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Everything posted by Bannon

  1. The Damsel and the Dragon, Pt 2 “Hah!” The utterance was almost harsh, but Jason was smiling as his eyes stopped looking through her and seemed to look past her, his gaze growing distant for a moment. “‘Maybe that’s not really what you’re afraid of’, indeed.” The distant stare continued for another moment longer, then he refocused on her, still smiling a little. “Thank you.” he said more softly. “For taking the question seriously. Your grandfather sounds like a smart man.” Autumn’s reaction was so well practiced that by now it was virtually autonomic. Inhale for a count of four, exhale for the same. Don’t meet the other’s eyes; she turned her head to look out over the neglected farm as she got the heavy stone lid back on the well of pain. “Yeah.” she said in a quiet voice. “He was.” There was no response, and she wondered what she would see if she looked back at Jason. What would be in those cold eyes? She wasn’t sure she wanted to know - but it surely couldn’t be worse than warm sympathy that tugged at the lid over the well. Scorn, perhaps. Or maybe nothing at all - grief being as foreign to him as fear, he would be taking the opportunity to study this alien (to him) sensation up close… Eventually the wait got too long, and she swallowed the last of the now-cool coffee and turned back towards him. He was regarding her, but it wasn’t quite the ‘under the microscope’ detached expression she’d been imagining. There was no pity in the cool depths, but there was… comprehension. Understanding. He reached forward and gently took the mug from her hand, his fingertips warm as they brushed hers before he stood, setting both their mugs on the bench. “Come on.” he said with a small smile, gesturing for her to get up and follow him as he moved to the steps leading down from the porch. Autumn found herself rising and moving to follow, even as she wondered what he was up to. “Come on where?” she asked as he began to walk across to the large barn, his long legged stride slow enough for her to easily keep pace with. “You wanted to hang out, chill, get to know me.” he stated rather than inquired, lips twitching in another smile. “I have a few things to tend to, so I thought we could hang out while I do them.” “In your barn?” Autumn’s doubts were tangible, causing Jase to turn his head to face her as they walked, his teeth flashing in a grin. “Yup.” “This isn’t going to be creepy, is it?” She asked as they reached the padlocked double doors, Jason removing a set of keys from his pocket and shrugging in answer to her question. “Creepy is such a very subjective term.” he smiled over his shoulder at her. “I will ask that you be careful what you touch.” He opened one of the doors, a faint hum of machinery coming from inside as the motion of the air brought the scent of earth and growing things to Autumn. With a sly smile, he stepped inside past a hanging plastic curtain beaded with moisture. With a sensation akin to Alice following a white rabbit, Autumn stepped in after him. The first thing that struck her was the humidity, somewhat higher than the Montana fall outside. There was light in here which she saw was the result of carefully tuned sunlamps, providing a sunlit atmosphere in which a riot of colour met her eyes. Roses of a variety of hues were the first to greet them, along with hanging baskets of brightly variegated smaller blooms overhead filling the air with their scent. Jase stepped to one side and watched Autumn as she took in the sight of lilies, chrysanthemums, small flowering shrubs, honeysuckle and jasmine, and further along - a second curtained partition. The redhead moved down the paths that twisted and curved through this indoor garden, almost in a daze as she pushed past the second curtain, only dimly aware of the Effing One following her. In the second partition the heat and humidity were higher, occasional sprays of mist from overheard creating rainbows as they left shimmers of dew on the tangle of colorful orchids and other tropical plants, and looking up one could see flowering creepers - Bougainvillea, Passion Flowers, and Morning Glory - criss-crossing overhead. There was danger here as well as beauty - several of the plants Autumn recognised as being the type you washed your hands after touching and kept away from pets and children. A beautiful array of pale trumpet-like blooms filled the air with their scent from high out of reach, and in the temperate area some delicate purple flowers set well back from casual touch range also had a small sign hanging above them reading ‘Do Not Touch’. The same sign could be spotted in other parts of the hothouse, marking clearly some plants as being the sort one might not get a chance to wash their hands after handling. Somewhere there was a trickle of water into a small pond lined with water hyacinths, off amidst the rows of plants. Jase busied himself with the climate controls, scrutinising the readouts and then examining one or two shelves of potted plants. He kept one eye on Autumn with a faint smile, but said nothing, letting his guest enjoy the experience undisturbed even as he studied her reactions. It wasn’t magic, she knew- just science, which tended to be far more reliable, as a rule. And yet, the effect was the same. In passing through the barn doors, Autumn had entered another world entirely, one that would never feel the sting of winter’s kiss. Never in her wildest dreams would she have ever imagined that the most glacial person she’d ever met could have created somewhere so… Warm. And not just from the temperature adjustments and monitoring systems, assiduously maintained. The complex tapestry of scent and color tugged her through the garden, like a child being led by the hand- a Titian-haired Alice blithely following the rabbit through Wonderland. She swept, awestruck and delighted, past rare native species she’d never seen in person, bromeliads she couldn’t possibly have named, gloriously fragrant golden jasmine blossoms scattered like bright stars amid glossy green leaves. In spite of everything else, Autumn found herself laughing with incredulous wonder under the artificial sunlight, almost-but-not-quite touching the velvet petals of the impossibly indigo delphinium and narrowly resisting the urge to bury her entire face in the lush, creamy rose blooms as she passed. It was incredible, unbelievable- and although she’d seen a few truly impressive sights in all her roaming, and one or two of them might have been more beautiful, she couldn’t immediately call to mind what they might’ve been. Her guide forgotten for the moment, she wandered the winding paths in a state of solitary enchantment. Sometimes she gasped in surprise as she rounded a corner, sometimes paused to smile softly as some familiar flora conjured up a memory, and sometimes crinkled her nose, puzzled at the unfamiliar conformation of some apparently alien greenery. There was no deep consideration or reflection, just spontaneous reaction without the heavy burden of the conversation they’d left on the porch a thousand miles away. “Thank you,” she murmured finally, to no one in particular. Kneeling at the edge of the walkway, she smiled, studying the delicately ruffled petals of a lady’s slipper. Rising, she wiped her palms on her well-worn jeans and exhaled, turning away to find the creator of this miraculous other world. She did not have to look far. As she’d wandered, he’d moved with her unobtrusively, keeping her in sight without intruding on her reverie. For the naturally-stoic, walled-off Jason, the expressiveness of others was something to be studied and appreciated, a pursuit both practical and aesthetic. As Autumn scanned the foliage-laden paths, she readily spotted the tall, spare shape of the garden’s creator as he carefully tended a jasmine plant, checking for and removing loose flowers with practiced, precise movements of his slender hands before depositing them in a small pot. He smiled as her eyes found him, his head tilting to one side very slightly in consideration as she wandered over. “About four years, this has taken.” he said in answer to the unasked question. “I find it…” he considered a moment, then smiled briefly. “Affirming. A positive thing, a place that I could come and find peace, doing something beautiful.” His pale eyes did not seem so frigid here, taking on the deeper greens of the surroundings as they flicked once more over the bush he was tending to before he closed the lid of the pot and set it aside. Dusting off his hands, he turned to her, studying her freckled features. “I’m glad you seem to like it too.” he said with a slight smile. “Mmmm,” she nodded in agreement, her own answering smile widening into a laugh as she looked up at him. “I do, and it really is beautiful. I mean, it’s your garden, but I’m the one who feels like I’ve been given a present.” There was a sparkle in her eyes as they met his, bright and clear, as if the hothouse air had somehow banished the shadow of grief he'd seen earlier. “I’m not gonna lie, this was not at all what I expected when you talked about getting to know you better. Well played, Jase Bannon." Nodding again, her expression softened slightly, more thoughtful than it had been a moment before. “I’m glad to be surprised, though. And, seriously. Thank you.” She was quiet for a long moment, thinking, as she peered up at him. What could you say, apart from that ‘thank you,’ in a situation like this? Wasn’t a gift supposed to be returned with something of equal value? But, Autumn worried, brows knitting together as she considered Jase, eyes skimming over his features… she didn’t really have anything that merited such an exchange. He could track the exact second when Autumn remembered herself, reorienting her position in the here and now, standing as she was in front of Goddamn Jason Fucking Bannon: her hands went into her pockets, lower lip caught between even, white teeth, and her gaze dropped by inches, settling on the quirk of his mouth rather than his eyes. The internal, "...fuck," was almost audible over the soft hum of machinery. Then- “Hey,” she asked suddenly, an anticipatory note in her voice as her eyes darted up again. “I don’t have a garden to show you, or anything, but, um… Do you like camping? I know a pretty good spot, and I was thinking of inviting some people out there before it got too cold. If you want, I could show you sometime? ” Body language was something he had to make a lot of conscious effort to interpret, in fact he’d studied textbooks on the subject both to help him appear less alien and to help when dealing with others. It was not altogether a success a hundred percent of the time, especially when mixed signals were being received from certain Princesses who shall remain nameless. Autumn was relatively straightforward, or at least seemed to be. She’d been relaxed, happy, elated even at the experience of the garden… and then his presence had caused a bump in that. Her eyes had studied his face, she had frowned as though considering something - or recalling something - and her hands had gone into her pockets and her gaze had dropped. That, plus the lip-bite, indicated nervousness, or possibly shyness. One of those ‘ness’es at any rate. He’d mentally sighed… And then she’d perked up, animating once more as she invited him to go camping, as though whatever had troubled her was remedied by the prospect of… doing something for/with him. Despite himself the remote teen genius smiled back at her, a hint of dimple in his cheeks making him look his age for once, rather than a young-seeming creature with ageless eyes. “I very much like camping.” he replied softly, his eyes studying her face in a way that brought colour to her freckle-dusted features. “I’ve never been with anyone except my dad and Hank - so yeah, I think I’d enjoy that.” He actually smiled, she realized, instead of just making the shape of one. It was a good look for him. It’s a start. That’s what she told herself, at any rate. Nothing was combusting. She was still alive, she felt pretty sure. He wasn’t threatening, hadn’t done anything intentionally intimidating, and didn’t seem on the verge of committing criminal acts. They’d even found something they had in common, apart from the powers stuff, which made it easier for her to… relate, maybe? To consider him as a whole person, rather than a one-dimensional boogeyman, which was kind of the whole point of coming out here in the first place? Confronting fears, finding some kind of understanding, all that. It was weird. The part of her brain that was a 16-year old girl was very aware of the fact that she was talking to a scary-smart, really good-looking guy, who apparently really enjoyed making beautiful things- since junior high, she guessed?- and that it would be easy for someone to mistake the way he watched people with interest as... interest. The rest of her, though, the bit of common sense and pragmatism that worked valiantly to maintain equilibrium and sanity in her life, couldn’t ignore that he wasn’t just a guy. He was a drug-dealer, an admitted psychopath, and maybe worse, if what happened with Liam was as bad as she’d heard. He was also, somehow, associated with the local anti-government militia, so that was a whole other thing. How did all of that fit together in one person? “Cool,” she replied, her smile returning. And, she was glad. As awkward and weird and uncomfortable as the whole situation was, and as alien and aloof as he seemed, maybe there was a way to find common ground. Respect, instead of fear. Maybe. As Jase continued to work, tending his carefully cultivated bit of paradise, Autumn tagged along, occasionally asking questions about where he’d gotten a particular varietal, or which ones were his favorites and why. It wasn’t anything serious, just casual chatting, but she was curious enough to keep up a fairly steady flow of conversation. Eventually, having built up a measure of confidence, she ventured to ask something else. “Hey. When you got home… Were you okay? I mean, no judgment, but you looked kind of wrecked.” There was a pause, Jason’s brow furrowing slightly for a moment, and Autumn wondered if she’d just stepped on a land mine as he glanced her way. When his eyes didn’t narrow in the ‘please kill yourself to save me the trouble’ stare she’d been dreading, she relaxed a little. Jason was not usually the type to unburden. Quite the opposite - he kept everything inside to a degree that would be unhealthy in a neurotypical mind, never volunteering any glimpses behind his Iron Curtain without being asked the right questions in the right way. But he’d had what might best be described as ‘a hell of a day’, and Autumn was pleasant company, her undemanding warmth of personality seeming to extend outwards from her like a campfire on a cold night. “It’s been a long day-” he started to say, then was interrupted by a knock on the barn door. “Jase?” Gareth Bannon called before stepping through the plastic curtain. He was dressed for work, his blue-grey custodial services overalls adorned with the laminated plastic ID badge. He paused as he saw the two teens and smiled a little. “He’s got you helping