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Autumn Keane last won the day on January 8

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  1. Tuesday Afternoon - Marias Medical Center "Yeah," Autumn replied, nodding distractedly as she watched the glass window in the exam room door. Her feet swung idly from her perch on the paper-covered table, heels softly tapping the metal base. Ever since the fight, she'd been thinking about what had happened- what Jase had said about the Dark manipulating Mark and Curtis, which was creepy enough on its own, and... whatever it was she'd done to them. What the hell was that, anyway? It definitely hadn't felt like the meditation exercises at the farm, that was for sure. She was still aware of it too, a not-quite physical sensation that seemed stronger, more real when she focused on it; here, though, it was different, the odd impression of color and reactivity more subdued. Maybe it- the Shine, or whatever- was just responding to the threat, or maybe to her emotions... Which might explain why it changed...? Could it do that? "Let's see if we can find an ice machine," she continued after a moment, shoving complicated questions to the back of her mind to focus on the current situation. If nothing else, Cass might have some answers since she'd been dealing with the whole thing longer than Autumn had, and she felt kind of trapped in the tiny sterile room anyway. "We should probably make it quick, though. I know they've called my mom already, and if she has to track me down, I'm gonna need more than an ice pack to recover." The redhead's grin was slightly strained from discomfort, but genuine as she slid down off the examination table with a sigh of relief. The moment her sneakers hit the floor, she was in motion, headed toward the door and the hallway beyond.
  2. Autumn Keane Autumn Keane and Jacob Crocker broke up because they found out they're related. Gross. Autumn has a crush on Lilly Pryor. She broke Curtis Denicott's leg or something because he was messing with Jason Bannon at school. No, there's no punchline. She's only making friends with Marissa Jauntsen so she can get back at her. Autumn's addicted to Adderall. Seriously, the girl can't sit still for 10 seconds. Autumn is either a witch, or part of some weird military training project. Nobody spends that much time in the woods "just because." When society collapses, Autumn and Cade Allister are going to be the last ones from Shelly High to survive. RIP humanity. Her parents were going to buy her a car, but she turned them down. Who does that? She used to party a lot more, but after the Halloween bonfire last year she was up for three days straight and quit taking designer shit completely. Autumn's dad is gone all the time because he has someone on the side, probably another family. Autumn's mom has been sleeping with Nathan Crocker while her husband is away. Nathan is Autumn's real dad. Nathan is Autumn's Daddy. Autumn's grandfather had a secret prepper bunker on his property, which is why her family won't sell it. The Kavanagh and Crocker families are part of a cult going back to the founding of Shelly. Caroline Kavanagh's stroke was a cover-up for the fact that she was murdered. Yasmeen, the movie theater manager, sells Autumn weed at a discount in exchange for "favors."
  3. "Why is it I always get hit in the head when you guys are around?" Between the clamor of the assembled crowd and the incoherent moans of Curtis Denicott, all the sound in the hallway had merged into a featureless wave of noise, rising and falling in patterns that seemed completely meaningless to the shaken redhead; if her gaze hadn't been drawn to Bannon as he moved, laboriously, to retrieve the lunch he hadn't gotten to eat, Autumn probably wouldn't have realized he'd spoken at all. She stared at him for a moment, some of the choleric tension in her expression easing into concern, and turned wide eyes on Cassie as if to say, "Is he serious?" It was an absurd question in ridiculous circumstances, and despite the grimness of the situation (or perhaps because of it), she found herself laughing somewhat dazedly in response as she pushed carefully off the lockers and took a few tentative steps toward him. "Are you okay?" she asked, smiling faintly, then blinked down at the tall, well-thrashed young man seated on the floor, and blinked again, eyes stinging as she processed how very not okay he looked. What kind of fucked-up question is that? He just got his ass kicked by two guys a hell of a lot bigger than he is. He's pretty fucking far from okay, Autumn. Jesus. "No," she amended, cautiously sinking to her knees on the blessedly cool floor in front of her friend, settling so that her face was roughly level with his. "That was a stupid thing to ask, wasn't it? Can I-" Gingerly she reached out, still trembling from the adrenaline rush, and rested her palm on the back of his hand in what she hoped was a reassuring gesture, concentrating on steadying her voice as well as her nerves. "I'm just gonna check you real quick, is that okay?" The reserved youth nodded once, very slightly, pale green eyes- brighter, sharper somehow in contrast to his bloodied features- considering her in the same focused, eerily attentive way he had at the farm the day before. Even with all the other distractions, she could still feel her cheeks growing hot under the intense scrutiny, and silently prayed to any gods listening that nobody would notice in all the chaos. Reaching up with both hands, his new friend brushed the hair from his face, lightly running her fingertips over the brow bone and resolutely ignoring both the audience and the proximity of the sharp, glacial eyes she was studying. She couldn't feel anything unusual there, or across the top of his cheekbones, although his left pupil was slightly larger than the right, which she was pretty sure they'd told her in first aid could be a sign of concussion... With a sigh, Autumn remembered what they'd worked out on Sunday, focusing for a few moments on the faint, icy thrumming of Jason's energy beneath his skin, beneath her fingers, and allowing it to resonate with her own- and grimaced, suddenly, as she became acutely aware of all the injuries he'd sustained. Bruising around his ribs, but nothing broken, lacerations, and oh goddamnit a mild concussion- "You got hit." The redhead blinked, startled at the sound of Jase's voice. It wasn't quite accusatory, she thought, but maybe something similar, and not quite a question, though there was a hint of that in the tone, as well. It was almost... childish. Maybe he was having trouble concentrating? "Yeah, I know, so did- Hey," she protested as he reached out, carefully nudging Autumn's chin to one side to regard the angry red and faint purple that had slowly begun to obscure the freckles on the side of her face. "So did you. A lot," she added, gently tugging his arm back down and away, glancing briefly over at Cass to confirm she was making- or, hopefully, had already made- the necessary calls. "So try to stay focused for me, okay? We can't both do this at the same time. If you wanna look me over later, O Impenetrable One, fine, but let's concentrate on you for now."
  4. What the actual fuck?! Before Autumn had even managed to cross the few meters between them, before she'd had time to register movement or shout a warning, Jase disappeared behind a wall of man-shaped muscle and rage, and for a moment it felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the air. The sound of his body hitting the metal lockers, the shouting, the impact of knuckles and elbows on flesh, the frenetic thudding of her heartbeat in her chest- it was all a dull, strangely distant roar, as if she were hearing it underwater. Stop. STOP IT! She couldn't get the words out, couldn't force them past the almost painful tightness in her throat. It was like a nightmare, trying desperately to scream when she could only manage a whisper that was quickly swept away by the tumult and chaos, the vicious currents of violent geometry. He can't fight them both off, not at the same time! ...And yet, the memory of what he could do- what he had done at the trailer, what he had, by all accounts, done to Liam- blazed into life at the forefront of the terrified redhead's mind as her friend, her friend hit the floor. She had the vague sense of something moving, a torrent surging not behind her this time, but through her, and realized she was running. "Knock it the fuck off!" The lively young woman's voice, choked and angry, was almost unrecognizable in her own ears, and as Mark glanced up, the heels of her hands struck him solidly in the chest, sending him staggering back a couple of steps. The surprise in his eyes at having been hit, having been moved at all, lasted only an instant, being quickly replaced with an unrelenting malice that seemed utterly alien within the structure of a human face. Autumn had just enough time to process that, shock registering on her own freckled features, before he grabbed her wrist in a meaty hand and twisted. A jagged lance of pain shot up her arm and arrowed down into her fingers as she gasped, instinctively moving to alleviate the pressure, but the older boy just grinned and turned it farther, until she was almost on her toes, a sudden wash of tears brightening her eyes. "Mind your own fucking business," he ground out through clenched teeth, and the redhead whimpered, clutching his arm with her other hand as if she could somehow stop him from snapping her wrist through sheer force of will. With her newfound awareness, she could actually feel the strain on the delicate bones and ligaments as they approached the breaking point, the sensation drawing a tortured cry from her lips; just when she thought they would snap, a sudden rush of crimson bloomed in her mind, deep and intoxicating as any wine she'd ever tasted. It sang through her veins as it spread, hot and eager, racing furiously, gloriously, through her fingertips and into the thick forearm of the brute holding her. The sound was quiet at first, lost in the chatter and whooping of onlookers, but gradually grew louder, more intense until it was all she could hear: a quiet, almost girlish moan transmuted into a guttural howl of anguished rage as the nerves in Mark Belcher's arm shrieked in protest and failed, his primitive brain temporarily overwhelmed by its own capacity to experience pain. Flinging Autumn aside, he stumbled, nearly losing his balance as he shuffled, disoriented, across the blood-spattered floor. Dizzy and disbelieving, the redhead regained her footing and blinked down at her hands: apart from some redness that might turn into bruising, there was no perceptible difference, but she could sense it, whatever it was, just beneath the surface of her skin. She glanced in Jason's direction to confirm he was all right, when a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye reminded her with sickening clarity that there had been two aggressors. An explosion of blinding white agony filled her consciousness, obliterating any sense of coherence or equilibrium the freckled teen possessed as Curtis cold-cocked her solidly in the jaw, his fist nearly large enough to cover the entire side of the young woman's face. She hit the ground, hard, sliding backward on the waxed tiles as the brief moment of silence resolved into a chaotic chorus of distant voices. Her hands scrabbled dazedly for purchase on the cold floor, every survival instinct in her brain warring with the almost total loss of spatial awareness. Get up! it hissed/screamed in some primal, wordless demand, but her vision was all swimming light and dark and smudges of color, and there was no "up" to get to. There was no conscious thought, no plan or consideration when his shadow loomed over her- only impulse, bright and sharp as the taste of blood on her tongue. The lumbering darkness in front of her deepened in warning, and, desperately blinking away the tears clouding her eyes, Autumn planted her palms on the tile and kicked. The first time her foot met with his shin, she was rewarded with a grunt of pain, but little else. Vague shadows resolved themselves into the shape of a face, an arm, a fist- Gritting her teeth, the redhead screamed in defiance and kicked again, her vision washed in scarlet as the sole of her shoe connected with something that shifted unnaturally under her heel. In that split-second, Autumn knew, intimately, the fragility of ligament and bone, felt the upwelling of crimson exhilaration humming through her, and- I want you to know how proud I am of you, the wasted, parchment-skinned figure whispered urgently up at her from his hospice bed, a terrifying whistle beneath his words. Don't ever forget that. Curtis shrieked, a haunting, agonized wail echoing through the crowded hall as he crumpled to the floor not far from his intended victim. As he writhed, howling in helpless anguish and clutching feebly at what he knew were the shattered remnants of his knee, the dishevelled teen's freckled features tightened in grief and anger. Choking back the sob that clawed at her throat, Autumn slid backwards, bracing herself against the lockers as she slowly worked her way back up to her feet.
  5. It was impossible for Autumn to both focus on the conversation Cass and Bannon were having and "review" the section she had totally already studied over the weekend in between all the other things that had happened. Fortunately, she was pretty sure Jase was gradually working his way through the entire catalog of the Library of Congress, and since they were just getting into the introductory chapter, it was probably fine. ...She hoped. The scuffed toes of her grey Chucks tapped arrhythmically on the floor. Maybe they weren't just waiting, after all. "So," the redhead interjected quietly, chin resting on one hand as she stared at the space between two paragraphs. "I've never really been into the Sherlock Holmes stuff. I mean, it's interesting, and the movies were cool and all... I'm just-" Autumn paused, catching her lower lip between her teeth as her brow furrowed, and the faint, percussive sound of her shoes on the tile slowed. "If you guys are doing something, I want to help. Ever since last week, it's been like... Like things are happening to me, or around me," she continued, her tone underscored by a growing intensity despite the low volume, a frustration so vehement it was practically a vibration humming through her body. "I hate it, feeling like I'm just being carried along. And I'm tired of waiting for the next thing. If you can give me more info on the cat, my mom's a vet. I can try to find out what's up. If you need somebody to watch your back with Cook, say the word. Done deal. I just need to fucking do something, y'know?"
