"What do you think, hmm?" Autumn asked, peering down into the luminous amber eyes of the shepherd who, likewise, peered back up at her with a soulful expression that- while completely insta-worthy- did nothing to answer the question. "Thanks," the redhead grinned ruefully, her fingers playfully tousling the thick sable fur around Dakota's neck as she turned to the confidant at her shoulder. "What about- gah!" she spluttered, laughing and shoving Lexi's big square head away and swiping at her now decidedly more slobbery cheek with the back of her sleeve. "Yes, very helpful, thanks. I love you too, Lex, but I'm trying to think." Shaking her head, still smiling as she pulled the sweet-natured Pit bodily down beside her on the couch, Autumn considered the dimmed screen and tapped it again to bring it back to life.
Jason Bannon, the contact information stated clearly, properly; the generic photo, however, had been replaced by the cropped image of a certain fire-breathing wyrm. This shouldn’t be difficult. Sure, texts would be easier, but it was just a phone call. They were friends- they'd been through a secret prison together. Hell, they'd smoked out together. She'd already asked him, anyway, right? This was just, like... a follow-up. Yeah. Exhaling, the red-haired young woman nodded sharply and shifted a little on the couch, nudging her shoes and socks off with her toes as the dogs rearranged themselves fitfully around her. She tapped the little green icon, brought the phone up to her ear, and waited.
The phone rang several times, Autumn remembering Sean's advice and waiting patiently as the number of rings reached five... then seven... then nine... and then the phone was picked up. "Hello." said an unmistakable voice - or rather, an unmistakable timbre and inflection. No upward lilt of curiosity at the end of the greeting - it gave the impression he was looking across the room at someone who'd just walked in rather than trying to include a question within the one-word salutation.
Autumn was struck suddenly by the total consistency in Jase's manner- even his phone greeting was perfectly neutral and composed- and wondered briefly what else she would have expected from him. "Um, hey, Jase. It's Autumn. Do you have a minute?"
"Autumn." Goddamn if she couldn't hear a faint warming in his tone as he spoke her name, as though his lips were curved upwards slightly and the skin at the corners of his eyes had almost imperceptibly crinkled. "I was just showering. One moment - I don't want to drip all over the floor." The handset was not set down, but Autumn could hear rustling noises of cloth on skin before Jason's voice once more came back. "What can I help you with?"
She'd heard a record scratch before, although not a real one- you had to do that on purpose and vinyl was a collector's thing that could get super expensive- but the synthesized version they used in comedies. That was sort of the sound her brain made, as if all rational thought had come screeching abruptly to a halt, and all the heat in the room had suddenly whooshed up into her face at the mere suggestion that he had just stepped out of the shower... that she was talking to a guy- to Jason Fucking Bannon- in a towel. Maybe a towel. Oh, god. It occurred to her, in a distant, fuzzy sort of way, that he'd taken a shower when she'd ridden up to the farm on Monday, and that she knew what his hair looked like still tousled and damp. The remembrance did not help, but stuck there in her mind’s eye. As Dakota nosed at her arm, the redhead blinked, inhaling convulsively as greedy lungs demanded air. "Yeah, hi," she replied, a little hoarsely, as she wondered where her courage had fled. "So, uh. Listen. Just a couple things. I wanted to say thanks for going along with the change in plan yesterday. With the cats, I mean."
"You're welcome." For a moment, she thought that was all he had to say on the matter, but then: "It was aesthetically correct, what you wanted to do. Those creatures did not deserve that treatment. It was offensive."
Aesthetically correct. Huh. She considered that for a moment, poking at the thought like a tongue at a loose tooth, and nodded, as if the listener on the other end of the signal could see it. "It was… offensive, yeah. So, new question, then." Drawing her legs up onto the couch, Autumn absently renegotiated positions with the dogs, running her hand briskly over Lexi's warm, velvety side as she settled down again with a soft huff, her chin on the young woman's hip. "If you thought so, why didn't you say so?"
