The path back to the shaded picnic spot their families shared wasn't a long one, even accounting for the roving, shifting bands of people that clustered and scattered, seemingly at random. Somehow, though, it seemed much farther than it had a few minutes ago. She and Jacob had been talking. Sort of. Things were- okay, maybe they weren't ideal, but at least they were moving in the general direction of "better," right? But then Marissa had happened, as she invariably did, like a prettier, more socially-acceptable version of a Biblical plague that descended whenever someone, somewhere, experienced a fleeting moment of happiness. And of course, in the interest of trying to maintain the peace and not spend what could be their "last day in the sun" arguing, Autumn hadn't really said anything, even though a part of her felt like she should have. Scowling, the redhead half-heartedly kicked a piece of pine bark from the footpath as the pair trudged back the way they'd come. Even Jase had-
"Jason Bannon. Really." It was a question phrased as a statement, flat and uninterrogative and unamused. Unimpressed, maybe. She glanced sharply up at her former best friend, blue eyes narrowed in frustration and not a little suspicion, as if he'd somehow guessed the direction of her thoughts. He couldn't do that, right? Maybe it was just that weird not-quite-telepathy of people who knew each other really well. Probably, it was luck.
"Yes, Jason-Bannon-Really," she shot back with a soft huff of annoyance, tugging the elastic band off her ponytail and freeing the mass of unruly copper curls that were beginning to escape its grasp. It wasn't Jacob's fault things had started sliding sideways, she reminded herself. It wasn't. "And?"
Jacob blinked down at her, surprise and something else registering momentarily in his eyes before he shook his head, stared resolutely down the path ahead of them. "And," he repeated intently, "I don't get it, Autumn. He's dangerous. You know that."
She did know. Jason Effing Bannon was dangerous in all sorts of ways, but the ones Jay was worried about were probably of the least actual concern.
"Yeah. Yeah, he is." The vibrant redhead nodded briefly, a concession to the truth of his statement, as she swept her hair back from her face. Weaving the rebellious strands into a thick plait as they walked gave her something to do with her hands, something else to focus on besides the little knot of anxiety twisting in her chest. "But he's also here. And he's honest, and smart, and a lot of other things. And-" He likes me. She hesitated for a moment, unable to actually say the words with conviction as the memory of Jase's unrebuffed flirtation with Marissa added another strand of uncertainty to the snarl of conflicting thoughts. His interest seemed genuine enough, and he was obviously attracted to her, but if he was still in love with Mari, even if the gorgeous brunette didn't care about him at all... It's fine. No big deal. Exhaling, Autumn flipped the finished braid back over her shoulder. Totally fine. "And I like him," she finished simply.
"Like him." Jacob's tone was flat - neither accepting nor dismissing her statement, he seemed to be turning it over in his head. "Yeah, I saw."
"It's not like that." Autumn protested, flushing and elbowing her oldest friend in the ribs, causing Jacob to grin a little as she reconsidered her words. "Okay, not just like that." she amended. "I mean, I liked him before the kissing started."
"Because he's honest and smart and a bunch of other stuff?" Jacob hazarded, then raised his hands placatingly as the redhead shot him a scowl. "Okay. Okay. I swear, I'm wearing my 'concerned friend' hat right now, A-Rae, not my 'ex boyfriend' hat. I'm not dumb - Bannon's changed over the summer: walks taller, hot car, acing classes... but he's also getting into fights and threatening guys with hay hooks." Jacob's handsome features were earnest as he spoke, his eyes examining her for clues to the mystery. "So what I'm asking is 'why?'"
"Why what?" Dana looked up from where she was setting out a pitcher of iced tea, having caught the last few words as the two friends approached. She glanced at Jacob, then at Autumn, then back the way they'd come from, and an eyebrow was raised in wry understanding. "Oh." Apparently the maternal antennae were as sharp as ever.
"Oh, what?" Ian glanced over from where he was chatting to Nathan by the grill, beer in hand, then saw the teens and smiled. "Want to load up a plate?" He clapped the boy on the shoulder approvingly, then looked at Autumn as he indicated Effing-wards with his bottle. "So. That's the guy?”
"Who's the-?" Before she'd even managed to finish asking the question, Autumn's brain finally caught up to her mouth and provided the obvious answer: he'd seen Jason. If her dad had drawn that particular conclusion, then logically, that also meant he'd seen her with Jason. Oh, god. Wordlessly, she turned to Dana, the faint sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach turning to so much lead as the older woman struggled visibly to keep from laughing and shook her head, busying herself with putting napkins and glasses of ice on the table. Thanks, mom, she grumbled to herself. She'd apparently get no help there. Well... Fine, then. She straightened a little, exhaling sharply as she did so. If Ian had seen them, he'd seen them, and, and so what? Jase was her boyfriend, she reaffirmed mentally, setting other concerns about flirting and exes briefly aside. There was nothing wrong with kissing him. Even in public. Even in front of her parents. Nobody was naked, and no small children had been traumatized, so... It was fine. Sure, having someone draw attention to it was embarrassing, but wasn't like she'd committed a crime or anything. Right? Right. People kissed in public all the time.
