back. Then on a whim, she picked up a pie, strode over to where he was minding his own grill by his lonesome, a pleasant smile creasing her pleasant features. "It's nice to see you out and about," and sober and clean, went unsaid, though understood. It wasn't unkind, Carolyn had a suspicion to what had encouraged Jason's father to apparently change his ways. "Garreth Bannon, and joining the rest of Shelly at The Carousel this year. I'm Carolyn, Sean's mother. Just wanted to introduce myself and say you have a fine young man in Jason and it's been our pleasure to have him visit over the years." "Gar," the elder Bannon corrected, his nervousness easing somewhat, allowing himself a faint smile and nodding his greeting. "I wish I could take credit for the man Jase has become, but... " He shrugged self-deprecatingly, but there wasn't the bitterness there would have been even just a few days ago. "Gotta thank you folks for having him over so much and your boy being a friend to mine ever since we moved to Shelly." Carolyn laughed lightly. "That goes both ways, I think." She gestured at the grill. "Jason has always been helpful in the kitchen, but I didn't know if you brought more than meat to eat, so I thought I'd bring over a pie, cherry and blueberry." She set it to side of the grill, and waved her hand over it. "There's a little bit more in there, punching up the flavor while mellowing the sweetness. Jason has been fond of it... once Sean worked out the kinks in the recipe." "Thanks kindly, Mrs. Cassidy." Carolyn waggled a finger. "If you insist on Gar, I have to insist on Carolyn. Perhaps someday, we can have both Bannons over for dinner. Considering, we have heard so little about you."
  4. Around noon-thirty. (-ish.) "...haven't really thought all that much about it, I guess.” Autumn leaned back on her hands, enjoying the tickle of the warm grass between her fingers and against her bare legs as she reclined next to her father’s chair, half in the early afternoon sun and half in the shade cast by the trees nearby. As end-of-summer celebrations went, this one was going pretty well, so far. The weather was beautiful, there was plenty to do and to eat, and for the first time in forever, her extended family was all together- even if she still hadn’t managed to catch up with Jacob yet to apologize for going off on him on Tuesday. She needed to handle that soon. Glancing over at him, sprawled out and dozing on one of the blankets as the post-lunch food coma took over, she felt that little twinge of guilt again. Yeah. Today. Definitely. For now, though, focus, Autumn. You’re having a conversation. “Something with the EPA, maybe? I’ve got Environmental Science this year, and Miss Kyleson said they do a lot of internships. Not all of them are paid, obviously, but doing it for a summer or something after I graduate might help me decide. If I graduate,” she added on reflection, grinning a little as she considered her academic performance thus far and defiantly, resolutely, did not consider any other reasons she might not finish high school. Nope. Nuh-uh. There were plenty of things she needed to do today, that she wanted to do today, and dwelling on what might or might not happen later wasn’t one of them; she’d gotten all her crying done already. Nathan Crocker tilted his head to regard her curiously, idly turning the half-full bottle of Corona on the armrest of his folding chair. His boy had already made it clear he wanted to get involved in the administrative side of the agency, and everyone had assumed Autumn’s path was equally apparent, if not stated outright. “Not Fish and Wildlife?” he asked, brow furrowing slightly beneath the bill of his faded green baseball cap; her parents’ expressions mirrored his confusion. After all, she’d grown up hearing about the ins and outs of being a Warden on an almost daily basis, loved the outdoors like other girls loved Sephora or pumpkin spice, wasn’t afraid of getting dirty or bloody, and had idolized Owen and everything he did. “I mean, I thought about that, yeah. And it still might be what I end up doing, but between you and Grandpa I feel like I already know so much about it that I should try something else first.” Autumn’s nose crinkled slightly as she grinned up at him, stretching her legs out on the ground while the warmth of the sunlight soaked into her skin. “Maybe a few something elses. You know, expand my horizons a little bit. And, honestly, I haven’t even graduated yet, so I don’t wanna think about eight more years of college, or whatever, that I’d have to do if I wanted to be a vet. Plus, being in an office sounds boring, nurses and teachers get treated like shi- uh, like crap,” she hastily corrected, remembering who she was with as her mother frowned disapprovingly, “and I’d hate the military. So.” With a dismissive shrug, the earnest young woman glossed over her slip of the tongue and summed up her thoughts on her future career prospects. “So,” Dana countered, still scowling a little over her glass of iced tea, “you do realize you’re going to have to get a degree for a government job, right? Especially for an agency like the EPA. And with your grades-“ “I know, I know,” the younger redhead protested half-heartedly. “My grades really are getting better, though!” At her mother’s dubious expression, she added, sheepishly, “…a little. Chem isn’t that bad. It’s mostly just the math that sucks, but Jason’s helping, and I was thinking about asking Marissa to help me out with the English stuff. At least the literature part. She’s always quoting something or other.” “Jason, and… Marissa?” Nathan tipped back his beer, one prematurely silver eyebrow raised as the muffled sound of a tiny bell chimed from the pocket of Autumn’s faded cutoff shorts. “Yeah,” she nodded absently, pulling out her phone and swiping the lock screen away. “Bannon and Jauntsen. We’re friends now, I guess.” The sound was a generic tone with the standard vibration pattern, which meant the sender was someone she didn’t know. Huh. //My new number. For the Fellowship only, please. Jason// Wait, Jason actually has a phone now?! She blinked and re-read the text again one more time, just to make sure. Suddenly, the trip to Great Falls made sense, even if Laurie’s intent curiosity didn’t, exactly. A broad smile slowly spread from the generous curve of Autumn’s mouth to the corners of her eyes as- Nathan’s question forgotten entirely- she began swiftly tapping the screen with both thumbs, adding the new number to his contact info and only vaguely aware that the adults were talking around her. It seemed totally unreasonable that just the sight of his name, the knowledge that the succinct, perfunctory message was from him, inspired such a reaction: a sudden wave of warmth, not unlike the feeling of the sunlight washing over her through a break in the clouds. And yet, unreasonable or not, it did. It wasn’t the same sensation of fiery-faced embarrassment as when he teased her, or even the heat sparked by his gaze or, more searingly, his kisses. It just… Sort of, was. Like some weird, immutable law of the universe. Also weird was that she was one-hundred percent aware that it was weird, because barely more than a week ago she’d thought of him as some sort of slouchy, murder-stare-having cryptid to be avoided at all costs, but it was also simultaneously kind of… not weird? Maybe? At least, not capital-w Weird, anyway. Catching her lower lip between her teeth, she scrolled through the list of notification options, still smiling. What should I use for his ringtone, just in case? He might not call or text much, if at all, unless it was an emergency or something logistical, and it seemed like the sort of pragmatic reason he’d buy one in the first place, but… Maybe? Hmm. It chimed again. The eager redhead tapped the icon that appeared and instantly regretted it, feeling a rising wave of scarlet rushing up to her face as the reminder of peak Autumness stared back at her. She could almost, almost picture his exact expression, too: the gleam in his eyes, the little twitch at the corner of his mouth that hinted at laughter. Mother. Fucker. It was one of her favorite compound curse words, but in that moment it seemed somehow inadequate to describe the feeling of total embarrassment, indignant fury, and grudging amusement roiling in a tumultuous storm within her. Credit where it was due, it was an apt meme, and it was a funny reminder of how they’d actually met, but for fuck's sake, it wasn't fair! He couldn't even get flustered, and at least once a day since they'd become friends he'd made her feel like she was about to spontaneously combust. Couldn't she eventually gain some kind of immunity to that? Please? Obviously, he was deliberately screwing with her, and obviously there would have to be reprisals. [You suck! Just wait until I catch you, LOL.] If he wasn’t back in Shelly yet, that gave her some time to- “Autumn Rae.” She blinked at the pointed tone of her father’s voice, the inclusion of her middle name sending an alarm signal directly to her unconscious: almost immediately, the preoccupied teen glanced up from the messaging app and the list of sound files she’d been browsing. “Hmm?” Not exactly the most eloquent response. Ian glowered down at his distracted daughter, displeasure writ plain on his features, and she winced, her cheeks reddening even further. Shit. There was no point pretending she’d been paying attention when she very obviously hadn’t. “Sorry. Um. What was the question?” “Oh, for f-“ The glare Dana had given Autumn earlier was suddenly directed at her husband, who hesitated visibly under that withering stare, and then sighed. “Warden Crocker was asking about your new friends.” Something about the way he said that last word- friends- suggested that the initial question hadn’t been posed neutrally. Which… Yeah. That was fair. Jason did have a pretty sketchy reputation, and everyone present knew about her history with Shelly High’s unofficial princess (even if most of the adults in town considered the glamorous brunette an immaculate angel, beyond reproach). But things changed, right? People changed. Or at least, they could. Couldn’t they? “It’s only ‘Warden’ Crocker when I’m on duty, Ian.” Nathan smiled affably, tipping the near-empty bottle toward the real estate broker and receiving a similar salute in kind as Autumn’s father reluctantly conceded the point. “I’ve always been kind of partial to ‘Uncle Nathan,’ myself.” “Sorry,” she repeated contritely, resting the edge of her phone on her knee and wobbling it mindlessly back and forth. It wasn’t her favorite subject, but it was a welcome distraction from freaking eggplants. Ugh. “I mean, as far as Jase and Marissa go, stuff just happens, you know? Sometimes you learn things about people that can change how you think about them. Like, Jason’s not a serial killer, just kind of quiet, and Marissa’s not a terrible person, she’s just a bitch.” “Autumn!” Dana hissed sharply, lobbing a crumpled napkin at her offspring in frustration as the FWP warden stifled a laugh and her father groaned. With another grimace, the younger redhead instinctively batted the offending missile aside. “Okay, fine, but we already talked about this last week, and she totally is! I can’t help it, Mom. I didn’t make her that way. And, like…” Folding her legs, she glanced back at her former best friend and realized that at some point while she was tinkering with her settings and blushing furiously at the meme Jase had sent, he’d sat up and started paying attention to the conversation. Of course. Why not? she lamented inwardly. Why wouldn’t a day in the life of Autumn Keane be full of awkward? “It’s just, I can tell that she’s making an effort. And, yeah, she’s not really great at the whole friend thing right now, but if I don’t give her a chance to at least try, she might not ever be.” Inhaling, she tried to meet Jacob’s gaze, his dark hazel eyes shadowed beneath windblown hair and almost unreadable. “Maybe she was pretty awful to me, and maybe I hated her for it for a while. Maybe I still haven’t totally forgiven her yet.” Autumn watched his lips thin, his expression hardening slightly in a way she’d learned to recognize unconsciously in him over the years, and now consciously through making notes of Jason’s subtle facial cues. “But maybe I also want things to be better. I hope they can be, anyway.” “Yeah. Maybe.” Nathan glanced down at his son, who’d barely spoken a word until that moment as he’d lain in the shade after lunch, then questioningly at Autumn. “Gotta have hope, either way, right?” Cautiously, she nodded, and Jacob did likewise in some tentative, unspoken teenage accord. Exhaling as he stood and stretched, the tall athlete gave the adults a quick, polite smile. “I’m gonna go walk around, see who’s here.” There was a pause, and she plucked at the blanket she was sitting on, trying to decide whether they’d both actually been having the same conversation. “You wanna come with?” She couldn’t read his expression, silhouetted as he was against the afternoon sky; it took a moment for her brain to register that he was talking to her, because that basically never happened anymore, did it? “Yeah, sure.” In spite of herself, Autumn felt herself smiling, just a little, as she got to her feet and brushed the grass from her legs. “Sounds good.” Casual invitation, casual response. It was a start, at least.
  5. In Sean's car, half an hour after Noon. "Whatcha doing?" Sean frowned a little at Jase's feet on his dashboard as he glanced over at his friend, but at least the tall youth had slipped his boots off and was resting sock-clad feet on the upholstery rather than his boot soles. He'd set the passenger seat into a full recline shortly after their last conversation and had apparently been napping - or meditating. Or contemplating his next kill Sean had (mostly) jokingly said to himself as the Jeep ate up the miles and the weird Nordic folk music had filled the car with stirring vocals and drumming. Now, however, he had been aware of movement and, when he looked, saw Jase still reclining tapping away at the touch screen with a tiny smile quirking one corner of his mouth. "Ahh. Texting your girlfriend." Sean nodded sagely. "Texting everyone." Jason replied as he hit 'Send', causing Sean's phone to chime a moment later. "I thought it would be a good idea for the Fellowship to have my new number." Looking at his phone's screen, Sean nodded. It was a simple message. //My new number. For the Fellowship only, please. Jason// "To the point." Sean grinned, putting eyes back on the road as Jason went back to tapping at his screen. "And now?" "Now I'm texting my girlfriend." Jason's smile turned mischievous. = = = = = = = = = As noon moved firmly into the past and one o'clock approached, the air was filled with the scents of grilling food and the shimmering smoke rising from a few dozen staked picnic areas. Hank had wandered off to chat up one of the nurses from the Medical Center and Gar was spending his time listening to the small radio playing country and rock music, watching his own grill as it slow-cooked some ribs, and casting his gaze over the other families present. This was the first year he'd turned up to the Labor Day cookout and, despite his nervousness regarding his neighbours, had so far been treated with more warmth than he would have expected to receive as the town drunk. Of course, he wasn't that guy anymore. He'd shaved and put on a fresh shirt and everything, today. Heck, he was even sipping on a Coors, which everyone knew wasn't real alcohol so much as beer-flavored soda. In truth, Gar had only drank so heavily to forget his misery rather than out of some addiction to the substance, so quitting wasn't so much an issue as was just cutting back, drinking socially rather than in order to numb himself till he fell asleep. Still, he was avoiding anything harder than beer these days. He smiled as a flash of red-gold drew his attention to Autumn, laughing with her parents as they and the Crockers relaxed together. On a whim, he tried to spot the others of Jason's strange circle of friends. No Sean, obviously. He was off with Jason. There was Cassandra Allen, dispensing a tummy rub and scritch to her dog. Over there was Laurie Cassidy... who was not one of the super-teens but hung around the barn sometimes. No sign of the huge Allister boy or Lilly Pryor... Ah, there were the Jauntsens. He didn't know their parents really - had bumped into Carl in a bar once or twice and Misty at the school when he'd had to go in for some administrative reason or other. They seemed okay people at the time, but watching them now he couldn't help but wonder at how very 'California' the family was. Still, the kids were mostly okay, and were Jason's friends, so he gave the family a companionable salute with his beer as they passed - which Misti ignored, turning her sunglasses-bedecked face away, and Carl apparently didn't notice. = = = = = = = = = He could feel them up there, through the Tree he could feel them. Laughter, celebration, food and drink in the warming light of the sun. He remembered what that had felt like. Not Araun. Araun had not felt the sun's warmth in millenia. Araun's celebration was in the defilement of life and the rending of flesh. But Cody... Cody remembered last year, when he'd gotten a kiss in the woods after dark from a cheerleader following the Labor Day picnic, recalling the taste of her lipgloss. He remembered the smoked ribs, the beer he'd snuck away from his dad's cooler, the taste of apple and blackberry pie, his mom's laughing. And he moaned, a sound of misery and regret, more human now than he had been in weeks, more Cody now than he had been in weeks. His long, extra-jointed fingers clenched the rests of his grisly throne, his talons scoring the yellowing bone as he let out a sob. He could still taste Charlie's heart. He could still smell the raw charnel odor of this, his realm of blood. He sobbed again, drumming the back of his head against the back of his throne. "What have I done?" he slobbered through teeth no longer neat and white, that cut his gums whenever he closed his mouth. He threw back his head and let out a howl of loss - cut short as the other consciousness in his mind returned from whatever far-flung gulfs of contemplation it had slumbered in. Not you. Them. They did this to you. "They..? No. I chose. Me..." They forced you. Laughed at you. Made you afraid. You are not afraid now. I gave that to you. "Yes... Not afraid. Sad." All that you miss is ephemera. Not real. The hunt, the kill, the taking of what you want. That is how you know a thing is real. The other voice took on a low, intimate tone. Ahh. You are lonely. Soon, my child. Soon we shall be free of this place and you shall be a king. Until then... There is the girl. The girl, yes. Cody rose from his throne, stepped Through to the cellar where he kept... a prize. A memento he had taken from his first real kill. Eyes now easily able to pierce the darkness saw the naked form flinch away, ears keen as a hounds heard her muffled whimper of terror. Araun was right. Soon, he would kill his tormentors, release their Radiance, and together they would break free from this place and he, Cody would be a king! Until then there was... the girl.
  6. So arrived the Jauntsens. Not together, of course, as Marissa was arriving from her rendezvous at the Allister homestead and Devin was arriving from his farewell with Avalon and since it seemed Adele was in the middle of an apoplexy as he left, *that* went swimmingly. Misti and Carl arrived in their BMW, once again letting the small town wonder where the Jauntsen's got their money from as the Beamer, Mercedes, and Ducati all parked side by side. Carl was the fist to walk to the front of the car and take in the entire scene. He was in jeans and a grey polo with hiking boots that looked like they'd never been hiked in. Misti was sporting one of her many summer dresses in a dark floral pattern that complimented every seductive curve of her body. Carl raised his eyebrow as he looked around at all the families gathering, thankful they could see half of his expression through his dark sunglasses. "Why do we come here every year if you hate these people so much?" He asked his wife. "I mean, all in all, this place isn't so bad." His lips curled into the hint of a smile as a few kids ran past them, arguing like siblings. "It's not the place I hate, Carl," Misti's sarcasm and venom were as obvious as a the guns on a battleship being fired. "It's being stuck here because of your stupidity. Now, let's at least fake like our lives aren't a total shit show, please? And did you have to park so far away?" "We took the car, Misti. I know you're used to just leaning your broom against the wall, but that just doesn't work with a Beamer, sorry." Carl shook his head, scoffing with a half-chuckle. "Can't believe I got sober for this, but hey, we fake that your ass is real, your tits are real and your lips are real... why not step up our game and take it the next level: the entirety of our lives." Marissa leaned against her car door, glaring at her mother and father already lacing into each other. Her arms were folded against her bare abdomen as her deep brown eyes glimmered with violet sparkles, a slight bi-product resulting in her increasing frustration at with her parents as well as her 'boyfriend'. Her look was pure frustration as she watched through narrowed eyes and tightly pursed maroon lips. Her gaze shifted only slightly to her right as her twin brother approached her, looking back that their parents and shaking his head with a sigh. "They at it already?" "Yup," she sighed, shaking her head as she turned to face him. "Not even ten seconds. I'm half tempted to whammie the both of them and make them behave," her statement trailed off and she added a shrug. "Maybe get us a larger allowance too." Devin sucked his teeth at the sweet deal. "I'm almost on board, but we made a deal, not to family or Fellowship. How'd lunch go?" "Brilliantly," she smiled sarcastically. "Sheriff treated me like trash, made it clear he doesn't want me dating his son and I accidentally incited a pregnancy scare that Cade deflected by ratting out that all of us have powers." Devin could only laugh. "Are you serious? So his whole family knows now? About all of us?" "No," she shook her head, letting her straightened hair tickle her shoulders. "Sheriff saved it, sorta. I gave Cade an earful, I just hope he listens. And why does everyone automatically assume I'm pregnant?" "Might be because you're a ho." Her brother added, lovingly. They were silent in contemplation for a moment to ponder Devin's wisdom about his sister's promiscuity. "No," she shook her head again, scrunching up her lips. "I don't think so. Ho's get paid, I'm more of a slut. I'm in it for the hell of it." They smiled at each other, sharing their own sibling humor with each other in silence. "How'd the whole Lona thing go?" Devin shrugged one shoulder, and Marissa could tell he wasn't feeling like himself at the moment. "It is what it is, you know? I told her I loved her, she told me she loved me and we agreed to just go live our lives. No long distance or hook-ups that just keep some false hope alive. Just hurts though," he sighed. "We didn't even get a chance." She wrapped her arms around her brother and hugged him. "Sorry. If you want to talk, I'm here. I know you liked her, even if I gave you shit about it, it was good seeing by big brother happy. I'm here, okay? Love you." "Love you too," he smiled and squeezed a squeak out of her before letting her go. "And thanks. Now... let's deal with these two before dad starts to sell swampland timeshares and mom starts handing out poison apples." The devious duo met up with their parents and calmed them down in the span of a few well placed comments about public decorum and what they would do if they embarrassed the twins in public. "There's Laurie," Devin nodded to the young redhead, pointing her out to his family. "Don't see Sean... so he's probably not going to show. Courtney's going to be here no doubt." Marissa slapped her brother's shoulder, holding in a laugh. "Do those two have bad blood?" Carl asked. He was completely behind on the events and goings on of his children's social lives. "Wait, our Courtney?" "Yes, dad, our Courtney." Marissa laughed. "Laurie and Sean are plebs, so we, Courtney included, don't really associate with them at whole lot at school. Sean likes to wear women's clothes and then ride a moral high horse when people don't assume he identifies as a male. He offered to expose himself to another student, but the little shit always plays the role of pariah. Frankly, I don't get him at all. I have boobs and you don't see me whining about it. Lately, Deej and I have been spending more time with him and a few others. Kind of like an outreach program for those who are socially or friends challenged. We're not allowed to call them 'unpopular' anymore." "Language, sweetheart," Carl corrected his daughter. "And that's great, you two. I'm glad you're stepping up and being leaders and role models for others." "Oh, yeah, totally dad. We do our best to set a high bar, but a good example. Looks like Autumn's here too," Devin pointed out for Marissa. "Christ, between the Cassidy's and Keane's it's like they packed for Armageddon. Autumn and Marissa are besties now, in case you two haven't been keeping up with Marissa on Insta... or any of her other basic bitch attention seeking apps." "Devin," Carl glared at his son. "What did I just say to your sister about her mouth?" "Stop opening it for the entire football team?" Devin replied and was answered with a swift slap to the back of his head by his father. "You need to explain that one to me, Marissa," Misti looked off at the Keane's and the Cassidy's with an obvious measure of disapproval. "I appreciate what you and your brother are trying to do for the less fortunate of Shelly, but you don't have to be friends with them. Encourage them to stay in their lane and stick to what they know, like fast food, cow herding... septic pumping. And Devin, sweetie, stop implying your sister is a whore." As Devin stopped rubbing the back of his head his mothers hand went upside it in the same spot his father struck. "Ow!" he cried out. "What the f-... frick." He was now frantically rubbing his head to ease the pain. "Doesn't this qualify as child abuse?" "Not if there's no bruise," Carl smirked. "And you deserve it. Oh, and you're such a pain in the ass, I don't think the authorities would mind. Might even throw us a party... even send us a replacement from the orphanage." "Autumn is awesome, mom." Marissa pointed out to her mother while father and son shared their wit. "Sean and Cade too. They might be a bit strange at times, but they stick together and have each others backs no matter what. More than I can say for this family. Diane-" "Dana." Devin threw in a swift correction as his hand threatened to catch his hair on fire as it was moving so fast against his head. "Whatever. Autumn's mom is a vet. She's a doctor, just like you. Why not try to get know some people in this town, mom? It's not like it would kill you." "Marissa," her mother's tone was cold and laced with condescension. Misti has adapted well, socially, but for the most part it was simply an act. Like her children, she didn't care for Shelly one bit. She longed for the coast and her home in Malibu. "No one in this little town is 'just like us'. I'm sure her mother is very talented as sticking her hand of the ass of a horse, but that hardly makes her a 'doctor', sweetie. Hopefully, we will not be in this town for much longer, kids. I don't want the two of you to slow down and get comfortable with this place and the mediocrity. You're better than this place. You're destined for great things and I want to see you both reach your potential. Your father and I want what's best for you and I assure you, you're not going to find it in Shelly Montana. Kids, there comes a point in your lives when you're going to have to realize that despite what all the bleeding hearts say, some people are just better than others. Success doesn't offer participation trophies. You either earn it, or you lose and go home with nothing." The twins looked at each other with that 'if they only knew' grin on their lips. "You're all heart, Misti," Carl huffed with a roll of his eyes behind his mirrored frames. "God forbid our children have friends, but that," he pointed to the sheer amount of stuff the two family's brought with them. "Is exactly why we donate to the food tents. And speaking of, I plan on eating eating a lot of unhealthy, greasy food today. Who's down?" "Totes game," Devin raised his hand from the back of his head. Marissa raised her hand with a expectant smirk. "Down like the economy." "I expect to see all of these extra calories reflected in your daily workouts, kids. Three extra sets, from the both of you. And Devin, I know you've been skipping the yoga portion." Misti chimed up as the twins threw their heads back and groaned. "If you want to play hard, you will work hard. Now come on, game faces everyone, let's make our rounds."
  7. "Are you sure you know how to grill?" Cassandra's mother asked for the third time as they got out of the car and went around to the trunk to bust out their picnic gear. Cassandra shook her head dismissively. "Mom, it's the 21st century. You don't have to know anything anymore. It's all online." She held up her phone, which had a video of someone grilling 'great bbq chicken in under ten minutes' up. "So...what, you have to carry a phone everywhere and pay for access to every skill you need?" Teresa asked pointedly. Cassie shrugged. "Just until they can wire it into our heads directly. Besides, you sell books. That's charging for knowledge." "Hon. Library. We don't charge." "Hon. Taxes. You totally charge. It's just...harder to see." Cass stuck her tongue out. Teresa hauled out an armload of bags of groceries for the cookout and stared her daughter down. "Taxes keep the library open, but that's not the same thing as charging for books." Bacon, still in the back seat of the car, barked and awkwardly hopped up so his front paws were on the glass of the window. Cassandra glanced at Bacon and went over to let him out. "No but really. Like, what keeps a bookstore open? Profits from book sales. That's how they pay salary and rent on the building and all the taxes and stuff on them. So what keeps a library open? Sure some fees, like late charges...which are also sort of after-the-fact charges for books..." "No, those are completely avoidable!" "...but also local and county taxes. If it wasn't for those, you'd have to charge per book. As it is, you don't...but that's basically because everyone who isn't using the library, but does pay taxes, is subsidizing everyone who does use the library." Teresa sighed and looked around the Carousel fields. "Is it too late to encourage you to pursue a different vocation? What were you into before? Skateboarding? I hear that's a nice profession that doesn't involve as much talking back to your parent." "AND IN SUMMARY," Cassandra finished, "The internet is awesome, even if it costs money to access and is probably going to mean everyone gets stupider because it enables intellectual laziness. This chicken he made really does look good though." "It had better be, because you're now the honorary chef." Cassie opened the door, scowling. "I was thinking I'd serve in a supervisory capa...BACON!" The dog exploded out of the car with enough force to knock Cassandra back a few steps and bolted joyfully across the field. He made a beeline for the black Labrador that was snuffling around one of the unoccupied picnic spots. They exchanged doggie butt-sniff greetings, and then the German Shepard noticed something else that earned a bark. Cassandra spotted where Bacon was going next and winced. Was that a...lamb? A goat? It was kind of far away. What would Bacon do to a goat? "Hey mom, I'm gonna go get Bacon back. There's an open place over there." Teresa glanced over, shading her eyes, then said, "I'm not carrying all this stuff by myself." "I'll be right back!" Cassie called, already running off. "Promise!" --- Meanwhile, over near where the Houses of Keane and Crocker were holding court, Laurie was belatedly crossing to follow to where her family was setting up shop with her goatling hopping along at her side. The gamboling Rascal was suddenly accosted by a very curious dog. Bacon went up to Rascal and sniffed him all over. This earned a playful head-butt in response. Cassandra came running up not far behind, looking a bit winded. "Hey, sorry, that's my dog," she explained. "Bacon! Over here!" The German Shepard reluctantly disengaged and trotted over to sit at Cassandra's side, panting. "He wasn't going to hurt him or anything," Cass explained to Laurie, still in apolgetics mode. She turned a little and spotted Autumn's folks a little ways off, watching with a mix of curiosity and wariness. Bacon looked an awful lot bigger than that little goat. Cassie gave them a wave and a grin to let them know everything was okay. "Can I pet him?" Laurie asked, already coming over to let Bacon sniff her hand. He did so enthusiastically, and transitioned directly to licking. Cassandra nodded. "Yeah, he's super friendly." Then from a distance, "Cass!" The teen reporter-wannabe turned at her name to spot her mother lowering a bag onto the table she'd picked out, and gesturing back at their car...where another couple of bags sat atop the trunk. She winced and gave Laurie a 'what can ya do' shrug. "I have to get our stuff. We should all meet up though. I saw Autumn's folks...anyone else here?" Laurie nodded and answered, "Just you and Autumn so far, I think? Sean and Jason aren't back yet from wherever they went..." She paused, but Cassandra's face didn't betray any hint of knowing more about where that place was. "Okay, well, lets keep our eyes open. It'd be cool to see everyone." With that Cassandra headed back to get the rest of the cookout goods before it started melting into the bags, Bacon running ahead of her.
