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Autumn Keane last won the day on December 3 2020

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  1. Just say it, her brain urged as Ian excused himself, the game on hold while he greeted Lucius Cole and some of the city council members that had been the subject of boring adult conversation earlier. Frowning, she tapped her cards against the table, condensing them into one neat stack that concealed their faces from casual perusal. It was literally that simple. She just had to say the words- uncomplicated, normal English words- and her family would be in on the big secret. Well, she considered, at least they’d be in on part of the big secret. The important part they needed to know in order to, hopefully, stay safe, and at least sort of informed. All the stuff about aliens and government conspiracies and shadowy extrajudicial prisons could wait, probably. But being simple didn't make something easy, did it? If she told them the truth, there was the definite possibility- no, the definite likelihood they'd freak out. Her mom, maybe not so much, since she'd at least grown up with some of the stories even if she didn't believe them. Plus, there was the conversation from last night, and the letters, and the talisman… Those might help, a little. Her dad, though? Ugh. He'd probably want a psych eval or a drug test, or both. And, honestly, she had to admit that none of that was irrational. Accepting the undeniable nightmarish realness of the Weird didn't make it any easier to deal with, even after being shoved into the water at the deep end with the expectation that she'd either learn to swim pretty fucking quick, or drown. If she didn't tell them, though, and something happened... An icy frisson, completely at odds with the warmth of the late summer afternoon, prickled the baby-fine curls at the nape of Autumn's neck as she remembered the tiny, forlorn shoe forgotten in the corner of a dark basement. No. Not an option, she decided, laying her cards on the table quietly. She couldn't- wouldn't do that to them. "Hey, mom?" Just fucking say it, Autumn. She swallowed, taking a sip of watered-down lemonade to moisten a throat that had gone suddenly dry. Dana glanced at her daughter quizzically, her hazel eyes still bright with laughter at something Nathan had said- something Autumn had missed completely in agonizing over telling her parents what no parents would ever want or expect to hear from their child. Just. Fucking. – She inhaled. "Grandpa wasn't crazy. There is an- an evil, in Shelly, a Darkness. An, um." She hesitated as the avuncular warden tipped back his bottle in a long, deliberate swig, his attention fully on the girl he’d helped raise. "An Enemy, he called it. And tonight we're going to try to stop it, and I wanted to tell you in case..." Her voice trailed off in something like a hiccup, choked by a rising wave of emotion that flooded her sea-colored eyes like an incoming tide. Pale, bronze-flecked fingers twined together in a Gordian knot of anxiety. Good. You’ve got this. Keep going. Breathe. Drawing in a slow, quavering breath, she tried again, this time meeting her mother's gaze with some trepidation. "In case I, um. Didn't come home." Her mom looked at her for a long moment, seconds ticking by like hours as both Keane ladies looked at one another, each wrestling with the paralysis that came from fear - not for oneself but for another. Not too far away, Autumn's dad was laughing and chatting with Lucius Cole and a couple of the town Aldermen. The sun was shining, the music of the Carousel coming as though from a greater distance to the little island of stillness that marked the Keane picnic table. A stillness that was broken by the sound of a bottle softly being set down. Both women looked at the bottle, and at the hand that still loosely gripped it, as anchor points for their whirling thoughts as Nathan watched Dana carefully. The slim older redhead took a slow, deliberate breath, only the faintest quavering betraying her inner turmoil as she looked back at her daughter. "So." she nodded slowly, her tone almost deliberately clinical. Her 'trying not to freak out' voice - which was better than her 'you're in so much trouble young lady' voice, at least. "By 'we' you mean-?" "Some friends... and people we know." Autumn hesitated, then "It has to be us, Mom. It's kind of a whole thing-" "You know about this?" Dana looked sharply at Nathan, who shrugged and nodded his head slowly. “Some. I knew Autumn was special. I knew there was an evil here - big 'E' evil. I knew she wasn't alone - she didn't name names when I talked to her about it, either." The man who was as her uncle looked at her sternly. "I didn't know they'd be rushing off on Labor Day to go and fight it, though." "Right." There was a whole discussion yet to be had contained within that word, but Dana forced herself to focus on the immediate, important matter at hand as she looked back at her daughter, noting the way Autumn wasn't shifting her gaze away, noting that though she was plainly scared and worried, she wasn't panicking. "You know, I tried to get Jase to tell me what was up with you, what was going on." Dana's lips quirked wryly. "It was like trying to squeeze a stone for water. So - why does it have to be