There was a pause. And the odd thing about the pause was this: it didn't feel like he was there for that moment. There was no soft exhalation of breath, no sound of fidgeting. It was as if he went completely still - not just 'still' but Still - so motionless he faded from the world. She fought the urge to ask if he was still there. And then he spoke again. "Because I was attempting to see if there were actually any purpose to the cruelty I was witnessing. I was trying to understand what I was perceiving. I would have reached the conclusion that it was pointless and careless cruelty in a few more moments. I..." he hesitated. Actual hesitation, as though he was reluctant to admit something. "I have no instinctive aversion to the suffering of creatures outside the circle I choose to care about. It does not repel me like it does the rest of you. It doesn't excite me either, mind - it just does not touch me. But when you spoke up, it became a moot point whether there was any purpose to their torture - I set that aside and helped my friend do what she wanted to do."
"No instinctive aversion," Autumn repeated slowly, weighing the words as she spoke them. She couldn't imagine that- not feeling that desire to help someone who was hurting, the same pull that had inspired her to hug Devin despite their differences. It was hard to wrap her head around, that oddly clinical way he had of looking at the world, but... "That... makes sense, I think? I mean, if you have to process everything in a cognitive way, like you said, it would be weird if just a couple of things were different. I can't really empathize with you there, but... I guess that's probably the same for you, huh?" She smiled a little, in spite of the subject. "And there was a... a purpose, yeah," the redhead continued, the brush of pale fingers over the dog's paler fur growing gentler as she remembered what she'd sensed in those cells. "Just... not a good one. It was, um." Now it was her turn to hesitate, unsure how to put into words the horrific extent of the scientists' explorations. "It was worse than it looked from the outside," she finally managed, and left it at that. There was no point going into the details, not when they'd already gotten both the feline prisoners out of that awful place- although, privately, she hoped the ones who'd done it had been in Etienne's room. Fucking sadists."So, anyway. Regardless of why you did it, you helped, even though it could've caused problems, and I appreciate it."
"You're welcome." he repeated simply.
Tipping her head back against the cushions at the characteristically laconic reply, she stared up at the rafters high above, the vaulted ceiling soaring up to the second floor. Right. This is Jason Bannon. If he had regular conversations with people, it would probably be a sign of the end times. It occurred to Autumn that she hadn't heard him moving around since he'd mentioned getting out of the shower, and she had to stifle a laugh at the weirdly incongruous image of stoic, composed Jase standing statue-like in a towel, talking on the phone as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do. "There was something else I wanted to ask you, though." Taking a deep breath, she focused on just shaping the words. Boring words. Plain words. Not at all difficult or complicated words. Just words. Just a question. "I was wondering... are you doing anything Friday night?"
There was another of those pauses, this one lasting maybe a little longer than a couple heartbeats, and the be-freckled redhead wished at that moment for two contrasting things. Firstly, that she could see Jason's face, his eyes, try to gain a measure of his expression and compare it to the notes she'd taken on Bannon Facial Expressions for Dummies - a Work In Progress. The second thing she wished for was for, oh, a flaming meteor to hit her, for example. Just a sudden, painless and above all non-embarrassing death. Was that too much to ask? "I have nothing planned." Jason replied, and there was now a note of intrigue in his voice. Possibly. Probably. He sounded intrigued. "Why?"
"I mean," she added quickly, "more like Friday afternoon. But also Friday night! And-" At that point, it was wholly unnecessary that the meteor should already have to be flaming when it struck, because it would probably be set ablaze the moment it touched her. Grimacing, she forged ahead. "And Saturday. Or part of it. ...I am totally fucking this up," she muttered under her breath with a quiet groan, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment. "What I mean is, do you want to spend the night?" No! No, that is not at all what you mean, Autumn! "Camping! Do you want to go camping Friday night?" She was going to die. Or, no, she wasn't going to die, or at least not quickly and right now, and that was the problem. Fuck. Dakota’s ears twitched at the note of tension winding through her voice, and the big shepherd made an unhappy not-quite-growl in the back of his throat as he pressed closer to her side.