Not like that, they don't, that other Autumn pointed out helpfully.
"Oh. Yeah," the girl replied aloud, concentrating on the reassuring warmth of the sunlight on her back and definitely not on the heat rising in her cheeks as she nodded and poured herself a glass of lemonade from one of the pitchers. "The tall one?" She glanced briefly at her father for confirmation, and nodded again. "That's Jase, yep. He and his dad are about to eat lunch, too, but he said he'd come over once they're done."
Well... Assuming the Mantis doesn't devour him, first, the uncharitable part of her brain added. She'd seemed annoyed about something, for sure, but nothing would happen with Cassie over there to act as a buffer, right?
"Sounds good." Autumn's dad said noncommittally as he sat down, exchanging glances with her mom. "Nathan was saying that his dad is in a militia." It wasn't quite a question, and wasn't quite an accusation. Autumn set her shoulders and counted to five as she turned back to the table.
"Then he also told you they're not troublemakers." The redhead sat, helping herself to food. She smiled brightly at Nathan, who shrugged and nodded agreement. "The way Gar describes it, it's mostly just an excuse for a bunch of guys to go camping and run around in the woods once a month."
Her dad grunted, chewing that over for a moment before glancing at Jacob. "You know the guy?"
"Oh no." the teen in question waved his hands defensively. "Don't drag me into this."
"I'm just curious about him, is all." Ian said. "I've been away for a little while, and now my little girl's dating some guy I've never heard of."
Jacob glanced at Autumn, then shrugged as he spooned some potato salad onto his plate. "I barely know the guy, and only then because the school's a small place. He's always been the quiet kid who hangs around with one or two other people and doesn't say much, y'know? One time I tried to talk to him in freshman year, he wouldn't look at me and didn't say much." He paused, then, "He's different this year, though. Maybe he was going through an awkward phase or something." The teen smirked as a memory occurred to him. "He schooled Mr Jelbert in U.S. History the other day."
"Schooled him?" Jacob's dad looked askance at his son, who nodded. "Mr Jelbert called him out for not paying attention just as he's starting to talk about banking, and the guy goes and rattles off the entire history of the Federal Reserve - and some of what he spouted wasn't even in the textbook. Told Mr Jelbert that when he taught something he didn't know, then he'd pay attention." Jacob built himself a burger. "Got to admit, that was kind of weirdly cool. Rude, though."
"So he's a smartass?" Ian frowned, tapping his fingers on the table.
"He's apparently very intelligent." Dana replied, looking at Autumn. "When I spoke with him, he was very forthcoming about it. Admitted to speaking six languages." Her tone was conversational, but took on a slight edge. "You know how rumors can be in a small town. Best just to meet the boy yourself rather than listen to gossip."
"Hmm." Ian's murmur was neither agreeing nor disagreeing, but he nodded. "Guess so."
Autumn’s teeth bit into her lower lip as her father- who’d spent more time working over the last year than he had at home- commented on not knowing someone she’d hung out with. He was busy. He had to travel for his job. Real estate wasn’t exactly a booming industry near Shelly. She got it, and she didn’t want to make him feel like shit for not being around, but, at the same time, the temptation to point out there might be a pretty freaking obvious reason he didn’t know most of the people she did was strong. On the other hand, though… Up until the last couple of weeks, her circle of friends and acquaintances hadn’t really changed much since elementary school, so even if a part of her wanted to be petty and spiteful, it also made sense that he wouldn’t know because this was all happening so crazy fast. If she could barely keep up with what was going on herself, how could she expect her dad to?
Ugh. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, inhaling the smell of charcoal and wood smoke, cooking meat, and grass crushed underfoot. There was no way to solve everything in one afternoon. She couldn’t fix things with Jacob, find a way to get through to Marissa, reconnect with her dad, and figure out how to tell them all about the Dark and Not-Cody while still enjoying the day as a family, and maybe- hopefully- get a few moments to spend with her new boyfriend somewhere in the midst of all that. They were going to have to fight for real later on, so was it really worth stressing out and arguing about all of the other stuff now? No. No, of course it wasn’t. If- when, the restive redhead corrected herself as she exhaled slowly- they all got back home, there would be plenty of time to deal with the petty, spiteful, absolutely and completely trivial bullshit afterward.