you and 'some friends', Autumn? Why not the sheriff, or the state troopers, or hell, even the National Guard? If this Dark Enemy is real and you can prove it, why not just get a bunch of men with guns to deal with it?" "So..." Autumn hedged uncomfortably, shifting the plastic cup a little to reveal a damp crescent of condensation beneath. "I mean, saying 'it's complicated' is kind of an understatement. We didn't really pick Labor Day in advance, or anything, but going up to the rez, and some of the things that have happened lately... It kind of changed our minds a little." As she spoke, the restless teen half-consciously fidgeted with her drink, nudging it now and again to add to the vague flower shape she was creating in delicate lines of pooling water. "It seemed like a good idea to just, you know.” Her shoulders twitched upward in a half-hearted shrug. “Get it over with before things get worse. And honestly, if getting a bunch of dudes with guns was an option, the people who get to make those decisions would've already done it." She paused for a moment at that, recalling the situation at the hospital, and exhaled. Maybe? Hopefully? But Site B and Crossroads existed right alongside whatever this Aeon Society was, and Branch Nine, as well. They'd seemed capable of dealing, mostly, with the things that had crossed over, or through, or whatever, but that was a totally different thing from actually crossing the threshold of the Door that Cass had described. "Or at least I hope they would've." With a quiet huff, the energetic young woman swung her legs over the bench seat of the picnic table and got to her feet, fingertips already drumming against her thighs as she moved. "The problem is that it's not here for them to go after it. It's like-" Exhaling, Autumn took a few more steps, slowly pacing the length of the table. "Okay, I could be totally wrong about this, because a lot of the whole subquantum theory thing is over my head, but, the way I picture it, it's like you're in a house. And you know there are people in the room next to you, but there's a wall there. You can't see them, can't touch them, or vice-versa, but they're there. There is a Door, though, and sometimes it's open, and someone on the other side can get through, or you could go over to the other side of the wall." She paused, gauging the effect of her words. The men with guns can't get through the Door, but we can." Probably. "We think." "You think." Dana echoed. "Okay. I'm following you down the rabbit hole here because the alternative is to drag you to the medical center and demand a CAT scan." Nathan stirred as though he were about to say something and Dana lifted a hand. "No. Nothing about whether it's true or not right now. Let's just be happy I'm suspending disbelief, okay?" She fixed Autumn with a penetrating stare. "And once you open this door - what then? What's on the other side? Something bad, right? What are you and your friends going to do about that, Autumn Rae? What is my little girl going to do about this Dark Enemy she's talking about? You're not soldiers. You're not cops. Why you, is what I'm asking." Her reply was almost immediate, requiring no serious consideration or agonizing because she'd asked herself this same question more than once over the past week. Why me? Why any of us? The answer was simple, and for a moment there was no element of pleading or hesitation in Autumn's voice, just the quiet certainty of someone who, peering out a window, was commenting on the weather. "Because there isn't anybody else." Her words hung in the air for a long moment, faint trills of birdsong and distant laughter brushing against, but not quite breaking the uncomfortable silence as she swallowed again, hard, and regarded her mother with as much conviction as she could muster. "We're it, Mom. Some of us can do things that, honestly, I don't have any explanation for. It's-" She sighed, a short, sharp exhalation, and braced her hands atop her head, fingers lacing together amid the coppery strands that had been teased free of the imprisoning braid by the wind. "The Blackfeet call it the 'Dawning Light.' Some of us call it 'Shine,' because that's what it does, what it is, like a verb and a noun at the same time. I've gone through a couple of Grandpa's journals." Nodding at Nathan briefly, a tacit acknowledgement that he'd been right about what she'd find in the study, she continued. "And talked to Laughing Joe up at the reservation. There are lots of stories about the fact that people like us, who can do what we can do, would show up one day and... I guess, clear away the Darkness that's been growing here, cut out the tumor and let things heal. I'm not trying to sound dramatic, or anything, but we really are it." "Okay... Okay." Her mom was really trying, Autumn realised as she watched the veterinarian's slender fingers fidget with the cards in her hand. Really trying not to freak the hell out. Really trying not to stand up and demand to know what the damn hell was going on. Really trying not to ground Autumn for life for either telling her the greatest cruellest whopper in family history or to try and protect her daughter from the chance of death she'd felt was enough to warrant warning her mom over. Dana took a deep breath, closing her eyes and stilling the restless