  6. Tuesday Morning - After Breakfast The crowd in the cafeteria was rapidly thinning as Autumn scraped the sticky remnants of her breakfast into one of the large trash cans, but she hardly noticed. She kept thinking back to what Cassandra, Sean, and Bannon had revealed a few minutes before, that all of them had experienced some sort of unpleasant weirdness in the last couple of days, and it occurred to her that Jase's run-in with the man in black had happened the same afternoon she'd visited the farm- on top of everything else that had gone wrong that day. Maybe he was right. Maybe they were being tested... but why? And by whom? The sinister Mr. Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way himself? The otherwise unidentifiable "Dark"? Someone else? ...Maybe all of the above. It just seemed so freaking complicated. Almost everybody in their... group, or whatever, seemed to have a "dark man" story, going back to the night of the game; if the goal was to kill them, he'd definitely had the opportunity. Was it just that he lacked the means to do it, then? Probably not, she decided unhappily, based on what the others had described and her own gut feeling. She dropped her tray off on the counter, smiling distractedly at the attendant before heading toward Ms. Lafferty's classroom. It bothered her, to be so preoccupied with something so completely awful, but she just couldn't stop thinking about it. It wasn't like the trailer- that had been creepy, then terrifying, and then over. This seemed like just waiting, to her, letting someone else set the pace, and that was probably the part that frustrated her the most. If he could get rid of them, then why hadn't he? They were just teenagers, so it was possible he didn't consider them worth the effort, or maybe- "Hey, A-Rae. You... got a second?" The redhead all but froze mid-step at the unexpected sound of the once-familiar voice- warm, resonant, and almost achingly comfortable given the grim nature of her thoughts, the aural equivalent of hot apple cider and a hug. She inhaled, counting to four, and nodded, exhaling past the uncomfortable tightness in her chest as she moved to the side of the hallway to let people pass. "Yeah, sure." It wasn't exactly the enthusiastic response he might have hoped for, but as far as she was concerned, he didn't exactly deserve one, either. Folding her arms, the restless young woman glanced down the hall toward the chemistry lab, then back up at the tall young man she would once have loudly proclaimed to be her best friend. "What's up, Jay?" Tuesday Morning - Chemistry Three things occurred to Autumn almost simultaneously as she walked into the classroom, face still flushed from her encounter in the hall. The first, and most prominent item of note, was that Marissa had apparently either lost her damned mind, or Cade had lost his. Either was a possibility at this point; she didn't think All-American corn-fed Cade Allister was a closet Chemistry prodigy, so it couldn't be to help her grades, and Mari had been pretty clear at the sleepover that she had no interest in dating, so what was her deal? That was definitely something she would ask later. And, honestly, the freckled redhead and the baseball star weren't exactly close, but she couldn't see a good reason for him to be flirting with Marissa, not when he had a girlfriend, and not when Devin was the type to go murder-hobo where his sister was concerned, and not when Jason Fucking Bannon was in love with the girl currently smiling up at him. Next, was the cute twelve-year old she'd never seen before following Sean to a bench- exactly how many Cassidy's were there?! And, finally, the fact that there was a new addition, and all the tables were occupied, meant she was SOL on a Chem partner, which she remembered at precisely that moment they were supposed to be picking today. Oh, fuck me. She was on the verge of just grabbing an empty chair and sitting by herself when she heard her name over the pre-class chatter, and turned to see Cass waving her over... to the table she was sharing with Jase, who just nodded. Autumn lifted her chin briefly in acknowledgement, a grateful smile on her lips as she headed over to join them, snagging a chair on the way. "Thanks," she offered by way of greeting to the chatty blonde as she took a seat in view of the board and got settled. Taking a moment to adjust her hair, twisting it into a knot and jabbing her spare pencil through it in lieu of a scrunchie, her wide, clear eyes flicked from Cass to Jason and back again. "Hope I'm not interrupting anything," she quipped, grateful for the momentary distraction from the warmth in her face and the morning's events. It was going to be an interesting semester.
  7. Tuesday Morning - Shelly High Cafeteria Slate-blue eyes darted across the table in Sean's direction, then over at Cass, as Autumn slowly pushed her breakfast aside, turning to face the intrepid blonde beside her. She remembered him, all right- the cocky asshole who'd nearly hit her with his car at Bunnee's, then warned her about crazies on the road. Fucker. She remembered that car, how loud it had seemed even when it wasn't running, enough to make all the other sounds recede into so much background noise, and how oddly dead his eyes had been behind the slick, oozing charm of his smile during their brief conversation, how something had seemed weirdly familiar. She remembered, too, how he'd been looking in the window where Cassandra and Lilly and the others had been sitting... Her feeling of unease only grew as the bizarre tale unfolded, and while the redhead couldn't help feeling she was missing a few of the relevant details, the overall gist was fairly clear: whatever Twilight Zone episode she'd wandered into last week, she was apparently not going to be wandering back out of it again anytime soon. She kept trying to focus on Cassie's animated storytelling and the excited, conspiratorial tone of her voice, the elements of the story that raised questions- like whether it had actually been Dylan in the hall, or whether the plucky journalist had been seeing things, or whether all of the people involved were remembering things differently, or why she was talking about a cat- but then it all circled back around to the man in black again. Why? If he wasn't some sleazy producer or drug dealer, who the hell was he, and what the fuck did he want with them? There was no internal debate this time- Nothing fucking good, obviously. Duh. The young woman's freckled brow creased into a frown at the thought, pale fingers drumming restlessly on her thighs. Even before he'd said a word at the diner, in that millisecond when her brain tried to assess whether he presented a threat, Autumn had already been flustered and angry at his obvious insincerity; even if he hadn't almost run her over, and instead had just rolled up normally into the parking lot like everyone else on the goddamned planet, she was as certain as she'd ever been about anything that she'd still have hated him on sight. Antipathy- that was the word. Some echo of that instinctive dislike she'd felt for the man, that irrational and uncharacteristic loathing, vibrated like a soft warning growl just beneath her words as she replied, "Yeah. Wild." She wanted to get up, walk around, do something to quell that resurgent feeling, but this was more important, so instead she just exhaled and pulled her hair to one side, letting her hands fall into the rhythm of weaving it into a quick braid as she repeated Sean's question. "You said he tried to get to you, but it seemed off. What happened, exactly?"
  8. Tuesday Morning - Shelly High Cafeteria "How's your morning so far? Good, I hope." It was a decent start, she decided as she sat down- no laser eyes, no smirks, no sly comments that made her feel like she was standing too close to a bonfire. This was real life, right? Jason Bannon was acting like a normal person, like someone she’d gone to school with for six years, and maybe had the occasional conversation with in the hall. ...Not like someone who definitely wasn’t normal, whom she’d given a more-than-wide berth for the last six years, and had only finally spoken to a few days prior because he and Clara had cornered her in the bathroom after she’d gotten slapped in the face by physics. But, even that was only because of the Shine, wasn’t it? If not for that single incident, she never would have gone with them to the trailer, would never have ended up in that nightmare place, would have never seen that- that- whatever the hell it was that tried to eat them, wouldn’t have needed to loan- bloody, on fire, ohmygod he’s naked ohgod cannot unsee -Goddamn Jason Fucking Bannon her hoodie, wouldn’t have gone to his house on Monday to get it back. Wouldn’t have told him she was afraid of him. Wouldn’t have made a second friend, in as many days. Autumn glanced across the table at the Impenetrable One, unsure if she should now be more, or less wary of him after their talk yesterday. Especially since she almost- Nope, no, nuh uh. Hard pass on the 1000-degree face today, thank you. We are focusing on the now, and right now you have french toast to eat. With your friend. Because that’s what he is. ...Probably. Just like Marissa is also probably your friend. Don’t be a weirdo, weirdo. “Yea-” she began, vaguely aware that the corners of her mouth were curving upward in response to the greeting- "Hey guys! Hope it's okay if I join you." The redhead blinked as Cassandra, clearly not all that concerned about whether it was actually okay or not, quickly made herself comfortable… followed by Sean at the other side of the table, and any answer she could've given was rendered pointless. Seriously? Autumn sighed inwardly, regretting having even opened her mouth in the first place, and just nodded in response. Should have stuck to the plan, her brain smugly opined as she peeled back the corner of her syrup container and busied herself making a loose spiral out of the sugary stuff over her meal. But… it wasn’t like they’d done anything wrong, really, they were probably like this all the time. What, rude as fuck? No! Friendly, I guess. …? Just, different. “Here,” she offered after a moment’s consideration, turning the end of her tray with the still-untouched buttered toast and bacon toward Sean. “Yours if you want it. Some actual food might help.”
  9. Tuesday Morning - Autumn “Shit,” Autumn grumbled to herself, annoyed that not only had she not managed to get more than a couple hours of sleep the night before, she'd completely forgotten about meeting up with Clara and Lilly to run the track this morning. ...And she was probably going to miss breakfast, yet again. She turned the handlebars away from the main road and toward the school parking lot, half-consciously reaching for the elastic band around her wrist- and finding none. "Really?" she sighed rhetorically, bike coasting slowly toward the rack out front as she raked a hand back through the still-damp tangle of curls settling around her shoulders. I swear, one day, I will get my life in order. One day. Her phone had chimed several times in the pocket of her hoodie as she'd pedaled to school; fishing it out with one hand, she swiped the lock screen with her thumb, chewing her lower lip thoughtfully as she checked her notifications. Absent-mindedly, the redhead rolled her bike into an empty space and clicked the cable lock into place as she scrolled through the list. Just nooooot today. There were three messages from Clara and one from Lilly (which Autumn grimaced at, but silently resolved to answer in person), and the infamous Snapchat group (now called “Cereal v Milk Deathmatch”) was still showing activity even as she walked toward the building. The familiar sounds of conversation, shouting and doors slamming rang in her ears, and she glanced up just in time to narrowly sidestep two young-looking guys- Freshmen, maybe?- as they raced out laughing through the double doors of the cafeteria and past her, down the sidewalk. Blinking after them, the redhead felt the frown that had knit her freckled features dissolve, replaced by a slow, easy grin. Maybe the day hadn't gotten off to the greatest start, but it was still early yet, right? She tucked the phone back into the pocket of her faded red jacket and stepped inside. It wasn't instinctive yet, the idea of searching for the faces of the Fellowship all gathered around a table; it didn't occur to her to seek them out until she was in line for french toast and happened to catch sight of them assembling. Well. Most of them. "Can I trade one of these syrups for extra butter, please?" Autumn asked the lady behind the counter with a smile. "Thank you!" Craning her head around the rest of the queue, she tried to figure out who was missing, her clear blue eyes scanning the crowd for people moving toward the group- people who moved with purpose because they were supposed to be there. No sign of the twins, or Cade's girlfriend, no Sara... No Jason Freaking Bannon, either, but after the Monday he'd described, that maybe wasn't so weird. Maybe the meeting that went wrong had something to do with the other latecomers, too? The idea twisted into a tiny knot of uncertainty in the pit of her stomach, and her gaze kept skimming the room restlessly as she swiped her meal card and headed out into the chaos of the cafeteria proper. She had almost decided to just go eat outside and count her blessings that she hadn't gotten stuck with oatmeal when she caught sight of another familiar face. Oh! ...and, without any prompting whatsoever, felt her cheeks get a few degrees warmer. Mother. Fucker. Exhaling through clenched teeth, the redhead paused, squared her shoulders, and wove through the milling bodies to the mostly-vacant table where Jase was currently sitting. Alone. It's fine, she reminded herself. Totally fine. We talked, and it's fine, and we're friends, and I'll just say hi. "Hi," Autumn began, suddenly conscious of the fact that she was getting sidelong glances as she stood across from the solitary/misanthropic/dangerous/impenetrable teen. "Do... you mind if I join you?" No, no, no. This was not the plan. 'Just say hi' was the plan!