  8. "Jack," Ian greeted the big man with an affable smile and a quick handshake, and extended the same friendly courtesy to his wife. "Carolyn. Laurelai. Good to see you. Nice day, isn't it?" He glanced around, taking in the scant crowd so early in the day and then back at his own girls, who smiled and waved at the group as Autumn leaned in the driver's side and popped open the hatch at the rear of the Jeep. "The help would be appreciated, thanks. You know, you guys are welcome to stop by this evening, grab a bite and a cold one. Warden Crocker's got the steaks, and we've got the ribs, and I don't think the five of us will be able to eat it all." "Are you kidding? Jacob can eat his own weight in ribeyes, and I'm pretty sure Autumn's not far behind him," Dana interjected with a laugh, brushing non-existent dirt from her hands onto the legs of her neat denim capris as she joined them. "Hey, Jack, hi, Carolyn," the pretty vet smiled warmly, then turned to Laurie and her caprine companion with a knowing, vaguely disapproving grin as she eyed the cotton candy in the young girl's hand: an actual pair of Rascals. "Morning, you two. Good to see you're keeping her out of trouble," she quipped, eyeing first the goat and then the red-haired teen. The young woman had the presence of mind to look at least a little sheepish as she brushed an errant wisp of spun sugar from the goat's furry cheek. "Seriously, though, if you don't have anything else planned, swing by. I think Nathan's already setting up, so we'll have all the food in the same place. And probably too much of it." She paused for a moment, considering something, then glanced at her husband. "Although if Jason hasn't eaten yet when he gets here, Autumn might bring him by, too." The Cassidys exchanged a look, eyebrows raised in wordless surprise: their Jason? Had the half-wild cub they'd adopted as one of their own- one rapidly growing into an adult with at least the seeming of civility- found a second family to help feed him? Unaware of the silent conversation between the other couple, Ian nodded, his smile broadening into a grin that didn't quite reach his eyes; he'd hoped to spend the day with his family, and even these essentially trivial, perfectly normal shifts in his daughter's social life like new crushes and fallings-out with friends were reminders of how tenuous their connection was lately. "True, yeah. Hey, maybe we won't have a week's worth of leftovers this year. We should probably ask-" He turned, but his impatient offspring was already out of earshot, carrying one of the large plastic storage containers off toward the shady spot where the Crockers were almost finished lighting the charcoal for the brats they'd brought for lunch later. Jacob was jogging up to greet her, and Dana followed the direction of her husband's gaze, then met it and offered a little shrug. "Well," he laughed, "I guess we ought to get started, or there's not going to be anything left to unload." As the three families hauled coolers and containers into the shade, the men bantered about hockey and the ladies discussed work and current events in town. The three teenagers, for their part, kept conversation light and casual- while skirting the subject of the Homecoming dance, they talked animatedly about the game itself and Laurie's excitement-slash-anxiety about actually getting to play. It didn't take long to get everything organized: neatly-stacked bags of charcoal, bins of ice for the drinks (alcoholic and otherwise) and uncooked food, and then the grills were lit, blankets spread, chairs unfolded, and tablecloths taped down onto folding tables. By the time all was said and done, the little tree-covered area the Crockers and Keanes had carved out was almost a self-contained Labor Day celebration on its own. "Hey, thanks." Laurie squinted slightly against the sun as the energetic young woman handed her a bottle of water from the depths of the cooler and rose, absent-mindedly nudging the lid shut with her knee. The youngest of the Cassidy clan still hadn't worked out how or why her brother and his best friend had managed to skip town so early, or what the group of teens were planning, and it was driving her crazy. ...But Autumn's parents had mentioned Jason, and she knew they all hung out at least once in a while, so maybe she could get some info from the Girl Scout? It was worth a shot, anyway. "Sooo." As openings went, it sounded casual enough, and the other girl smiled as she cracked open her own bottle. "Sooo?" "So," the sophomore repeated with slightly more conviction this time, sighing appreciatively as she took a sip of the cold water. "Great Falls, huh?" Autumn blinked at her, suddenly distracted from watching Rascal playing a boisterous game of tag with someone's black Lab and wondering if they should've brought the kids along after all. "Sean and Jason," she clarified, as comprehension dawned in the older redhead's eyes. Good. That meant she did know something. Now all she had to do was find out what, and the best way to do that was to pretend she already knew. Affecting an air of nonchalance as she screwed the cap back on the plastic bottle, she pressed a little further. "How come you didn't go?" Autumn's brows knit together in a brief, but expressive frown, her blue eyes narrowing, and Laurie cursed silently to herself. "Why would I go to Great Falls? My dad's home." Crap. She'd forgotten about that little detail- or, rather, it hadn't occurred to her, since she didn't really know the outdoorsy junior all that well. For that matter, she wasn't sure her brother did, either, but that was an issue for later. "Sorry, sorry," she conceded, grimacing in genuine apology; she really did feel kind of bad about carelessly drawing attention to Ian's absence. "I just wondered if they'd invited you, that's all." "Mmm." There was an uncomfortable pause, and then: "It's fine." Autumn nodded slowly, ponytail swaying as her expression gradually softened into a faint smile. It wasn't Laurie's fault her dad was away so much, even if being reminded of it stung a little. It would've come up at some point during the day, anyway, from Nathan if not someone else. I need to talk to him, she reminded herself, glancing back at the inquisitive girl and her goat, who had come bounding back over. "Yeah, no, they didn't. I mean," she shrugged, unscrewing the lid of her drink. "There's nothing I needed there anyway. I think they were just-" And then she remembered, abruptly, that Jason had mentioned one very specific thing he intended on getting while they were out, and- ohgod- she took a long, slow drink of the icy water in her hand as if it might somehow quench the sudden rush of warmth that surged beneath her skin. "Just shopping," she finished lamely, refusing to meet the other girl's eyes as the natural pink of her cheeks deepened to a vivid scarlet that rivalled the brilliance of her hair. "Shopping. Riiight." There was obviously something more there, but as badly as she wanted to press the issue, Laurie didn't think she'd get much further right then. Not with Autumn looking for all the world like she could light all the grills in Shelly just by proximity. Maybe she could try again later, or maybe one of the others would be able to tell her more, if she could track them down. "Well, anyway, good talk and, uh, I'll see ya later?" "Yeah, sure. See ya." The young vitakinetic smiled, despite the near-ignition of her fiery hair, and headed over to rejoin her parents as the sprightly pair of mischief-makers meandered off again.
  9. Morning Breathe in. Breathe out. Kat opens her eyes. The white paint on the ceiling reflects an orange, weak sunlight, quite a match for the blue and chocolate hues decorating her walls and woodwork. Through the open window can be heard the sounds of nocturnal wildlife yawning and stretching out before dusk, daring diurnal critters to an all-night party. Did I sleep all day? The teenager frowns, mechanically pushing a couple blonde hairlocks away from her eyes. --- The house is empty. Her Dad hasn't come home yet, and Tess probably went shopping. Suddenly, solitude feels oppressing, and the petite French girl opens the front door, going deep into the jungle. She has to find her friends. --- The sun has set. The wildlife overwhelms her sense with its screeches, groans, swish and rustle through exotic bushes bearing fruit never to be eaten by human beings. A bat flaps her wings above Kat's head, and for a split second, the teenager freezes, eyes darting to the obscure ceiling of branches and leaves, a shy and dim moonlight trying its best to pierce the rank foliage. The jungle bears a strong feeling of seclusion to the young and puny woman, carried by a wind of foul despair. Her heart races for a moment. --- She heard the cry. It had to be that way. As she rushes through the jungle, the complaint, definitely human, intensifies. A clearing. Ghastly spectacle. Blood. Mangled bodies surrounded by countless misshapen beasts, clad in black fur and dark, shining skin, as if covered in kerosene. Her heart stops at the sight of one of their victims, impaled on a branch, most likely the one whose cries she heard. Courtney bleeds as red as her hair. --- A thousand pairs of wicked eyes blink. It's all over now. The last offering presented itself. Kat's world is nothing but furious screeches begging for blood as the last thing she sees shines in the dim moonlight. Razorsharp fangs. --- Breathe in. Breathe out. Kat opened her eyes. The white paint on the ceiling reflected a rose, timid sunlight, quite a match for the blue and chocolate hues decorating her walls and woodwork. Through the open window could be heard the sounds of diurnal wildlife yawning and stretching out before dawn, daring nocturnal critters to an all-day party. Just a dream. The teenager frowned, mechanically pushing a couple red and coral hairlocks away from her wet eyes. She curled up under her blanket, clutching to her pillow in a desperate attempt to calm her heart down, muffling the sound of her heartbreak escaping a dry throat. --- Kat looked at her reflection in the dresser mirror, her eyes running across the celtic patterns on her naked skin. It had become a habit for the young woman, part in pride for a design she drew herself, part in wait to actually notice the changes her Dad's morning torture would eventually bring to her fragile shape. She was beginning to realize that, only now, her cheeks were losing that round shape characteristic of children, her oval features slowly growing into a brittle, thin heart-shape, most like her mother's. Talk about late puberty... Christ, I'm seventeen! It still wasn't enough for Kat. Maybe deep inside, she wanted to be marvelled at, to be noticed, and her looking like a prepubescent boy was a big obstacle only time could overcome. And she finally was getting there, as much as a couple glances at her Eve costume could tell. Her eyes caught a glimpse of gold in the pixie-ish sea of red and coral hair, still humid after her shower, framing her face under the morning sunlight. After a closer look, she let out a deep sigh. Guess I do take from both my Mom and Dad... Gonna have to dye those hair roots again, some day. --- Water paint splashed on the fabric, the brush, guided by a steady hand, lacing the colors one with another, singing in an upbeat fashion Kat's awe less than a day before. Her work was but a draft of what might take a couple weeks to picture, but the outlines were already set in discreet carbon, depicting what felt to Kat like one of the few most amazing moments in her life. Purple shimmer braving ice and fire. --- Around noon Josh quizzically glanced at his daughter in the inner rear mirror. Kat had been surprisingly silent today. "Something wrong, pumpkin?" Ugh... he knows I hate it when he calls me like that. And Tess' in here too, what's he thinking?" The petite redhead exhlaled loudly to show her discomfort at the name. Maybe I'll stay blonde... She thought. "Nothing's wrong... I..." She fell silent again. It was just a dream. "Wanna talk about your dream?" Tess chimed in. Kat realized she must have been thinking out loud. Her gaze met Tessa's chestnut eyes, watching her from the passenger seat. Kat's lips pinched into a pensive pout and she shook her head. The pretty brown-haired woman shrugged at her boyfriend as he drove the car towards the Labor Day Event.
  10. Champion's Field, The Carousel - Before Noon Jack and Carolyn Cassidy strode through Champion's Field, their fingers interlaced with easy camaraderie, giving off the vibe of a pair of high school sweethearts who had made it through the hump of time and experience to find their affection had grown deeper without having to show it with feigned or overabundant PDA. They hadn't been high school sweethearts, though they had known each other in high school. Rather, they had gotten together when Carolyn was in college and Jack had been finishing his carpentry apprenticeship, after a messy falling out with a mutual loved one they hadn't talked about since that time. The sky was clear, the sun was bright, early morning chill already long faded with the promise of greater warmth throughout the day. Jack wore a Billings Bulls cap with a deeply curved brim to keep the sun off his head, sandy blond hair buzzed short ever since he started balding. Carolyn let her hair hang loose, once as rich a red as her son's and youngest daughter's, now faded to a strawberry blond with sun and age. They had a quiet sense of pride about the Carousel as they idly wandered the grounds with no concrete destination or path in mind. Jack had donated labour and materials to built several of the food stalls, designed for easy set-up and take down, and for the siding that protected The Carousel during the off season. And Carolyn had donated time with managing the finances for one of Toole County's non-profits that organized funds to maintain the restored the classic 1936 Carousel. The Carousel hadn't been their dream, but they were glad to have helped make it come true. It helped alleviate their concern for their odd son and all they had he revealed to them. There was something going on with him, they could tell, but not precisely what. Sean was a private sort, and they had generally left him to his own devices as much as he could. Lately, they had noticed a change in Sean, an easing acceptance to his condition, rather than the discomfiture, dissatisfaction, and resignation that he used to vacillate between, even if there was an edge to that acceptance they couldn't quite define. Jack exchanged nods or a few words with various students and ex-students he had hired to work with him during the summers over the years. One, who had graduated three years ago tried to hand him a resume, which Jack refused with a good natured laugh. Salt of the earth he might be, but even he usually only accepted resumes online and had a standard form to fill out. He did arrange an on the job interview in a few days time for him though. He'd been getting more work of late and could use more all year help with his general contracting business. Carolyn chatted with several friends she saw in passing, a few who were also reasonable parents on the PTA. Laurelai, her hair a deeper red than her mother's, her face less freckled, stalked ahead of her parents wearing her football jersey and a leash wrapped around her left hand, an irritated energetic bounce to her steps. Sean had taken off to Great Falls with Jason this morning before she had the chance to tag along, and Teagan had cancelled - Again! - saying she couldn't make it off base. And she knew the Fellowship had something going on today or tonight - she'd been practicing her observational skills - but not what. Laurie's spritely mahogany and white pygmy goat Rascal pranced along at his mistress' side with cheerful mischievousness, snagging bites of lavender cotton candy whenever Laurie let her arm swing low. A few wisps of it clung to the side of his mouth, which only served to draw even more attention than his adorableness already did and which Rascal accepted as his due. The youngest Cassidy sibling stopped to speak with the Heath sisters for a while, finding out that Lilly had returned, and making a mental note as to why Sean hadn't mentioned it. When she jogged to catch up to her parents, she got interrupted by Ryan Andersen. He was a guy in her grade, about her height, but if anything, even skinnier. And it seemed like he had never shaved yet, wisps of blond hair as fine as the cotton candy in her hand curling around his lips and chin. He was kinda awkward, kinda obliviously entitled, but not really a bad guy, even if any girl with at least a modicum of good looks knew he had a tendency to stare. "Oh! Hey! Hey! Laurie?" He called out as he rushed from between a pair stalls as he saw her passing by. "Yes, Ryan?" "Hi." Social greeting completed to his satisfaction, Ryan immediately proceeded to what was really concerning him. "ReGenesis looks awesome. Can you get a game key for it from your brother and give it to me?" "I probably can," Laurie admitted with an exasperated roll of her eyes. "But Sean isn't giving out game keys to anyone, not even reviewers, and especially not anyone who claims to be an influencer or who boasts about his five hundred subscribers on YouTube." Laurie gave him a pointed look. Ryan blinked, Teflon to her snark. "Jim Fines got a test copy, only because Sean is friends with him online." "So.... yes?" "No." "Oh." Ryan blinked again, then nodded. "That's okay. I'll just pirate it when they break the protection." Laurie's lips curved in a private smirk. She seen Sean's coding, even if she couldn't make any sense of that. "You do that, bud. He calls his game data protection and encryption Keelhaul. Make sure you read the user agreement. Later, Ryan." Laurie skipped adroitly around Ryan and Rascal gave him a headbutt to the knee which nearly buckled the fifteen year old to the ground, sticking his tongue out at him as he trotted after his mistress. As Laurie caught up to her parents, the Keanes were arriving to Champion's Field. Jack gave Ian a nod in greeting as the Cassidys ambled over. Jack and Ian were acquaintances, Jack having been hired by Ian or on his clients' behalf to fix up property for living or flipping. The Cassidy women waved. "It's been a while, Ian," Jack said. "You and your ladies need any help unloading?"
  11. The Keane Residence, 0830. -ish. It was the smell of coffee, rather than the sound of the dogs or the brilliant sunlight pouring through her window, that roused Autumn from her dreams. Blinking against the light, she groaned and dragged a pillow over her face. She’d just been sitting in front of a campfire with Jason, in a tiny ring of orange glowing amidst the deep blue-black nothingness of the woods at night, and he was smiling that little half-smile of his over the rim of his mug. What had he just said? She frowned, trying to remember the sound of the syllables, the shape of his mouth, the exact cadence of his speech, but it was already fading. Ugh. Why was it that when people talked to you in dreams, it made sense, but afterwards it just dissolved into gibberish? Or maybe it was nonsense to start with, and because you were dreaming you just got to decide what it meant. Or maybe… She sighed, flinging the pillow and the blankets off as she peered up at the sunlit ceiling overhead, the faint outline of pale green stars just visible here and there in the wash of brilliant white. Maybe she’d just dreamed in Russian, or something. Crazier things have happened, right? Like finding a radio that changes dimensions. Like seeing actual monsters. Like rescuing cats from a secret prison, or discovering that aliens are real, or that you and other people at your school have super-powers. Or, you know. Like dating someone who actually speaks Russian. She smiled sleepily at that, shifting around a little on the striped sheets. Or like… She blinked again as something else occurred to her. Going to sleep on the couch and waking up in your own room? As she sat upright, the redhead’s sleep-fogged brain struggled to piece together the series of events that had somehow led to this particular outcome. She swung her feet over the edge of the bed, letting them dangle there for a moment as she stared blankly at the haphazard arrangement of clothes on the chair nearby. They’d been watching Braveheart, she was pretty sure, and she didn’t remember coming upstairs, but… here she was. So, how…? Almost fully awake now, she could just make out the drone of conversation from downstairs. Voices. Her mom’s, and a deeper, more masculine one- Suddenly everything clicked into place. “Dad!” she yelled, bounding out of bed and down the stairs, accompanied by a chorus of excited canine voices as the dogs rushed to meet her. “Morning guys,” she greeted them in passing, idly reaching down to pet whichever happened to be closest on her way to the kitchen. “...definitely your daughter,” he was just saying as Autumn rounded the corner and, with an excited whoop, launched herself at the father she hadn’t seen in what seemed like months. “Ooofff, hey, careful. Coffee,” Ian chided her with a grin and a one-armed hug, absorbing the impact of her energetic embrace as he held the half-full mug up and away to avoid the fallout. With a bemused shrug, Dana took it adroitly from his hand and set it on the island, watching as her typically not-a-morning-person offspring squeezed the breath from him before she’d even said hello. “Hey, sweetheart,” he greeted her, returning the hug with both arms this time and planting a kiss atop the dishevelled red-gold curls she hadn’t yet bothered to comb. “How’s my little firecracker doing this morning, hmm?” “‘m good,” came the pleased reply as they swayed back and forth like that for a few moments. She didn’t even protest the childish nickname, cringey as it was, since he was the only one who’d ever used it anyway. ...Well, and even apart from that, it was a little reminder that even in Billings or Bozeman or Missoula or Helena, he was still her dad. He still remembered. Note to self: do not let him call me that in front of anyone today. The grin in her mind refused to remain hidden there, irrepressibly curving the corners of Autumn’s mouth upward as she squeezed him tightly. He was home. Finally. “Missed you.” “I know. I missed you, too.” “What time did you get in?” she asked, grabbing an oversized mug and glancing back in Ian’s direction as she poured herself a “cup” of coffee. “Eh, a little later than I intended,” her father admitted sheepishly, exchanging a look with Dana over Autumn’s head as he reclaimed his own mug from the counter. “You two were already out.” He smiled, reaching out to tousle her hair fondly as she grinned and ducked away with a grumble of half-hearted protest. “So I thought we’d head out a little early today, find a good spot to set up and just spend the day together. The three of us.” “Cool. Yeah, that sounds good.” The girl’s nose crinkled slightly as she smiled, stirring sugar and cream into her drink. “It does,” the older Keane woman agreed. “Maybe she’ll even introduce you to her boyfriend.” “Boyfriend?” Ian blinked, pale blue eyes wide as he looked from his daughter to his wife. “You mean, not…?” Dana shook her head: No. She didn’t mean Jacob. Not anymore, at least. Comprehension dawned, and he nodded, taking a quick sip from his mug. “That’s right. I remember now. Your mother did say something about a… camping trip, I think?” He glanced at his daughter for confirmation, and she rewarded him with a smile and a quick nod, her amber-speckled features going faintly pink. “Mhmm, and he came over for dinner after that.” she replied cautiously, checking from the corner of her eye to see if her mom planned to explain why, exactly, he’d been invited to stay. The auburn-haired vet caught the none-too-subtle glance, and smirked. ‘He did,” Dana added breezily. “And he was a great help, too. Very hands-on.” Warm hazel eyes danced with mischief as she arched an eyebrow at her daughter, whose rosy cheeks flushed to a deeper scarlet at the memory. Amused, she turned to check the breakfast quiche in the oven then, leaving her concerns about the swiftness of their developing relationship for another conversation. It was still early in the day, after all, and Ian ought to have the chance to meet Jason for himself before more serious parental discussions were had. “Oh? Good to hear,” he replied distractedly, glancing at his watch. It wasn’t quite nine yet, but Warden Crocker had already called to let them know what he and Jacob were bringing for the day-long picnic- he also suspected it was to find out if he’d actually made it back to Shelly this time. It was hard to fault him for that, the tall real estate broker reflected with a pang of guilt that rendered the mouthful of black brew he swallowed slightly bitter on his tongue. “So, is this new guy a junior, too, this year?” “Yeah, we have Chemistry together.” There was a moment of what definitely felt like an awkward silence in the kitchen, and Autumn’s eyes widened. “The class, I mean,” she clarified quickly, groaning inwardly at her father’s expression and wishing fervently that she could crawl inside her coffee mug. “Well, and, uh, Study Hall.” “Chemistry,” her father reiterated flatly, warily glancing from her to Dana as the latter stifled a laugh and resolutely switched off the oven, refusing to return the look she could feel being burned into her back. “Well that’s… That’s great, sweetie. Just great.” ------------- Later that morning. “They’ll be fine,” the pretty vet reassured her husband, smiling as she scratched under Zee’s chin. The Keanes had been loading up the Jeep for a little while now, packing it with enough coolers and bags to feed and entertain the trio for at least a week, but it wasn’t intended solely for them: sandwiches and cold salads for lunch, ribs and thick pork chops to grill later, sodas and iced tea and a couple of six packs of summery IPAs and traditional lagers. “They’ve got plenty of water out, and lots of shade if it does turn warm this afternoon. We’re not going to be gone all day,” she reminded him, watching as their energetic daughter hefted the last bag of ice into a plastic storage container and snapped the lid shut. “How do you think they manage when I’m at work and Autumn’s at school?” She paused for a moment and, tentatively, rested her hand on his. “It’ll be fine.” “Fine, or fine?” Autumn interjected with a grin, going up on her tiptoes to give both parents a kiss on the cheek. Dana rolled her eyes at that, smiling, and shook her head. “I’m gonna do one last door check and grab my phone. Anything you guys want me to get while I’m in there?” Her father patted his pockets, frowning a little, then shrugged and offered her an easy smile. “No, no, I think I’ve got everything.” His gaze moved over her shoulder, catching his wife’s eye as the paternal expression softened slightly. “Everything I need, anyway.” He didn’t miss Autumn’s requisite grimace of teenaged disgust at the thought of parental romance, or the softly-murmured “Gross,” under her breath as she turned and jogged back up to the house with the dogs at her heels. He shrugged again, a sort of uncomfortable one-shouldered gesture Dana immediately recognized as one her child had adopted. “Parents,” he opined laconically, opening the passenger door for his bride. “Totally,” she replied, deadpan, and climbed inside. “So, this new guy,” Ian began cautiously, leaning against the side of the SUV. “You’ve met him. Is he… I mean, what’s he like? Jacob’s a good kid. Good guy, I guess.” He corrected himself, realizing that a seventeen-year-old wasn’t much of a kid anymore. Not really. “I thought they got along really well. I mean, hell, they grew up together, and then-” With a sigh, he gestured vaguely, helplessly, toward the house. “‘And then’, yeah,” Dana replied thoughtfully, nodding as she followed his reflection in the side mirror. There was no need to elaborate further on that particular point; Owen’s passing had hit a few people pretty hard, his granddaughter especially. Until recently, seeing Autumn taking interest in other people and going out again, she hadn’t realized exactly how hard the girl had taken it- or even how hard she’d taken it herself. And then last night… Well, the air felt a little clearer, didn’t it? “I kind of half-expected them to get married right out of high school, to be honest. And I like Jacob, I really do, and maybe they’ll work things out and find each other again later. I’m just…” She sighed, thinking back on the weird charge in the atmosphere when her daughter and the Bannon boy had been in the kitchen, the pair so intent on each other that at times she’d almost wondered if she’d even really been present there in the room. It wasn’t exactly reassuring, but the very nature of that intensity, and their youth, all but dictated that it couldn’t last long. The brightest flames burned quickest, after all. “I’m just glad,” she finally allowed, “that I don’t have to worry about that for her anymore.” “Mmmm.” The reply was noncommittal, Ian watching the house as his wife watched him. “Jason Bannon, you said?” “I did. As for what he’s like?” She paused, her expression pensive; there really wasn’t a satisfying answer to that. “He’s… Well, it’s hard to say.” Dana smiled as her husband glanced at the mirror, meeting her eyes through the reflective glass. “I guess you’ll just have to see for yourself.” Oddly, it was easier talking about her daughter’s shiny new relationship than it was to discuss her own nearly twenty-year-old one, and the two fell quiet after a moment, listening to the small but beloved pack of fosters they’d taken in huffing and whining and yelping softly as they gamboled about in the front yard. Autumn’s father opened his mouth as a thought occurred to him, something he felt he ought to have said already, when the girl herself came bounding down the porch steps, pausing to distribute head scratches and belly rubs aplenty before heading over to the car. “‘Kay, all set.” Clambering into the crowded back seat, she checked her phone out of habit and tucked it in the pocket of her hoodie as Ian closed the door. She’d obviously fixed her hair a little, added a few hints of makeup, but otherwise hadn't fussed too much over her appearance; maybe this boyfriend thing wasn't such a big deal. Nothing to worry about, he reassured himself. “So,” he tried again, getting situated himself and glancing at his pink-cheeked offspring in the rearview mirror. “This Jason guy. How’d you guys meet? What’s he like?” Dana snorted softly under her breath and turned, watching the house disappear behind them. True to form, if Ian wanted something, he’d try all avenues available to get it. It made him a great realtor, but an annoying partner sometimes. Shrugging, the restless redhead peered conspicuously out the window, ignoring the warmth creeping up the sides of her face. How was she supposed to describe him to her dad, of all people, when Jason Effing Bannon was still a mystery to her? Maybe always would be. Huh. “I mean, he’s kind of-” She paused, pursing her lips as the trees whizzed past. “Different. But he should be there today. I hope. So, I guess you can meet him and see for yourself?” With an exasperated sigh, Ian returned his gaze briefly to his wife- who was also staring out the window- and turned out onto the highway. “What is this, a conspiracy?” “Nope. It’s a mutiny,” Dana quipped, cutting her eyes at him. “While the captain’s away, the crew will play, or something like that.” Muffled laughter from the back seat answered her, but her husband’s expression was less amused. Even if Autumn hadn’t caught the edge hidden in her mother’s joke, he had, and it stung. Moreso because it was true, and he had no right to deny it. “Ahh, that must be why the rum’s gone, then,” he replied with a taut smile, and a levity he didn’t quite feel. Labor Day, indeed: he was apparently going to have to work his ass off to get this right.
  12. The Allen Residence - Morning The Allens did not usually celebrate Labor Day. It hit a little close to home. It had been one of Arthur's favorite holidays, and he'd made a big deal out of the barbecues and celebration of it. That, plus it being pretty close to the day Teresa and Cassie were informed of his demise, made it a rather somber event for them now. Cassandra hadn't even been home last Labor Day, choosing to spend most of it out with friends instead. Even at the time she'd felt like shit about it afterwards, leaving her mom alone on that day...but the oppressive mourning and tension were just too much to deal with. There wasn't a good solution, so she just split. She wasn't going to let it go that way this time. Teresa was in the kitchen, absently stirring a bowl of oatmeal and milk as she gazed off through the sliding glass door to the backyard. She hadn't really realized it, but even though her mind was occupied with deciding what to have for lunch, and what kind of wine to have with it, her eyes were resting on the outdoor grill that was parked just under the awning over the back porch. When Cassandra came in she glanced over and managed a tired smile. "Hey hon. What have you got going today?" The casual words had a slightly forced quality to them, Cassie noted. Her mother hadn't forgotten. She shrugged, then said, "I was thinking of going to the Carousel fields....meet some friends." When Teresa nodded quickly and looked away, Cassandra came over and bumped shoulders with her. "I mean both of us going." "Oh, uh," her mother replied, taken off-guard, "...you know I like staying in on days off. Not like I get a lot, so it's nice to just rest up. You can go ahead..." "Please, mom?" Cassie interjected. "It'll be a really nice day out. We can get some super unhealthy food. And it won't just be my friends there...you'll have friends there too. We can bring Bacon." At the sound of his name, Bacon came scrabbling over from the little laundry room where he had a little bed of old blankets set up for him. He pressed in between Cassandra and her mother's legs, eagerly bridging the gap between them. Teresa smiled and reached down to give the German Shepard an affectionate scratching between his pointy ears. "I was thinking I'd just relax today," she demurred. Cassie was having none of it though. "You mean mope," she said. "Look, you don't have to stay for long if you really don't like it. But I think it would be fun to go out for once. You know, be in the sun, have some really greasy food...maybe on a stick... When's the last time you took a ride on a merry go round?" Her mother smiled a little in spite of herself, then looked down at her oatmeal. It was cooling, with the milk making little pools on top of the grey mush at the surface. "Look," Cassandra pressed, "the bottom line is that I'm spending today with you. I think we'd both have more fun out at the Carousel, but if we want to stay here and eat ice cream and watch Lifetime...cool. We'll do it. But...I think once you feel some sun and some wind, and once you get moving, and see some familiar faces..." Jesus, thought Teresa abruptly. How long has it been since I've seen any friends? Leaving out phone calls, texts...had it been weeks? Months? Suddenly there were tears in her eyes. "Honey," she said, trying to think of a good reason not to. "Just give it a try, mom," Cass quickly interrupted. "Come with me." Bacon wuffed at this, wagging his tail. "See? It's two versus one." Teresa laughed at that. "Oh, so we're a democracy now?" Cassie grinned and offered a hand. "More like a...pirate ship. We're doing what I say. If you hate it, you can mutiny. Walking planks may be involved." I'm not letting you waste away for someone who's not dead. And I'm not letting what might be our last time together be sad and depressing. After a moment's hesitation, Teresa gave Cassie's hand a quick squeeze and said, "Would you cover this up and put it in the fridge? I'm going to need actual shoes it sounds like."
  13. The Last Day Of Summer, The Last Day In The Sun. A fulcrum point between Then and Soon. There was a synchronicity to the day, Coyote mused as he looked out of the window of his hotel room, the inelegantly-named 'OYO Hotel Shelly, MT' The cheap, reasonably clean and low-profile hotel was as good a place as any to lay his head when sleep became a necessity - as he had told the winsome Jauntsen girl, he was made of much the same substance as other living creatures, and his physical needs were largely of the same kind, though altered in some ways and diminished greatly in others. Substance, he mused, holding a hand up to his gaze, peering at the solid-seeming flesh and noting, on the noetic level, how paper-thin his vital force now was. It had been a long time. Too long, even for a race that had thought itself immortal. Too long to be cut off from the surge and shimmer of true Radiance, the Source of All, on this prison-rock. He had husbanded his strength through millenia and now, in this time and place, the fruition of every manipulation, every nudge, every word sown in the right ears at the right times was coming to pass in a handful of seedlings, beautiful and fragile, each containing a spark of his Radiance passed down through uncounted generations, nurtured in the deadly yet fertile soil of Montana. Keeping track of the bloodlines alone had been a Herculean task, let alone ensuring that they would propagate in the right way. Each of them had a touch of greatness, a spark that the presence of Radiance could fan into an illuminating star... or a terrible inferno. Or both, the near-immortal thought with a smile and a shrug. Fire burned, but from ashes arose new growth. Illumination could also be blinding. They would need to find the balance between blindness and destruction. He hoped that they would find that balance in each other. Hope was all he could do, really. Tonight was the night. He sensed that as the sailor senses the storm through the ache in his shoulder. One of his seedlings was already dead, their light devoured. Tonight would see if the others had the mettle that their world would need. He looked out of the window at the Champion's Field surrounding the Carousel across the road, and mused at how apt the naming of the field was. Today, the champions of this little blue-green ball would revel, and tonight go forth to either bring doom or salvation to their people. * * * * * * * Catheen of the Draig, born from Elsbett by Iskand, heard the sound of music and laughter and voices as she sat at the table in her apartment's small kitchen nook. The sun was shining outside, the blue skies calling her to step out, to wander amongst the people of her adopted home. After all, Kaitlin Forster would be expected to show up, wouldn't she? She'd smiled pleasantly and nodded noncommitedly in the teachers lounge when asked if she'd be attending, half intending to simply claim a stomach-ache when she did not show. But she shared a quality with humanity that her son did not - the need for company, to be part of a larger grouping, to feel the ebb and pulse of people around her. Put simply, she was lonely. She did not deliberate overlong. Donning a sundress and sandals, and slipping a pair of sunglasses over her cerulean eyes, she checked herself in the mirror before applying a couple of touches of makeup. She grabbed her purse and a broad-brimmed sun-hat as she headed out of the door, wondering idly if her son would be at the Labor Day event... * * * * * * * Hannah Fuhrman was annoyed. Not about her weekend - she'd caught up with an old flame from college who had been just the right mixture of friendly and flirtatious to take her mind off her philandering soon-to-be-ex-husband. They'd had a nice date, and Brock had been a gentleman and not pressed when she'd bid him goodnight with a kiss on the cheek before headed to her hotel room alone. Her lawyer had advised her to wait until the papers were all signed before getting back on the horse - advice which at the time the heartbroken woman had scoffed at but was now grateful for. Then she'd spent Sunday shopping and treating herself to a spa before heading back to her hotel once more. Only to receive no answer from the home phone or Charlie's cell when she tried to call him at noon on Monday to let him know she was on the way - and give him time to clear up any evidence of teenage shenanigans. Her lips thinning in an irritated grimace, Hannah heard the voicemail message for the sixth time. "Charlie, it's your mother. Again, again. Please call me back, or better yet, answer your damn phone, mister." she said with some severity. "And the house better not be trashed when I get back, or you are grounded for life." she added with only a faint trace of humor in her tone. "See you in a couple hours, sweetheart. I'm leaving Great Falls after I have some lunch with a friend." That boy, Hannah sighed as she hung up and turned back to finish packing. "Probably off smoking weed with his reprobate friends again." she muttered with a shake of her head. Still, she was meeting Brock again for lunch, so at least she could swap divorcee stories and enjoy herself before going back to being 'The Mom'...