him, huh?” he said with a grin at Autumn. “More like tagging along, asking questions and holding stuff.” she smiled back. Gar nodded, lips quirking in a warmer version of Jason’s ‘wryly amused’ expression. “Sounds about right.” he replied, glancing at Jase. “Off to work now, kiddo. You guys have fun.” “You get your lunch out of the fridge?” Jason asked, regarding his father intently with a surprising amount of warm concern in his eyes, even as they also measured to see how together and sober his father seemed. The elder Bannon held up a large Tupperware container and shook it a little. “Got it right here.” he said with a smile. “Looks good, whatever it is. I’ll be off.” Oh! Shit, I almost forgot. With a quick glance in Jase’s direction, more a checking-in than anything, Autumn set the cracked pot she’d been carrying next to a low retaining wall. “Hey, Mr. Ban-” she began, years of social conditioning prompting her to use the more respectful form of address, then caught herself. “Gar?” As she called out to him, the younger Bannon’s erstwhile assistant jogged over to meet the elder. “Listen, um. I was thinking about what we talked about earlier, and I wondered if…” Oh, just ask! her brain prompted in exasperation. Good grief, it’s not like you’ve never done this before, FFS. The difference, of course, in then and now, was that then had been junior high, and she was talking to the parents of a girl, who was 100% not Jason Whatever-His-Middle-Name-Is Bannon. “...I was wondering if it would be cool with you if I came by again sometime? Once in a while, maybe.” There were equal parts hope and anxiety in her expression, her voice, and the twining of her knotted jacket ties around her fingers. Gareth Bannon blinked in response, some of the world-weariness etched into his face replaced briefly with something like mild surprise. His eyes slid past the earnest, expectant features of the young woman in front of him, over her shoulder and further down the path, alighting quizzically on those of his brilliant, complicated son. In that brief moment, Autumn felt her face go from pleasantly warm to uncomfortably hot, and she tried not to think about whether Jase was rolling his eyes behind her back. Almost as quickly as he’d looked away, Gar’s attention was back on her, and he smiled- maybe a little warmer than he had earlier that afternoon. “You're welcome here whenever you like, Autumn. Anyone who can get Jase to talk while he's gardening - or at all - has a gift." “Oh.” It was her turn to be surprised, and she couldn’t resist returning the smile with one of her own. “Awesome. Thanks a lot. Um, have a good evening.” With another nod and a quick wave, he headed back out of the barn and off to another night of work. Releasing the strings of her hoodie, Autumn jogged back to the abandoned terra cotta pot and scooped it up with a soft huff before catching up with Jase again. “Sorry about that, honestly, I just wanted to catch him before he left. You were saying it was a long day?” Jason stared at her for a long moment. Autumn was getting a little better at Bannon Expressions For Noobs, but this was a new one. This stare was a number 14, better known as “you just did a thing I have never seen and did not expect, but I think I like it.” The problem with that stare is that it could easily be confused with a 12. That was the sort of stare Coraline received before the infamous ‘Bunnees Sandblasting Incident’, a stare more precisely labelled as ‘I can’t believe anything sapient could have something so abysmally foolish exit their mouths, and I know Devin.’ “That made him happy.” Jase said quietly, his eyes on hers causing faint heat to rise to the redheaded girl’s cheeks. The tall youth stepped closer, hands lifting and gently resting on Autumn’s shoulders as he looked down at her, his eyes depthless green oceans in that moment, free of their glacial rime. “Thank you.” he said simply. There was a flicker of confusion, pupils almost disappearing into the clear, sea-coloured pools of her eyes as she registered the physical contact and his proximity. It was an autonomic response he'd seen earlier, when taking the mug from her hands. This time, though, it lasted only a moment, the actual span of an eyeblink, before she smiled again. Without looking away, Autumn reached up with her free hand to the one resting on her opposite shoulder, soil-stained fingers resting lightly on his. "No problem," she replied with a little shrug, meeting his gaze despite the growing flush in her cheeks. "I'm glad I could help?" ‘Look into a person’s pupils. They cannot hide themselves.’ A maxim attributed to Confucious, and repeated endlessly in texts on body language. Autumn’s pupils had contracted massively, a strong fear spike to his proximity and touch… and yet it had only lasted a moment before her rational brain caught up to the small, furry squeaky part of her hindbrain and stopped it from running. Jase was mildly impressed - both by the intensity of her apparent fear and by her stoic refusal to give into it. He didn’t consider himself fearsome… But then, he didn’t really understand what frightened Autumn about him either. She might be frightened of men, or tall people, or anything, really. It could be something rational, like fear he would hurt her as he had Liam. Or irrational. Or both. Hell if he knew, but he did intend to find out. He let his hands slip from her shoulders with a smile, taking the pot from her hand and setting it to one side as he stepped almost considerately away. “You really want to know about my day?” he asked her with a small smile, his gaze taking on some, but not all of it’s previous coolness. On receiving a nod, he gestured her to follow and headed towards the door. “In that case, I’m going to need some herbal remedy.” As Autumn stepped out first, Jase turned down the lights to a twilight setting, effectively setting the sun over his little garden before ducking past the plastic sheet and joining her outside. Closing and padlocking the door, he headed over to the farmhouse once more, climbing the porch steps and sitting back down on the bench there with a motion for Autumn to do likewise. The lanky youth relaxed on the bench, taking a rolled up ‘cigarette’ from one pocket of his combat pants and putting it between his lips. With a sideways smile at her, Jase clicked his thumb and forefinger, causing a flame to dance on the end of the thumb as he brought it to the end of his joint, puffing a little to get the rollup burning before theatrically blowing on his thumb, extinguishing the flickering flame there. He took a deep draw with the ease of much practice, holding the smoke in his lungs for a few beats before slowly blowing it out. “So. My day. Where to begin…? Well, I told you about Devin’s ‘very bad, no good’ morning, and the bracelet… More on that in a moment - couldn’t tell you everything in study hall whispers. My morning, on the other hand, started with a face from my past becoming my new Biology teacher.” He offered Autumn the joint after taking another draw - the redhead took it with a wary glance. “Relax. It’s Lucifer’s Reserve. All natural weed. I should know - I developed and grew it.” Jase said as a lazy twin streamer of smoke rose from his nostrils, waving a hand towards Autumn, who blinked as she recognised the name of a much-talked about brand of devil’s lettuce… and the Effing Bannon claimed to have grown it? That explained a lot. “You grow it?” she asked anyway, staring at him. He nodded, smiling a little as he blew little smoke rings. “Bred it, grow it, sell it. Frankly I’m undervaluing it - do you know there’s strains of weed that can fetch eight hundred bucks an ounce? I’m willing to bet mine’s at least close to being as good, but even charging a hundred an ounce makes small town kids squeak. So I sell them regular, albeit decent weed I also grow, and save the Lucy for richer customers and friends.” “Right.” Autumn took a tentative draw… And was surprised to find a mellow, almost golden taste to the smoke, a lot of the cough-inducing pungency having been smoothed out. “Huh, feels kinda- Whoa.” The buzz was fast, a warm tingling in her extremities, including her nose and ears, and relaxing. Very, very relaxing. She slouched in imitation of Bannon as the world slowed down a little bit, including her pounding heart. “So…” she said, focusing on the word and the conversation as some of the sense of dread that had hung over her since embarking on this quest into the lair of the creature she feared was eased. “Face from the past?” “Mmhmm. Calls herself Ms Forster. Last time we met I called her ‘mommy’. But that was half my life ago.” Jase said with almost too-calm coldness in his voice. “So that was a shock for us both, I imagine. Oddly, she didn’t seem to be at all flustered or ashamed of having abandoned her son only to be confronted with him again, which indicates that in some ways I seem to take after her, rather than my father.” There was a faint icy bitterness to his voice, very faint, but there. “Ohhhh, fuuuck,” Autumn breathed, smoke spilling past her lips as she turned to face him. With her elbow resting on the window ledge, cheek braced on her hand, she tried to formulate a response that wouldn’t sound like too much of a cliche- the kind of pointless shit grown-ups put in greeting cards. Sorry for your loss. You’re in our thoughts and prayers. Time heals all wounds. Well, no. No it didn’t. For the first time, staring at Jase -just Jase for the moment- across the enormous gulf that separated them, she wondered how much of that distance only existed in her head. How would she have felt if, instead of merely dying, leaving all of them behind, her grandfather had left only her? Her eyes were burning again; probably the smoke, or something. Blinking against the sudden sting, the red-haired teen took another quick hit and passed the joint back. She let the taste of it roll across her tongue, warmth uncoiling languidly, pleasantly through her limbs, as she followed the outline of the introspective young man’s profile with her gaze. “That’s- I mean, Jesus, Jase,” she murmured, exhaling slowly. “So, your mom just showed up at your school... with a new name… and no apologies, no explanations for being a shit human being? Just… nothing?” Yeah. That definitely qualified as a ‘long day’ on its own. “Well, first of all,” she continued, regarding him levelly, “Fuck. Her. Second, fuck her.” With a sandpaper dildo, she added mentally, not quite ready to risk even a mildly-baked sandblasting. Enmity or not, blood ties could run deep, and this was already unfamiliar territory for the heroine who’d actually followed the dragon into the heart of his lair. “Third…” Autumn sighed, not-quite-smiling at him in acknowledgement of both his admission and the tenuous connection it forged through shared misery. “Thanks for telling me. I know I can’t do anything about it, but, still.” On impulse, she stretched her leg, nudging his calf gently with her foot. “How did that turn out?” “Oh, fuck her indeed.” Jase shrugged. “And as to how it turned out… We fenced a little in class. Like two cats staring at each other down a long alley, with some daggers hidden behind the verbals.” He drew on the joint, once more letting the smoke trickle from his mouth and nose, gazing out at the night-time fields. “My primary concerns are twofold - one, that her being here is not a coincidence, what with Cook’s secret project and the other strangeness in this area. And two, that she could hurt my father again. Just being reminded of her could do that - what would happen to him if he bumped into her?” He contemplated for a moment, a chilling look in his eyes as his face became a mask. “If her purpose for being here is to hurt him or make him miserable - then that would be unfortunate for her.” he said, each word precise as a scalpel limned in frost. Then he relaxed slightly, glancing at Autumn with a faint smile. “But perhaps that is not her purpose, hmm? Let us focus on the positive.” “So after that… There was the equipment storage meeting, where I suggested Cassandra attempt to use her gift on Devin’s bracelet he brought back with him from Elsewhere, so we could perhaps learn more about it. Reasonable, so I thought, and she thought so too, eager to try it. Except it did something to her, attacked her somehow - stopping her heart.” “Shit.” Autumn said quietly. “Quite.” Jase nodded, taking another toke and passing the joint back over. “I got her breathing and heart rate going again quickly, and she seemed fine - she thought she’d just passed out. But that was a tense few moments.” “So… You weren’t kidding about it being a hell of a day.” Autumn said with obvious sympathy in her voice. “Oh, it gets better.” Jase folded his hands behind his head, looking out at the first glimmering pinpricks of the stars. “Someone I thought was one of my best friends accused me of not trying hard enough to overcome my condition, and of using it as an excuse for being less than nice. Personally, I think if I wasn’t a psychopath I’d probably be even less ‘nice’ than I am - but then perhaps that’s my own bias. Then there was the meeting you missed after school - which I didn’t stick around for because by that point in the day I was in no mood to have my time wasted. I asked a question twice, got ignored twice, made to leave explaining why, and then got told that I had not earned the right to ask questions.” He gave a dry laugh at that. “It’s amusingly pathetic petty ingratitude, in retrospect, but at the time it nearly sent me over the edge of rage. I got out of there before anyone else said anything fucking retarded and came home.” “And then Marissa gave me a call to come over. We played some DDR and talked, she explained why she was mad, I expressed my regret that I had upset her, and we were friends again.” Autumn was a good listener, and the Lucifer’s Reserve was good weed. Jason was feeling unguarded, which perhaps explains why he said what he said next. “And then I told her how I feel about her, and I got the impression she felt the same way despite her saying she doesn’t date. She was very tactile - hugged me a lot and not in the ‘lean in from an arm’s length away’ sort of hug. I gave her a gift, which she loved.” Jason sighed slightly. “And then I fucked up and kissed her. She didn’t take it well and kicked me out, saying I was just like any other guy with my expectations and sense of entitlement.” He smiled faintly, his eyes on a distant twinkle of light. “Like I said when I first got here this evening: I don’t think I’m meant to have close friends, let alone love. People I give a damn about either get upset with me, or end up disappointing me, or things fall apart in other ways.” He glanced at Autumn now. “Other than hugging Marissa, your visit is probably the high point of my day.” He laughed then, a short, choppy sound of amusement that, Autumn realised with faint heartsick horror, was directed at himself. “And you’re terrified of me.” he managed to say before that strange mirth took him again, his laughter an eerie whispering mockery of joy that, the silent girl realised with a flash of insight, was perhaps the closest her strange companion could come to an expression of pain.