  10. Autumning in the week following Rainbows: Off-Camera: Autumn spends a couple of afternoons at the veterinary clinic her mother runs, makes some frustrating efforts at covert self-study with her powers. School Vignettes: As suggested by Bannon, short, one-or-two-post deals. Maybe a quick check-in with Marissa (ostensibly following their sleepover), a short conversation with Devin (he did apologize for being a jerk- sort of), inviting Jason to go camping on the weekend (suggested in D&D), a quick early-morning run with Lilly and/or Clara before school (both sort of loosely discussed earlier in the game), running into Cass skateboarding (would be a fun thing to learn), asking Lona and/or Charlie about powers stuff, etc. I'm open to almost anything, so feel free to drop me a PM either here or on Discord! Weekend following Rainbows / Demons (Labor Day Weekend): Friday Evening and Early Saturday: Autumn and Jase go camping. After the events of "The Damsel and The Dragon" side fic in Rainbows, she wants to reciprocate the gift of seeing the garden with something equally personal to her. Saturday Evening: ? Sunday Morning: ? Sunday Afternoon: ? Sunday Evening: ? Monday (Labor Day): Family time! Autumn gets to spend the Labor Day holiday with both her parents at the Carousel, commemorating the end of summer. This is "open" in the sense that other people and their families may have similar ideas, or be doing something related on the day, so anyone is welcome to drop in. Future: Weekend following Labor Day: Camping trip! Autumn wants to try getting to know the rest of the Fellowship better, help them get to know her, and give everyone a chance to relax and have a good time in spite of all the madness. She's never tried something like this before, and she's excited to find out who the others are, outside of all the craziness that's been going on. The actual proposal for this will be separate, in order to give all the players a chance to decide if they're interested. Anyone who is interested will be assumed to be invited. Shenanigans are expected, and indeed preferred. I'm leaving the ? sections in there in the event that something in one of the possible brief interactions or vignettes leads to something interesting or more in-depth, and we can plan from there.
  11. The Damsel and The Dragon, Pt. 5 Initially, there was very little in the way of an immediate visible response to those last few words, except that Autumn suddenly went very, very still, where moments before she'd been animated and engaged, keenly interested in how his mind actually worked. She didn't freeze as much as just… stop. Which, to Autumn herself, was an odd experience, because she didn't feel especially panicked or worried, but she could find no way to slow the racing of her thoughts. Oh, god, did he just say he wanted to kiss me? Him? Me? Kiss... me? Like me me, or just the me who happened to be sitting there at the time? He didn't, though. Didn't kiss me. So, okay, that can’t be what he said. I'm wrong. I am soooo wrong. Or was it just that he noticed that I wanted to? It was dark, right? Did I make him feel weird? Maybe not, yeah, he said he doesn't feel stuff like that. But he definitely noticed, or he wouldn't have mentioned it, and oh, fuck I'm going to die, just let me die right now, because I thought about kissing Fucking Jason Goddamn Bannon and that's crazy. I'm crazy, and I want to die. Ohhh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I can't believe I almost kissed him, and he fucking knows. Doesn't he? Maybe he's just screwing with me. I almost kissed the guy who is my friend now, who likes someone who I guess is also my friend, and, okay yeah, he smelled really fucking good, and the way he was looking at me was pretty intense, and even if I wanted to for a second I didn't actually do it and- Breathe. It was an imperative, not a request, and after several moments of that odd stillness, the first visible response was a slow flood of bright scarlet into Autumn's face, followed by a slow, shallow breath. "...Oh," she replied as conversationally as she could manage, suddenly cognizant of each individual freckle across the entirety of her body as a scorching pinprick. "Yeah, that would suck." With an emphatic nod, she brought the coffee mug back to her lips, taking a long drink. Focus. Talk. You're still here, so now you have to wait to die until you get home. Nice. Good fucking job, Autumn. "So, um, because the things, feelings or whatever, that you do experience are so basic, it's easier to know what they are? Like, being hungry. You don't have to think about it, you're just hungry, and the normal impulse is to get food. If you want, you can choose not to eat, but you have to make that decision consciously. Something like that?" “Something like that.” Jason nodded slowly, savoring the blood suffusing her skin in much the same way as a shark might savor blood in the water, only with perhaps less of a desire to go into a frenzy and more of a desire to see where else she blushed. Focus, please. She’s a friend, not a target for wildly surging teenage hormones. Though she could be both- No. At least, not now. She wants to understand me. “Those drives have no conscience - they are older than conscience, so whereas your brain applies the safety, mine gets the unfiltered signal. This is why a lot of psychopaths who are not high-functioning are habitual criminals. They lack the intellect to seek alternate paths and the will to practice restraint, and no fear of punishment or ostracization stops them. So they rob a place, and if someone tries to stop them, they hurt or kill them, because they cannot see beyond their drives. They go to prison, and if they are released will almost certainly reoffend as soon as they see something they want.” Jase flicked a hand as though dismissing those sad creatures, then cocked his head and regarded Autumn with wry interest. “You seem warm. Want some cold water?” he asked her with a faint smile, his eyes on her rose-tinted cheeks. Autumn forced herself to meet that knowing gaze, even as part of her gibbered that it was a mistake to look back into those deep, not-at-all-cold when you got to know them green pools of- “Water would be fine.” she managed. A tall drink of cool water is something I could really go for- OH MY GOD what am I thinking! She thought cold thoughts as he called the filter jug over from the fridge, refilling her glass. Plucking up her courage, she gave him a glare. “And I’m pretty sure you’re doing that deliberately.” “Doing what?” he asked without even a flicker of an eyelid. Never play poker with him. What, even stri-? No! No no no! “You’re- You- Ugh!” “Eloquently put.” Jase’s eyebrow raised slightly at the outburst, though his handsome mouth also curled in a smile at the fresh wave of crimson staining Autumn’s skin. “But I was talking about what the emotional landscape is like for me, and you keep distracting me, so if you don’t mind…” Autumn didn’t trust herself to speak. He was utterly, completely impossible to deal with. A simple conversation with him had innuendo layered with deeper meaning layered with profound truth layered with wit and humor, and behind it all was this mind like- like- like a diamond, all gleaming facets and edges that danced and shifted without losing their lustre. It was like tap-dancing in a minefield where a misstep meant feeling her breath catch and her heart jump against her ribcage as her pale skin went red. It was… A lot of fun, really. As much as she hated to admit it, Autumn really was kind of enjoying this. Dealing with Jase presented a constant challenge, and not in the sense of control or domination, or a conquest to be, well, conquered- it felt more like a finish line that kept moving just as she got close enough to reach it, in such a way that it wasn’t always straight ahead and easily found. It was an ever-shifting mark that compelled her to keep going, to keep up or be left behind, and whatever spark it was that drove her- whether it was her spirit or soul, or her Shine, or simple headstrong obstinacy- it refused to accept that level of failure. Fine. “So talk,” she shot back before common sense could interfere- because, yeah, it had been so helpful thus far, hadn’t it? Affecting an excessively dramatic tone, the grinning redhead raised the tall, cool glass of water in mock salute: “My apologies, Lord Bannon, O Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities. I wouldn’t have expected you to be distracted, so please… Emotional Landscape. What’s it like for you?” Leaning forward, chin resting on her hand, she smiled expectantly over at him, with all the laughter of her ancestors in her eyes. With a slow, wicked grin dangerous enough to inspire revolt and the renunciation of faith, Jase leaned forward, his head inclining ever so slightly to meet her eyes as the distance between them shortened by inches. “Distracting,” he reiterated. “That,” she replied quickly, one eyebrow creeping upward as she continued, the soft blue-grey of her eyes deepening to a storm of cerulean and silver, tiny hints of pale green reflected within. “Sounds like a Jase problem to me. Come on. Emotional landscape. We’re having a conversation here, so I’m gonna need you to focus, Your Magnificence.” 24 hours ago, when she’d come to the farm with everyone else, Autumn would never have guessed that she would- within a day’s time- be giving one of the great terrors of Shelly a hard time in his own kitchen. But, as with so many other things, here she was, legitimately having more fun with him, and all his maddening quirks, than her previous day’s self would have believed. “So? What is it like?” she pressed, all mischief. “No distractions.” “Well…” he murmured, showing no sign of drawing back from the current close proximity of their faces. “It’s complicated. And I say that only because your emotional landscape is similarly opaque to me, so finding a frame of reference we can share is tough.” Though the darkening of her eyes was promising, at least. Better than the pin-prick pupils that would have resulted an hour ago from his playful predation. “Mmhmm. How about caring about people? You can do that, I’ve seen it.” Autumn likewise showed no inclination to pull away, smiling a little at him. “I can, and do.” he admitted. “In some cases, very deeply. There’s a large element of conscious choice in it, though. Also a very large element of possessiveness. My father. My friends. Their well-being trumps any moral considerations of wider society. Harm them and it will be taken as an offense against me. I keep an eye out for those who have value - in my opinion - and then if we seem to get along then I tacitly add them to my hoard.” He grinned a little as he riffed off her dragon reference. “What about love?” the redheaded girl asked softly before she could think twice on the matter. “Functionally similar. I don’t get crushes, which are purely hormonal and largely centered in that area of the brain I don’t have. Romantic love for me is a combination of physical desire and a deep appreciation of a person’s qualities, even their vices and flaws. The Greek and Roman philosophers I find helpful when quantifying how I love - they broke down love into seven types.” “First there’s Eros - passion and sexual desire. Not always a positive thing - the ancient thinkers regarded it as a fiery distraction-” Autumn smirked a little, and Jase winked “-and something that, if not carefully tempered, could lead men and women to disaster.” His voice was soft as he explained. “I experience Eros. It burns hot, but by itself without fuel of other kinds, it will flare out.” “Next is Philia, brotherly or comradely love.” he went on as Autumn felt her face heat a tiny bit. “Love of a family member, or a close friend: loyalty, companionship, trust. I experience Philia, too, when the trust has been built up and the company is good.” He smiled slightly at her. “Very few people have my Philia, indeed.” “Storge is the love of a parent for a child. Not relevant for me, but I believe I am capable of a form of it. Agape, selfless universal love, altruism - that I do not feel. Charity, one could say. It’s associated with spirituality, and I am not spiritual. Aristotle did write that one could experience Agape for the natural world - that, perhaps, I can see myself feeling.” He gave her a grin. “Ludus is next. Playfulness. Flirtation, the enjoyment of the game of seduction and getting to know another. Also associated with casual sex for mutual fun and lightheartedness, and can pave the way to other types, of course. No need to ask whether I experience Ludus.” “But..” Autumn said as Jase took a sip of his coffee, making a face at the cold temperature. “Do you?” He raised an eyebrow at her, noting the way the corners of her mouth twitched as she tried not to grin, and sighed, rolling his eyes. He held his coffee mug between them, a firefly dancing in the center of each of his eyes as fresh steam suddenly rose from the newly-warmed liquid. “Since you asked, yes. Now shush. Pragma is the long-lasting love, built over time and trust. It is what keeps married couples together, and it’s lack is what tears them apart. It takes a deep appreciation of the other, warts and all, beyond Eros or Ludus, an acknowledgement that life will not always