  14. The movers had already left the day before and were well on their way to Avalon's new home in Canada. The Wright house was down to only what they needed to get by for one more evening before they all said goodbye to Shelly for good. It would only be about another hour or so before they hit the road but Devin had made it his his personal duty to make sure his soon to be ex didn't leave Shelly without first having a proper goodbye. The Wrights didn't care for Devin, so when his Ducati purred as he cut the engine after pulling into their driveway, he didn't much acknowledge their glares at him. The Wrights were having some sort of sorted love trist with Lona's mother at the expense of Lona being treated like a non-existent entity or an inconvenience in her mother's life. The last thing those abusive freaks needed to be doing was cast judgmental eyes on Devin. They continued to load things into the vehicles as he walked past and towards the side gate that led to the pool house where Clara and Lona stayed (it kept them out of the house and out of way, parents of the year). “She's still grounded,” Adele had the nerve to say to Devin after he passed her. The side gate was always locked, but that never stopped him. With a leap and kick off from the house, Devin soared and rolled over the gate with a practiced gymnast's grace. Furious, Adele turned towards the house and gave pursuit to the pool house with all haste but when she stormed inside all she found was Clara, hair in a tight ponytail, finishing some last minute packing and planning. “Where's Avalon?” Adele asked. Clara only shrugged and shook her head. “I haven't seen her for twenty minutes, maybe? She went to get breakfast she said.” Again she shrugged and stuffed a few travel distractions in her bag. She nodded to towards the house. “I figured she was in there with you guys.” Lona laughed as her hands hit the table of the Waffle House. Seattle seemed to be where they were enjoying this morning's fine dining. “Oh, I am so grounded for life. Slick, Jauntsen, slick.” She looked at her phone as it lit up where it was resting on the table. “Clara says we made it by half a second. And my mom is currently going on a tirade. You excel at pissing people off.” Devin shrugged and smiled wide. “Not my finest work, but I think given the time crunch, we totally nailed it.” They laughed and joked for the better part of a half an hour or so as they ate their greasy spoon hash browns and eggs. Neither broached the subject of the inevitable departure and Devin knew that soon he would have to take her home. It was what it was, however and until that moment came he chose to focus on nothing but her. It was amazing, his thoughts wandered, how he was able to meet someone who was just as messed up as he was, but inspired him to be a better person. At the beginning of summer someone pitching the notion of he and Avalon Wilson dating would have garnered some of the strangest looks and laughter not only from Devin, but his sister as well. She wasn't exactly the sort of girl he'd have considered being caught dead around with her leather jacket and shaved head and whole host of attitude issues. Yet here he was, dreading the moment she'd be out of his life. It was almost storybook the way they held each other's hand by nothing more than curling their pinkies around the others. Now, they were back in Shelly, walking the nature trails of Montana's more scenic vistas that overlooked the mountains and plains still untouched by human ambition. It had only been a few minutes of silence as the view still amazed them enough to capture their tongues as their hearts were sifting through possible farewell dialogue. “I'm going to miss you,” Devin finally managed as they looked out on the fields where early morning mist still clung to the canopy of trees a few miles away before dipping down into the greens and yellows of the tall grass in the neighboring fields. “I'll miss you too,” she smiled but kept her gaze affixed on the valley below. “So... is this the part where we profess undying love and swear that we'll be together again soon, or... how's this supposed to go?” “We both know how it's going to happen. I'm pragmatic enough and you've performed and written enough love songs to know how this'll all go. We'll swear some pact to never forget each other, but we will. We'll swear that we'll find each other one day, but we'll bother either married with a butt load of kids or too busy with our careers to make the time to make it to the spot we agreed to meet at.” She chuckled silently, as he wasn't wrong. Movies and song were pretty far from accurate when it came to the successful ratio of high school kids and their lost crushes finding one another later in life. “Look, Avvie, all I know is that where ever you go don't go there thinking about the next time we'll meet or hold onto the hope of when that day will come. Just go knowing that right here, right now, in this moment, I love you.” Disney Princess tears were not what formed in her eyes, but raw emotions had certainly found its way there and hey eyes met his with inquisitive wonderment as she, despite who she was talking to, could feel the honesty in his words. “Really?” She asked, a part of her wanting to hear him say it again, desiring to know that somewhere in her messed up life of insanity and mourning and negative feelings that somewhere in it all, some guy actually manged to fall for her. Flaws and all. “I guess,” Devin shrugged. His smirk was forced as she could sense the lack of the usual bravado he typically carried like a trophies on his shoulders in the shape of a golden devil and silver angel. “I know that when I'm with you I'm elated. I feel joy, happiness, wonderment... all the things that describe someone feeling love... I've only ever been in deep shit before so this is kind of new. But, I don't want to be one of those guys that tethers you to a promise or a hope and you give up on being you in order to wait for that hope to happen. You're amazing Avalon, I regret never seeing it sooner, but you have two more years of awesome Canadian Boarding School-” “Ugh,” she grunted and rolled her eyes. “Don't remind me.” “-and then four,” he gave her an appraising once over. “Probably six, years of rebellious college years and I don't want you wondering or thinking about me and the big 'what if'.” She sighed, loudly and defeated by the situation. “I know, but, that doesn't make it any less bullshit. We didn't even get a chance, Devin. It's not fair.” “Believe me, I know,” his voice faltered as he, like her, was pushing as hard as he could against the slowly bursting dyke of his emotions. “But, we both know this is going to happen, so I just want you to go knowing that you make me feel like love. One big, heaping pile of quivering confusion and happiness. I want your heart to know and feel like mine does right now for you, I want your songs to say all the things your heart can't and I want you to never forget that you've inspired me to do and be greater than what I was. To be a friend, a leader, a boyfriend... so, thank you and if you ever stop to think, whether tomorrow or years from now, whether or not I ever think of you from time to time, the answer is 'yes'.” She smudged away a tear from her cheeks with the ball of her palm. “God, for a jerk, why do you have to be so good at wording?” She sniffled. “Just... just c'mere...” she pulled him close and they kissed passionately under Heaven's watchful eye. After several moments of heart wrenching bliss she broke off the embrace to smile, telling him: “I love you, too. Or time was short, but you've been an amazing guy and I know you can be even better. I hope, hope, that one day we can maybe see how hot we can burn without the chains of parental authority holding us back, but, you're right. Let's live our lives, git gud, and be awesome and if that time comes, so be it. If not, we have now and our first time? Well, we never forget that, right?” “Right,” he smiled lovingly at his soon to be one-that-got-away and kissed her gently on her lips. A few carefully placed texts managed to get Avalon smuggled back into the pool house. As Devin left the parents of the home threw a fit the moment they saw him. Adele followed him, yelling something, but he didn't pay her any mind, after all, what were they going to do? Not move just so just they could stay and hate Devin? Not likely. They'd get over it, but him not even offering her a glance or motion that revealed he cared anything about her or what she had to say only drove into a larger fury. By the time he got on his bike and drove off she was telling him something cruel and vindictive about her daughter never seeing him again. That was fine. She had to live with the damage she was causing now and even the most devoted daughter could only tolerate so much before she would eventually turn her back. He knew Avalon would be just fine and no matter where she went, he'd always be there for her... literally in the blink of an eye.
  15. After leaving Jason's, Cade had headed home, knowing he needed to do several things, but he couldn't make himself do one that night. He settled for inviting Marissa to the family cookout. A part of him didn't really expect her to come over, but she did like Haruka, and if anything it would give her a chance to meet Cade's mother and father in a setting that was actually pleasant. He got home and went to get his dirty clothing together, washing what he'd had on before and the clothes from the last couple days before heading inside. His mom was in kitchen, putting away dinner, and she smiled "I was just about to put everything up..." Cade smiled. "I'll handle it mom, after I make a plate." It was light fare, some stew that'd keep for days. He knew his dad wasn't going to be home until late, so after fixing his plate he dutifully covered the dishes and put them away in the fridge. His mother sat there with him while he ate. "You had a good time with your friends?" She asked him quietly. "Yeah, we really did, and we got some great news. Lilly is back." "Didn't she go try out for the Olympics?" "Yes, she did but she didn't make it. Maybe next time." "That's too bad, she's a gifted athlete. The competition must have been pretty stiff." Cade continued eating as his mother spoke, and nodded. "I bet so. She'll make it next time though, I'm sure." It was the sort of small talk he'd grown used to, and he looked at her, knowing he'd have to be the one to bring up anything more. Just as he was about to, Haruka came in. "You're still eating, you're so slow." Cade had just finished. "What's the rush? I wasn't coming in there just yet. I need to talk to Marissa for a bit still. I sorta forgot to invite her for tomorrow with everyone around." Haruka fumed for a moment then smirked. "I guess I can wait to kick your butt in Mario Kart a bit longer so you can do that, but don't stay on your phone all night." Miyakko watched her children go back and forth with a content smile, and took Cade's now empty plate and glass, and went to wash them, Cade being a bit exasperated by this, but he bowed his head in thanks. "Thanks mom. Alright Haruka, I'll go call Marissa, and then we'll see who beats who in Mario Kart." He went to his room and dialed Marissa's number, waiting patiently for her to answer. So, a lot had happened that evening after she'd left the training session, most of which she just wanted to ignore for the present to allow herself time to process, evaluate, then, if needed, disseminate to the others. For now she sat calmly in her bed, in her comfy jammies, reading Name of the Wind before bed, as it was going to be a long day tomorrow, she'd decided early turning might be a good idea. When her phone began playing Kronk's Theme from The Emperor's New Groove she sighed and closed the book. "Hey, babe." She answered, sliding her glasses from their perch on her nose, she listened to her lover's proposal. "Um, yeah, sure. I think I can swing that. I can just meet my parents and Deej at the Carousel later." She smiled and bit her lip teasingly. He couldn't see her, but she was a method flirt. "Did you get the text I sent you earlier?" She could actually hear him blushing through the phone. "Well, think of that, when you see me tomorrow. See you at noon." ---===[Allister Residence, Labor Day, Monday Sept 2nd]===--- "Marissa!" Haruka squee'd as she ran over and gave her adopted babysitter/bestie/adopted sister a big hug. "Hey, girl!" Marissa laughed and returned it with a big squeeze and a grunt of big hug love. "Behaving? No giving your brother or mom any trouble, are you?" Miyakko, Cade's mother, smiled brightly as she greeted the lawful half of the Jauntsen twins. She paused momentarily to take in Marissa's outfit, which Cade didn't seem to mind, but knew his mother would have a few choice words about decency later in private. Considering Marissa's usual adherence to class and standards of propriety, her lover assumed she was wearing was as much to torment his teenage hormones as it was to irritate his parents. Truth of the matter was, the skin tight denim jeans, and the red bandana patterned halterneck that left little to modesty was simply her way of giving the end of summer a last hurrah before she welcomed in the harsh and cumbersome attire of her winter wardrobe. "Marissa, hello." Miyakko smiled warmly, offering her hand. "Cade doesn't stop talking about you, and thank you again for keeping an eye on Haruka, last week. You were a life saver." "It was no trouble," she laughed softly, taking his mother's hand while fanning away concern for babysitting with her other. "Ru-Ru and I had all kinds of fun, don't mention it. She's an absolute joy to spend time with." Her bae marveled once more at her ability to endear herself to people, especially since she'd never met his mother before and here she was a few moments into a conversation and Miyakko was ready to hire her fulltime to watch his sister. "Ru-Ru?" Cade said to her after the exchange and they were walking through the house to the back yard? "Yep!" Haruka smiled wide. "What's wrong, she not give you a nickname yet?" Marissa smiled impishly. "Not one I can repeat until you are a lot older, girl. Go help your mom." "Why? So you two can play kissy-face?" His sister snarled at them with an repulsed expression. "Maybe," Marissa smiled. "He's still mine, and I happen to enjoy kissing him, you'll get it once you're older." As she ran off to help, Marissa took the moment to steal a kiss from Cade, enjoying his arms wrapped around her waist as he drown in her lips and the softness of her skin. His mind had returned to yesterday morning and their first time together so many times in the last twenty-four hours he didn't even remember what focus was like. Cade's father clearing his throat startled them both and they separated, both wearing sheepish smiles of embarrassment. Cade's was genuine, Marissa's was a practiced reflex. "You two think you can keep your hands to yourself for a bit?" The Sheriff looked at them both with a stern, fatherly glare that told them he wouldn't be having any of that in his house. "Let me get right to it," she focused on Marissa. "I get you kids have these awesome powers and think you can save the world or whatnot, but this?" He waggled his finger between the two of them. "This, I don't like. You and your brother have been a pox on this community long enough that I'd hopped my son would have better taste in women, and where is the rest of your shirt?" "Dad!" Cade narrowed his eyes, sending waves of anger in his father's direction. "No, it's okay," Marissa smiled and rising her hand, she rest it on Cade's chest while she met her accusor in the eyes. "Thank you for having me over this afternoon, Sheriff. You have a lovely home. Cade was just escorting me to the back yard." She offered the Sheriff her hand. "Would you be so kind?" Cade was annoyed with his dad, but at the same time he did understand his problems at least with Devin. He spared his dad a look, and shook his head. He wanted to make some sort of comeback to defend Marissa, but one look showed she didn't want him to. He reached out and took Marissa's hand and led her into the backyard wordlessly, Leaving on Ian Allister in their home, to watch his son and the succubus queen who'd ensnared him head out to his backyard. He was moderately happy The boy's grandparents weren't going to be there, her outfit would scandalize them all. Cade leaned in and whispered quietly. "You look great, just thought you should know. I don't care what they say, now or later." The picnic table was set up for all of them, and Miyakko smiled. "Marissa would you like something to drink? We've got sodas, water, and sweet and unsweet tea. The food is just about done, We've got hamburgers, shiskebobs, and hotdogs coming off the grill, with all the trimmings, with the usual sides of potato salad and some rice." Haruka smiled. "If you're hungry now I can make you a salad." Both the Miyakko and Haruka were the picture of hospitality, and while Cade knew he'd hear about Marissa's outfit later on, he was happy now. He knew it was short notice, but he was happy she'd come. "That all sounds fantastic," her sincere smile was a treasure too long unseen in the Allister home. As Ian walked into the back yard. He as the typical Marine, large, thought he owned everything he set his eyes on, and figured he was way more important that he actually was. She side eyed the giant of a man and waited until he was in earshot. "Please, no doting over me. No one should have to act like a servant for my sake, not when I'm perfectly capable. A water sounds great, just point the way." If he wanted to play hardball, she'd play. "Over here," Haruka pointed to the cooler filled with beverages. She grabbed a water for Marissa who accepted with a smile. "Okay," Marissa approached Cade and twisted off the cap. She leaned in, whispering softly. "What the hell is his problem today? I thought we were all cool after the Branch Nine chat." Ian was all too aware that Marissa had seemingly charmed his entire family, and while it was easy to see why with Cade, the fact she could do so, even dressed like that, to Miyakko, who'd been very conservative since coming stateside with him, and his daughter, Haruka, who he admit to himself he was extremely protective of, irked him in the extreme. This was getting far out of hand. Now she was whispering to Cade, and he answered quietly, and Ian couldn't make it out. "He's mad at me still, and I don't think he approves of how you're dressed. It would absolutely scandalize all my grandparents, and I think it makes him uncomfortable." he said with a smirk. "They won't be joining us today though, so no worry there." Ian made his way to the grill making some final adjustments, and tried to ignore the succubus in his home, cozying up to his family. Cade shrugged, and then gave her a comforting smile. "I'm glad you were able to come, I wasn't sure if you and your family had plans for today or not." "Well, I don't care what he thinks, I didn't get dressed for him," she shook her head in irritation and then smirked and rolled her eyes at Cade. "Or you, for that matter, don't look at me like that. I happen to like this top and-" "Me too," Cade agreed with a nod. "-aaand," she spoke as she chuckled. "If he doesn't like it, that his problem. However," her met his with all seriousness. "If you two are still fighting, Cadums, you need to make up with him, at least, as much possible. He's your dad, and, well, tonight..." she let the point drop there since they both knew exactly what was going down that evening. Cade let out a small sigh, and his smile faded considerably. "You're right, but I'm still mad too. Devin made a valid point after you left yesterday, one I know Dad will understand. But it's kinda hard for me to get past things. To set aside my doubts." He shrugged his broad, massive shoulders, and nodded. "After we eat. I'll tell them, and while they put things up, I'll go talk with Dad. Do you mind being left alone with my mom and sister for abit?" He gave her a little smile "Thought you weren't gonna call me that in front of my family." "I didn't. They can't hear me." Her impish smile was followed with a wink. "I'm a big girl, I think I can handle your mom and Ru-ru for a few minutes." She gently placed her hand on his arm, "Look, I know you two are mad at each other, but think of it like this: no matter what, no matter how messed up my family is, I know that somewhere under it all my mom and dad love me. They don't always... or, ever, show it, but they're my parents, you know? I know, under all that Marine-ness your dad loves you more than anything in this world, so, just in case, make sure he knows you feel the same. He deserves at least that piece of mind for the rest of his life." "Now," she looked at him, craning her head imperially like the queen she believed herself to be. "Show me off, entertain me, I wanna meet your fams. Who knows, I might even give your mom some fashion advice... poor girl. This isn't nineteen-forties Japan, Christ." "You think mom's bad, you ought to see her mother, Mariko. Though I admit the Yukatas she sent mom and Haruka for Christmas do look amazing on them." He smiled back at her, and led her back over to the table, where Miyakko was just finishing setting everything out, and Haruka'd taken up a seat. It was set up on the back porch, which had fans blowing on low to fight the midday heat, and Haruka met them first. "Finished your lover's chat?" She asked them both impishly. Miyakko let out a small sigh of exasperation. "Haruka, be more respectful. Marissa's our guest. Besides it's not nice to tease your elder brother either." "Mom, if I don't tease him no one will...." Cade shook his head. "Totally untrue. There are more than enough who will. You're just mad because you only beat me in three races last night." "You're supposed to be nicer to your little sister and let her win at games...." Haruka answered smirking back at him and Marissa. "Do you play games with your brother, Marissa? Cade mostly plays his strategy and fighting games, but I can get him to play Mario Kart with me. and there were those couple times we got mom and dad to join in and play mario party." "Why would they need a yukata in Mont-" she shook her head and waved it off as Cade led her back over to the rest of the his family. Why they would need yukata's in the middle of Montana where they had no reason to ever wear them, and obviously didn't seem to practice any of the religious ceremonies necessary for their use while in a state devoid of the cultural festivals common for seeing them, Marissa had no clue. "Well, we have an Xbox and a PS4, but neither of us really sit down with them a whole lot. My brother and I workout together, practice our gymnastics, dancing, stuff like that. We've been horsing around at home and putting on YouTube videos of people shuffling and trying to get the steps down in one go... we've been tripping over each other, a lot." Her smile panned across the whole table as she spoke, a sure sign of someone used to public speaking. "It keeps us active instead of idle, which, if you've never met my brother, it's hard to keep him in one spot for long." She smirked as the Sheriff choked momentarily on his drink. "Her brother is Devin, Mom," Haruka informed Miyakko. "He's really cute." It was Cade's turn to choke as Marissa hid her smile, poorly, with a raised hand to her lips. "I'll pass that along," Marissa teased. "We do veg-out though, and when we do Devin likes his speed and sports games. Personally, and don't judge me, I play really violent games, like Grand Theft Auto." "Imagine that," Ian grunted softly with a sharp side-eye to the dark-haired beauty. "It's true." She giggled, ignoring him. "School is sometimes really stressful, coming home and annoying people online and listening to them lose their minds when I ghost them and drive off into the sunset." She shrugged, completely unapologetic. "We all have our guilty pleasures." "Could you teach me to dance?" Her lover little sister asked. "Haruka, don't pester her," Cade's mother touched her daughter's shoulder, reminding her she was there and as a mother, ever watchful. "No, it's fine," Marissa laughed. "Tell you what, Ru-ru, maybe later this week, after school or something, Cade can bring you by and we can all practice some dancing and maybe order a pizza and watch another Disney or Pixar movie? If, your mom and dad are okay with that," as the young girls eyes lit up with hope Marissa pointed a finger to the heavens. "And, you're nice to your brother from now until then. Deal?" She narrowed her eyes at her brother, then to Marissa. Cade laughed and extended his hands out like he was shrugging. "How is this even up for consideration? I'm not that hard to be nice to." "Yeah," the two ladies in his life said in unison. "You kinda are." They both giggled and looked away, as if to conspire against him. Miyakko chuckled softly at their antics as it was nice to see Haruka and Marissa getting along. Ian just... Ian'd. "Deal!" Haruka finally said, shaking Marissa's hand to bind the bind the young socialite to her word. Marissa looked down at Haruka and narrowed her eyes. "Starting now." Cade chuckled softly, She'd made a friend for life in the form of his little sister, and despite her attire, even his mother was warming to Marissa, if only because of how she acted with her children. His father sighed, and surrendered to the fact that Marissa wasn't going anywhere any time soon. Ian took the meat from the grill, and brought it over to the table, setting it out. "Alright everyone, dig in." Plates were quickly filled and the somewhat late lunch began. The food was well-cooked, and while no delicacy, clearly the sheriff knew how to cook barbecue rather well. Cade smiled as he thought about how things had gone so far, but the idea of having to say goodbye, even if it was only "Just in case" was still somewhat daunting, almost as much as making peace with his dad. Miyakko smiled. "I take it the two of you will be going to the fair tonight as well? We'll be there too, Though Ian has to work." She smiled. "Meeting up with your friends, or just a date for the two of you?" Cade almost choked, surprised at the directness from his mom, but he smiled. "Well yeah, we're gonna go, and I'm sure we'll be meeting the others there at some point. The fair's about the only big thing going on in town, after all." It was no surprise that Ian was working. Large events like the one that night required security and for the members of local law enforcement to represent their community by being ever-present in the even of a problem. "Well, I do have familial obligations. My parents have, for once, both decided to be seen in public together and want my brother and I both there to support and represent out family. Since DeeJay and I have started branching out our circle of associates, our parents were hoping to meet some of them and their families. Which, I might add, is totally weird, but my dad is on some 'being a family' kick again so we have to humor him for a month or so." "Not close are you?" Miyakko asked. Marissa shrugged. "My brother and I are. We've never really fit in here in Shelly-" "Might have something to do with how you and your brother tormented every student of every grade since you arrived," the Sheriff slipped in with that smooth point-of-fact whose tone carried no attitude, simply honesty. "Tends to put a damper on one's being welcomed into a community they're a stranger too." Cade looked across the table to Marissa. He knew that face and she was on the verge of some scathing retort that could quite possibly get her arrested. He braced, clinched and tried not to take a bite of any food right away, to prevent possibly choking. "You're absolutely right, Sheriff." Was not the reply her bae was expecting, nor was the Sheriff who offered her an inquisitive look that was laced with years of analytical scrutiny. He knew Marissa never just rolled over bared her throat, not after he'd heard her go off on Jason a few days prior. "Yet here I am, trying to be better, and still not welcomed. One can't expect people to change if one never gives them a chance to." Ian narrowed his eyes at her and it felt the like the camera of life was zooming in on his exquisitely chiseled features. Cade hid his smile under a bite of his burger and looked over at his lover. It wasn't often someone put one over on his dad, but considering the proximity with which everyone was working now under Branch Nine and Aeon, certain standards of propriety were laxed and Marissa was not about to be embarrassed at this function simply because the Sheriff had a bone of contention with the Jauntsen twins. It wasn't that he didn't have cause for such contention, but Marissa would be the fisrt to say, plain and simply, 'there is a time and a place'. "I'm not familiar with your reputation, Marissa," Cade's step-mother added, trying to get the conversation away from Ian saying or doing something that might embarrass them both. "Are you and your brother, ill-behaved? Because while I value my step-son's happiness, I also value him making sound decisions." "Mom," Cade shhok his head, burying it in his hand. "Jesus. Can we not sit here and give her the third degree?" "No," Marissa smiled and set her tea back on the table after having finished with it. "It's fine. My brother and I were horrible people, Mrs. Allister. Then, life just sort of dropped something into my lap and I realized that I needed to start growing up-" "Oh, my god, you're pregnant." Miyakko covered her mouth and swiftly looked to Cade, Ian stopped drinking his tea, just holding it to his mouth as his eyes darted angrily to his son. "What?! No! Oh, god..." Marissa buried her face in her hands. "Mom! No! I swear!" Cade attempted to protest over the unintelligible of English and Japanese. "She's not-" Marissa stopped talking, placed her elbows on the table, and buried her face tightly in her hands. At least Cade's parents were about par for the Shelly Montana course... Just kill me. I know gods exist.... one of you, any one... I don't care... just end it. She prayed to whomever would listen while Cade diffused the situation with his family. All the questions were grating on Cade's nerves, at least Marissa'd successfully and effortlessly shut down his dad. Still that last statement from his mother caught him completely by surprise. As he watched his Dad's surprised look war with the smug gleam in his eyes, and his sister just look back and forth between Cade and Marissa, even as Marissa put her head in her hands. Clearly the threshold had been reached. Cade steeled himself. "Mom, Marissa's not pregnant relax, Please. That's not at all what she's talking about." He pressed on after a moment"Look, pretty much everyone at school knew it was best to stay on Marissa and Devin's good side, or at the least, off their radar. You didn't want to be on their bad side, because they could definitely make your life at school miserable." He reached over, and put and hand over Marissa's. "Something happened to all of us, and it has made all of us take a look at how we were living, and decided that things need to change." He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "Like seemingly everyone, I had my issues with Devin, but it all seems to be not worth bickering over now. Nothing's perfect, but we're making progress, at least some of us. We don't all get along like some well-oiled team, a fair amount of us are still getting over years of dislike or torment, but we're making the effort, because if we don't, it's all over." Miyakko seemed to have calmed down some. She bowed her head to Marissa, who'd looked up when Cade spoke in what sounded like nonsense. "I'm sorry for that, my mind just went there, and I apologize for such a forward and inappropriate comment." Miyakko turned her gaze to Cade. "What do you mean it's all over, Cade?" Ian perked up, and gave Cade his most intimidating glare. Defiance was clear in Cade's eyes, it looked like this was going to be a major brew-up between the two. "My friends and I have special powers. Some more than others, but we ALL have them. There's government and corporate entities trying to control and create those with powers. There's an entity that's between this dimension and another that's out to devour all of those with these powers, and we've been working and training to fight back against it, and those who'd try to control us." In the silence that followed you could hear a pin drop. Ian's face went momentarily slack with astonishment, Miyako likewise stared at Cade like he'd sprouted a second head that was babbling Turkish, and Haruka... was the first to break the silence as she snorted with laughter then started giggling, her hand over her mouth. The merriment broke the spell, Cade's step-mom's expression going from surprise to narrow-eyed disapproval even as the Sheriff glared at him with as close to a stone-face as he could manage. "Cade. Is this some sort of prank you and your friends are playing? Perhaps from one of those games Sean hosts?" Miyako asked, a trifle waspishly. "Because it is not funny." "It's no prank Mom. It isn't meant to be funny. You might think I'm crazy, or whatever, but it's completely true." Cade said with a certain surety in his voice. He was definitely going to regret this, but it was done now. He seemed somewhat resigned to this and looked to Marissa with an almost apologetic look, at least they weren't assuming she was pregnant now. Wrenching her hand from her bae Marissa glared at Cade, her lips pursed and tightened in a less than mirthful expression. She shook her head calmly and massaged the bridge of her nose. "Oh, my god... how?" She looked at him. "How did manage to make a pregnancy scare worse?" She swiftly glared to his mother, swiftly adding: "Which I'm not by the way." Then he just kept rolling with it and she shook her head as her lips tightened more and more until finally... "What the hell, Cade!?" Marissa stood from the table but didn't leave. She paced about close by. "That's not your secret to tell. You want to shower them with the 'truth', fine, but you had no right to drag everyone else out into the open. I..." she ugh'd to the sky and glared at him. "I can't even with you right now." "Wait." Miyako looked from her son to Marissa, suspicion and confusion on her porcelain features. Haruka, sensing the mood, stopped giggling and shifted in her seat, glancing sideways from her parents to her brother and his glamorous girl. Ian's expression was a masterclass in the Thousand Yard Stare - currently fixed on a point somewhere beyond Cade's head as Miyako looked from the teens to her husband for moral support. "Ian? Are they both in on this? It is a joke, right?" "Yeah. A bad joke." Ian glowered at Cade and Marissa. "Alright, kids. You've had your fun, stop with the playacting, okay? It's bothering your mom, Cade." Cade nodded. "It's over. The last thing I want to do is bother Mom. Forget I said anything." Clearly this wasn't the time, and all he'd accomplish is drive his family apart. It wasn't the time or place, and he lacked the energy to continue with this now. He knew he'd answer for it later, but the last thing he'd wanted was to upset his mother. He pushed back from the table, looking ashamed, for a host of reasons. "I," she composed herself, letting the rage bubbling inside her and the litany curses that it brought with it subside. "I should go. Thank you for inviting me Mr. and Mrs Allister, it was... interesting." The glare she was shooting at her bae, the dead man walking that she knew, should have come equipped with their own speed lines and separate ten issue side plot. "Hopefully we'll all see each other later, my parents are thrilled for the opportunity to meet my fr- acquaintances. Thank you again, for the invite. Cade, if you would be so kind as to see me out..." the tone that carried told him he might be a dead man. Cade had never looked more defeated before. He rose from the table, and nodded to his parents, before turning to walk Marissa out in a dejected silence. He'd fucked up, and he knew it. Feeling like a failure wasn't something Cade enjoyed. He'd pretty much ruined everything he'd hoped to accomplish, and gained nothing by doing so. It was a life lesson, to be sure. He failed his friends, he failed his family, and he failed Marissa. He even felt he failed himself regarding the whole thing. In the end, his Dad had to bail him out, and he KNEW there'd be a reckoning over that later, another lecture at the very least. Once they got outside the house, he did at least manage to look Marissa in the eye, Even with all the palpable fury radiating from her. "I'm glad you came, and I'm sorry for my part in ruining everything." He was sincere in everything he said, and that tone of shame was still there. An apology wasn't going to fix things, that much he knew. He wasn't sure he could at this point. He'd made the invite never expecting this sort of thing to happen. The two lovers stopped not far from her car, when she suddenly spun about and stopped her bae. "Okay, you know what? This whole..." she waved a hand around him to signify his currently mopey mood. "Thing you have going on here, this shameful, defeated, woe-is-fucking-me mood needs to stop." "You're 'sorry for your part'? Cade, you wrote, starred in, directed and produced that whole mess back there." She chuckled but it didn't seem genuine. "I get your mom and dad being spooked that their teenage son and his crush might have made a poor life choice and thought dropping the 'we're having a kid' bomb at a barbecue might lighten the blow back, but... what the actual hell? You try to escape that conversation by outing all of us and our powers... that was your big deflection? Throwing all of us under the bus so you could have your moment? If you want to tell your mom, fine. Tell her. About you. My powers and my brother's powers, which you were kind enough to call us out by name, thanks for that, are our business." She almost seemed like she was going to cry. She was angry, he could tell. Actually, livid would have been a better choice. She paced for a few moments, not looking at him with her palm pressed on her forehead in thought while her other rested on the curve of her hip. "Is this it, Cade? Is this what I have to look forward to? If things were to get serious between us, is this the man I have to look forward to having in my corner to protect me, encourage me, warm me on cold nights and shelter me when my world is crumbling? Sad eyed, mopey Cade who can't stand up to anyone and buckles at the first sign of anger or displeasure from his peers?" The dark haired girl shook her head, obviously keeping the more hurtful things she wanted to say to herself. "You're supposed to be keeping me safe from Jason, in case he goes all loopy again like he did on Liam and now all I see is that you're probably scared to death of him. Did you ever confront him about how he treated Cora? He fucking thrashed her and you said he and him were going to have a chat... did you? I know the answer is 'no'. Is that my fate? Jason or some guy says something to me or touches me and here's big bad Spartan Cade... head down in his knees afterwards like 'sorry, I would have done something but...'." She calmed her breathing and looked at him. "What're you afraid of? Huh? So you screwed up... own that shit, head held high and move on." "Baby," she rest her hand gently across his chest. "I don't send pics of me in my underwear or make out in my bikini or have sex," she smiled looking away as a slight flush rose to her cheeks. "With just anyone and everyone. You are it, Cadums. You, and just you. I know everyone thinks I'm gorgeous, but I only want to be gorgeous for you, because you're the guy I kinda like. The blue I'm wearing isn't for all of Shelly, babe, it's for you, but... I can't be with a guy who is... well, whatever this is." She gestured to him again. "Think about the man you are now. Look to the man you need to become. Pack a bag and start making the journey, baby, because we're not having this talk a second time." She raised up, not too far since her wedge heels almost made her a giant herself. "Now, wrap arms around me, squeeze me and kiss me like you already miss me, and I'll see you later, okay?" If she was still mad, which he knew she was, it all seemed to go away as her lips gently pressed to his before evolving into a passionate expression of desire, attraction and want for one another. As they broke their embrace, she patted his chest. "Now," she wiped her lipstick from the corner of his mouth as she smiled at him. "Go face the music. Tell your sister, yes, we can still hang out, because I know she'll ask. Same rules apply. Thank your family for me, and... think about what I said." "You're right Marissa, and thanks again." he answered with a smile. She could have crushed what was left of him, and yet she built him back up, in her own way. Cade smiled at the hope Marissa'd given him. She was understandably mad, and right about everything else. He wasn't like this, he didn't want to be like this. Still, as he watched her drive off, he knew going back inside was the first step. He made his way back inside, passing by the kitchen. His mother was there, cleaning up, and Haruka and Ian weren't. He overheard his mother muttering softly, mostly her surprise that her stepson would have a chunibyo phase so late. Cade cringed at that, Chunis were so damn cringe-worthy, but if that was the worst she thought of it, well, he could live with it for now. He headed for his room and closed the door behind him. His bags from yesterday were in the jeep already. He'd need to talk to each of them, and he had a feeling on who was going to be first. As could be expected, his dad didn't bother knocking. But nor did he kick the door open and slam it shut behind him with force. Instead, and somewhat more ominously, Ian Allister quietly opened the door to his son's room, quietly entered, and quietly shut it once more before turning to look at Cade. The sheriff's grey eyes were darkly clouded, though his expression was stonily calm as he regarded his son for a long moment, then spoke. "And what. The hell. Was that?" Cade winced inwardly. This was the 'dressing-down a dumbass recruit' voice, used only when said luckless recruit had done something so abysmally stupid that shouting was redundant, like pulling the pin from grenade and then tossing the pin, or violating range safety. Cade had heard his dad use it once, and only once, on a deputy who had shortly after been fired. "Well?" "That was me failing to read things right, and making a big mistake. And you helping me get past it with the least disruption of everyones' lives." Cade answered his dad, no defiance in his tone. "Thanks for that. I messed up and you had to clean up after me. " "Believe it or not, I'd meant for all of that to serve as a preface how important you all are to me, that i didn't want to keep living with a secret like that, at least not from the people who matter most to me. It didn't go that way. So now Mom thinks I'm some sort of Chuni, Marissa is mad at me, and I know you are. The others will be too when they find out, and I'll have to square this with everyone. It's going to be a long hard road ahead." Ian Allister sighed, moving to sit wearily on the chair at Cade's desk. "Christ on a bike, Cade. I am mad, yeah, but I'm also glad your mom is confused rather than troubled about something she can't do anything about. And Haruka, too." The big man ran a hand over his face. "I mean, look at me. I'm as objectively helpless as they are, compared to this Dark, and monsters, and shadowy conspiracies, and you and your friends. And I've seen action. I've had training. I'm a goddamned United States Marine, with access to a sheriff department armory, and I'm next-to helpless." He fixed Cade with a serious look. "It takes all I've got to keep it together, son." "Imagine if your mom knew what I know. Consider I probably don't know half the shit you kids know, and that alone is enough to keep me up at night. Your mom is a smart, tough woman-" and for an instant Cade saw that, whilst he may or may not be having an affair, his dad did care for Miyako. "-but this shit you guys have on your plates? She'd likely lose her mind if she believed in it. And who could blame her?" He sighed again, leaning back in the desk chair. "Being open and truthful is a good thing, kid. It really, really is. But there's times and places, and while your mom might deserve on some level to know, you're not doing her a favor by telling her." "And certainly not Haruka, Cade. She's eleven goddamn years old, and you're going to tell her that monsters and superpowers exist? Because for her, it'd be a TV show or comic book come to life, and she'd tell the whole world. Sure, maybe they'd laugh at her, but then she'd do stupid shit to try and prove it." "You're absolutely right Dad. I didn't think it all through like I should have. Haruka's gonna tease me pretty badly about all this probably for months. Mom being confused is the best outcome, and I mean it when I say I didn't want it to go this way. " He sighed and then sat on his bed. "When Devin gave us all abit of a reality check, I made me think about all this, though perhaps not the right way. I don't have actual powers like the rest of them. I have to depend on the skills you and my grandpas taught me. What I do is very mundane, but I can't just stop. I have to keep moving forward too. I didn't want to have any regrets, if..." He shook his head. "If something does happen, and I don't come back. I hadn't really worried about it so much before, we've pretty much been able to handle everything that came at us, but going forward that may not be the case." "I'm sorry, for what happened the other night. I jumped to a conclusion, I didn't wait to actually talk to you. I was mad because you'd made mom worry, that she was crying, so I just reacted impulsively. Here I've gone and done about the same thing, and in front of Haruka and Marissa too. I know you don't actually owe me an explanation, but I would like to know what's going on. It's fine if you don't want to tell me. I meant what I said about not having regrets, and I haven't been fair to you. For that and everything else, I apologize, Dad." Ian Allister nodded. "I'm still mighty pissed at you, but mostly due to a near miss than because of actual harm you've done. It was dumb with good intentions, which is better than being smart with bad ones, I guess. Still, watch out for your mom and Haruka. They might not believe it, but now that you've let the truth out of the bag they'll be less likely to ignore signs that something is up." The big retired Marine stood up, shaking his head. "As for your friends... yeah, if Marissa tells them they'll be plenty mad at you. Did she break off the boyfriend/girlfriend thing?" he asked with a hint of hope. "No she didn't. Though this was definitely my warning to not screw up like this again. She's mad at me, understandably, I'm mad at myself too." He seemed relieved by the fact she hadn't ended their "relationship", and he could tell his dad wasn't happy about who he was dating. "Hmmph." His dad's frown spoke volumes, but he didn't say anything more on the subject of Marissa. "Fair enough. Just..." he paused. "Be careful. You say you don't have powers like the others, but you have this Shine they were talking about. That means something - it means you can't afford to be a kid now. There's going to be things you face that your parents can't protect you from, and you've no idea how shitty I feel saying that." He sighed. "What I can do is be a shoulder and an ear. If you need someone to talk to man to man, I'm here." He smiled sadly, then turned towards the door. "First bit of advice: Don't talk any more with your mom and Haruka today about your slip. Let it fade, wait for them to bring it up if they do. Don't poke the sore tooth. And be careful." Cade nodded. "Thanks, Dad. I'll take that advice." He met his dad's gaze, and smiled. "Thanks for understanding, that I have to do this, and letting me do what i have to. I know you don't want to, but you've seen it, it has to be us." "Doesn't mean I like it." His dad half-smiled back. "I'll be collecting your mom and sister and taking them to the fairground in a bit. You, on the other hand, better pick up those condoms from the floor by your nightstand before your mother sees them." He pointed at the half-unrolled string of silver packets that had fallen unheeded during the shenanigans yesterday morning. As Cade opened his mouth, he shook his head. "Grown-ups rules, son. Don't ask, don't tell. And at least you're being safe in that way." He left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. Cade let out a sigh after his dad left, and quickly went to put the condoms in his nightstand where they should have been put before now. His dad definitely knew now, though, and it wasn't so much that he was ashamed, just glad his mom hadn't seen them just laying there. He made sure his room was spotless before he left it. Once he was done cleaning up, he head downstairs, it was time to go to the fair, though he didn't really expect it to be as much fun as he had when the day began.