  2. The Jauntsen Home, Devin and Marissa's basement Marissa fell back onto the soft, plush rug. Her breathing was erratic and she was short of breath, steadying her rhythm with every heavy inhale and exhale. Her body glistened in sweat and her hair lay spread behind her in a plume of sticky, damp strands. One of her hands lay across her chest as the back of her palm of her other hand rested gently upon her wet, sweat covered brow. “Worst, best idea I've had in a long time,” she panted. “One more time.” Jason turned his head to look at her. Sweat covered him as well and his breathing was faring no better than hers. His hands both rest across his chest where his teeshirt was showing darker, damp discoloration. “Marissa, that's six times...” “I know,” she cooed. “But you're getting better at it. I told you using your hips would make all the difference... and I wasn't wrong.” He tilted her head to face him and she smiled. “I... just need to... rest.” He smiled back. “Ten minutes.” She grunted in frustration and rolled her eyes. “You know, you're the first guy I've ever done this with? I don't just share myself on a personal level with just anyone, and now here you are, I invite you to get to know me more on an intimate level...” her voice grew bored and monotone. “And you want ten minutes to re-hydrate? Fucking men. I swear.” Stop faking,” he said casually. “You're just as worn out as I am. Water break, and I promise, we'll get back to it.” “Ugh, fine.” She rolled onto her left side and stood up. “Pick a song while you drink. No excuses. I want your A-game.” She slid the controller over to Jason with her sneakered foot and stepped off the Dance Dance Revolution mat. The Queen of Shelly was in her normal workout attire, sheer black leggings that were glossy around all the places where polite modesty was required and a sports bra that certainly made Jason thankful she wasn't shy about her body at all. She took a brief moment to tighten her pony-tail and went to the fridge, plucking out two waters, and under handing one to Jason who was standing up. “I'm confused.” Jason said flatly. “You invited me here to talk. I know you're angry with me, so, why the games?” “My brother suggested I not just skip straight to both barrels. You claim you're messed up,” she patted her neck and face with a towel. “We're all messed up. So, instead of hiding your body in a shallow hole out back, freshly dug, so don't tempt me to use it, I'm trying to bond with you on some level. To share a secret, you could say. So, now you know, I love DDR and I'm not sorry. I'm trying to wear myself out before we get to the meat of why you're here and why I'm pissed at you.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you even know why I'm pissed at you?” He studied her as he drank some water, feeling his body cool down from their shared exertions. It had been a surprise, to say the least, when the phone in the farmhouse kitchen had rung and Marissa’s dulcet tones had said "We need to talk. My place, forty-five minutes. Wear sneakers, not your Army surplus clodhoppers." He'd never been to the Jauntsen place. Not that he'd avoided it, per se, just that most of the hanging out he'd done with Devin and Mari over the summer had been at the farm, which seemed to have suited them just dandy as it gave them a reason to get away from their folks. So the invite was unusual, as was the instruction to wear sneakers. And then he'd arrived and seen Marissa in her workout gear which, whilst it didn't leave him a tongue-tied mess, certainly made him feel that it should have. Also glad that his baggy combat pants hid any autonomic reactions that may, or may not have taken place (he'd never tell) watching her limber up. "You're going down." she'd said with a toss of her head and an air of challenge, and for a second he'd wondered with some real concern whether she was going to challenge him to a fight - before she rolled out the DDR pads with a smirk. And thus began another first for Jason, who was thankfully deft and fit enough to at least not completely embarrass himself next to her, picking up the patterns and moves with his usual swiftness. He should have looked ungainly, with his height and slenderness: a comedic puppet made of knees and elbows. But he was balanced and coordinated, always possessed of a sense of what was around him and how he fit into that space. It was a lot of fun. Not just because he got to watch Marissa bounce, step and sway in a way that would distract a Buddhist monk, but the activity, hanging out and doing something frivolous but fun with someone he liked - okay, liked a lot - was a balm after the day he’d had, especially that unmentionable abortion of a meeting with the Fellowship. He'd missed this - missed her - though the sensation would probably seem a muted one next to those experienced by 'normal' people, that he felt it at all was testament to how keen it was. "I never claimed to be messed up." he stated mildly as he cycled through the songs. "I just have a part-" "Part of your brain missing, yeah. I know." Marissa said. "That doesn't mean you're stupid. So don't be stupid now." He sighed and met her eyes with his own intense stare. It wasn't menacing, not now she was used to it. She'd gotten good at reading Jason - it was all in his eyes. Right now, he was watching her, studying how she was reacting and emoting. A blind man learning to read Braille, was the comparison that came to mind. "I think you're pissed because I broke the law and hurt someone, or because I made my friends complicit in my actions?" he ventured, his tone that of a man figuring out a problem. "And I think you're bothered by how easy I found it. Perhaps you were afraid, when you first found out? I doubt you are now, or I wouldn't be here." He set the controller aside, his attitude one of concentration on the moment. "Avalon felt I'd betrayed her trust. Devin feels I'll eventually become an animal to put down, at least going by what they have said. Clara says I need a form of cognitive behavioral therapy – someone to talk to. Lilly tells me I’m just not trying hard enough. None of the others have said boo. The truth is, Marissa, that all I have is guesses as to why you're mad at me." He shrugged, looking down at the water bottle in his hands. "I can tell you that it matters to me that you are upset, for what that is worth. I regret that what I did caused you to not want to be my friend anymore." "Mm," she raised a finger on the hand that gripped her water bottle, making a point to claim the moment in mid swig. She finished her drink and her finger bobbed up and down in preparation for what she was about to say. "Jason, I'm pissed at you. Devin is pissed at you. If we didn't want to be friends with you anymore, we would have had pulled that plug already." "And you're half right," she leaned on the island of the kitchen that made up a portion of the Jauntsen twins' basement play space. He wasn't sure if she was intending to tease him, but everything about her was a distraction. Making eye contact was just as difficult as not making eye contact as every part of her was an oasis in the desert of a teenage boys mind. "I don't give a one whit about what you did to Liam. He'll live, and Lona can help to make sure nothing is permanent, I feel it's the least we can do." She tilted her head and her hair fell 'just so' over her shoulder. "Fact of the matter is Jason, I was thinking of Liam. We're dealing with an entity that can ride people's bad thoughts and make them monsters. Liam was already a prick, we both know that, but what we didn't know was whether it was him, or the Dark." She straightened and walked about, scooping up the towel again and dabbing her abs with it, making an 'ick' face as she threw it back on the counter. "You, Jason, displayed poor impulse control. You were so wrapped in wanting to hurt someone that you stopped being a rational, reasonable being. Does that make sense to you?" She narrowed her eyes to witness his confirmation denial from his expression. "Do you understand why, as a result of those actions, people would be fearful of you? We have proof of what you're capable of, but all we have as proof of your control and nonviolent proclamation is your word... which flies in the face of reason, given the proof of what you're capable of." "You saw me leave, Jason. You knew I was going to try and save him from you, and you raced me to get to him first. So, what was your priority Jason? Lona? Who asked you to just leave it be. Me? Whom you knew was trying to save the kid, who may or may not have had control over his actions. Or your vengeful nature? Which you delivered upon a boy with impunity without ever stopping to consider that maybe, just maybe... the guy was a shade." She folded her arms and leaned to one side. "My brother loves me. He protects me. Can you understand why he might be worried for his sister, now? We had a long talk, which is why you and I are having a long talk." "It was poor impulse control." he admitted, standing and stretching so his muscles would not become stiff from sitting after the exertion. "The act was ill-considered, and mostly due to my vengeful nature, as you put it." He held out a hand, a fresh towel flying from the counter and dropping into his palm as he, too, daubed off the worst of the sweat from his face and neck before rummaging up under his tee-shirt with it. "I told myself there were other considerations: that Devin might do something dumb, or Lilly, or Cade. And get hurt or, more likely, caught." He sighed, draping the towel around his neck and meeting her eyes again. "But all of that is rationalising what I wanted to do. I pride myself on being honest, if not always open. I wanted to hurt the cockroach that hurt my friend, and it didn't occur to me he might be a shade." He made a wry self-deprecating face. "It should have. It should have been my first thought, even if Liam is the kind of creep that would happily spike a girl’s drink just so he can fondle something other than a blow-up doll. Instead, I was angry. It was like the sabertooth, like the thing in the forest. Something reached out to hurt what I care for and I flipped from cold to hot." "Psshyeah. We all barely knew each other when the sabertooth attacked." Marissa snorted. Jason smiled faintly, his eyes not leaving hers. "Doesn't mean I didn't care for those I was with. Some of them. Maybe just one of them. Perhaps more than was realised by that person." he said into the suddenly pregnant silence with one of his boneless shrugs, pale green eyes warming a little as the smile reached them. "I understand that Devin is worried for you. Maybe for the others too. And though I know that I would never seriously hurt a member of the fellowship... and least of all you... I also know that I'm going to have to prove that through actions, not words. It's a work in progress." "I was hurt because you put your vengeance above friendship," her voice was smooth and calm, almost soothing. It was obvious she cared for him on a personal level. If she were mad at him, she didn't seem like now. "You can't leave us bleeding in the woods to go hunt and kill the the thing that bit us. Okay? I know you don't think like other people and you're new to having a lot of friends, but we need you need to stand by us, not run off." She stepped towards him and wrapped her arms around his lanky frame, resting her head softly on his chest. "Me too." She said softly. "Friends are a new concept for me too. So get better at it, because I'm to pretty to keep crying over you." Hugs were not a regular feature in Jason's life. In fact, before the summer, the person who mostly hugged him was Sean's mom, and even those had become less frequent as he'd gotten older and taller though, as the football game showed, when she needed someone to hug jubilantly Mrs Cassidy did not spare even her son's taciturn friend, which Jason put up with good-naturedly. Avalon had hugged him once or twice, platonic tactile affection, as his chilly mind classified it. Though he thought she was mostly sincere, he wondered if she'd hugged him at least in part to prove to herself she wasn't afraid of him. To humanise the Other in her mind. So he'd been surprised when Marissa had stepped close and wrapped her arms around him, resting her head against him. She smelled of fresh sweat and deodorant, a hint of conditioner in her hair, and the gesture was so openly affectionate that it actually made his mind pause - but only for a moment - before his long arms wrapped around to cradle her against him, one hand coming up to stroke her sweat-damp hair. And then her words registered. She had cried over him? "On that, I couldn't agree more." he murmured. "I had no idea you would cry over me." She felt him sigh against her, the sweat-damp cotton of his tee-shirt against her cheek something that seemed irrelevant right now. He smelled faintly of tobacco, faintly of flowers and a faded dab of cologne under the sweat. She peered up to find him looking down at her, his green eyes not seeming as remote as usual as they met her gaze, though he was as usual outwardly composed. "That's another reason I would take it back if I could." "Oh?" she asked, reading something in his gaze and challenging it a little, though she didn't pull away from the hug. "And here I thought you had ice-water for blood. Big, bad, high-functioning psychopathic genius. Nothing touches his cold, cold heart." She was teasing, drawing out the second 'cold' and adding a theatrical shiver to the word, aware that his arm was still around her waist and his other hand was resting lightly on her shoulder. His answer to that was a raised eyebrow and a faint curve to his lips as he studied her smirk, then a wry smile. "When you took my hand in the trailer on the night of the party. When you calmed me down and worked with me to sort those infernal red-herring files. Your face when you saw my garden for the first time. When you got me quoting Pulp Fiction in my kitchen." he smiled more warmly now. "When you called me an asshole after sneaking up on you-" "You mean you did that deliberately? I knew it." Marissa cut in, narrowing her gorgeous dark eyes at him even though part of her was loving this warm moment. "Asshole." "-when you turned up in those frankly ridiculous 'hiking heels'-" "Okay, now you're going too far. Hiking heels are totes a thing." she poked his chest. "You're on thin ice, buster." "-all of those moments, and more, you touch my heart." he finished, head tilting to one side as he smiled. "I cannot cry or even experience sadness as more than a faint ache. But if I could, the thought of you crying would make me utterly miserable." He eyed her carefully, trying to gauge her reaction. "If I'm being creepy or inappropriate, you can tell me. I just wanted to tell you that, is all." She tapped his chest and smiled, stepping away from the tall, lanky teen. "Jason, you can't be inappropriate with me. You're not creepy, hell, I find the honesty refreshing. Besides, have you met my brother? How are you going to