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  1. "I don't think you need to worry too much." Jase said quietly, moving closer to her while they were alone. "Worry too much?! It's Devin." "Who has always been a good guest when at my home." Jason set down his mug and slid his hands over Autumn's waist as she half-turned towards him, blue eyes flicking up to meet his gaze. The redhead decided to hold onto her coffee, cupping the mug in both hands before her chest - not because she *didn't* want to set it down and find other things for her hands to do, but because she *did*, and now was not the time. "I see no reason he'd not be a good guest in yours." "Mmm." Autumn's answer was both wordless and noncommittal, despite Jason's apparent confidence. His mouth quirked in another one of those mischievous smiles, his gaze was warm, and she felt heat rising in her face again as he leaned down- "Okay, all washed up." Cassie announced just a touch louder than was necessary as she breezed back into the room. "You're up, Tall, Dark and Pluckless." She made a shooing gesture. "Go, scoot. Make sure to clean those paws before breakfast, mister." The blonde reporter fixed Autumn with a grin. "Don't worry, we've got plenty to talk about." Looking at Cassie with a raised brow, then back at Autumn, Jason shrugged. "Back in a moment, then." he said quietly before leaning down and planting a quick kiss on Autumn's lips that turned her bright red. With a noise that might have been a chuckle, the tall slender young man stepped away, eyes gleaming impishly, and headed for the bathroom.
  2. Jason, for his part, finished pouring himself a coffee as Cass rounded the table and commenced the inquisition, casting her an expression that was typically neutral but for a raised eyebrow, his icy green eyes unwavering from Cass as he took a sip of the black brew in his hand. (Number 5: I am permitting this uninvited invasion of my space because I find the person tolerable or agreeable, is how Autumn would have mentally catalogued the expression.) "It's on the right, just down the hall." was all he said as he lowered the mug. "I can show you if you need, though." Dana's snort of quiet laughter at the mischief she had sown was unheard by the teens as Autumn's mom headed back out into the kitchen. "Nuh-uh." Shelly intrepid and plucky reporter pressed. "I want to know details. How did this-" her finger traversed from Jason towards Autumn, who had just come back in from taking the dogs outside and froze, her attitude that of a deer scenting danger. "-become a thing?" Jase cast a glance at Autumn, then returned his gaze to Cassie. "We went camping - as friends. We discovered a mutual attraction." he stated simply, without any sense that he was embarrassed or uncomfortable. "If Autumn wishes to share more details than that, it's up to her." he finished, a faint twitch of his lips indicating a smile. "I'm immune to embarrassment - she is not." "Clarify, please." Cass asked with a grin. "Are you guys dating now? Do you even date?" she gave Bannon a long, scrutinising stare. "I never had you down as the dating type." "I'm full of surprises." Jase replied evenly, a glint of something that might be humor in his eyes. There was a quiet choked off laugh from Devin. "So you are dating." Cass's tone was triumphant. She glanced from his unruffled stare to Autumn's beet-red face. "Wow. And her mom knows you too." "Dana was kind enough to invite me in for dinner when we came back from camping." Jase said with a slight nod. His head tilted slightly to one side as he regarded her. "Do you have enough for a scandalous expose in the paper, do you think?"
  3. Keane Residence, around 08:20 "About time." Dana Keane, concerned mother to four dogs and a teenage daughter, grumped as Autumn shuffled into the kitchen, yawning, and made a bee-line for the coffee pot. An observant maternal eye noted the slight touches of makeup and attention paid to the fiery tumble of red hair as Autumn filled her mug, sweetened and added cream, then sipped, absently ruffling the fur of the large German Shepherd, Briggs, as he politely nudged her for a petting. "So Jason, Cassie, and Devin Jauntsen, hmm?" Hazel eyes narrowed. "This isn't some double date, I take it?" "What? No!" Autumn seemed jolted out of her distraction by the question, laughing a little. "I mean, Cassie and Devin are just friends, I think. And just because Jase is coming along doesn't make it automatically a date, mom." her daughter added, cheeks pinking a little as Dana made a feminine snort of disbelief. "Not technically, no." Autumn's mother said mock-sternly as though suspecting, and disapproving of, shenanigans. She then smiled a little as she turned back to the griddle pan. "Well, seeing as I'm feeding extra mouths, you'd better pull out some eggs and get to work." The two of them worked in companionable silence for a short while, music from the radio unobtrusively filling the air in the comfortable kitchen. Preparations were almost complete when the soft rumble of an engine outside sparked an excited bark or two from the dogs, all four of whom were hanging around just out from under foot, hoping for dropped tidbits with large pleading eyes. Dana looked at where Autumn had been, sighing and shaking her head with a smile as, with a soft patter of feet, the younger redhead hurried to the door. "Not a date, my butt." she commented quietly to Lexi, who merely panted good-naturedly and let out a little whine of protest at the lack of dropped bacon bits. Jason climbed out of the Charger as he removed his mirrored shades, hooking them into the neck of his t-shirt as he closed the car door behind him, and breathed deeply, pale eyes sweeping over the fields and woods surrounding the Keane home. The morning dew had already mostly burned away, but the day still felt fresh and new to him as he made his way around the car and headed up the front steps onto the porch. The country air was quiet, despite the sporadic barking of the dogs inside as they sensed a familiar presence, and there was a peacefulness that hung over the scene which was not lost on him. The front door opened as he approached, and Autumn slipped out quickly, closing it behind her and turning to face him, a smile curving her lips before she stepped forward and comfortably slipped her arms around his neck. "Hey." she murmured, smile becoming a grin as she felt his hands slide over her waist in a return embrace. "Hey." he echoed with a slight twitch of his lips answering her smile. He could smell the warm scent of her hair, and resisted the temptation to simply bury his face in it. "I just wanted to thank you for last night." Autumn said in a low tone, mindful her mother might be listening as she studied the flicker of reflected sunlight - as well as the deeper flame her nearness kindled - in his pale green eyes. He looked a little tired, as might be expected, but alert and focused as usual. "You're welc-" Jason started, but stopped as Autumn, grinning, put a finger over his lips, shifting her body against his, pressing closer. "I said I wanted to thank you, not say thank you." she breathed as she leaned up and kissed him, feeling the zip and zing of that flame running through her nerves at the contact, her arms tightening around his neck as, for a long moment, the two forgot everything else. So much so, in fact, that the purring whine of a high performance motorcycle didn't intrude on their private moment until it was too late.
  4. 2019 - Monday, Labor Day, early afternoon Normally, Sean’s attitude to musical priorities when he was driving was that ‘Driver selects the music, passenger shuts his cakehole’. But Jason had asked, politely, if he could play something he’d purchased on his smartphone, and so the bluetooth speaker was currently resonating with the primitive harmonies of one of the weird Nordic-folk-rock-electronica bands he was wont to listen to. It wasn’t bad, all things considered, and Sean did find his fingers tapping to the drumbeats and wondering if he should do something similar as atmospherics for his games. “What’d you say they were called?” he asked his friend, who was currently leaned back in his seat, eyes closed and in an attitude of listening as though his whole being was being transported - which, Sean mused, was probable with Jason. “Heilung.” came the softly-spoken reply, and the vibrant-hued young man nodded as he made a mental note. “It’s weird. But okay.” he noted with a wry smirk. “Kinda grows on a person.” The smirk widened as he glanced at the still-in-repose Jase. “Sort of like you.” “I’m an acquired taste.” Jason deadpanned, his eyes still closed. “Many don’t bother, and that is their loss.” Sean laughed softly, watching the road and the distant mountains that, he knew, likely contained Site B. “Assuming it’s all true…” he began. “Would you ever want to go and be with your people? Are you curious how you’d fit in?” “I am curious.” Jason admitted calmly, his green eyes opening and gazing at the road and mountains in a similar fashion. “But they are my species - you, and the others of the Fellowship, you are my people.” Sean drummed his fingers on the wheel in time with the drums in the music. Strip out the vocals, compose something in the same vein, it could work as ambient music for a new event in Regenesis. He’d set up the game to generate the main plotline events in somewhat random areas and order, and then to select a certain number of side events - some of which did tie into the main plotline - from a much larger number to give the game much more replayability, without being to rely on what you learned from a previous playthrough. Extra events just added to the experience. For a good role-playing game, sometimes you had to play to expectations, and sometimes you had to subvert them. He’d gotten some good pointers from Lady Meru about story and plot structure and construction. Some he had known, of course, but her advice had led him to reevaluate some and stop disregarding others. “You don’t know just how grateful I am that I had friends - people - like you and the others in the gaming group the last several years, Jase,” Sean said, trying to keep his voice light rather than saccharine. Sometimes, just seeing his friends had been the only reason he was able to drag his ass to school through all the shit he got. It sucked that so many of them seemed to be moving away lately, just as all the incredible weirdness was building up, even if he couldn’t quite fault them for it. “If you ever need anything, man, seriously, just name it.” Sean looked over quickly at his friend as they were driving through Conrad, the low houses and building somewhat obscuring a clear view of the mountains. “Jase? You have any expectations or hopes about what you might find about or among the Teulu? If you ever go to… wherever they are?” 2015 - April, Afternoon, Shelly Elementary It was an especially pleasant day for mid-April and Phys. Ed. was outside today, the teacher having decided on soccer after a few laps and warm-up exercises. The grass was more green than brown, if not by much, the white lines of the football field badly faded, and nowhere near lush yet. Sean was on the sidelines, sitting in the bleachers, along with Sophia Fingleman sitting next to him, the aluminum benches warm under them from the sun. Him, for his chronic ‘medical’ issues, her, for suffering ‘girl issues’. Sean didn’t know if she was lying, but he didn’t object to her company. He was supposed to be working on an independent study, since he couldn’t participate in the physical aspects of the class. But he’d already finished it, and was just pretending to be working on it, when he was actually working on writing up a D&D setting and campaign, luckily able to pull up PDFs of the books on his smartphone, though barely needing them since he could recall most of it from memory. He’d been surprised that Sophia was interested in RPGs too and she sat close, Sean pleased to show her his notes and a few rough sketches. The nets were set up the width of the field instead of the length, to make it more manageable for the 11 and 12 year olds, and to help pick up the pace with less open ground between the goals. Sean and Sophia only had to dodge two black and white balls that had been kicked wide… by accident or on purpose. Glancing their way from time to time while trying to keep his main focus on the game, Jason marvelled that nobody really seemed to notice the extent of Sean’s changes. Yes, Sean had grown adept at dressing to conceal his figure, but sitting next to Sophia, it seemed particularly obvious to Jason. Sean’s face held the same feminine lines and curves as Sophia, undisguised by his short, bright red hair compared to her long, dark auburn. Despite slim limbs, Sean’s torso looked bulky from his layers. His vivid red hair was already darkening, dampened by rising sweat. There were the occasional rumours and comments about his girlish features, but most of the students just thought he was getting pudgy, or downright fat, influenced by his non-participation in gym class, and maybe diabetes or something. There were a few mentions that if Sean kept blimping out, his moobs would end up growing as big and girlish as Sophia’s boobs. Jason really couldn’t see how the other students could believe that. True, he was aware of what was really going on with Sean, but still, it seemed so obvious, especially if you just paid attention. He’d read up about Change Blindness, and figured their classmates had just grown so used to Sean’s feminine features and the changes were gradual enough, they just couldn’t see it. Engrossed in their dungeons and dragons talk, which had shifted to their favourite fantasy series, Sean and Sophia didn’t notice Courtney coming up behind them after leaving the bathroom. The action on the field had picked up, whipcord slim Jason with the ball, striving towards the goal with silent intensity with a more verbally intense Autumn Keane right on his heels. Courtney glowered at the two redheads as she stalked up behind them with a bully’s stealth, her sneakers barely a whisper on the bleachers. Still slim as a boy, Courtney detested Sophia on sheer principle for blossoming before her and so extravagantly, uddered like a cow trying to draw all the boys with all the milk she had to offer, for all that Sophia didn’t flaunt what she had. But it was the girl-faced pigboy that was really riling Courtney at the moment. She’d overheard a comment that even he probably had bigger boobs than her, and that she wasn’t going to stand. She was going to make sure everyone saw the pork belly the little shit was trying to hide. And like fuck his hair was a nicer shade of red than hers. Suddenly, there was a muffled, yet piercing, furious shriek from the bleachers, and the soccer game staggered to an uncertain halt. Jason whipped around to look, recognize who that shout belonged to, Autumn colliding right into him. Sean was standing up in the bleachers, twisting and writhing violently, Courtney up on the bench a step up behind him. He’d been completely blindsided, and before he knew it, his head and arms were tangled up in his meticulous layers of shirts, Courtney using her leverage and holding on to them so tightly he couldn’t get free. The clips on the elastic bandages binding his chest got caught on his shirt with the force Courtney had yanked it up, and the bandages had practically exploded off his chest from the pressure they had been containing. There was not doubt about what Sean had been hiding now. Sophia’s mouth dropped open in speechless shock at the sight of the slim waist, flaring hips, and overfilled bra of the boy she’d been talking to. A strange boy, to be sure, but still a boy… she thought? Courtney was not so speechless. “No. Fucking. Way! You have tits?! You’re a titboy?!” Sean’s response was undecipherable yet vehement, his struggles so energetic and panicked, that he would have tumbled off the bleachers if Courtney hadn’t had a vice grip on his shirts pulled up over his head and tying up his arms. “Hey, watch where you’re-” Autumn had started to say to the odd boy as both of them staggered and righted themselves from the collision. She’d been enjoying the effort of catching up with him, had been looking forward to tackling and skillfully removing the ball from the silent, aloof Jason’s control, only for him to suddenly lose interest in their epic duel, the ball rolling heedlessly onwards as he stopped dead and turned unerringly towards the disturbance on the stands like a hawk sighting prey. Cade Allister had already picked up the ball from beyond Jason’s lean shape and was heading back up the field. But the Bannon kid didn’t seem to care, and Autumn found herself addressing his back as he instead loped off the field, giving the impression of dismissing her, the game, the ball and everything else from his strange world. Sean, struggling in Courtney’s grip, saw him coming with conflicted feelings. There was a sense of shame that he needed rescuing, relief at being rescued, and a dull cold dread that Jason would… be Jason. Terrifying three boys, roughing up a couple was one thing for a ten year old, even with a couple of deep, savage bites thrown into the equation. For a twelve year old boy to attack a girl with that kind of intense ferocity would likely land Jason an expulsion, regardless of circumstance. Whilst Sean might fantasize about Courtney crying snotty tears and gasping for breath right now, he didn’t really want to see her hurt. Also adding to the emotional conflict was the look in Sophia’s eyes. She was looking at him like he was a freak, drawing away from the conflict rather than trying to intervene, as though she didn’t want to be involved. Sean grit his teeth, determined not to bawl as Courtney kept jeering for a few seconds more before the lean shadow of Sean’s friend fell over the two struggling kids. “Let him go.” Jase said simply, his eyes not wavering from Courtney’s. The words were calm, inflectionless… much as two years ago he’d said ‘Let’s not.’ to Chet and his compatriots. Courtney, though, was intent on her discovery, her blood up from a mixture of outrage and fascination. Present, also, was the sense of her own feminine impunity from attack by boys. Boys didn’t hit girls - the rules punished them far more severely. “Your friend has tits, Bannon. You know about this?” she huffed, trying to keep her grip on the squirming Sean. “He your secret girl-boyfriend?” “Just my friend. Let him go.” Jason repeated, just as calmly with a little more force. “I won’t say it again.” “Oh?” Courtney grinned, reaching around and squeezing one of Sean’s breasts, making him yelp. “Whatcha going to do?” “Courtney Adams!” the voice thundered from behind Jason as Miss Mannheim, one of the Phys. Ed teachers supervising the soccer game, came storming up the bleachers. Jason was the only one that didn’t jump at the welkin-ringing shout, instead smiling very, very faintly as the colour drained from Courtney’s face. “Wait for that.” he answered quietly as the red-faced coach arrived, glowering ferociously. A tall, well built woman, ex-Army and still looking as though she was capable of killing a man with her bare hands - or failing that, her thighs - Beth Mannheim was currently looking like she wanted to warm up by killing Courtney. The red-haired girl quailed and let go of Sean, Jason immediately stepping forward and pulling his friends shirts down to conceal his un-boylike physique. He’d figured that one of the players suddenly leaving the pitch would call attention to the goings-on, and, failing that, he would have taken matters into his own hands - though that would have been a sub-optimal outcome. “Thanks.” Sean panted quietly as Jason picked up his things and handed them to him. Courtney was being dragged off by one powerful hand on her shoulder, Mannheim still fuming audibly. He took several deep breaths, noting the stares from people who’d seen and determined that he would not crack and cry. Not until later. And besides, the sound of Courtney on her way to a detention was certainly something of a balm. “Someone had to step in.” Jason’s tone was cold and his gaze withering as he glanced at Sophia. “It’s what a friend does.” The busty girl shrank a little under the gaze, then straightened up and sneered back sullenly. “Whatever, freak and freakier. You two probably should date - weirdos together.” Sean’s face reddened, with anger rather than shame, and he spat back “He’s my friend, Sophia. You should be so lucky when you get some ‘tard bothering you someday that you have a friend who’ll step in too.” “Though that seems unlikely. Friendship requires a sense of loyalty.” Jason added clinically, then dismissed Sophia from his attention altogether. “You good?” he asked Sean calmly. “Yeah.” Sean said with a small smile and a nod. What the hell if people were staring and Sophia was giving him the freak-look. Times like this were when you found out who was your friend, and who was just a person you hung out with. “Yeah, I think I am.” 2019 - Monday, Labor Day, early afternoon “I don’t hope, Sean.” Jason said matter of factly. “I plan, I set goals, I set myself targets to achieve, but I don’t hope. I deal with things and people as they come at me, not based on how I would like them to be.” “Okay. Okay. Poor choice of words.” Sean grumped, but he smiled slightly. Jason grinned back. “On the upside, I don’t get dejected if my plans don’t work or I don’t hit my goals either.” he shrugged. “I just adjust and move on in less time than it takes to tell it.” “So… Answer my question in a Jase context, then.” Sean challenged. “Based on what I know, I am planning for the eventuality that my species will be hostile to my friends. It’s reasonable to assume that, if we’re careful, we might be able to learn a lot though - they are supposedly technologically superior to humanity. I’m planning for many contingencies - they will want to recruit me, they will want all of us as breeding stock, they will seek to subjugate or capture one or more of us, they might even offer alliances. I’m not expecting any single thing except, perhaps, that it will be interesting.” “Interesting.” Sean huffed quietly. An alien offshoot of humanity, with none of the conscience or moral restraints, smarter and more violent. And Jason was raised human - he’d likely be ‘soft’ compared to a properly raised Teulu. “Interesting.” he said again as the two of them gazed out at the sun-washed hills and pastures they were driving past as they headed back to Shelly. “Yeah. What isn’t, these days?”