  16. Shelly, Montana. Monday 2nd September. Labor Day. It was the end of summer. Not the end of the actual, physical season of summer. That, officially, wouldn't be until the twenty-third of the month, three weeks from today. Rather, it was the end of the summer as a concept in the minds of the populace. After today, wearing white was a faux pas. After today, Halloween decorations would start being sold, and pumpkin spice lattes too - even if the latter might be iced ones because the weather was still warm. Everyone would be back to work, back to school, bidding farewell to the spirit of summer and moving into fall. But that would be after today. Most towns and cities in America have their Labor Day customs. In fact, the smaller the town the more likely such customs were to exist and be more universally approved of. In Shelly, the custom was to gather at the Carousel, a restored merry-go-round that in the winter months was moved inside a large, low, hangar-like building known as the Carousel Rest Stop. In the summer, it was brought out once more to be the focal point for local and state fairs and celebrations, sitting in a large field surrounded by tents and stalls as music blared from nearby stages and people came from all over Toole County and even further to join the fun. But on Labor Day, there were relatively few from outside Toole County present. The celebration was more local, more intimate. A friends and family affair. Sure, there might be some out-of-towners from other parts of the state, visiting with relatives. Or families of servicemen and women posted at the nearby base, considered to be honorary Shellyites by most if not all of the locals. The setup was modest and simple - there were some entertainments: live music, some stalls and food vendors, and of course the Carousel itself, a glinting and sparkling and painted remnant of an earlier age - but by and large people would arrive with hampers and coolers, set up tables and grills, and barbecue and picnic with one another, wandering around and visiting their neighbours, sharing food and recipes and camaraderie as the smaller children, perhaps sensing the end of the spirit of summer, ran and shouted excitedly. The teens, too, had their own customs on such days. Though the specter of school on the morrow made parental oversight a little too tight to throw real parties, it was common enough for them, as the afternoon wore on into evening, to slip away from the main picnic areas into the clumps of trees ringing the field and smoke, drink and make merry away from the eyes of parents or snitching younger siblings. That, however, would be later. Right now it was just short of noon, and already the field was bustling with activity, people arriving with their families as the Carousel whirled and blared and the stall-holders chattered and laughed. It was a warm, balmy day, the sunlight soothing away the chill of the morning and casting few shadows. Shelly was gearing up to give summer a fine, cheery sendoff.
  17. The Keane home, sometime that evening. “Hey, Mom?” They were a little more than halfway through Jurassic Park, both Keane women in their most comfortable pajamas and curled up with dogs occupying every inch of couch-space their humans weren’t. During the commercials, they’d argued over which of the male protagonists was hotter, and Autumn had showed her mother a dozen or so of the better memes the movie had inspired in the nearly three decades since its release. “Hmm?” Dana popped another handful of buttery popcorn into her mouth, glancing absently at her daughter across Zee and Dakota’s heads. “Remember when I took that stuff back to the other house on Thursday?” “Mhmm. Yeah, the… oh, what was it? The fishing tackle and the jigsaw?” “Yeah, and a couple of other things Dad borrowed. So, I went inside, you know, just to make sure everything was still good. No leaks or weird smells or broken windows or anything.” “Right…” Something in the girl’s tone caught her ear, distracted her from the television- suddenly the rugged paleontologist wasn’t all that interesting anymore. Autumn took a breath, realizing that the box was open now and that shutting it again was not the easy option, and forged on. “Well, I checked the basement, and- did you know Grandpa had an office down there?” She asked, regarding her mom curiously for any sign of recognition. “An office,” Dana repeated carefully. “No, I didn’t. Why?” No going back now. The younger redhead absently petted one of the dogs using her as a pillow, drawing reassurance from their solidity. “I found a couple of letters, and one of them was to us. Me and you, I mean.” There was no response; Dana’s face was frozen in the flickering light of the TV. Hesitating only a moment, Autumn continued. “Do you want me to bring it down?” There was another pause, followed by a hasty confession born of guilt. “Sorry, I got curious, I already read them both…. But, um-“ “Go get them.” The older woman’s response was quiet, scarcely audible over the panicked cries of the children on screen. Her hazel eyes were fixed not on the television, but somewhere above it. Beyond it. Autumn nodded, unsure if her mother noticed the gesture of assent, and squirmed her way out from beneath Briggs and Lexi, who’d managed to arrange themselves simultaneously across her lap and against her side, imprisoning her against the arm of the couch. “Sorry, guys,” she murmured as they grumbled, roused from their drowsing by her movement. Was her mom angry? A furtive glance at Dana’s cameo-perfect profile in the dim light of the television didn’t reveal much, and she headed uncertainly up the stairs. By the time she returned to the living room, the light was on, the bowl of popcorn was on the coffee table, and her mother was sitting on the edge of the couch, her gaze one of too-calm expectation. “So, this is the one for us.” Autumn fought down the flutter of nervousness as she handed over the strangely heavy envelope with its folded stationery. The room was silent then, Autumn reclaiming her spot on the couch and watching as her mother slid the letter from its container, unfolded it and read it. It didn’t take long. Dana’s eyes closed momentarily as she folded the letter back up and returned it to the envelope. She bore the look of a woman struggling with some deep-seated emotion as she carefully set the letter aside and looked at Autumn questioningly. “And you read this?” Autumn nodded. “Give me the other one.” There was a sense of energy in the room now, something swirling and tense, and it was with the same growing unease she’d felt when she’d followed Jason Effing Bannon into the woods to an abandoned trailer a week and a lifetime ago that Autumn placed the other missive into her mom’s hands. Again, there was the rustle of paper being slid from an envelope, and the unfurling of the letter. Again, there was the silence as the older Keane woman read. This time, however, the reaction was different. Autumn watched as her mother’s face darkened, her eyes narrowing as she reached the end of her father’s last words. “Bullshit.” It was just two syllables, spoken quietly, intensely, but there was something behind them Autumn recognized, although then the voice had been her own. The word was jagged and tremulous with a raw edge unsmoothed by time or the careful, assiduous avoidance of unpleasant thoughts. “Mom, I don’t-“ she began tentatively. “Bullshit!” Dana all but shouted, crumpling the paper and throwing it violently at the floor, startling the dogs. “This is such ridiculous, insane, absolute fucking bullshit! He, what? Left these just… lying around in a magical locked office in his own fucking house expecting some random similarly magical fucking idiot from god knows where to just stumble across them? Fucking magically?! He knew he was goddamn dying and this is what he decided to do- leave a note for some meth-head looking for a DVD player to pawn? Jesus fucking Christ, Dad! What the fuck were you thinking?!” Autumn had expected her to be a little angry because even she’d gotten kind of pissed off herself at first. She’d also maybe thought her mom would just be totally dismissive of the whole thing, but this… This was waaaay beyond her experience or understanding. This was not parental behavior. Not at all. Especially not for her parents. Her parents were sane. Normal. They were usually pretty chill, and she never once questioned whether they loved her because they’d never given her reason to. Yeah, sure, there was maybe some weird or awkward stuff between them, grown-up stuff, but it had just never really seemed like that big a deal because they’d never made it one. For Dana to go from 0 to 100 this fast, though? Weren’t adults supposed to have their shit together? Oh. Oh, god. I don’t- I don’t even know what to do with this. There was nothing she could do but stare as her mother broke down, flinging the blanket aside while the dogs whined nervously, scattering, and Dana rose suddenly from the couch, furious tears streaming down her flushed cheeks. “It’s been over a year, Dad! A fucking year! And I’ve been doing the best I fucking can, trying to figure this shit out on my own, and I thought I was doing pretty fucking okay, you know? I thought I was doing a pretty fucking good job just not losing my shit completely and taking care of everything that had to be done, the hospice visits and the memorial and the fucking house and all the accounts and the stupid fucking legal bullshit because, hey, people can’t just fucking die and be dead and have that be the end of it, can they?” As Autumn watched with mounting horror the woman who had raised her storming aimlessly, erratically about the living room, a sudden realization struck, lightning in the midst of the tempest raging around her: just because Dana had been doing all the normal mom-things, the boring grown-up stuff, it didn’t mean she wasn’t having a hard time. “And this? This fucking bat-shit ignorant fairy tale nonsense is what I get? More of your fucking stories? Heartfelt letters to a goddamned stranger when you couldn’t even be bothered to tell your own fucking family you were sick until it was too late to do anything about it?! Magic fucking spells?! What the fuck, Dad?! What the actual-“ Whatever Dana was about to say was cut off as Autumn flung desperate arms around her, dragging her fiercely, bodily into a hug. It was like hearing that awful, broken laughter all over again, except instead of being a twisted mockery of self-deprecating mirth it was just raw, unvarnished grief and fury all roiling together into something unbearable. But, still, it was pain, so blatant in its expression the impulsive young woman could almost feel the ragged edges of it herself, her mother’s tearful exhortations dissolving into shuddering sobs as she squeezed her close. They clung to each other like the survivors of some terrible cataclysm, a living Mobius strip of pale arms and red hair and hot tears entwined together in the aftermath of the explosion that had detonated their quiet life a year and a half before, but whose shockwaves were only really reaching them now. A little later... “Autumn.” Her mom sounded better. Still raw, still hoarse from crying, but once more ‘Mom’ - the adult with their composure restored, not the hurting child torn with grief and anger. The two of them were cuddled together on the couch, Autumn holding Dana and letting her grieve until the older woman recovered, at least enough to talk. “Yeah?” “Why did you tell me about this now? Tonight?” “It just… I guess it just seemed like the right time. There’s been so much going on, and I wanted to wait and talk to this guy that was supposed to be Grandpa’s friend, you know? Laughing Joe. I didn’t wanna say anything to you until I’d been out there, because it really… I mean, it’s a lot.” “It is… ‘a lot,’ yeah.” Apart from Lexi’s tentative snuffling at Autumn’s hand, the room was almost silent. “So I’m guessing they had you go through the ritual, then? At the reservation.” Autumn just shook her head, rubbing the even-tempered Pit’s head in a wordless reassurance that, yes, things were okay now. Or, at least, that they seemed to be. “Mmmh.” Dana nodded, plucking at the hem of the blanket tucked around them. She was quiet for a moment, pensive and visibly exhausted from the emotional outpouring. “I knew about it, at your age, but I never would go. Dad tried to convince me. I just never understood why it was so important to him, all those old stories. I thought he should focus on the real evils in the world, the ones that you don’t need some medicine man to investigate. Maybe I should’ve humored him,” she mused bitterly, glancing down at the tousled head resting against her shoulder, the pale, red-rimmed eyes that peered up at her. “Maybe I would’ve understood him a little better.” How did you respond to something like that? Owen was her grandfather, sure, but he was her mom’s dad. That was a whole different thing, and again she felt that uncoiling of guilt, of shame for not recognizing what had been in front of her the whole time. “I mean, if you didn’t believe in it, though,” Autumn began, her voice trailing off as she realized she really had no idea what to say in this situation. Maybe she’d already used up all her ability to people for the day. “I didn’t. Don’t,” her mother amended. “But he did, and his believing formed the basis for a lot of the things he did, the…” The older woman sighed, a heavy, weary sound, absently resting her cheek against her daughter’s hair, breathing in the citrusy scent- sweet and bright, like ripe tangerine, but with a hint of grapefruit’s woody, underlying bitterness. “The choices he made, even if they didn’t make sense to anyone else but him.” Another pause. “What about you?” Autumn hesitated. “…Yeah? Probably. Not exactly the same way he did, maybe. I don’t know. We didn’t really talk about it, to be honest. Not the whole Kavanagh thing, anyway. I guess…” She frowned, wrinkling her nose as she burrowed close against her mother’s side. “I guess if I had to explain what I think about what he thought, which sounds kind of weird, I’d say that there’s maybe too much of the world, of everything, for us to really understand all of it. I mean, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try, just that it’s too big for us to see all of it at once, and we come up with stories. Like the elephant and the blind men. So maybe Grandpa was feeling the trunk, and you got the leg, and I’m touching the side of it, you know? It’s all the same thing, the same elephant. Just…” She gestured under the blanket, her hands spreading apart and lifting the patterned fabric slightly, and shrugged. “Like, I don’t think magic is a real thing, and I’m not sure if Grandpa did, or if it was just how he framed the stuff that was too big to see.” “Mhmm. When did you get so talkative?” Autumn shrugged a little, pressing her face against the reassuring solidity of her mother's shoulder as she felt the telltale flush creeping up the sides of her throat. "I dunno," she mumbled, her words only half-audible through the blanket. It wasn't entirely true, of course- she had an idea that it might've had something to do with spending the day around someone who actually listened, but you didn't say that to your mom, obviously. The tired young redhead nestled closer, seeking out that maternal warmth that had so often been a source of comfort. With a knowing smile, Dana kissed the top of her daughter's head. "Should I blame Jason Bannon, do you think?" Her initial answer was a muffled sound that might have been agreement, followed by a soft, "Maybe." As Autumn hugged her mother's waist, the older, wiser redhead pulled her close; how many more of these little-girl moments would she get before the adventurous teen went off on her own for good? Not enough, the pretty veterinarian decided, exhaling as her eyes drifted closed for a moment as behind her lids bittersweet memories of family played out, of chubby, sunburned toddler cheeks and the rare sound of Owen's laughter, the smell of grilling meat and sweet grass underfoot. "I'm sorry about the letters." The apology, softly-spoken, was scarcely more than a murmur against her mother's arm as Autumn stared at the images moving on the television screen. "I just thought you'd want to see them." "No, I'm sorry." Her mom's voice was soft, her tone reflective as she squeezed the girl's shoulder. "You were right to show them to me." She sighed then, feeling her daughter's hair under her fingers as she stroked her back. "So maybe you're right - about the elephant thing. Perhaps your grandpa was trying to put a shape or a name to something that was too big for him to fully understand. I mean, isn't that what religion is?" Dana asked rhetorically. "He had faith - even if it was in something crazy, it was also in us." A thought occurred to her then, as she looked down at the copper curls crowning her not-so-little-anymore girl's head. "You know, if he believed that only a special person could find the letters, and you found them - maybe it wasn't so crazy." she commented, smiling a little. "Someone special did find the letters." Another pause as a further thought occurred, ideas beginning to take shape of all the strangeness that had happened of late. A series of random incidences, perhaps - the medical center lockdown, the fight, Autumn changing in ways that were surprising, new friends like... Jason Bannon? Devin Jauntsen!? It wasn't a fully formed thought. More a zygote of a thought. A fleeting sense of potentiality that was lost in the background noise of her emotional exhaustion and the contentment of holding her daughter close, but one that would, perhaps, surface again later in quiet moments. "You know..." Dana said casually. "Dad's letter mentioned a talisman bundle. I don't suppose there was such a thing?" "Mmhmm," Autumn hummed in half-conscious confirmation, the combination of physical and emotional weariness with soft canine snoring and her mother's gentle touch having led her perilously close to the edge of slumber. "Brought it back with the letters. It's on my desk, 's got feathers and stuff on it." She stirred, blinking as the hand on her back stilled and the vague shapes of the furniture and photos on the wall slowly came back into focus. That had been the whole point of talking about the office, hadn't it? The hope that her mom might actually consider at least going through the motions of the ritual. The bracelets, the talisman- even if she didn't understand how they worked, particularly, she'd seen some of the evidence that they did with her own eyes in the soft, shimmering silver of the Light surrounding them, and talking to Joe had helped lay a few of her concerns to rest. That, she considered, turning the morning's conversations over in her mind like a smooth river stone in her hand, had helped too, just hearing from someone who'd known her grandfather that he wasn't crazy. Or, at least, no crazier than anyone else in Shelly. Shifting, the drowsy young woman straightened, extricating herself with obvious reluctance from her mother's embrace. "I can show it to you, if you want?" "Please." Dana nodded, smiling a little at her sleepy-eyed girl. Smiling back, Autumn wormed off the couch again and went to retrieve the talisman, returning to the living room with it in hand and carefully passing it over before plopping back down on the couch. Her mom examined it, fingertips running over the mixture of long and short feathers, the polished stones, the occasional tooth or claw. the intricate braided leather thongs. "I should have listened more to him." the older redhead said quietly, her head bowing as she closed her eyes against threatened tears. "Maybe if I'd listened, tried to understand, he would have felt he could trust me with- With other things. I'm sorry, Dad." The last was said almost as a whisper as she drew in a steadying breath and raised her head again, smiling at Autumn through fresh tears which she wiped away with one hand, holding the talisman out on her palm. "Do... How do you feel about his instructions? I mean... It's silly, but I feel it would be right, somehow. Wouldn't it?" Dana asked, a trifle uncertainly as she regarded her daughter. She wanted to tell her mom it wouldn't be silly at all, that her grandfather had been right- mostly, anyway- and that it was okay. That it would be okay, because even after he was gone he was trying to protect his family, his daughter, and because she was going to help finish what Owen couldn't. But she couldn't say that, could she? There was no way to make that promise and be sure she could keep it. What if she couldn't? "I think," the expressive young woman replied slowly, earnest blue eyes narrowing slightly as she considered the question and the tumult of her thoughts tumbling over each other. "I think it feels like the right thing to do, yeah. It was obviously important enough to him that he left-" Autumn hesitated, her throat constricting around the sounds she wanted to shape, the words her lips couldn't quite form as she watched the tears drip silently down her mother's cheeks. Oh, god. Oh, fuck. I don't know if- "I mean," she managed haltingly, "I think it would. Um." Keep talking, Autumn. You're almost done. She swallowed hard, Dana's face rippling and wavering in her field of vision as if she were looking up through the surface of the creek, eyes stinging in the current. "It would help. Maybe." She nodded, lips compressed into a taut, pale line that suggested a smile. Her mom's answering smile was almost a mirror of Autumn's, tight-lipped with the urge not to sob as her own warm hazel eyes went liquid with hitherto unshed tears, but her nod of agreement was firm. "It will be like having another part of him still with us." Dana said, almost as much to herself as to Autumn. And then she smiled a little wider, carefully drawing Autumn into a one-armed hug, a hug which the warmly emotional young woman returned. The decision made, there was not much more to discuss. Mutual consent decided that over the front door would be the ideal spot for Grandpa's last bequest, the stepping-stool was fetched from the kitchen, the sewing box from the lounge. Exchanging glances, the two Kavanagh women - for such they were, by their blood and their roots in this land - each pricked their forefingers and dabbed a spot of blood on the strange talisman. There was an air of solemnity about the process, a sense that something sacred was being enacted, and then Autumn stood up on the stool, stretching upwards to hang the talisman on a small hook before stepping back down to stand alongside her mother. It was gradual, a faint whisper on the edge of her awareness, but it was enough to prompt the lithe young teen to focus her... sixth sense? Third eye? Shine-vision? And there it was, a tracery of silver so pale as to be almost translucent grey, a net of Radiance limning the doorframe, the walls, spreading from the talisman. And there was more, too. A sense that she'd only felt at her grandparent's house before now, and realized was the cessation of the spiritual smog that was omnipresent almost everywhere within Toole County. Here, the metaphysical air was clear for the first time, and Autumn could not help but smile slightly as she took a deep, steadying breath of it. Dana felt it too, at least on some level. Autumn could sense the tension flow out of her mom, could see the subtle lifting of her shoulders as though a weight was gone from them. "Yeah," she murmured, leaning against her mother's side as she peered up at the talisman with its claws, quills, and feathers where it hung above the door, just next to a frame that held one of her grandmother's embroidered blessings. "Yeah, I think that does help." Even without the faint web of intangible, invisible silver weaving itself protectively around the house, it really did just seem... right. It wasn't even about having the physical reminder of Owen, because until she'd found it in the secret room at the other house, Autumn hadn't known the odd little bundle even existed. The thing itself held no association with her grandfather in the energetic redhead's memory; it was the idea of the talisman, the notion that one of the last things he'd tried to do, in his own way, was to make sure they were protected from the Dark. The Enemy. And now, as her mom had suggested, some part of him was bound up in that ritual, that memory, to be kept safe and cherished as he'd wanted to keep them. This- Shelly- was her home. Their home, she reflected soberly. Not just that of her distant ancestors, but her family's. Her friends'. And paired with that thought was a curious possessiveness, a half-formed sense that the forces arrayed against them were wholly alien, antithetical to life, and therefore couldn’t be allowed to remain. As if, at least in part, she was entitled to make that decision. There were also people like her grandfather, like Nathan and Jacob and Laughing Joe who maybe knew what was going on, or had a vague idea of it, but who couldn't act directly- not like she, or the others in the Fellowship, could. Warden Crocker had called her the “Kavanagh in the hot seat,” and said they’d support her if she needed them. Rubbing her cheek idly against the soft flannel of her mom’s night shirt, Autumn didn’t bother blinking back the tears this time as something cold and tense suddenly twisted like a snake in her stomach. She might need them after all, because tomorrow, she was supposed to defend that home. It would be okay, right? She’d reassured herself of that earlier, but- Her arms tightened around Dana’s waist, eyes squeezed shut as she buried her face against her mother’s shoulder. For all the nightmarish horror, the undercurrent of raw and primal fear that gnawed at her belly and pounded against her ribs and shrieked and hissed inaudibly that she was six-fucking-teen, and there was a whole world she’d never get to see, and other people could handle it, and that it would totally destroy her family if she didn’t come home… There was also the quiet, undeniable truth that it wasn’t just her; the meeting with Laughing Joe, the journals, the training, and the talks had proved, definitively, that she wasn’t alone. She had seen, for just a moment with Marissa at the farm, the sheer enormity of what she was part of- of the ring, or spiral or whatever it was. Others had been where she was now. Others had taken risks. Others had asked these questions, wrestled with the same doubts, and still chosen to do what had to be done, even if they were afraid. Even if they didn’t want to. Everyone was fighting in their own way, she guessed, peering back up at the talisman. Even after they were gone. Autumn sucked in a shuddering breath and shook her head to dispel the uncommon existential bleakness of her thoughts for a moment, pulling away long enough for the two women to put everything back in order. They didn’t discuss the faint, dull ache of the matching pinpricks on their fingers, or how appropriate it was that Owen’s rough bundle of wild magic now hung next to his beloved Caroline’s more refined, domestic version. Nothing much was said at all, in fact, until they shared a brief, subdued exchange regarding what movie they should watch next. More popcorn (with a medically inadvisable amount of butter and salt) filled the big mixing bowl, blankets were straightened, and sleepy dogs rearranged themselves around the pair of redheads- a living barrier of soft snores and warm, furry bellies to ward off any lingering shadows as they all settled back in to cuddle for what the youngest of the Kavanaghs resignedly acknowledged might be the last time. “…Didn't I tell ya before? It's my island.” “Hamish, ride ahead to Edinburgh and assemble the council...” It was well after midnight when the front door opened and then closed again, but not yet so late- or so early- that the light of dawn had begun to steal across the sky. Dakota stirred and peered over the back of the couch, Zephyr grumbled, and Lexi yawned, while Briggs just whined softly without waking. “Hey, guys,” Ian murmured with a weary smile as he rubbed the big sable Shepherd’s head, glancing first at the flickering screen and then at the two women fast asleep on the couch in each other’s arms, with the pale light of the television sparking hints of gold in their hair. “I’m home.”