"Camping?" Jason's voice was calm, but a suspicious part of the mortified girl's mind readily imagined that glint of wry, reptilian amusement he sometimes - okay, often wore when she was blushing. Not touched by the suffering of others, my ass. she grumped silently. "That sounds like it could be fun. Where did you have in mind?"
"The place I mentioned on Monday." There was a note of caution in her tone, as if she were waiting for the sound of the smirk in his voice to pour gasoline on the flames currently scorching her face. "It's on my family's property, a few miles up from my house."
"Any particular special equipment I need to bring to camp there?" he asked, apparently all business, his mind focusing on the proposal at hand rather than bedevilling her. Thank any gods that might be paying attention for that small mercy.
"Hmm. Well," she considered what the actual necessities might be, and realized she didn't really know what Jase actually did most of the time, apart from tending the miniature Eden he was cultivating in the barn. He'd suggested at the farm that it would be easier to get to know each other by 'sharing activities,' but that also made it hard to guess what kinds of activities her new (and extraordinarily challenging) friend might enjoy. "Special equipment? No, not really. We've-" Autumn caught herself, exhaling quietly for a few beats. "I've been camping there my whole life, so even if I need to do some cleanup, the site's pretty well-established. There's no plumbing or electricity, though, so if there's anything in particular you want to do, it probably shouldn't rely on either of those things. Books, or cards, or something. Basically just... a tent, sleeping bag or blanket, any snacks or drinks or whatever that you want, clothes…” She thought about that last for a moment- normally this was where she’d recommend bringing something durable and easy to clean, sturdy shoes or boots- but Jase’s typical attire already met the criteria. “For you, probably just what you normally wear. Soap and stuff. Um. Towel. Something to swim in, maybe? There's a creek alongside it," she explained. "Normal camping stuff," she finished off-handedly, shrugging as she leaned over onto the drowsing pair of warm-furred bodies next to her. "I mean, you'd be my guest, so I can take care of most of the rest like meals and basic things, or whatever you don't have."
"I've got some camping gear." Jase confirmed. "I should turn up - when? Just after lunch, Friday?"
"Is that a yes?" the red-haired girl countered curiously, the reassuring press of the two lazing dogs helping restore some semblance of her emotional equilibrium.
"Yes." Amazing, that a boy who redefined the term 'inscrutable' could pack so much dry humor into a single three letter word.
In spite of herself, Autumn grinned up at the ceiling- a poor substitute for the friend on the other end of the line, to be sure, but there was a certain degree of safety in a phone conversation, too... mostly, that there were no pale green laser beam eyes laughing at her. "Then, also yes," she replied.
"Excellent. I'll call to let you know I'm on my way, on the day." He paused then, a brief but noticeable one, then asked, as though remembering to do so. "How are you? School okay today?"
"Oh." There was likewise a pause on Autumn's end of the line, in which she blinked up at the rafters overhead, clear blue eyes wide. She hadn't expected him to actually ask any questions. If anything, she was kind of impressed he'd stayed on the phone this long- it wasn't the kind of thing she'd imagined him doing, but... actually being around him recently, and spending most of Monday afternoon at his house, was giving her reasons to reconsider some of what she'd thought she knew about the Impenetrable One. Should she just say 'yeah,' and leave it at that? ...No, Jase didn't ask questions to be polite. "It was interesting. Got called to the guidance counselor's office, and now I'm waiting on Warden Crocker to come by, for some reason. What about you? Enjoy your day off?"
There was a moment's silence, as he actually considered her question and his answer with due gravity. When he spoke there was a subtle guardedness to his voice. "My mother visited me. We spoke. I think I understand her better." He paused, then, "And I spent the afternoon working to get the farm straightened up." he concluded in a more normal tone - well, normal for Jason.