creep me out or offend me when I live with a guy who locks himself in the bathroom and sings the 'helicoptering my dick' song while he showers." Jason opened his mouth to speak, even raised his hand in a gesture to facilitate the flow of words... but there were none to be had. "Yeah." She smiled at him. "So, the point Jason, is that you're safe with me. I know you have a hard time with people, and dealing with certain things, so come to me if you help. No judgement, no strings attached." She turned and walked away from him and he never let his gaze leave her frame. "I'm not an expert on everything," she continued, stopping at the fridge again where she popped it open and reached in and grabbed some string cheese. One for her and one for Jase. As the door closed she caught him eyeing her, or, at least parts of her. She smiled and gave him a look that told him she wasn't offended at all. "Well, at least that part of your brain works." She offered him the snack while using her teeth to tear open her pack. "But," she struggled with it then finally tore it open, cursing slightly at her luck of getting the difficult pack. "You're broadening your horizons, so to speak. There's going to be dances, social functions, girls are going to ask you out, trust me, I've got the skinny on two of them that are interested. We women are a complicated lot, so if you need advice, you have a girl on the inside. I'll spill all our juicy secrets." She winked and mingled a smirk with her tongue as she wrangle up her string cheese, tipping her head back and dropping in a strand. "So good," she shrugged. "It's like, I know it's just mozzarella, but it's so much better because it is in string form. How do they do that?" "Limited contact with the taste buds forces the sensory area of your brain to concentrate more fully on the areas of contact. If you shoved the whole thing in your mouth at once, it'd just taste like a lump of mozzarella. It's the same principle that makes us focus on small movements or rustling noises." Jason commented as he came over to take the snack from her hand, tearing open the packet and likewise extracting some stringy dairy goodness. Marissa regarded him as he likewise dropped a strand between his lips, and he arched a brow as he noticed her scrutiny. "What? I realise your question was likely rhetorical, but it's interesting how the brain works." "It's certainly interesting how your brain works." she retorted, smiling. "I just told you that two girls are interested in asking you out. Asking you. Even in the Current Year, that's bucking the trend." "It's true I'm broadening my horizons." he noted, his gaze studying her, committing every moment of this time to his memory. "It's also true that 'that' part of my brain works." His lips quirked in a smile. "Quite well. I'm not sure about dating, though." He arched an eyebrow at her. "There's reasons I don't date - and no, they have nothing to do with hayhooks or a cannibalism fetish." He paused, studying her thoughtfully. Jason usually had an air of intensity, but when he subjected someone to a thoughtful stare it was downright daunting, giving the impression of massive forces at work behind those green eyes. "That said, with everything else that's changing around here, and in my life, maybe that should change too." he said, breaking off that stare and dropping another stringy length of cheese into his mouth. "So, who are the two interested girls? I know Lori Heath asked Lilly to convey her interest in being asked to the Homecoming Dance - which seems a roundabout way of doing things." He smiled faintly. "Who's the other?" "What? No!" She laughed. "You ruined string cheese for me. Come on Jason, where the magic? I look up at the sky and I see blue and I see clouds and I see stars. They're so beautiful to me, and I don't one hundred percent understand how it all works... and that's why they stay so beautiful." "Consider that for a moment, the next time you want to explain something away. Your science, as interesting as it is to flex your brain, makes everything that's so enchanting about life seem... banal." She reached over and picked into his with her polished nails and peeled herself off a strand. "You owe me, for ruining mine." She smiled at him. "Oh, she told you? Awesome, then I'm in the clear, and duh, she is the second one. No worries, we'll have you all ready for Homecoming no matter who you go with. Hence, the dancing. I'm not going to tell you how to live your life, Jason, but seriously, you have to get out there, explore your options, open yourself up to every opportunity you can. Dating might do you good." "Do girls intimidate you?" She asked suddenly while leaning against the island. "Like, I know you're unsure of your sexuality, but is that because of a lack of experience or are just not sure what to do around us? What's it like in your head? Short version. Don't put me sleep with twenty minutes of medical bullshit. Because you seem uncomfortable around us sometimes." "I'm not unsure of my sexuality." he protested mildly. "I like girls. What am I, a theatre geek?" he added deadpan, causing Mari to almost inhale a piece of mozzarella from laughing. "A-as-asshole." she coughed, swatting his arm with the back of her hand. "I am sorry if I ruined string cheese. I feel that it makes things more interesting to know the whys... I also share your appreciation for the beauty my surroundings." his smile became a lopsided grin. "But I'll bear your wishes in mind and leave you in blissful ignorance next time." "Do that." Marissa sniffed, then narrowed her eyes. "Wait. Did I just give you carte blanche to not tell me things?" "Yes. And no take-backs." Jason asserted with calm aplomb, though his eyes danced with laughter. "Nuh-uh! No way. Foul play." Marissa shook her head, reaching out steal another string of cheese from Jason's hand. He moved it back a tiny fraction as though he was planning to pull away - then relented, allowing the lovely girl to hum happily as she claimed her prize. "Now spill." she said, staring at him meaningfully. "Girls don't intimidate me any more than boys do. And if you'd noticed, I don't have many close guy friends either. My closest friend was Sean, and he knew nothing about me other than I appeared to be some kind of aspie and was a little smarter than I let on." Jason's manner sobered as he regarded Marissa. "Guys are easier for me to associate with because they don't really want to know what's going on in my head, or what makes me tick. They're happy with the surface layer." "And girls always want to know what's going on inside." Marissa finished, her gaze speculative. "So... the dating thing." "I have little direct experience of affection or love to base my behaviours on. I can't get crushes on people." he shrugged. "I can feel physical desire and conscious mental admiration, respect and attraction, but no chemical bonding to make me irrational and distracted." He smiled a little. "That seems to be most of it, for teenagers. And so I just decided to miss out." "So you have no frame of reference, a lack of experience and you're not sure what to do around a girl you like?" Marissa summed up. Jason considered as he ate some string cheese, then nodded. "I seem to make girls cry, or afraid, or angry at me." he said with a faint smile. "And those are the ones I'm not dating." "Do you want to date?" she asked curiously. "I want to date you." he said with simple honesty, his gaze direct. "But you don't date either." His expression was one of curiousity. "Why is that?" Marissa's jovial smile slipped away just a bit. Just a bit, but Jason noticed it. "Jason, that's..." she paused. Marissa never paused in her words, she knew exactly what she was going to say and if there were to words to regret, she'd deal with it afterwards. With Jason it was different, he was a good guy, but different than any guy she'd ever met. He was exactly what every girl ended up with: perfect for her in every way except the way she needed. Either they were married, or emotionally unavailable, or gay. "...I've been in love, Jason. You haven't. You can't." Her guest took in a terse breath. It was obvious her delivery stung. "That's hardly fair." "No," she raised her hands defensively. She shook her head and tightened her eyes as she searched for the proper words. "I didn't mean it like that, Jason. I'm... I'm not trying to be cruel, I'm just... Jesus, what am I trying to say?" "I've never seen you so off guard, Marissa." He studied her as she had one hand on her hip the other massaging the bridge of her nose. "All I ask is honestly." "I envy you, Jason." She said softly. "Because I can love. I can't help but love. I'm a passionate, hopeless romantic whose read all the classics and has a private library of teenage romances, that you will never see, by the way," she held up a finger to punctuate that proclamation. "And I want to be loved. I want it so bad... but people are horrible. I got my heart broken and I will not go through it again. You? You can meet people, laugh, cry, joke, even fuck, and when it's over it's just... over. Just 'somebody that you used to know' tucked away in your mental Rolodex." "That doesn't work for me," she placed her palm on her chest. "You and me, it's science, Jason. We're unsuitable for use together because of antagonistic chemical or physiological interactions." "The text book definition for incompatible," he smirked. "Nice." She winked and smiled. "Jason I will help you in anyway I can. I'll do hook ups, break ups, I'll teach you everything you need to know. I'll spill all our dirty female secrets and give you a competitive edge." She approached him and leaned into him, her cheek gently grazing his. "Let it be enough." "You never answered 'why'." He whispered softly. Her lips gently pressed to his cheek. He could smell her hair and feel her breath upon his earlobe. "I know." "Mari..." He closed his eyes, fighting the sudden rush of anger that roiled deep within him. Not at her. Never at her. At the universe. For having this blindness threaten to snatch away what he wanted. Words. Think it through, explain it as best you can. He gently reached out and brushed his palms down her forearms before taking her hands in his, opening his eyes to meet hers. "I'm not completely dead inside. For me, love is a conscious choice, an appreciation of a person, warts and all. There's no chemical rush that fogs my perceptions, then leaves me with buyers remorse when the rush fades. When I realised that I love you, it was like a final piece of a puzzle fitting into place, a 'eureka' moment." Marissa remained silent, her eyes wide and dark. He could feel a faint tremor in her hands, but she wasn't trying to pull away. "I remember when you came to Shelly. I was almost fourteen - it was not much past three years ago. You were beautiful, but I was in my introvert act and trying to avoid notice. But I watched you and Devin. You were interesting. Alive, a figure of colours in a world of fog. You know I have a good memory. Well, I've been taking it further, a for-real mind-palace. And in it is the sum total of all my experiences. Later, I could stop this moment and review it from across the room, noting every detail of your face and the look in your eyes." He smiled gently. "Maybe if Sara can arrange it, or I can learn her trick, I can show you. I'd want to share that with you, if you want... I'm rambling." He frowned a little, but Marissa smiled very tentatively and squeezed his hands in hers, saying nothing and waiting patiently. "Every moment of you that I have seen is in here. Every snarky comment, every short skirt, every insightful remark, every sigh, every wisecrack, every totally adorable toss of your hair and those hiking heels. That summer two years ago when you had a band-aid on your knee outside Bunnee's. And Marissa, it's not tucked away in some wing of my mind-palace that I visit when I feel like it." His eyes were warm pools of green, summer leaves amongst which fireflies danced. "You're in my throne room. In the palace of my mind with all the knowledge and experiences that I have or will ever have, you are the queen. Did you ever wonder why, of all my customers, I never made you use my dead-drop system? You, in all your beauty, snark, poise, insecurity, regality, occasional pettiness, warmth and romantic nature, are who I choose to love. That's not a thing that will evaporate. I am not ordinary, and neither is my love. And neither is the woman I love." "I'm telling you this without expectation. Because you are my friend, and because you deserve the truth of my feelings. What you choose to do with the information is up to you." He smiled very faintly then, a faint mischievous expression. "Say that she rail; why, then, I'll tell her plain: She sings as sweetly as a nightingale: Say that she frown; I'll say she looks as clear as morning roses newly wash’d with dew: Say she be mute and will not speak a word; Then I'll commend her volubility, And say she uttereth piercing eloquence: If she do bid me pack, I'll give her thanks, As though she bid me stay by her a week.." Marissa flushed. It wasn't often one witnessed the event, after all she kept her real thoughts and feeeling closer to her chest than anyone in Shelly could imagine. If she had a weakness, it was literature and again she was reminded of something she could not have in Jason. He didn't, couldn't, love her the way she desired. "My passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love, yet I pray you, do not fall in love with me, for I am falser than vows made in wine." Her words were feather-light and carried on an accent so subtle and so perfectly spoken Jason knew she'd either practiced those two lines in the mirror a million times, or she was the one who wrote them. "Jason, I," she smiled warmly but it found its purchase upon her lips amid troubled thoughts. "I appreciate what you're trying to say, and impressed with the delivery. Taming of the Shrew is one of my favorites. To tell me that you love me, yet, if I reject you will simply thank me for my time and still going on loving me, it's a beautiful notion and certainly the sweetest any man has delivered to date." "Tell me of the last time you cried." She changed the topic suddenly, eyeing him now with curiosity mingled with a tinge of sadness. "What tore you apart so much that you couldn't keep the flood of emotions and pain inward anymore." "If you mean breaking down and sobbing... never. I cried when my mother abandoned me, when she told me she didn't want me because I am... as I am. But there weren't many tears. And when I saw my father break down and cry after I tried to help him by pouring away his liquor, I shed tears too. His pain was almost tangible to me." He regarded Marissa calmly. "Those were the two most emotionally painful moments of my life, and all they did was make my eyes wet and make me feel empty and useless for a time." "That's love Jason. Caring in it's simplest and truest state," she stepped close to him again and gazed into his still, ever-calm eyes. "But being