  18. The bike pulled up to Bunnee's burgers after a rather mild, ten minute or so, cruise through Shelly from the Bannon Farm. A death grip wasn't required by Cassie as her driver traveled smooth and slow down the streets instead of his usual speed demon manner. She assumed it was because he was in the crowded areas of Shelly now, and while the Sheriff might know about them, he wasn't above issuing tickets to the lot of them for being idiots. They walked in together, garnering a few looks from their peers who were here already (because Bunnee always had the high school crowd in here in some form or fashion). In the eyes of high schoolers a couple of friends couldn't just go eat a meal by themselves with out them obviously being on a date of some sort and they could both feel the judgmental eyes of their classmates silently calling them out on their business. Those who actually cared anyway. They say anywhere as Maxine instructed them while blowing past like a busty wind on the busy Sunday evening. The evening church rush was happening and their peers were in their Sunday best. They slid into a free both as the Heath twins passed them on their way out. They pretty blondes both said 'hi' at the two and they exchanged greetings. Cassie couldn't help but notice how they flushed when Devin politely replied in his own flirtatious way. H really couldn't help him self, it seemed. “Well, you two are not the pair I expected seeing in here,” Max smiled wryly. Being in on all the high school gossip she almost more familiar with the lives of the students of Shelly High than the students themselves. “When did this start?” She smirked while asking playfully. “Relax, Max,” Devin held out a hand to slow her roll. “It's just hanging out. Purely sexual.” Cassie's glare could have froze the waters she brought them solid. She was used to his humor, but, dude. “Oh, right.” Max nodded in sagely understanding. “I totally get it.” She touched Cassie's shoulder and nodded. “I get it sweetie. We ladies need to set our standards early in life, and we can't set that high bar without first realizing where the low bar is hovering at.” Her side eye to Devin screamed there was ointment in the back to treat the burn. Devin just half laughed and nodded his head, soaking it up. Max was good, she was an ace at dealing with him. “Two sodas and an order of chili-cheese fries and you're totally off my Christmas list.” “Oh,” she pouted. “Darn. She took their drink orders and sped off to the kitchen to do her thing. The two were left alone finally and Devin looked at his pseudo-date and didn't quite know how to kick this whole thing off. “Sooo...” Smooth, Devin. Real smooth. Cassandra let him hang for a second, just for the 'purely sexual' before offering him a hand. She arched an eyebrow and prompted, "So?" Then after a sip of soda reminded him, "Maybe start with Homecoming?" "Okay," he agreed. "So, where to begin? In case you hadn't heard my sister is pretty much kidnapping all of you for preparations at our place before the dance. I'm tasked with somehow making Cade and Jase presentable. If you don't have a dress yet, talk to her, she's in a 'formal affair frenzy', like a shark sniffing blood in the water. We won't be taking my bike, so no worries there, I'll have my car that night, so we don't mess up all effort we put into making ourselves pretty for for the ball. Seriously, if I ended up with mud on my slacks, I'd throw a fit." He shrugged. "So, yeah, that's my side if it all, whatchu got?" Cassie laughed a little. "A notepad, fortunately," she quipped. "Okay, so I should probably give Marissa a call then, since I do have a dress, but not one she's going to be happy with. And...hmm." Cass paused for a second, assessing Devin. "I'm trying to decide if you meeting my mom in advance will be a net positive or not... You've never set foot in the library, have you?" "Sure I have." He chuckled. "Ladies are totally into smart guys and all that. Whenever we have some big study assignment I always make it a point to hang out there after school at least twice in the first week it's been assigned. Some girl always needs some help studying." He grinned wide. "Totally down to meet your mom, though. Met Autumn's for the first time today, she totally loved me." He opened his arms wide like it should be a no-brainer that Cassie's mother would obviously fall immediately in love with the rich, spoiled walking white stereotype of entitlement. "Coooooool," sighed Cassandra, already imagining Devin being Devin in front of her mom. That would go down one of two ways...either 'what are you doing, Cass?' or 'are you doing this just to hurt me, Cass?' And it was so exciting waiting to see which one she'd go with. But you didn't get far telling Devin not to be Devin. One way or the other, she'd just have to deal. Cassie reached out to nab some fries out of the greasy little cardboard cradle they arrived at the table in. "That wasn't so painful," she remarked. "Even if it means a shopping trip with Marissa. Now all we have to do is...survive. Best Homecoming ever." "Didn't know if you'd still be hungry after the pizza, figured something munch on couldn't hurt though." He smiled, stealing some of the fries too. "That's it?" He looked at her skeptically. "No list of rules for friendship dating? Hands off the butt, hands off you, ghost arm only in all pictures? No? That was easy." He chewed his fries and washed them down with a sip of his soda, which she noticed had no ice in it. "So, out of curiosity... why'd you agree to go out with me for Homecoming?" "Dude," she admonished with a grin, "If I gave you rules, it would just be a checklist for shit to do to get to me. As for why?" Cassie stirred her coke with her straw for a second, watching the foam burble up between the chunks of crushed ice. "First, you're funny sometimes. I think we could have fun. But also because ever since this crazy shit started, you've let the whole 'naughty manchild' thing slip a few times. The guy I think I saw when that happens is one I'd like to meet." She looked up at Devin again and lifted an eyebrow. "Can you set us up?" "Wow, that was," his posture visibly changed as he sat up and rested his arms on the table, suddenly more invested in the conversation. She'd been interviewing people for years and, while certainly not a professional, she'd learned enough to know when she'd gotten someone's attention. "Surprisingly direct. I'm used to people dancing around answers with reddened cheeks and that annoyingly playful 'I don't know' reply." "Blondie, look, the... 'manchild', as you put it," his grin told her he found it amusing. "It's my way of dealing with all this 'shit'." He air quoted. "I don't mean anything by it, I j-" he paused and looked around the place at all the other people. "I just need to not be so serious all the time. One, I would be even more unbearable than I am as the manchild, and two, it would be far less entertaining. You have to admit." He smiled wide. "Buuut," he dragged out with a slight protest in his tone. "If serious Devin is what the lady wants, I think I can swing it. Might even waive the hourly rates, I dunno." Cassandra grinned. "I know, and truth is that I like it when you're funny too. We all gotta have some way to deal with everything. And us...I mean, everyone thinks they have it rough, but lets face it. We're going to war against..." Abruptly she stopped and looked around to make sure no one was paying them attention. "...alien magic monsters, so I think we owe each other some benefit of the doubt. So yeah. You don't have to stop being you. Just sometimes, when it's safe, be the rest of you. You know?" She took another fry and tapped it against her bottom lip, then ate it. "My turn now. Why did you ask me?" "Ugh," he rolled his eyes and flopped back in his seat. "I forgot this game goes both ways." Cassie smirked evilly at the bit of torture. "Come on, fair is fair." The fry she was pinching swiftly met its fate while she eagerly awaited for him to man up. He returned and rummaged about for a good, chili and cheese drenched fry to give him courage. Fine, but, no jokes." She raised her eyes brows in a silent promise as she sipped her drink. "Well, I'm shallow, so... if I didn't think you were, at the very least, an eight, I wouldn't have bothered." She was pretty sure that his way of telling her she was pretty. "Devin, the Heaths are like.... sevens, tops." Cassie protested. "And you flirt with them all the time." "True, but together they're a fourteen." He pointed out, proud with his math. She didn't have the heart to inform him that it wasn't quite how it worked. He seemed to sober up some from his fooling around. "...and aside from you being hot... that's it." He shrugged. "That's all I know about you, Cass. I... we..., hell, Cassie, we, all of us, fight and bitch and moan and yet here we are, at the end of it all, ready to die for people who will never even know what we did, together. And there's the old us, now there's the new us's, with unlikely friends and super powers... I guess I want to know more about Cassandra..." he paused, looking at her, his eyes wide as he struggled for the right word... "Allen." She nodded in that wow sort of way. "...Allen," he snapped his fingers. "Right, that was where I was going with that." His smile did to conceal that he'd even remotely remembered her last name. "We're all gonna make it through this, but... I don't us to do it as strangers. Y'know?" "Hmm," Cassie watched him for a moment, rolling the words around in her head. In the end, she decided, his reasoning wasn't that far from her own. They were just sort of...investigating each other. Scraping a layer under the surface. "Okay. You don't have to wait for Homecoming for that. Here we are...at least until the fries are gone. What do you want to know? AMA. Open book." She took another fry then and popped it into her mouth. "Oh," Devin chuckled. "Ohohohoho, alright, let's do this. Let's see... what are your top three turn-ons? Who has the nicer butt? Dana or Autumn? What are you most self-conscious about? What do most people think is true about you, but isn’t?" He kept counting them off in his fingers like they were preloaded in his mind like some spin the bottle, Truth or Dare Championship Belt holder. "What is the most childish thing you still do? What is something we, your friends, would never expect that you do?" "Those are the warm ups," he smiled but she noticed it faded fast and his expression went a little more serious in its presentation. "...and I know you have issues, with home and Crossroads... so, you know, don't worry. We'll bring him home... I'm trying not to ask the stupid obvious stuff. It's not like our lives are anything close to normal." "Okay wow," Cassandra laughed. "You've been giving this some thought. Let's see." She started ticking off fingers. "A good scalp massage, skinny dipping and victory. Autumn, definitely. I'm self-conscious about my hair...it sticks out too much when it's short, but it's super hard to style when it's long, which is why I ponytail it or just let it floof most of the time, but that feels lazy?" Cass shrugged. "People think I'm voyeuristic but it's really just business for me. Not that I get paid or anything, but that's how I approach it. I still love stupid-ass Saturday morning cartoons, and..." The last question forced her to think a little more. "I volunteer at the Sagebrush when I can." At Devin's blank look, she added, "It's the food pantry in town. Lately..." Cass sighed. "...haven't had that kind of time lately." "Why?" He asked out of curiosity. "Not that's a bad thing or anything, I'm just curious. What makes you volunteer there? Was it sort of a 'hey seems fun' kinda gig or did something draw you there? Oh, and I'm totally with you there on the Saturday morning cartoons." "So...my freshman year, I wanted to do something 'hard hitting' you know?" Cassie said, making air quotes. "And I was fixated on the prison, so I wanted to get like a word on the street kind of thing. But...here I am, comfortably middle class white girl, what the fuck do I know about word on the street? So I asked mom, and she suggested the Sagebrush. I didn't even know, at the time, Shelley had a food pantry." Cass paused to finish off her soda, slurping the last bit up the straw before popping the plastic top off to munch on a little ice before picking the narrative up again. "So it was scary at first, but I started talking to some, and...their stories were really kind of gut-punches. And I left feeling like absolute shit, because I'd thought they were scary. So after the article I wrote did not make it in the paper..." Cassandra grinned and shook her head. "...because it was kind of shit...I went back. I felt like I owed them something, because when I first saw them, I didn't see people. And then after that it was just...kind of affirming. The guys that run it are super nice, and really grateful for any help they get." "Wow, I uh, huh," he nodded his head. "I didn't know either. I mean, I knew we had quite a bit of families around here that we help out around the Holidays with the boxes at the school." The look on his face was akin to something resembling a realization. "I just never really considered where all those boxes go. I guess, like you said, I never really considered that there are people receiving them." There was a long pause in their conversation as Max slipped by and offered to refill her drink. "Okay, you're depressing me..." he leaned in and tacked off a few more. "Last ones, and then... I guess it's your turn. Fair is fair. What is something that people think you would never be into, but you are? What is the silliest thing you have an emotional attachment to? What is the most embarrassing thing your parents have caught you doing? Why did you break up with your last boyfriend or girlfriend?" She saw the play there, asking about an ex while disguising it as part of the game. Devin might have thought he was slick, but the wasn't. Cassie was onto him, easily. "Hoo, okay." Cassandra exhaled, clearing the palette. "Lets see. Something people think I'm not into...that's kind of like that other question, but all right. I am hopelessly addicted to jigsaw puzzles. You know how most kids have, like, band posters or movie posters or whatever? I have puzzles that I've finished. And that's also the next answer. I got a three thousand piece puzzle when I was twelve, and I fucking knocked it out of the park, did it in like three days, working on it hours every day. My parents got it laminated, and framed, and I'm going to take it with me everywhere I go until I die." She fished around for what remained of the fries, getting a few chunks from the bottom of the carton. "Embarrassing...that would either be the time Dylan and me did 'breakfast in our undies' when Mom was out of the house...only she wasn't out of the house yet and walked right into us...or the time dad smelled pot on my breath and we went through an entire decade's worth of 'war on drug' slogans for the next two hours." She gave Devin a lazy smile then, arriving at the 'ex' question. "What makes you so sure I broke up with him...or her?" Cass asked teasingly. "Maybe he or she dumped me." "Maybe," he shrugged. "Either way, whomever they were, how'd it go down? I'm curious, the people have a right to know, Cassandra..." he paused and finally snapped his fingers. "Allen. Ha." "I just have never seen you with anyone, granted I never paid much attention to you, even when I was knocking your school books out of your hand while you were fiddling with your phone..." he chuckled. "Man, you made that so easy. You were always on that thing." He shook his head in fond reminiscence. "So? Who were they? How'd the whole last relationship go down? Mine's easy... unlikely pair, met, laughed, spent an afternoon making love, then she got grounded and moved away a week later. Which I suppose is a win because at least I didn't turn her gay... which is what my sister was betting on." "Are you sure?" Cassandra asked. "Did you keep in touch after you left?" She poured some of the melted ice water in her cup into her mouth and swished it a bit before swallowing. "Well, as you might have gleaned, my boyfriend's name was Dylan. We were together a couple of years. He and his friends are into skating, alternative music and slacking off...and when I met him all three of those things were things I was kind of into. I started hanging out with them, and we just started going out." She shrugged. "Nothing complicated, and that was the appeal. The whole thing was very chill, very laid back. But my situation changed. I wasn't happy just fucking around, watching the world go by anymore...and he was. So yeah, I broke up with him." "See? I knew you dumped him." He said with confidence. "Me being picky isn't necessarily good news for you," Cassandra reminded him with a grin. "Pfft," he chuckled. "I'm sure you told him what was up. all he had to do was grow up a little, be willing to be flexible in order to keep you happy. And he didn't want to do that after a couple of years? Fault lies with him, Blondie, not you're wanting to mature and grow. Had it been a few months, or something? Okay, I could see it. Two people need to be flexible for a relationship to be successful. Fixed thoughts and patterns of behavior can have a negative impact on a relationship leading to fixed patterns of behavior. Being able to break that cycle is called psychological flexibility." All she could do is just glare at him. "Sorry, my mom was a behavioral therapist before we moved here." He shrugged. "EmJay and me have had every blurb of psych-speak hammered into our heads. It's how we manipulated a whole school for several years. Bad idea in retrospect, but totally fun along the way. My point is you wanted to mature and grow, which at our age is not an unlikely want. We need to discover the whole 'who we are' thing. Your being picky wouldn't necessarily apply to me unless...," his eyes flared wide and leaned in, silently, but in feigned shock asked her: "Blondie, are you trying to get in my pants?" "I can neither confirm nor deny those allegations," Cassandra replied cagily. "For what it's worth, my dad is a psychologist too, so...yeah. That much I get." She tapped her chin as she looked at Devin. "I guess that makes it my turn." "Fair is fair," he smiled. "Just make sure you're ready to know the answer before you ask, I do have little shame after all." As Max walked past he raised a single digit and pointed to the dwindling chili cheese fries. Although hard at it, she nodded to him and went on about her duties. "You know, my sister might have some ways to help you out with your hair too. She's lazier than she lets on, and still looks like a million bucks everyday. Hit her up, she'll probably tell you how she does it." "That might almost be worth the ladling of contempt I'd get for it," replies Cassie. "Okay. Let's see." What did she really want to know about Devin? As fun as it might be just to ask questions to get under his skin, that wasn't the first priority. How deep did the 'jerk side' of him run? "If you could change one thing you've done in the past up until now, what would you change...how would you change it, and why?" she fished. That got him. His smile seemed to fade as swiftly as the witty quips sprang to his lips on any other occasion. She could tell that he was legit taken off guard by the question. Cassie half expected a dodge... but he began, with very little preparation, like he knew exactly what it was he was going to say. "I know that Marissa is easy to dislike. She's hateful and hurtful and... she used to not always be like that. We used to be like you guys, albeit richer and better dressed, but we were just... ordinary kids, y'know?" They way he looked into her eyes while he sorted through his memories seemed to indicate she'd found the serious side of the teleporter she'd been looking for. "We were the zero's among the elite. We weren't as super rich as the richest kids, so we were the poor kids who got picked on. Mom was always trying to get us some commercial and get us into acting on Disney or Nick but it never happened. We're pretty sure it was her they didn't like, not us." He sighed and shook his head at the memory of some of the antics his mother pulled at auditions but didn't dwell on them. "Anyway, it didn't bother me as much as it did her. It really hurt her her self-esteem and... I don't know, I'm her brother... I was supposed to be there for her." "When we got here, it was her idea to dominate Shelly. All we really did was become the monsters we hated so much. Now? She's so distant from people, doesn't really seem to in touch with how people feel or even care for that matter. She's so self absorbed that," he trailed off and rubbed his face with his palms, an obvious sign that he was bothered by saying these things out loud. Perhaps because it reminded him that it was real. "I don't know... if I hadn't agreed and put my foot down or made some effort to pull her out of this stupid prank sooner instead of letting it go on for so long, she might still be the EmJay I used to know. One you guys would wouldn't even recognize. That's on me, I guess." "Stupid prank," Cassandra repeated, sorting through the story in her head. "You mean the 'dominate Shelly' prank?" She sat back for a second, then said, "I know I don't really know you two, so...I should probably keep my mouth shut, but I'm me. So...this sounds like something you wish you could change that Marissa did. And you're maybe blaming yourself, but it's still her mistake. I mean..." she offered Devin what she hoped was a comforting smile. "...I don't think even you could stop Marissa from doing something she really set her heart on." "Normally I'd agree, even when it came to my sister, a topic I'm usually pretty bull headed on... but I went along with it. She didn't beg me or need to convince me, I went along with it Cassie and let me tell you, I had a blast doing it. I wish I could say I was sorry for all of it, but I'm not. It was a fun ride. Do I regret it? Yeah. In retrospect it was phenomenally dumb idea, but... I'm only realizing that now." He shrugged with one shoulder while reaching for his drink. "We're both hateful and spiteful, I'm just more a more 'in-the-moment' guy. Let me get it out of my system, I'm good. EmJay likes the long game. I part of me thinks I should have recognized it sooner and pulled her back. I don't really blame myself for what she's doing, or has done, or... will probably do," he smirked with a roll of his eyes. "I'm her brother, y'know? It's not so much as just wanting my sister to be safe and happy... and stable." He let out a deep, audible sigh. "But, yeah... that's my big goof. Knowing better and still being dumbass anyway." "Most kids our age are dumbasses," corrected Cassandra. "You've gone further than just that." She let that hang, then nodded. "But yeah, that was...more complicated than I expected it to be. Which isn't a bad thing. Again, I get the feeling you've thought about this stuff before, which...is good." She took another bite of crunchy ice and went on, "All right, now...think about your first crush. What about her did you notice the most? Why was she your crush." Then with a grin she added, "Or he." "She," he said with a smile. "Ugh, god...," he groaned. "Can we go back to complicated brotherly issues? Those are easier." "Nope," she teased. "You're horrible," the teleporter joked as she laughed a bit. "Okay, fine... but this goes no further. Her name was Hannah. She was year older than me and her parents were rich as hell, like Arab oil rich. I'm pretty sure bled gold and kept her room warm by paying bums wearing suits made of hundred dollar bills to light themselves on fire." They both laughed at his extreme example. "If you've never been out to Malibu or the surrounding area... it's nuts out that way. Crazy rich people, doing crazy things with money." "Brunette, she was... incredibly well developed," he smirked. "But that's not why I liked her. To be honest... there wasn't just one thing, which completely baffled me. I honestly didn't know why I was attracted to her, but, I was. That not knowing just made me want to know more. So, I joined gymnastics... because, yeah, you guessed it, she was in gymnastics too. Turns out I was really good at it and she wasn't, or maybe she just hated it... anyway, the more I tried to get to know her she more she treated me like crap and the more I let her because I really liked her." "It was awhile before Marissa pointed out I was friend-zoned, so I made my move and asked her out to a school dance." Dismissively the young man rolled his eyes and shrugged. "Not only did she reject me, she rejected me hard. Had all of her friends laughing at me, calling me out at school, basically making my life hell until it was no longer funny and they moved on to other torments. God I hate that girl so much." he chuckled, but she could tell it wasn't a half-hearted laugh... she'd really hurt him and he hated her for it. "She was my lesson on how to won everything I do so people can't make fun of me for it. Laugh at everything and be proud of the things I do. Forget what people think or say, y'know?" Cassandra nodded sympathetically. "I can totally understand it, yeah. I'm still curious about what you saw in her though. You might not have understood it then, but you've picked that part of your life over a hundred times. I bet you have some insight now that you didn't then, yeah?" "A thousand times, per year, since," agreed with her. Once again his eyes wandered off into that little pocket of reminiscence everyone possessed, where they kept the moments of their life couldn't, for whatever reason, let go of. "How can I say this and not come off like some creeper? So... I'd never crushed on anyone before her. She was gorgeous, sure, but everything about her attracted me to her... her voice, the smell of her hair," he looked to Cassie, holding up his hand to pause the action. "It was gymnastics. to paired up to help each other out so yes, her hair was whipped in my face on several occasions. I wasn't, like, creeping in while she slept and stealing locks of it or anything." He passively shrugged and offered one of his charming, witty grins. "The security at her house was way to tight." "It was her smile, her voice, I don't know, Cassie, before I knew it I was willing to join gymnastics just to meet her and felt like the luckiest man alive when we were paired off together to practice. Looking back honestly... I don't know what specifically it was and seeing how it all turned out, I must have looked pretty pathetic to everyone on the outside looking in." He sipped his coke and shook his head, looking for the words a bit more. "Sometimes there's just love. You don't know what it is, or why it happens, but there you are... joining gymnastics and letting someone take advantage of you for just the smallest chance that maybe, just maybe they'll be yours. Jason doesn't really understand how lucky he is, sometimes, not feeling things the way we do." "Aww..." Cassandra smiled, charmed despite herself. "I don't know, man. It sucks when it goes wrong, but...he's also missing out on the high of it. Seems like he's been like...trimmed. Clipped. Pieces of the human experience just carved off, and he'll never know what he missed. And you and me...we'll never be able to really explain what he missed." She shrugs. "But that's who he is." Then Cass jabbed a finger at Devin again. "...and we're not here to talk about him. You're still on the hot seat, mister." She folded her arms and smirked. "Okay then, I think just one more. We're almost outta fries and we'll need our sleep. Think back on a time when you felt completely at peace with...yourself, with the world. A moment when everything bad just melted away, and you were happy without effort. Now...what were you doing during that moment?" "Oh, Jesus... remind me never to spin the bottle with you. You're brutal." He laughed. "That one is easy though. Every since we," he looked around and leaned in all super spy-like and lowered his voice. "Our abilities. I've been skydiving a lot. I looked up that this Joe Kittinger guy held the record for something like a hundred thousand foot skydive. So, I went for it. First, it was incredibly cold, did not know that, so I bailed out early. Tried again with proper attire, and it blew my mind. Imagine three minutes of your life where you just let go and ride the wind straight down. For all the wind rushing through my ears it was amazingly quiet." "I fall for about two-thirty, which gives me plenty of time to negotiate a landing, but to just disappear from my room and be falling for two minutes over the lights and sounds of Hong Kong or New York, or... one of those phosphorescent algae tides that sometimes happen in the ocean, it makes the world seem so massive so, I don't know, massive. Me and my problems don't seem so big anymore in those two minutes. I see all the people we're helping, the lives we're saving and... I guess I realize that despite, the total shit I've been, I'm actually someone's hero, somewhere... even if they'll never know it. Nothing quite puts at peace like knowing I'm not as hopeless as I thought I was." His expression snapped back to the now and cleared his throat in the middle of another smile as he gesture towards her with his hand. "Wanna go sometime? Totally safe. We'll start low to the ground, thirty second freefall of the reservation. It'll definitely do wonders for your hair. "Hmm...I could kind of do that too, just seeing things at a distance," Cassandra muses. "But I think you're right. It wouldn't be the same if you didn't feel yourself falling. Yeah, that'd be really cool" She holds up a finger. "Not tonight though. Too much pizza in me. And now, soda and fries. Uhf." Cassie rubs her cheek ruefully. "I'm going to need a better workout." And with that she deftly grabbed the last fry and ate it. "Okay. I liked this. Thanks, Devin." "Anytime," he said as he stood up. "I had fun too, and whenever you're ready for the drop, let me know. Like I said we'll start low." He dropped a twenty on the table even though two drinks and fries couldn't have been more than ten bucks at the small diner, and followed Cassie out to give her a ride home. Perhaps it was their conversation or what awaited them tomorrow, but neither were in a real hurry for the evening to end and it showed in Devin's careful, rather slow (for him) cruise back to Cassandra's house. The purr of the engine was low and almost silent down eave avenue as the young man barely gave it what it needed to maintain the speed limit but, no matter how hard they tried, time moved ever onward and eventually the sleek, black motorcycle came to a slow stop outside Cassandra's home. He walked her to her steps and tried his best to make any of this seem like it had some weird date vibe to it. It didn't have that vibe did it? No, it couldn't have, because they weren't dating. "Well, I'll uh, see you tomorrow, I hope? Carousel? Before we all go off and..." Awkward silence was the order of the evening when it came to tomorrow. "Well, you know. Thanks for hanging out. I didn't realize Cassandra Allen was such a complex person. I might have to investigate further." He nodded with curiosity on par with mad scientists the world over. "Definitely," Cassandra said in reply. Her cheeks reddened as she realized that could be taken a couple of ways, "I mean, about seeing you tomorrow." She nodded...then admitted, "And also the other thing, except, you know, about you." Ugh...and she was wanting to make a living using words? "Okay! So...thanks. Seeya." Cassie fished her keys out of her pocket and gave Devin an awkward wave. A gesture felt appropriate but, like...what? Handshake was formal and impersonal and cringe. Hug felt...too the opposite. Shit, end on a joke! "Drive safe," she said, and managed a grin. He laughed at her safe driving comment, walking back a few steps as he winked at her. "No promises, Blondie." He turned to walk back to his bike. She breathed a sigh of relief as he didn't go for a hug or a handshake... just smiles and witty banter. After all, they were still friends and... he still had Lona issues he was dealing with, that much was obvious. He spun about around half-way to his bike and was stepping back again. "Oh, hey, if you want to, text me if you have Homecoming concerns or feel like going a few more rounds of questions or... you know... if you just can't sleep. Worst that'll happen is I don't respond because I'm already sleeping." It was close to 'I'd like to talk to you again' as guys who were not sure about their relationship status got to saying 'we don't have to be face to face to flirt shamelessly'. Since no one in the Fellowship was really getting a lot of sleep lately anyways, except Jason who was usually sound asleep stuffed full of hiker gibblets, his offer didn't seem like an unreasonable one. His bike roared to life and hushed to a purr before he revved it up and was on his way down the street. Her lips curled in a grin and she shook her head as the dark street lit up in a sudden, Back to the Future purple flash once he was out of sight.
  19. The cherry-red convertible was parked, a couple dozens steps away from the Williams' front door. Everything was silent, aside from the occasional cars driving around, and the sun wasn't so high in the sky, somewhat gliding down, above and behind the houses, to meet the horizon in a lazy fashion. The two girls were enjoying the last bits of sunlight caressing the car, leaning in the seats and sipping sodas bought on the way to Kat's place. There was no conversation going on between the two, each reflecting on how a crazy afternoon it had been. The petite redhead cast a glance at her friend, unsure about how to ask the question. The question that had been running around like crazy in her brains while Courtney drove her home. It felt good to spend some time alone with the pretty girl seated next to her. It seemed to involve a lot of sun and a lot of fun. It felt new, but not the scary new, the pleasant new. People sometimes shelter themselves within a barricade of familiar things, because familiar is good and easy to deal with. But what becomes of life when you stop making new experiences, new friends, when you stop getting surprised, hurt, amazed? Kat was starting to realize that her life had been dull, and it almost had driven her mad. Mad at herself for living such a bland life. Friends made it easier. Alice had been her anchor to the world. Alice had brought some new into her life. Some pleasant new. And now so did Courtney. And right now, Kat was confused about all this new. Where was it going to lead her? She couldn't process that much, constantly harassed that she was by the rebellious traffic of thoughts tainting her mind. The question she asked herself, and couldn't possibly ask Courtney right now, came back. Does she really like me back? Kat genuinely liked her friend. The sight of the pretty redhead rose some warm feelings of excitement, joy... and something else, much, much deeper into Kat's very guts. It's too soon. She thought. And still, Kat felt like there was more to her relationship with Courtney than just friendship. And she didn't want Courtney to answer that question, not right now. It scared her. At the same time, Kat was confused about her feelings toward Jason. Definitely not crushing on him. He's just intimidating, and I'm being shy. S'all. The lean teenager certainly had a way of creeping the French girl out. Even though what happened this afternoon was entirely Kat's fault, she still couldn't believe how discreet he had been. How could one walk so silently? The voice of her friend pulled her out of her reverie. "Hey, Kitty?" "Yeah?" Kat's unruly grey eyes lazilly travelled to her friend's face as a brief smile drew on her lips. "Not saying I don't enjoy your company, but I'm gonna need to drive myself home too..." Courtney said, a touch of dry humor easily recognizable in her voice. The French girl sniggered, grabbing the strap of her backpack. "Yeah, it's getting late... Thank you for driving me home." Her eyes met Courtney's. "It was a fun afternoon... I guess I'll see you tomorrow, then? At the Carousel?" She added, with the vivid hope of seeing her friend the next day. "Yeah, I'll be there." Her friend replied with a grin, her eyes levelled to Kat's. Yes! "Cool!" Then everything went too fast for her to compute it all at the same time. Kat had to give it a try. She leaned towards her friend, landing a soft peck on her lips, and for a fleeting moment it felt like time stopped, her heart missing a beat. And then she was already running away, toward the front door. "Byyyye!" Her brain was empty, or rather so filled with thoughts that she could not think, her heart pounding so hard in her chest it might as well have ripped itself out. The door slammed behind her, and she leaned against the solid wood, slowly slipping to the floor, her fairly pale cheeks painted in the same red she sported every other morning this week, right after the final sprint to the front door. She rose to her feet as her stomach, as well as some noise coming from the kitchen, told her it was about time she ate dinner, and she dropped her bag, all thoughts replaced by expectations of a real feast.