  5. 2019 - Monday, Labor Day morning, shopping. “So, that’s the Huawei P30 Pro dual-SIM, earbuds, charge cord, car mount and charger, glass protectors, matte black case, two pay as you go SIM cards and a bluetooth speaker.” Sully said as he packed each item into the bag and then rang it all up on the till. “Which comes to... Five hundred and ninety five dollars. Gotta love Montana’s zero percent sales tax, amirite?” He grinned at the slender form across the counter from him. “Cash or card?” “Cash.” Jason drew a billfold from his pocket, counted out six hundred-dollar bills, and smiled faintly as he slid them over to Sully. “Keep the change.” “Thank you.” Sully grinned again as he deposited the cash in the till, then turned back to the two teens. “I might close up early.” “So where to now?” Sean asked as the two friends hit the street outside. Jason pondered for a brief moment between one step and the next. “Barnes and Noble for sure - I’m looking to find some tapes and books to learn German.” he proposed. “And Walgreens is on the way. I need to stop in there.” “Oh?” Sean gave his friend a sidelong glance. “Something important?” “Yes.” Jason said with his usual unflappable mien, then as Sean shrugged and raised the bottle of water to his lips decided to explain further. “Condoms.” Sean barely managed to turn his head in time to avoid spewing water all over Jason. A hand went to his chest as he coughed, trying to hack up the water that had gone down the wrong way. "Is this... for some... experiment?" Sean wheezed, bountiful chest heaving. "Define 'experiment'." Sean chuffed one more time to clear his throat, then wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his wrist before looking up at his friend. Jason’s expression was inscrutable, barring a bare curve of his lips. "You mean you..." "Hmm?" "Who?!" Sean didn’t seem to notice or care that his gorgeous voice was rising into a girlish, gossipy squeal, anymore than Jason opening the door to the Walgreens for him, distracted by his friend’s revelation. "I'm not sure your surprise is complimentary." "Yeah, okay, it’s not,” Sean admitted as they headed towards the healthcare, taking a deep breath to collect his composure. “But... Who?!" Jason's expression remained almost impassive, the gleam in his jade eyes the only real sign that he took some strange alien amusement in his friend's surprise and curiosity. "It's no huge secret." he said as they ambled in the direction of the right aisle - at least, Jason was ambling: Sean was walking at his normal comfortable pace, not for the first time envying those with longer legs. Jason turned his pale gaze on his friend once more. "Autumn." Sean's vibrant, multi-hued eyes widened, then flicked side to side, reviewing the interactions between Jase and Autumn over the last few days. Yes, Autumn had made an effort to get along with Jase, and he remembered seeing her talk to his dad, but he was still surprised. Jason wasn't exactly a 'playah' and it hardly seemed their relationship could have gotten this far this fast. "How? When?" Sean asked, giving Jason a nonplussed sigh when his taller friend increased his pace just enough that Sean had to hurry his every second or third step. He peeked down one aisle, then the next, giving Jason a nod. "This one." "Friday night, while we were camping. As for 'how'..." He gave Sean an amused look. "The usual way, I imagine." "I didn't mean that." Sean protested, actually drawing a chuckle from his friend before Jason's gaze turned contemplative. "It was just a... realisation. We'd hung out, and cleaned up the campsite, swam together in the creek - oh, and you've got to see the place, Sean. It's peaceful and quite lovely. You might even enjoy the great outdoors for once." Jase grinned slightly at his friend, who made a 'pff' noise and flapped his hand. "Never mind camping. Autumn. How?" "It just happened. We were sitting by the fire, talking about powers and the weird stuff... and then I realised she liked me - as in liked me, liked me. And I realised that I found her attractive too, so thought 'Why not?'" Jason shrugged his lean shoulders. "I went to kiss her and that was that." "Uh-huh." Sean was doubtful. On the other hand, he had witnessed stranger things lately, so who was he to doubt. Sean stuffed his hands in his pockets as Jason picked up a different box and began reading its merits, then compared them with a third brand, studious and unhurried in his selections. Sean could feel his face starting to redden as the occasional shopper glanced at the two teens standing by the contraceptive section, the boy seeming so diligent in making his decision, while the one who looked like a girl appeared to be impatient. Jason of course paid no heed to the attention. Sean started browsing for something to do instead of just standing there. Lube, nope, didn't need to look at that, or at the prophylactics with Jase. Other side of the aisle. Band-aids and ace bandages. Boring. Tampons, aaaand I'm done. Sean folded arms, disgruntled, waiting. Jason continued his analytic study of condoms. Sean wondered why he didn't just do this online and then order them from Amazon like a normal person. Then he noticed something about Jason's selections. "Magnums? Really?" Sean drawled, arching a brow. Jason glanced meaningfully down at the red-head. Down at his particularly prominent protuberances. Sean followed his gaze. A faint, melancholy frown crossed Sean's beautiful, delicate features, as he considered his distended hoodie hiding the view of his feet and his slender shoulders slumped. "Touché." Sean pulled out his phone, flipping around on it, still and silent for a moment as Jason perused his panoply of prophylactics. "Um, did you talk about this with Autumn first? I dunno, don't you think she might find it a bit presumptuous if you surprise her with condoms?" "Our chemistry seems very compatible." Jason's tone was clinical as he considered the merits of ribbed versus studded latex sheaths, then he shot Sean a sidelong smile. "So much so that it was perhaps a good thing that I didn't have any condoms with me that night. Depending on point of view, of course." "Really?" Sean's tone was not disbelieving, exactly. He knew Jase, and knew that lying was not one of Jason's quirks. Or exaggeration either, for that matter. Jason merely nodded. "Without going into explicit detail, yes." His friend wasn't exactly smug, or overly preening, but there was an echo of thoughtful satisfaction in his tone as he looked back at the packet of condoms in his hand. "I asked her to Homecoming, she said yes. I have a girlfriend." This last was said with quiet solemnity, as though it were a revelation of epic proportions for the detached youth. Which, Sean realised, it would be. An outsider of sorts himself, ever since the big reveal of Jason’s psychopathy he’d wondered what it would be like to be so set apart that he could not even feel loneliness at how apart he was, to share only shallow similarities to the emotional bonds and feelings of normal people. No wonder Jason was so savage in defending or avenging those he considered his friends: his sole connection to human existence, people he chose to care for by some criteria known only to himself. No wonder connecting with someone, to be involved romantically with them, and to feel that chemical attraction given and returned was such a milestone. Despite his envy, he appreciated the gravity of his friend’s revelation. “Congratulations, then, man, and good luck.” He chucked Jason on the arm in a bro-move, though it looked a bit incongruous coming from him. “To you. If Autumn said yes, she knows what she’s getting into.” Sean didn’t have to force the smile, but it was bittersweet. He didn’t imagine he’d be going to Homecoming. His friends were beginning to pair off, but he didn’t see anyone who would want to with him with him. It was fine when they went to dances and events as a group, but now, he’d just feel like a fifth wheel. Besides, what would he even wear? That last suit he’d worn he’d been ten, and it obviously wouldn’t fit now, even if he was barely an inch taller, and he couldn’t buy off the rack. Jason seemed satisfied with his selections - a more than sufficient collection, to Sean’s mind - and they headed to checkout. Along the way, Sean indulged in a little impulse buying. A 6-pack of Pepsi, since it was on sale. A jar of Nutella - they were out at home. And a box of double-stuffed Oreos, just because. They got in line behind a blue-haired old lady who was checking her lottery tickets and scratchers, who was complaining at how little she’d won and demanding that the cashier pick better scratchers that she was spending her meagre winnings on. The cashier, a tired looking blonde in her twenties, was polite and smiled, and dutifully agreed she would pick better. Sean and Jason could see the strain on the poor woman’s face restraining herself from rolling her eyes. They weren’t in any particular rush and the old lady seemed more than half way done at least, so Sean perused the candy racks while waiting, adding a bag of skittles to their items on the conveyor belt. When it was their turn, the cashier’s pleasant, patient demeanor began to fade when she got a good look at them, her professional smile shifting into a scowl, and the purchases they were making. She openly scoffed at the neatly stacked boxes of condoms and their size, moving to place them behind her. “Sorry.” Her tight tone was definitely not sorry. “You’re kids.” That she was barely a decade older than them didn’t seem to matter. “I can’t sell these to you.” She leaned in conspiratorially towards Sean, glancing down briefly at his chest before her dark eyes met his, clearly conveying she thought him a slut. “I’m doing you a solid, honey. You’ll be happier keeping your legs together rather than finding out your boy here is lying about how big he is…” The scathing look she shot Jason implied that she’d been fucked over by her high school sweetheart, and presumed every other high school guy was planning to do the same. “... and then just to be polite, you let him get it on, and end up preggers. Nuh-uh, be kids and wait a few more years before fu - messing up your lives.” Uh-oh. Sean glanced at Jason, who had hitherto radiated an air of laid back patience, and inwardly the intersexed young man groaned as he saw the cold eyes become emerald laser beams focused on the woman’s face. “Jase…” Sean started, but his friend had already stepped right up to the counter. “Thank you for the potted history of your own underwhelming existence.” The chilly tone was wind coming right off the Arctic Circle, containing razor sharp ice crystals that flayed at the cheeks and stung the eyes. “Now, to be clear, you are refusing to sell me the condoms I am willing to pay for due to my age, correct.” He didn’t lower his voice, didn’t seem at all self-conscious that other shoppers were starting to queue behind him. “That’s right, Romeo. So go get-” Jason slapped his driver’s license down on the counter, the sound making her start. “I am sixteen, near seventeen. The age of consent in Montana is sixteen. Moreover, anyone of any age can purchase condoms for any reason. There is no law against it.” His tone remained at a slightly projected pitch. “There are laws against discriminating against people based on their age, however. Would you refuse to sell condoms to a sixty year old woman?” His stare pinned the woman’s eyeballs to the back of her skull and stapled her tongue to the roof of her mouth. “Now… Sue.” he said with a glance at her name badge. “You also are implying that I am lying about the size of my penis - not that it is any of your business. I shouldn’t have to drop my pants in order to satisfy your prurience. You are impolite, high-handed, and also displaying a certain level of misandry - the assumption that I am exaggerating being based on the fact I am male.” He placed his hands on the counter. “So now I am going to give you a choice. Keep your parochial small-minded bitter commentary to yourself, do your job and ring me up. Or call your manager down here and we will make it their problem.” Sean flinched in unconscious empathy with the poor woman - even if she had been obnoxious, Jason’s stare and utterly composed, no-fucks-given excoriation was uncomfortable even when one wasn’t standing in the impact zone. It was like watching someone run face-first into a wall on a blooper reel or something - you had to wince, but there was also the urge to laugh. His girlish lips twisted slightly as he restrained a smirk - fortunately the hapless shop girl was staring at Jason as though he’d dropped a rattlesnake on the counter. “Uh… Right.” she said, sullenly dropping her gaze and placing the stacked condom boxes back on the counter. Though she was obviously mortified, she didn’t hesitate or delay in getting everything rung up, wanting the eerie lean youth and his busty trollop out of the place as soon as possible. “Dude.” Sean breathed as they exited the Walgreens and ambled down the sidewalk. “There’s time I wish I was a psychopath. That was awesome.” He started giggling. “‘Thank you for the potted history of your own underwhelming existence’.” Jason glanced down at him, smiling a little and shrugging. “What if I wasn’t?” he asked after they’d passed a few more shopfronts. “A psychopath, I mean.” In answer to Sean’s quizzical look, he briefly - or at least, as briefly as possible - explained what his mother had told him, which yes, also necessitated telling Sean she was in Shelly, and who it was. Sean wasn’t sure which news was more important. “Of course, I plan to make use of the Project’s gene labs and test myself.” Jason finished. “I’m not planning to take everything she says as gospel, but if she’s right and there’s a variance in the DNA…” “... does it really change anything?” Jason’s buxom buddy finished. “For you, I mean. Not that your mother’s back and seemingly genuine about being a part of your life again. That’s awesome, if it’s something you want, something you want to give a chance, sweet.” A nonplussed expression crossed Sean’s face and he shrugged awkwardly, reflecting on just what he had thought about Ms. Forster. Finding out she was his best friend’s mother made those thoughts somewhat uncomfortable, more than her claim she was an interdimensional alien, apparently. “I mean, ‘bout the alien stuff and your own... peculiarities. You might now know there’s something more to you than just a random series of genetic expressions, but you’re still you. You just might have some psychopathic elven aunts and uncles and cousins now.” Jason noticed Sean peering oddly up at him from the corner of his vision, in a way he couldn’t quite decipher. “What?” “Teulu sounds sort of Welsh, to me. I was just wondering if I’ve completely missed your ears being pointed all these years,” Sean teased. “Have you told your dad yet about your mom yet, or where she’s from and what she is yet?” “No. Not yet. He’s trying to recover himself since the events at Marias, and I’m concerned how it might affect him.“ Jason glanced down at his friend anew. “You seem rather more accepting of my potential heritage than I was expecting.” Sean’s shoulders slumped as he looked away. He shoved his hands into his pockets, his bag of purchases hanging about a slim wrist and bouncing against his leg. “You already said you were going to confirm before accepting, so I don’t have to tell you that.. “ Sean took a deep breath, and let it out in a long, slightly shaking sigh. “You guys all hate Dr. Cook, but I just… can’t. I can hate some of the things he’s done, but not him. He did - he has - helped me. I spoke to him after the quarantine, after what he’s told me, I can’t discount the possibility of aliens. That alien conspiracy guy meme is all over this, you see…” The two disparate friends made it back to Sean’s Grand Cherokee by the time Sean was done recounting what Dr. Cook had shared with him. Sean placed his bag in the backseat, closing the door and leaning back against it, arms crossed. “... and it looks Site B is my only chance.” Sean looked up at his friend, his uncanny eyes bright and intent with a self-bitterness he couldn’t quite hide from his friend. “You might come from self-aware brain-washed Bourne-like super soldiers, but at least your DNA isn’t trying to kill you.” 2014, July, Cassidy Residence “Did you want to go swimming?” Jason asked as he tried to resist Harley Quinn’s unrelenting assault with Martian Manhunter. He and Sean were sitting on the edge of his bed, playing Injustice: Gods Among Us. “No,” Sean replied tersely, redoubling the digital ass kicking he was giving his friend. He had more experience with the game, but he didn’t usually abuse his extra familiarity with a game to mercilessly destroy his friends. He wouldn’t throw a game - wanting to win as much as anyone - but rather kept it to a level that would push his opponent, give them time to learn and experiment. But he was having none of it now. “Why?” Jason asked, unperturbed, simply switching to another character for a rematch, while Sean stayed with Harley. “The weather is nice, we could bike to the pool at Johnson Memorial Park.” “I don’t want to! Ugh!” Sean almost threw his controller at the TV when Jason managed to get in a lucky counter and follow it with a combo, putting Harley down in the first round of the match. Sean tossed the controller on the bed. “We’ve played enough, I don’t wanna play anymore.” “Okay.” Jason turned off the Playstation, placing both controllers on top of the console. He’d noticed his friend becoming more moody and surly the last few weeks. “Now, I would like to point out, would be a good time to go swimming.” “I said I don’t wanna,” Sean groused, pulling his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around his legs. “I don’t even know how much we’ll do stuff this summer. I’m going to be going out of town, even out of state, a couple of times.” “Oh? Vacation?” Jason felt a vague sense of… something. Sean was just about the only friend he had made at school, and while he was used to entertaining himself, he had become habituated spending time at the Cassidy’s. “No.” Sean’s girlish features contorted into a pout and he glanced away. “I’m… sick, or something, and I’m gonna go see some doctors in Helena, and Chicago, and maybe New York, ‘cuz the doctors here don’t know what’s wrong with me.” “What’s wrong with you?” Jason gave Sean a frank appraisal. “You don’t look or sound sick.” “I don’t know,” Sean said, and for the first time, Jason thought Sean was… not exactly lying to him, but not telling him the truth. “My parents are probably worrying over nothing.” Briskly and without giving Jason a chance to respond, Sean hopped off the bed and began heading out the door. “I’mma gonna get a Pepsi. You want something to drink too?” “Yes.” Jason slid from the bed to his feet with his usual contained grace and followed Sean out of the room without saying anything more, his green eyes on his friend’s back as they went down to the kitchen. Sean had been moody of late, and whilst Jason had read that puberty could make neurotypical people erratic and temperamental, it seemed vastly out of character for Sean to be evasive or curt with him. Perhaps he was re-evaluating his friendship with Jason. Or perhaps it was nothing to do with Jason at all, and he was worried about something else. It would fit the pattern better : doctors, specialists perhaps. For a condition Sean didn’t want to discuss. Unheeding of the lean silent ghost following him, thinking Jason was just waiting on the bed, Sean went through into the kitchen, hearing the sounds of girlish laughter from outside - Teagan and her freshman buddies, playing out in the summer sunshine - a water fight from the sounds of things. He sighed grumpily - Teegs would let him join in, but Sean didn’t want to lose his baggy sweater right now, especially in front of gossipy high school girls. He bent over and peered in the fridge, grabbing a Pepsi for himself and cataloguing what else was in there that Jason might prefer. “We got some ice tea, if you waah-SHIT!” he’d turned his head to call back down the hallway and seen Jase right there, three feet away and regarding him with that serious, figuring-things-out-look he sometimes got in his eyes. “Jase! Man! Don’t do that!” “Do what?” Jason asked, still with his brow lightly furrowed as he examined his friend. “And ice tea is fine.” Sean glowered as he grabbed the jug from the fridge and got a cup down from the cupboard. “Sneak up on people. You coulda given me a heart attack.” “Is that what is wrong? A problem with your heart?” Jason asked calmly as he took the cup and jug and poured himself a drink. Sean blinked as his friend glanced at him, head tilting slightly to one side. “No! It was just a figure of speech, Jase.” Sean huffed, unable to stop himself from smiling a little. “Oh.” Jason nodded, still focusing on Sean as he took a drink from the cup. Lowering it, he went on. “If you want to talk to me about it, you can.” “I know.” Sean said more quietly. “I just don’t want to talk about it… not until I know more about it, or know it’s real, you know?” He watched Jason ponder that for a second, then nod. “When I know I need to talk about it, I’ll definitely tell you.” “Good.” Jason seemed satisfied, and they smiled at each other as the sounds from outside shifted and came closer- “Hey guys!” Teagan Cassidy, athletic body currently wearing a bikini and a soaking wet t-shirt, came bounding into the kitchen closely followed by her friends who, it has to be said because Jase and Sean were present, were all noticeably dressed the same way. Whilst not possessed of Teagan’s degree of athleticism, her friends were all involved in various sporting activities and, especially when soaking wet and bright-eyed from merriment, were distracting to boys on the cusp of adolescence. Even, Sean noted, to Jason. Which was weird. Jason didn’t historically notice girls - not as girls. They were just other kids he shared space with, whom he didn’t treat any differently than boys - almost everyone was held at polite, chilly arms length. While other eleven and twelve year old boys were sniggering and taking their first steps into adolescent courtship, egging each other on to be the first to kiss a girl or go on a date, Jason seemed serenely unconcerned. Sean had put it down to his undiscussed autism. But all of a sudden, as he tried not to stare - or at least, not get caught staring - at some of the bodies to which wet t-shirts were clinging and looked at his friend, he noticed Jason was studying them over the rim of his cup, green eyes as unabashedly intent as a cat watching birds bathing in a fountain. They seemed unaware, chattering excitedly about boys, or a sports meet, or plans for the weekend as they came over, bustling around the fridge and grabbing drinks, and Sean noted with a sense of vicarious embarrassment that Jason was watching them bend over to peer into the fridge, or lean against the counters, studying the curves of their bodies with a gaze that was both remotely appreciative and, though he wouldn’t think this until reviewing the incident later, somewhat intensely predatory for an eleven year old boy. He nudged his friend, and Jason merely switched his gaze from the girls to him as though he’d been disturbed watching television or a sunset, with no embarrassment at all. They went back to ‘Injustice’, drinks in hand, as the kitchen behind them rang with the chatter and laughter of the sophomores.