motion of her hands. "You, and 'some others', have powers. That's what you're saying. Weird mojo, God forgive me for even entertaining the thought." She opened her hazel eyes and regarded Autumn intensely. "I've got a pretty good guess who all you mean when you say 'we', 'some friends', and 'people we know', you know. It's not hard to put together." "Yeah, but it's also not all my secret to tell." Autumn admitted. "What you suspect isn't the same as me blabbing other people's business." "What's to stop me grounding you?" Dana asked bluntly. "Just locking you away in your room for the night? Jesus wept, Autumn, assuming I believe every particular of what you just told me, why should I let you go into that sort of danger?!" "She told you." Nathan interjected, calm, quiet, but with a certain element of forcefulness. "It's her and her friends, or nothing. Assuming she didn't just escape anyway, you'd be making things worse for the ones going. Dana, listen to me." He leaned forward slightly. "You recall that mess at the Marias Medical Center on Tuesday? Biological containment leak, it was called. And those fellas claiming to be from the CDC sure wrapped everything up neatly. But that doesn't gel up with some reports from people who saw strange things that day. I've been talking to folks. Monsters, and ice forming from nowhere, and people appearing and disappearing. And a couple of the sheriff's boys who I know say they can't rightly remember what happened that day. But Autumn here, and 'some other' kids, were right in the middle of it." There was a long, pregnant pause as Dana looked at Nathan, considering his words, then at Autumn. "Fine." she said at length. "But... if you come back - and you had better come back, Autumn Rae Keane-" The dreaded full name was invoked like a binding, a maternal geas. "-We're going to have a talk. I want to know everything. Beg, get permission from others to discuss it, whatever you need to do. Everything. That's my condition for not boarding you up in your room. Take it or leave it." "When I come back," Autumn repeated, nodding solemnly. She had a vague idea how much trust was being banked in that demand, what it meant for her mother to even consider taking her seriously at all; pointing out that if she really wanted to get out of being grounded, she would, didn't seem necessary. "And, Dad, too. He'll need to know, if he's staying." Frowning a little, tiny creases like arrows appearing between her brows, the red-haired teen reconsidered. "Maybe even if he isn't. But I also need you guys to do something for me. A couple of somethings. Just, I guess for my own peace of mind. Mom," she continued, most of the earlier nervousness gone as her hands slipped from the crown of her head back to her sides. It was a strange feeling, actually having the conversation she'd been dreading, the one that had gone a dozen different ways in her head. It started as all tension and nerves and feeling like she couldn't breathe, and then... Then it wasn't much of anything at all. Just plans being made, as if there was nothing extraordinary about the whole completely unbelievable situation. Huh. "You, and Dad, and, if they want, Uncle Nathan and Jay, need to stay at the house tonight. It doesn't matter what the excuse is. Just, once I leave," she added, her sea-colored eyes uncharacteristically grave as they studied the familiar perfection of her mother's features, "don't go out for anything. Unless the Crockers have a talisman, too, home is the safest place from the Dark, or as safe as any place can be. If the stories are true, it shouldn't be able to affect any of you there." "And on that note." The restive teen paced a few steps back the way she'd come, putting some real and metaphorical distance between herself and her audience. She could feel the softness of the earth beneath her heels, beneath the thin rubber soles of her well-worn sneakers, as she turned her attention to the warden. "Nathan. Thanks. For telling me about the journals, and the trip to the rez. For carrying around something that shouldn't have been your problem. You said you guys would support me, as the 'Kavanagh in the hot seat,' and maybe later on that'll mean something different than it does today, but just know I appreciate it." Cutting her eyes briefly in Dana's direction, Autumn took a deep breath. "If I'm not back by tomorrow morning,” she stated emphatically, “if something happens and we get stuck over there, or it takes longer than we thought, I need you to go to the Old Town Hall, and I need you to burn it down.” It wasn’t a normal request, to be sure, but this wasn’t a normal conversation, either, and the earnest young woman’s expression was rigid with the knowledge of what she was asking. “This is important." There was a soft silence broken only by Dana's intake of breath, then Nathan nodded slowly. "So that's the place, huh?" he asked, eyes narrowing in his weather-tanned features. "Okay. I'll see it done. And don't worry none about Jake and me and your folks. We'll stay over, keep the light in the window for you and your friends." "Yeah. Whatever happens, don't go exploring in the Town Hall with some half-assed idea of looking for us." Autumn fidgeted, trying not to let a tremor enter her voice as she thought of those she loved roaming that Dark