in love, Jason, it's... it's beyond science, it's beyond quantifying, it's math you simply can't solve for Jason." She rested her palms on his chest and looked up at him. "I," she smiled and her eyes were filled with caring and compassion, the moments when she was at her most beautiful. "I love you too. All of you little rejects,honestly," she recovered quickly, before burying herself in a hole on mixed signals. "But you can't give me what I need from a relationship, and we've just made up after a big fight so 'I love you' is probably not the best thing for either of us to be dropping in each other's camps right now." Once again her arms slid around his body and her face pressed into his chest. "Now hold me, hug me, tell me I'm pretty and let's get past all this 'who loves who' business. Besides," her tone changes to a playful coo. "You need to level up for me, loser. I am so far out of your Challenge Rating range. You're like, still on rats in the cellar and I'm like campaign ending, final boss level." He laughed, a warm chuckle that embraced her as surely as his arms did as they slid around her. "I have much to learn, but I do have an excellent teacher. As well as a ridiculously pretty one." "How pretty am I?" Her voice was soft, almost tentative as she nuzzled her face against his chest, feeling the warmth of his hug and his hand stroking her hair. Jason was surprised for a moment - surely she knew how beautiful she was - but he had been paying attention, too. Neurotypicals doubted themselves, especially when they had suffered setbacks. Marissa had had her heart broken - she had been rejected. "So pretty I've considered cultivating a flower and naming it after you." he admitted with that simple, direct honesty. "So pretty that when I listen to music I think of you. You shone in my eyes before shine took on a different meaning for us." "Mmm." Marissa smiled, her eyes closed against his tee-shirt. "What kind of flower?" "A variant of Hibiscus, perhaps? I know you like them. Something vibrant." Her hair was soft under his fingers, her waist supple under the arm around it. His body was keenly aware of the nearness of hers, but he neither pressed closer nor tried to move away. "Which reminds me. I brought a 'making up' present." "Oh?" she glanced up at him through long lashes, eyes narrowing. "And what made you so sure you and I were going to make up?" "I was confident that, seeing as you wanted to talk, it was at least a possibility." he returned evenly, then smiled a little. "You bought me a gift on a 'maybe'?" "Made you a gift. A little while ago, but the time never seemed right to present it." His satchel flipped open where it sat by the couch, a small wrapped package floating out and across to where the pair of them embraced. "As for the 'maybe' - you're right, love is not a calculation. Sometimes it's a leap." Marissa turned in his embrace slightly as the present came to rest in her outstretched hand. It was simply wrapped, in coloured tissue paper which tore off easily enough to reveal a small red blown-glass bottle with a stopper, with what seemed to be some kind of oil inside. She cast a glance at Jason, who merely watched her expectantly with that faint Sphinx-like smile, his arms still lightly hugging her. She removed the glass stopper and sniffed at it, catching the scent of hibiscus, with some other notes she recognised. Jasmine was in there too, just a touch, not too overpowering. Her eyes widened a little - the scent was floral and subtly noticeable, but not strong or nose-wrinkling. There was something gently lovely about the overall effect. "It's an avocado oil base, 100 percent organic. You can dab it on pulse points, or use drops in your bath." Jason said softly, watching her expressions with the intent air of a man studying the sky to divine the weather. "I was inspired to make better use for my lab than just producing knock-off Adderall or fireworks over the summer - I wanted to make something nice for you. I call it 'De la Mer'." There was silence. "Is it okay?" he asked, a touch of concern in his voice. "Of the sea," she said softy, more to herself than to her guest, as the vapors enchanted her, making her eyes heavy and skin warm. "Jason it's-" she laughed for no reason other than she was happy. "It's wonderful, thank you. It smells amazing." "I'm not hugging you again," she smiled at him while looking up through those deep brown eyes of hers. "You've already gotten two. If I keep doing it, you'll start expecting it." "What's wrong with that?" Jase chuckled. "Doesn't seem like a bad way to spend my day." "Because I could be teaching so much more." Maybe she didn't mean it, but they way she said it was so inviting and practically daring him to cross any boundary he could to take her up on the offer. It was Marissa, however and everything the girl said was laced heavily in either authority or seduction. So much for not sending mixed signals. "So, you need to get out there." She traced just a bit over her pulse points, and offered Jason a devilish smirk. "Let's try it out. Ten minutes is up, lover boy. Pick a song and by the end of it, you'd better have a date in mind for Homecoming." "Unfair." His tone was clinical, but the heated return glance that met Marissa's flirtatious smirk was- well, it was an open oven door that brought heat to her cheeks. She'd been ogled, and catcalled (ugh) and looked at dreamily, and of course there'd been the puppyish, slavishly devoted 'I'll do anything for you' soulful look teenage boys, even bruisers like Chet, usually brought. The only word for this was hungry. "I already picked who I had in mind." She opened her mouth to gently rebuke, and froze a moment in the face of that smoldering stare. Jase was definitely a virgin. He hadn't even dated, by his own admission. Probably hadn't done more than maybe gotten a kiss once or twice, if that. But there was nothing virginal or uncertain about the look he was giving her. It was practically volcanic, but in a good way. Very good, part of her noted even as it also noted that he was still really, really close to her. "Jase..." she murmured, bringing a hand up to rest on his chest. She'd intended it to be a warding off gesture, really she had, but her palm flattened against his breastbone and she could feel his heart beating underneath it, feel the warmth of him. And he was leaning down now, his eyes on hers, his hands sliding around her waist. He didn't come right in like a steam train - this was a patient stalk, a series of slow, unhurriedly movements that reminded her of the smilodon. He paused, his lips curving in a slight smile as thought he'd noticed something, and Marissa suddenly became aware that she was leaning her face up back towards him like a flower to the sun. She could shove him away - he wasn't forcing himself against her. She should step back, she told herself, even as his face and eyes, framed by shaggy brown hair (that badly needed a style, at least he combed it now), filled her sight. "Mmhmm?" His answer was a low, feline rumble, and she was aware that he was breathing her in appreciatively. "I was testing the perfume. It is perfect for you." "Oh... the perfume. Right." Marissa murmured, not buying it in the slightest. The devil with the green eyes before her always had more than one reason for everything he did, right? Her own lips curved in a smile as she looked into the depths of his eyes, pupils dilated in the sea of green. "I think it works, so you can-" And his lips met hers, the kiss a soft, gentle pressure against her lips. This was not a practiced kiss - he wasn't an experienced kisser in the slightest - but it had warmth and passion to it, and boldness - a total lack of hesitation. It also wasn't loose-lipped or slobbery, which was always a plus for a first kiss. It lasted a few seconds... long, warm seconds with his heartbeat under her palm, and then it ended a second or two after she'd felt her own lips begin to return the kiss, and Jason had stepped a half step back, though his hands still rested on her hips above the workout pants she wore. "You said you wanted my A-game. Now the ten minutes are up." he said with a faint smile, his tongue lightly tracing where her lips had touched his in a reflexive fashion. He indicated towards the waiting gaming setup. "Shall we?" She took more than a half of a step back. As he smiled and licked the ecstasy from his lips her eyes were alight with the fires of scorn. She wiped her lips with her thumb and folded her arms. "Sure, but first I think this is an excellent opportunity to interject a lesson." "One," she raised her arm and counted off a digit. "When a woman speaks, listen. I believe I was quite clear when I told you that I don't date. I didn't say 'except' or 'unless', I said I don't. I don't date. That means that I won't be going to Homecoming with anyone, hell I probably won't even go." "Two," her second finger met the sky. "Being physical with people sends the wrong messages, sometimes. Yes, Jason we flirt, but when I told you no more hugs it's because things were getting a little too close in here. That should have been it. We move on, we play our game, we giggle like teens. Done. The perfume, I love it Jason, but that should have been it. Done." She spun around and lazily shrugged and let her arms fall to her sizes. "What is it with guys? Why do you think that because you get us something, or do something for us that we owe you something? I loved the gift Jason, it was thoughtful and it was romantic and had you had some patience and understanding towards the fact that I'm not really into the whole relationship thing, who knows? I might have come out of my shell. I trust you, I would have felt safe with you, fuck... I don't know." "But it's never enough, is it? To just be appreciated? I didn't want to kiss you Jason. Nor did I want a kiss from you. You had no right to take that from me." Her eyes were starting to gloss with moisture but Marissa was one of the few women who could keep their emotions in check longer than most. It was reaching a boiling point though and getting harder for her to keep her tears at bay. "Congratulations. Mystery solved. You want to know why I don't date? This is why." She thrust her finger towards the floor. "I don't owe you anything. Just because you 'love me' and get me things doesn't mean you can just take from me whatever you want. I was clear with you Jason, and you didn't hear a word I said, which I except no excuse for since you learn a language a week. I don't date. I'm not interested in dating you, and yet here you are... 'I love you'. 'I love you'. 'I wanna go to homecoming with you'." She mocked his voice with a terrible impression of him. This was probably the most honest and rawest Jason had ever seen Marissa. There were no masks and it was like looking into a window into the real her. Someone at some point had hurt her. It was evident in her desire to never feel that sort of hurt again. She would rather be alone than in pain. "Why do you think I'm trying to move you towards other girls? Because you following me around like a Tawny to my Devin is only going make you look as pathetic as it actually looks when she's doing it." She inhaled and let out a deep sigh as she massaged her nose. "Look, Jason, I flirted with you. I thought you knew it was playful, so I can't blame just you for this. It was just a kiss, so, it's not the end of the world. We're all young and stupid, and we don't need more drama. I," she shook her head, massaging her tears as to not make them visible as best she could. "I just need to calm down. I have Clara and Lilly coming over soon and I still need to shower... look, maybe we should just call it, okay? Thanks for coming by and I'd say we'll can text but you don't have a phone... so, talk at school?" He didn't move for a moment, seeming untouched by her mockery or her dismissal, head tilting as he studied her curiously. Then he nodded calmly and turned to lope over to his satchel, scooping it up with one hand before turning to her once more, regarding her angry, disappointed features. "I didn't kiss you because I felt entitled to or because I felt my gift - a gift made to a friend - bought something from you. I kissed you because I felt it would be fun for both of us." He shrugged and gave her a lopsided smile. "Plainly I should leave the mind reading to Sara. Anyway, you're right. I had no business kissing you and I'm sorry for ruining our time here. I overstepped - I won't do it again." he told Marissa with that same, calm tone he usually had, the last sentence having the feel of words carved in stone. "I also have no intention to follow you around at heel like a dog, have no fear on that score. It would be pathetic - and I can see why you'd find it annoying." He gave her a slight smile. "Fine." Marissa nodded, folded her arms across her stomach. Jason hooked the strap of his satchel over one shoulder, then paused with one foot on the steps leading up and out, a hand on the rail. "A final thing - more business than personal. I don't know why Ms Forster wanted to speak to you after Biology, but be careful with her." he said without looking at Marissa, his gaze fixed on the steps ahead of him. "Well duh. There's something off about her, no need for kewl mind powers to tell that." she snorted, glad to have something else to talk about. She narrowed her eyes at him. "Though you and her definitely seemed to be crossing swords. Want to tell me what that is about?" "No. But given that the Dark is probing us, I think I should. The last time I saw Ms Forster, it was a long way from here and she was called Mrs Bannon." Jason said so calmly he might have been discussing the weather. 'Oh, it's raining. Oh, the mother who abandoned me just happened to show up and teach Biology at my school'. "I'm trying to find out why she's here, but even before all the strangeness started, I didn't believe in coincidences." "That's your idea of 'business not personal'?" Marissa arched a brow at her unbelievable friend. He shrugged, adjusting his bag at his side. He considered mentioning the Man in Black on the road, the race against the Hell Cadillac... But no. Not now, not when he wasn’t even sure if it had been real. Besides, he couldn’t shake the sense that there was something private between him and Mr Black, something that needed to be resolved, or discovered before he could talk about it with others. "I have to treat it as business." he said, very quietly, his eyes glacially pale in his outdoor-tanned face as they glanced her way. "Because making it personal would be bad. Maybe that's generally a good rule, for me. Thanks for the hangout, Mari - DDR was surprisingly fun. I'll see you at school." He smiled faintly. "Maybe I'll even get a phone." And with that he was gone, taking the stairs up from the basement two at a time. Marissa massaged the bridge of her nose and started to turn, then noticed a sparkle out of the corner of her eye. There was a rime of frost on the handrail where Jason's hand had gripped it, slowly melting at room temperature.