be sunshine, cake and rainbows, but you can rely on that other person.” Jase’s gaze was contemplative. “I wonder about that as it applies to me. I think I am capable of it, but I do not know for sure. I am, for all my intelligence and detachment, young, and haven’t even dated, never mind anything else.” “Finally is Philautia, the love of the self. Pride and vanity are two sides of the same coin. Assurance in one’s own worth and arrogance likewise. True Philautia is not shallow narcissism, but a stronger alloy. I’m pretty good at Philautia, though I say it myself. After all…” he grinned, drawing back now and spreading his arms wide. “My teeth are swords, my claws are spears, and my wings are a hurricane! To look upon me is to tremble!” “Mmmhmm,” came the reply, and in spite of herself Autumn found herself laughing again. He was definitely trouble, and she marveled at how, in the span of a few hours, she was less inclined to avoid it. “You’re forgetting, though, how that works out for you.” Collecting her now-empty glass, she pushed back from the table and rose, crossing the scant distance between their chairs in a step. From this vantage, she could look down on him for a change, if only narrowly, and her grin widened. “There.” With one finger, she gently prodded a spot on the left side of his rib cage, exposed by his outspread arms, and whispered impishly, “Bannon the Impenetrable.” Instead of waiting for her host to clean up, she grabbed her mug, as well, and carried it over to the sink. Everything was well-organized and easy to find, so she didn’t have to rummage in cupboards to find soap and a sponge. If nothing else, the largely automatic activity gave her a moment to think about the actual content of the conversation, rather than all the teasing inspired by hormones and... a sudden urge to message her ex sometime really soon, because even if Jase hadn’t actually dated before, or “anything else,” she was pretty sure he’d probably be a quick study… and down that path lay madness. “So, question.” As she washed and rinsed the vessels she’d used, Autumn continued the conversation over the sound of the faucet. “You said you’ve never dated before, and… Marissa Jauntsen was your starting point?” “Yes, she mentioned much the same thing.” Jase said, watching her with his cup in hand, his attitude somewhere between intent study and lazy relaxation. “I think her words were along the lines of I need to level up. Mind you, that was at the same time she was asking me to hold her, so methinks the lady doth protest too much.” “Well, she is.. Her. And you are…” Autumn turned, leaning back against the sink and regarding Jason, what she was going to say dying unsaid as she found her somewhat automatic comparison of the Queen of Shelly High and the Effing Bannon as being an unlikely match to be shifting, more than a little, on the basis of the evening. It was still a hard thing to imagine, even in the face of Jase’s statement that Marissa had asked him to hold her. “I am Fire.” Jason said very quietly, meeting her gaze. “I am Ice. I am Will, and Pride. I am dangerous and hard to understand without some digging, and most people do not bother. I was these things before I got powers. And I love Marissa, and have done for awhile. And she does not date - or at least, does not date me.” He shrugged, draining his cup of coffee and rising to move to the sink. “There are other girls I have considered dating, girls I like. One or two…” he grinned slyly sideways at her as he rinsed his mug. “Or three, perhaps. Or perhaps I am better off being impenetrable. Right now, I do not know, and I have no experience to draw on. ‘Wait and see’ seems to be the best choice.” Autumn was quiet as she listened, studying the scuffs in the floorboards while Jase considered his options. “It probably is,” she conceded, resting her elbows on the edge of the counter as she leaned back against it and glancing briefly up at the tall, lean youth beside her before returning her attention to something a few inches in front of her toes. “If you were interested in the safe bet, though, you wouldn’t be in love with Marissa Jauntsen.” There was an uncomfortable (for her) moment of relative quiet, as she turned the words over in her head until they felt right, her fingertips tapping lightly on the sink. “You. Are Warmth. You are Clarity. You are Honesty, and you are Courage. You were those things before you got powers, even if none of us could, or can, see it. But... I have, now, a little. And, if it’s cool with you, I would like to add that you are also my friend, with all those other things. You said as much. ...I honestly don’t know what the answer is, to this or… I mean, to most things in general, as demonstrated by both my grades and my life choices,” she added with a little self-deprecating grin, but soon sobered. “Maybe the answer, the best choice, is Marissa. I can definitely see why it might be, and if I were talking to myself, I’d advise me not to give up on something I really wanted, something that was important to me. So.” Her shoulders twitched upward in a quick shrug, and she wondered at exactly which point the world had become so unrecognizably strange. He seemed a little startled at her re-parsing of his statement, blinking once as he glanced down at the red haired girl currently examining her feet. But then he smiled slowly, nodding a little. “I wasn’t planning on giving up. Merely waiting. Perhaps time will change her perspective. She’s young as well, after all.” He sighed, leaning against the counter next to her, shoving his hands into his pockets. “And maybe I should learn to be young, too. I miss out on a lot of the hormonal chaos the rest of you experience - the emotional storms, the moping over a girl one week and then forgetting about her in pursuit of the next crush…I don’t get that. You people are crazy, by the way. But maybe I can just date and have fun, ‘level up’, but not with the destination in mind. Just enjoy the journey while I wait.” He snorted, then nudged Autumn with his elbow gently. “And yeah, you are my friend. And because you are I’m going to drive you home, because while the night may be dark and full of terrors, very few of them are going to want to meet me.” He grinned a little. “That is, unless you’re staying over?” he added with a faintly wicked edge to his grin. I should have seen that coming, she sighed, feeling the corners of her mouth turn upward despite the rising color in her cheeks. Well, fine. “If I stayed over, there’s no way I’d be able to sleep in the same house with you,” she quipped. “So maybe just the ride, this time.” “That was the idea… but it is a school night and your grades need all the help they can get.” The green-eyed devil smiled back, one long arm extending in a conspicuously courteous gesture towards the door. “Your chariot awaits.” “What, no noble steed?” Autumn grinned, stepping back but still facing him. “He’ll be driving the chariot.” came the deadpan reply. “I said ‘noble’.” “Touché. You’ll just have to slum it.” “Ugh,” she sighed dramatically, rolling her eyes toward the heavens. “Fine. I guess. ...Although I brought my bike. You could just let me borrow a flashlight, you know.” “No.” “I promise to wash it and give it back!” “No.” With a little work, and not a little light humor at the other’s expense, the two teens managed to get Autumn’s bicycle into the trunk of the Charger. Conversation stalled somewhat once they were on the road, and as Jase drove, she checked her phone for what she realized was the first time since she’d gotten there a few hours earlier. It wasn’t late enough that her mom would be worried, and, anyway, Dana had apparently sent a text about half an hour ago letting her know she’d be late for dinner, that they had a couple of unplanned surgeries at the animal clinic. [Kk. Let me know if you want food, I’ll forage. Love you!] As she tapped the screen to send the message on its way, Autumn glanced curiously over at a very different Jase from the one who’d been teasing her just a few minutes before. He had that focused look, the one that always made her feel like she was being pricked by a thousand tiny needles whenever it swung in her direction, but he was only watching the road. Not angry, or even displeased, just… Intent. Weird. The scenery slipped by, headlights tracing the asphalt to almost the opposite side of Shelly, where the flat, open land gradually transitioned into rolling hills and rustling trees; for the life of her, Autumn couldn’t think of much to say that didn’t involve giving directions, and since she never had to repeat herself, even that eventually became unnecessary. It got harder to break the silence as the minutes passed, and, tugging on the zipper of her hoodie, she just let it be. Atop a small, natural rise stood the modest, cabin-style home where she’d grown up, and at the sound of the muscle car’s tires on the gravel, the redhead shifted in her seat, unfastening her seat belt before they’d stopped completely. The porch light was on, the driveway empty, save for the Charger, and, in the distance, the glow of Shelly Stadium gleamed softly. Jase killed the engine and slipped out of his seat as Autumn opened her door, his tall spare shape silhouetted against the porch light as he glanced around, taking in their surroundings with the air of a predator looking for prey, though as he turned back towards Autumn he seemed to relax a little, smiling as he headed to pop the trunk. “There’s not much around,” she said, misinterpreting the motive for Jase’s attentiveness and nodding toward the dark country road that continued on into the hills. “A little further up is my grandparents’ house, and then it’s maybe two miles or so to the camp site I told you about earlier. I’ll take you up there sometime, before I invite a bunch of other people out… Y’know, since you showed me your garden.” The flash of her smile gleamed in the reflected lights, and she headed around the side of the car to wrestle her bike from the depths of the black beast. With Jase’s help, they got both tires on the ground and she smiled again, holding the frame upright. “See you tomorrow?” "Definitely." he said with that hint of a smile that could mean anything, unless one looked at his eyes. “Cool,” she agreed, almost as if she hadn’t expected him to say yes. “‘Night, Jase. Thanks for the ride,” the sixteen year old redhead called over her shoulder as she jogged a few steps with the bike, then hopped on and pedalled lazily up to the porch. Down went the kickstand, and up the stairs to the front door she went. She paused at the threshold and turned back, offered a quick wave, and headed inside to a chorus of canine voices whose excited barks echoed across the fall landscape before she closed the door. The porch light stayed on. Later, after her mom had come home and they’d chatted about the trivialities of their respective days, Autumn lay awake upstairs and studied, for the thousandth time, the phosphorescent constellations sprawled across her bedroom ceiling. The faded red hoodie hung on the back of a chair next to the closet; she had returned alive from the dragon’s lair, and that was the prize she’d won, the treasure reclaimed. She’d spent half a day with Jason Fucking Bannon and survived, she realized with faint surprise. He’d been a terror the entire time- but only in the way that a particularly mischievous child could be when exploring something new. Much like the sleepover with Marissa, it hadn't gone at all as she'd expected. He had even gone to the trouble of trying to address the reasons she’d given for being afraid of him… Well, the ones that could be handled with simple, factual explanations, anyway. And, by then, she’d been having such a good time that she’d stopped really thinking about being terrified. There was the matter of the almost-kiss, of course, and Autumn’s face grew warm in the darkened room as she remembered the emerald smoulder of his eyes so close to her own. Pulling the quilt over her head as if to banish the memory, the young redhead groaned in frustration and embarrassment. She still kind of felt like dying, despite the fact that he hadn’t been weird or freaked out about it- probably couldn’t have been. She’d gone over there to get her jacket and maybe get to know Jase a little, but not like that! It was small comfort that at least nothing had actually happened, even if some greedy, selfish part of her was a little resentful of that fact. “He said he was my friend,” she murmured after a few moments of aimless, milling thoughts in the quiet, half-disbelieving the sound of it. “I have friends.” ...Even if she was afraid of them, on some level she couldn’t yet quite describe. And what if the more you learn and understand, the more frightened you become? Just out of curiosity, came the soft query, unbidden, from her memory. The question hadn’t been meant for her. Then, I don’t know. Maybe that’s not really what you’re afraid of, she heard her own voice reply, and a sudden wave of mingled horror and despair- of dread- washed over her as she realized the awful implication of her own words. Trembling, her body curled into the blankets and the tears that had threatened to escape at the farm came spilling out all at once as she shuddered with silent, wracking sobs and a feeling she couldn’t name.