place. "Just... burn it down." "And once you've beaten the Enemy, then what?" Dana asked softly, hope in her eyes. "Normal life resumes?" Autumn hesitated then, pondering the whole 'alien conspiracy', the secret organisations, the mysterious Site B, Jase being an actual alien rather than just acting like one... Was there such a thing as “normal life," anymore? She wasn't sure- which seemed especially strange when, not that long ago, she'd been completely certain that the answer was "yes." Now, though, even if she couldn't penetrate the full depths of the mystery she'd been caught up in (and, if she was totally honest with herself, wasn't sure she really wanted to just yet), there was no denying that it had been a comfortable lie. A veneer of normalcy painted over something deeper, and much darker and stranger, than she could ever have imagined. But... it wasn't all bad, was it? The feeling of Marissa Jauntsen, of all people, hugging her like an actual human person for just a few moments, sharing genuine feeling in the wake of a near-tragedy. The flames of the setting sun illuminating laughter in pale green eyes as she soared over Shelly in the arms of someone she really, really liked. The sensation of enormity, of connection and unfathomable hugeness, of knowing what it really meant to actually touch someone. The vague memory of a spiral, a circle, a twisting ring woven from life and death and everything in between, a pattern observed simultaneously as the weaver and as a single skein amid the tapestry's warp and weft. And her family, the people she loved, were a part of that, too- part of whatever was happening, even if they didn't see it, and even if she didn't have the words to explain it. "I think," she began slowly, carefully, "that's the hope. Or, at least as close to normal life as we can get. Just..." Autumn sighed, raking a hand back through the haphazard plait that seemed determined to unweave itself before the end of the day. "Things are already changing, and even if we go in there and save the day and all of that, and even if nothing else happens afterward, 'normal' is probably going to look different than it does right now, because we'll know more. We'll see the world differently, I guess. Does that make sense?" "It does." Not for the first time this week, Dana found herself looking at her daughter not as a little girl, or even a teenager, but as a young woman who was growing up and out, often in unpredictable ways, but undoubtedly as her own person. Was the terrible secret and mysterious powers she'd talked about responsible? Was it her new circle of friends, from the impenetrable boy she seemed head over heels for, to the perky Cassandra and the admittedly-not-as-bad-as-feared Devin Jauntsen? Was it just... growing up? All of the above, perhaps, she decided as she got up from the table and circled round it, beckoning her girl to her and giving her a fierce hug. "You've grown. Right under my nose. And here I thought I was ready for it." she murmured, squeezing her eyes shut as she tried not to cry. Taking a breath, she straightened up and moved them to sit together. "So... " she began, looking for a way to broach the topic. "What do you do? I mean, your special powers thing. What is it?" "My 'special powers thing'?" Autumn repeated, surprise and laughter registering in the sudden flash of a smile and the crinkling of her nose. Pressed close against her mother's side as they sat down again at the table, she could feel the tension in the slender vet's body echoed in her own. She's trying, the girl reminded herself as she took the older woman's hand, squeezing it softly in a gesture that was both comfort and comfort-seeking, simultaneously a response to the unasked-for reassurance that she was still Dana's little girl, and a tactile inquiry whether the reverse was still true. Even without the benefit of her Shine, the younger redhead could feel the faint rhythm of her mother's pulse through the light golden-ivory skin, the almost imperceptible twitch of the muscle at the base of her thumb. With it, there was so much more, information she could interpret intuitively but didn't yet understand well enough academically to really explain. "I'm not sure what to call it." She mulled it over for a moment, musing on both Jason and Devin's comments, considering once more how it all felt, how intrinsically her abilites seemed to be linked to emotion- to passion, Jase had said, like two sides of a coin. That it should be used as an extension of her will, and not feared. “It's just sort of... life, I guess. I can see it, feel it." Frowning thoughtfully, Autumn shifted a little in her seat, angling toward her mother rather than curling up against her like the child a part of her still wanted to be. "Change it, in some ways, I think. Heal living things. Improve them." Her voice dropped a little, and she glanced furtively in the direction her father had gone, checking he was still occupied. "Or... The, um, opposite. There's a lot I still don't know, but the more I do with it, it seems like the more I'm able to do. I can show you...? If you want," she added quickly. "I don't want to, y'know, freak you out or anything, but if it'll help..." Autumn's voice trailed off, eyes wide and expectant as she glanced from one grown-up to the other. "Maybe