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    ...Fuck. Autumn froze, her whole body tensing- even her breath stilling for a moment in that instinctive response to being caught doing something she really shouldn't have been doing. Or at least, that she shouldn't have been doing on her front porch. Guiltily, the red-faced girl slowly broke off the kiss, her fingers sliding from Jase's hair as she bit her lip and wondered (not for the first time) if she could be lucky enough for the earth to just open up beneath her and swallow her whole. "Hi, mom. So... We're back." "So I see. Safe and sound." Her mother's voice was still upbeat. "Hello again, Jason." "Dana." he said pleasantly, nodding as though his hands weren't still on Autumn's rear. He tilted his head a tiny amount, studying first Autumn's reaction, then her mother's raised eyebrow, and nodding once more as though he'd figured something out, he slid his hands from his crimson-faced girlfriend's butt to her waist. "We were just saying goodbye." he stated calmly. "Nonsense!" Dana's smile widened as she looked from the oddly composed youth to her daughter. "You must be starving. Why don't you stay for dinner?" A sense of growing trepidation slowly eclipsing her embarrassment, Autumn's wide blue eyes darted from her mother's too-bright smile to her boyfriend's characteristically impassive expression. This did not bode well: they'd only just started dating, and this was not how she'd wanted her mom to find out. The younger of the two redheads wasn't particularly worried that Jase would be rude, but having dinner with your date's parents was usually a thing that happened later, and also usually not right after they'd seen you all over each other. No, if someone had to die on the altar of Dana Keane's maternal ire, she'd rather it be her. Swallowing her nerves, she turned to her mother with a quick smile. "No, no, really, it's cool. He was just leaving, and I'm sure he's got stuff to do at home." "Oh?" Dana glanced once more at the calm jade pools that were Jase's eyes. She was calculating on a sense of embarrassment, and on the tendency of people to make excuses and jump at the chance to avoid socially awkward situations. In essence, her entire strategy in this instance was indeed to send Jason packing with a sigh of relief and a sense that he'd narrowly escaped disaster. Unfortunately, she had only a faint idea that he was unusual, or that lying was not one of his facets at all. So when she met his eye, still smiling, and asked with an arch tone of disappointment "Do you, Jason? Have things to do at home?" she had no clue that a sudden realisation on Autumn's part was causing her to experience something akin to existential dread. "Nothing pressing." Jase replied politely. "I'd be glad to accept your invitation, Dana. Thank you. Provided you are happy for me to clean up and change - I’m a little dusty from the hike and the climbing." Somewhere in the back of Autumn's mind a primal scream of impotent, wordless frustration rang out, manifesting in the real world as a tiny, despairing squeak barely audible over the conversation. There was no all-consuming abyss underfoot, no cavernous, chthonic maw welcoming her into the depths of oblivion. Of course there wasn't. Her only hope now was that Dana wouldn't think to ask what Jason's intentions were with her daughter. A shiver of unease raced down her spine at the thought. "Oh," she replied, exhaling. Breathe, Autumn. It'll be fine. It's fine. It's just dinner. "I guess I can get this stuff put away while-" "Oh, I don't think that's necessary." Dana turned to her daughter, her sharp hazel eyes untouched by the pleasant smile she'd affected as she noted that neither of the teens had completely disengaged from the other yet. "We can take care of all that after dinner! Besides, I could use some help in the kitchen if we're going to have company over." I'm dead. "Sure," Autumn agreed unhappily, wondering if any of the Fellowship would visit her grave, and what kind of flowers they'd leave. "Yeah... I can do that." "Great." Dana waved them both in, noting with some relief that the two of them finally removed their hands from each other as they stepped across the threshold. "Jason, there's a bathroom just down the hallway here on the left. You go ahead and get cleaned up while us girls decide on what's for dinner. And don't mind the... dogs?" Her puzzlement was due to the fact that the dogs were not currently alternating between barking excitedly and throwing themselves at Autumn and the strange person in