  3. Jase & The Man In Black If Jason felt any kind of shock, it didn't register in his cold green eyes as they looked across at the smirking man behind the wheel of the Hell-Cadillac, his own lips twisting in a lopsided smile. The smooth-shaven features of the Caddy's driver were as composed as his own, the eyes every bit as cold as he inclined his head to the teen in a gesture that was somewhere between acknowledgement and challenge. Without even seeming to hesitate, Jason mimicked the gesture, then mouthed "Love the car." The Man in Black laughed, flashing white teeth, then inclined his head once more. No more words needed to be exchanged, not that conversation was really possible over the roars of the engines. Jase flicked his finger, silencing the blaring music from his MP3 player, and focused on the task at hand. Whatever advantages the hellish vehicle and Mr Dark had, he was in no mood to be cowed, or to surrender. Both cars were currently doing an easy hundred miles per hour down the two lane road, side by side. Jase figured his Charger had perhaps another eighty before it ran out of horsepower, and he had no idea if Mr Dark's car even used horsepower, recalling the atomic generator small enough to fit inside a chest freezer and the nanobots Devin had been injected with. What the fuck ever - the so-called 'team' meeting had left him in a mood to kick in the teeth of God if given a chance. His eyes gleamed now, losing their cold luster and taking on a feral, wild balefire sheen as Jason pressed his foot down on the gas, feeling rather than hearing the roar of the Charger's V8 as the speedometer crept up past one-twenty. The Cadillac kept pace, and the Man in Black was paying no attention to the road ahead, his eyes never wavering from the features of his young opponent while Jason was forced to flick his gaze between Mr Dark and the road, even with his heightened kinetic awareness giving him additional sensory input regarding speed and momentum. If it hadn't been for that, it would have been utterly foolhardy to look away from the road at all. The two cars edged forward faster and faster, Jason noting the speed dial creeping up over one-fifty, then one-sixty. The V8 was howling now, reaching the upper limits of it's speed as the dial crept over one hundred and seventy miles per hour. And the other car kept pace, the Man in Black not even really seeming to drive the damned thing, which Jase felt was simultaneously cool as fuck... and cheating. Then the Hell Car leapt forward as though it wasn't already going fast enough to redline a turbocharged muscle car, pulling ahead until it was easily a hundred feet in front of the Charger. It hung there a beat, then suddenly cut into the lane ahead of Jase and slammed on the brakes, the red lights on the tail flaring like molten coals - or the eyes of a hungry demon as the rear of the Caddy filled Jase's view, and foretold his end. A passenger in the Charger would have heard Jase swear then, a muttered "Fuck!" escaping his lips as he slammed on his own brakes, the Charger fishtailing before going into a screeching, tire-stripping spin. Unsurprisingly he didn't panic, steering into the spin rather than against it, his focus entirely on not wrecking his car for the next five taut seconds. The Charger came to a stop sideways on the road mere inches from where Jase's calculations told him the Hell Cadillac should be, but when he looked up the black car was gone. No trace of it, or the Man in Black. No glimmer of tail lights, no throaty otherworldly engine growl. Huh. Deep in thought, Jase started up ignition once more and headed home, paying attention to the road ahead and behind.
  4. "You could always-" Charlie started, then immediately thought better of it. No, he couldn't. "No, I couldn't." Jason said, as if echoing Charlie's thoughts as the smile faded from his face. "You should probably go and find out what she's telling everyone, though if you want my advice you'll avoid asking her to repeat herself. Or indeed to pass the salt. No telling what'll light her fuse." "It might be important for you too." Charlie ventured as Jason ducked into the driver's seat of his car and glanced up at him. "It probably is, if she read Cook's mind. But she didn't want to tell me - she wanted to have a tedious discussion about ethical use of power first, which would have started a prolonged debate with everyone expressing their views, and I would be sitting there listening to my brain cells dying while people scored oh-so-sassy snark points against a backdrop of the philosophical equivalent of 'I like the orange crayons' filling the air before anything of real import was discussed." He gave Charlie a narrow smile. "I'll get the Cliff Notes assuming anyone cares to share with me. See you tomorrow." With that, he pulled the door closed and started up the engine. Music roaring through the windows as the MP3 player flared to life, the Charger growled once like an angry beast before peeling out of the parking lot.
  5. Those cold eyes narrowed slightly, and for a brief terrifying moment Charlie wondered if he had overstepped some mark, let on that he had seen too much. He wondered if Sophia Fingleman would wear a low cut top and weep over his closed casket or clasp the urn with his pre-cremated ashes in it to her bosom... And then Jason smiled. It was a faint smile, but it reached the lanky boy's eyes. With a faint ripple of relief, Charlie realised that the predatory stare was studying him as if seeing him anew. Jason understood, at least on some level, what was being offered. And though his outlook was indeed quite removed from any definition of 'normal', the odd teen did respect insight and bravery: Charlie was nervous, but had gone ahead and offered a hand of friendship anyway. Still outwardly expressionless, apart from the faint smile and slight warming of his gaze, Jason slowly nodded to the young actor. "Maybe I'll take you up on that sometime." he said quietly. "Appreciated."
  6. "What's tiresome is how oblivious you are." Jason didn't slow down his stride, forcing Charlie to hurry to keep up or else be left behind. "She knew I met with Cook. The only way she could know that is by reading his mind or mine, so spare me the 'delicate feelings' excuse." He drew on his cigarette, then snorted smoke like a particularly scornful dragon. "I was trying to focus on the practical. I asked - not demanded - to know what Sara saw or read or heard that led her to suggest a permanent surrender of my mental autonomy. She ignored me, and when called on it decided to tell me I hadn't earned it rather than address the practical issue at hand." He glanced sideways at Charlie as he walked. "I've saved her life. And others. I have given a lot of focus to ensuring that my friends-" and now the word dripped ice. "-were informed and safe. I have even been honest about myself. Have not earned. Indeed? Then we shall see what has been earned, and to each their due." The last word was almost a quiet snarl. They reached his car, the sleek dark shape of the Charger gleaming in the late afternoon sun as Jase finally stopped and turned, facing Charlie and meeting his eyes, his tone becoming calm once more. "She was right about one thing. I'm the center of no-one's universe save my own. She meant it as a slight - but it's not, because you see I do not need to reflect the light of others. I shine with my own light, and that is all I need to see by." He gestured back towards the bleachers, the lock on the drivers side popping up behind him. "Now leave me alone." he said, turning to climb into his car.
  7. "Well, I am glad I took time out of my day for this." Jase stood, shouldering his satchel. "Where-?" several people began to ask. "I gave my answer on the network issue. I then asked a question. Twice. I got no answer. I'm pretty much done here." Jason stated curtly, then glanced at Sara. "The morality question is irrelevant to me - Just as with my mind, and my loyalty, the use of my powers is mine to decide on. You can of course do likewise. Just bear in mind that if anyone sees fit to use their powers on me without my consent and I do find out about it, I will consider myself similarly unrestrained should it prove convenient for me. Causality - choice and consequence. As Marissa says, things have a tendency to come full circle. And yes, I'm well aware I am not excluded from that - but I'm perfectly content to deal with my own consequences." He indicated Mari with a faint smile. "Case in point." He turned, putting a cigarette between his lips and flicking the end to life with a fingertip. "Etienne is a cockroach to me, as much as Liam is. But his ultimate fate isn't mine to decide so long as he stays away from me. Cook, I have use for. At least for now, I would consider it a favor to be repaid if Cook were left alone." He exhaled a twin jet of smoke from his nostrils, then glanced at them all once more. "At least for now. Up to you, though." With that he strode off towards the parking lot. "Good talk. I miss these little get-togethers. Sometimes I forget why I prefer my own company." he said without looking back.
  8. "Seconded." Jase said from where he was sitting. "The network is something I would be willing to use as a tactical resource, not a strategic utility." He didn't visibly react to Marissa's 'bat-shit crazy' comment. "I'm in favor of setting it up when we're aware it's needed, not having it in place in case it's needed." He leaned forwards, regarding them all. "Because here's how I see the situation devolving. At first, it's great. People only use it for emergencies. It saves lives, even. And then people get cozy and start to use it instead of talking face to face on matters other than critical. It will be filled with chatter about the play, or sports, or people asking me for help with their homework. If left in place, we will become a collective." He paused, then shook his head. "So my answer to that is 'no'. My autonomy is sacred to me and means more to me than anyone's safety or convenience. Even my own." He sat back. "If the rest of you wish to do it, then by all means go ahead. Now, what was on Cook's mind earlier, Sara?"
  9. "So, you know Cook spoke to me." Jason said from where he sat, legs folded Indian-fashion, on a bench. "That implies you read him, so tell me, what did you see in there?" "Wait, Cook spoke to you?" Lilly looked at Jason. "This morning? You didn't say anything." "Nobody asked." Jason replied evenly, his expression composed. "What did you speak about?" Cassie inquired, eyeing the lanky genius curiously. The answer was a shrug of his bony shoulders. "I am certain Sara can tell you. What I want to know is what was going through Cook's head when she dipped her trawl-net in there, and why it means I should subject myself to being 'on-call'. I don't even like the idea of having a cell-phone - what makes you think I'd be any more sanguine about having people knocking on my mental door at whim?" There was no particular animosity in Jason's tone - he wasn't being snarky or hostile, rather matter-of-fact as he held up a fore-stalling hand. "I know, the network allows for private communication as well as amongst the group. It is not mind-reading, rather mind-speaking. The advantages are many, moreso for those of us with psionic gifts. We found that we can 'tune in' to each other, boosting each other through your link on Sunday, remember? That's a powerful tool." "Then what's the problem?" Sean asked. "Simply my own preference." Jase shrugged again. "I'm happy to use the network as a tool when needed. But to be permanently linked to others? I need a really, really good reason to agree to that. At least one."
  10. The boy's head tilted forward from his contemplation of the ceiling, his gaze considering Doctor Cook with apparent suspicion. Then he leaned forward a little, interested. "I'm a scientist as well, Doctor. I'd like to help - and not just as a test subject." His brow furrowed as he considered the doctor's words. "The fact that I was a control, and not one of the active test subjects and yet appear to be ahead of the others is an anomaly - and like you I don't believe in coincidences." He smiled at the older man. "It's obvious that despite the careful processes you've been using, and the control you've exerted, there's random elements at play, something a fresh perspective might be able to trace." "And how could you help?" Doctor Cook asked. His tone was not sneering or condescending, but curious. Jason met his gaze, his voice calm as he explained. "My psychokinetic abilities are not the sum of my talents. I'm not going to indulge in false modesty, Doctor. That wastes both our time, so consider this a job application - I am right at the top of the measurable scale of human intelligence. I absorb and process information, calculate parameters, analyse and extrapolate better than anyone I know, even Sean. I teach myself languages for amusement - I currently speak five, including Ancient Greek and Latin. I learned Russian in under two weeks and am currently studying Italian. I taught myself graduate level math, chemistry, biology and physics from textbooks and practical observation and experimentation before Junior year even started." Jason's attitude was not that of a braggart - there was no boasting or hyperbole in his tone, merely a cold matter-of-fact recounting. "I could teach most of the classes I am currently required to take, but take them because I will need the paper qualifications and grades... plus they help me with my social skills which, as we've noted, are not the best. Needless to say, though, I am bored." The last word was said with quiet force, and the good doctor blinked a little as he considered the lean figure sitting across from him, smiling his nervous tic smile once more. "I want to know as much as you do how my powers work and interact with my surroundings. I also want answers, Doctor, and unlike my fellows I don't have any particular moral outrage about what you're doing here. Don't just use me as a test subject - let me assist you." Jason leaned back in his chair once more. "Give me that challenge, let me work with you, and I will cooperate as a test subject."