  12. “Okay, so first, the only two people on the planet who think I’m hot are my mom and Lizzo,” Autumn replied, winding paper towels around her hand and deciding which slice had the most crispy brown bits on the cheese. She glanced up at Marissa over the lid of the open pizza box, the hint of a smile on her lips suggesting the Devin comment had failed to find its mark, especially given the brunette’s earlier admonition against venturing into those waters. Still, the prettier of the Jauntsen twins was at least trying, so… Credit where it’s due, I guess. “Which is fine, since that means I can spend less time worrying about getting the wings on my eyeliner to match up perfectly, and more time doing other stuff that I actually enjoy.” Grabbing one slice of pepperoni and one plain cheese, she maneuvered them onto a plate. After the drive back from the car auction and running around with the others at the Wilson-now-Bannon Farm, she’d gone straight to the Jauntsens’ house, and somehow skipped eating in between any of that- a fact which her stomach unhappily reminded her with an audible grumble. “Yeah, yeah,” she muttered to herself. “I know, I’m working on it.” “And, yeah,” she continued, shaking some parm onto what would probably constitute her entire carbohydrate intake for the next couple of days. “I do camping stuff. There’s a place up by my grandparents’ house I’ve been going to since I was a kid-” her voice wavered slightly, and she carefully replaced the grated cheese on the counter with the soft clink of heavy glass. Just breathe, and keep talking. Answer the question. You’re already here, so just deal with it. She tried again, exhaling through the tightness in her chest that those memories conjured. “But, um, yeah. Out there, there’s either a thousand things to do, or none at all, and it just kind of depends on the person, and the day. You can fish, or hunt, or go climbing, or canoeing, or kayaking, or swimming, or just pick a direction and walk to see what’s there.” The freckle-faced girl leaned on the counter as Marissa made her own selections, not wanting to just start shoveling food into her face while her hostess was still prepping a plate. “Sometimes I can spend the whole day running around, and sometimes I just set up a hammock and watch the stars. It’s nice to just… shut off for a while, only do the things I either really need to, or really want to, whenever and however I want to do them. I know there’s a bunch of good spots around Shelly, but that one’s my favorite, y’know? I used to do the Girl Scout Ambassador trips too, but a couple of years ago, I guess someone complained that it wasn’t fair that some of us got out of school for non-school-related stuff, and the school board stopped it.” She frowned, remembering Dana’s terse conversations with other parents over the phone; no matter how worried her mom had been about her back then, the fact that Autumn’s grandfather was too sick to go out with her anymore just wasn’t their problem. If the other kids had to be in school, so did she. “It really sucked, you know?” she added quietly, twisting her paper towel into unrecognizable shapes with trembling fingers. “It was right when my grandfather started getting really bad, um, and I thought even if I couldn’t go with him, y’know, any, uh. Anymore.” It was getting more and more difficult to get the words out, and Autumn wasn’t even sure why she was telling the black-hearted princess all of this, but she’d already started and it was too late to stop, even if she wanted to. “Then I could do the big camping trip, you know? And I could tell him about all the stuff we did and, um, all the service projects we were planning on doing, and all that, and maybe he would feel better, and then I couldn’t, because-” Oh, god, I can’t do this. I can’t. Autumn suddenly took in a big gulp of air, breath hitching convulsively in her chest as a wave of hot tears streamed down her flushed cheeks. “I’ll be right back,” she managed, swiping across her eyes with the back of her arm as she all but ran to the bathroom and closed the door. Almost immediately, she turned on the cold water, letting it fill up the bowl of her cupped hands and splashing it on her face. She repeated this process, gasping at the icy shock of it on her hot skin, until she managed to stop shaking and her breathing was something close to normal. Staring up into the mirror, letting the cold water continue to run over her fingertips, she grimaced at the thought of what the other girl would say about her blotchy, red face, but it was done. She'd embarrassed herself pathetically in front of Marissa Jauntsen, in her domain, and now she was going to have to go back out there and eat fucking pizza and find some way to get through the rest of the night. “Well,” she murmured to her reflection with an uncharacteristically rueful grin. “At least it’s not something she hasn’t seen before.” Sighing, the redhead shut off the water, dried her hands and cheeks on a nearby towel, and headed back out to face the music. “Sorry,” she offered with an apologetic smile as she headed back to the island, and the plate she’d abandoned. “Thanks for the pizza, by the way. I’m starving.”
  13. The Damsel and the Dragon, Pt. 3 With that realization, that galvanizing strike of lightning that illuminated a momentary truth, came action. When Jason had, earlier, commented on her grandfather’s wisdom- likely unaware of his passing- Autumn’s immediate response had not been one of careful consideration and analysis. Likewise, when he’d put his hands on her shoulders in the verdant paradise he considered a hobby, the initial reaction hadn’t been one she had specifically chosen out of a series of potential options. In this case, too, conscious thought lagged somewhat behind instinct, and even as she carefully set the joint on the back of the bench to smoulder and die out, the young redhead slid forward on the bench. By the time she registered how deathly cold his spare, wiry frame felt under her hands, she was already sliding them around him: one arm curving across his chest, applying gentle but insistent pressure to his side, just between the seventh and eighth ribs; the other around his back, across the top of his shoulders and, tentatively, just brushing the hair at the nape of his neck. It was movement without thought, without the fear or bias which otherwise muddied the purity of impulse and intention, of actual human connection, and it left the embittered young man insufficient time to muster more than a cursory resistance. He was being hugged. Short of aggressive refusal, his only other reasonable defense was to be stiffly uncooperative, and that was the tactic Jase chose. Autumn was stronger than she looked, but if she pulled harder, it would only awkwardly devolve into a struggle; all he had to do was tense, and so he did, resisting with sufficient effort that she paused, but didn’t let go. His skin was like ice under her fingertips, but there was no telltale shivering to suggest that he felt it, or was even aware. When he realized she wasn’t immediately going to release him, the broken, awful laughter gradually subsided, fading into silence in the early twilight. “You don’t have to do that,” he said finally, enunciating each syllable with excruciating care. There was something in his voice that tugged, wrenchingly, at her heart- more so than even the hollow sound of the laughter-that-wasn’t. It held curiosity, even surprise, yes... but with the aching, unmistakable undercurrent of pain that had prompted her to act in the first place. Not trusting herself to say anything else, the redhead simply replied quietly, “Yeah… I know.” It might have been the (really superlative) weed, or the certainty that came from doing what felt, in her bones, like the right thing, or maybe even simple emotional fatigue, but Autumn realized that the racing of her thoughts and the compulsive need to be doing something had settled, and grown as still as the deepening evening shadows around the farmhouse. He hadn’t recoiled or pushed her away yet, but since she could move him no further, she instead leaned toward him. Slowly, cautiously, the unguarded and unarmed heroine shifted closer to the creature she feared because she could not understand, and, despite the chill, rested her chin atop his head, and simply sat. She smelled like the woods in early spring, warm juniper from her skin mingled with citrus from her hair, and it was the manner of her nearness rather than the nearness itself which had the greatest impact. His ear was pressed just below her collarbone, her chin atop his head a gentle pressure. He could feel her heartbeat as she cradled him - him - to her, and the most staggering part of the embrace was the motive as he perceived it: not because she needed the contact, but because she felt he did. Autumn felt rather than heard him sigh from his boots, and relax against her as the icy chill, not-quite freezing, dissipated in the early Fall twilight leaving his skin warm to the touch. He turned into the hug, his arms going around her carefully, shifting his head to rest it on her shoulder, breathing in the warm scent of her hair. “I don’t need pity.” he said quietly. Autumn, her fingers still teasing the hair at the nape of his neck, made a gentle ‘shush’ing noise. “It’s not pity.” she murmured back, and felt him nestle his cheek against her ear. “Okay then.” Came the answering murmur. There was a long moment of comfortable silence as the sounds of the Montana evening rose around them, then: “Speaking as a friend, I think next time I tell you I’ve had a bad day you should probably run.” Jase said with a touch of his usual dry humor. Though he was talking, he showed no inclination to end the hug, resting against her as much as she was resting against him. “Probably,” Autumn replied agreeably, the smile audible in her voice. This was a thing that was really happening. Her- Autumn Keane- hugging Jason Bannon on his front porch, was A Thing, and it didn’t bother her as much as she thought it should’ve. He felt warm against her, not hewn from unfeeling ice or fashioned from inorganic alien tech, and as she breathed him in, a thought occurred to her. He feels like the garden. Even the faint scent of him, clean and not-unpleasantly male, reminded her of the fragrance of verdure and growing things. Huh. She didn’t remember stumbling into an alternate universe, but… Here we are, she thought, unsure if she should laugh at the bizarre turn the day had taken for both of them, and in wildly different ways. “But,” she added with a soft sigh, fingertips dreamily, rhythmically combing through the tousled strands of dark hair over his ear, “if you’re my friend, it doesn’t work that way. It’s against the rules.” Life was weird. Autumn knew kind of a lot of people, and didn’t have a problem getting along with most of them, most of the time. She got invited to bonfires, she’d been on dates, and sometimes went running or hiking or whatever with anyone who seemed interested. Friends, though? One, maybe two people now, had used that word in connection with her in the last couple of weeks, and before that… Not since, maybe, 6th or 7th grade? What was the deal? Did she have, like, magic friendship pheromones or something with all this Shine stuff? Weird. Sort of like how, somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew that she was still afraid, or unnerved, or intimidated, or whatever by the guy she was holding perfectly comfortably. Just- for whatever reason, the garden, or the smoke, or the way he smelled, or the oddly reassuring pressure of his arms, or the entire array of massively fucked-up things in Shelly that left even normal people struggling to find equilibrium in their lives… For now, even though she knew it was still there, it didn’t bother her in the least. Definitely weird. “So, basically,” she began, looking into the distance over his shoulder as she continued to stroke his hair, “it works like this. If you’re my friend, and you say you’ve had a bad day, I’m supposed to listen. I mean,” the redhead quipped, “I’m allowed to run after, but The Rules require that I hear you out. If I’m busy, and can’t get out of whatever stupid thing I’m doing, I have to get back to you ASAFP. That’s… Rule Number Two, I think.” The answer was a chuckle, low and quiet - and a vast contrast to the weird self-mockery of earlier, though inwardly Jase was a little surprised at himself. He was standoffish, distrustful and aloof for many reasons, and for him to call Autumn a friend so quickly seemed odd to him. Except, perhaps it wasn’t. She’d impressed him more or less from the start, even as he’d also enjoyed bedevilling her a little. She was frightened of him, for sure, and her earlier reactions indicated a deep level of fear, but there was not much in the way of ‘roll over’ in her attitude. What do you call a woman who is terrified of a man, but hugs him when she sees him in rare pain but ‘brave’? He mused to himself as he enjoyed the simple human contact for a few moments longer. “Same goes for you, then. If you have a bad day, or even if you just want to talk about stuff - I’m right here.” he told her with a smile, giving the girl a slight squeeze before drawing back gently. Now that his emotional pain was assuaged, he was physically aware that there was a nice-smelling, healthy and not-unattractive girl in close proximity, and even his limited social cue reading ability was enough to point out that her kindness was not an indication of any other sort of interest - hell, after Marissa he wasn’t sure that indications of interest were indications of interest. Which was a pity, because her fingers felt good playing with the ends of his hair, and he wondered what kissing her would be like. But he’d already made enough awkward errors for one day, and so he drew back until they were face to face, resting his forehead against hers softly as he looked into her eyes. It didn’t occur to him how intimate the gesture might seem - he just was aware, through the haze of weed and teen male hormones, that he was drawn to the warm-hued girl. Not like Marissa, different in feel and texture, not as intense. But Marissa had told him to move on and not to be pathetic… Not like this. He breathed out and slowly straightened up, moving his own lips away from temptation as he let his hands slide from around Autumn to rest on her waist as he turned, settling back against the wall of the house that served as a backrest for the bench seat. He gave her a smile, firefly embers lazily