welcome, as was their usual wont. Instead they were watching curiously from a short distance away, doggy eyes intent and tracking Jason as he removed his boots so as not to track dirt into the home. Dakota's ears were pricked up and forwards, and Lexi was sitting still. They didn't seem scared, or hostile. Just... watchful. "Mind? I like dogs." Jase said with a small smile, turning towards the two animals and slowly crouching and extending a hand, palm up, in silent invitation. There was a curious manner to it, a deliberateness in the gesture, and Dakota took a step closer, then a few more, sniffing lightly at the proffered hand. His tail wagged then, hesitantly, then with more confidence as Jason slowly moved his other hand to scritch the Shepherd's ears. Apparently reassured, Dakota turned and pressed against Autumn in his more usual hello as Lexi also came forward, sniffed Jason's hand, and relaxed as he petted her neck and shoulders. Standing, he shouldered his backpack and smiled at Autumn. "I won't be long. Then I can help Dana while you get cleaned up." he promised before moving off down the hallway and disappearing into the downstairs guest bathroom. "Hey," Autumn murmured, smiling a little in spite of herself as the sable Shepherd demanded attention. Burying her fingers in the thick fur around his neck and kneeling to smooth her other palm over Lexi's side, she watched thoughtfully as Jase departed. That was... different. None of the Keanes' fosters were aggressive, but it was easy for people to mistake their energetic, vocal enthusiasm for hostility or a territorial nature, and yet they'd been mild as milk in greeting a newcomer. A stranger. Specifically, Jason Bannon, who, she conceded, was kind of strange by most standards. She was still smiling when Dana spoke again, breaking the comfortable moment of relative silence. "So." It was a single syllable, but carried a wealth of emotional context. It was the sound, like the old movie said, of inevitability. "Is there anything he doesn't eat? Allergies, or anything like that?" The pretty veterinarian's tone was carefully neutral as she waved her daughter along toward the kitchen. A little confused that this was her approach, and no less uneasy for the apparent reprieve, Autumn followed. "I don't think so, no," she answered cautiously, tugging the drawstring of her hoodie restlessly back and forth as she considered the question. "I mean, I'm pretty sure he does most of the cooking at his house, since his dad works nights, and he always brings his own lunch." "Does he?" her mother asked, checking the freezer to see what they had on hand. "Like what? Burgers, spaghetti, that kind of thing?" Those were safe guesses, considering their age, and that, if the rumors were true, Jason came from a single-parent home. Even so, she was a little surprised- most teenage boys didn't bother. Autumn frowned slightly, shaking her head as Dana glanced in her direction. "No... Um, more like... Provencal-style country mutton stew." As soon as she uttered the words, the redhead remembered the ingredients, and, blushing furiously, immediately regretted it. Dana blinked, peering at Autumn narrowly as though the thought crossed her mind that she was being made fun of in some way. Autumn's blush wasn't that of someone caught in a lie, though. She actually seemed embarrassed by something else entirely, and her words had possessed the ring of sincerity. "Okay. So. He cooks." Dana glanced back into the freezer, then removed a frozen casserole she'd stored last week. "He restores classic muscle cars." She closed the freezer door and, setting the dish on the counter, moved to turn the oven on before reviewing the vegetable situation. "And, because I am choosing to trust you'd not lie to me, Autumn Rae, yesterday he was just a friend." She motioned to Autumn. "Lets get some potatoes baking, and while you get them ready you can tell me how things came to the point I witnessed at the front door- oh, and that you were careful last night." "Mom!" Autumn exclaimed, utterly mortified and cognizant of every freckle as a tiny glowing ember smouldering in the blazing scarlet of her skin. "We didn't- It wasn't like that. I mean, I know I joked about no grandchildren, but, seriously, that didn't happen. And he really was just a friend," she insisted as she picked out three decent-sized potatoes from the bin and laid them on the counter. "We just started talking last Friday, so the idea of dating wasn't really a thing." Pulling a paring knife from the block, the flustered young woman washed her