  11. The Bleachers Not too far from where Marissa was dispensing much needed wisdom to Clara, a solitary figure sat on the furthest end of the bleachers, indeed about as far from the school as a person could sit whilst still being on school property. Unlike Clara when Marissa had found her, this one did not radiate misery or the air of trying to keep their shit together. Instead his lanky frame was stretched out on his back on a bench seat, earphones in whilst he looked up at the sky, eyes tracking the clouds scudding across the early Fall blue. His thoughts moved like the clouds, fast and shifting as they made their progress across the cold vastness of his mindscape. He'd been tempted to flay Charlie verbally for his shapeshifting stunt in the equipment locker in front of Tawny. Though the blonde girl being there was Devin's doing, it was Devin's decision ultimately as to whether 'his people' were to be brought in. Nothing up to that point couldn't have been hand-waved or glossed over. If Charlie had done that in front of Jason's dad, Jason would have been irritated in the extreme. Not enough to hurt Charlie, but enough that Charlie would remember the moment for a long time. At least, the snarky side of his consciousness supplied, as long as he was capable of remembering. But there was a reason beyond restraint or mercy (hah!) that he hadn't given Charlie an acidic sandblasting. The boy lacked confidence, and slapping him down when he used his gift would not help with that. Charlie's manifestation of the Shine was a marvel of adaptation and biological control, but to use it well required imagination and confidence in himself. His stunt in the locker had been bold and, under other circumstances, amusing. Jason was thinking things through these days before acting on his frustrations - this wasn't like giving Cora a boot up the ass to wake up and smell the coffee. There was a nuance to this situation. Nuances. Previously irrelevant to him - cobwebs through which he tore as he saw fit, moving in straight lines while other ducked and weaved to avoid them. They were still cobwebs, unable to restrain him, but now he at least paid attention to what the results would be of a course of action. He hoped. The bracelet was another matter. He'd wanted to study it, but right now Devin needed rest and the bracelet needed to stay with Devin. When Cassandra was recovered, they could try something else that didn't involve her directly interacting with the thing. Otherdimensional people, advanced technology, psionically active devices. He wondered if they had anything to do with the atomic generator and the strange radio, too. Friends had nearly died this morning. His mother was in his life, however peripherally. Doctor Cook and he were... talking. This was progress at least. He wanted to know what Cook knew, and then could lay further plans. The lanky youth picked up a sandwich from the paper plate on his chest and bit into it, chewing reflectively, considering the patterns in the clouds.
  12. U.S. History <Bunnee's tonight suits me. I have nothing planned. Let me know the time and I'll be there.> Jason replied, keeping his thoughts about an ethical discussion to himself. He determined his own ethical stance, which had everything to do with practical aesthetics and little to do with abstract principles of morality. Those were interesting to discuss - but hardly relevant to him except as norms to appear to abide by while convenient. If he saw a need to do something, he would do it and not agonise over it at all. His part in the discussion over, his mental voice went silent as he went back to half-paying attention to the lesson and mentally designing some improvements for his hothouse.
  13. Once Lona had cleared Cassie of more than a headache and exhaustion - being resuscitated takes a toll - Jason relaxed somewhat from his attitude of vigilance, though he did pass Cassandra a plastic bottle of fruit tea from his bag. He, like most, didn't miss the 'sudden' erudition Devin was displaying - but then he, unlike most, knew what it was to project a self that was vastly different to what lay beneath the mask. He wondered how Devin kept up the act - personally, Jase had found acting mediocre to be exhausting and frustrating. To each their own talent, he supposed, smiling very slightly as he leaned back against the wall behind the stack of mats and relaxed. As others spoke, he merely listened. Lona, Devin and Marissa were all on the right track - he saw no reason to waste words voicing support without being asked. Etienne was Clara and Sara's operation, principally. He saw his role in the interrogation as being for physical security and, he mused, to possibly take 'necessary action' - a handy little euphemism which could mean anything. He saw no dichotomy between caring for his friends and callously disposing of enemies - the same hands which saved the life of a girl could just as easily snuff the life of a spy if he saw it as needed. The only difference being that he cared whether Cassandra lived or died. The meeting seemed to be wrapping up. The summary being: there were people in the other world. Devin had been given an anchoring artifact to stop his teleportation acting as a banana peel and sending him sliding sideways rather than forwards. Lilly's gift seemed to have altered, with more focus on her physical prowess. Cassandra had nearly died meddling with a device intended for Devin. Marissa was still mad at everyone. And at some point an investigatory / rescue mission would be going to the Notaworld place - which he of course would be on. He didn't even see the need to vocally assert his intent to go. He slid forward off the mats, shouldering his satchel. He stopped for a moment by Devin. "Interesting morning you had." he said quietly, pale eyes studying the other boy. "I'm glad you made it back." Then he moved towards the exit, the door opening for him as he approached. "Where-?" Lilly began. "Getting lunch." Jason replied as he walked out of the storage room, the door swinging shut with a 'click' behind him.
  14. "Blacked out? You had no pulse and no breath." Jason told Cassie, taking advantage of their current closeness to examine her eyes, one after the other. "Like you'd been electrocuted." His lips quirked in a smile. "Depending on your theological position, you were looking into Forever." He took her wrist gently, taking her pulse once more. "I want Lona to check you with her Shine. Till then, you sit still and chill." he told the reporter, a certain firmness to his tone as he helped her slowly sit up, then sat himself beside her, glancing over to catch Avalon's eye.
  15. Jason was already coming to his feet as Cassandra was shoved toward him but scarcely missed a beat, long arms catching the blonde girl and bringing her to rest gently atop the mats. Her face was pale, and it was with a certain amount of concern he realised she was not breathing. The lanky teen held one hand out to forestall others rushing in as he placed two fingers against Cassie's throat, even as invisible hands straightened her out on the stacked mats into a more comfortable position. "No pulse, no breathing." he muttered, loud enough for the others to hear as he began CPR, starting with chest compressions, his hands linking together one atop the other and pressing down sharply, one to two pushes per second as he counted to thirty under his breath. "No quitting yet, Cassandra." he told the unconscious girl, his voice calm but underlaid with an edge of something. Moving to her mouth, he gently pinched her nose closed then breathed deep into her lungs, turned his head to inhale, then repeated the deep breath, absently aware of the scent of caramel lipgloss. Then he straightened, felt her pulse for a moment, then went back to the chest compressions, one to two per second, blocking the world out so that all that existed was Cassie and the task at hand. To the others he appeared calm, coldly focused on what he was doing. It was the truth, but not the whole truth of what was going on inside Jason's head as he tried to save his friend. He felt her Shine, dim but there, and reached for it as he again hit the count of thirty and moved to breathe air into her lungs once more...
  16. Joking and sage advice aside, Jason knew what it was to face death and know that this was IT. He'd felt it in the woods, when the sabertooth had pounced and he'd seen nothing but death there. The adrenaline spike had left even him shaken loose from his normal rock-solid moorings, enough that he'd been curiously vulnerable to Marissa's concern, and the connection she had offered. In many ways, that moment was when he'd decided to set aside his 'person mask', and step into the light. He studied Devin for a long moment, then floated his bag of honey-glazed jerky over to the boy who, despite the recent gulf, he still considered a friend. "Chow down." he said. "It'll help you recover some energy you burned off." His tone was calm as usual, but there was a note of fellow-feeling, of sympathy there that was usually missing in his normal conversation. "What is it?" Devin took a sniff, then shrugged and made ready to chew on a piece. Tawny stared at the floating bag, then at Jason, then at the others like she was going quietly crazy, or was convinced they had. "Venison." Jason said, leaning forward to peer at the bracelet from where he sat. "Seasoned, dried, then honey glazed. Good energy food." he added absently, then glanced at Cassandra with one eyebrow raised. "You're our meta-sensory expert - what can you get from this?" "Meta-whatory?" Tawny blinked, then looked at Cassie, then at Devin again. "Can someone please tell me what the... the poot is going on before I scream to wake myself up? He-" she pointed at Charlie "Just morphed his darned head into a newsreader lady. Devin-" she pointed at the currently happily-chewing Jauntsen "-just talked about teleporting and monsters and women in armor. You-" she pointed at Jason "- just floated a snack!" The lovely girl screwed her eyes shut tight, then reopened them. "Nope, still here." she said, her face pale and taut. "Someone please, please tell me I'm not mad?!"
  17. Bannon had arrived silently, sat himself on a pile of mats with his legs folded Indian style, then calmly taken a paper bag of homemade jerky from his satchel and settled in to wait. His gaze was curious, but other than that he radiated stone-like patience as the rest of the teens had filtered in, chewing absently on his snack. He trusted that Devin was no more likely than he was to skip lunch without good reason. And then an angry blonde had whirled into the equipment store and stopped dead in the middle of some angry line of questioning. Jason sighed - evidently Devin's text had been sent to Tawny, too. He glanced at Devin, then scrutinised Tawny with his habitual stare, then shrugged and settled back against the wall behind his perch, popping another piece of jerky into his mouth as Devin waved her in. Then Devin displayed the bracelet, which immediately drew Jase's attention. The thing practically hummed with the light of the Shine. He glanced at Sean and Sara. "Is this like the arrowheads and suchlike you two saw in Helena? Psionically active?"
  18. Principal's Office Bannon didn't lose his expression of cool guarded skepticism, considering Doctor Cook and weighing whether or not the adult was playing a game. Right now, it didn't matter so much if Cook was lying about his mother - this was just the initial play, a litmus test to establish whether the man would at least appear to cooperate. If Cook was genuine, then it meant he didn't know everything about his test subjects. If not, then it would come out later, and Jason would proceed accordingly. Either way, Cook's honesty right now was not the most important thing. "Kaitlin Forster. Blonde, blue eyes, 5'6", roughly 110lbs at a guess. She's currently covering Biology as a substitute for Mr Carson." Cook blinked at the lanky teen across from him, then punched the information into his phone and sent the message before setting the phone to one side. Jason glanced at it, then at the Doctor. "As a show of good faith, I will go first, as that might take a few minutes." he shrugged. "I used my gift to bodily hurl Liam Day around his kitchen, causing multiple injuries. I wasn't sure I was capable of it until I did it, and in my mind he warranted punishment for what he did." "Ah, yes. I recall hearing about an attempted attack on another teen?" Cook probed, noting the relaxed posture and manner of the boy. "Attempted rape." Jason said with only a fraction of emphasis on the second word. "Yes. Against a friend of mine." "You could have killed him. Was that your intent?" Cook asked curiously. Jason shook his head. "The injuries were designed to cripple painfully, not kill. With a top notch medical facility nearby, he will live." he said with an almost clinical casualness. "If I had wanted to kill him, he would have been found dead, not alive. Or not found at all." "And why didn't you want to kill him?" Cook inquired, filing away the boy's attitude. "Don't get me wrong, I applaud your restraint - but he tried to rape a friend of yours." "And if he had succeeded, the outcome would have been different." Jason's voice was cold wind off a mountaintop. "I took into account the fact that my friend would not want him killed." Jason paused, frowning. "I did not take into account the fact that she didn't want him hurt either. That was surprising." He appeared to consider for a second, then shrugged. "She knew you did it?" Cook asked, then answered himself. "Of course. Who else could have done it, or would have?" He peered at Jason. "And how are your friends taking this?" "How do you think?" Jason snorted, a trace of bitterness entering his voice. "Most of them haven't even talked directly to me about it. They're all treating me either like I'm a bomb about to go off or an abusive drunk parent. The ones that have addressed it are either morally grandstanding or willfully naive - possibly both." "That sounds like it might be tough." Cook noted agreeably. "After all I've done for them, it sucks." Jason seemed frustrated, gesturing with his hands. "I step up and risk my life against monsters, stand between them and death, work to make sure we're understanding our gifts. I invite them into my personal sanctum, my private space. I punish those who would violate or take from them. I trust them by letting them closer than anyone else has ever gotten. My reward? Petty ingratitude and fear." He let his head fall back and stared at the ceiling as if lost and seeking answers. "Everything I've done to try and bond, and I feel more isolated than ever." he said quietly.