  6. 2019 - Monday, Labor Day morning, on the road. “Something internet-capable, with a camera capable of taking decent imagery and enough memory to be worthwhile. Reasonably up to date and modern. I also want a VPN on there, a good one.” Jase gazed out the window at the road ahead, his manner relaxed as he reeled off his requirements. “And thats just the shop-bought aspect. I will need you to use your skills and gifts, too. I want the thing unbreakable - if anyone so much as tries to bypass the passcode I set, I want the phone to delete all data stored and reset to factory settings. If possible I want the number hidden from trace attempts or call recognition software and hardware. Ideally I want to be able to call a person, or access the internet, and have no-one know it was me that did it unless I want them to.” “That’s a big ask.” Sean frowned a little, mulling over how it could be done. “Any reason?” “I like my privacy. I don’t like the idea of people being able to look over my shoulder whenever someone suitably high up in the FBI or NSA feels like authorising it.” Jason shrugged, smiling a little. “The alternative is buying up a bunch of burners, but that would get inconvenient for everyone else.” Sean’s head bobbed along to the music - acoustic guitar with an underscore of drums - as he considered the ask. A hair-trigger factory reset wasn’t hard - he knew Jase wouldn’t forget his password or anything - but simply slipping up would be on him. And he could suggest several great VPNs, or give Jase access to his own. The rest though… he’d been exploring his capabilities, had had a great deal of experience just last week, and was working through how his powers interacted with both hardware and software. Could he figure out a way to allow a smartphone to interface with any telecomm network invisibly? “You’ll wanna go with an Android, purely for the customization options,” Sean said, reaching back for a bottle of Pepsi, but couldn’t reach while keeping his eyes on the road. He gave his friend a put-upon glance and with a thought, Jase telekinetically retrieved a bottle for him, even unscrewing the cap. Sean nodded his thanks, and took a sip. His screwed the cap back on and plopped the bottle into the cup holder before continuing. “Samsung Galaxy, Pixel, OnePlus all have what you’re looking for. Can even go with Huawei - I can clean out anything the Chinese Government has left behind. The VPN and super buff password/factory-reset protocol, I got ya,” Sean assured Jase with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Hopping onto a network without anyone noticing unless you want them to… that’s going to be trickier. I can do it, but getting a smartphone to do something similar… I’ll have to tinker around some and do some testing, but I’m pretty sure I can figure it out.” He shot Jase a small smirk. “This isn’t just to get out of paying a monthly phone bill, is it?” “Not only that, at any rate,” Jason replied with inscrutable mirth. “Riiiiight…” Sean drawled. “Anyway, you might want a public phone as well as a private one. Actually, I could partition your phone with a hidden way to switch between public and private mode.” He pursed his full lips in a contemplative moue. “Actually actually, I should probably do this for all the Fellowship’s phones. If I can figure out that radio from the trailer, I might even be able to skip the cell grid entirely, when calling each other, anyway.” 2013 - March, Afternoon, Shelly Elementary THWACK! The rubbery, textured, not-quite-pink ball hit Sean in the chest like a cannon ball, knocking him clean off his feet and onto his back. The rest of the class ‘oooohed’ at solid hit. Gasping, trying to catch his breath against the pain, he squinted at the sunlight filtering in through the high windows of the gym, trying to hold back tears, a terminal sign of weakness in any grade-school aged boy. A shadow fell over him. Through his blurring sight, Sean could just make out the stocky form of Chet Walker. “Not so tall now, are you, Cassidy?” Chet growled in a low voice, reclaiming the dodge ball. “Now, let’s hear you squeal like a girl for your boyfriend.” And squeal Sean did, when Chet reached out with a thumb a forefinger to give him a purple nurple. Sean rolled over onto his side, hands going to his chest, almost gagging with how much it hurt. His body covering what he had, Chet backed away, trying to look completely innocent. “What happened?” Mr. Polanski demanded, coming out of the attached office, annoyed at the disruption. He’d been trying to catch up on marking papers while he let the kids destroy themselves at dodge ball. “Dunno, Mr. Polanksi,” Chet said, “Sean just got hit hard by the ball. Knocked the wind out of him.” “Sean, go to the change room and catch your breath. The rest of you, five more minutes, then it’s time to change out of your gym clothes.” Sean glared at Chet through brimming eyes, who returned with a shit-eating grin and feigned throwing the ball at him, making Sean flinch. At Chet and his friends chuckled, Sean hobbled to the change room. In the change room, Sean knuckled the tears from his eyes, then looked at himself in the mirror. Tentatively, he pulled up his shirt, then the one under it, and the one under that. He’d always been on the slender side, but lately, his chest had started to look puffy and swollen and he wondered if he was getting fat. He didn’t need that - looking like a girl and being fat. Now, one nipple, swollen and tight, was dark red, almost verging on purple from the purple nurple Chet had given him. It looked bad, and still throbbed with a dull, blunt pain. Should he go to the nurse? Cautiously, he touched it and hissed in through his teeth, shocked at how the pain suddenly sharpened. “I only got one,” Chet said with adolescent threat. Sean whirled around, not having heard Chet enter the change room. The door banged open behind the stockier boy, as a pair of his friends followed him in. Chet grinned. “Let’s make that purple nurple a matching set.” “Let’s not.” The words were quietly spoken, without a trace of excitement or fear, as Jason’s slim form slipped into the changing rooms behind the three. He’d been on the sidelines, tagged out earlier in the game and watching the other students with his usual detached interest. ‘That creepy kid’, as he was known, was oddly and unfairly not a target for Chet and his ilk, beyond the occasional snickering taunt or rude shoulder-slam which he appeared to absorb with the same cold-eyed attentiveness as he did everything else. In truth, Jase had marked every single taunt, every single shove and minor act of petty cruelty that was usually passed off as ‘boys being boys’. He could cite, chapter and verse, the exact time, date, and circumstances of each and every single one. His neurology was simply not equipped with the kind of emotional processing that normal kids possessed which enabled them to laugh off such treatment, or grumble and cuss about it, then leave it in the past, a necessary component of social cohesion bonding. He’d been waiting for Chet, or one of the others, to try and push things further than they had with him so he could exact stored up revenge for every slight to his dignity, but they never did, perhaps sensing in some rudimentary fashion that there was easier prey. Chet’s assault on Sean, it had occurred to Jason as he’d watched the bully and his cohorts furtively follow the girlish boy to the locker room, could perhaps be a pretext. After all, Sean had invited him round to his house once or twice, and was always friendly and civil when he saw him at school. In an abstract fashion the boy-who-wasn't appreciated such kindness and courtesy. Sean was a ‘friend’, was he not? At least so far as Jason understood such things. And friends defended friends. That was socially acceptable, if not always strictly within the limits of the rules. The rules did not bother Jason overmuch, but he had a nascent urge to camouflage himself socially. Not so much to 'fit in' as to 'blend in'. But he disliked Chet. Disliked the sniggering jackals that walked at his heels. And competing with the urge to disguise his nature was another, older urge. He wasn't exactly sure what to call it, but it was best described as an urge to correct the other boys mistaken apprehension regarding their place on the food chain. Chet and the other two boys, Alan and Finn, turned to look at Jason who was standing very still, watching them in that eerily intense manner he sometimes had. Or rather, watching Chet, his head tilted fractionally to one side as though considering something. “Shove off, Bannon.” Chet blustered, unamused at having his game spoiled. The new kid gave him the creeps - everyone knew his dad ran with that crazy militia and had been jailed for murder or drug-dealing or something. He also didn’t act right, at least so far as Chet’s understanding of the world dictated. Right now, in the prelude to a dominance contest Bannon should be nervous, his voice a little more shrill, perhaps trying to stand a little taller and puff out his chest. Instead he just stood as he always stood, a little bonelessly, slouching slightly, no shifting of his feet or balling of his fists. “Dude’s just going to stand and stare.” Alan sneered, stepping towards Jason. “Fuck off, faggot. Or we’ll give you a swirly once we’re done nurpling your girlfriend.” The only effect this seemed to have was Jason’s stare switching targets, from Chet to Alan. “Ooh, whatcha gonna do?!” The boy stepped forward some more, closing to just out of arms reach, some subconscious instinct perhaps warning him about coming closer. At least until Chet spoke up. “Yeah, let’s swirly the thrift-store reject. Grab him.” At the urging of his leader, Alan failed to heed that dimly-heard instinct and instead stepped forward once more, grabbing Jason’s skinny shoulders. Jase’s fingers twitched once, and his pale eyes gleamed. Right before he exploded into sudden, violent motion, hands coming up and locking around the larger boy’s throat. Alan yelled in surprise as surprisingly strong slender fingers tightened in a death-grip. He tried to pull away, but succeeded only in dragging the slender figure with him as the pair of them, tethered by a pair of scrawny-seeming arms, fell over a bench, landing on the floor. Alan tried to yell for help, but only succeeded in expelling more precious air from his lungs. He flailed punches at Jason’s ribs and stomach, but the leverage was bad and the panicked blows had little force behind them. Chet and Finn yelled and moved to help their friend, Chet trying to prise Jason’s fingers from their hold and Finn looping an arm over and around the skinny boy’s shoulders, trying to pull him away. Sean, still momentarily stunned at the sudden viciousness of the most un-schoolyard of brawls, saw Jason turned his head and bare his teeth, biting as hard as he could into the fleshy part of Finn’s forearm. Finn screamed, a high note of pain, and released his grasp only for Jason to likewise release his hold on Alan’s neck, turn with blood on his lips, and go for Finn’s throat in the same way. Alan sobbed as he sucked in air with hoarse gasps, tears running down his young face as, kneeling beside him, eyes wide with shock, Chet watched the Bannon kid bear Finn backwards by sheer vicious determination, the two of them crashing through the door to the changing rooms and emerging into the gym hall. They staggered through a cluster of girls nearby, who squealed and yelled in surprise as Finn strove to keep those hands from his throat, stumbling over someone’s foot and sprawling on the floor with Bannon atop him. Jason’s face was a mask of intent concentration, as though he were working on a tricky math problem rather than attempting to choke the life out of another child. He brought a knee up into Finn’s stomach, causing the other boy to gasp and his grip on Jase’s wrists to weaken... “That’s enough!” Mr Polanski shoved through the crowd that was gathering, moving past a wide-eyed Autumn Keane and not ungently propelling Cassie Allen out of his way. “Jason, Finn, knock it the hell OFF! Hey, I said- AHH-OW!!” He’d been in the process of yanking Jason bodily off his quarry, and in front of the entire gym class Jase turned under the grasping hand, agile as a young weasel, and to the gasps of horror and surprise of the onlookers sank his teeth deep into Mr Polanski’s wrist.
  7. The distraction was proving more than he could handle. After showering and throwing his laundry into the washer, Jason had tended to his hothouse, spending a good hour wandering the rows of flowering plants, testing soil pH and nitrogen levels, before giving a brief examination to the tiny kitchen garden plot he'd recently planted for fresh herbs. As the last of the day's light faded into evening he'd roamed back into the house, grabbed a book and settled down on the porch to read "A Romance of the Three Kingdoms." At least, that had been the plan, but without some necessary task to busy himself with he found his mind's eye drifting from the epic prose detailing a turbulent period in Chinese history and dwelling instead on pale ivory skin, stained with rose and dusted with flecks of bronze. He'd frowned as he'd caught onto the disruption of his focus, a certain wry amusement warring with the sensation of unease similar to that he'd noted when he had become aware of the sheer physical draw Autumn had possessed following that first passionate kiss. That temptation to abandonment, the sheer strength of the struggle against his normally insurmountable - or so he'd assumed it to be - Will had been concerning. And then, later, he had lost all sense of Self - surrendered it, in fact. And yet, the notion didn't trouble him as much as it should, when he considered the memory of desire-darkened blue eyes and kiss-reddened lips breathing his name... Jase sighed, setting aside the book as he realised he'd once more drifted. Rising from the porch bench, he paced a little, stopping at the rail and gazing in the direction in which lay, he knew, downtown Shelly. And the Old Town Hall. Which Cassandra and Autumn would be investigating tonight. And why should they not? Both girls were capable. They had uncovered Cook's kidnapping of Etienne, had found their own way down into the Project's underground facility without aid from anyone else. Between Cassandra's clairsentient gift and Autumn's ability to detect and influence biology, as well as their more practical skills, they should be fine. Just fine. "Fuck." Jason swore softly, unusually agitated. Autumn was capable. She wasn't helpless or lacking in wit or bravery. But Cassie's description of the monster Cody had become was not a pleasant image. And yet... To insist on being present, to insist on protecting Autumn, was that to imply a lack of trust in her own ability? Of course it wasn't, he told himself as he paced back and forth. It was a natural desire, to protect that which you cared for. He'd felt similarly, albeit less strongly about it back when Cass and Autumn had announced their scouting mission, before the revelations of Friday evening, before that first kiss... Only now the feeling was more urgent, as was the sense that if something did happen, he would be too far away to help. It was frustrating, and it was easy to isolate that the simple significant difference was that now, Autumn was more than a friend. Possessiveness? Care? Or just a strong desire to keep her healthy and well so that he could experience more sensation with her? All three, he decided, letting out a snort of self-directed wry amusement. Scooping up his book, he moved back indoors, past the kitchen where his dad and Hank were drinking beers and bickering over their chess game and upstairs, to flop back onto his bed and stare at the ceiling. Obviously reading was out right now, with the memory of her so strong and demanding in his mind. He could practically feel her weight against his arm and her breath tickling his skin as she rested her head on his shoulder, could smell her hair and the warmth of her skin... This was, putting it mildly, crazy. He, who prided himself on his Will and focus, to be affected by another person in this way. Witchcraft! It has to be! he mused ironically, amused at the way that such feelings -and they were feelings - seemed to bypass his icy self-control. He closed his eyes, attempting to focus, to clear his mind and to walk the hallways of his memory palace so that he could set things in order- -and found himself back beside the campfire on Friday evening, feeling the warm silken glide of Autumn's skin against his, the press of her lips and teeth against his neck as her hips undulated- "Shit." he groaned quietly as his eyes shot open. He sat up, staring at the far wall as though the blank paintwork would provide a solution. "Shit." he said again, with more feeling. He wasn't going to quit. He would get this distraction under control. He would process the memories and perfectly recalled sensations, and store them somewhere in his memory palace where they would not be able to break out and wreak havoc on his focus. His wry self-observation noted that the processing would probably call for several cold showers. It was going to be a long night.
  8. Early Saturday Evening, The Bannon Farm "Here he comes." Hank said to Gar without looking up from the chessboard, taking a thoughtful sip of beer as the growl of the Charger's V8 filled the air. "$20 bucks." he added with a wry grin before essaying a hesitant knight move. "Sure." Gar's response was swift, both verbally and on the board as he shifted a pawn with a click before sitting back, leaving his friend scowling as he tried to spot the new pattern. "Why'd I ask you to teach me this game again?" Hank complained as the kitchen door opened and Jason breezed in, humming something under his breath. Hank shot Jase's father a meaningful smirk, but Gar just patiently tapped the edge of the chessboard as he looked at his son. "Have a good time?" he asked as Jason, noticing the chessboard on the kitchen table, grabbed a glass of water and came over to study the game. Keen pale icy green eyes examined the board for an instant before moving to Gar's inquisitive stare. "Yes." Jason nodded, a faint smile on his lips as he also noted the opened pizza boxes. "You two?" "Oh, we got the machinery tuned up. And one of the Sons has a patented soil mixture he's going to share with us for grow beds. Apparently he can get a single tomato plant to yield close to a hundred and fifty tomatoes." Gar explained, Jason's expression changing to one of interest. "I'm thinking when you get the time you can check it out, see what you think." "Sure." Jason nodded, grabbing a slice from the open box nearest to him. "Might be something I can use for my hothouse. Provided there's no long term toxicity effects..." "So what did you guys get up to?" Hank asked with a smirk that could not be more obvious. Jason sighed around a mouthful of pizza, chewed, and swallowed. "We cleared up the camp site, swam in the creek, cooked on an open fire, went hiking and climbing, and then her mom invited me to stay for dinner." Jase's stare was unwavering as he met Hank's eyes. "Also, you're about to lose your king's bishop." He appended as he got up from the table. "Is that all?" Hank asked the slender young man's back as he went to refill his water glass. "No." Was all Jase answered as he left the room. Gar stared, then looked back at Hank as the ex-Marine crowed triumphantly and held out his hand. Muttering, Gar dug a twenty out of his pocket and slapped it into Hank's palm, then got up from the table. "Jase?" The utterance of his name brought the young genius up short as he ascended the stairs. Half-turning, he looked back down at his father's expression of earnest concern. Gar paused, considering. This would have been a difficult conversation even with a normal teenage boy, but the shining chips of green ice glimmering from the shadows of the staircase were calm and intent. "Were you, uh, careful?" "Yes. In fact, because I didn't have condoms, we held off from going the whole distance." Jason answered with a shrug. "I'll likely be going to get some on Monday." "Oh." Gar reflected that, on the whole, it was better than only one side of the conversation feel awkward, right? "So... Look, I'm not an expert or anything, but if you need someone to talk to..." His voice trailed off. Of course his son didn't need anyone to talk to. "I mean... Uh, Autumn's a really nice girl." he said, feeling helpless in the face of that calm, expectant stare. "She is." Jason nodded, then paused and studied his father's expression intently before appearing to make a decision and turning, coming back down the stairs to sit on one of the bottom-most, his face level with Gar's. "It's very new for me, this sensation. Very intense. It's distracting and odd to me, and hard to control." He admitted, regarding his father. "And it just happened, too. We were talking, and then... Fwoosh." "Fwoosh?" Gar echoed, sitting next to his son and musing that it was strange that the same self-possession that made Jase so daunting at times also made some conversations far, far easier. Jason nodded, smiling faintly. "Fwoosh." he repeated. "It was like... I had a similar moment with Marissa once but she drew back, so the spark didn't catch fire. But Autumn didn't draw back - I went to kiss her and she kissed me." "Right." Gar nodded, trying to set aside the discomfort of the conversation and focus on being a father. "Well, I guess it's a good thing, right? This fwoosh?" He smiled a little as Jason nodded soberly. "It feels very good. Just... it also feels like a LOT." "Yeah, it can." Gar chuckled softly. "It definitely can, with some women. But that's good, Jase. That's living right. Your mother..." He paused, taking a breath and letting it out. Jason looked at him, studying his father's face and eyes, a blind man still with an imperfect knowledge of Braiile. "Your mother made me feel that way. Like I was the center of a star." He gave a soft snort of laughter. "Yeah, fwoosh indeed." "Do you regret that?" Jason asked, eyes narrowing. His father shook his head sadly. "I regret that she left us. I wonder why she did it. But I'm not going to regret loving her, not anymore." Gar said slowly, his hazel eyes distant. "I did, for awhile. But I know she cared about me, kiddo. You can't fake the fwoosh." he added with a nudge. "Did you ever upset or hurt mom?" Jason asked softly, his gaze pensive. "I ask because Autumn's mom asked what I would do if I hurt her without meaning to." "Oh, we had some rows." Gar nodded. "Worst was before we were engaged. She was a strong-willed woman, and didn't like to talk about where she came from or her family. That bothered me a bit, so I pressed, and she up and dumped me." "What did you do?" "I apologised." Gar said with a smile. "With a lot of flowers, right there in her college classroom in front of everyone. I tried to get a buddy of mine to play a guitar so I could serenade her, but in retrospect that would have probably made it worse. I apologised, and told her I didn't care about her past, and that I only cared about being in her future." "But your curiousity was natural." Jason stated. "She could have been hiding something dangerous to you." "I chose to trust that, if there was something that could hurt me, she'd care about me enough to tell me." Gar replied quietly. "And if I couldn't trust her that much? Well, then I had no business saying I loved her." He looked at Jason's thoughtful expression and smiled a little. "I'm glad you had fun this weekend, Jase. Are you and Autumn dating, now?" "Yes." Jason nodded, eyes still deep in thought. "She's agreed to come to Homecoming with me. And we'll probably be dating a little before that, too. If we can stop kissing each other long enough." he added with a sly grin. Gar coughed, the cough turning into a laugh. "Christ, son! That is too much information." He nudged Jase, smiling, and stood. "I'm going to get back to the chess game before Hank eats the pieces." "I heard that!" Hank called from the kitchen. "I know!" Gar shot back, grinning as Jason, still thoughtful, stood and moved up the stairs. He glanced up at the lean shape of the youth as it eclipsed the stair light, and hoped that, whatever was going on inside the expanses of Jason's mind, it was not beyond his baffling son's ability to handle.
  9. ...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?"