gleaming in the pale green of his eyes. “So… What else would you like to know?” he asked Autumn, a mixture of friendly warmth and slightly more heated devilment in his expression. The question caught her off-guard, enough so that she jerked slightly, inhaling suddenly as her higher brain functions re-engaged; somewhere between Jase offering to listen if she needed to bitch and asking what else she wanted to know, she’d stopped breathing. No, she admonished herself. It was a little more specific than that. At first, she’d been confused when he’d pressed his forehead to hers- was it a bonding thing? Like cats, when they say, “Hey, you’re cool. I’m gonna mark you as part of my stuff now, so I can find you again later.” She had almost, almost returned the gesture, until something had compelled her to look up, to meet his gaze, and then it was impossible not to be acutely aware of how dangerously close he was. Funny, how before, she’d always thought of him as dangerous at a distance. It had never occurred to her, until that moment, that he was infinitely more deadly in close proximity, and all it took was eye contact. Those same eyes, the ones she’d always thought were “pretty,” for a guy, were deep enough up close to drown in, to stop her heart and swallow her whole, and she could feel his goddamn breath on her lips. That was it. She was dead. She was dead, and Jase had killed her. Her heart may actually have stopped at that precise moment, but self-preservation prevented her from making the fatal mistake of glancing down at his mouth, and then… And then, he’d moved away, and Autumn had a good idea of how she would feel if she were suddenly lit aflame. She’d never been more grateful for darkness in her life, as embarrassment, guilt, and something altogether more selfish blazed scarlet across every inch of her skin. “Um,” she managed finally, licking her lips and conjuring a quick, awkward laugh in response, staring down at her hands as she rubbed them across her thighs. Yeah, maybe it had been a hot minute since Jacob, but Autumn was not going to make a move on a friend- especially a friend who liked her other friend. Fear and anxiety aside, that was most definitely against The Rules. “Actually, could I get a glass of water, or something? It’s, uh, been a minute since lunch.” “Sure.” The porch lights weren’t on - it had still been mostly light when his father had left for work, but it wasn’t so dark Jason couldn’t read the difference between Autumn’s naturally pale skin and it’s current darker rosier hue. It also wasn’t so dark she couldn’t see his faint smile as he stood, motioning her to follow him. So, she did have a reaction to him other than fear, his ever-operating mind assessed. Something to bear in mind, though not to her detriment. After all, it wouldn’t be… graceful to harm someone who had been kind to him. Aesthetically displeasing, to say the least. Besides, he liked her. The pair of them walked around the outside of the house on the porch, Jase flicking on the lights with a whisper of his power as they went. Reaching the kitchen door, he clicked on the lights inside, then gestured Autumn to step in, following her and crossing to the refrigerator as she took the kitchen in. It wasn’t fancy, but it was orderly - somewhat of a surprise for a kitchen in a house with two bachelors. A fair-sized farm kitchen with pots, pans, implements all hanging neatly or stacked away, and a large bookshelf full of recipe books. A four-seater table sat in the center of the open space, a few domestic bits and bobs on it, and Jase waved Autumn to take a chair as he brought two glasses of water over from the fridge. “There’s some food if you have the munchies.” he offered, handing her a glass as he sat himself at right-angles to her. “Provencal-style country mutton stew.” “Sounds fancy.” Autumn commented, glad for the cool water and resisting the urge to splash it on her face. Besides, the cloud of steam would probably be a giveaway. “Just braised mutton, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, a few herbs… oh, and eggplant.” Jase said conversationally, though his eyes were laughing green pools with motes of copper fire in their depths. She was doing fine, ‘til then, gamely admiring the collection of books that seemed to be everywhere and the neatly-stacked and well-organized crockery and tableware, and nodding along with his explanation of what the leftovers entailed. At the precise moment Autumn took a long drink of water, the green-eyed devil sitting next to her casually dropped the punchline to a joke begun the day they’d met, and as she choked and spluttered, she wasn’t sure if she was dead (again), or if she was going to murder him in his own kitchen. Incapable of doing more than cough/laugh furiously for several seconds, the girl with flaming red hair and cheeks to match covered her mouth with one arm and used the other hand to suggest with one finger what she thought of him. “‘m good, thanks,” she gasped hoarsely, shaking her head and trying to catch her breath as she grinned, in spite of herself. “...Fucker. I’ll remember that.” Bumping his shin with her foot in a companionable promise of vengeance, Autumn went for another sip. Paused. Glanced at him warily over the rim of the glass, and then childishly turned away to drink so he couldn’t get the same perfect timing twice in a row. It didn’t take genius-level intellect to know he was laughing silently behind her back, but… That was kind of okay. It relieved the awkward feeling of tension that had coiled up in the pit of her stomach, and he hadn’t seemed to notice, so that was okay, too. “That’s the last thing I need people at school to hear… Autumn Keane swall- ate eggplant at Jason Bannon’s. Ugh,” she smirked, turning back around again and rolling her eyes. He had asked her a question, though, hadn’t he? “Honestly…” Her voice trailed off as she rested her cheek on her hand, slowly swinging one foot under the table. “I don’t know what else to ask. I don’t really know a lot about you, which is kind of why I thought I’d wait for you to get home.” Pursing her lips, the rosy-cheeked redhead tilted her head, peering at him from 45° and twisting the glass in circles on the tabletop. “What about you? Anything special you want to know?”. He smiled slightly, leaning his chin on his fist as he rested an elbow on the table, his eyes on her. “There’s plenty of things to know, to be sure. You’re fun, brave, warm and kind. You also think well on your feet and I’ve not yet seen you lose your mind to panic, which is impressive.” He pondered her for a long moment, hmming very softly. “I think a lot of what I need to know I will learn by sharing activities with you, like your excellent camping idea.” “I think the thing I’m most curious about is why you are frightened of me. I’ve noticed at times it seems almost visceral.” He didn’t seem offended or bitter, merely curious as he took a sip of water before continuing. “I’ve never been threatening or hostile towards you that I remember - and for the record I remember everything - so that leaves the root cause as what you’ve learned about me just these last couple of days, plus whatever ideas you had about me before we even really spoke.” “So… Is it my condition - ugh, I dislike that word. I know technically it’s correct, and a prettier word than ‘deformity’. Anyway, is it that? Or what I did to Liam? Or what you’ve seen me do?” He gave her a gentle smile, though his scrutiny was as intense as always. “Because I’d like to help you understand, but to do that I need to know what it is about me that petrifies you.” Autumn exhaled slowly. “There’s no halfway with you, is there?” The slow shake of her head and rueful smile were far from a condemnation; even so, her attention dropped to the table for a long moment before she leaned further forward, chin resting on the backs of both clasped hands. She’d done a lot of laughing over the course of the afternoon, and a faint trace of that warmth still lingered around the corners of his companion’s eyes as she regarded him soberly. The whole situation was more than a little surreal, but it seemed like maybe he was trying, too, and for that much she was grateful. “I think, probably, it’s a combination of things. It’s been on my mind, since all this… stuff started, and I’ve been trying to pick it apart, like a bad knot. Maybe it started a long time ago. I mean…” She paused, catching her lip between her teeth as she weighed her options unhappily. “Look, until recently, I don’t- I don’t think I ever heard anyone say anything nice about you. If they did, it was that you were hot, or that your product was high-quality, but even then it wasn’t exactly a compliment. So,” with the air of a confession, the earnest, red-haired young woman continued, “I guess part of that is my fault. I just sort of believed what I heard, and since you looked the part, and no one ever contradicted the story, I assumed it was true.” “Like, people you didn’t like, or who interfered in your business, disappeared. Or you were gonna overthrow the government, or shoot up the school, or that you were working for one of the cartels to push stuff through this part of the country.” There was no special training required, no social sciences degree necessary to interpret the uncomfortable tension in Autumn’s shoulders as she spoke, or the way her eyes occasionally darted away from the direct, intense laser beam quality of his regard when something proved especially difficult to say. In some ways, this was a more intimate exchange than the hug, which was merely physical; this conversation required a different kind of honesty, and an altogether different sort of vulnerability, the willingness to let one’s flaws or failings be known. “That you ended up here because you got in too many fights. That-” She stopped short, unable to meet his gaze. “Just… stuff about your family.” “And then the bathroom, which was the first time I ever talked to you, was legitimately the scariest thing I had ever experienced in my life. I kind of thought you guys were in a cult, and they were gonna find my body in one of the stalls.” Autumn looked back up at that, remembering the trick with the ice, and- simultaneously- how trapped she’d felt with an apologetic shrug, and a tiny smile. “So, we’re cool there, I guess.” “I think…” She started, then sighed again, another long exhale. Even if it wasn’t intentional- wasn’t, as she’d started to grasp, hostile- the feeling of just being intently observed was nerve wracking for a girl generally quite happy to exist utterly outside anyone’s center of attention. “I think I’m maybe not, um. I’m not as, I don’t know… bothered? By the Liam thing. I mean, you airplaned me, using the same power, and it was awesome, and I’m still here to talk about it, so clearly it’s not like you’re a, a raging murder-wolf or anything.” Straightening, she rubbed her hands together thoughtfully, fingers interlacing and entwining in a formless pattern of freckles and ivory skin. She’d already given this part a lot of thought; the threat of a "Liam" was something her mother had always (uncomfortably) tried to warn her of, which is why Dr. Dana Keane probably be freaking right the hell out if she knew where her only daughter was right now. “I should probably be careful how I say this. If... I had been in Lona’s position, and my, uh. And my grandfather was alive.” Swallowing hard, Autumn managed to regain her composure, but only narrowly. Just keep talking, Autumn. It’s fine, she told herself. “I don’t think Liam would have made it out of the woods at all. So.” The words hung in the air for several moments of unbroken silence, until eventually she couldn’t deal with the quiet anymore, not when Jase was still looking at her like that. “So, yeah. It does freak me out, but it’s maybe more that you didn’t even have to touch him, you know? Like, what happened to Lona was probably one of the worst things that could ever happen to somebody, but it’s also really…” Her hands opened up, eyes narrowing slightly, fingers splayed as if reaching for the right words. “Really, intensely personal. Intimate. In an awful way, but, still. Different from what you did, if that makes sense.” Another pause. “And, no, I’m not suggesting there’s an actual difference in beating someone almost to death with your fists or with your brain, except that one is easier. Like… stabbing someone or shooting them, or ohhhh god, I can’t believe I’m talking about this. Fuck me.” The last few words came out in a rush as Autumn buried her face in her hands, groaning into her palms, and stayed that way for the span of a few breaths. What the fuck was she even doing? She’d maybe almost tried to kiss her new friend, who liked her still-new-but-not-as-new friend, with whom he was also friends, and now she was on the verge of a conversation about fucking ethics? Jesus Christ, she was not prepared for this when she got on her bike earlier that afternoon. Lifting her head again, she took a long drink of water in the hope that it might somehow extinguish some of her discomfort, giving him another surreptitious glance- no jokes, it warned- before swallowing and carefully replacing the glass on the tabletop. “The biggest thing, is that I don’t understand you.” Although she knew it was an obvious conclusion, especially since they’d talked about it a bit earlier, the context here was a little different. Now, yes, it was a statement of truth, but there was something of a plea, or request in her tone, as well, her wide eyes earnest and unguarded as they watched him, watching her. “I know you don’t feel fear, or guilt, and things like that, and I know you kind of explained it with everyone else here, but I just… It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it. I don’t know how to read you. Where, I guess most people are like picture books, or books in English, you’re in Egyptian hieroglyphs or something. It’s hard to tell what you’re thinking, and you’re smart enough that I’m not even sure I want to know sometimes, and you’re so different from other people in so many ways that I don’t even know where to start asking questions. I don’t know why you do things. I don’t know why you wouldn’t do something, or how you decide. You’re…” Autumn’s feet, crossed at the ankle, bounced against the chair leg as she considered her next words. “Confusing. Complicated.” “I don’t know how to make all the different versions of you that I’ve seen into one person, so, yeah. If you can help me understand that, it’d be pretty fucking fantastic."