  19. US History Class <I imagine that the situation warrants a mental wiretap without his knowledge.> Jason suggested in his clinical mental voice. <Slippery slope is a logical fallacy that emotionally distracts from the matter at hand by suggesting that a course of action will inevitably lead to abuses of the method. It ignores that every situation is and should be treated individually, instead positing a universal set of 'rules' that have to be followed blindly to the conclusion. 'Allow gays to marry, and it gives the green light to pedophiles and zoophiles'.> A sensation of wry amusement came over the mental link. <Naturally, I think it's bullshit. Just because we are using Sara's gift to ensure Etienne can be trusted does not mean we will then go rummaging around the prinicipal's mind for his private kinks.> <Yes, but if you decided there was a need to discover the principal's kinks, you wouldn't think twice.> Clara's mental tone was amused. Jase's lips twitched in a smile as he appeared to study his textbook. <Probably not. But that would be a separate instance of me wanting to gain blackmail leverage, not a natural continuation of interrogating Etienne.> <Alright, so how do we do this?> Sara's mental voice was straightforward and brusque as she brought the two geniuses back from their exploration of the ethical qualms of mindreading - or in Jason's case: the lack of them. <Clara is the Good Cop - she will appeal to his better emotions. I will be the Bad Cop - he probably knows enough to be wary of making sudden moves or risking pissing me off. You will be the strong silent polygraph in the background. You can draw on a link with Clara to give you a boost if you need it.> Jase advised, all business now. <Clara does most of the talking to him. Tell him that we need to be able to trust whether or not he's genuine about wanting to help - that's not a lie. Just have the conversation you would normally have. Ask him what he knows about Cook's project, whether he knows about the surveillance, where the headquarters is... What else he was doing other than spying on the Wrights, if anything? Sara, if he lies - you don't hint that you know he's lying, not even to us, until the conversation is over. Then you give us the report, let us know what he was lying about, and we decide where to go from there. We don't want to let him know we can read him until we know we can trust him.>
  20. Principal's Office Jason sighed, considering the Doctor. "Here is the issue, Doctor. It is one of trust. Right now, there is no evidence that I did anything at all. You have some video footage of Liam Day throwing himself out of a window, and me in the vicinity, and that is all. You are, in effect, asking me to confess to something. Sure, we're not being monitored - except by anything you choose to monitor this conversation with - but let's just say I don't know you, sir. I have no reason to open up to you, or trust you. Surely, as a man of logic, reason and science, you can appreciate that." He let that hang in the air for a moment. "But... I am interested in your project. What you have found out, what you have accomplished." He met Cook's eyes unwaveringly. "Tentatively, we can open up this relationship with a little quid pro quo. You want my cooperation, I want yours. Let's see... What is an appropriate small gesture of trust...? Ah. Yes." He pondered for a moment, then smiled. "I want to know why my mother is in Shelly. I don't believe in coincidences, so seeing her here, teaching... You can understand that I am suspicious. If you do not know, and that is a surprise to you too, then I'll expect you to use your resources to find out." Jason shrugged. "Provide that information, and I will talk about Friday night."
  21. Principal's Office Doctor Cook had studied all the 'activated' students. He knew some of them personally, others had always been distant figures about whom he still had a certain amount of knowledge - at least so far as their genealogy, medical conditions, genetic markers, and observed powers. This was, to his knowledge, the first time he'd ever met Jason Bannon face to face. The boy didn't freeze or hesitate, nor even blink when Cook dropped his 'I know what you did' line. Instead he took a seat unbidden, sitting down across from the Doctor with a calm expression on his face, glacial green eyes studying the older man as he leaned back with a slouch that was almost insolently casual, especially for a youth who should be nervous. "The mere fact you're raising that topic in that way implies that you already think you know and want to see me squirm." Jason shrugged, his eyes narrowing as they focused on Cook. His lips curved in a slight smile under eyes that gave away nothing other than interest. "Sorry to disappoint you, doctor. Liam's unfortunate status and how it came about means less than nothing to me." A slender hand flicked the matter aside as unworthy of consideration. "But I've wanted to meet you too, sir, and I would hate to do you the discourtesy of leaving empty-handed. Perhaps a better topic of discussion would be 'You told the girls you wanted to be an ally. Were you genuine, or are you merely a shepherd wanting to fleece his flock?'"
  22. "What do you think Ms Forster wanted with Marissa?" Sean asked Jase as they walked away from Biology, the bustling kids diverting around the brooding lanky shape of his friend. The answer was a grunt. Sean looked sideways and upwards at Jason's face, which was currently expressionless, his eyes distant. Sean was not oblivious - there had been what his grandma would have called 'an atmosphere' in the classroom when Jason and Ms Forster had had their exchange. He wondered what it might be due to - Forster was new, and Jason didn't know her. Or did he? "Too much to ask that it was to call her on her Strawberry Bullshitcake act." Sean muttered, mostly to himself. It irked him how dumb the adults were that they couldn't see that Marissa was a phony who was laughing at their stupidity from the other side of her smile. He wasn't sure if that was due the principle of the thing or due to envy that she got away with it, though. "Hey, I'll see you later." he said to Jase as they reached Sean's next classroom, his friend giving him a nod and smile before heading onward. His own next class was only twenty yards away.
  23. "Ahh, youthful honesty." Ms Forster smirked, her blue eyes studying Sean with a flash of wry, dispassionate humour in their depths. There was a faint rustle from the class and one or two amused coughs. "No, no. I like honesty in my students. Do try to separate your own condition from your studies, however. A scientist that becomes too personally invested in the outcome of a path of study starts to see patterns where there are none, or disregard data that is actually important - The phenomenon of which is commonly known as what, Mr Bannon?" The question had lashed out with quiet whip-like speed as her eyes turned to the lean form sprawling in the chair next to Sean's, narrowing slightly. "Confirmation bias, the inclination to seek out and favor data that supports pre-held beliefs or an emotionally-invested hypothesis." Jason had been studying Marissa's profile, but didn't even blink as he answered. His gaze now shifted to meet his mother's as he went on. "It can even lead to interpreting as favorable or unfavorable results - or situations - that are in fact ambiguous, simply to prop up the observer's point of view." His head tilted to one side and he smiled very slightly. "A certain amount of discipline is needed to maintain intellectual integrity, because some errors can be very costly or, indeed, irreversible in the damage they can do." he paused, then added almost as an afterthought. "To the process, I mean." Ms Forster did not blink either, but there was a flicker of something in her gaze. It might have been approval, or anger, or disdain. It wasn't amusement, that much was certain. "And why do you want to study Biology, Mr Bannon?" "I'm looking to get into Human Anatomy, Zoology and Med Prep by the end of the next semester." he answered without any hesitation or shifting of his gaze. There was a faint shifting of asses on seats and some exchanged looks amongst the other students. "That's an... ambitious academic plan." Forster returned, smiling a little now, head tilting to one side as she considered him. "Perhaps. But I'll need them - I can hardly show up to intern at the Medical Center in senior year saying 'Trust me, I already know this stuff.' Some bona fides will be required." Bannon replied evenly, his head also tilting slightly to one side - though he was not smiling. "Looking to get into medicine." she mused, nodding. "Any particular area." "I've always been fascinated by Diagnostics." he replied, a faint smile now curving his lips. She studied him carefully. "So why Zoology?" "Because I find it personally interesting, and because I can." "My, this will be an interesting class to teach." she smiled broadly, glancing at the rest of the students. "Thank you, Mr Bannon. Now, let's see... Who shall I pick on next...?" Her blue eyes caught a whispering girl. "Well volunteered, that girl." she smirked, pointing at Lori Heath...
  24. <How long do I have?> Jason's mental tone was so dry it took a moment for the others to realise he was joking. Probably. <How long do you need?> Sean asked before he could stop himself, even while he was considering adding more players to his game. The logistics would be sticky, but with a good Assistant GM it should be doable... <At least ten years. They've not begun to hatch yet.> Jason replied, a faint alien, but not unpleasant sensation of dark mirth accompanying the words. <Bio-weapon plague? Always a vote-grabber.> Sean nodded approvingly. <Agreed. Please do let me know if you start to experience any bowel problems. The incubation process is a delicate one.> That was good for a collective <EWWW> and some welcome mental laughter, one or two of the Fellowship smiling at the still-apparently-studying Jason. <If Chet is giving hateful looks, then his apparent peace with Sean can be assumed to be over too. Perhaps he's been got at by the Dark - he was with Courtney on Friday night after the game, and didn't join the party at Bunnee's - perhaps he was never genuine. Either way, we are on siege footing - go nowhere alone on school grounds, even and especially the bathrooms.> Jason's tone went back to it's more clinical, icily precise measures. <And by alone, I mean without at least one other member of the Fellowship. Get used to the fact that most of the faculty and students will be 'blinkered' by the Dark, encouraged to look the other way. Perhaps even your friends.> <We need to minimise the opportunities we hand the Dark to strike at us. It's strongest here, in central Shelly. That's where the Tree appears in the other place. This is now hostile territory> He went on, turning the pages of his book. <Sara and Sean - when Autumn gets here we should give you all a quick info-dump on the Saturday meeting's outcomes and the tasks Cassandra suggested for us all.>
  25. It was funny, a small part of Jason's brain wryly observed, how different people viewed the same thing. Beside him, Sean sympathetically flinched in tandem with the rest of the students in the class at Marissa's imperious scolding, pulling his attention almost guiltily away from where he'd been - albeit less grossly blatantly than some of the male population - ogling Ms Forster. Jase had been aware that his friend was staring at his mother, registering a kind of wry detached amusement as he imagined Sean's face when he told him. Whereas Sean, and the other guys and some of the girls, probably, had been eyeing a surprisingly hot substitute teacher, Jason saw only his neglectful biological parent, the woman who had abandoned him and now had been possibly brought to Shelly by enemy or enemies unknown to somehow exert influence or sow confusion on him. And whereas Sean, and the other students saw their Wrathful Queen ready to strike down upon them with great vengeance and furious anger... Jason beheld love. She was stunning, challenging, haughty and full of fire. Jase couldn't be cowed, or scared - but he could be impressed or struck with awe and (not for the first time) Marissa Jauntsen had impressed him. She always had, really. Ever since he'd first seen her when the Jauntsens had moved to Shelly. That he knew she was capable of fear and terror simply gave her fierce poise more impact. Of course this would be the nature of her Shine: the projection of her personality taken to a compelling extreme. She stirred him as no-one else could - which could not be normal at all, any more than Cade speaking to animals or Lilly being able to dent steel with her bare fists. His brain being his brain, he registered all of this in the first few seconds, processed it, stored the image of her dark eyes snapping with regal fire in his mental palace (in a place of high honor in the main hall), and enjoyed the effect she had on the others. He didn't hear birds singing or music playing. What he heard was the answering call to her roar of dominance, a rumble of approval from deep in the fiery darkness of his soul, beyond the icy crystalline construct of his thoughts. Even as he registered that, he analysed the sensation, this new thing not entirely carnal and not entirely cerebral. Like / respect / desire / lust. Was that love? It wasn't a chemically induced, daydream-like crush - he could still think clearly, there was no pink haze such as was described in various works on the matter. It was appreciation of her as a being that flared and shone in his sight. And yeah, he also wanted to 'appreciate' her all night long. He was a high-functioning psychopath, not a eunuch. Plus that hair flip was adorable. And yeah, she hated him right now. It was a good thing he didn't get depressed or sad, or he'd be miserable, he noted with a wry quirk of his lips. The only outward sign that any of this was taking place was that slight smile and Jason's intent gaze resting on Marissa, the copper flecks in the pale green depths seeming to brighten as he watched her resume her seat after the facile explanation of her interest in Biology. Some of it might even have been true - perhaps most of it, to a degree. But as with most things Marissa, there were layers of complexity to the construct. Something else he privately added to his reasons for enjoying her presence, as he waited to be called upon by Ms Forster.
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