  10. Sunrise did, indeed, come early. As the cloak of Night dissolved, her stygian velvet transmuted into the diaphanous lavender silks of Dawn, she extended golden fingers across the sky, reaching across rocky hillsides and pine forests toward a small clearing alongside a rushing stream and finding only a solitary young man preparing for the day ahead. Like the sun itself, he’d awakened easily and without fanfare, transitioning smoothly from sleep to full awareness without any of the attendant sluggishness or confusion typical of others his age. Stepping out into the early morning light, Jason Bannon rose from the low opening of his tent into a luxuriant, full-body stretch as he scanned the clearing, noting the lack of disturbance from nocturnal visitors as well as the reassuring crackle of the slow-burning fire nearby. As always, the temperature had dropped just after daybreak, but he was largely indifferent to such things, his bare feet silent on the cool earth and sparse grass as he padded across the clearing to gaze out across the water. There was no sign of activity from the neighboring tent, he noticed with some amusement as he passed, which meant he had some time yet to enjoy the simple pleasure of being alone in nature, free from the restrictions or demands of social convention. As the sun rose over the horizon, the rangy youth closed his eyes, savoring the suggestion of warmth on his face as a cool breeze wound across the hills, the sound of the stream in his ears and the crisp, clear air filling his lungs as he drew in a deep breath. The word that sprang to mind was “idyllic,” with all its connotation of transience and picturesque, natural simplicity. It was a simultaneously restful and invigorating experience, very different in tone from the trips he’d taken with Hank and his father and one he wouldn’t mind repeating on his own. A solo outing would be a good opportunity to explore and evaluate his skills, and Autumn had stated the previous day that he was welcome here. Though he surmised that she’d intended her words to mean he had permission to use the campsite even if she wasn’t present, it was usually more expedient to simply ask; perhaps he would do so, later. For now, there were matters of hygiene and biology which required his attention. Despite the absence of modern amenities, Jase had quickly determined that there was little real impediment to carrying out his normal routine. The wide-mouthed kettle Autumn had set aside the night before, ostensibly to make coffee when they woke, made a perfectly serviceable vessel for dipping into the brisk current of the creek; in applying a trivial measure of his pyrokinetic gift to heat the water contained therein, it occurred to him that he could probably be quite comfortable living this way if it ever became necessary to do so. The rote tasks of washing up, brushing his teeth, and shaving took on a subtly different character in the open air, surrounded by the morning chorus of birds, insects, and other creatures- there was no idle conversation, no unwelcome distraction, nothing extraneous or unnecessary. It was, as he had noted before, peaceful, for all the vibrancy and activity the place contained. He disposed of the soapy water some distance away from the stream itself, and refilled the container again to rinse the residue from his skin. The tranquil solitude, a welcome respite from the events of the week, lasted until the final vestiges of lilac and gold had all but faded from the sky. As he was pulling on his boots, a series of muffled curses and the agitated rustling of blankets from within Autumn’s tent ended with the bleary-eyed redhead stumbling into the clearing and emphatically asserting, despite all evidence to the contrary, “I’m awake, I’m awake.” Absently hitching up the waist of her pajama pants with one hand, she blinked at the tall young man who already looked as if he’d been up for hours. “Oh. Hey,” the semi-conscious girl murmured, smiling faintly as she raked her fingers through the disheveled curls that seemed almost to possess a will of their own. “Morning. Um…” There was a brief pause as she stretched and blinked again, and then gave talking one more try. “I’ll get coffee started, because I’m gonna need it, and then I’m… mm… gonna go get cleaned up.” She glanced over at the creek, considering- the water had been cool enough to be bracing, but not so much that it was uncomfortable. “Then breakfast. Sound good?” she inquired, turning blue eyes still clouded by sleep in his direction. It was curious, the wry internal observer that was (almost) always active noted, the myriad ways in which the emergence of Autumn from her tent affected him. Though he’d known she’d been in there, and indeed imagined her asleep with her glory of red-gold hair strewn around her face, the sight of her brought a faint smile to his lips - a smile of mild amusement at her dishevelled manner as well as a smile of simple pleasure at her presence. Also present was the faint surge in his blood at the sight of her as perfectly remembered kisses and caresses - indelibly associated with her presence - played out in the full-sensory theatre of his mind’s eye, accompanied by a distracting hunger for more of her that showed briefly in the gleam of the youth’s eyes. Autumn, still wrestling her brain into a full semblance of wakefulness though she was, nevertheless did not miss that look or its import, any more than a deer would mistake the gleam in the eye of a stalking lynx. Unlike the doe, however, she neither froze nor ran, but smiled with rose once more tinting her cheeks as the predator in question stood, stamping his feet down into his boots to settle them, then walked over to her. Jason leaned down, hands sliding with assured possessivity over her waist and hips and drawing her in for a quick kiss. “Sounds very good.” he murmured with a slight grin tugging at one edge of his mouth as he breathed in the scent of her, still warm from sleep. “Kettle’s filled up and ready to go. Want me to do anything while you’re getting washed up?” I have some ideas... “Mmhmm,” Autumn hummed almost immediately, still smiling up at him as she hooked her fingers through his belt loops, pulling him closer and leaning up on her tiptoes to steal back the kiss he’d taken. “We already agreed to wait, though, and I can’t think of anything else.” Her eyes widened as they met his, their clear blue depths even brighter against the deepening scarlet of her cheeks. “I mean, I can’t think of anything else for you to do,” she clarified, unable to suppress a slightly abashed grin. “Although- there’s eggs and cheese and stuff in the ice chest, and a skillet in the storage…” Her voice trailed off as she paused; this close, the fresh scent of Jase’s soap, or cologne, or aftershave, or whatever it was he’d used was nigh-intoxicating, sending delightful tingles cascading down her spine as her gaze trailed down to his chest. “...the storage, um…” Tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear and exhaling, she tried again. Use your words, Autumn. “Sorry,” she admitted distractedly, trying to resist the urge to just press her face into his shirt and instead looking upward, focusing on the subtle quirk at the corner of his mouth. “You just- you smell really nice. But, yeah, anyway, storage container,” the flustered redhead finally managed. “If you’re hungry now, and don’t want to wait for me to finish.” “I’ll make you some breakfast too, while you’re getting cleaned up.” he stated in a low tone, plainly enjoying the effect he was having on her as he bent down and grazed his lips along her cheek to her ear, breathing in deeply, obviously enjoying the warm scent of her in turn before murmuring “We did agree to wait, but there’s plenty else I can think of to do…” in a tone that contained hunger and playful desire in equal measure that caused her abdomen to flutter and liquify. “Like hiking.” he finished as he straightened up once more, his expression deadpan except for the gleam in his eyes. “For instance.” Now that she was well and truly awake, Autumn could feel what seemed like every drop of blood in her body sweeping up into her face as a torrent of conflicting emotions- desire, disbelief, embarrassment, and mirth- all roiled through her simultaneously. He had to be messing with her... Had to be. It was hard to decide whether she wanted to kiss him, laugh, or call him a jerk- or maybe a combination of those. What was easy to work out was that she couldn’t just let such an obvious provocation go unanswered. “Hiking,” she repeated intently, slowly letting out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. This motherfucker. “Y’know, you are so right.” For all that she was blushing furiously, a faint smile slowly drew the corners of her mouth upward as she straightened visibly, releasing her hold on the waistband of his trousers. “Good call. I’ll get the coffee started, then.” Humming quietly as she turned and headed over to the firepit, Autumn swept up her designated fire-poking stick and repositioned two of the still-smoldering logs so that they were parallel to each other, not quite touching. Plunking the heavy kettle straight down on top of them, she busied herself with grabbing a couple of well-worn enamelled steel mugs, measuring the coffee out, and adding the aromatic grounds straight to the rapidly-warming water. “Just give that a little bit to really start boiling, like a serious, rolling boil, and then maybe…” The energetic redhead disappeared briefly inside her tent, reappearing a moment later with her towel. “Four minutes? Five? Depends on how strong you want it,” she added. “Pull it off the fire, give it another minute or two, pour a little cold water around the rim. Boom. Done. I should be out by then, but just in case.” She smiled over at him, her nose crinkling slightly as she turned and headed toward the creek. This. Mother. Fucker. So her completely, totally impossible boyfriend would never be flustered, Autumn reflected. So she’d never see him embarrassed, or probably anything less than composed. At least, she decided, he could still be “distracted.” “Be right back,” she called over her shoulder, the grin audible in her voice. “I don’t wanna make us late for hiking.” Without any further discussion or warning, his impulsive red-haired companion stripped off her t-shirt, tossing it aside as she walked away. A few steps later her blue-striped pajama bottoms followed, and then- nothing, because there was nothing else to remove. Just like that she walked down to the shoreline and draped her towel over a low-hanging branch, her bare skin bright as polished ivory in the morning sunlight, before wading into the bracing current of the stream and diving beneath the surface. It was exactly as cool as she’d remembered- refreshing, but not unpleasant. And, with luck, sufficient to put out the flames burning in her cheeks. He watched astonished at first, then with comprehension of the game as his girlfriend had shed her clothes and walked, naked as the woodland sprite he’d previously compared her to, away from him. On an impulse he followed silently at a short distance, watching her pick her way barefooted down to the creek, and as his eyes ran down her form Jason forever emblazoned the image of Autumn like that: a pale ivory flame crowned with elfin gold, the lithe strength of her limbs offset by the feminine curves of her body against waters lit by the risen sun, on his memory. He watched her dive into the water and turned, smiling, as he headed back to the fire. The temptation was strong to stay, to remove his own clothing and dive in after her, but he understood this game, enjoyed the exciting effect he had on her and she on him. A quote came to mind: “Hunger is good discipline.” He was hungry for her, as she was for him, and the playfulness felt right as they gently ran fingers over each other's nerve-endings to tease now and then. So he set about assuaging the other corporeal hunger, checking the storage container and finding various breakfast foodstuffs and the skillet. He kept an eye on the coffee pot as he fried bacon, now and then cocking an ear to hear the distant sounds of Autumn splashing in the creek. Tearing the sizzling bacon into pieces with his telekinesis, he set about preparing the other ingredients, humming quietly to himself as he worked. It was a simple pleasure, to work with his hands, but a profound one. He’d always enjoyed that tactile sense of connection to the world, a reminder that he was part of it and could enact upon it, whether that was turning raw ingredients into meals or restoring and rebuilding a classic muscle car. Perhaps that was as much the foundation of his particular manifestation of Shine as any other aspect of his character. When Autumn came padding up from the creek, barefoot and with a towel around her torso, she was greeted with the smells of coffee and cooking breakfast as Jason glanced up from his work. Green eyes glittered as he regarded her with a brief, intense gaze that did as much to shake off the lingering chill of the water as the campfire before he smiled softly and turned back to keep stirring the contents of the skillet. The flame-haired girl glanced around, noting that her t-shirt and pajama bottoms had been set neatly just inside the flap of her tent, before smiling to herself as she stepped in behind her crouching boyfriend and carefully folded her arms around his shoulders, making sure she didn’t interfere with what he was doing or push him into the fire as she leaned against him a little. Kissing his neck, she stayed like that for a moment or two longer, enjoying the warmth and scent of him, before disengaging and moving over to her tent to get dressed. She emerged a few minutes later, drying hair left loose, and smiled broadly as Jase set down a plate of scrambled eggs, mixed with bacon, tomato and cheese, piled neatly on her plate next to a couple of fire-toasted slices of bread. The coffee-kettle had been shifted off the logs, set on one of the broad, flat stones around the campfire and cold water added. “Mmm. I could get used to the service.” Autumn shot him a grin as she sat down, reaching for the enamelled mugs and preparing two cups of coffee. “Black, right? You know they say that’s a sure sign of a psychopath.” she teased, wrinkling her nose at him as she smiled. “I know. Sucks to be so stereotypical.” Jason deadpanned. “They do say that those who take their coffee black are more likely to be psychopaths… and that those who order a quad-shot, non-fat vanilla soy, extra foam with whipped cream and a caramel drizzle are most likely to be their victims.” “Hey, what’ve you got against whipped cream and caramel drizzle?” Autumn asked, laughter bubbling in her voice as she handed him his mug before taking her own and adding a little sugar. “That’s not coffee, that’s a dessert. There’s better uses for them than to put them on coffee.” he retorted, the edges of his eyes crinkling in amusement, sipping his drink before setting it aside and picking up his own plate of food. They ate in companionable quiet for a few minutes, enjoying the peaceful morning, the birdsong and sound of the creek, now and then catching one another’s eye and smiling. The horrors and dramas of the last week, the normal travails of teen life, and parents, and school, seemed very far away right now to both of them. Autumn, chewing thoughtfully, was mulling over how at-ease she felt around a young man whom, by every conventional wisdom, she should be steering a wide berth around. Who had gone, in the course of a week, from a boogeyman to a friend to someone she’d walk into danger for… and now to a boyfriend who made her blood sing with every kiss. Jason’s thoughts were more or less along similar lines, his constant self-analysis finding that the inclusion of this new facet of life was satisfying, pleasing - all the more so because there was no deception involved. Autumn knew who he was, what he could do and, he felt, understood him well enough that she knew she had little to fear. He could be himself - and she still liked him, was still attracted to him. He resolved that she should also know what he was, and probably soon. Last night just hadn’t seemed like the best time to bring up… well, aliens. Breakfast done, they cleaned up, put the fire out - a task made easier by the presence of someone who could just look at a fire and extinguish it - and after packing a few essentials and climbing gear, set out on their hike. They moved through the woods to start, following an old game trail Autumn had walked many times before. The last of summer’s warmth was still there in the kiss of the sun through the branches and leaves overhead, striking glints of light from Autumn’s hair and Jason’s eyes as they walked together side by side. Now and then Jason would stop and examine a particular flowering plant, or a fungus growing on a rotted log with brief casual interest before resuming, and at other times Autumn would stop and wordlessly point at a porcupine curled in the crook of a branch of a tree, or smile and nudge Jason to draw his gaze to a woodpecker clinging to the bark, drilling industriously for its food. Other times they spoke quietly - Jason’s enquiries prompting Autumn to talk about the Girl Scout activities she’d taken part in and the lessons her grandfather had imparted - a childhood learning to hunt, fish and shoot. “What, never?” Autumn sounded surprised, which she was as she glanced at Jason after his admission. “No.” he shrugged matter of factly. “Odd, I know. My father has guns, Hank has guns, and I’ve been to plenty of militia gatherings where I was surrounded by guns. But I’ve never handled one, or hunted.” “Never wanted to?” She asked, blue eyes studying him as they walked together. “I have, yes.” he nodded. “Hank always talked about once I was in Junior year teaching me to hunt and shoot… And I guess now that I’m getting training from him, guns will be part of that when he thinks I’m ready.” “Ready?” Autumn frowned. Most teen boys in rural Montana at least had some experience with hunting rifles. Jason’s face was calm as he shrugged once more, a surprisingly eloquent gesture on his lean frame. “I guess he’s treating me as a special case due to my - let's call it ‘lack of compunctions’. He’s teaching me discipline as much as combat skills. Restraint - to find the middle gears between doing nothing and going too far.” Glittering jade eyes turned to regard her as he smiled a little. “Mostly so far it consists of him painfully humiliating me to see if I can hold off from turning him into a frisbee.” “Yeah, but you held off from doing anything to those guys at school.” Autumn reminded him, her expression earnest. “And they weren’t just giving you a few bumps and bruises.” “True.” Jason replied. “But that was more to avoid being outed as having powers than because I genuinely didn’t want to hurt them.” “Doesn’t matter why you held back.” The redhead smiled at him. “Same with Dr. Cook - sure, you frightened the bejeezus out of him… and everyone else present… but you didn’t actually do anything other than manhandle him a bit.” She reached out and took his hand in hers without breaking stride, giving it a slight squeeze and smiling again as she felt his slender fingers return the clasp. “There’s worse people than you.” “Don’t let that get out.” came the dry reply, but Jason’s eyes crinkled slightly at the corners as he spoke. “It’ll ruin my image.” Remembering the conversation from the previous night, Autumn glanced at him from the corner of her eye as she tried valiantly to maintain a neutral, conversational tone. "Which image is that?" she asked impishly, sidestepping the crumbling remnants of a thick tree branch. "The unpleasant acerbic dickhead?" "Amongst other things." Jason replied with a faint, sharp grin that flashed long enough for her to notice then faded back into his habitual wry quarter-smile. He was quiet for a few minutes more, eyes glinting as they scanned the morning-lit woods, then said quietly "You remember I said my mother came to visit me." There was a brief hesitation, less a pause in her forward motion than a flicker, an eyeblink, as her pale fingers twitched where they entwined with his. She did remember, and remembered, too, how oddly cautious he'd sounded over the phone. "Yeah," his red-haired companion nodded. That he’d mentioned it at all suggested it was important, especially if he was bringing it up again. "Honestly, I wondered about that after you hung up. You said you thought maybe you understood her better... How did that go?" "It was civil." Looking up at the intricate patterns of the sunlight through the leaves and branches above he seemed pensive, and his thumb smoothed lightly over the backs of her fingers almost as though he were grounding himself in the Now rather than retreating from it. "She apologised, and explained herself. And, if she was telling the truth, she revealed something I am still coming to terms with." His eyes slid to regard her calmly and he drew them both to a stop, turning to face Autumn. "Can I confide in you? It's something that might be awkward, maybe? I'm not sure." His gaze studied her face, and the glimmer of the sun in her eyes and hair, as though storing them and this moment against what might come. She drew in a long breath, exhaling slowly as she focused on what Jason was actually saying, the almost imperceptible note of uncertainty in his voice, rather than the still-unfamiliar sensation of being so intently observed. This was the woman who'd abandoned him, left a small boy and his distraught father behind and simply disappeared once she knew what he was. What apology could inspire this kind of shift in his attitude? That's not the kind of betrayal you just move past, she considered, curiosity etching faint lines between her brows. Taking his other hand in hers, Autumn nodded again, meeting his gaze with a tiny smile. "I'm kind of a pro at awkward. And, besides, like I told you before. It's part of the rules that, as your friend, I have to listen if something's on your mind." His eyes met hers in that habitual, direct stare she associated with him, even though the context changed in small, profound ways when set against the events of yesterday, last night, and their currently intertwined fingers. "Well. It turns out I might not be a psychopath." He paused a heartbeat, then went on "In fact, if she was truthful, I'm not even human. Nor is she." Blinking up at him as morning sunlight filtered down through the canopy, catching the bronze in his hair alight and sparking the pale green of his eyes into captive emerald flame, Autumn had the sudden, mad thought that she could readily believe it. She searched his face for the telltale crinkling at the corners of Jase's eyes, the subtle twitch of his mouth that suggested he was teasing, but found no sign of either. "Oh," she replied. It would've been easy to make light of that seriousness, deflect some of the discomfort by joking that, really, it wasn't that surprising a revelation under the circumstances... But he wasn't being flippant, and regardless of how completely insane it sounded, she didn't think he'd just make it up, either. "So..." The blue-eyed young woman hesitated, unsure what the appropriate response to something like that was. "Um, so if you're not human, what are you?" His head tilted slightly, in that way that betokened some element of surprise or curiousity about a person's behaviour. She hadn't drawn back. She hadn't laughed, or scoffed as Devin had. It struck him again how resilient Autumn was - that stoic doggedness to see a thing through, then process it afterwards rather than freak out in the moment and try to combine said processing with the business at hand, a trait of some of his peers that frankly baffled him. “Apparently an offshoot hominid race designed and deliberately evolved for fearlessness, heightened intelligence and aggression, pragmatism, and similar traits that further survival and propagation." he said in answer to her question.