  14. The Damsel and the Dragon, Pt. 1. The road to the Bannon farm was long, and even longer by bicycle. Longer still, when you weren’t entirely sure it was a good idea to be going there. Even the unrelenting flatness of Shelly and its immediate vicinity couldn’t alleviate the feeling of foreboding creeping lazily up Autumn’s spine; if anything, being able to see her destination long before actually reaching it only made the situation worse. It felt different, somehow- 24 hours ago, she’d made this same trip, down the same dirt road, headed to exactly the same place, and it had been... basically fine. 24 hours ago, though, she wasn’t alone. Now, under the vastness of the fading afternoon sky, Autumn was more keenly aware of her isolation than at any other time in all her wide and varied wanderings. It was a feeling she only rarely experienced, and so she’d never bothered to fit a name to it. The one people usually used, though, was “dread.” Most average people avoided trouble whenever possible, and the redhead with her weathered bike and faded jeans considered herself a pretty average kind of person, generally. ...Ignoring the powers things, obviously, because that probably was not something most average people had to consider. Right now, though, Autumn wasn’t avoiding trouble. She was resolutely pedaling into its lair, armed only with her wits and protected solely by bravado, just like the heroes in the storybooks. Naturally, not being a hero in a storybook, this meant she was doomed. That much she knew, of course. Jason Bannon- sans epithets- was dangerous. Nothing that had transpired over the weekend had changed, in any meaningful way, the opinion consolidated over the last several years. What was bothering her, though, nudging her forward even as her thighs and calf muscles burned in protest, was the suggestion that he might not be the kind of “dangerous” she’d come to expect. He was a criminal, definitely- he’d also taken on nightmare beasts in a hellish otherworld, fighting alongside Devin Jauntsen, of all people. He’d risked his life, without hesitation, when he could easily have bailed and left them to the mercy of fate. Devin, too, and Marissa- had she been wrong about all of them all this time, or had something changed? Besides, she reflected, steering with one hand as she fidgeted with the fraying denim at her knee- it was hard to reconcile brooding, slouchy, murder-stare Bannon with the guy who’d whooshed her around like an airplane. Like… maybe both existed, but he switched between them, or one was a cover for the other one, or- Ugh! Why did it have to be so damned complicated?! He’d always intimidated her, frightened her even, but if the last couple of days had confirmed that he was dangerous, they’d also hinted at something else. Bravery. Loyalty. Self-sacrifice. Honesty. Okay. Several “somethings.” Whether any of that was real or not, though, or whether she was just choosing to view it a certain way… She needed to find out for herself. It was with that in mind that Autumn Keane, resigned to fiery death or verbal excoriation, coasted to a stop in front of the weathered farmhouse. She licked her lips, planted her kickstand in the gravel that crunched underfoot, and walked with no small degree of trepidation up to the front door. The floorboards creaking softly and the chickens gossipping nearby overlaid the eerie stillness of the late afternoon with comforting reminders of life, and, squaring her shoulders, she knocked on the front door. Footsteps then, inside, heavy and sure as they approached the door where she waited like a prisoner awaiting a verdict. The door swung inward, and, startled, Autumn reflexively stepped back. Staring at her from the doorway, his features furrowed into a wary frown, was- -not Jason Bannon, but a much older, wearier approximation of him. As she fumbled for words, the older man’s expression relaxed by degrees. “Oh,” he said, by way of greeting. Then, speculatively: “You’re a friend of Jase’s?” “Yeah,” she replied automatically, then paused. “Sort of,” the redhead admitted. “I guess… I’m not really sure?” It wasn’t a question, but it was framed as such, although there was no good answer. Her shrug, and the slightly abashed smile that followed, elicited a flicker of a smile in response, one very like his son’s. He nodded, then glanced surreptitiously at the driveway over her shoulder. “Um. He’s not here right now.” Another awkward pause. “You can wait, if you want?” “Oh.” Was that okay? Just to… wait? To sit on the Effing One’s front porch, waiting for him to get home? Normally, she’d just text someone if she needed to meet up with them- y’know, like a normal person existing in the 21st century- but that didn’t really apply here. “I mean, if you don’t mind.” He shook his head, and the bickering of the hens intruded once more into the uncomfortable silence. Hands shoved firmly in her jeans pockets, Autumn rocked onto her heels and flailed internally for words, for anything to say to alleviate the weirdness. Hell, she could probably just ask his dad for the damned hoodie, but… Somehow, that seemed like cheating. No, if she was going to do this, she was going to deal with Jason Goddamn Bannon directly. “...Want some coffee?” “Sure. I’d love some,” replied the relieved young woman, anxiety melting into gratitude. “I’m Autumn, by the way, sir. Autumn Keane. Nice to meet you.” “Nice to meet you too, Autumn. Call me Gar.” Bannon Senior - Gar - was a touch taller than his boy, and definitely broader, his dark hair cropped short almost military fashion, though not so short the faint speckling of grey could not be made out. The most marked difference, though, was the warmth of the man’s manner - at least now that the ice had been broken. His hazel eyes were as expressive as they were intelligent, his smile readily reaching them as he offered Autumn a handshake, then gestured for her to take a seat on the bench to the left of the door. “Seat yourself there, Autumn. I’ll fetch you out a cup.” he narrowed his eyes consideringly, then said “You look like a cream and sugar girl, am I right?” “Guilty.” Autumn smiled as she took a seat. She’d been expecting- well, she wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but this friendly, faintly sad-eyed man with a gentle handshake had not been it. Shelly was a small town, and Gar Bannon was gossiped about as a drunk loser who worked as a janitor at the prison because he was an ex-jailbird himself and no-one else would hire him. And hung out with militia crazies like Hank Graskle. Once more Autumn found herself between two contradictions - what she thought she knew warring with what she had directly experienced. Mr Bannon disappeared inside and she was alone, gazing out over the fallow fields of the farm. Hard to believe she’d been here just yesterday, watching other kids her age dent steel with their fists, heal bruises with a touch, incinerate logs with a thought… And she’d touched the Shine, too. Felt it under her hands as they’d rested on Jason’s, felt the shape of his… what? Spirit? Soul? What had he seen or felt of her? And why did that matter? Ugh. It was so much easier before he’d walked into the girls bathroom, checked her for a concussion, then calmly demonstrated the impossible. Before then he’d just been the solitary kid everyone watched to see if he was keeping something lethal in his locker for later in the day when he finally snapped. A creak of a door announced the return of Bannon Senior holding two mugs. He offered one to Autumn, then sat down further down the bench seat and, without particular ceremony, added a generous slosh of the contents of a hip flask to his own coffee before taking a sip. They sat in silence for a long moment or two, looking out at transition of afternoon to evening. Autumn tried the coffee and was pleasantly surprised, sea-hued eyes widening. “Yeah. Jase picks the coffee.” Gar said, cradling his own mug between his hands as he smiled, glancing at her for a moment before looking back over the fields. “Me, I just care that it’s hot and caffeinated, but he won’t have that. Not that I’m complaining, mind.” Autumn just nodded, taking another sip. Gar seemed to have the air of a man with something on his mind - she could feel it the way she could feel the air change before a storm. “You and Jase been friends long?” Gar asked, still looking off over the fields. Autumn shook her head, then felt she should speak. “No. Not long.” she answered truthfully, then further honesty compelling more from her. “I don’t really know him all that well.” She saw Gar nod slowly. “Yeah.” the older man said, nodding a little more. “Yeah. Not sure anyone does.” he added, more to himself than her. He blinked then, and looked at Autumn. “You’re the first friend of his I’ve talked to, you know that? I mean, I met the Cassidy kid once briefly. Those Jauntsens once or twice. But never got a chance to speak with ‘em.” Autumn wasn’t sure what to say to that, so stared down at her coffee, pondering for a moment or two before looking up at him again. “He seems a very private sort of guy.” she ventured, and saw Gar nod agreement. “Yeah. Sometimes I worry. But he seems alright, right? I mean, he’s got some friends.” Gar gave her a hopeful smile. “I’m not going to ask you to snitch or anything, but he seems alright?” What was anyone supposed to say to that? “Your son is a psychopath with telekinetic powers and criminal tendencies who’s so smart it’s scary all by itself. He’s currently part of an effort to fight demons from a place kinda like hell, and there’s a rogue government conspiracy we know nothing about running around too.” “Yeah.” Autumn said, feeling a little coil of shame inside her. “He seems fine.” “Good.” Gar seemed relieved, then looked around and down the driveway. Following his gaze, Autumn saw a low black car making it’s way towards the farmhouse, raising a little dust on the track. “That’s him now.” Gar stood, moving to the porch rail and giving a lazy wave as the gleaming Charger growled past, heading for the vehicle shed. “I’ll head inside - got to get ready for work anyways.” The elder Bannon said, smiling once more at her. “Nice to meet you, Autumn.” “You too, Gar.” she smiled back, relieved that the initial awkwardness was past, even as the earlier dread came back as soon as Jason’s dad disappeared inside. She waited as the crunch of footsteps on gravel came closer and gave way to footsteps on wood, then glanced over to see Jason Bannon’s tall, lean shape come up the steps and stop dead as he saw her. “Of course.” Jase said in a tone that was not quite a sigh. He looked weary, his hair lank with sweat which had also soaked through his t-shirt. There was no fatigue in the sharp pale green ice of his gaze, though, which studied Autumn with that calm, intense scrutiny as though she were a puzzle to figure out. “Here for your hoodie?” “You said during study hall-” “Yes, yes I did.” Jason didn’t unclench, because he hadn’t been clenched to begin with, but there was a definite sense of tension dissipating. He had sat with Autumn during study hall, ostensibly helping her with Chem but actually filling her in on the weirdness of Devin’s morning and warning her about the ‘Shades’, as people were calling them. “So, let’s try again. Here on Earth we say ‘Hey, Autumn. Nice evening. What’s up?’” Her mouth formed the words before her brain could interfere, because most of her brain would in no way countenance tweaking the nose of Effing Jason Goddamn Bannon. She didn’t look away - you don’t look away from dangerous creatures. She didn’t quite meet his eyes either. Rather she focused her gaze on his mouth and tried not to curl up or flee. Jase’s expression didn’t change for a long, looooong moment. Then his lips twitched into a slow smile, lopsided and wryly good-humoured. “Hey Autumn, nice evening. What’s up?” he asked. With a cool sense of relief, Autumn realised she’d not been incinerated and smiled back, meeting his eyes. “Oh, y’know. Came to visit, pick up my hoodie, have a cup of coffee.” she bantered. The flat, unwelcoming stare he’d initially worn had given way to something with a glint of humor in it, at least. “Indeed.” Jase ran a hand through his hair and made a face. “Give me a few minutes? Your hoodie is upstairs, but I stink.” “Sure.” Autumn leaned back and sipped her coffee as Jason disappeared inside. She heard him and his father greeting each other, low male voices that then stopped. A little more than five minutes later, Jase stepped back outside, hair wet from the shower but with a fresh t-shirt and a pair of faded green combat pants on. He also had a mug of coffee in one hand and Autumn’s beloved red hoodie in the other, which he offered to her as he sat down on the bench. “Thanks for the loan.” he said, his expression politely neutral but with a gleam in his eye that was mischievous. “It’s been well-washed.” “Ugh.” That little subvocalization, one not uncommon in the limited chronicle of their interactions, carried with it a world of potential meaning and implication. Sometimes, it was an exclamation of agreement or commiseration, a non-verbal version of, “Yes. Same. I feel that.” Elongated, it was, “I’m so embarrassed, I could literally die.” Further back in her throat, toward the bottom of her vocal range, it suggested disgust or strong disapproval: “Gross.” If carried on a sharp exhalation, closer to a huff, it signified frustration, but with the inclusion of a dramatic eye-roll, it implied a lighter, more humorous context, as in, “Fine. Whatever. I guess.” This one required a long, preceding inhalation, and