  20. Act 1 - End of Day: Sean This must be how a god feels, Sean thought as he slipped free from the bonds of the flesh to inhabit the digital landscape of ReGenesis directly, where he was able to create and destroy with but a thought. Where he was able to be anything he could imagine. He had swum through the streams and rivers of cyberspace before, no need of a computer as an interface, but that had been like using top of the line VR. Over the last week though, he’d learned how to Enter The Matrix, a universe that could be contained inside something smaller than a fingernail, yet was near as infinite as reality itself. It was a place he could go that even Devin couldn’t jaunt off too, and it felt like total liberation. It had also scared the complete crap out of Laurie when she’d come into the Barn to ask him about some books Jase had suggested and she’d found her beautiful, busty brother comatose in the engulfing embrace of his computer chair, his pale face illuminated in a patina of colours by the soft glow of his array of monitors. He wasn’t dead, she’d been sure, still able to detect he was breathing, but he hadn’t roused when she’d roughly hauled him to the couch over her shoulder, when she’d shook him, given him a slap, or even threw a glass of water at his face. Laurie had been about to call Jason to ask what she should do when Sean had returned to himself with a deep breath, a brief sense of disorientation and finding his face, hair, and shirt wet. There followed frantic - and at times too loud - questions and explanations. That was when he found out when he was in cyberspace, he had absolutely no sense of his body. He was still tethered to it - when he stepped out of cyberspace, he went directly back to his body, regardless of where it was, but otherwise, couldn’t tell what was happening to it. It was more than a touch of frightening, and meant he’d have to be really careful when being a Ghost in the Machine while out in the field. It also percolated an idea that in case of a worse case scenario at Site B, he might have a last ditch escape plan from his failing genetics. It wouldn’t be ideal, if it even worked, but it might still be life. Of a sort. Finishing his video game would also give him a sense of continuation, if the solution he hoped to find at Site B proved to be a failure. Before the onset of the weird and his electrokinetic abilities, he figured he had at least two more years of development time. He didn’t have a publisher or executives mucking stuff up, or other creatives redirecting progress, but he was still only one guy, regardless of how skilled a programmer he was. With digital voodoo, Sean had at first believed he could get the time to under a year. But now, with the growth and expansion of his powers, especially with all the mundane work he’d already done, he was pushing for release next week, since he was only going digital download. It went beyond the vast and delicate control he had when jumping into cyberspace. With practically supernatural coding skills, he managed to program semi-autonomous proxies or agents that could act without his direct oversight. Figuring that out naturally led to the idea that when he was completely in cyberspace, and thus, essentially just a digital construct himself, why he couldn’t make copies of himself? He could… after a fashion. The copies didn’t have his full capabilities, but they were close, similar to the semi-autonomous agents he could create but with a semblance of his personality and psionic technokinetic mojo. Working on Regenesis was turning out to be about the best training he could get for most aspects of his psionic array of powers. It also meant he’d gone from a one man game developer, to a team - admittedly of variable size, since it took distinct neotic effort to create the copies and proxies. But he could trust them implicitly, and they worked the way he wanted them to, without the distractions and biases inherent to meatbag programmers. The video game was basically done at this point, Sean’s flock of digital minions running quality control now, looking for bugs and fixing them, which he’d look over after they reported back to him. At the moment, he was working on social media for Intersectional Games - his game studio - and the Steam page, preparing for release day, and tweaking the algorithm, so that ReGenesis would get noticed a little better through all the trash. It was an ongoing battle, the Steam algorithm seeming to have some manner of perverse sentience. It didn’t, he was sure, but it sure seemed that way. Over the last week or so, Sean had noticed an odd… irregularity, first on Steam, but then on other sites he frequented online. At first, he chalked it up to bad code, propagated when linked back to his Steam page. But the irregularities weren’t random. He found a sort of pattern to them, something almost akin to Morse code, like someone hiding a message in the code of a program, a message that they definitely didn’t want just anyone finding. When Sean really turned his attention to the regular irregularities and tracked down the source to a kernel in the hidden messages section of the comment thread on his Steam page, it wasn’t what he expected. “Todd Asper?!” It wasn’t talking, it wasn’t texting, but it was digital communication, that seemed to include both, along with emojis, gifs, and code itself. “It’s about time, Titboy.” The insult seemed instinctive rather than intentional, as were the gifs of overly generous, bouncing cleavage - there was a distinct sense of desperation in Todd’s ‘voice’. “I’ve been trying to get your attention for almost a week now. I need your help.” “My help.” Sean’s tone was a flat as the blank faced emoji was… well, blank. He could recognize Todd’s digital signature now. And was considering scrubbing it from the internet with extreme prejudice. “It was you who skimmed my place. And at Crossroads?” He was more doubtful about the latter. When he Ghosted, he was considerably stronger than he’d been at Crossroads, but this Todd wasn’t the electronic juggernaut he’d contended with there. “You don’t seem to have the same oomph.” “Yeah, yeah, that was me at your place. Surprisingly little porn, by the way. And at Crossroads.” There was something like an envious grumble coming through Todd's evident desperation. “They plugged me into a… a thing, to overclock me. I shoulda had you…” “Uh-huh, right. So, Cerebro?” “Sort of? Except it’s more like electric amphetamines. A boost, a rush, no subtlety or fine control. And not pleasant. Anyway, that’s why I need your help. I made a deal, except it’s not what I thought and now I can’t leave.” “That seems like a you problem, Todd.” “Well, if the assholes here get their way, it’ll turn into a you problem, Cassidy, and problems for you and all your friends. Look, I’m sneaking online here and I’m not sure how long I have. The shit they’re doing here at Site B… I don’t want to be the next experiment. I saw what you guys did at Crossroads - I didn’t tell them all of it. I want out.” Sean was about to write Todd off. If he’d gotten himself into a bad situation due to his own actions, that was on him. But the mention of Site B changed the dynamics a lot. He needed Site B, and learning all he could would only help his - their - chances of success. “Site B, hmm? Tell me what you can - especially about their security and defences - and I’ll see if I can talk my friends around to help your sorry ass.” “You are so full of shit, Cassidy,” Todd retorted. Even online, Sean wasn’t the best dissembler and Todd could sense the eagerness in the freak hacker and electrokinetic. “But if it’ll help… think about all the stuff you’ve heard about Roswell and Area 51, and just believe me, it’s worse and crazier than that. They…” Todd began ‘talking’ very fast, only the electronic medium allowing Sean to keep up with the information being spewed at him. Sean could barely get a word or question in edgewise before Todd was off at a desperate gallop once again. At least the medium also let Todd add pictures and video - even if they were jumbled at times in his haste - and let Sean save them to show the others. Todd suddenly stopped, given the sense of looking over his shoulder, before ‘saying’, “Help me Oboobi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” Then he was gone, as suddenly as though the plug had been pulled, which Sean supposed it was, and Todd clearly didn’t have an UPS. Sean scrubbed any traces of Todd or himself from where they had communicated, then stepped back into his body. He stood up, knuckled his back, stretched, ran a hand through his rich red hair, then began pacing, considering what to do about Todd and Site B, only paying cursory attention when his proxies Neo, Trinity, and Morpheous pinged him to report on their activities and progress with polishing up ReGenesis for release. When there was a knock at his door, thinking of Site B/Crossroads death squads, Sean practically jumped out of his enviously smooth and fair skin - there were side benefits of apparently subconsciously manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum, such as never having to worry about sunburn or UV-based melanoma, or even developing freckles. Visible rings of lethal photons began to congeal into existence when Jason poked his head in. Sean let the nascent incandescent chakrams disperse in a soft flash of prismatic light, a hand went to his chest as he caught his breath. “Surprise?” Jason drawled. “Get a phone for fucks sake, so you can call or text,” Sean complained for not the first time. Worry about Death squads abated, Sean offered his taller friend a grin - though to be fair, all his friends except Kat were taller. “So, how did training day go?” Jason updated him on the antics of the Fellowship - and Courtney - that day, and in turn, Sean shared what he’d learned about his own abilities. But when Jason mentioned going to talk with the Project, Sean sucked in an audible breath. “I think I have to talk with them too, dude,” Sean said, thoughts on why he had to go to Site B high in his mind, but unable to voice them yet, even to one of his, if not his closest, friend. “I was just in contact with Todd - he’s like me, I think, like how Tawny is like you. He’s trapped at Site B, and wants out. I learned some things. It might end up being a ‘Kitty’ type situation, except y’know, people.” “Hmm.” Jason mused aloud - more for Sean’s benefit, the digital wizard knew, than out of some mannerism that was automatic to him - as he stared blankly out of the loft’s large open window. “Ms Giles has already said that she can’t talk to us about Site B - yet. Not until she gets permission from her higher-ups and Branch 9. Going in there and asking about it before she’s ready to talk could be a wasted effort - and besides, you need to get your head into the game for tomorrow evening.” “Tomorrow evening?” Sean blinked, then understanding dawned as Jason glanced his way with a calm expression. “Ohh, shit. We’re going in tomorrow evening?” “There is no point in delaying further.” Jason shrugged. “The longer we take to confront what Cody has become, the worse we make things. It’s why you coming today would have been a good idea.” “I know…” Sean reluctantly conceded “I just figured I could practice my schtick as well here and-” “And the dark spirit and the tree aren’t likely to have computers or machines for you to subvert. It will be a battle such as at the climax of one of your GM’d adventures, the disparate heroes working together in direct confrontation with a foe.” Jason’s tone was mildly critical. “Today would have helped you to figure out your best placement in such a fight.” He shrugged slightly, head cocked to one side as he regarded Sean. “It is done now. As your friend, I urge you not to miss any more team activities - or I will have to come and fetch you.” “To drag me there kicking and screaming, huh?” Sean smirked, then blinked as Jason slowly nodded. “If that is your preferred manner of travel.” the eerily composed youth said… and then smiled very faintly. Sean was pretty sure that this was a Jason idea of a joke - but then, like all Jason jokes, there was a kernel of truth in the deadpan delivery. “Right. Got it.” Sean muttered, smiling a little as he shook his head. Jason nodded again, then turned to go. “Don’t forget to pick me up early tomorrow.” he said as he reached the door, looking back at Sean. “There’s more to fill you in on, but time is short at the moment. We can do it on the drive.” And with that he was gone, the tread of his boots on the stairs making as usual less noise than they should as he headed down.
  21. Those who had wanted to had freshened up, had a coffee or a soda, and as the afternoon came to an end people started to go their separate ways without much ceremony. Tawny, with a cheery wave and a smile, cycled off down the dirt road first. Cade was next, slinging his equipment duffel into the back of his Jeep before driving off. Lilly was next, pausing long enough to offer Cass a lift only for the blonde to demur, stating with a smile that she had a ride coming. And sure enough, as Courtney's cherry-red convertible drove away with Kat in the passenger seat, a purplish ripple in the air and the purr of Devin's bike announced the teleporter's return, and Cassandra grinned as she hopped aboard the bike's pillion seat and donned the helmet. That done, she waved to Autumn and Jason as Devin gave them a jaunty salute, and the dust of the road was once more and finally disturbed as the Ducatti left. "So." Autumn said, leaning back on the porch rail and smiling at the Effing Boyfriend. "I can't help but notice I didn't get an airplane." she bantered, feeling a little breathless suddenly as he stepped closer, her face tilting up to regard him as she forced her hands to stay on the porch rail with an effort of will, given that they'd rather be doing other things right about now. "That's true." Jason nodded, angular features expressionless. "I was thinking we could do something else." he murmured as his hands slid around her waist, jade-hued eyes meeting hers. “Mhmm.” For a moment, it was the only reply she could make- language was, after all, governed by slightly more evolved parts of Autumn’s brain than the ones currently in operation. Pheromones, the rational part of her brain insisted through the delicious haze of warmth clouding her thoughts. With the railing pressed against her back and the heat radiated by Jason’s long, lean form so tantalizingly close, it was something of a miracle she managed even that much. She was dimly aware that they were completely alone. That his bare arms were on either side of her, implicitly preventing her escape even if she’d thought to make one. That he hadn’t yet changed clothes, and it would require only the slightest effort to- Releasing the porch railing, Autumn mirrored Jase’s movement. Pale fingertips dipped below the waistband of his sweatpants, the wide, clear blue pools of her eyes darkening as her hands skimmed around his hips and pulled him another half-step forward. He'd been intending to bedevil her a little, make her blush, steal a kiss, then bring up what he actually had in mind. To be playful, perhaps mischievous as he had been on Saturday morning when he'd inflamed her a little then dropped the word 'hiking' into the conversation. All of which went flying out of the window as Jase felt warm fingertips on his bare flesh, the lithe, athletic young woman running her hands tantalisingly over the skin of his hips and pulling him insistently against her. And just like that, like a circuit was completed and electrical current flowed between them, passing from his touch through her and then into him, and that primal savage part of him, looser in it's chains than before as a result of his careful balance between control and passion during the practice fight with Devin, lunged. He pulled Autumn against him in turn, arms going tighter around her waist as his lips met hers with almost bruising force, a sound like a hoarse echo of a growl in his throat as he drank deeply from her willingly open mouth, grazing his teeth against her lower lip before entangling his tongue with hers. All he could feel, smell and hear was Autumn: the warm solidity of her body, the scent of woods and grass and natural feminine perfume, the gasps as she eagerly returned his kiss, and in that contraction of his world to her he lost all sense of everything else. There was an undeniable hunger in that reciprocation, in the greedy melding of lips and teeth and tongue that kindled the flickering spark in her abdomen to bright, insatiable flame. The quiet gasps she made against his mouth turned to soft moans as the spirited redhead tried, in vain, to get closer, to press the length of her body any more fully against his; if it wasn’t for their clothes, she could, but to untie the hoodie from her waist, to tug off their shirts, to cast off shoes and pants and all the other annoying trappings of civilized society would take time away from kissing him, from the taste of him. Neither situation- being unable to feel the glorious friction of skin on skin, or breaking even the little contact she was getting in order to strip down- seemed tolerable to her fevered mind. “More,” she breathed in a low plea against his lips, one hand sliding up his spine beneath the white cotton of Jason's shirt, as the other drifted farther southward. With a little maneuvering, Autumn wriggled her way up onto the railing, shifting until her knees were on either side of his narrow hips. It wasn’t quite what Devin had suggested when he’d interrupted them in the loft, but she was in no way interested in pausing to go look for a table now. The only thing that did have her attention, in that moment, was the sweet, fierce delirium of desire that burned beneath her skin- burned, consumed, and yet left neither agony nor ash in its wake, but something as-yet formless, nameless, and wholly unconcerned with anything but the feeling of him in her arms Jason was aware that his control had reached it's limits. His need was painful, pressed against her through flimsy layers of interloping cloth as his hands slid under her hoodie and the t-shirt she wore beneath it, fingertips stroking the warmth he found there. It was frustrating, being so close and yet how discordant that awareness of never being close enough was. It would be easy, his reason supplied, to remove the pesky obstacles. He could cocoon himself and Autumn in his Shine and then just burn everything unimportant away, letting it all char and fall away and leave only pale ivory skin dusted with copper pressed against him and then- and then they could- they could fit just right together. In the depths of his half-lidded, passion-dark gaze fireflies began to swirl... "Christ!" Gar said as he rounded the corner of the house with his kit bag and camping gear, back from the militia camp-out, only to be confronted with a scene best described as 'bordering on not family friendly'. Coughing and with hazel eyes wide, he half-turned away. "Uh... so... I'm home." he announced to no-one in particular. Distracted as she was by Jason’s kisses, his touch, the texture of his skin beneath her fingertips, by the tangible proof of her lover’s mutual want, the insistent pressure she could just feel through her jeans, Autumn hadn’t heard the arrival of any vehicles- nor indeed anything at all over the mad rush of blood pounding in her ears and the quiet whimpers of need that caught in the back of her throat. So when Gar’s shocked exclamation interrupted the relative peace of the afternoon it caught her utterly and completely off-guard. Jesus fuck! The startled curse was muffled by Jase’s mouth on hers- or hers on his, the two being so intertwined it would’ve been almost impossible to determine- and it was only the reflexive tightening of her thighs around his waist and her hands on his back that prevented her from falling backwards off the railing. All at once, the heat that had been building in her core surged to the surface of her skin, staining with crimson the sun-warmed cheeks that had moments before been rosy with desire. Oh, god. Oh, my fucking, god, Autumn. With a mortified, despairing groan, she buried her face against her boyfriend’s shoulder, as if in doing so she could somehow escape the awkward. “Hi, Gar,” she muttered almost inaudibly, pleading in vain for some merciful deity to just incinerate her on the spot. "Dad." Jason's voice held a taut husk as he fought back down the consuming urge, his hands still holding Autumn to him, aware of her arms and legs having tightened even further around his lean form as he glanced at his father, breathing hard and eyes alight with a feral flame for a long moment... and then returning to his normal outward composure as control reasserted itself. "So I guess you didn't hear the pickup." he noted, glancing quickly to ensure both teens were decent before actually turning back to face them with an uncomfortable smile. "You guys have a good training day?" "Productive." Jason nodded, his breathing coming a little easier as his heart slowed and blood settled from the searing heat that had been running through his veins. He still cradled Autumn, one hand gently stroking the ends of her hair absently as he spoke. "The old plough is fixed - though needs a tow linkage bar. The far north field is a bit waterlogged but should be fine. And we learned a lot from each other." "Good. Good." Gar smiled a little less awkwardly. "I was gonna get some dinner going - Autumn, you want to stay for a bit?" It hadn’t been all that long since Devin had brought back pizza, but the prospect of finding out more about the laconic young man and his dad firsthand- and of getting a free dinner on top of that- was enough to make up her mind. Still red-faced, she nodded against Jason’s chest, and then, realizing that wasn’t really an answer, tried again. Turning her head so that her cheek was pressed against her companion’s breastbone, her flame-crowned head tucked beneath his chin, Autumn hazarded a smile at Gar. “Um, for a little bit, yeah, thank you. I could eat.” The gear the older man was carrying caught her eye, and for a moment she wondered what he and his friends got up to on their outings. It also struck her as a little bit strange, an interesting coincidence that both Jase and his father had gone camping on the same weekend. She inhaled, an involuntary shiver running hot and cold through her body as she breathed in Jason’s scent, and swallowed hard. Down, girl. “And, if you want, I’m happy to help out. I mean, I don’t know how to cook Provencal anything, but I’ll do what I can.” Gar chuckled slightly. "Oh, it's my turn to cook, so it won't be anything fancy or experimental. Fried chicken and mashed potatoes with some green stuff on the side. Come on through to the kitchen and I'll put you to work." he smiled good-naturedly at the girl before disappearing through the front door, leaving the pair alone again, though they could hear him opening closets and doors inside as he stowed his gear. "I'm going to take a shower. A cold one." Jason murmured, his lips moving against Autumn's coppery curls, taking a breath and letting it out again slowly. She could feel the warmth of his exhalation on her scalp as he lifted her down from the porch rail, then gently kissed her upturned lips, his eyes closing for a moment as he did so, then smiled slightly and led her inside. They parted ways at the foot of the stairs, Jason letting his fingers slip from hers as he stepped away, his eyes still on her, before turning and taking the steps up two at a time. As he disappeared round the corner of the stairwell, Gar stuck his head out of the kitchen doorway. "I'm betting you know your way around a potato peeler." he waggled the implement between thumb and forefinger at her. "Mind starting with that?" "Yeah," she replied distractedly, watching Jason quickly mount the stairs. She’d been in that shower herself, and it was hard not to imagine him there now beneath the spray, with that clean, faintly herbal scented lather on his- No. No, no, no. “No.” Autumn shook her head, echoing her own silent admonition to herself as she tore her eyes away from the staircase, a renewed wave of scarlet suffusing her skin. “No, I mean, I don’t mind. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” She followed Gar into the kitchen, humming under her breath as she busied herself physically by scrubbing the potatoes he brought, and mentally by trying to think of how she was going to broach the subject of the letter and the talisman to her mom. Jason's dad seemed to be handling the crazy well enough; he didn't look quite as tired as he had the first time she'd met him, more alert and interested, and a little of the sadness in his warm hazel eyes had dissipated. In theory, having at least grown up with Owen's seemingly outlandish stories, Dana might be completely fine after an initial freakout. Or she could ship me off somewhere, the redhead sighed internally, glancing over to where the elder Bannon was prepping the chicken. "Hey, Gar?" She frowned a little as she dug out a bruised spot from the pale white flesh, still swaying slightly on her feet at the music playing in the background of her thoughts. "Can I be nosy for a minute? Jason's dad glanced over at her as he mixed the seasoned breading together, a curious expression on his face. He was perhaps a shade shorter and a lot broader of shoulder than Jason, his eyes more of a muddy hazel than vivid green, and his face was animated, warm and human compared to his son's remote outward mien. But there were similarities too, such as the quick intelligence, undulled by drink now, that gleamed in his eyes as he regarded his son's girlfriend. "Sure." he said after a moment, smiling. "What's on your mind, Autumn?" The expressive redhead took a deep breath, holding onto it for a moment as she decided how to start, and then exhaling in a sudden rush. "So, I've been kind of wondering." Tilting her head, she returned the smile he'd directed at her, nose crinkling slightly as the expression turned rueful. "I didn't really get a chance to ask last night, because, you know. Existential terror and all that." Still smiling, Autumn shrugged at that, a sort of nonverbal punctuation easily interpreted even by those not familiar with her. "But... How are you taking all this?" She gestured broadly with peeler in hand, indicating more than just the kitchen and the dinner preparations. "Since the hospital, I mean. Not Jason and me." The smile changed, broadened, and she could feel her cheeks growing warmer by degrees as she glanced quickly back down at the few potatoes that remained and picked one up. "I feel like I'm gonna have to tell my mom, you know? And I know you two are different people, but you kind of remind me of her, a little, and I was wondering how you've been handling the sort of... I don't know. The nightmare stuff, and having us all out here. Because it's crazy, right? And, I guess..." Autumn swallowed, shrugged again as she blinked back the sting that warned of imminent tears. "I guess I don't want to make her worry any more than she needs to." Gar nodded slowly as he started coating the chicken pieces, his expression contemplative as the fiery-haired girl spoke and for a long moment afterwards. The silence stretched out a little, and when Jason's dad did speak it was with slow deliberation. "Honestly? I've been scared almost witless." he confessed in a quiet voice. "Nothing new there - I was always scared about being a lousy dad, or that Jason was autistic. Finding out about him just gave me something concrete to be afraid of rather something from inside my own imagination." He sighed, brushing some crumbs of breading from his fingers over the bowl before grabbing another piece of chicken. "Monsters, conspiracies, ancient aliens stuff, psionic powers, and him being... different... they all worry me." "But he's Jase, you know? I can't stop him doing what he's doing. I'm not even sure that morally I should try. For all that he's only sixt-" The older man's voice wavered a little, but he continued to speak as he prepped the meal. "-sixteen, he's not a child. So if I can't stop him, all I can do is make sure he's not distracted by me, that I'm a help rather than a hindrance. And once I realised that, it got easier." He smiled over at Autumn, his eyes a little moist but with tears unshed. "And he has you, and the others - some of them, at least." Gar snorted slightly. "You guys aren't going off alone to fight monsters. You've got him, and he's got you." He shrugged. "It's a challenge, but I can't help if I'm panicking and trying to wrap him in cotton wool." Autumn was quiet for a few moments, finishing up the last of the potatoes and disposing of the peels as she mulled over his answer. It was the same earnestness he'd showed a week ago when she'd turned up looking for his son, hoping to retrieve the faded red hoodie that was even now tied around her waist- so very unlike Jase in terms of being openly emotional, but also very like him for being unapologetic about it, for listening, for taking her question seriously. Most adults wouldn't admit to being afraid of anything, or what they were really afraid of, least of all to a "kid." She was reminded again of that initial impression she'd gotten, the fact that she liked the slightly awkward, very human father of her now-boyfriend. He's a good dad. There was never a doubt in her mind, in any of the situations in which she'd seen Gar Bannon, that he dearly loved his strange, brilliant son, and that Jase would probably have been a very different person otherwise. Not someone she'd ever call a friend, at the very least, and definitely not someone she'd date, or get caught kissing on two separate front porches on consecutive days. Probably, he'd have ended up being exactly the way the twins described him, if not worse. "I think," she began slowly, beginning to cut the denuded tubers into manageable chunks as she considered her words, finally electing to follow on from something he'd just said. "Speaking as a friend, that we're pretty lucky, you know? We're lucky to have him, and also lucky he has you. He's-" She paused, the blade of the paring knife hovering for a brief instant over the half-deconstructed potato she was working on. He's what? 