  11. And, just like that, with no more than a look and the brush of his lips against her hand, Autumn forgot how to breathe all over again, her lower abdomen tightening with the force of her reaction in an aftershock, an echo of the cataclysmic pleasure she’d just endured. It lasted only for a moment, but she had a vague sense that it wouldn’t be the last time he would evoke such a reaction from her with such seemingly inconsequential acts. ...God, I am so, so not surviving until Homecoming, she mused, uncertain in that moment whether she would even be lucky enough to survive the night. As his doomed companion watched the tiny, fractional changes at the corners of Jase’s eyes, the near-imperceptible movement of his lashes, the subtle curve of his mouth, she was again struck by the need to break through that composed veneer, to see beneath the surface, to find out if he felt- or could feel- that same sense of connection that had made the whole experience feel so much more real, more intense, more… everything, really, than just a make-out session in the woods. What did this mean to him, though? Was it just an intellectual exercise for him, or maybe just carnal sensation, the sating of physical appetite? She was keenly aware of her need for this to be meaningful to him, too, to reach within the armor of the impenetrable, impossible boy, to touch his essential Self as he had touched hers. Her natural curiosity once more winning out over trepidation, the clear blue of Autumn’s gaze swept slowly over his face in a phantom caress as the backs of her fingers trailed from her lover’s cheek to follow the curve of his throat. It was an unhurried, languorous pursuit, tracing meandering arcs- now with her fingertips, now the blunt edge of her nails- that swirled down over his collarbone and along his ribs, the broad spirals drifting gradually lower and her smile widening incrementally with each sharp inhalation or flutter of his eyelids. Not so impervious after all, she realized, with a growing sense of triumph and her own power - she was doing this, coaxing reactions from his body that, for all Jason’s icy control, he could not suppress. The undisguised delight she felt at every reaction, however miniscule, was evident in the rapt intensity of her expression, the suffusion of warm color beneath her skin; whatever hint of pleasure she perceived in his responses was reflected in her features as she gazed up at him. She could practically feel the heat radiating from his bare torso, could almost chart the currents of his desire in the rise and fall of his chest as the shallow, rapid pace of his breathing mirrored her own, but it was the undeniable proof of Jase’s arousal, insistent and unyielding against her hip, that caused a tremor deep in her core which vibrated, ever so slightly, in the caress of her hand on the smooth skin of his stomach. Resisting the urge to glance down was an exercise in resolve, one she overcame only by the narrowest of margins, and only then by reminding herself that she had definitely already seen him naked, and this was totally no big deal. ...Okay, she admitted as her focus wavered momentarily to the feeling of his body pressed against her, maybe not entirely accurate, but still! Inhaling to steady her nerves and realign her thoughts, Autumn concentrated instead on the play of the firelight over his face, the warm texture of his skin, the faint vibration beneath the curious brush of her fingertips- more teasing than tentative as they roved inexorably toward the fly of his trousers. Intent on her features as she watched him, Jason could see himself reflected in the wide, ocean-dark pools of her eyes, could almost have tracked the movement of her hand by the changes in her expression alone. The rich color of her cheeks deepened by degrees, and he felt the gentle tug as she gingerly unfastened the button her questing fingers encountered, heard clearly the hitch in her breath and the soft sigh of her exhalation over the sound of each individual metal tooth parting as she drew the zipper downward. Jason’s heart had sped up a little throughout their intimacy thus far, maintaining a pulse that felt like a steady drum in his chest even as the delicious drawn-out tension of her slowly-moving fingers caused his breath to quicken and catch very slightly. Their eyes locked on one another, Jason felt a thrill he’d rarely experienced, a sensation he classified as a reaction to… not danger, exactly, but vulnerability. To Autumn, in this moment, he was vulnerable - not in the sense of physical harm, but in the sense that she could sway his reactions, dictate the pace of his heart and the quickness of his breath, strum his nerves as he had played on her own mere moments ago. And yet at the same time, looking into the depths of her naked soul - or so it seemed - she was utterly vulnerable to him as well. The sigh that contained a hint of expectant need, the way her teeth indented her lower lip and the red suffusing her features deepened even as she was the actor, rather than the acted-upon… Or was she? Was it that clear-cut? Jason doubted it. This was all so new to him that he wasn’t precisely sure where his sense of himself ended and his sense of Autumn began. Still lingering was the unfamiliar sense of savage possessive tenderness that had surged as she had tensed, arched and cried out in his arms. He had been acting upon her, for certain, and yet in her vulnerable surrender to his touch she had also acted upon him. This then, he realised with a flash of insight, was what it meant to connect, to be connected to another person, at least as closely as he could approximate the condition, and the realisation caused his eyes to widen and his breathing to stop altogether for a moment as he gazed down into the wells of emotional warmth that were Autumn’s eyes. “Are you okay?” she murmured softly, her hand stilling its tugging on his zipper as she caught the sudden change in the texture of his reactions. She could feel him there past the fabric and the metal of the fly, a tantalising solidity, and yet she paused, her other hand gently stroking the hair over his ears, her touch gentle and warm in a way that was not merely physical. That warmth- her warmth. The vibrancy that had drawn him to her. It entered him through that connection, radiant as the campfire that illuminated both the entwined lovers, and it warmed him in places that were habitually cold. Her touch, whether as a function of her Shine or simply the more mundane but no less wondrous alchemical properties of tender female contact, carried the same warm properties as her gaze. The moment of shock passed, but the warmth did not, and he smiled in answer to the question, the hungry flame coming back into his eyes redoubled. “I was just thinking… no, feeling that I am very okay.” he told the pretty redhead as he lowered his lips to hers. The kiss was a brush, at first, then a slightly firmer press as he let his own fire well up from inside, his mouth opening against hers, feeling hers open against his, their tongues gently teasing each other as he set aside the last of his tightly-held reserve, allowed the vulnerability of his own need and desire to manifest, his breath catching as he felt that utterly amoral and primitive urge set his mind ablaze. The last vestiges of his icy analysis melting away, Jason was left aware only of the feel of her in his arms, her skin on his skin, the contrast of soft breast and hard nipple pressed to his chest, Autumn’s hand pressing insistently against him through the material of trousers that were an irritating barrier. A faint growl in the back of his throat carried into the kiss as the hand that had been stroking the glorious tumble of Autumn’s hair slid around to the nape of her neck, slender fingers weaving into the base of her hair there and tightening into a gentle fist, anchoring her so he could possessively, even roughly claim her mouth with his, his heartbeat rising to a thunder in his ears. For the briefest of moments- the fleeting instant in which a match-head, being struck, might not yet be consumed by the flame- she was acutely aware of the specific word Jase had chosen, “feeling,” the way the odd gravity of his tone warped the other words around it by proximity alone. Aware that he’d said it earlier, as well. Aware that even if it wasn’t a singular, unprecedented expression, it clearly wasn’t one he’d used often. Aware that he… was about to kiss her, that she was already tilting her head to meet the hungry press of his lips with her own as the flame caught, and awareness of anything beyond him vanished in a dizzying swirl of sparks that shimmered behind her eyelids and over the surface of her skin. The soft rumble in his throat that sent a tremor through the core of her being, the surprising strength of his fingers woven tightly through her hair, the taste of his mouth on hers, the faint roar of her blood- or was it his?- that drowned out the crackle of the campfire and the murmur of the river: all of her attention was focused on what he was doing and how it made her feel, on how he responded, and the sense of near-tangible energy, the power inherent in that exchange. Still… Not enough. Impatiently, the redhead in his arms fumbled with the suddenly complicated workings of his pants, her fingers uncharacteristically clumsy with haste and want; with a low moan of frustration against his lips, she managed to slide her free hand between the press of their bodies to pull the fly taut while the other finally succeeded in getting the zipper down. There was no hesitation, no real consideration save the desire to touch him, and so she did, her fingertips gliding over him through the thin fabric of the trunks he wore. The muscles of his abdomen tightened as Autumn reveled in the heat, the thickness of him beneath her palm before sliding upward, under the waistband of the swim shorts, and inside. Leaning over her, Jason exhaled sharply at the sensation of cool, slender fingers encircling heated flesh, his rough kiss deepening to a bruising crush that ignited her blood into searing, liquid gold even as she arched against him in a wordless, desperate plea for more. “Off,” she gasped, drawing a ragged breath against his jaw and pulling ineffectually at his belt loops. With a muffled curse pressed against her throat, he shifted his weight onto one forearm above her, shucking both trousers and trunks and kicking the irksome garments aside, not at all concerned about whether they ended up in the fire, the lake, or a few feet away- only that they were gone. Her pale arms linked around the wiry youth’s neck as she rose to meet him, then rolled toward the fire, pressing his back firmly into the blanket; arranging herself over him, the flame-haired young woman paused to catch her breath, drawing back for a moment to take in the tall, spare form of her lover limned in flickering golden light. It was an arresting sight, and she leaned in to brush her lips fleetingly over his before shifting downward, her hair and the warm softness of her breasts skimming over his torso as she devoured with lips and tongue the course her eyes had set moments before. Autumn shifted to one side as the curve of her jaw grazed the hollow beneath his hip bone, her breath hot and slightly uneven as her mouth moved hungrily against his body, palms sliding down the lean expanse of his stomach to the tops of his thighs. The heat radiating from Jase’s skin felt almost cool against the flaming scarlet of her cheek, warmed not by any external source but by the dizzying, near-euphoric effect of his proximity alone; she marveled at that for a moment, nipping gently at the subtle demarcation between sun-bronzed flesh and the slightly fairer hue of his natural complexion before smiling and pressing an apologetic kiss to the faint mark she’d left. Without the relentless assault his earlier explorations had made on her senses, the ardent young woman focused anew on the sensory impressions conveyed through the sudden tension of muscle under her fingertips, the clean, appealingly male scent of his skin, and the oh-so faint taste of salt it left on her lips. It was a far cry from the nigh-incomprehensible chaos of before, rendered inchoate by raw need and the scorching delights of his touch- rather than a crashing wave of sensation, it was the slow rush of an incoming tide, waves of shared pleasure surging against the shore of her consciousness. As she tucked her hair behind one ear, Autumn rested her cheek against his hip, considering the tangible proof of his arousal with a combination of uncertainty and unvarnished desire. It wasn’t an issue of interest or even motivation, but of mathematics, a complex subject that had always daunted her in school but which now presented- in the form of her new boyfriend- both a frustrating dilemma and an irresistible challenge. Tilting her chin to glance up at Jason’s face, she caught a glimpse of his eyes, dark and intent on her features, and felt her stomach tighten deliciously in response. I’ll make it work, she decided quickly, catching her lower lip between her teeth as a frisson of excitement rippled through her at his expression. The feathery caress of her fingertips along the heated length of his manhood, inquisitive and exploratory as his own movements had been before, yielded a sudden, involuntary twitch that elicited a gasp of surprise and delight from the animated young woman; impishly, she repeated the gesture, stifling a grin as the novelty of his reaction briefly outweighed all other concerns. Relenting as she felt him begin to stir beneath her, his Titian-haired lover raised her head, rising as the playful delicacy of her touch resolved into a yielding grasp that almost encircled him completely. She inhaled, lowering her head to trail a series of soft, slow kisses along the underside of his shaft in what felt like microscopic increments, keeping her gaze fixed on his as her lips moved slowly upward. With a quiet hum of appreciation, the lively redhead swiped the flat of her tongue over the head, parting kiss-reddened lips to breathe a whisper of cool air across his sensitized skin. “You know… It’s not too late to run,” she murmured, regarding him with a glimmer of devilry in her lust-darkened eyes and pausing as if to offer him the opportunity. His eyelids fluttered half-closed at the contact of her warm wet tongue on his aching flesh, a sharp intake of breath followed by a drawn-out exhalation as his mischievous lover teased his nerves. At her words, his own heated gaze focused on hers and he smiled. "I prefer chasing to fleeing." His smile became a faint crooked grin. "Like you." Autumn hmmed again in satisfaction, the corners of her mouth curving upward as she pushed her hair back from her face and over her bare, cinnamon-flecked shoulders. Pale fingers once again encircled the base of his shaft, more firmly this time, giving him a gentle squeeze as she dipped her head and anointed him almost reverently with slow, deliberate strokes of her tongue. Eager as his companion was to return some fraction of the white-hot pleasure Jase had seared into her body, she reminded herself that after the torment he’d put her through, it was worth taking her time to see how far his mask of composure could slip; potentially making him squirm a little in exchange for the ruthless teasing he’d given her was just a bonus. The sudden thought of his voice, hoarse and breathless and desperate as it formed the word “please” sent a shiver of tiny sparks racing down her spine, rekindling the liquid heat in her belly. He could feel the shape of her smile for a brief moment as the warm, soft circle of her lips descended with excruciating slowness, drawing him carefully into the slick heat of her mouth. He’d propped himself on his elbows as Autumn had sunk lower, watching her raptly, and now his breath hissed at her teasing exploratory touches, and as her hand wrapped around him he felt his head fall back as though all of his tension, all of his capacity for tension, were concentrated in the pale fingers of the lover he’d not expected to discover. The touch of her lips followed, causing the warm rigidity in Autumn’s hand to jump slightly as a low murmur of surprised pleasure issued from Jason’s throat. With an effort of will, he kept his head raised, his fingers balling into fists as he watched her lovingly run her tongue along him, over and over, tasting every inch of him as though he were the finest of treats. His heart was a drum in his ears again as he watched her, noting how she never took her eyes from his, holding him mesmerised with her own hunger. She had given him the option to run again, teasingly, but both of them knew he would not - perhaps could not - any more that she would or could. Just like Autumn, it was not in Jason’s nature to run from danger… and the connection of mutual desire, of evoked emotions and the sheer hunger each awoke in the other was indeed a danger: fogging the mind, reducing judgement to ashes. The loss of Self, the inability to tell where he ended and she began - this, then, was the most delightful and thrilling of dangers. What would he do, to protect one who inspired such feelings and sensations? What would he not do, to keep her by him and prolong this firelit moment for as long as the stars burned? He saw himself reflected in her eyes, in her expression as she looked upon him, and for once he did not feel like an outsider - beyond the pane of glass that separated him from others. She did not perceive him as the necessary evil, the useful monster that, when all was over and settled, others would distance themselves from. She desired him, she felt for him, she wanted him... and she was unafraid. She saw the fire in his eyes, and wanted to dance in it. As her mouth slid over him he took a hissing breath, eyes fluttering shut and then opening almost as swiftly, keeping his gaze on hers as she slowly, so slowly slipped her tongue around the head of his cock inside the warm wetness of her mouth. Humming softly, Autumn bobbed her head a little, pulling back off him with a soft ‘pop’ of suction and kissed the side of his shaft once more, her eyes never leaving his, a lioness over her kill. His breath was coming harder now as he watched her smile, then take him between her lips once more, hmming in delight as he filled her mouth, tongue flickering around the girth of the welcome invader. She saw his jaw clench, heard the soft gasps her mouth was coaxing from him, his lean frame tensing as his pleasure climbed… and with another soft ‘pop’ she withdrew, stroking him gently with her hand. “Shit.” Jason swore, the word emerging as more of a groan that caused the red-head to smile wickedly at him, the amber of her freckles offsetting the pale rose of her face as she placed another delicate kiss on the prize in her hand. “Sorry, should I stop?” she asked, a hint of throaty chuckle in her voice as she watched his pale green gaze flash with a mixture of frustration and amusement. She nuzzled her lips against the tender skin of his manhood, peering around it at the expression on Jason’s face with a wide-eyed, ingenuous look in her eyes. Not giving him a chance to speak, she slowly licked up along the full length of him, flicking the tip of her wet tongue at the head and feeling a delicious tight zinging of pleasure in her core as he groaned, a deep, urgent sound of his need. It occurred to her that she had been his first making-out, the first girl he had pleasured, the first who had pleasured him… He’d never before experienced what she was doing to his nerve-endings, and with the realisation came a warm uncoiling rush of fresh arousal mixed with tenderness. She watched him war between maintaining his aloof control and declaring what he wanted, putting himself in her hands. “I’d… prefer you continue.” he husked, evidently deciding on the latter. Autumn smiled, kissing the swollen head once more as she tried, more from fascination than for any other reason, to get her fingers to meet around the base of his shaft once more, causing another soft groan to emit from her lover at the gentle pressure. He sucked in a breath as he discerned her playful intent, and faced with a choice of either withdrawing or pursuing the delightful pleasure to its end, he decided. “Autumn… please.” he murmured in a voice hoarse with need from a throat as taut as the lean lines of his body and the tremoring solidity of him in her palm, his eyes on hers. There were entire sections of libraries and bookstores devoted to the language of romance, to printed exaltations of love dating back to the advent of the written word itself, prose and poetry alike articulating in line after line, page after page, humanity’s most ardent erotic expressions. And yet two words, just two, from the young man she so desperately desired managed to convey more sincere urgency and impassioned need than any she could imagine being put to paper. She’d meant to tease him a little in playful retribution, to test the limits of his composure and his capacity to feel something; now, having achieved all that, Autumn realized with a sudden shock the gravity of what he had just done. He hadn’t simply abandoned his control, casting it aside in a moment of euphoric madness- she doubted whether he was even capable of such a thing. He’d handed it to her, to her, earnestly and in full trust, in two words. There was a startling purity in the raw need manifest in his gaze, a longing for something as-yet unquantifiable to him that she would have considered desperate were he anyone but himself. Show me, it demanded, a silent appeal for an answer to the question of what all of this meant, what it could mean; her smile widened slightly in response, the mischief in her eyes softening into something even she couldn’t readily define as she glanced up at him through the bright copper fringe of her lashes. “Well,” the lithe redhead replied carefully, weighing his request before adding, “you did say please,” punctuating each word with a soft press of her lips to the rigid length fairly vibrating within her encircling fingers. It didn’t matter that none of this had been planned or even considered before, the span of an hour or a week being equally meaningless when time was measured solely by the exultant percussion of her heart- it was happening now, and whatever came after would be… whatever it was. In this moment, there was only the faint taste of salt, the irregular rasp of his breath, and the flickering radiance spreading through her veins as that voiceless urge once more whispered through the haze of her thoughts: More. Power and control, lust and affection: these weren’t merely abstract concepts, but the currency exchanged between lovers, given freely and returned with interest. ...And, oh, Autumn had interest aplenty. With a quiet hum of pleasure she lavished a slow, hungry kiss over the head of his cock, ardent lips and adoring tongue caressing the swollen flesh with unreserved delight. Her attentiveness was almost worshipful in its intensity, as if through soft sighs and the heat of her needy mouth this sensual rite of connection and desire could somehow convey what she lacked the words to say otherwise. The unfiltered immediacy of his reactions- the gasps, the shivers, the tensing of his lean frame beneath her- only encouraged reciprocity, sending delicate frissons of pleasure racing along her own nerves even as she strove to heighten his. She was doing this to him. He wanted her to do this to him. He wanted her. Like called to like, his hunger provoking her own in slow, sultry waves that rippled across the glowing, molten pool rising inside her, carrying its heat outward in a rush of bright rose beneath the ivory of her skin. Her lips and hands worked in tandem, rising and falling over him in smooth, fluid motions and alternating between slow, gently twisting strokes that engulfed him in warmth and gentle friction and shorter, quicker ones that allowed her to focus on the delicate, hypersensitive nerve endings and drive him closer to the limits of sensation. The intent young woman could sense, rather than hear the change in Jase’s breathing as her fingers undulated in waves, a rhythmic counterpoint to the languid sweep of her tongue around the dense, heated length of him filling her mouth; squeezing her thighs together to assuage the dull ache building there, Autumn glanced up to meet his gaze once more. It briefly occurred to him that something fundamental had shifted in Autumn in the moments following his implicit placing of himself - for want of a better phrase - in her hands. His rudimentary understanding of her, which the sense of connection deepened and strengthened, perceived rather than sensed the softening of her mischievousness into something unquantifiable and outside of his experience. Even in his urgent need, his nerves electrified by the caress of the girl kneeling between his legs, his mind started to chase this new observed phenomenon, to decipher its meaning - and then her lips slid down over the head of his cock once more and he was left with a choice - to shut out all sensation and focus entirely on the abstraction of analysing the look in his lover’s eyes, or to live in the moment, to experience that which he had placed himself in her hands to experience. He chose the latter, and thought whirled away from him as the world became raw sensory stimuli, hotwiring his mind and body without the intercession of higher cognitive processes. Abstraction, always his companion, was gone now. That wry observer-mind who catalogued, analysed and filed every experience was nowhere to be found. Everything was white-hot sensation that entered Jason’s mind unfiltered, pulses of pleasure building within his body in tightening waves that moved in time with the stroke of her hands, the bobbing of her head - slow at first, the tingling brush of her hair on his thighs and hips a counterpoint as she swirled her tongue around the tip of him within her mouth, but then quickening gradually as Autumn’s own desire to bring him pleasure loaned urgency to her movements, coaxing gasps from his mouth and causing his belly to tighten and hips to twitch under her caress. Now and then she would take him as deep as she could into her mouth and hold him there, testing herself against him, the sensation of her throat working around the tip of his manhood causing him to groan - a deep guttural sound devoid of anything but yearning - before slowly sliding the tight suction of her lips back up to the head of his cock and resuming once more the steadily increasing rhythm of mouth, tongue and hands that could have only one design, one purpose. One culmination. His breath began coming in pants now, shortening perceptibly as a warm tightness began to grow in his loins, and though his eyelids fluttered shut now and then he always opened them again as though fascinated at the sight of the hungry-eyed redhead pleasuring him. As she glanced up towards him with his swollen head between her lips and their eyes met once more it seemed as though a spark jumped - from her blue eyes to his green and thence to his groin and then back up his spine in a series of lightning-strikes, exploding in his brain. It was so different from his past solitary pleasuring of himself - so mechanical and matter-of-fact by comparison - that he could not even process that his climax was on him at first. Jase’s teeth clenched, his body tensing almost painfully as his head fell back and a weak thought occurred to him, some dimly-remembered reading of advice on such matters that he should warn her, that it was polite to warn her, and he opened his mouth to do so but all he could do was call out her name with such a deep reverberating groan that she felt it as much as heard it and then his cock twitched powerfully in her hands and in her mouth as he came. There was a sense that some spring had been over-tightened and had now snapped and released its energy, propelled him over the precipice of the senses Autumn had lifted him to, and now he was moving through space, weightless, formless, a heated cloud of glowing vapor where once he had been a cold, distant star. Jase shuddered through the crest of his pleasure, every sinew on his body standing out as his shaft pulsed, over and over so it seemed to him, the sensations blurring together with the rhythmic feel of Autumn’s swallowing, his tortured gasps mingling with her delighted humming as she drank him down, her eyes on his pleasure-slackened features as he groaned again, looking unseeing up at the stars and the sparks from the campfire, momentarily mindless and aware only of the white-hot, drawn out jangling of his nerves, the gentle suction of her mouth, and the tender brush of her hands as they left his cock and lightly grasped his hips as much to embrace him as hold him steady. Eventually the pleasure subsided, the magnesium-flare of raw sensation cooling down somewhat, and as consciousness returned Jason blinked, realisation of Self coming back to him. He raised his head once more and looked down along his body at Autumn. “Holy shit.” he said, not with particular heat or emphasis but in a more hushed, faintly reverent tone such as one might use when looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling for the first time, or watching a particularly beautiful sunrise. The latter being an apt descriptor, in his mind, for the girl who had in a short space of time engaged his interest, kindled his friendship, earned his trust, sparked his desire, and quite literally blown his mind. His composure was largely returned, though his breath was still a little labored and his eyes still dark with desire as he regarded her, his cock still possessing some rigidity but quiescent now as she let it slip from her lips with a smile. “In case you missed it last time I said it - you’re beautiful.” he told her soberly. Impossibly, she felt her cheeks grow warmer at the unanticipated compliment, as if all the heat in her abdomen had suddenly rushed upwards, the deepening hue of her complexion visible even in the amber glow of the firelight. She was reasonably sure that wasn’t supposed to happen when you were already blushing, but some rules just didn’t seem to apply when Jason Whatever-His-Middle-Name-Was Bannon was involved. He had this knack for casually setting her on fire with some off-hand comment or pointed glance and just sort of observing the ensuing level of conflagration, and even worse, she couldn’t even be sure if it was intentional or not- sometimes it seemed deliberate, and sometimes incidental. Either way, she should have started building up an immunity or tolerance of some kind by now, but oh, no. While her body could theoretically ignore drugs and booze completely, things that could actually kill her, of course there was no superpower to resist being red-faced and just feeling like she was going to die. It was infuriating and impossible, and so was he, and the absolute worst part was that she kind of enjoyed it. Maybe. A little. ...Okay, okay. More than a little. Damn it, Autumn swore silently, trying unsuccessfully to ignore what felt like clouds of tiny golden stars zinging pleasantly along her nerves as she peered up at him, her face aflame. At Bannon the Impenetrable, with all the potential challenges and surprises that entailed. At her boyfriend. Shifting her knees to the outside of his thighs, the spirited redhead slid up the length of Jason's lean frame, smiling down into his eyes as the heavy curtain of her tousled red-gold hair spilled all around them. “I’m glad you think so,” she replied quietly, resting her forehead against his as she tried to match his breathing, savoring the warmth and solidity of his chest rising and falling against her own. “So, can I assume you’re okay, then?” she murmured, the fingers of one hand carefully threading through the dark hair over his ear. His pale eyes, warmed by the firelight catching their wide, dark centers, met her gaze. There was in that stare a pensive searching, questioning quality as he studied both her and the sensations she had sparked- and continued to spark- in his psyche. He brought a hand up, brushing his fingertips over her face - feather-lightly, as though tracing her features through glass - before gently cupping her cheek in his palm, feeling her warmth as he lifted his head and pressed his lips to hers in mute answer. As her eyelids drifted shit, Autumn’s awareness of the world shrank, leaving only the gentle pressure of his kiss and the slow, rhythmic tide of their breathing. Of the fact that her hand slid from Jase’s hair to cradle the back of his head, or that as she melted almost bodily against him she made a tiny sound of surprised delight in the back of her throat, the warm-hued young woman was completely unaware. Instead, she could pinpoint the incandescent awakening of every nerve ending he touched, a sensation she prolonged with the delicate brush of her mouth against his, with the tiny, fleeting movements of her reddened lips wherein a thousand flickering sparks of pleasure flared to life and scattered again as his kiss ignited them anew. It was indulgence, not urgency that whetted her appetite; even as his analytic mind worked to process and categorize the experience, her brilliant lover got the sense that she would happily continue in this leisurely vein until the sun rose over them. And yet… Without any notion of how much time had passed, she did finally withdraw with a soft sigh, nuzzling her cheek against his jaw as she opened her eyes. “To be continued,” she reminded herself aloud before smiling and pressing a kiss into the hollow just beneath his ear, her voice dropping to a near-whisper. “Hopefully soon, hm?” Autumn rose, then, gently releasing his head and- slightly unsteadily- getting to her feet. It felt like she’d spent the day hiking through the backcountry, her legs still a little shaky as the muscles protested the sudden shift back to verticality, and as she stretched to restore circulation and equilibrium the red-haired teen quickly scanned the campsite: her shirt and bikini top were almost on opposite sides, with Jase’s pants and shirt similarly scattered and in disarray. The sound of her quiet laugh drifted across the clearing as she shook her head, grinning, and set about retrieving their clothes, pausing to grab his towel and one of the open bottles of water on her way back to the blanket. “Here,” she smiled, handing over the bottle as she sank down next to him, sitting cross-legged and sorting through the clothes in her lap. “Thought you might be thirsty.”