it would help, at that." Dana sighed after a moment’s consideration. "There's so much I'm taking on faith, and then there's your grandfather and his stories..." her voice trailed off, and Autumn could only imagine the lingering guilt her mom felt at not believing her father when he'd needed her to. The slim auburn-haired woman smiled at Autumn, a sad smile tinged with hope, and nodded. "Show me something, then?" She paused, flashing her daughter a wider smile. "Something non-gross, if you can." she added, throwing a wink at Nathan who was leaning closer, his own expression betraying an underlying excitement. After all the years and all the stories, the Warden was more than ready to see something wondrous, or so it seemed. “Non-gross” cut out a lot of the most obvious options, but also the ones that might- on reflection- have been just a little bit on the traumatic side. She was reminded, suddenly, of Charlie's physical transformations, and narrowly suppressed a shiver. They were, if she was being generous, impressive, but... Yeah, no. The whole point is to reassure them, not make this worse. Nothing crazy, Autumn. No, like... slicing your fucking hand open and then healing yourself, or whatever. Her abilities weren't, she thought, as visually disturbing as his- or as obvious as, say, Devin's or Kat's- but even if her mom was used to the sight of blood, that didn't mean she liked it. So, okay. That left her with the subtle approach. "Right. Non-gross." Nodding absently, Autumn got to her feet, Dana's fingers slipping from her grasp as she moved to the end of the table. "So, just to warn you, I haven't actually practiced this yet. Jas-" Fuck! "-someone," she continued in a rush, a bloom of crimson staining her cheeks as Dana's eyes rolled heavenward. "Suggested it yesterday, and it seemed like a good idea. So." Kneeling on the grass between the two adults, the red-haired vitakinetic gave herself a solid mental kick, swearing softly under her breath. Even if some things were probably super-obvious, and even if this was her mom and Nathan, both of whom were people she trusted, it wasn't like they'd all talked about who to tell, or not. In fact, she reflected guiltily as she reached up to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear, as a group they hadn't really agreed on much of anything at all, so far. Exhaling slowly as her mother and her "uncle" craned their heads curiously to watch, she ran her fingers lightly over the broken blades of grass, her vision shifting until the carpet of fading green differentiated itself into countless individual clusters of leaves, their entwined roots spreading out in a seemingly-infinite net just beneath the surface of the soil. The sounds of the afternoon grew dim, distant in Autumn's ears, and the breeze that lifted the hair from her brow was cool, but the sun on her face, her bare arms and legs, was warm, a suffusion of light and heat that sank into her skin and bones as the grass tickled her fingertips. It was only crushed, she knew, not dead, and though there was no pain, no real sense of injury, the plant's primitive repair system was... aware? Hmm. Yeah. That seemed like the right word. Aware, in some way, of the damage that had been done. It would have to be in order to function, she supposed, simultaneously curious about how that worked, exactly, and intrigued by the prospect of more focused exploration later. Setting that aside for the moment, she drew in another deep breath and reached out, feeling her Shine trace the ragged edges of the slender green leaves that had been trampled underfoot. The energy she felt was smaller, quieter than she'd sensed in flesh-and-blood beings, but no less vigorous or tenacious for all that. Without the distraction of perceived hurts or shared sensation, healing the "wounds" of that single plant was almost shockingly easy, and as her fingers stroked the torn blades of grass meditatively, they slowly straightened, brightening at the infusion of vitality in her touch until one small cluster of green was vibrant as midsummer. "Well, I'll be..." Nathan Crocker's oath trailed off as he watched the small miracle unfold. Dana just stared, eyes widening as the import of what she was seeing hit home, then she seemed to recover a little, looking at her daughter with fresh eyes. "And it works in reverse, too?" she stated rather than asked. As Autumn nodded a trifle uncomfortably, Dana reached out and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "The boy whose leg you broke in that fight?" Autumn nodded again, slowly. "That was sort of an accident." she admitted, remembering the fight, the heady red taste of her power as it had lashed out. "I mean, I wanted to hurt him - not too bad, just enough to stop him, to defend myself and Jason," she added hastily. "But I wasn't really thinking about how I was doing it. My... Shine just filled in the blanks. I kicked him, and it made the kick... worse, I guess." "Hmm." Dana's expression was thoughtful as she helped Autumn back up to sit next to her. "Normally my next question would be: 'Why couldn't Jase use his own Shine to defend himself?' - but we're pretending I don't know he's one of the other teenagers you're talking about, and like you said, it’s not your secret to tell. Yet." she added significantly, then