'Different?' The man knows that. "Kind of amazing, honestly," the animated girl admitted quietly, unable to suppress the smile that spread slowly across her features. "And, thanks. I want to be honest with my mom, and she's kind of used to me doing everything on my own, so... maybe if it's not just me, it'll be easier." "Honesty definitely would be my first pick - but she's your mom. Ultimately, you know best whether you think she can handle it." Gar smiled a little at her. "I have to say, though, getting thrown in the deep end the way I was is not the best way to get introduced to the weirdness but it definitely cut through a lot of BS about what is possible. I saw what Jason can do, what all of you can do. As demonstrations go, it was effective." "Tell me about it." Autumn smiled, her nose crinkling slightly as she peered over at him. "My introduction was Jason holding a door shut on me, then pulling ice cubes out of tap water like a stage magician pulling ping pong balls from his ear." Gar looked at her askance, then snorted with laughter, Autumn's own merriment mingling with his as the two relaxed a little. "I think your mom will be okay. She seems a sensible woman - so she'll naturally assume you're insane and then that she's insane. But she'll get past it." Gar said as their chuckling faded. "I did." "Yeah." Autumn said thoughtfully, setting the knife down and dumping the chopped potatoes into the pot of water before turning and feeling her heart jump up into her throat as she noticed Jason standing in the doorway to the kitchen, leaning against the doorpost and watching her. "Shit! Sorry... sorry..." she apologised, feeling her face redden a little. Typically, he'd not made a sound as he'd come downstairs. Gar looked around at her outburst, then spotted his son and nodded. "Yeah. He does that. Been doing it since as long as I could remember." he confided in Autumn. "Hank likes to joke that if you can't hear anything, it means Jason's standing behind you staring at the inside of your skull." "I have to find some ways to entertain myself." Jase said quietly, with a faint smile. "And sneaking up on Hank was a great way to learn how to cuss." "Mhmm, unlike the rest of us who had to learn it from cranky old men and the internet," Autumn replied with a grin, staunchly refusing to acknowledge the flush of warmth that always surfaced whenever she realized Jase was observing her. She'd asked him about it when they'd gone camping- what he saw when looking at her so intently- but it couldn't be the same answer all the time, and surely there was nothing all that fascinating about mashed potatoes. Was there? She was tempted to ask again, but reminded herself that if he answered, he'd do it honestly, and that... might not be something Gar Bannon especially needed to hear. Or maybe even that she needed to hear. With Jason, it was hard to say. And, in fairness, it wasn't that she minded, really; it could be a little bit unnerving, that level of attentiveness, but also sort of flattering, maybe? Mostly, she was just curious, though that was true about a lot of things where he was concerned. "Have you guys been friends very long?" she asked instead, glancing first at the older man and then the younger with inquisitive blue eyes warmed by the presence of good company. She had a vague idea that Jase spent time with Hank, training, and that Gar himself was somehow associated with the militia. Neither thought was especially reassuring, but the rational part of her stubbornly maintained that she liked both the Bannon men, and for whatever reason, they both seemed to like Hank Graskle, so... Perhaps her judgement of him was as unjustified as it had been of the two in front of her now. As with everything else, there was really only one way to know for sure, and that started with asking. "Also, if there's anything besides potatoes you need help with, my hands are free." "Looks like dinner's under control for now. As for Hank... Since about a year after we came to Shelly, though I met him six months in when I hooked up with the Sons." Gar revealed as he set the pot to cooking and started warming up the oil pan. "We got along, but he's a private person, so it was a while before we were actually friends." He gave Autumn a knowing look, tinged with a little defensiveness. "Folks round here don't approve of him much, but he's a good guy, and for all that people like to snicker about 'militia crazies', Hank ethos is one of self-sufficiency and being prepared for the worst days rather than counting on the good ones to last forever. The Sons aren't right-wing uber-Christian neo-fascists or whatever. We're just a support network for each other: folks who feel that the system increasingly grinds up individual rights in pursuit of the greater good, and that sooner or later it will likely collapse, so let's get ready for it rather than panic about it. Actual revolutionary types get given the bums rush." "Mostly it's just a bunch of vets, men - and some women - sitting around discussing the best way to grow potatoes and keep livestock over sharing beers." Jason put in as he moved towards the coffee pot, preparing three mugs of coffee: black for himself, a dash of cream for Gar, and cream and sugar for Autumn. Gar's mug floated to set down next to the man as Jason stepped close to Autumn, offering her the coffee in much the same fashion as she had offered one to him earlier, sharing a smile with her as their eyes met. "Plus some paramilitary style training - which is what has most people nervous I would imagine." "I was in a bad way when I came here." Gar nodded, speaking quietly. "I felt like I'd been screwed over by the system, and was talking to all sorts of wackjob conspiracy theorists trying to get a sense of control of my life back. On the whole, I'm lucky I fell in with Hank. He helped get my head straight - sorta. I still crawled into a bottle for a few years, but at least I wasn't full-on nuts." He cleared his throat, smiling a little. "Anyway. That's the tale of the Bannons and Hank." Autumn nodded, smiling back as she leaned her hip against the counter and took a sip of coffee, rolling the taste of it around on her tongue even as she turned Gar's words over in her head. It was a lot to take in, especially when she really hadn't expected him to be quite that open and forthcoming about everything. Probably has something to do with Hank being his best friend, she reflected. People tended to be protective of the things that were important to them, and Jason's dad was much easier to read than The Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities. "Sorry. I didn't really mean for that to be a- a judgy kind of question. I just don't know much about him, and I've seen him a couple of times now, so..." She took another drink from her mug and rolled it thoughtfully between her palms, absently watching the creamy whorls of ivory and brown intermingle fluidly. "He does make me nervous." Glancing up at the elder Bannon, she managed an awkward smile at the admission. "But, you don't. And Jase doesn't." She paused for a beat, tilting her head back to peer at the tall, enigmatic young man behind her with a glimmer of laughter in the shifting blue-grey-green of her eyes. "Not always, at least. Unless he's trying to, and then it's pretty much guaranteed." Straightening, she added, "So, I feel pretty okay, I guess, taking your word for it until I find out for myself." "Which is all that can be reasonably asked." Gar nodded as he loaded the basket up with a few pieces of chicken and lowered it into the oil pan, watching the surface for a few minutes as it seethed and roiled. Turning then, and picking up his own mug, he smiled briefly at her and took a drink. The kitchen was silent for a little while, then, but it was a comfortable sort of silence; Gar keeping one eye on the stove as he reflected and sipped coffee, and Jason leaning against the counter next to Autumn, close enough she could feel his hip brushing hers, himself content not to speak. Autumn reflected on the way both men, young and old, seemed comfortable with silence and stillness, differing in quality though the feel of it was from each. Gar was the stillness of a forest glade - there was motion there, leaves and fronds stirred in the breeze, a sense of things happening out of sight but none of them particularly ominous. Whereas Jason was, of course, the frozen primordial lake: nothing appeared to disturb the stillness at all, and then you walked out on the ice and realised that you could see beneath it... and then something down there where the water was warmer stirred and looked back at you. "How are you handling all this?" Gar said into the quiet after a short while, glancing at Autumn curiously. "I mean, training to use your gift, being expected to fight monsters and timeless evils, not to mention Aeon and Branch 9 and Crossroads." He smiled wryly at her. "How does a nice sensible girl like you deal with this madness?" "You're assuming I'm nice and sensible." She grinned, a flash of fey humor in the wide, sea-colored eyes that sparkled at him over the rim of her mug as she took another drink. It was a fair question: she'd just asked him more or less the same thing, and he'd mentioned a week prior that he hadn't really been able to hold a conversation with his son's friends, so it stood to reason he'd be curious how the people Jase would be fighting alongside might be coping. Turning the mug in her hands, absently savoring the warmth of it in her fingers, Autumn considered that. A few of the teens- Jason included- had mentioned or alluded to the fact that all of them might not be coming home. What that meant to her, personally, was a very different thing than what it might mean to someone else. Especially when that someone else was a father who was, even indirectly, trusting her with his child's life. Oh. Well, fuck. Why hadn't that occurred to her before? Autumn wondered at that. Was it just because she wasn't a parent, and didn't think like one? Or because really having to think about other people in general still felt awkward and uncomfortable, like a new pair of boots that hadn't yet been broken in? Hmm. Aware that Gar was still waiting for an answer, still patiently sort-of smiling as the gears in her head turned (probably audibly), she nodded, acknowledging the question more seriously. "It is madness, yeah, like you said," she began quietly, studying the half-full mug in her hands. "Scary in a very real, nightmares-come-to-life kind of way. Which, mostly is fine. Fear can be useful, you know? Healthy. In most people," she amended, gently nudging Jason's hip with her own. "But sometimes there's no running away from what you're afraid of. Sometimes you have to walk toward it, I think. The worst that happens is what would've happened anyway, but you're on your feet and facing it, if that makes sense.” She smiled again, slightly. “That’s kind of what my grandfather tried to teach me. The difference in just being afraid of something, kind of letting instinct take over, and consciously respecting it. So, I guess, to answer your question, I just…” She paused, lower lip caught momentarily between her teeth. “I just do. Do the thing now, freak out afterward. Sort of like last night. Maybe I cry, or get sick, or go sit in my treehouse and smoke a little. Or a lot,” the redhead admitted with another little grin, “depending. But I also feel like maybe it’s easier for me, because it isn’t just me anymore. I do have a couple of friends now, which sounds kind of sad when I say it out loud, and I found out my family, my mom’s side I mean, has been dealing with this since before Shelly was a thing. So.” She was quiet for a moment, then hazarded a glance up from the swirling mixture of cream and caffeine. “Does that help? "Having a couple of friends isn't sad." Gar grinned at her. "Means you're discerning. Quality over quantity, right?" They shared a smile, then Gar took out the cooked chicken and put on a fresh batch to fry as he pondered. "It does help, though. Sounds like you're dealing with it right in my opinion. It's still sorta hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that Jase here-" he indicated the Effing One with a wry smile, "-finds having a girlfriend more of a thing worthy of talking about than fighting evil beasties." "He does, hmm?" Autumn glanced at Jason, feeling her cheeks pinken again as she realised his eyes were on her, had probably been on her the entire time. He wasn't moon-eyed or anything, just... studying her. Intently. He's learning me, like I'm a language. she realised then, with a small smile, thinking about her 'Bannonology notes for dummies'. He was interested in her in pretty much the same way she found him fascinating - or at least, it seemed that way. "Oh yeah. Can't shut up about you." Gar's wink let Autumn know he was teasing. Jason's gaze flickered to his father, curiously, then he too realised that Gar was kidding around and smiled a little as he took a drink from his coffee. Dinner was comfortable and uneventful. Much as when Devin had come round a few days earlier, talk of Dark, powers and weird stuff was by common consensus not brought up. Gar ate ravenously, and the teens only slightly less so despite having had pizza not so long ago. They discussed the upcoming hunting season, school and sports and the plans for the Carousel festival tomorrow - turned out Gar and Hank would likely be there, grilling and chilling with other Shellyites. Jason made mention of the fact he'd be in Great Falls most of the morning with Sean, but should be back before the afternoon wore on too late, and Autumn tried not to think about what he'd said about buying condoms, because that way lay fiery-faced spontaneous combustion. Finally, with the meal over, Gar went to rest whilst the teens quickly cleaned up. "Once we're done here, I'll get you home." Jase said quietly as he scrubbed and rinsed a plate. He glanced sideways at Autumn, a faint smile playing around his eyes and lips. "We could go by road... or air. Which would you prefer?" Ohmygod! Ohmygodhohmygodohmygod! Pleeeeease don’t let him be kidding! The response was near-instantaneous, her decision requiring only slightly longer than it took for his words to register. "Seriously?!" Realizing just a moment too late how loud her startled exclamation was, she clapped the dish-towel over her mouth, wide-eyed. Even through the layers of cloth, Autumn’s girlish squeals of excitement were unmistakable as she bounced on the balls of her feet, with only the fact that Jason’s dad was trying to relax keeping her from actually jumping up and down right there in the kitchen. He’d told her on the camping trip that if he ever learned to fly properly, she could be his first passenger; and a flush totally unrelated to the anticipation of Jase making good on his word stole across her cheeks at the memory of the look in his eyes there in the firelight, what he’d said after, and whether the way he’d said it had meant anything… But the last, at least, was something for Future Autumn to worry about. Current Autumn needed a completely different kind of confirmation. The clear blue eyes that studied his features fairly shone with anticipation, searching his expression for some hint of teasing not betrayed by the Effing Boyfriend’s neutral tone. “Seriously?” She tried again, softer this time but no less urgently, dish-towel still clutched just under her chin in the event she needed to muffle another shriek. There was a pleading note in her voice as she leaned closer, and a suggestion of hopeful optimism. “You’re not just messing with me, are you?” His smile widened a little, which could be deliberate mannerism on his part, but the warmer hue to his gaze was unmistakeable. "I promised." he said simply, as though that explained everything, then paused, his head tilting slightly. "And even if I hadn't, I'd still offer. It's a nice evening." Another pause, his eyes almost luminous as they rested on hers. "And there's no-one I'd rather fly with." It was nothing short of miraculous that Jase managed to hold on to the plate- although certainly his ability to rapidly process visual information, in concert with the multitude of expressions he'd observed in the last few days, must have helped- as Autumn threw her arms around him in a fiercely exuberant embrace. Pressing her face against his chest to stifle the cheers of unadulterated joy, the energetic redhead thanked all the gods that hadn't incinerated her thus far for ignoring her pleas. He let go of the plate, which drifted onto the drying rack, because there were better uses for his hands, weren't there? Such as holding the copper-tressed elfin creature who was currently excitedly cheering directly to his heart as he felt her energy surge and roil and enfold him as much as her arms were tightly clasping him to her. It was a good feeling, this feeling. Warming without being consuming, a tenderness to it that was almost selfless - her happiness being a tangible state he could feel, or so it seemed - and important to him. He smiled slightly, resting his cheek against the top of her head as one arm enfolded her and the other gently stroked her hair whilst he reflected on that warmth which, he was pretty sure, he would always associate with copper curls, eyes like the sea, and a crinkle-nosed smile illuminating a freckled face. "You'll have to hold on tight, of course." he said with a faint teasing tone, his eyes closing as he breathed in the warm scent of her and felt her hair against his cheek. "Mm, are you kidding me?" Autumn grinned broadly and unreservedly, the change in her expression a tactile sensation through the fabric of his shirt as she hugged him with renewed enthusiasm. "You'd have to pry me off with a crowbar. Believe me, I don't plan on letting go." She could feel the sure, steady drum of his heart against her temple, and, breathing in the somehow green fragrance of his soap with the suggestion of his own scent just beneath, the lively young woman felt improbably, unequivocally happy. It was a feeling totally incongruous with the unsettling knowledge that in roughly 24 hours they'd be facing the stuff of nightmares, and yet the present and undeniable reality was this. Just, This, whatever it was, or meant- or didn't. And This was, really and truly, fine. Drawing back a little, she lifted her head and pressed a brief, but warm kiss against the side of Jason's throat, brushing her lips in a feathery caress over his pulse, and finally released him. "Come on. Let's finish all the boring stuff so you can take me home. I mean, I'm not in a hurry to be there," she conceded with a laugh, "but now I can't wait to go." They fell to with a vengeance, finishing up the dishes and wiping everything down. Between Autumn's enthusiasm and Jase's meticulous efficiency and second pair of hands, they likely set a record or two - not that they were actively counting the seconds anyway. There was rather an underlying sense of simple pleasure in each other's company that thrummed under the busyness, expressed in glances and smiles and the occasional soft-spoken exchange. Finally they were done, and Autumn waited by the back door, practically bouncing on the balls of her feet as Jase slipped upstairs to check on his father before returning, as noiselessly as he'd left. "Sleeping." he noted in answer to Autumn's expectant look, then opened the door and, taking her hand, led her outside. "Okay, how're we doing this- eep!" Autumn's question was cut off in a squeak as Jase turned, folded an arm around her waist and another behind her knees, and lifted her with his own arms as though she were a toddler rather than a healthy athletic one-forty. Almost on reflex, she threw her arms around his neck and shoulders, blue eyes wide with surprise as she stared at his face. Jason wasn't a ninety pound weakling, but still - to lift her in a bridal carry without even a soft grunt of effort was not something she would expect from anyone less built than Cade. "A new trick." he explained, his eyes gleaming iridescently with amusement at her shock. "I'm kinetically amplifying what my own muscles are capable of. Comfortable?" Even as she sought for words, she was aware that the two of them were rising into the air, Jason slowly turning in place as they ascended so she could look out over the panoramic view. They were ascending deceptively smoothly, before she knew it they were three times the height of the farmhouse and still climbing, the sun beginning to set in the western mountains and the lights starting to come on in nearby Shelly. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.” Autumn’s soft reply reflected something of the childlike wonder shining in her eyes as the earth fell away beneath them. There was a strange sense of unreality as they rose above the Bannon homestead without engines, instruments, or anything at all between them and the sky, or the ground, or the rest of the wide world around them- no artificial barriers, just… Potential. Possibility. The higher they climbed, the more dreamlike the whole experience seemed as her perspective shifted and the physical limitations of the world she lived in expanded. The farm. The roads she biked down. The fields and the woods and the surrounding homes, the hard line of the horizon interrupted by the distant swells of hill and mountain. It all shrank as the first few stars appeared faintly overhead, glittering flecks of prismatic color in a broadening expanse of soft violet. A week ago, she’d never have imagined this moment, the indescribable upwelling of delight and exhilaration and, oddly, peace engendered by the experience. No matter what happens tomorrow, she realized, I had this today. A sudden surge of vertigo played havoc with her vision as the bright-eyed redhead peered up at the infinite vault above and then downward, and then quickly buried her face against Jase’s shoulder as the world spun dizzily, disjointed from the slow turns he was making. She made a quiet sound that mingled groaning and laughter, her arms tightening a little around him until her psionic energies automatically compensated for the disruption of equilibrium. “You’re really- this is really happening,” the girl in his arms breathed rapturously, admiring as she gazed up at him the shape of his features in the twilight, the brilliance of his eyes, and then the seemingly endless scope of the late summer evening as it descended around them. "It is." His return gaze was no less intent than hers, taking in the shine of her eyes and the way the dying sun struck sparks of fire from her hair and loaned her ivory skin a glow that was outshone by the radiant joy in her expression. Her arms around his neck, her lips forming his name as she exhaled caused yet again that sounding, that chime deep within him that hinted, for an instant, at a deeper mystery than he could fathom. She was light and warmth and life and happiness - and holding her close, seeing that reflection of himself as she saw him bathed in that same warm emotion enriched him immeasurably. 'Granola can help', Devin had said, and he was right. Through Autumn, he connected with that human ephemera of warm happiness where before there had only been cool contentment or satisfaction. Through her, Jason understood a form of joy. "You are a series of revelations to me." he said softly, feeling that need to say more, to let her know how special she truly was. Instead he kissed her, a brief, sweet kiss that broke too soon for either of them, then smiled as he angled them towards the Keane home at roughly five hundred feet up, feeling her arms tighten and hearing her whoop of excitement whipped away by the wind of their passing. He kept their speed a steady forty miles per hour, both for comfort and because he did not want the trip to end too soon; travelling as as the crow flew meaning that the meandering of roads had little bearing on their course. And then Autumn was not just rising, but flying. Well, technically, Jase was the one doing all the work, and she was mostly just trying not to squirm so much that he dropped her, but still- flying. The closest she’d ever gotten to this feeling on her own was riding her bike, racing down a hill so fast she couldn’t keep her feet on the pedals and praying no one pulled out onto the road in front of her. Even then, though, she’d still been tethered to the earth, rooted by gravity to that mechanical assemblage of wheels and chain links and gears. Here it was just her, and the wind, and the warm reassurance of Jason’s arms as she laughed, pointed at places she recognized and wondered aloud what people would think if someone saw them, and tried in vain to keep the uncooperative red-gold curls out of her eyes so that she could see, damn it. Suspended between earth and sky, the restless teen again had that same mad, fleeting notion she’d gotten on the drive to Browning, that they could just keep going- that a part of her wanted to keep going, despite her family, despite the obligations and boring, mundane matters that demanded otherwise. How much broader the landscape looked from this height, and how very small Shelly, Montana seemed by contrast! Maybe if they got through this, she’d be able to see for herself what lay beyond the horizon, the edge of the world she knew. She could hope, anyway, and she did. Crazier things had happened, after all. Like this- because, honestly, dating Jason Bannon (much less feeling any type of way about him at all besides terrified) was kind of crazy, and she knew it. She was also at least a few hundred feet in the air, watching flat land slowly give rise to the hills and woods where she'd grown up, so... Eh. Crazy was kind of relative, really. "This is perfect, you know?" She leaned forward with a grin, her lips almost against his ear as she spoke over the sound of the air rushing past. "I'm gonna want to do this all the time now!" She felt, rather than heard, him chuckle as they began to descend and slow down, his eyes crinkling at the edges betokening good humor. He had followed her pointing finger, occasionally varying his course to bring them nearer to landmarks she'd pointed out, enjoying the the feel of her arm around his neck as she excitedly squirmed to look in every direction at once. He didn't think the chances of them being spotted were high - they were five hundred feet up and most of those capable of spotting them would be in Shelly, looking into the setting sun. Twilight and dawn were the times when the human eye was least adapted to dealing with the light and it was hardest to sort the real from the fantastical, which was probably why they were used as metaphors and devices in poems and tales. He spotted the Keane house, and near it the woods threaded with the bright ribbon of the creek where he had taken a chance and gambled a friendship for something more, and won. Perhaps they had both gambled, the thought occurred to him. Autumn was taking a chance, from her perspective. A calculated one, maybe... But then again, maybe not. For all his rationalisation of why he liked Autumn, why he was attracted to her, he realised that to be simply analysis after the fact. He was drawn instinctually to her bravery, emotional warmth and femininity, much as he was to Marissa's imperious manner, wit and beauty. There were many reasons why an attraction existed, for certain, but they were less important than the draw itself. And whereas one had rejected him, feared him, the other found him... amazing. Noting the car parked outside the Keane garage, he gently set them down a couple of dozen meters down the track that led off the property, then carefully lowered Autumn so she could stand. "We can do this again, for certain." he smiled at her, taking her hand in his and walking her towards her home. "I was wondering if you'd like to go on an actual date, also. Say... this coming Friday evening? Great Falls? Dinner and a movie?" His smile turned mischievous. "First class air ticket?" The worst thing about moments you never wanted to end, Autumn realized, was that they always did, eventually. Maybe that made them more special, though? After all, if you always got everything you wanted, you wouldn't appreciate any of it as much, would you? You might even start to resent it, or take it for granted that just because you wanted something, you were entitled to have it, or that it would always be there. The best thing, she decided, was that sometimes, with certain people, you had a lot of those moments, which was kind of the best of both worlds. Sure, the moments still ended, but you were almost guaranteed to discover new ones whenever they were around. Jase, she was finding, was apparently one of those people. They'd landed, of course. They were back on good old terra firma and walking toward her house; she could feel the rocks beneath the soles of her sneakers, their irregular shapes uncomfortable enough to remind her she was awake. Why, then, feeling his fingers intertwined with hers as he asked her out on a for-real date, could she almost swear her feet hadn't yet touched the ground? I guess he really was serious about the 'less casual' thing. The thought was immediately followed by the sensation of warmth spreading through her veins- gradual and pleasant, easy, rather than the quick rush of heat the intense young genius normally provoked with either his teasing or his kisses in roughly equal measures. "Friday, hmm?" She tried- and failed- not to sound too eager, her instinctive enthusiasm for the idea evident in the slightly higher pitch of her voice, in the reflexive tightening of her hand in his, and the suggestion of a bounce in her step as they headed up the drive. Dinner and a movie was a date date. Going to Great Falls meant it would be late when she got home, so her mom... and maybe her dad, if he stayed all week... might already be in bed. That flush of warmth grew warmer at the implications of being alone, after dark, unsupervised with Jason, especially if he was really serious about flying there. It had only taken a few minutes to get from his home to hers, and already she wanted to drag him up to the half-finished tree house and prolong the evening with fewer clothes involved. "I'd like that, yeah," she smiled up at him, her eyes reflecting the deepening hue of the sky. And yet... Would they be here, on Friday? She ran her thumb across his, memorizing the shape of his features, the almost luminous green of his eyes in the half-light. Of course he's not human. Just look at those cheekbones. Fuck. Maybe asking her out now was his way of expressing hope that they would be around then, defying the metaphorical darkness and the very real Dark by affirming his intent to live. "I'll ask my mom about it after tomorrow. You know, once we've had a chance to-" Exhaling, the earnest redhead shrugged a little, her smile fading slightly as the lengthening shadows stretched around them. "To work out the details. It's a weekend, but I'm sure she'll still wanna talk to you about it, you know? Especially if my dad's home." "Of course." Jase replied, still smiling slightly in the gathering dusk as the lights from the Keane home danced in the pools of his gaze and glinted on Autumn's hair. "If I know Dana, she will likely question me closely." His eyes glittered with laughter at the expression on his girlfriend's face. "I shall be circumspect in what I say." "Oh god..." Autumn had a sudden mental image of Jason calmly stating his intention to have mutually-enjoyable naked sexy fun-times with her, and the subsequent clanging of a convent bell somewhere in Europe. "Please, don't get me locked away in a convent." "If I do, I promise to come and break you out again." Jason's tone was matter-of-fact, and despite the traces of humour in his expression Autumn could readily imagine ancient, iron-bound oaken doors being ripped bodily from their hinges as the Devil himself stalked through a priory, sending nuns fleeing before him like a flock of birds before a hungry cat as he searched... for her. And there was another warm rush right there, the realisation that the Chiefest and Greatest of Catastrophes was not only impossible and impenetrable, but implacable. He would come for her, she realised as she glanced at his profile. Because she was his, because he cared, because he had promised... pick whichever reason you liked. They had reached the bottom of the steps leading up to her porch, and already both teens could hear the barking of the dogs start up inside. Jason glanced at the front door, then turned to Autumn, giving her a brief, too-fleeting kiss on the lips. "I'll see you tomorrow at the Carousel." he murmured... And then was gone, rising up into the dusk in a rush that further tousled Autumn's wild copper curls as, a second later, the door opened to show her mom, peering out at whatever had the dogs roused and spotting her. "Welcome home." Dana looked a little askance at her daughter, who'd been staring upwards when she opened the door and looked properly windblown as though she'd been riding her bike without a hair tie. "Everything okay, sweetheart?" “Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.” Autumn smiled, quickly mounting the steps as she tucked her hair behind her ears. “Just a long day, and I think I ate my weight in fried chicken. Apparently Jason’s dad’s a really good cook, too,” she added, closing the door as the two Keane women went inside, the dogs milling around their ankles in an excited bid for attention. “I wonder if that’s where he learned it from? Huh.” Dana paused just inside the door, a slight frown drawing her auburn brows together as she regarded her rosy-cheeked offspring dubiously. “I thought you four were headed out to the reservation this morning?” “Yeaaahhh, and then afterward we all went and ran around at his place, the farm on the other side of town.” Shit, I totally forgot to say anything. Fucking hell, Autumn. “Sorry, I know I should’ve called, but I kind of… didn’t think about it.” She grimaced, thrusting her hands into the front pockets of her jeans and rocking back slightly onto her heels. “Mhmm. I didn’t think about a lot of things when your father and I were dating, either.” Dana plucked an errant blade of grass from her blushing daughter’s hair, twirling it bemusedly between her thumb and forefinger. “Mom, no, no,” Autumn protested, withdrawing her hands to wave them as if warding off some invisible assailant. “It wasn’t like that, I promise.” Beat. “Also, gross.” Her mother’s amusement was evident in the slow ascent of a single eyebrow and the twitch of her lips. “It’s only ‘gross’ because we’re your parents.” “Well, yeah. That’s exactly why.” The younger redhead’s expression- brow furrowed, the corners of her mouth turned down as she shook her head- was the perfect non-verbal representation of the ‘ugh’ that found its way into so many of her conversations. Did all parents feel compelled to casually remind their kids that they had, at some point in the ridiculously ancient past, made out? Or even… Blegh. No. No no no no no. Suppressing a shudder at the horror of such imaginings, the energetic young Girl Scout knelt down, rubbing furry canine sides and scratching behind ears in an age-old ritual to restore wholesomeness and peace of mind. “All right, well. Speaking of your father, he called a little while ago and said he’s on his way in. He should be here around eleven, midnight at the latest. He also told me not to let you stay up this time.” Dana grinned, gently tousling her daughter’s already-disheveled mane even as she scrutinized the tell-tale signs of sunburn on her fair skin. “But you and I both know that’s not going to work, so how about this. Since you were late, and since you didn’t text me, you can go take the dogs for a run and make sure they’re fed. Then go get cleaned up and changed, because you look like you’ve been playing in a field all day. Don’t wrinkle your nose at me, young lady,” she laughed, as Autumn did just that, rising to her feet as the dogs settled down around them. “I didn’t tell you to roll around in the grass, did I? Once you’ve had a shower, put some aloe vera gel on that pretty face of yours, and after that we’ll do popcorn and AMC on the couch until your dad gets here. Deal?” As punishments went, playing with the dogs was pretty light, so she didn’t think her mom was actually mad. She’d been honest, after all, and it had also been a while since they’d just hung out and watched old movies together. It was an easy decision to begin with, made easier by the sobering thought that they might not get another chance to do it. Which… they were going to have to talk about, and soon, but not until she brought the letter and the talisman home, at least. “Deal.” “Did Jason not feel like saying hello?” Dana glanced meaningfully toward the front door, and then back at the restless girl he’d returned home. “Oh. Yeah, he kind of flew off in a hurry.” Do not leave it there, Autumn. Do. Not. Trying unsuccessfully not to grin at her own bad joke, she quickly added, “He should be at the Carousel sometime tomorrow, though. His dad, too. I think you’d like him. Gareth Bannon, I mean. He reminds me of you, actually.” She paused, considering her general impression of the man thus far. “Super smart, but down-to-earth, too, you know?“ Dana did not know, and in fact had a very different impression of the elder Bannon based on things she’d heard; as she watched her daughter re-braid her hair, pale fingers deftly weaving the windblown strands into a much tidier plait, it was hard not to be swayed by the girl’s conviction. She was sixteen, after all, and so for at least a little while, she knew everything. “Mhmm,” the thoughtful veterinarian hummed noncommittally. She’d heard a lot about Jason as well, prior to the weekend, and while he did seem a little different he was also polite, and surprisingly respectful of her and, more importantly, of Autumn. While not thoroughly convinced, she had to concede that it was at least possible some of her concerns were unfounded. With a smile, she smoothed back a few of the stray curls stubbornly refusing to lay flat at her daughter’s temples. “Well, maybe we’ll go say hello. It’d be nice to see who’s looking after my girl when she’s over there, hmm? Now go on, or we’ll still be standing here when your dad gets home.” With a delighted grin, the vibrant young woman seized her mother in a brief but fierce hug. “Thanks, mom. We’ll be back in a little bit. C’mon, guys!” As if they’d been waiting for a signal, all four dogs jumped up and dashed for the door, bounding excitedly back and forth until their two-legged companion led them out to play in the purple twilight.