  12. Oh my god. He’s even weaponized honesty, Autumn realized with some incredulity, unable to keep her gaze from dropping to the slight curve of his mouth as he smiled, and reflexively catching her bottom lip between her teeth. “Yeah,” she agreed with a small, answering smile of her own, not yet daring to meet Jase’s eyes again. They were too green, too intense- how had she ever thought them cold, when they could smoulder like banked coals, or blaze as searingly bright as any bonfire? “I really… really like kissing you, too,” the redhead admitted… And I also really, really like the way you move when I touch you, and the way your skin tastes, and how your breath feels against my ear- It wasn’t like she’d never been attracted to someone before, never felt the giddy, heady rush of chemicals that signalled desire and the urge to act on it. It wasn’t the first time Autumn had ever wanted to spend hours kissing someone, to explore them with her eyes and hands and lips until she found all the places that made them gasp for air or twitch convulsively at her touch. She just didn’t remember feeling it with such a heightened sense of urgency, as if every glance or grin Jason Bannon aimed in her direction might end with her just pouncing on him in a less fatal version of a NatGeo mauling on the Serengeti. Even now, just sitting there with a water bottle in her hand, condensation dripping onto the blanket- We’re having a conversation. Time, place. Behave, Autumn. He’s behaving, see? We’re both behaving, she admonished herself, taking a hasty swallow of cold water and wishing in vain it might take some of the heat from her cheeks, as well. ...And you don’t want him to think you’re some kind of… sex-crazed maniac, or something. Do you? I mean- NO, Autumn. The answer is NO. You do not. ...Ugh. Okay, fine, I guess. Beyond the physical attraction, which was evident and undeniable, there was definitely… something, mixed in with all the teasing, the taunts, the uncertainty, the playful challenges and serious conversations. Maybe it was just that he had no expectations, no specific idea of what or who she was supposed to be and thus no inclination to try to fit her to that mold. Maybe it was that he’d done a good job so far of keeping her on her toes- she’d felt scared, frustrated, amazed, entertained and amused, delighted, desired- but not once had she felt anything close to bored. Or, she considered, aware suddenly of the strange, intangible pressure of Jase’s attention, maybe it was the implication that this might only last until Marissa got her shit straightened out, so there was no good reason not to just see what happened in the meantime. Fuck it. Why not? “All right, Bannon the Magnificent. The Amazing,” she added with a slow smile, acknowledging the exuberance of her earlier exclamation. “Let’s go to Homecoming, then.” She had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes gleam, the edges crinkling in an understated smile even as he remained otherwise outwardly composed. “Alright. But we’re going to have to set some ground rules.” he deadpanned, taking a drink of water. “Ground rules?” Autumn raised a brow, not missing the glitter of amusement in her [boyfriend’s] eyes and working to keep her own smile under control as she noted him shifting a little closer, turning so he was sat alongside rather than facing her. “Very important ones.” Jase nodded soberly. “I have a reputation as an unpleasant acerbic dickhead to maintain so, and this is important, no PDA.” “No PDA.” Autumn nodded slowly, as if mulling it over as she shuffled on her backside a little closer, her right hip and his left hip almost touching. She ran a hand up his back over the shirt, feeling the lean tautness underneath, and gently brushed her fingers through the ends of his shaggy hair at the nape of his neck, noting how he took a slightly deeper breath as she did so. “Right. Why?” “Because it’s distracting.” Jase was doing a good job of maintaining his impassive expression, though there was a twitch of humor at the corner of his lips as he turned his face towards hers. “Mmhmm. So I really shouldn’t be doing this, then.” Autumn stated rather than asked as she brought her other hand up and wove her fingers into his hair over his ear. Jason leaned closer to her, his arm sliding around her waist as his lips drew close to hers. “Definitely not. This is an excellent example of what not to do.” he said with mock-sternness moments before his lips curved in a smile. Autumn was flushed, and lovely, and right there inches away, her own mouth curving in an amused grin, the scent of her warm and enticing this close. “Good, I’m glad I know what not to do.” she said, slowly letting her hands slide from his hair and moving as though to disengage - only to be pulled gently back in and kissed, his lips sparking a rush of heat through her body that consumed the playfulness like jet fuel. It wasn’t that he was a practiced kisser, though he learned fast, a corner of her brain mused as the rest dissolved into a pink and crimson haze. It was that he kissed, and touched, with a hundred percent of himself in the gestures - the kiss was hungry, but patient, as he savored each tiny movement of her body, each sigh of response. He was mapping her, playfully experimenting to find just the right pressure of lips and tongue and teeth to make her gasp. Jason felt hands lock into his hair again, the almost painful tug at his scalp serving as a delightful counterpoint to the warm, sweet softness of Autumn’s mouth. His arm around her waist drew her closer yet, pressing her body to him as the two teens turned more towards each other. His free hand found itself gliding over the outside of Autumn’s thigh, feeling her warmth through the jeans before coming to rest on her hip, his touch gently teasing above her waistband, sensitive fingers exploring the smooth skin under the edge of her t-shirt. Finally the kiss broke, both of them breathing hard, both of their features at least somewhat flushed as they leaned their foreheads together, gazing into each other’s eyes. “So…” Autumn’s voice was husky as she studied the green pools of fire she wanted to plunge into and be consumed by. “Any other rules?” “There were some.” Jase’s voice was likewise low and a little taut with contained desire, his lips twitching in a smile. “But you distracted me before I could formulate them, and now I’ve forgotten.” “Oh.” The redhead was not at all contrite, smiling back at him. “I made you forget something? It couldn’t have been that important then.” “Utterly trivial.” Jase agreed, breathing deeply as he let his gaze play over her reddened lips, her adorable freckles and finally the blue waters of her gaze, deep and warm. “First rule was pretty stupid too.” “Hmm,” came the quiet, somewhat serious reply, as though Autumn were considering whether to agree with him. For someone who hadn’t liked the idea of being touched by other people, Jason’s responsiveness to simple physical contact was a little surprising, she mused, her smile softening a little at the almost imperceptible movement of his eyelids, his dark lashes fluttering slightly at the sensation of her hands moving through his hair. ...Then again, maybe it was the quality of the contact itself, the context, the nature of the connection it imparted. Fascinated by his reaction, she kept her eyes on his- relishing the warmth and heat there, the flash of citrine and emerald somewhere deep below the surface- and exhaled slowly, her breath trembling with the effort of remaining focused. “Not stupid,” the young woman murmured, her voice low and soft as her fingertips threaded themselves delicately through Jase’s shaggy, fire-bronzed mane, tracing the near-perfect symmetry of the outer curve of his ears and the sides of his throat. “Maybe just… not my favorite.” She wanted to kiss him again; it would only require a token gesture, little more than a tilt of her head. Their lips were practically touching already, she realized abruptly, as her hands drifted down to his chest and she felt the sudden intake of his breath inches from her mouth. “I’m sure we can figure something out, keep you from ruining your reputation,” she continued, all but transfixed by the way his eyes changed even as she watched. “Stupid.” he reaffirmed, feeling drunk off her breath on his lips. This closeness was dizzying - not merely the proximity but the intimacy inseparable from this most simple and primal of wants. He raised a hand to gently caress her cheek with the backs of his fingers as he drew in a breath that tremored, just a little. He was very aware of her hands on his chest, which in turn felt his heart thump like a bass drum against the taut skin and sinew of his frame. It wasn’t nervousness - couldn’t be nervousness. Rather he felt so alive that he would burst, as though his lean body was too narrow a channel to contain the surging passion that stirred and uncoiled. In his eyes, the copper flecks became fireflies, catching the light of the fire as well as flaring with some inner furnace. She kissed him then, leaning in against her hands on his chest and pressing her lips to his for a long, languorous moment, delighting in the way his breath caught yet again - that she was doing this to him, even as her own nerves sang and blazed with the sweetness of his return kisses and the feel of his warm palm on her cheek. Eventually their lips parted once more, and she smiled up at his face close to hers. “You sure you’ve not done this before?” she asked with a teasing arch of her brow, red-faced but smiling feeling his hand resting on her ass. Jase shook his head, his gaze intent on her face. “You are the first person I’ve made out with.” Jase replied, and she studied the subtle not-quite vibration in his manner, tension such as a steel hawser might be under on a suspension bridge. “Hey… Are you okay?” she asked, looking into his eyes, reassured somewhat by the way they regarded her that he wasn’t having second thoughts. He seemed very serious, as though struggling with something. “It’s… a lot.” he allowed with a small smile. “I feel like my whole Being is pulled as tight as a bowstring. I feel a little out of control and crazy” He breathed deeply, letting the breath out in a soft sigh. “I hope that’s normal.” Given his enthusiasm, the intensity with which he’d reciprocated every kiss, every touch and shared breath, it had been easy for her to forget how confusing and overwhelming it could be- even for someone with a more conventional way of interacting with the world. The warm pink of her cheeks deepened as she remembered exactly how strong those desires had felt earlier, and a part of her wondered what it was like for him. Did he actually analyze everything as it happened, or just sort of… go with it? He’d mentioned needing to keep everything carefully controlled, not to let his… what did he call them?- proto-emotions, his urges, override his reason, so how did that work in a situation like this? She couldn’t begin to even guess, although it might be interesting to ask later, when they weren’t so… Distracted. “Very normal,” she nodded, taking his hand in hers and pressing it gently against her chest, marveling inwardly at the length of his fingers curving over her collarbone. At the very least, if she couldn’t write a thesis on the subject of mutual desire and surging hormones, she could demonstrate the principle. “See?” He could feel the pounding of Autumn’s heart through her shirt, the staccato rhythm quickening just before she leaned forward and brushed her lips across his. It was more caress than kiss, and yet that fleeting whisper of contact was enough to send a shower of sparks flaring behind her eyes and a rush of warmth across the surface of her skin. “It is a lot, yeah. Even for me,” the blushing redhead admitted quietly, lowering her forehead to Jase’s shoulder, “like earlier. I just...” She shrugged a little, her free hand sliding down to his side, exhaling against the hollow of his throat. “I couldn’t think about anything else, you know? Or maybe I shouldn’t call it ‘thinking,’ exactly. It’s, um… Mmmm,” she hummed, a quiet little murmur of pleasure at the subtle, clean scent of his skin, his hair as she breathed. “Totally, completely normal.” Hey. Focus. Not a sex maniac, remember? She grimaced a little in protest at the intrusive thought, leaning back in an attempt to extricate herself from the seductive combination of sensual impressions enveloping her- the slightly ticklish feel of Jase’s fingers on her waist, the faint smell of the soap he used mingled with something intrinsic to his own chemistry, the heat of his body pressed against hers. For a long moment, the only sounds were the occasional snap of the campfire and the distant drone of insects in the trees, and Autumn drew in a slow, deliberate breath, giving herself a count of four to steady the racing of her heartbeat against his palm… and then another. “If it’s too weird,” she managed throatily, glancing up at him through the pale red-gold of her lashes, “or too much, or too fast, or… too anything- now, or next time, or whenever- would you tell me?” Swallowing both the urge to go further and the attendant nervousness of naked honesty, she added, “Because… There are a lot of things I would really, really like to do with you, and none of them are less intense than this.” “Same.” he murmured, his voice low, almost throaty. He blinked, then smiled a little self-deprecatingly. “Let me try that with words: I feel the same. The key word being ‘feel’. It’s- no, you’re kind of… amazing?” he finished with a tiny grin. “Seriously.” Autumn stared up at him for a moment, feeling like her face would never cool down. Was this her fate, to go through... however long she dated Jason Effing Bannon... the shade of a tomato and with the urge to grin like an idiot? And was it bad that she didn’t mind that at all? She leaned forward and rested her forehead against his collarbone, nuzzling her face against him as her arms wrapped closely around him. Turning her head to press against his chest, hearing the drum of his heart and acutely aware of his hand on her breastbone, seeming to sear her even through the cotton of her t-shirt. He ran his other hand up her spine to the nape of her neck, softly running his fingers through her glory of red-gold waves, a touch that was as gentle as it was sensual. “I will always tell you if something is too much.” he promised soberly. “And count on you to do likewise. Because this is an all-new type of hunger for me to explore, and I have an active imagination as well as a small library of works on sensuality stored in my mind.” His lips curved in a mischievous smile as they dipped to brush against her ear, his voice keeping to a low murmur.. “I’m curious how far down you blush. I want to hear you whimper my name more. I want to taste your skin and spend whole days learning how best to drive you out of your mind through touch. I want to devour you.” His teeth gently nibbled at her earlobe as his voice dropped even lower to a whisper. “Metaphorically speaking, of course. It’s not too late to run.” Fucking hell, where did he learn that? had been the initial, shocked reaction to the tickle of Jase’s breath against her ear, a line of white heat arcing down her spine in galvanic response; either he was dramatically understating the scope of the “small library” in his head, or he was a terrifyingly, devastatingly, thrillingly quick study. Never had anyone ever sent actual shivers racing through her body with words alone, but something about his tone combined with the inescapably direct way he gave voice to his desires… He meant it, Autumn realized, breath catching in her throat even as she tilted her head, heightening the exquisite rasp of his teeth grazing her skin. It wasn’t flirting, or some kind of posturing in an attempt to sound sexy or daring. He genuinely wanted to do those things and- this was the part that melted her insides into so much molten, liquid flame- he wanted to do them to her. And, ohhhhh, did she want him to. Turning to face the one being she knew to be more dangerous than mundane wolves, or nightmarish hellbeasts, or even ageless dragons, Jason Bannon’s girlfriend had shifted her position slightly, settling one knee on either side of his hips as he murmured against her ear- “It’s not too late to run.” -and paused. Autumn didn’t so much stiffen in his arms as straighten intently, the muscles in her torso elongating slightly with the slow, deliberate change in her posture. She hadn’t pulled away; he could feel the soft press of her breasts against him, the tension in her thighs as they brought her upright to meet his gaze. The turbulent blue-grey of her eyes, alternately shadowed and illuminated by the flickering gold of the firelight, met Jason’s with a glimmer of recognition as she leaned back, the corners of her mouth describing a faint curve. The young woman pressed almost bodily against him wasn’t glancing coyly in his direction, deflecting the taunt with laughter, or trying to pin him with a half-hearted glare: her gaze was direct, open, and in that moment, wholly unafraid. “You’re absolutely right,” she agreed, watching his eyes on her face with a sense of growing anticipation that carried over into the phantom smile playing about her lips. “Did you want a head start?” The pause was tiny, microbial in scale as lambent green eyes, dancing with firelight both reflected and internal, regarded her from a face that was almost statue-like in its immobility. Beyond the playfulness and honesty, beyond his desire for Autumn and the pleasure he took in her company, there was a depth in Bannon’s soul which she’d brushed against before - hence his interest in the lively redhead - but now she had sounded most thoroughly. A creature alien to fear, he did find it interesting to study in others, and those he approved of the most were those who had the strength of desire - be it for knowledge, or other things - to overcome it. Autumn was steadfast in her efforts to confront her fear, boldly stepped into the dark to see what might be there and to learn of it. How many teens- hell, how many adults did he know capable of that so consistently? She didn’t care that it scared her, or made her uncomfortable - or more correctly she would never let that alone stop her. “I get the impression I’d not make it very far.” Autumn’s boyfriend replied, playfulness mingling with the hungry fire in his gaze, though his features were composed - save for the flush of his own arousal darkening his already-tan face. That wasn’t the only clue to his arousal, either, a fact Autumn was pleasantly, nay searingly aware of in her current situation. “Mmm, probably not.” Autumn shifted a little and not with the aim of getting comfortable, thrilling at the sudden darkness of his gaze as his pupils dilated and the way he tried to hide the sucked-in breath. Her hands on his chest felt his pulse jump and she grinned, leaning forward and pressing against him. “You’d just tire yourself out, and that would be a shame.” She leaned closer and nipped at his chin. “For both of us.” “Unless I cheated.” he agreed with an offhand air, leaning back on his hands to support her weight against him, even as he trailed invisible fingertips over her scalp and down her spine under the shirt before smoothly caressing around her waist and up over her ribs, grazing the material of the bathing top she still wore. It was her turn to gasp now, the pressure teasingly brief and causing her to catch her bottom lip between her teeth as it ended, her gaze half-lidded on his. “But that would be a shame too, when there are far more fun things I can direct my energies towards.” He brought his hands up then, sliding them around Autumn’s waist as he rolled back to lay with her atop him as their lips came together once more. He was acutely aware of her body, the mixture of strength of her arms as they hooked around his neck and the soft pressure of her breasts against him, the scent of her flaming fall of hair surrounding their faces, the taste of her tongue on his. His hands glided up where his telekinetic ‘hands’ had gone before, warm fingertips grazing the bikini top, then slipping underneath the bottom edge, his touch exploratory yet unhesitating as he caressed the soft white skin he found there, delighting in the texture as well as in the soft sounds she made into their kiss. Slowly, he ceded more control over his conscienceless, amoral Want for this girl, letting that core of fire out of its icy chains to spill over into every heated press of his lips that claimed Autumn’s before tracing the line of her jaw. There was something to be said for the virtue of patience. ...Something. Probably. By someone else, at some other time- an old, dead Greek maybe- but not by Autumn Keane, and certainly not when the warm, deft fingers of someone she desperately wanted to be naked with in the firelight were moving over her skin. “It’s not cheating if I let you do it,” she murmured against Jase’s mouth with a grin, and then promptly shivered, her breath a sharp hiss drawn through even white teeth as the pads of his questing thumbs brushed across the points of her nipples. As a cascade of bright, hot sparks erupted within her at his touch, her hips rocked against him in an involuntary spasm, eliciting another quick breath at the feel of his body between her thighs. The tip of her tongue sought his, and then, restlessly, the angle of his jaw, the base of his earlobe; reaching back with one hand, the impatient redhead tugged at the knots securing her bikini top, unceremoniously pulling it through the collar of her shirt and tossing it nearby. Beneath the relentless exploration of Jason’s hands, her pale skin was aflame, his fingertips leaving searing trails in their wake that melted through her veins to pool, molten and liquid, in the center of her being. Everything was warmth and need- heat coursing through her every nerve, light burning behind her eyelids, the hunger to consume and be consumed in turn almost all-encompassing in the forefront of Autumn’s mind. There was no way to touch him enough, to be satisfied with the slightly salty taste of his skin on her tongue, or the quiet rumble of his voice against her ear when her teeth followed the same line across his shoulder in a series of tiny nips and breathless kisses. She braced herself over him on one forearm, the thick tumble of her hair around them catching the light of the fire, and tugged the hem of his shirt upward with her free hand, her gaze drifting from his eyes to the play of firelight over his skin. There was nothing soft about Jason Bannon, no excess or superfluity in the lean, spare muscle and sinew of his form, and yet Autumn’s fingers practically twitched with the desire to trace the sculpted lines of his torso, roving from his chest downward in a slow, inexorable descent of light, feathery strokes and the teasing rasp of her nails across his stomach. Her touch felt cool to his fevered skin, even whilst trailing greater heat in its wake, awakening nerves across his taut skin and causing his body to tense and his breathing to become more laboured. He felt her nipples against his palms, a sharp contrast to the softness of her high, firm breasts which his fingertips caressed with deliberation, learning which areas drew the deepest moans or loudest whimpers of passion from the living flame that undulated over him. A caress over her ribs that would have tickled a less-heated Autumn into giggles drew forth a plea-like invocation of his name cut off and muffled as she buried her open mouth against his shoulder, teeth scraping the skin there as her hips rolled against him in an almost bruising jerk and her fingertips dug into his stomach for purchase. She drew up and stared down at him, kiss-bruised lips slightly open and desire-drenched features suffuse with rose, and he smiled as he squirmed a little, lifting his shirt up and off over his head without much difficulty before returning his hands to her waist, caressing the skin there.