hands in the sink, then started removing the eyes and carving out bruised areas as her mother busied herself with the other sides. She frowned, jabbing the point of the knife into the dull brown flesh and twisting. "It just... We were having a good time, cleaning the camp site up and talking, and it just sort of happened." "Hmmph." It was a good 'hmmph', rich in subtext and shading, with a hint of thoughtful appraisal thrown in for good measure. Autumn, her gaze studiously on the work her hands were doing and still red as a tomato, was not aware of the slight smile on her mother's lips as she weighed her daughter's reaction and words. "Just happened, hmm?" "Yes." Autumn muttered, still coming to terms with the swift changes in her relationship with Jase herself, which he’d also found surprising. What had he called it? Alchemy. "Okay." Dana relented a little as she worked on her side of the counter space. She smirked a little as she glanced at her red-faced daughter, unable to resist mixing a little teasing with the interrogation. "So, is there anything I need to know about Jase, other than he's apparently quite the kisser?" Oh, god. "Well," she began tentatively, struggling to focus on the potatoes rather than the fact that, yes, Jesus holy fuck, he was 'quite the kisser.' "He's honest." Small understatement. "He's the smartest person I know- which, yeah, this is Shelly, so it's not saying much, but seriously. Umm... speaks several different languages, likes poetry..." Autumn paused, holding the knife blade still for a moment as she thought about what she actually knew of him. "Doing things with his hands, I think, really. Cooking, working on the car, gardening- Oh!" A sudden smile brightened her flushed features as she thought of his private Eden, the reason she'd invited him out in the first place, and she turned to regard her mother, leaning one hip against the counter as she did so. "The indoor garden he's built is incredible, mom. Lit-er-a-lly one of the most gorgeous things I've ever seen, plants and flowers from all over the world. Honestly," she shrugged one shoulder, still smiling. "He's kind of amazing." Her mom blinked as the casual query seemed to unearth a gold-mine of revelations, not least of which was Autumn's gradually shining-through enthusiasm as she moved past the mortification of parental teasing and warmed to her subject. Amazing was not a word Dana had ever expected to hear used to describe a teenage boy, especially by her own daughter. The conflicting emotions of happiness that Autumn had found someone who made her eyes shine so positively, and nervousness that the source of that shine was someone she and other Shelly residents had widely considered to be a bad seed warred in her hazel eyes as they appraised her daughter. "Wow." she remarked, following it up with a thoughtful "He does sound amazing." She arched a brow. "Sounds like someone thinks he's just about perfect, in fact." she added in a tone that was teasing, but couldn't quite hide her concern. Autumn sighed, blue eyes rolling heavenward as she turned back to finish cleaning up the last of the potatoes. "He's not perfect," she replied, exasperated, as if her mother had just said the most ridiculous thing in the world. "He's funny. He's smart. He's good at a lot of things, and I'm having fun getting to know more about him. He has..." Pursing her lips, the red-haired girl set the knife aside, raking the bad bits off the counter and into her open hand before heading to the trash can to throw them away. "He has a lot of good qualities, I guess. I'm happy we started talking, and I hope we're friends for a long time." She rinsed her hands again, and the knife as well, before putting it in the dish drainer. "He does have a few, um, quirks, though." That was good for a maternal brow-furrow, and Dana was just opening her mouth to ask what 'um quirks' Autumn was talking about when both Keane women caught the sound of the bathroom door opening down the hall. Dakota, who'd been sitting in the kitchen doorway watching the food preparation, glanced in the direction of the opened door, his tail thumping on the carpet a few times before a cleaned-up Jason appeared round the corner. He'd obviously washed himself clean of dust as much as was practical, damp hair swept back from his forehead, the wet ends trailing against the sun-darkened skin of his neck as he bent from the waist to give Dakota another ear-scritch in passing. And he'd changed his clothes, replacing the dirty combat pants, tee shirt and hoodie with a white sleeveless tee - that showed off, probably incidentally, the lean symmetry of his shoulders and arms - and... oh no... grey sweatpants. "Hi." he said in greeting as he set his pack down in the hall, then wandered into the kitchen. He gave both of them a faint smile that reached the corners of his eyes before studying the kitchen, what they were doing, and finally returning his green laser stare to the ladies themselves. "Is there anything I can do to help?" "Hi," Autumn replied automatically, her voice oddly distant to her own ears. It was, to be fair, difficult to hear over the sudden surge of blood rushing to her face, the dull roar almost indistinguishable from that of a nearby bonfire. Certainly she'd seen him wearing less clothing, but that wasn't the point. The point was that... Was... It occurred to her, dimly, that she was going to need to breathe soon, as her eyes traveled slowly from the damp strands of dark hair that brushed his ears to the sharp line of his collarbone. "Autumn?” She could just see a faint mark there- not quite a bruise- and shivered, just a little, at the memory of making it. Beyond that, her gaze continued its leisurely descent, pausing at the outline of- “Autumn Rae Keane!" She blinked, inhaling sharply as if startled, deep blue eyes focusing on her mother's slim fingers as they snapped in front of her face. "What? Oh. Yeah... I should, um, go get cleaned up." "Do that." her mother not-quite-ordered, pressing her lips together to avoid further comment or, conversely, laughter at the expression on Autumn's face as she'd stared at the youth in the doorway. She watched as Autumn moved towards that doorway, sharp eyes not missing the way the athletic young woman slowed her pace and glanced up at Jason's face as she drew near, like a flower turning towards the sun. Even her torso seemed to lean a little, as though drawn by some magnetic impulse. And the attraction was plainly not one-way - his eyes tracked her with intensity and focus, his face turned towards her as she drew abreast of him and one freckle specked hand came up to brush across his upper arm near the shoulder, feeling the vitality of his body and the connection of his Shine for a moment with the air of a connoisseur savoring wine. "Hey." Jason said softly in response to her touch, a verbal caress of his own. "Hey." Autumn smiled back, clear blue eyes meeting jade green, and Dana felt a slight warmth behind the skin of her face as she watched them gaze at each other, averting her eyes and clearing her throat. There was something unrelentingly, uncaringly pure and untamed about the way they looked at each other. "Jase? Autumn tells me you know your way around a kitchen - you okay with whipping up a tomato salad?" At her mother's voice, Autumn dropped her hand from Jason's arm and, more slowly, her eyes from his and slipped past him, remembering to breathe now as she hurried up the stairs. "Sure." Jason moved to the center isle counter and selected a thin, sharp knife from the block as Dana set down the tomatoes and some onions before him, along with a dish. He seemed totally at ease, that same sense of self-possession that had struck Dana when he'd arrived yesterday like a king’s mantle around his shoulders. He glanced at her as she studied him, meeting her eyes with no sense of hesitancy as he began to thinly slice the tomatoes. "Thank you again for inviting me, Dana." "Not at all," the slim redhead replied smoothly, despite a resurgence of the vague, unsettling feeling she'd experienced the day before- that as she'd scrutinized the tall young man going out into the woods with her headstrong daughter, she herself had been considered. Still... All of her children, both of the four- and two-legged varieties, seemed to approve of him, so maybe that oddly direct gaze was just one of the 'quirks' Autumn had mentioned. "It's been a long time since Autumn's had anyone over," she continued conversationally, piercing the potatoes with the tines of a fork. "Especially someone new." Dana reflected on that for a moment, one fingertip tapping on the counter as she gathered her thoughts. When was the last time? Besides Jacob, who was practically family and had an open invitation... And she'd certainly never seen her girl look at him that way. When she was in junior high, maybe? Hm. "She mentioned you guys just started talking recently." Dana glanced briefly over at her daughter's new beau as she pulled a bottle of olive oil from the cabinet. "How did you two meet, if you don't mind my asking?"
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