was drawn out, and got the obvious heavenward glance. She had carefully avoided thinking about the reason she’d let him borrow the faded red jacket in the first place, so of course he would have to bring it up. ...Without actually bringing it up, because that was Fucking Bannon’s fucking style: he let you feel awkward and uncomfortable all on your own, rather than gracelessly thrusting awkwardness upon you. To distract herself from the feeling of tingling warmth rising up the sides of her face, Autumn spent a few moments working out how to get the hoodie on, one arm at a time, without having to put the coffee down. The whole process took a good couple of minutes, during which the warm mug switched hands more than once in an unnecessarily complicated bit of interpretive dance. With a final undulation of her shoulders, she triumphed over the completely pointless task she’d set for herself, allowing a quick shimmy of celebration as she wrapped both hands around the mug and took another long sip. ...Well, mostly it was a triumph. Getting the hoodie back on was just something to fill the time, an impulse, a “let’s see if I can do this.” The actual task was focusing on something long enough to forget about the fact that she had seen the guy next to her stark naked, bloody, and wreathed in fucking fire, and that loaning him her jacket had been more for the benefit of onlookers than for him. “Thanks for that,” she said finally, glancing over at him as the toes of her sneakers skimmed the wooden floor. “Washing it, I mean.” It smelled different, she realized as she breathed- primarily because they used a different brand of detergent, sure, but also not, as if its handling by a guy had fundamentally altered it in some unquantifiable way. “I’m not sure what eau de hellbeast smells like, but I definitely did not wanna wear it around.” Beat. Then, smirking at her coffee rather than looking at him directly: “Not that I’m calling you a hellbeast.” Leaning against the back of the bench, Autumn looked out over the uncultivated fields again. She wondered what they’d look like in another six years when the saplings and wild grass had matured, obscuring the fence line and, possibly, the view of the house itself. It was a sad, sobering vision, and a strangely lonely one. She swung her feet, shoes scuffing again at the floorboards; was it the place that was making her feel so weirdly pensive, or the company? “Hey, listen,” she began again, shifting one knee up onto the bench as she turned to face the devil directly. Her expression was uncharacteristically serious, resolve in the clear, wide eyes that seemed more grey as the daylight began to wane. “I know this is a weird thing for me to say, and I’m sorry about that, and if you’re not cool with it, I totally get it… So, I’m just gonna say it.” He was either going to laugh her off the farm, turn her into charcoal and then sweep up the dust, or dissect her with his eyes again and say something cryptic. “I want to hang out. Chill. Not, like, Netflix and chill! Just, y’know, get to know you better.” His eyes did do the dissecting thing again. That was uncomfortable, to say the least. But a faint awareness came to Autumn that he was trying to read her, rather than make her squirm. After a moment he sat back, resting the back of his head against the wall of the farmhouse as he turned his gaze into the gathering twilight. He was silent for a moment, his face and eyes as hard to read as ever. “Why?” he asked with simple directness, the question coming from a place of such isolation that it matched the remote desolate nature of the farm perfectly. “I don’t want to seem mean or callous, but what possible benefit to you could there be?” “Why does anyone hang out with anyone?” Autumn asked, still turned towards him and watching his profile. “Why do you hang out with people?” “At first, I was trying to blend in. To be normal, or at least not too abnormal.” He smiled wryly at that. “And then, when I started coming out from behind my mask, it took the nature of an experiment.” He took a sip of his coffee before continuing. “I’m not sure the experiment has been a success.” “Why?” The red-haired girl pressed. “I mean, you seem to hang out with a lot of people.” “People who probably wouldn’t associate with me if it wasn’t for the circumstances.” he asserted with a calm glance her way, his face turning towards her with his head still resting against the wall. “I am useful, right now. After this is all done? So will be their need to associate with me.” “Wow.” Autumn blinked. “You really think that, don’t you?” Jason’s lips twitched into a thin smile for a moment, his eyes on hers. “It fits the pattern. I’m not sure I’m meant to have real friends. My caring about people is not working out so great for me - or them.” His voice was calm, contemplative even as his eyes studied her face. “I distress them and they disappoint or confuse me.” He smiled his quirky, lopsided smile, his gaze meeting hers once more. “So why do you want to know me better?” That was the big question, wasn’t it? It was the same one she’d been asking herself over the past couple of days, the one she’d been considering on the long bike ride to the farm. It would be easy to crack a joke, try to lighten the uncomfortably heavy mood and make the whole experience a little more bearable for herself. It would also, she knew, be incredibly disrespectful. He had been unflinchingly honest with her. No matter how awkward the atmosphere, or how terrifyingly vulnerable that intense, glacier-green gaze made her feel, her conscience wouldn’t let her repay his candor by blowing it off as a joke. Even if she didn’t like the Fucking Bannon- and, honestly, she wasn’t sure exactly how she felt about anything at the moment, given the weekend they’d all had- he was sitting there, having a conversation with her. That had to count for something, right? She didn’t answer immediately, not sure how to even begin explaining something she, herself, was still trying to figure out. Thankfully, he didn’t press the issue, although she was acutely aware of the persistence of his attention; it wasn’t hostile, she knew, but the feeling of being intently observed, as if every microexpression and movement were being patiently analyzed and catalogued, made it difficult to concentrate. She rolled the coffee cup back and forth between her hands, glancing down at the creamy whorls of beige and brown that surfaced in the half-full mug; there really wasn’t any way out of this, except to admit defeat and just go back home. Again, though, that would be cheating. It should be easier, after saying basically the same thing to Marissa the previous day, but it wasn’t. Mari was a whole lot, but she was also basically normal. Jase, though... “Well,” she began slowly, then paused to take a breath before daring to look up again, steeling herself to meet the pale, implacable eyes of the lanky young man sitting next to her. “I guess it’s probably because I’m afraid of you.” And then… Nothing. Autumn waited a few moments for him to laugh, or scoff at the admission, but Jason’s expression remained enigmatically neutral. He did nod, almost imperceptibly, acknowledging that he’d heard her, but that was all. She wondered if he’d expected it, then, and if he was waiting for her to continue. I’ve already come this far, the nervous teen reminded herself. And, honestly, he can only kill me once. “So, my grandfather-” She hadn’t expected to feel anything, just saying it out loud. The redhead swallowed hard as her voice broke, quickly shaking her head and finishing off the rest of the lukewarm coffee. It’s fine, Autumn. Just keep talking. You’re fine. It’s fine. Breathe in, breathe out. In… Out. With pale, cinnamon-speckled fingers wrapped tight around the mug, she began again, a little steadier this time. “My, um… My grandfather taught me a lot of stuff, growing up.” Her eyes burned, and her face felt not just warm, but hot as she continued, resolutely staring at the residue in the bottom of the cup. This was not the time to get emotional, not now, and not in front of someone she didn’t even qualify as ‘barely knowing.’ “And, um… One of the big things was the difference between fear, and respect. He said it was normal to be afraid. Fear can keep us alive in survival situations, like the fight or flight instinct. It can also shut down your ability to reason, which can be dangerous, too. But that, also, once you really understand why an animal, or maybe even a person, does the things they do, and acts the way they act, you could eventually stop being afraid of them. And that’s important, because as long as you’re afraid, you wouldn’t ever be able to deal with them rationally. So, if you’re afraid of something, you need to try to understand it. When you understand it, whatever it is, you can respect its abilities and its place in the world without fear getting in the way. More like equals.” “And what if,” he asked quietly, “the more you learn and understand, the more frightened you become? Just out of curiosity.” Blinking, she looked up in surprise. “Then, I don’t know. Maybe that’s not really what you’re afraid of?” It was the first thought that came to mind, and thus went straight to her lips. She and her grandfather hadn’t talked about anything like that, although, in fairness, the wild creatures he’d been teaching her about were nothing like the one sitting in front of her at that moment. This one was far, far more dangerous.
  15. Left to her own devices, alone in the heart of the young queen’s domain, Autumn peered into the glass she’d been handed. The shape of her nose still annoyed her unaccountably, as always, but at least there was nothing embarrassing stuck in her teeth. After years of hating them, she’d decided she liked her freckles, and as she made faces at her reflection, she could see traces of both her parents there. That, she guessed, was probably good enough. There was no glamour cast on the mirror to make her pleasant, but unremarkable features suddenly beautiful, and while the energetic redhead didn’t have any special hang-ups about the way she looked overall, she was honest enough to admit that where Marissa was undeniably striking, genuinely gorgeous… She, herself, would only ever be “pretty;” the almost incomprehensible presence of Shelly’s demonic princess was her gift, and hers alone. No witch’s incantation or self-help grimoire would change that, no matter how well-worn its pages. Still, she had to concede, the other girl had managed to make her typically uncooperative copper mane- frequently braided or twisted into a messy knot out of frustration- settle into rather gentler waves. Given the bewildering array of products she’d brought out, Autumn was reasonably sure Marissa hadn’t planned to stop with a few mere swipes of a hairbrush. She wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about that, but… Sparing her reflection one final glance, she set the mirror aside. Was it really possible to be friends with the wicked bitch of the west? What would that even mean? The chair creaked softly with the shifting of her weight, fingertips drumming restlessly on her thighs as she examined the ceiling for a moment, then rolled up to her feet. Just sitting there was maddening, and as she walked around the subterranean “apartment” that was bigger than most people’s houses, some of her perpetual restlessness dissipated, clearing up mental space to focus on the now. Chewing idly on her lower lip, Autumn wandered purposelessly through the basement, idly skimming through shelves of video games and movies without really reading the titles. It was Marissa who’d said they were friends, but… what was a “friend” to the Queen of Mean? Was it someone she thought might be useful in her plans for world domination, someone who was willing to publicly take abuse? Or- The book caught her eye again, as she passed the chair and paused. Maybe just someone who was there? That’s all that had happened in the woods, anyway, as far as she knew. Autumn had just… been present. That was it. Marissa had hugged her, made her feel better and that was that. It was sort of like she’d just assumed that’s how things worked, and because she uttered the decree, their friendship was set in stone. But… why? The redhead tugged on a strand of hair as she walked, twisting the end between the fingers of both hands, pulling it straight, and then releasing it- only to repeat the process again. The brunette clearly had more depth, as a person, than she’d seemed. Marissa had a personality, if their current interaction was anything to go by, but everything she’d just said contradicted the way she acted around other people. So, cool. The “origin story” made sense- nice kid has no control of their life and gets picked on, becomes not-nice kid and… gets control of their life. As the different fragments, tiny slivers of what she knew about Mari began to fit together, the pace of her pacing quickened. Maybe that was why Marissa had insisted they were friends? Autumn might never have approached on her own, or even considered the possibility of hanging out, let alone friendship. Maybe Marissa just didn’t want to run the risk of someone not choosing her, so she made the first move? Or, maybe it was simpler than that. Maybe it had just been the stress of the whole nightmare hellbeast thing, and the persona she worked to build had slipped away for a moment in the chaos and panic. If that was true, then… It meant that, impossibly, Marissa Jauntsen did actually want friends. Holy shit.
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