  13. He’d blinked as she announced his pheromones were ‘fine’, though a smile curved his lips as he watched her pace, gesture and speak, her exuberance as warming as the campfire. She obviously felt the same way as he did about his gifts, and the display of enthusiastic and active imagination was… reassuring. He wasn’t alone in how he felt about these things, he mused with a smile. He got to his feet, stretching muscles still a little taut from the horseplay in the creek earlier, just as Autumn finished her passionate statement. “What you can do, how natural it is for you, that’s- it’s amazing. You’re amazing, you know?” He blinked again, pausing mid-stretch to gaze at Autumn. He’d never really heard such sentiment from others before. There’d been implied praise, respect or admiration once or twice - more often had been the sensation that his nature daunted others, scared them. But never such unreserved warm sentiment, boldly expressed. He studied her as she stood, hands still resting on her loosely tied back red-gold tumble of hair, frozen for a moment as she realised he’d turned that laser-focused attention to her and replayed the last few moments in her head, her blue eyes widening as a faint blush spread across her pale features, suffusing the skin under the freckles with rose. “Um… For a cheater, that is.” she managed without much conviction as he straightened up, still regarding her expressionlessly, a corner of his mouth quirking as she tried to look everywhere but at him and failed. “So… My pheromones are fine?” he asked, the smile growing a little as he remembered what Hank had said, only a few days ago: I say she looked interested. Not 'tongue-hanging out' interested, but probably wouldn't say no to a movie and burger. “Oh god… shut up!” Autumn groaned, her hands coming down from her head and covering her face. Of course he’d focus on that to tease her. “I didn’t mean- I meant- Ugh!” “It’s okay.” Jason’s voice came from closer to her, and she lowered her hands hastily to see him standing nearby, within arm’s reach, studying her with an expression in his eyes that was equal parts warmth and interest, his gaze depthless. He’d moved as always with that neat, silent grace that was as mildly disturbing as it was impressive. “I like you too, you know.” Which was true. She wasn’t Marissa, but the comparison was as between a rose and an orchid - you couldn’t judge one by the merits of the other. He’d loved Mari, but she was unavailable, by her own insistence and choice. Marissa’s loyalty and feelings shifted like a leaf in the gale of her own volatile fears and insecurities, devoid of objective logic - she was perhaps only truly loyal to her brother. Autumn might not have been as objectively beautiful, regal or captivating, but she had energetic vitality and warmth, a charisma of her own that was all her own. And she was honest, brave and constant - weighing instinctive fear against reason and balancing the two. As he considered her as a person, so too did he consider her physically. She was healthy, attractive - with that fiery red hair and deep blue eyes, with pink lips the same shade as her blushing cheeks... and, he realised as he applied his rudimentary people skills to her manner, she was attracted to him. He’d never admit it to Hank, but privately he marvelled that his friend had possibly been right. Which was strange, since Autumn was one of the most well-adjusted of his circle of friends and associates. She knew him like few others did, understood him like few others had bothered to try to do… and she still was attracted to him. How interesting. “When I do learn to fly properly, you are invited to be the first passenger.” he added with a smile, taking a step closer and reaching up to tug a stray strand of her hair back from her face, his fingers gentle and warm on her cheek as he took yet another step closer, looking down into her eyes. There was no wicked mirth in his gaze now, no teasing crookedness to the warmth of his smile. He seemed very intent on her, as though approaching a skittish young horse, his eyes studying her lips, her features, her eyes. “I promise, I won’t let you fall.” Oh, god, was all she could think. I’m dead, aren’t I? Autumn was beginning to lose count of the number of times Jason Bannon had killed her, stopping her heart with embarrassment and shock, or stilling the breath in her lungs with fear and anxiety… But this was an altogether new kind of death, and had she possessed his clarity of remembrance, it was one she’d gladly have re-lived over and over again- sweet and sharp and hot as it spread through her veins, drowning her endlessly in the fathomless green of his eyes. It was fundamentally unfair, the effect just a look could inspire without any special effort on his part at all. First, they were friends, which meant that, all teasing and joking aside, there were rules that couldn’t be broken...There were rules, weren’t there? Boundaries that couldn’t be uncrossed? She felt sure that there were, which made the slow, inexorable progress of dying this time more agonizing than all the others. Second, by his own admission, he had never dated. He had confessed, without reticence or rancor, that he loved Marissa- in the present-tense, not past. He’d spoken at some length about his difficulty understanding people, how they related to one another, how to read them, so there was no doubt in the mind of his new friend… He didn’t know. He had absolutely no clue what he was doing to her right now; how could he, when he’d never experienced it? He couldn’t possibly be aware how devastating those eyes were at close range, couldn’t have intentionally weaponized the curve of his lips when he smiled- couldn’t conceivably have calculated the precise angle at which to tilt his head, the timbre of his laugh, the exact pressure of his fingertips, or the faint scent of his shampoo, lingering even after the creek- “I know,” she managed from beyond the grave, only dimly recognizing the voice as her own. It was hard to concentrate on forming words when the rest of her brain was distracted with thoughts of what else her mouth should be doing instead. “You didn’t before, remember? I trust you.” And… she did. For all his strangeness, his distance, his inability to relate, for all the unease he could generate in herself and others, all the wrongs he’d done and that had been done to him… Autumn realized that she actually believed it. Trust was a big part of friendship, right? The silence that followed couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but if time were measured instead by the rapid pounding of her heart against her ribs- loud enough in her ears to be heard from town- it would have taken roughly a year of her life. “See?” she asked finally, raking a hand back through her hair with a quiet, self-deprecating laugh. “No pheromone problem. They’re totally fine. So just, um- the flying thing. You promised, so, call me or something when it happens, okay?” He was aware of the elevation of his own heartbeat, a slight variance brought about by proximity and the wide, deep pools of Autumn’s eyes as they met his own. She was all warm shades - the faint tan of her freckles, the copper of her hair, the blood-tinged skin of her cheeks, all limned in flickering firelight, and Jason, with his new awareness of his nature, was conscious that within himself lay a deep hunger for that warmth, a want that was as aesthetic as it was biological, as carnal as it was cerebral. It was a powerful instinct, on par with his violent ones and just as merciless. He felt a faint ironic amusement that his mother hadn’t warned him about this one. There was no reason not to, that was the trouble - or rather, the answer. She obviously was attracted to him, didn’t have a boyfriend (that he knew or cared about). However he viewed Marissa, she had made it plain repeatedly that she could not, at least currently, comfortably grant him the kind of open emotional honesty, devoid of game-playing, that the young woman currently blushing before him could. And he did like Autumn personally - she was exuberant, curious, asked questions even when she was afraid of the answers. And he remembered when she’d held him, the feel of her fingers in his hair, just to take away the pain he’d not even realised he was experiencing, driving back the cold. He remembered how it had felt to realise that she had charged in to help defend him. “I’ll do that.” he murmured, aware that he was likely once more risking rejection, risking a friendship, but nevertheless his fingers on her cheek became a warm palm-caress as he dipped his head towards hers. He remembered Devin’s advice - or the essence of it: to let her choose, and so he moved his face slowly towards hers, giving Autumn plenty of time to halt the process- He didn’t have to move very far as she leaned forward to meet him, the fingers of both hands tracing the sharp line of Jase’s jaw and threading through his dark hair. She’d been taught never to look away from dangerous creatures, but it didn’t really matter at this point, did it? She was already dead, and there was no need to think about trivial things like consequences. As her lower lip brushed against his, Autumn hmmmed quietly, a soft sound of pleasure in the back of her throat, and pulled him closer. It was as if the heat from the fire crackling nearby had been transferred into her skin, burning bright and hot but without pain, and when she pressed her lips to his- gently, but insistently- it was with every ounce of warmth she possessed. Again she kissed him, deeply and without haste, drinking in the feel and the scent of him in her arms- a leisurely, unhurried pursuit that nevertheless left her short of breath and trembling slightly with its intensity. Jason’s first ever kiss had been calculated, a deliberate measure to shock Clara into some kind of emotional reaction as much as curiousity about the sensation. His second - Marissa - had been an act of impulse, pushing past what he saw as mixed signals to try and coax truth through action rather than words. This, though, was utterly different. Autumn’s warm passion was, in its way, equal to his own. She had closed the distance between their lips, her own hunger forming the circuit that now lit up his nerve-endings. It was unlike anything he had experienced before. It was, in fact, his first true kiss, no purpose or motive other than the kiss itself. His hands slid down and around Autumn’s waist as she leaned up and into him, her t-shirt riding up a little allowing his slender fingers to glide over warm skin as he returned her kisses, absorbing lessons in each tiny movement of her lips and the sparkler-flares of sensation it set off down his spine before responding in kind, moving his lips against hers in motions that were at first tentative, yet as she hmmed and pressed against him grew bolder. His head span slowly, his normal sense of detachment, that separation from everyone dissipating like frost in sunlight as his mouth opened in response to hers and the overwhelming sense of connection, of feeling desire and of being desired, filled his veins with molten gold. Autumn’s fingers tightened instinctively in his hair, all rational thought and reservation transmuted into so much ash. First the tip of her tongue, then the edge of her teeth caught at Jase’s bottom lip, savoring the taste of his mouth as though the kiss were merely a precursor, the aperitif before hunger consumed them both. With a quiet whimper against his lips- not of protest, but frustration- her fingers skimmed down his back, tracing the length of his spine before sliding under the hem of his shirt and up again. They explored the taut, warm texture of his skin, the feeling of lean muscle shifting underneath, and though her attempts to press the length of her body any closer to his were hindered by physical limitation and the laws of consensual reality, the ardent young woman’s earnest efforts persisted. The sound of their breath and his own heartbeat was deafening to him, his entire world narrowing to focus on the girl shifting in his arms. Her touch on his skin made his breath catch as she pulled him against her, and on impulse he gave back the sensation, his hands sliding around to the curve of Autumn’s back and then upwards, feeling the strength there as the muscles of her waist and back tightened and relaxed in time with her movement and breathing. There was a sincere hunger in her kiss and in her embrace that resounded within him, found an answering need, his tongue gently teasing against the tip of hers in response. A response that might as well have been a spark to gunpowder, the kiss deepening so that they were practically breathing for each other now as Jason’s felt the roaring furnace of his core unfold, melting away the edges of his reason. With a faint grunt of effort, he slipped his hands down, over and under the taut curve of her ass and hoisted Autumn up so that her face was level with his own, if not slightly higher. On instinct, her strong legs went around his waist and she clung to him in turn as their lips and tongues danced, each lost in the taste of the other. A thought occurred to him and he acted on it, supporting her weight with a touch of his telekinetic gift to allow his hands to roam up her back once more, one hand coming up to tug away the hair-tie and allow her Titian locks to fall around her flushed features. A muffled squeak of surprise and delight escaped Autumn’s lips as Jase lifted her off the ground, and he felt, rather than saw, her smile against his mouth. It was so tantalizingly close to being enough, almost- but not quite. As the weight of her hair, all loose, tousled waves of red and gold fell around them, she leaned back slightly, and the eyes that regarded him with naked desire were dark as storms over the ocean. She swallowed hard, her fingertips moving, feather-light, down the sides of his face, over his well-kissed mouth, and across his shoulders. Exhaling, she dipped her head to his cheek, breath warm against his skin, as first her lips, then her teeth grazed his earlobe. More, some voiceless urge demanded, and she was only too willing to comply, trailing heated kisses down the side of his throat and gasping as her hips shifted against his abdomen, squeezing his waist with her thighs. Every inch of her, every atom, felt incandescent, aflame with a blazing need his touch seemed only to stoke; she wanted, needed him to know it, but the only word she could conjure in the chaotic surge of sensations was his name, murmured like a plea against his shoulder. The exertion of will, of self-control, was second nature to Jason. As he had previously explained to the girl currently moving against him in a most distracting way, there was no conscience or natural hesitation to his thought process, so presence of mind was as necessary to his liberty and survival as it was to the general good of people around him. He buried his face in the juncture of Autumn’s neck and shoulder, lips kissing the warm skin they found there as his hands gently yet urgently explored the athletic young woman’s back before going lower to her butt, clasping her tightly to him as he sought to anchor himself. He took a deep breath, which hindered his efforts at self control more than helped since all he could breathe in was Autumn, warm desire rising from her skin along with her body heat and the faint perfume of her deodorant. Her heart thudded against his past the thin barrier of their clothing and the warm softness of her breasts, and as she murmured his name the fire in his core roared up, flaring around the icy fastness of his thoughts. He had never wanted anything or anyone like he wanted her right now, to shuck the annoying clothes, to feel her warmth as close as two people could get. The blanket was right there, the fire was warm enough to take the faint chill from the air. They could… He could... ...Not fuck this up. Autumn trusted him, a thought which his mind seized onto, an anchor-point. He had no condoms - had not expected to need them and, in typical inexperienced fashion, didn’t carry an emergency couple in his wallet ‘just in case’. And his friend (whom he was very attracted to and desperately wanted in the worst way) probably didn’t have any either. She might not care now, judging by the whimpers of physical need and the way she was softly biting at his shoulder through the cloth of his t-shirt, but it was still not a good decision for her to take. It would have been a poor decision even if he had been a human man - with his ‘aggressively dominant genes’ (to coin his mother’s phrase), there were unknown quantities at play, and he needed more information before making a mistake. “Autumn.” His voice was so hoarse from lust that her name came out as a sort of growl at first, then he coughed and tried again, his cheek nuzzling against her hair. “Autumn. I don’t have any protection with me.” God she smelled good, and that rolling thing her hips were doing, her backside flexing under his hands… He didn’t want to let her go, but didn’t want this to go beyond their control right now either.