looked at the verdant, lush patch of grass Autumn had coaxed into renewed life. "That's... well, that's pretty damn amazing." she said quietly, a tinge of awe entering her voice. "I wish..." Her voice trailed off then, and she simply hugged Autumn tightly with one arm. Autumn didn't need to ask what her mother's unspoken wish was. Of course Owen Kavanagh would have gotten a kick out of seeing this. And, of course, in one of the worst possible ironies, the same powers he'd have been thrilled to see with his own eyes could've told her something was wrong, could at least have made sure he got treatment if not actually saved his life directly, and of course they hadn't appeared until after he was gone. It wasn't the first time she'd thought about just how fucking unfair it was- but that's not what Dana meant, and Autumn knew it. And... Owen'd had a choice, hadn't he? As unfathomable as his decision seemed to the ones who loved him, he'd decided not to speak up. Not to sacrifice his stupid selfish pride. Not to pursue treatment. The feeling of grief was still there as she returned her mother's embrace, still rose up unbidden from some internal sea, but she was surprised at the fleeting nature of the emotion this time- it wasn’t a torrent or a violent upwelling, but a wave that rushed against the shore of her consciousness and then slowly, quietly withdrew. Maybe it had something to do with the ritual the night before, or maybe there was too much going on to really process any of it fully; either possibility seemed totally reasonable. After tonight, she promised herself silently, pressing her cheek against her mom's shoulder. After tonight, assuming there was an after, she was gonna go up into the treehouse and get so high she wouldn't need Jase to fly her anywhere. 9'12" high. Johnny Cash eating cake in a bush with his bare hands high. Elon Musk sending a Tesla into space high. Turn down the television because she couldn't taste the mac and cheese high. Absolutely fucking orbital. "Me, too." Focusing back on the present, Autumn glanced across the table at the warden. "Would've made a lot of this way easier. Nathan wouldn't have gotten stuck having to tell me, for starters." She smiled a little, the expression more apology than jest. "But the easy way wasn't how Grandpa did things, so I guess... The hard way, it is. It's just a whole lot.” She made a face, something like a grimace, but relented as something else occurred to her. “On the plus side, I don't have to deal with it completely by myself." "Right," Dana agreed, her brows knitting together as she glanced over her daughter's head toward the Carousel and the crowds there. "You have your friends, who I'm pretending for now not to know about." "For now." The younger redhead nodded, despite the urge to clarify that most of them weren’t actually friends at all. "But I'll get permission to tell you what I can, or have them tell you themselves." Her phone vibrated in her pocket, and, sighing at the thought of some other galaxy-brain-level comment in the group text she'd started earlier, Autumn fished it out and swiped at the screen. -----Monday, 09/02/2019; 16:44----- [From: Kat] Hey, I'm omw to get one of your armbands That was reassuring, at least. Two down, eight to go. "Speaking of which, I need to go take care of something." The freckled teen leaned up and gave her mom a quick peck on the cheek as she swung her legs over the bench and got to her feet. "Just headed over to the car for a few, shouldn't take long. If Dad comes back, Uncle Nathan can finish my hand for me." Her mother’s worried frown gave her pause for a moment. “I just need to give out armbands for the party. I’ll explain later. It’s.. a whole story, more Grandpa stuff, but I’ll tell you. Promise.” As Dana sighed and reluctantly waved her on, Autumn flashed her a smile she hoped was reassuring and headed toward the Jeep, typing all the way.
  2. Around 3:30pm. Do dragons bask? It was an idle thought, but one that nevertheless brought a smile to Autumn’s lips. They’d been sitting like that for a while, warmed by the late summer sun: Jase’s head resting on her thigh as he lay stretched full-length across the blanket near Camp Keane-Crocker, the amber-flecked fingers of one hand running idly through the tousled bronze of his hair. The other rested below his rib cage, imprisoned there by the lean arms folded over it, where now and again she could just detect a subtle, soundless vibration as her fingernails grazed his scalp. Jacob had wandered off not long after Jason and Dana had returned from the Jeep, following a quick flurry of text messages which Nathan surmised likely came from his Homecoming date; rather than just hang out and wait for round two of the Dadquisition to start, Autumn broke out the soccer ball. Though not an athlete, Jase was quick on his feet and had the advantage of height over her, and what started as a simple game of “keep-away” had quickly turned competitive, drawing whistles of encouragement and cheers from the adults present as they abandoned a discussion of the city’s recent zoning approval for an expansion of the country club and the potential revision of some residential property lines. Back and forth the pair darted, weaving between the trees that defined the claim the two families had