  22. Ms. Giles was interested, to say the very least, but still Marissa said no more than she needed to and excused herself from the Branch9/Aeon bunker. In truth she had no idea how to contact Coyote, it's not like he maintained a reliable mobile number (why? She had no idea). Still things seemed to be connected to what was weirdest in Shelly and the weirdest she knew off the top of her head was 'The Bridge'. That crossing that led them all over to the party the fateful night when all this madness began. The drive only took about five or ten minutes, not that she noticed much with her music up loud and her mind focused on a task. After arriving she wasn't entirely sure what to do. She paced for a few moments, her heels crunching in the dirt and loose gravel of the well worn road as her arms lay crossed over her chest to ward her from the dumb idea that crossing over that bridge was what she needed to do. Why did she always come here? What was it about this place that always seemed to lure her back and call to her when she hand bearings or had resigned hope. After about another five, maybe ten(?) minutes after the answers didn't come to her she finally threw her arms to her side and screamed for The Trickster God. "I know you're out there somewhere!" He voice bounced off the rocks and trees that lined the path leading to The Bridge. She called for him numerous more times and all the replied was the echoes of her own voice. She flung open her car door and reached for the now half full bottle of water she'd swiped from Jase's house as she was leaving. It was cool and relaxing on her already stressed patience and vocal chords. "God damnit, Old Man," she mumbled, sighing as she took a breath after drinking. "Where the hell are? Why can you carry a damn phone?" She pushed off where she was leaning on her car and screamed loudly. "Carry a damn phone! Christ." Tired and irritated, she took a rest to check her social media... After a few minutes and a few dozen scrolled-through InstaSnapz posts, the lovely young brunette sighed and looked up. Yep, she was still at the old logging site that had served as Party Central the night everything went upside down in a way she was still dealing with. Yep, there was no black-clad figure approaching from the woods. And yep, she felt like a proper idiot. "Gods, my butt." she muttered, turning towards her car... And stopping dead as she saw the lean figure of Coyote, aka Mr Black, aka Troy Lucero, aka God-knew-how-many other names, leaning against her car, arms folded across his chest as he regarded her with eyes of a green so dark they appeared like polished moss agates. "Wondered which of y'all would seek me out to talk to me." He said casually, with a touch of down-home folksy drawl as he smiled slyly. "If I was a gambling man, I'd have bet money on your brother being the one. And lost, too." He straightened up from his indolent slouch, unfolding his arms and essaying a short bow, eyes twinkling in the dark tan of his face. "How can little old me be of service, young lady?" "So you're him," she questioned herself and no one in particular at once. "In the flesh, or... whatever you're made out of." She spun her hand about to signify all of him with a slightly disgusted look on her face as she realized she had no idea what gods were made of... what if it was gross? "So, yeah, Marissa. That's me, hi." She smiled politely. She would have loved to have been shocked by the instant appearing act, but she'd just seen Jason take flight using only the power of his mind and the thoughts of nubile hikers on his dinner plate. If she was shocked (which to some degree she was) she hid her crazy well under impeccable composure. "So, I hate to just call you up and bother just because I need something, but, that's what this is. I need help, in the worst way and I hat to even have to ask for it but... supernatural things are just something I can't fight. This guy, Enterich... he has my family on a hit list. If I don't help him he says he'll kill them. So, while I'm running my game on his game behind the game he's running upfront, I find out that he's some invisible freaky guy who doesn't show up on cameras and disappears into alleyways. Which... means he not human." "Look," she raised up her hands to profess the the last of her case. "I know you're a god and you can't help us directly... but for crying out loud, none of this comes with an instruction manual! This guy is going to kill my family and I have no idea how to stop him." She inhaled and held back the tears that wanted force their way through her heart, to her eyes. "I pride myself on being strong and doing everything on my own and... never asking anyone for anything... and they might suck at it but they're still my parents... please," she could almost feel her pride fall in her throat as a giant lump. "What is he, and how can I stop him?" The smile faded as she spelled out her problem, leaving the man's(?) face blank and expressionless - save for the eyes, which were intent on hers as she spoke. When she'd finished, he regarded her for a few moments longer, with a Sphinx-like mien that would put Jason to shame. When he spoke, it was almost a shock. "Flesh." he said, animation once more coming back to his features. "I'm flesh and spirit, like you. Just held together differently. Well..." he gave her a keen-eyed stare. "Not so differently where you and your friends are concerned." She didn't fail to notice that the accent was gone. Now he sounded... nondescript. Transatlantic, almost. "As for Enterich... He's not a guy. He's a creature entirely of spirit. That's why cameras don't see him, but people do." He tilted his head slightly, questioningly. "You've met this thing? Been in it's presence? Perhaps shook it's hand - or what you thought was it's hand?" "Sort of," she lied out of habit, then in an uncharacteristic moment of clarity she corrected herself. "I mean, yes. I've sat right across from him, sharing coffee. I thought he as human, just some sleazy-creeper who was holding my parents hostage for information on the Fellowship. I went to Ms. Giles, we devised a plan and I fed him a ton of bunk information so I could collect some form information about him so we could take him down. That's when we noticed he was all invisible... wait...," something suddenly dawned on her. "What do you mean a creature of spirit? I thought those things couldn't exists without some, oh, what did my brother call it? Silent Hill weakening of the Shroud between our world and theirs... and he's no monster. He's smart. Like, super smart." She shrugged. "Okay, well, he's pretty smart, those two U.S. Marshalls working for him are not the best picks." "Coyote," her eyes were filled with sincerity. "I didn't get mind powers or laser beam hands or rapist-ball foldy powers." His look and the turn of his spoke volumes of a millions questions. "Long story. Jase folded up a dude with his after sitting outside his window and fogging it up for awhile. He's like way creepy, capital 'creep'. Point being is I can go to them he'll hurt my family if I do and my only power Great-Great-Gramps isn't much of a help, I don't think Enterich cares how fantastic my butt looks in yoga leggings. Admittedly, it does look fantastic, bee tee dubs." "So?" She shrugged, her arms tapping her sides as she let them drop in resignation of not liking having to ask someone for help. "How does one defeat a spirit? Or, banish them or... send them back to... wherever?" "First things first." Mr Black held out a hand to her. Marissa stared at the outstretched hand for a moment, then divined his intent and, after a moment's hesitation, placed her own hand on his. "Let's see what we're dealing with." She felt a tingle, similar to when Autumn had attuned with her, but there was no sense of smallness this time, no sense of connection to a greater, awe-inspiring whole. She was aware of Coyote's energy, a deep, timeless tide that put her in mind of the ocean at night, when phosporescent plankton would glow and shimmer on the surface - and then the sensation was gone as he slid his hand from hers. "What I thought." He murmured, furrowing his brow and examining her eyes like a doctor looking for a concussion. "It's a Cythraul." "A what now?" Marissa blinked, staring at him with a mixture of impatience and nervousness. Coyote's breath hissed between his teeth as he pondered for a moment, a long finger tapping his chin. "Basically a sentient extension of the Dark. Not the Tree, nor the horned spirit, but of the real Dark. Even back in the day, we weren't sure exactly how they came about. Think of them as demons - that's probably the closest metaphor. They exist in places like Shelly - places where the Dark has a foothold, and home in on negativity. Greed, anger, hate, and so on. They know what someone lusts after obsessively, for instance. Or what makes a person furious. And they specialise. Each Cythraul has a favourite flavour. This one's is fear. And he is ripe and fat with it." "Fear," her vice was a swirl of confusion and rejection. "That can't be right... I mean, aside from my fear of him taking my parents way, why target me? There's plenty of plebs in Shelly for him to feed on... fear of being mediocre their whole life, of going more day dealing with their significant other's mediocrity, being mediocre in Shelly, Montana... being afraid of sudden;y having an original thought but realizing your mediocre in Shelly, Montana. Waking up with Autumn's bed head... I can think of million things to be afraid of in this dump." She fumed as her words were a bit stressed. The fact that she was dealing with an actual slice of the Dark Pie and not some vanilla scoop set off to the side for their enjoyment straight up gave her the willies. She moped, asking questions to no one in particular. "Wh... why me? Why not the poor people who infrequently bathe, they're obviously afraid of soap." "I'm not Doctor Phil, granddaughter." Coyote's voice was gentle but firm. "All I'm going to do is give you the hard truth. Enterich is attracted to the fearful. He - it - feeds on fear, understands fear, walks through your nightmares, and knows how to manipulate fear to sow discord, chaos and thus generate more of that tasty treat he loves. Here in Shelly, with the Tree cycle and the Horned One waking up every twenty seven years, it's like an all you can eat buffet for him." "Cythraul work insidiously, spreading their influence like a virus. Fear is common, and a useful mechanism, but when it goes bad it can make people do stupid things - take risky actions, harm themselves or others, push away friends, even turn on them. Like the man said, fear is the mind-killer. The murderer of rationality." The lean figure in the black clothing shrugged. "Enterich twisted the marshals to his puppets using their fears - and has probably done similar elsewhere in Shelly with individuals, and has tried to do it to you." He smiled faintly at her. "Luckily you had enough sense to control your fear enough to seek some outside help, and so his bluff is called. You see... he can't hurt your family. Well, short of sending his puppet marshals after them. He played you, convinced you he held their lives in his hands. Want to know how I know?" Numbly, her head whirling, she nodded. "Because, sweet girl, the nasty people your daddy embezzled money from, necessitating his relocation to Shelly... was me." Coyote smiled slyly. "I needed you and your brother here, so I played on Carl's ethical flexibility, then made sure he got Witness Protection. Enterich doesn't have a marker on your family. He's all bluff and sleight of hand. What other things did he tell you or offer you, hmm?" Marissa's eyes narrowed, her lips tightened into a thin razor ready to slice the throat of her ancestor. "Wait... you?" Her voice was seething with a building ire. "You? You played my father into ruining our lives and bringing us here? You destroyed us! My mother hates my father. He's a wreck and all he does is drink to forget how he ruined our lives and my mom? She hates it here more than I do and has the pharmacy in her purse to prove it!" She shoved him back a step and stepped forward herself gaining the ground she took. "Marissa, there is more at work here th-" "Than what I want? Than mine or my family's happiness? That we should be self sacrificing and sit back and suffer while everyone else is saved and lives happily ever after?" She shoved him again, gaining the step once more. "You and your brother have been given an op-" "Opportunity?" She screamed, finishing his sentence for him again. "I see you've done this before," he mused, hardly phased by outburst thus far. "The opportunity to do what? Rush off and die like 'heroes'," she air quoted and mocked the word in a voice of what her perception of a slow person might sound like. "You uproot us, destroy our family name, take away everything we have and you just chuckle it away like everything is dandy? You mother fu-" She was cut short by the loud sound of his hand across her cheek. She pressed her palm and could feel the heat rising in her jaw than now hung open in absolute shock and total bewilderment. There was an awkward silence until Coyote finally spoke. "Sorry, but between you and me, your father should have done that years ago." Tears welled up in Marissa's eyes as all her walls crumbled. She honestly wasn't mad at him, or even that he slapped her. He was right, she deserved it years ago... more than anything now, she just needed another breakdown. Without warning she lashed out, movement causing the god to flinch in reaction. Her arms wrapped around him and she held him tight. It didn't make ant sense to her in the moment and most likely wouldn't make any sense after she'd had time to think it over, but now all she needed was something to hold onto, some she could cry in front of and not be judged. Her was buried deep within his black shirt as she sobbed. “I just want my life back,” she cried. “Silly girl,” the ancient god gently wrapped his arms around her, holding her gently. “Life is whatever you make it. You don't need to be thousands of years old to know that...” he silently spoke and let her cry as long as she needed to. How long she cried for, she wasn't certain. She was just aware of him holding her, aware of his compassion as he cradled his distant, far-removed descendant. At some point, as the built-up grief and fear purged itself from her like toxin from a boil, Marissa started to come back to herself, albeit as a raw, stripped bare version of the normally composed, glamorous high-school queen. She sniffled, letting her head rest against her great-great-who knew how many times-great grandfather's chest. "Better?" he asked quietly, receiving a mute nod in return, though the girl showed no inclination to disengage from her hug. He stroked her back gently through her glossy dark hair. "I'd apologise for all of it, but honestly it's too important to apologise for. I've done worse things in my time than shuffle people around the chess board, and I would do them all again if the stakes were the same." There was an indefinable weariness about him, the way he said that, and as she peered up at him through tear-stained eyes he smiled sadly. "You wonderful children are my Hail Mary. You are the reason I've done everything I've done. Seedlings, each precious and unique and tailored to the purpose, cultivated over centuries and millenia, sown at the right time in the right soil. A chance to set things in motion that will make it all right." He brushed away some tears from her cheeks with his thumbs, and kissed her brow. "I don't know what will happen next, Marissa. Win or lose, you shining seedlings are the masters of your own fate from here on out. I can conjecture, but I'm done steering past the point where you defeat the Tree. If you want it, you'll have it in you to guide humanity - and others - to a better future. You are the new Radiants - and hopefully you'll not repeat the mistakes of the old ones." His lips quirked in a wry smile. "Myself included, though I like to think my mistakes were made with the best of intentions." As she unceremoniously jammed her palms into eyes and wiped away tears that mingled with less than classy sniffles, she listened to him talk like... like her. A very old, very patient man who had millions of regrets very few apologies. Sometimes, for greater good, one just had to swallow their pride, sacrifice their happiness and simply do what needed to be done. "God, I'm so embarrassed," she sniffled and forced a laugh. "No need to be," he looked down at her with eyes filled with ancient understanding. "Ain't nothing in the world like a good cry. We've all been there." The way he said those words made her consider something that hadn't dawned on her until now. "Thank you." She said softly. "For this, the cry," she chuckled again sniffling as punctuation. "And for everything else. You've kept watch this long, keeping this thing at bay and patiently waiting until time and evolution sent in the Calvary. I can't imagine how lonely you must have been," and in retrospect it mad her loneliness seem a paltry affair by comparison, she thought. "Trapped in a world where everything constantly changes, except you." Perhaps it was the crying, the emotional outburst that let the gates around her usually walled in and secured heart to open if only for awhile to the outside world. Perhaps is was the loss of control that allowed her to simply be the young woman she was and not the one she'd constructed for the world to worship. For the time being, here in front of her ancestor, she was completely unplugged. Once more she wrapped her arms around him and from her shine pulsed something mostly unheard of from the depths of Marissa's usual intensity: love. "We've got this." She said softly, reassuring him that he could finally rest and maybe go catch a movie. "I just wanted you to know that we're grateful. In our own messed up ways, but, we are. Thank you. I-," she sniffled and hugged him tighter. "I think I know how what to do. What's to be afraid of?" "Oh, there's always going to be something." he said with dry humour in his tone that made her smile a little. "The trick is to be afraid, but not driven by fear. Angry when anger is warranted, but not defined by your rage. To desire honestly and openly, but not be enslaved by selfish wanting. That's how you find real control - realising that you control only yourself and how you approach the world." "All of which is easier said than done." he added, hugging her tight. "Took me a few hundred years to get the hang of it. You're going to screw up - sometimes big, sometimes small. All of you kids have roads to travel - but nobody said you had to travel them alone and without support." He paused for a second. "That's what you've got each other for." "Pfft," she snorted. "Have you met the others? Not exactly on the best of terms with them. One's always trying to be in everyone's business, my crush told me he loves me after he used his powers for aggravated assault and now we're part of a conspiracy to cover up a crime then decided to sleep with my bestie, my bestie decided that she's totally into vengeful violent types and thinks sleeping with my crush is a phenomenal idea. The guy I'm dating thinks 'romance' is fishing and baby sitting his sister and surrounding himself with death carpets and trash pandas and my brother? He such an idiot that he's ready throw himself into whatever fire is burning brightest just to prove to everyone that he's not 'that guy' anymore..." "I hope you know what you're doing, Coyote," she smiled and laughed. "Because we're a complete shit show." "It's a point of view, certainly. I'm sure they're equally enamoured and glowing in their descriptions of you." he grinned like his namesake. "People are people, even little gods like you." He chuckled, fondly patting her shoulder. "I wouldn't have any of you any other way, to be honest. You all bring something necessary: curiousity, savagery, warm bravery, reckless courage... even death carpets. And you, my dear, have more to offer than looking good in yoga pants. Which I'm hoping you'll realise. All the differences, those mistakes and errors and learning and finding yourselves and growing together? Those are what will make you individually formidable, but when together you will be great." He paused a beat, then said "Probably." Another beat, then "I'm sure it'll work out. It'll be fine." And his deadpan delivery was marred somewhat by a slight smirk. "I see," she forced a warm smile. Given her mood that wasn't easy. She was furious with him, with all the weirdness in her life, but mostly with herself and how everything seemed to be taking a toll on her and she wasn't able to handle it. She prided herself on always remaining in control and already she was on two break downs in one week, crying in front a god and actually caring that some guy lied to her and ran off with her best friend! She was better than this, and she knew it. "Old and Busted has jokes." "So, all I have to do is strip away this Sith Lord's hold over me by overcoming my fear?" She shrugged in acceptance of the logic and sighed. "Sure, why not? Can't be any weirder than anything else going on in my life right. I swear Chris Hemsworth could fall from the sky right now in nothing but his birthday suit and I wouldn't bat an eyelash." She looked to the havens and waited a moment or two before sighing again. "Ah, well. Worth a try." The two shared a smirk. "I should, um... prolly get going. Thank you for coming to see me." She smiled politely through tear soaked makeup. "He, um, I don't know what the god code is or anything, but, you know, if you want to come by for dinner or something sometime, or come to a cook out, we'd love to have you. I guess what I'm trying to say is," Marissa shrugged bashfully for the first time in years as she pondered how to invite a god to hang out sometime. "You're not in this alone anymore, so, don't be a stranger... is all. I mean, technically, you're family, right?" "Technically I reckon I am." The ancient being allowed with a small smile, his folksy accent slipping back into place and causing Marissa to smirk and roll her eyes expressively, at which he laughed. "I'm pretty sure we'll see each other again." Coyote stepped back from her, raising a hand in farewell. "You go on now." There was a faint unease at the tone of Coyote's enigmatic assurance that they would see each other again that nagged at Marissa's mind - not unease of him, but for him - but despite that she smiled and stepped over to her car and it's still-open door. Getting in, she cast one last look at the Trickster- Or rather, where the Trickster had been. For the tall lean figure in black was gone as if he'd never been there, only the prints of his boots in the dust a sign he was more than a phantasm. Taking a deep breath and letting it out, the beautiful girl closed the car door, grumped momentarily at her streaked makeup in the rear-view mirror, then headed back to Shelly.
  23. The petite redhead raised a tentative hand and stood up. She still felt a little awkward towards the lean teenager, but the feeling couldn't beat her want, having seen her friends enjoying themselves so much. Jason briefly nodded and, an instant later, a surprised Kat began floating inches away from the ground, then farther, and farther, childish amazement quickly replacing her startled expression as she looked back at the other teenagers grinning at her. She began a very convincing moonwalk, followed by skating moves, and as Jason understood her intentions, she started accelerating, executing a perfect double Lutz followed by a death drop spin, then stopped mid-air, guided by Jason's invisible hands, to quickly dash around the spectators of her impromptu performance at a safe distance. As she began slowing down, Kat flashed the young psychokinetic a wide grin. "Oh, I wanna try something! Can you drop me?" Faint crinkles appeared at the corner of Jason's eyes, and a moment later, Kat was three feet above the ground, eyes wide in surprise. "Still wanna try something?" He asked, his voice sprinkled with dry humor. I hope no one's epileptic here... She thought for a moment. A nervous giggle was her answer, but she firmly nodded. And began falling. Rapidly. "Woooohoooo!" She yelled. And right before impact, she suddenly disappeared in a sudden burst of light, forcing everyone to cover their eyes. Her laugh rang like a trill when they opened confused eyes, staring at the delicate pixie standing with her hands on her hips and an impish smile on her face. "Okay, that was really cool!" She told Jason, still grinning wide after the adrenaline rush the fall had caused. "Thank you!" Her heart was beating loud in her ears, flushing her pale cheeks, full of dimples, with a faint pink of excitement. Again, that smile-not-smile that was, as Kat had noticed over the past few days, characteristic to the lean teenager. She couldn't quite see it on his lips, it all happened in his cold, green eyes. They simply got... warmer, and it somehow felt better than most of the smiles she had ever been given. "You're welcome," he simply replied, and so Kat returned next to her friends on light feet.
  24. Thursday, 29th August. 6th Period. Her head full of binomials and logarithms, Kat pensively walked out of the classroom, heading for what was going to be Study Hall. She wasn't really sure she needed Study Hall. What good would it do to her to mull over something she already had integrated and was already eager to apply to a thousand things, would she know more about its actual fields of application? She could see the use in practicing a newfound skill, like her powers, but then her powers didn't really compare with Maths. To her, there was a world of differences between theory and matter. Mainly the fact that if you do it right, theory is always right, when any given experiment might fail because of an uncontrolled parameter being either unknown or handled clumsily. Like what she experienced in the hospital. It clearly demonstrated that unlike theory, you must practice with a physical skill in order to successfully use it. Maths weren't a physical skill, but rather a mind tool requiring solid logics to be used. And boy, was her own logical tool solid. She had complete faith in her ability to complete the Maths class by the end of the semester. As to surviving till the end of the semester, well, that was another topic. She shuddered at the memory of the Spawns of the Dark. She was mulling over that, and a whole lot of other things, when an unruly mane of fiery curls caught her attention. Autumn. She said something about Study Hall, at the bleachers. Oh right, Homecoming! She increased her walking pace to catch up with the taller redhead. Study Hall, in theory, was an opportunity for students to review notes, catch up on reading and assignments, and make some headway on group projects. In practice, it was usually more like a social hour at the end of the day, where diligent academics dutifully blocked out the chatter with discreet earbuds and read Horace or polished their college entrance applications. As Autumn ducked under the arm of one of the football players leaning against the door frame to flirt with a grinning blonde, she muttered a quick "'Scuse me," and headed into the classroom. The last week had been a whirlwind of fear and excitement, a seemingly never-ending roller coaster of white-knuckle drops, exhilarating loops and twists, and madness-inducing inversions interspersed with too-brief interludes of seeming peace before they were all hurled headlong into the unknown again as the tracks fell away beneath them. It was, Autumn reflected as the mental image of a nightmarish theme park faded from her mind, kind of a lot. Things were happening so quickly, even in her own personal life, it was hard to keep up: in the last few days she had gained two new friends (?), she'd stayed over at Marissa-Fucking-Jauntsen's house, and The Impenetrable Jason Bannon had agreed to go camping with her tomorrow night... Plus there was the whole sort of vague plan of inviting the rest of the crew out there before Homecoming. What the fuck am I even doing? It wasn't like she'd never had any friends at all, or that she didn't know how to “people,” but she'd spent an unusual amount of time with the other teens in the group recently, and it felt a little odd, if she was honest. With the low groan of her chair seconding the redhead's unsettled state of mind as she melted bodily into it, Autumn watched from her seat near the window as the other students filtered in. For the Fellowship, this was their chance to fill each other in on things they'd discovered or plans they were making... But they'd already done that during lunch, sooo... Her toes tapped rhythmically on the floor as she hummed quietly, debating whether she should stop somewhere for actual food after class, or just wait until she got home. With the usual crowd intermittently making their appearances, her blue eyes skimmed over the faces of the other students as they entered. Her gaze stopped on a fragile figure that had somehow become familiar over the last few days. Sand-grey booties. Blue jeans. Grey T-shirt. Really pale skin. The French girl. Kat. She definitely could use a bit of sun. She watched as the petite redhead made her way through the flock of students picking their tables, to the one Autumn was sitting at. She looked... twitchy, with the arrhythmic pace of her steps, with her grey-blue eyes jumping to a million places at once, faithful image of her focus solely driven by stimuli. "Hey," the French girl dropped, once she finally reached her destination. The word held an underlying question the teen was not sure how to ask, but her eyes now firmly set on Autumn told she had some business with her. "Hey," the American redhead replied automatically, unthinking, abruptly distracted from her fantasy of a double order of garlic parmesan fries. She blinked, focusing on the delicate newcomer's features, and tried again. "Sorry, hi," Autumn amended with a grin that was at least partly in keeping with the casual apology, but partly not. French fries were serious business, after all. The young Shelly native took another look at Kat, at her uncertain expression, and tilted her head, eyebrows raised in inquiry. "What's up?" The petite redhead rubbed the back of her head and looked around, replying with a low voice: "Er... At lunch I understood you could explain to me, during Study Hall, what... Homecoming... is? Mind if I sit?" Autumn's lips rounded to an 'o' as she watched Kat's hand mechanically travel to the back of her head, a gesture of discomfort stressed by the pout she suddenly made while adding: "To be honest, since the day I came here I've kinda felt like I'm learning life all over again..." "You are not wrong," Autumn grinned, nodding in commiseration. "And I've lived here all my life, so..." The slight upward twitch of her shoulders served as physical punctuation, the implied termination of a thought not worth pursuing; it would be nice to have a conversation that only involved normal sources of awkwardness and social anxiety, for a change, rather than the nightmare levels of weird they'd all been exposed to recently. Gesturing toward an empty seat, the Shelly native straightened in her chair as the bell rang. She had suggested Kat save the Homecoming discussion until after their meeting at the bleachers, and although she herself planned on flying solo, filling the new girl in would give her a chance to decide if she wanted to do the same, or to find a decent date- or to just skip the whole thing altogether. "So. Homecoming," she began, keeping her voice low as she pulled out her Environmental Science textbook and opened it, flipping to the review section at the end of the first chapter. "Maybe you guys have something kind of like it in France? It's sort of like..." Peering up through her lashes at the fretful waif in front of her, Autumn pursed her lips. "Like a big school festival. It goes on for a week or so, and kind of gets the whole fall sports season started. It's kind of a big deal, more for the football team than anything else, but there's the game, and the parade, and all that. The dance is what a lot of people think about, though. I mean, it's not as big as, like, prom, but still kind of important. I'm pretty sure Marissa's had her dress planned since last Homecoming," the freckled redhead quipped, glancing surreptitiously toward the front of the room to catch a glimpse of her self-proclaimed bestie. Kat moved to the chair next to the one Autumn was sitting on and pulled it back while listening pensively. She pulled out a couple books from her backpack and sat down, flipping the pages of her English course at a fast but regular pace, her eyes scanning the words she read at their usual speed... lightning speed. English didn't feel as boring as Maths, but to be honest with herself, Kat realized that compared to her calculating skills, her English was far from perfect. Still, that book wouldn't last longer than any other book she had ever set her eyes upon. At Autumn's last comment, the petite redhead's eyebrows jumped sky high. "Woah, sounds like a big deal." She replied in a whisper, actually amazed. "I don't think we have anything like that in France, at least in high school. Maybe in college but, well, I've never been to college..." The pages of her book stopped flipping and Kat remained silent for a while. "I don't know if I'm gonna go... is it worth it going without a date?" She asked, turning to her new friend. "I mean, look at me, finding one is gonna be hard work, half the damn school thinks I'm twelve, and before I started putting some make-up on, they also thought I was a boy!" Autumn blinked at that last, a wave of bright pink flooding her cheeks as she averted her gaze. "Yeah... Sorry about that. Not that I actually said it out loud, or anything, but, um. I did kind of think it," she admitted with a slightly guilty grin, her nose crinkling. "I, uh... I also wondered if you might be related to Sean, at first, since you guys look sort of alike, and in a weird way, it fit, I guess? A boy who looks like a girl, and a girl who looks like a boy, I mean." The light bronze flecks sprinkled across the restive red-haired girl's face all but disappeared as her blush deepened at the admission. "Just a first-impression thing." Way to go, Autumn, just make the new girl feel even more awkward, why don't you? The toes of her sneakers scuffed at the floor as she swung her feet. "Anyway. If you want to go to the dance, you don't have to get a date date." The American pursed her lips, resting her chin on her fist as she really looked at the petite girl next to her, at her elfin features, almost translucent skin, and delicate frame; like Sean, Kat would probably get carded for everything, for the rest of her life. "You probably could- I mean, you're definitely cute enough- but there's only a couple of weeks, and chances are good they'd just be trying to get into your pants." There was a long pause, and Autumn grinned again, more mischief than apology this time. "Unless that's what you want," she teased. "If not, you could always go with a friend, or friends plural. I plan on flying solo, myself. I did the date thing last year, but we're-" Again, the freckles on Autumn's nose scrunched together. "It's complicated," she finally conceded after a moment, turning the page between her fingers idly back and forth. "Hm, hm," the French girl nodded, while silently glaring at her book. She couldn't decide yet. Too soon, and yet too late. She was indeed not intending to get anyone into her pants - yet, she thought - but dancing sounded nice. If she managed to somehow find a decent dress, then maybe she'd 'fly solo', as her friend just said. She leaned over the table, resting her forehead on her arms. "How complicated?" she asked, as the curious enough part of her brains managed to squeeze the question out. "Used to be my best friend, complicated," she replied, all mischief and levity vanishing from her features like a clear sky suddenly overshadowed by late summer storms. The sun outside was still shining, though, as the athletic young woman tugged at the string of her hoodie and glanced out the window, away from the new girl and the uncomfortable question she'd inadvertently asked. She couldn't even talk to Jacob about Jacob, so how was she supposed to explain it to anyone else? Autumn could hear Sean chatting with (probably) Jason somewhere nearby, the technophile's sweetly girlish voice easy to pick out even in a crowd, and someone listening to Ava Max a little too loudly behind her, but there was still an odd sort of silence in the wake of her admission. "So, yeah. Not really an option this time. It's fine." It's fine, she repeated mentally. Shrugging dismissively, the Shelly native flipped the page in her textbook, not even glancing at the text printed there. "The best part's the parties after, anyway." There was a brief pause as Autumn turned back to her 'study partner' and realized she knew basically nothing about Kat. At all. "Actually, do you party?" Whoops. Kat's hand mechanically travelled to the back of her head and rubbed it. Under her folded arms, her English book suddenly looked interesting as she considered her friend's - question mark? she thought - reaction. Nice one. Shouldn't have asked that. Bad Kat. Wait, did she ask me something? "Do I... party?" The French girl winced before adding: "Hmm... I don't go outside much..." She gestured at herself, from head to toes. The gesture in itself wasn't very lengthy, but spoke eloquently of the reason why. Autumn stared at her for a moment, her features a mask of uncertainty and confusion as she followed the movement, panning down the other girl’s slim frame where she sat perched uncomfortably in the chair. "Party," she repeated slowly, meeting Kat’s eyes for emphasis. "Like, do you drink? Smoke? Get a little faded? You, uh. Don't really have to do it outside." The petite redhead blinked, then chuckled at the thought. "Oh, that! Yeah, when the mood calls for it, I guess." She fiddled with the pages of her book, taking a look around at the other students. "Don't take it the wrong way, but I really don't like Study Hall." She paused for a moment before clarifying. "It's just... you know, it feels like watching a show a second time. Not as interesting to me because I know what's going to happen. Same thing for... this." She pointed at her book. "You ever get that feeling?" "About homework?" With a quick shake of her head, Autumn choked back a laugh. If this girl thought she was going to get anywhere on scholastic merit, poor Kat was going to be sadly disappointed. "No, I don't. I'm honestly just praying I graduate on time. The struggle's pretty real. I mean, in theory Chem'll be a little easier with Jase and Cassie at the table, but that still leaves English. You'd think being born here would make the language easier." Her grin broadened, and she flipped the end of the thick braid Marissa had woven back over her shoulder. "So, what else do you wanna know about Homecoming?" The French girl was starting to get hungry, her stomach producing a faint menacing growl, loud enough to raise a curious eyebrow from a couple faces around. A cute pout appeared on Kat's lips for a while, as she wondered if being ready to go to Homecoming - just in case - was a good idea. "Hmph... I don't know if I'm going," she replied, "but if I do, I need a dress. Any good shop you recommend in Great Falls?" Well, at least I'm not the only one thinking about food, the freckled girl laughed to herself. If she didn't already have plans for the afternoon, she'd probably invite the newest addition to Shelly's impressive array of redheads out for something delicious and possibly regrettable. "Honestly," she admitted, "no, I really don't. I’m not really all that into shopping, so I'm probably just gonna go with my mom at some point, or maybe... pick something up online? I don't know. I mean, I just want something comfortable, that fits, and doesn't cost a metric fuckton. But if you really want to go all out-" Autumn hesitated, a question implicit in her tone. Sure, Kat had met Marissa, but meeting Marissa was something altogether different. "Devin's sister, the really, like, crazy pretty girl with dark hair? That's kind of her thing." "Oh, yeah, sure... She seems... nice?" Kat checked the time on her phone before putting it away with a deft flick of her hand. "I didn't really talk to her yet. I mean, my Dad's girlfriend probably has some good advice too. We went shopping yesterday, it was fun.... until I accidentally activated something in my brains and it scared the shit out of me" She added in a low whisper. That got Autumn’s undivided attention in a way that talking about dresses hadn’t. With all thought of hunger and fries and similarly mouth-watering badness banished to whichever part of the brain happy dreams disappear on waking, she peered thoughtfully at the other girl, warm blue eyes narrowing in evident concern. She activated something in her brain that scared the shit out of her. Okay. So… What did that mean, exactly? Obviously some new aspect of Kat’s powers had surfaced, and of course that would be terrifying- especially if it happened by accident, and in public. The thought of being in that position herself sent a shiver rippling down her spine like icy fingertips, and she couldn’t help but shudder a little despite the warmth of the day, grimacing. That was kind of a nightmare scenario, wasn’t it? The French girl didn’t miss her friend’s glance. “I just… did some weird stuff with my Shine, and it kind of took me by surprise.” She whispered with a shrug. “Probably won’t happen again. At least not randomly. I mean, I know it’s there now.” She glanced back at Autumn with a poor grin. “I really hope Sunday’s training will help.” Weird stuff. Huh. Resisting the sudden instinctive urge to give the tiny redhead a hug, Autumn instead just nodded her agreement; not only were they in class, which would’ve made it super weird, she barely knew the girl… which would’ve taken it from “weird” straight to “outright fucking creepy.” Still, Kat’s attempt at a smile wasn’t exactly convincing, and a pang of sympathy twisted uncomfortably on itself in the pit of her stomach. There weren’t really any instructions on how to deal with hell-spawned nightmare beasts, or aliens, or alternate dimensions inhabited by things that wanted to destroy and consume and kill you- in roughly that order. There weren’t even any instructions on how to just get through junior year without totally losing your mind, or how to cope with losing someone you loved. Watching the porcelain-skinned pixie’s expression falter, her features wavering for a moment between the need to be strong and the desire to break down again at the memory of what had happened with Tess, Autumn nodded again, as if in confirmation. Everybody was dealing with something, weren’t they? Hmm. “Hey.” She smiled a little, her sea-colored gaze warmly encouraging as she reached out an amber-flecked hand. “Lemme see your phone. Just for a second.” Dubiously, the gamine French import complied, and her American counterpart deftly swiped the screen with her thumb as she hummed quietly to herself, shifting a little in her seat. As Kat watched, her new friend (?) snapped a quick selfie that was all white teeth, pink cheeks and cheerful blue eyes, and then rapidly entered her contact information. “There,” she declared finally, returning the smartphone to its rightful owner with an air of triumph. “Text me sometime. You can come smoke with me and we’ll go make poor life decisions involving salt, grease, and too much sugar.” “Sure.” The French girl replied with a genuine smile that was all dimples. At that moment she decided that she liked Autumn. Kat was nothing like an outdoors girl, but somehow she felt like she needed friends more than anything else in her new world. Besides, if the world were ever to turn into Darkspawn shit, at least she knew she could count on a few people here. And Autumn was really nice. There was something with her, that Kat couldn’t quite put into words, but it made her want to know her better. “Thanks,” she added with a wicked grin, “I think I need more sugar in my life…” Truth be told, Kat’s stomach couldn’t agree more. It did so, loudly. Fortunately for the ravenous teen and her stomach, the low rumble went unheard amidst the chaos of the final bell and the mass exodus of students to their lockers, the parking lot, and the field. The two girls smiled at each other, perhaps a little less awkwardly than they had at the beginning of class, and reflected as they headed their separate ways that maybe Study Hall had been good for learning something new, after all.
  25. Jase smiled slightly at the athlete's theatrical flight pose and landing, nodding in response to the thanks. "You're welcome." he said simply, then turned his gaze on the others. "Tawny?" The pretty blonde chewed on a fingernail, then shook her head. "It's okay." she said with a smile. "Today's been a... Well, a whole lot. I'm happy just watching." She was aware of the direct, intense stare sharpening a little as her dangerous mentor studied her, and shifted her feet. She didn't want to be mean, or rude, but she'd been told by Devin what Jason was capable of as preparation for this day. 'Just in case', he'd said. And though she'd found Jase patient and a little surprising in other small ways, she still had the image of a badly crippled Liam in her mind. And it was one thing to bravely sit and practice telekinesis with him, even making small talk, when her knight protector was within shouting distance, and quite another to trust him around all these other people who she didn't really know all that well and, in the case of Courtney, didn't like that much either. "Alright." Jason, his scrutiny over, shrugged unconcernedly, and turned his head as Courtney bounced down the steps to stand on the grass. "Me next, then!" She smoothed her denim skirt and fluffed out her hair like she was readying herself for a photoshoot. "Ten bucks if you drop her in the duckpond." Cassie said in a stage-murmur loud enough for the glamorous senior to hear. "Hey!" She scowled at the blonde reporter. "Not cool." "Twenty bucks, then?" Cade put in, deadpan, and Courtney's scowl found a new target as she planted her hands on her hips. "No-one is getting drooooopppppped." her tirade was cut off in a shriek as she was levitated into the air, feet kicking. "Jase?" she called down from fifteen feet up as she started to circle over the grass. "You're not dropping me, right?" "I'm not dropping anyone." Jason said firmly, though his eyes crinkled at the edges in a humorous manner as he added "Trust me." Courtney relaxed a little, getting into the sensation of flight and stretching her arms out to the sides before, greatly daring, closing her eyes as she soared, dived and swooped upwards again under the incomprehensible young man's control, relishing this unexpected thrill.. She couldn't read his intent, couldn't get a sense of whether he would drop her or not, and for the thrillseeking young telepath that was akin to being blindfolded and naked. Indeed, it caused a sudden rush of heat as Courtney realised she was at his mercy, and that he was dangerous, and she would have no warning if he got the notion to do her harm. Courtney whooped in exhilaration, opening her eyes and laughing aloud as she realised she was skimming a mere foot or so above the ground towards the farmhouse, then rising slightly, her body tilting so her legs were coming down as the emerald-eyed telekinetic set her down so gently she might have stepped down from the air. "Ohmygod that was amazing!" she giggled as she jogged back up the steps, a glint of mischief and lust in her eyes as she approached Jase. "Ten out of ten, would ride again." she cooed, stepping forward for a full body hug... Only for Autumn to pull Jason aside, hugging his arm to her as she nodded agreement. Courtney almost stumbled as the tall lean shape she'd been about to drape herself on was pulled away. "Isn't it the best?" Autumn asked in an ingenuous fashion, though the stare in her clear blue eyes leveled at the interloper made it plain even without telepathy that, no, that hadn't been an accident. Courtney smiled a little, recovering her composure and inclining her head in a gesture that could be agreement, or could equally be an acknowledgement of having been outmaneuvered... this time. Jason, for his part, seemed oblivious to the subtexts in play, instead looking around with a question in his gaze. "Anyone else want a flight?"
  26.  

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