“Six languages apart from English,” the younger of the Keane girls added with a little smile that suggested she wasn’t quite bragging on his behalf, opening her eyes as she finally sat down at the table next to Jacob and nodded in her mother’s direction. “His dad’s super chill, by the way. I think-“ She hesitated, spooning pasta salad onto her plate next to a pile of potato chips. Diplomacy wasn’t exactly Autumn’s strong suit, but in the case of the Bannons’ complicated family life, discretion seemed like the safest bet even to her. “I think he’s just been through a lot. He’s not a crazy hermit with a secret stash of explosives or anything. The couple of times I’ve talked to him, Gar’s been really down-to-earth. Just… A decent guy, you know?”
"Sometimes people aren't as everyone seems to think." Dana commented as she poured herself some lemonade. She smiled somewhat mischievously. "And sometimes people grow and change, like Jay said. I mean, compared to Devin Jauntsen being pleasant and chatting politely while helping me in the kitchen, Autumn dating Jase seems pretty mundane." That was good for an almost spit-take from Jacob, who started coughing on a mouthful of burger as Ian stared. Devin Jauntsen was a name even the travelling real-estate salesman knew - whereas Jase had been a peripheral nonentity slouching out of sight, Devin was a front-row-center troublemaker. Autumn winced internally as Ian, Jacob and even Nathan turned to look at her.
"The Jauntsen kid was at the house?" Ian asked with a touch of incredulity.
"Mmhmm." Dana nodded, a definite Puckish air about her, though whether directed at her daughter or her largely absentee husband was tough to say. "Yesterday, in fact. He, Jase, and Cassandra Allen were spending the day with Autumn, so they came over to have breakfast before they went out." She popped a cherry tomato in her mouth. "He was very polite, talked about growing up and trying to put the bullying and bad behaviour behind him."
"Pod people. Has to be." Jacob said flatly, deadpan. "No way otherwise would Cassie and Autumn be hanging out with Jauntsen and Bannon. And Jauntsen talking about turning over a new leaf? Bannon dating?" He mimicked turning a lamp to glare into Autumn's face. "Who are you, and what have you done with Autumn? When does the alien invasion begin?"
"They just went with me up to the Rez," she protested, laughing in spite of herself as she batted his hand and the imaginary light aside. Nathan frowned thoughtfully at that, tipping back the bottle of beer in his hand as he considered the pair of teenagers in front of him. “It’s not like we all got together and cried and ate junk food while we binge-watched Gilmore Girls, or anything,” the energetic young woman grinned at her childhood friend over the rim of her glass as she drank. “And, yes,” Autumn conceded, replacing the red plastic cup on the table. “Devin Jauntsen was at the house, and no, he’s not one of my favorite people. He’s gonna have to do a lot more than just talk a good game before that changes. His sister, too.” She shrugged a little, taking up her cheeseburger in both hands. “Like I said earlier, though. If they want to change, I’m willing to let them try. If they totally fu-“ A flying potato chip caught her in the arm, and Autumn glanced up, shocked, to see her mother glaring intently at her across the table. “Fall on their faces,” she amended grudgingly as Dana’s eyes rolled heavenward, “then fine. But they should get the chance to do that. “
“Sounds reasonable,” Nathan allowed. Then, a little more cautiously: “So did you guys find what you needed up there?”
Autumn could almost feel the emotional weight of the attention being directed at her: casual interest from her parents, curiosity and confusion from Jacob, and pointed inquiry from her virtual uncle. She hadn’t been willing to tell him who the others like her were when they’d spoken in the kitchen, and the expressive redhead groaned inwardly, dismay etched plain on her freckled features as she realized she’d just done exactly that. Fucking hell. Resisting the urge to bang her forehead on the table, she nodded mutely, taking a bite of burger that seemed oddly flavorless in the wake of her unintended admission. Jacob wasn’t stupid, and his dad definitely wasn’t, and what the latter had probably guessed, the former would work out pretty quickly. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, absently rubbing the toe of one shoe against the back of the opposite ankle. Maybe it would be okay? Maybe it didn’t even matter if he knew, now, since they were going after the Dark.
Ian’s head tilted as he gauged his daughter’s reaction, eyes narrowing measuringly. “What were you guys up to at the Reservation?”
“Mm,” Nathan interjected, holding up a finger as he finished chewing. “She told me last week she had a group project, looking into Shelly’s history. I suggested she head up there, see about meeting up with one of Owen’s friends, maybe talk to the elders about getting their side of things. Dig into the old stories.” He smiled, faintly, at the young red-haired girl he’d helped raise. “I’m glad it helped.”
She swallowed guiltily, returning the smile with a tiny one of her own. It wasn’t a lie, not really, but it wasn’t exactly true, either. “It did, yeah. We got a lot of good information.” Her clear blue eyes met the warden’s, and in that moment, Autumn decided. “We’re going to finish everything tonight, actually.”