staked, and without field, net, or scorekeeping battled for possession and- ostensibly- bragging rights. Time after that had vanished in a haze of exhilaration and frustration; of tangled limbs and collisions, tumbles that left dark smudges of green on their skin and clothes and blades of grass in their hair; of fleet-footed evasions and of the sound of Autumn’s laughter and oaths of vengeance ringing out across the picnic area. It’d felt like she could run forever like that, with the thunder of blood in her ears and the sun and the breeze on her face, and the tall, lean figure always either just ahead of her, or just behind as their shadows danced across the ground: the thrill of the chase, without any real fear of being caught. But, eventually, reality had imposed- which, she decided, was just rude- and although Jase refused to complain, she could see the intensity of the exertion was beginning to wear on him, his angular face flushed and intent on the game, and even her lungs and legs had started to protest the pace they were keeping. A draw, they’d agreed finally, as if it were certain they’d be able to try again another day. To be continued. And, collapsing on the blanket where they’d remained, they’d shared a bottle of water and just… breathed. What is he thinking about? the red-haired girl wondered, studying the curiously immobile mask of his features in repose. The grand unified theory he and Sean were working on? Some new fertilizer composition for his garden? The upcoming pre-apocalyptic battle, perhaps? Or maybe he’d already filed that away, satisfied with his own planning and preparation. There was no hint of what thoughts or dreams moved beneath the surface, and except for the occasional twitch of his eyelashes and the slow rise and fall of his chest, there was little in the way of outward signs to suggest that any vital force animated him at all. “Bannon the Impenetrable,” she murmured, and then caught her breath as those ageless jade eyes opened and focused on her, hints of copper bright as the band around his wrist glimmering lazily within. “Just thinking out loud. But-” Autumn hesitated for a moment, tearing herself away from the threat of face-searing immolation lurking in those pale green depths to watch her parents and Nathan chatting with one of the teachers who’d stopped by. Her hands slid away from him as Jason sat up and braced himself upright on his palms, noting the direction of her gaze. “But,” he suggested quietly, “you have something you need to say.” “Mmm.” She nodded, teeth worrying at the inside of her lower lip as she frowned. “I do, just… Not yet. I know I have to, and I will,” she insisted, meeting his eyes. “My mom, at least. And Nathan, because he kind of knows what’s up, already. Not about all of us, I mean, but about the Dark being real. If it goes wrong, later, I was thinking of asking him to at least make sure the Old Town Hall gets torched, you know?” “I was considering asking Hank the same.” The Effing Boyfriend said quietly, his eyes coming back to rest on her freckled features. He smiled faintly, an ironic twist of his lips. “Perhaps they will team up.” His smile faded as he regarded her intently, reading and studying, attempting to divine her intent and mood. “Do you want me to stick around while you talk to your mother? I’m told my demonstrations cut through the red tape of disbelief quite swiftly.” Autumn blinked, eyes widening suddenly at the memory of being cornered in the girls’ bathroom while Jason pulled ice cubes from the faucet like some stage magician, with a smiling Clara as his slightly manic assistant. No. No, no, no, that was definitely not what she had in mind, and her head was already shaking before the words even formed. “Um, I’m pretty solid on demonstrations, I think. If it gets to that point, I’ll figure something out. Honestly, I’m kind of hoping she doesn’t need one, but…” Autumn’s voice trailed off, and a crooked little half-smile tugged at one corner of her mouth as her shoulders twitched upward in something like a shrug. “I did, right? So, I guess we’ll see.” Her wide, clear eyes moved over his face for a moment, taking in the symmetry of his features and searching for some hint of what was going on behind them, some suggestion that might inform her rudimentary grasp of Bannonology. Was he concerned for her? Curious how she would handle things? Thinking about his own father? It was nice that he’d offered to hang out, to help, but surely there were things he wanted to do, or say… Weren’t there? “Honestly, I’m good, thanks. I’m gonna just…” She exhaled, the curve of her lips tremulous as she glanced back in the direction of her family. “Just chill with them for a little longer. And, hey, maybe your dad might like it if you spent some more time with him, too, instead of that darn red-haired girl that keeps dragging you off.” Her nose scrunched slightly in self-deprecation, and the rose-cheeked redhead leaned forward, resting her freckled brow against his tanned one. “If you don’t mind, though, when I talk to my dad… or if things get out of hand with the whole conversation… it might be nice to have my boyfriend there as moral support. You know, since he’s got that whole ‘alien genius’ angle going for him.” The answer was a kiss, a gentle press of his lips on hers that lasted