  14. “Hmm.” The musing sound was drawn out and thoughtful, which was one clue it could be dissembling. From what Autumn had seen, Jase didn’t usually take long to figure out what he wanted to do next - most of his focus was on ‘how’ rather than ‘what’. Her suspicions were further roused when he smiled at her before likewise laying back in the water. Here it came. Here came the one-liner laden with innuendo. “Pretty much anything, hmm?” or something similar. But he said nothing, just lazily sculling with his arms to keep himself in place as he floated looking up at the sky, narrowed eyes slits of emerald fire as they caught the late afternoon sunlight. Autumn tried to relax too, laying her head back in the water and feeling it flow past, but her mind kept poking at that ‘hmm’ like a tongue at a loose tooth. Finally she raised her head and all-but glowered across at her silently floating companion. “That’s it? ‘Hmm’? ‘Hmm’ what?” she demanded, feeling her lips twitch in a smile as she saw his mouth curve in a slight grin. Damn it. Damn him. Goddamn Jason Effing Bannon and his impossibleness. “Just ‘hmm’.” he said casually, raising his head to peer at her, his expression composed but for the faint crooked smile and his gaze full of mirth. “Why, was I supposed to say something else?” “‘Hmm’ is not an answer to the question.” Autumn returned somewhat indignantly, though she was pretty certain her own urge to laugh was showing as Jase straightened somewhat in the water, cocking his head to one side and regarding her with that faint smile that was smug and not at all charming. Teasing jerk. Reacting more than thinking, she brought one hand around in a sweep, splashing water at his face. That, at least, caught him by surprise. His eyes widened for a moment as he registered the movement, and he managed to half-turn aside so he didn’t get the brunt of it in the face, but it was still sufficient to make him blink, then turn back to regard Autumn for a long moment. Then, theatrically, he lifted a hand and slowly wiped his face, flicking the water aside before dipping his hand into the water and sweeping it towards her. The retaliatory splash was an obvious response, and Autumn turned away, laughing - only to catch a second deluge right in the face from an invisible hand that made her sputter. “Oh, now it’s on!” she announced, sweeping both arms forward and causing Jase to cover his face with his hands as sun-brightened sprays of water cast rainbows in the late afternoon light. Grinning he responded in kind, long arms scooping wave after wave at the giggling redhead. The naval warfare continued like that for some minutes, the two combatants wading back and forth in the creek as they hurled water and banter at each other in roughly equal volumes. “TK is cheating! Lame-ass!” Autumn yelled as she ducked and weathered a veritable tsunami from all sides. “Not my fault you didn’t know who you were messing with, scrub.” Jason replied coolly, only to end up spitting water as a cunning underhand shot from his opponent caught him square in the face. “Hah!” Autumn crowed - right as she felt a pair of impossibly strong hands grab her around the waist and lift her into the air before tossing her with a shriek into the deeper part of the creek. Surfacing with a roar of challenge that would do a tigress proud, she surged through the water and tackled the smirking jerkface who’d ducked her, hooking her arms around his shoulders and dragging him under even as she felt his arms loop around her to pull her with him. It wasn’t at all a calculated risk, because there was no calculation involved. Even at play, Autumn was competitive by nature, and when his arms went around her- either as a reflex on his part, or as an intentional decision to pull her along- it signalled a response to the challenge. The moment she felt Jase’s arms tighten, felt the shift in energy and the torque of his waist, they hit the water, already rolling. All sound evaporated, save for the surging of the water and the rapid, joyous pounding of her heartbeat in her ears. Vision disappeared in an instantaneous explosion of frothy white, and there was no equilibrium, no sense of up or down- just the sensation of the current all around, and the texture of his skin, taut over sinew and bone, beneath her hands. He had height on her, and reach as well, but there was no distance to be had between them, which rendered it temporarily meaningless. As he turned, using Autumn’s own forward momentum to roll her toward the creek bed, she mirrored the movement, arcing her upper body and twisting to continue the spin and deny him positioning. To her surprise, Jase did the same, the adamant grip of his arms around her waist compelling her to keep turning or be “pinned,” and pushed down to the bottom. At some point, the elastic band in her braid finally worked loose, and for several moments she could see nothing but the bright, coppery mass of her own hair. For what seemed like ages, the two young competitors feinted, rolled, and vied for any edge they could find: when Jase used the benefit of his greater height to simply stand up, Autumn hooked her foot behind his knee and pulled him off-balance. Pressing her advantage, she tried to use her body-weight to flip him, wrapping her legs around his midsection and throwing herself backwards; it wasn’t until he relaxed slightly, allowing her to pitch him forward that she realized she’d erred. Refusing to be caught so easily, the redhead unlocked her legs and kicked off the loose rock with one foot, her entire body contracting and uncoiling in a smooth, tight spiral as her fingertips slid from the hard expanse of her adversary’s back to his shoulders. With a measure of finality, she pressed him gently back against the rounded stones, just a few feet beneath the shimmering, sunlit surface of the stream. Her moment of triumph was short-lived, however. She had just enough time to catch the telltale curve of Jase’s lips as the water around them began to clear, and then- the impossibly delicate, almost feathery sensation of fingertips gliding, dancing up over her ribs. To her credit, she managed to weather the decidedly unsportsmanlike assault for almost a full 10 seconds before pushing off his chest with both palms and kicking upwards, a column of white bubbles following her rapid ascent. “Ugh, you suck so hard!” she laughed, choking and spluttering at no one in particular. Pulling her hair back over her shoulder as she tried to get her bearings, Autumn staggered back in the general direction of the shore. He surfaced behind her already laughing as his head emerged, even though the combination of water and his normally-shaggy hair were obscuring his sight he didn’t seem to have many problems navigating shorewards as he wiped his face clear. “Victory is mine.” he announced calmly, his eyes gleaming as brightly as the beads of water on his skin as he waded into the shallows. Autumn, having already procured her towel, considered diving for Jase’s and tossing it in the creek, but settled for giving him a narrow stare as she wrapped her own around herself. “You lost.” she informed him with a smirk. “You quit first.” came the inexorably calm reply. “You cheated!” “Cheating implies the breaching of an agreed-upon set of rules.” Jase held his hand out, his towel flying from the ground to his grasp. He grinned at her as he began to towel himself off vigorously. “There was no such agreement.” “Ugh. You suck.” Autumn reiterated, flicking water from her fingers at him. “Everyone knows tickling is cheating.” “You mean it is conventionally accepted that tickling is unfair.” Jase shrugged his bony shoulders, flashing another grin at her, then began towelling his hair dry. “Conventional is just another word for lacking in initiative.” He paused mid-towelling, considering something, then smiled at her, tossing the towel back towards his clothing. “For instance…” There was a faint shimmer in the air around him, a heat-haze that rose from his skin in the sunlight, causing his damp hair to rise slightly in the thermal updraft. Focused on Autumn, his eyes grew brighter still, the pale green shifting to a more amber hue as a cloud of steam rose from his skin moments before he appeared to burst into flame. Autumn made a short sound of surprise and took a half-step back. Wreathed in flickering gold, red and orange, Jase was untouched by the flame as, mercifully so, were his swim-shorts. The heat of his fire was a tangible thing, even from a couple of meters away Autumn could feel it on her skin. “This makes drying off easier.” he said conversationally, his eyes deep slivers of brightness as he smiled at Autumn through his aura of fire. “For you, too.” This was light-years away from the first time she'd seen his pyrokinetic abilities, when he'd burned away everything except the blood on his skin. The entire experience had been terrifying, and yet here she was: no monsters, no blood, no terror- just a sense of awe as she watched the fire lick unhurriedly over his skin, enfolding him like the arms of a jealous lover. He could see the brilliant flames reflected gold and scarlet against the sea in her eyes, and the half-step back became a tentative step forward, the heat reddening her cheeks as she approached. "Um, how far away, exactly, do I need to stand?" “A few feet is likely best, though I won’t burn you unless I want to - the fire is very much under my control, so long as I am under control, I’ve found.” Jason said from within the flickering dance of flames. “The cryokinetic side of my abilities operates on the same principles. The level of fine control possible takes some getting used to - I practice a lot.” he admitted with a small grin. “For instance, I can superheat areas of my aura to the point that it, theoretically, should vaporise incoming bullets, but I can also pick up a cold can of Coke without disturbing its temperature unduly.” She took another step forward, lifting one hand and turning her palm toward the burning aura that surrounded him, a tangible illustration of the otherwise invisible barrier between Jase and the rest of the world. The closer she got, the more uncomfortable it became, a sensation just on the edge of pain but not quite crossing the threshold into injury. It slowly evaporated the droplets of water that lingered on her skin, and as individual strands of her hair dried, they drifted lazily in the waves of heat that rippled around his body. “How do you practice something like that, out of curiosity?” she wondered aloud, not daring to approach further for fear her hair really would combust. “I haven’t had much luck, honestly, although the day everyone was at the Farm did help, and Tuesday was... let’s call it educational. Outside of that, though, it’s surprisingly difficult to convince people to let you experiment on them, when you’re not even sure what the result is supposed to be.” She grinned up at him through the shimmering wall of light and heat, trying (as ever) to gauge his expression; it was hard to see his eyes from where she was standing. “Although, I guess it’s probably easier when it’s something you can do by yourself.” Her fingers curled slightly, just at the limits of her tolerance, as if resting against a pane of glass behind which he was standing. I am Fire. The words sprang unbidden from memory, and she smiled, just a little, at the thought. Yeah. Yeah, you are. “I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, or if it goes both ways, but I get this odd feeling of….” she paused, eyes narrowing slightly as she searched for the right words. “Connection, maybe? Just by touching a person, I can almost feel them the same way I do my own body, like we’re sharing the same skin. I never realized how much you can tell about someone from just physical contact, and how they respond to it.” Shrugging, she traced the “surface” of his aura with her fingers, eyelids fluttering briefly at that knife-edge sensation as the nerves beneath her skin wavered on whether or not she was about to be burned. “Maybe I’m like Lona,” Autumn mused, an uncharacteristically thoughtful expression on her freckled features, “but backwards.” Remembering what had happened with the fight in the hallway gave her a moment’s pause as she considered what that might imply. “Other than a general awareness of the Shine, everyone seems to experience the subquantum differently. I can feel, as though touching it, every physical object around me out to about ninety feet. I can detect their motion relative to my own, their temperature, and so on. You possess similar sensory abilities to both Charlie and Avalon - you can sense living creatures as I sense objects, like with the snake, and you can read a person’s state of health, so it seems you have both of their gifts, perhaps not to the same extent and with personal differences, rather than sharing their focus.” Jase slowly let his fiery aura die out, the last flickers of flame seeming to dance into his eyes as they returned to their normal pale icy green hue. He pulled on his pants, hopping from one leg to the other in a reasonable display of balance before fastening them. “Huh.” Autumn stared at him for a moment, feeling delightfully warm and dry now as she pulled on her jeans. “You’ve thought about this a whole hell of a lot.” “I study other people’s gifts, and study my own, and each area of study increases my knowledge of the other, even when the gifts of others are outside the psionic arena. Like Cade or Marissa, who have a differing version of the Shine that makes them peak-human, or beyond, in their areas of focus.” Jase grinned slightly at her as he pulled on his boots, leaving them unlaced for now as he got to his feet. “The whole link to the theorised subquantum strata is fascinating.” “Okay.” Autumn narrowed her eyes. “You and Sean were babbling excitedly about that - I remember that word coming up once or twice while I was trying not to freak out about being there at your farm.” She smiled a little, remembering how geeky Jase had seemed in that moment, his normal reserve having been dropped in the excitement. “And you’ve mentioned it a couple times since. Care to give me the grade school version while we get everything set up?” “It’s pretty straightforward stuff, at least on the surface ‘what you need to know level’.” Jase smiled back at her. “I think you can even manage without crayon drawings.” “Ass.” Autumn snickered, flipping him the bird. “C’mon, let’s get to work.”
  15. The moment he stepped away, the terse whispering began. “Okay, when you said ‘Jason Bannon’ that is not what I was picturing.” “What are you talking about?” “I’m talking about that.” “Mom! Gross!” “No, I’m just saying!” “No, you are not just saying, because I am not having this conversation with you.” “Just- did he start working out, or something?” “Okay, seriously? Are we doing this right now?” “Autumn, all I’m saying is he just looks different, and I was wondering what changed, that’s all.” “Fine. Fine. What’s different, hm? Haircut maybe? He got a little taller? Not as skinny?” “Yes, probably, but he’s just more-” “Mom, I swear, if you say my friend is hot, we aren’t speaking until I graduate from college.” “No, no! ...But does that mean you think he is?” “Oh, look, mom!” Autumn called out pointedly, meeting her mother’s gaze with all the mortified fury the teen could muster. “All parked. Guess we should probably get going now. Loveyoubye.” She gave Dana a quick, perfunctory kiss on the cheek and tried not to be too obvious in her haste to depart. As she double-checked the tie-downs on their gear for at least the third time, the young redhead felt, more than heard, her mother coming up behind her. “Hey,” Dana murmured, pulling her into a fierce hug and catching her sole progeny off-guard. “I do love you, you know. Just be careful, okay?” “Mkay,” came the muffled reply, as her daughter returned the familial embrace in earnest. “Love you, too. Talk to you tomorrow.” “Talk to you tomorrow,” the older woman repeated with a faint smile as she headed back up the gravel path toward the house. Exhaling slowly, Autumn fished the key out of her pocket. She couldn’t really blame her mom for worrying; it had been ages since she’d had a friend over, and she’d been dating the last guy she’d gone camping with. This was different, though. This was Jase, who was her friend, who also happened to have really, abysmally bad taste in women, and who also was only coming because she had asked him, rather than the other way around. She swung her leg over the seat as Jase returned, shifting forward over the gas tank to give him room to sit behind her. “It’s gonna be awkward and maybe a little rough, but only for about 5 or 10 minutes, so just hold on tight and try not to fall off.” By the time the words had left her lips, and it registered what she’d just said, it was too late to take them back. Oh, for fuck’s sake… She did her best to ignore the warmth that flooded her face as Jase got comfortable, and felt fairly confident in her efforts to remain composed- Until he leaned forward slightly and ‘reassured’ her, his voice just audible over the idle rumble of the engine: “I’ll be sure to get a good grip.” “Yes” she replied, grimacing as she put the ATV into gear and they started rolling toward the road at a modest pace. “Please do.” The redhead raised one hand, waving goodbye to her mother as they reached the asphalt, and then turned to head further away from Shelly proper. As the forecast had predicted, it was a gorgeous afternoon, sunny and clear, and warm enough that Autumn’s beloved red hoodie was only tied around her waist. About half a mile from the house, she opened up the engine a little, speeding up gradually at first out of consideration for her taller passenger, but eventually settling into fourth gear, grinning into the wind as the scenery zipped past. “The turn-off isn’t far,” she called back, nodding somewhere into the distance and then shaking her head to get the hair out of her eyes as it came loose from her ponytail. They passed a gravel drive, barred by a wide metal utility gate, and then, a moment later: “Hold on.” Downshifting, she turned left and off the road, onto a path so overgrown and littered with leaves and the detritus of fallen limbs that it could hardly be considered more than a very sketchy trail. For several minutes, she slowly maneuvered them over buried roots, through copses of spindly evergreens, and around all-but-invisible washes and dry streambeds obscured by underbrush and dried pine needles. It would definitely have been easier to traverse the distance on foot- if they were backpacking. Maybe next time, she considered, wincing as the ATV jostled again. If there is one. And then, they crossed the threshold from tall, shadowy pines to an open sunlit space, cleared of trees, right in the bend of a slow-moving creek. As she brought the four-wheeler to a stop, the freckled teen suddenly felt unaccountably nervous, as though she’d just invited Jase up to her room while her parents weren’t home. Which, she hadn’t, obviously but it felt more… personal, than she’d expected, and she realized she wanted him to like it here. That thought gave her a moment’s pause; was it because she’d enjoyed the garden so much, because he was proving to be weirdly good company, or because the place was important to her? All three, maybe? “Whew,” she sighed, cutting the engine and turning to check on him. “Oh, hey. You didn’t fall off.” Banishing awkward self-analysis with a playful grin, Autumn hopped off and tucked the key back into her pocket. “C’mon. I’m gonna walk around, see what needs doing, and then we can unpack. You can come with, if you want, or just poke around on your own.” Raking her hands back through her hair as she walked, the energetic redhead pulled the elastic band out and held it between her teeth, quickly plaiting the windblown curls into a haphazard braid and re-securing the ends. After she’d made it a few steps toward the middle of the sunny camp site, she paused to stretch and take a quick visual inventory. The roughly circular clearing was littered with a thick carpet of pine needles over packed earth, courtesy of the few stately trees that had been allowed to remain, with the occasional scrubby clump of grass peeking out from below. There was a decent-sized fire pit near the center, though the depression was filled with a couple seasons’ worth of leaf litter and rotten wood, and roughly half a cord of logs lay in disarray near the trees between which they’d been stacked. Beyond the edge of the camp, the hard earth underfoot gave way to smooth stones along the shoreline; piles of driftwood had accumulated all along the edge of the clear, cool water, and with it whatever man-made trash had drifted downstream to be snagged there. It’s nice to be back, she reflected, but, man, this is gonna be a lot of work. Still… Glancing back in Jase’s direction, she caught herself smiling again. Least I don’t have to do it by myself. This is Autumn’s garden. That was the thought that went through Jase’s head as he glanced around the clearing, swinging down off the ATV with his usual deliberate grace. This site was special to the red-haired girl he’d decided to call ‘friend’, a place of importance. His pale gaze swept the surroundings as he moved, at first following Autumn, then meandering from her walkabout and finding himself on the pebbled beach of the creek, staring at the littered bank. He tilted his head up to feel the sunlight on his face, closing his eyes and reaching outwards. A faint pressure, different from the breeze currently playing in the pines, went around the clearing as he allowed his sense of touch to experience everything here. A few leaves curlicued up into the air from the detritus in the firepit, then dropped suddenly; a rustling touch brushed past Autumn’s hair; a light sprinkling of pine needles rained down from a couple of the trees. Jase smiled, his eyes still closed, and breathed deeply. This was different from the garden as Autumn was different from himself, he perceived. This was a natural place adapted by Man - Autumn’s family, possibly generations of them. The garden was nature curated, cared for, controlled - as it would have to be to have such a rich variety of plants from varying climes in close proximity. But the import of the place was the same - there was a fragment of Autumn’s identity in this clearing. He turned and moved up the bank from the creek, back towards the central area. “It’s beautiful.” he said in a tone that was almost dispassionate, but contained a trace of warmth recognisable to Autumn. “Peaceful, too. It suits you.” He tilted his head to one side, smiling at her. “Where would you like me to start? And are you averse to a little TK making the work lighter now and then?” he inquired with a faint grin. She laughed then, unreservedly, more than a little surprise mingling with the delight in her eyes. “You know, you’re probably the first and only person in my entire life to use the word ‘peaceful’ when describing me, so, thanks for that, I think. And, no,” the bemused redhead grinned, shaking her head, “I don’t mind. Whatever gets the job done is fine, so if that’s easier for you, I say go for it.” As the giggles faded, a smile lingered in their wake, and she took another look around. “I’m going to start with the firepit, I think, so we can get the fire started and let it burn down enough to cook by the time we’re hungry…” Drumming her fingers thoughtfully against her legs, Autumn glanced down toward the creek. “Mind starting down there? If you’re in the mood to flex your mind-muscles, that would be a good place to do it. Some of that driftwood is just old trees, y’know? Besides, it’s better to go wading now, before it cools down later.” She grinned over at him, and added, holding up three fingers at chest-level in the classic Girl Scouts salute, “I promise not to push you in.” There was a long, quiet moment then, as her eyes traced the treeline on the opposite side of the creek. “ And… yeah.” Her expression softened slightly, and a part of her wondered what her grandfather would have thought of Jase, of her bringing him here. “It is beautiful. Thanks.” The afternoon sun was warm on her face, and all around were the sounds of birds, of the wind through the trees, of the water rushing over stones… It seemed unbelievable, somehow, that she’d stopped coming, when so many of the best, most wonderful memories she’d ever made were right here. “Be right back.” She’d have plenty of time to think and talk when they were finished. For now, there was plenty to do in the last few hours of daylight. Autumn headed back toward the gear they’d stowed on the ATV and returned with a small collapsible shovel and a large canvas bag- the latter of which she tossed to Jase. “That’s for your basic trash, plastic and stuff, although I’m pretty sure you’re about 12 steps ahead of me there.” With a wry, self-deprecating grin, she unfolded the shovel and locked the pins into place. “Anyway… Thanks for helping. Let me know if you need anything, and I guess we can meet back up when we’re done and work on something else.” Autumn didn’t have much to say after that, none of the typical chatter- it just wasn’t necessary. She did hum, though, mostly fragments of old songs that were only played on classic rock radio, as she shoveled sodden, compacted ash and leaves and dragged crumbling bits of ancient firewood out from the mess. Ugh. Grimacing, she tossed the rotten, lichen-encrusted plant matter into the underbrush at the edge of the clearing and kept going. She hadn’t thought it would get this bad so quickly- or, maybe she just hadn’t thought. Either way, this mess was her responsibility, and although she really was grateful for the help, and for the company, the increasingly grubby teen had to admit that she felt a little guilty for conscripting Jason… Something-Something Bannon to help her deal with it. But… Glancing in the direction of the stream as she crouched next to the re-emerging bowl of hardened earth, she smiled to herself- he didn’t really seem to mind too much, so maybe it was fine. The visible trash had been first - sodden plastic wrappings, beer cans caught in the deadwood, waxed cartons used for juice or milk - they had all come whizzing obediently out of the water and into the refuse sack, crumpling, folding or otherwise compacting as they travelled. Then Jase had set the canvas bag left open to one side and focused on the driftwood. Smaller branches first, some still adorned with leaves, were tugged free of the tangle and laid in a neat pile at one end of the beach in the sunlight, then would come the larger bits- small pieces of dead timber from larger trees carried downriver, and more than a couple of broken-off trunks. There was a steady meditative style to the way he worked: quick and yet with an air of unhurried thoroughness, and he smiled to himself as he heard Autumn humming as she tended to her own task. This was a memory he would often revisit later: this simple little scene he would forever associate with companionship. The music of the brook and the woman, even if some of her humming was charmingly off-key as she occasionally huffed, tossing moldy old firewood into the brush. The birdsong distant beyond the babble of the creek. The sunlight throwing glints from the water and fire from Autumn’s hair, and how her waist had felt under his hands as he held on against the pitching of the ATV. He reflected with some amusement on the reactions of and the interplay between both Keane women. He also wondered, without sorrow or bitterness, about how it would feel to have that maternal connection: someone who would worry about simple little things no matter how old or competent their child became. His mind flashed back to the concern shown him by his mother; the way she had touched his face and studied it as though trying to find the boy she had run away from inside the man standing there. He theorised that Dana explained a lot about Autumn - her undemanding warmth of personality, her restlessness and need to test herself which was very similar to his own, yet possessed of a different tone and texture. She’d laughed when he’d called her ‘peaceful’, but she was. Not passive, not static, but contained and self-sufficient. A creek, always full of restless motion, yet restful to observe. He imagined that the same rich emotional depth she had shown when speaking of her grandfather, or when cradling him, or when she flamed bright crimson at his teasing, or even when she had charged into a fight with two seniors twice her size were (like the blushes) traits she had inherited from her mother. He compared that rich emotional texture to his own superficially binary state - remote, cold detachment or searing instinct - with little in the way of middle ground. With a groaning creak, the first tree-trunk lifted clear of the creek, a rain of water pattering down on the pebbles as Jase caused it to float up and away from the bank, closely followed by a second, then a third solid piece of timber. The tangle was more or less destroyed now, his TK grasping and bagging a couple of overlooked bits of trash, then conscientiously flipping some more small branches out of the moving water before they could be carried away. He nodded, satisfied at the clear banks of the creek, then sat down and removed his boots and socks, rolling up the bottom of the legs of his combat pants, before wading into the water. He probed around carefully on the stony creek-bed with both his feet and his Shine, now and then grabbing sharper rocks and tossing them to the far bank and occasionally locating and removing a broken piece of glass or metal which lay submerged. The water was warm enough for wading, or even for swimming still, not that the cold bothered him anymore than heat did these days. He wondered about that - the Shine and how it manifested so differently in so many people. With him, it seemed to make human concerns even more remote - removing any physical insufficiency, making frailty against the elements irrelevant, granting the ability to seal himself from harm or to deliver it with but a flicker of will. He paused his chain of thought, realising he’d used the term ‘human concerns’. Perhaps ‘physical concerns’ would be better, if exactitude was what he sought. He pulled a buried piece of planking with a couple of protruding nails up from the creek bed, floating it to the driftwood pile on the shore. Musing to himself he took his time with the work, wading back and forth thigh-deep in the water until, finally satisfied that the creek bed was clear, he turned to see how Autumn was getting on.
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