The dogs protested, grumbling aloud as Autumn sat suddenly upright, but she reached back and patted them absently, focused on what he'd just said. His mother? They'd just talked about her two days before, and that was a whole thing, and he had definitely not been okay at the time. "Okay, well... That, um. Sounds like a good thing. Or at least, a better thing, I hope," she added tentatively, the concern in the redhead's amber-speckled features bleeding through into her voice.
"It is complicated." Jason admitted. "I am still processing the encounter. I haven't been able to tell anyone about it yet."
Autumn wasn't sure how to respond to that. She couldn't imagine anything so complex or intellectually demanding that even Jase would have trouble processing it. He was the smartest person she knew- maybe the smartest person she would ever know, she realized. Smart enough that she probably really had only the vaguest idea how intelligent he actually was. "Mmm." She hummed softly in response, the sort of subvocalization common in Autumn-speak that he recognized as an indication of commiseration or agreement of some kind. "If you're working on it, I know you'll figure it out. And when you do, you know... If you wanna tell somebody... You have friends," she finished quietly.
"And I value them." came the sober reply with a pensive note to it, as though he were thinking about the words and the concept they contained as they were uttered. A pause, then "My father just got back. I should probably go." Another pause. "Thank you. For calling. For your friendship."
"Oh, yeah. You, too.” That was a little disorienting, being thanked for being his friend- enough so that she completely lost the natural flow of the conversation. “...So, I guess I'll see you Friday? Or at school, 'cause... yeah. Classes."
"Of course." Jason replied. "See you at breakfast tomorrow, Autumn."
"See you tomorrow, Jase."
As the call ended, timer flashing on screen, Autumn pressed the edge of her phone case to the underside of her lower lip, thinking. That had been, honestly, shockingly easy. ...Way more so than she’d expected, even if a little glimmer of worry flickered at the back of her mind about the fact that his mom had paid him a visit. If he was still processing whatever they’d talked about, there was a basically no chance it was something trivial. But… Nothing she could do about that. Better to focus on what she could do, and that was make plans for Friday.
She was technically grounded, yeah, but being at the campsite was basically the same thing as being at home, right? And she wasn’t in trouble at school, or anything. Maybe she’d just bring it up casually that night, over dinner or something. Mom won’t care. Probably, she decided. Anyway, Jase had already agreed, so she’d have to figure out a way to make it happen, wouldn’t she? Glancing back down at her phone to check the time again, the energetic redhead sighed and rolled up to her feet and off the couch, accompanied by the sounds of canine huffing and whining as the freckled heater next to them suddenly disappeared.
Padding barefoot into the next room, she tapped at her screen a couple of times, setting the phone down on the counter as Spotify’s algorithms busied themselves sorting through her preferences. She hadn’t really eaten lunch, instead heading down to walk a few laps around the track- even if there was no way to eliminate all the Weird that had suddenly intruded on her life, the simple pleasure to be found in the mechanics of motion usually worked to settle unsettled thoughts. Now, of course, she wished she’d at least grabbed an apple or something before she’d gone back to class. The fridge mostly held disappointment in the form of her mom’s nutritionally-optimized lunch containers, pre-packed for efficiency in an unpredictable workplace. Ugh. Hard pass. Autumn’s nose crinkled as she surveyed her options: there was a bowl of leftover potato soup she could throw in the microwave...
Eh. It would do.
Bumping the refrigerator door shut with her elbow, Autumn hummed quietly along with the music filling the sunlit kitchen, half-consciously matching her movements to the deliberate, percussive rhythm. She didn’t immediately recognize the song, but it did sound like some of the other stuff she’d liked, and her toes tapped on the cool tile as she peered out the window and waited for the soup to reheat. Whatever Nathan Crocker wanted to talk about, the idly swaying redhead had a sense that it was best addressed on a full stomach.