forever and ended frustratingly soon. “I’m a text away.” Jase said softly, his eyes gazing deep into hers as he reached up slender fingers and toyed with a loose curl of bright copper hair. Dropping his hand again, he started to gather his feet under him, making ready to rise. “I’ll go and see how my dad and Hank are. Both of them like you, by the way. I can tell because they keep teasing me about you.” She grinned at that, a pleased flush blooming beneath the surface of her skin that had nothing at all to do with the kiss, despite the warm sparks still zinging through her nerves. Gar was a good person. Not perfect, but good. She could sense it in the same way she could feel an oncoming storm, or the weight of someone's eyes on her. That he liked her, or approved of her enough to tease Jason about their relationship, was definitely a bright spot in the day. As for Hank- Legs still crossed, Autumn planted her feet and pressed the soles into the earth, straightening as she did so. There hadn't been anything like a for-real conversation with Hank Graskle yet, but he was friends with both of the Bannon guys, so... that was a thing that needed to happen, if only to learn a little more about the man. Understanding over fear, she reminded herself. Smiling impishly up at Jason as he rose alongside her, she replied simply, "Good," because it was, for any of a number of reasons, and squeezed his hand before releasing him back into the wild. She watched him go for a moment, weight shifting slightly from her heels to her toes as her eyes tracked the tall, rangy figure back across the picnic area, and then drew in a long, steadying breath. "Hey," she interjected, sinking onto the seat next to Dana with a smile; already, the sunlight had begun to change. "We brought cards, right? It's been a minute since I got to beat Dad at Rummy." Just a little more time. Just a little longer, please.
  3. Lunch had gone by quietly after the gentle interrogation of Autumn's new life and friends. Nathan had smoothly changed the subject away from mysterious historical projects to hockey league games, for which Autumn could've hugged the man. Her dad obviously hadn't thought anything was amiss, but her mom was thoughtful, remembering the letters and the talisman and the conversation they'd had last night. More than once, Dana fixed her daughter with a pensive gaze which, when noticed, she swiftly replaced with a smile or looked away. Jacob, too, was thoughtful. Obviously he knew about the secret history, at least a large part of it as related to the Crockers and Kavanaghs. Though involved with the sports conversation - bemoaning the lack of a school team for the Montana youth hockey league tournaments - he more than once studied his childhood friend as though looking for signs of change. It was a little unnerving, all the more so since Autumn couldn't outright tell him to stop looking for the horns and tail. So she settled for pulling faces at him every time she caught him regarding her. It was childish, but better than feeling like a lab specimen. As the extended family sat back from the remnants of their feast, Autumn tapped out a brief text. "Jase?" her mom asked, noting the phone use. "Mmm. Asking if he wants to come over." The freckled teen smiled. "I figure we'll have front row seats - Jase versus the Keane and Crocker menfolk." Dana laughed, rolling her eyes and glancing at Ian, Nathan and Jacob. "Think we should ask him to go easy on them?" She teased, prompting laughing protests from the guys. The older redhead wagged a finger at them. "Seriously, everyone play nice. I mean it." Despite the fact that she hadn't really been looking forward to this particular meeting, there were some advantages to introducing Jase to her dad- and her uncle- under these specific circumstances, and getting that whole thing out of the way ASAFP. It wasn't a tactical or strategic consideration on her part, really, so much as a desire to avoid nuclear fallout in the confines of her home. Out here, in the open and in public, things might get a little... Well, tense, maybe, but probably an awkward atmosphere was the worst that would happen, and Autumn was something of an expert in that particular field. Especially lately, since the world had been turned right the fuck upside-down, and every day was full of possibilities for what she'd started thinking of as the Weird to rear its freaky head and dismantle some long-held belief about reality, or about the universe being a generally benign place instead of an unrelenting horrorshow. Although, she considered, getting to her feet as the guys present protested their innocent intentions, it wasn't all bad. Besides: even if Dana was having fun screwing with her semi-maybe-estranged husband and teasing her daughter in the same breath, she'd already met Jason and talked to him and let him spend the night with Autumn in the woods and- hell, fed him, for crying out loud. If she hadn't liked him, or at least been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, the younger redhead was pretty sure that would already have been made abundantly clear. And, she reflected with awe and not a little pride on the enthusiasm of her mother's swearing the previous night, very, very colorful. "Sweetheart, where're you going?" the woman in question asked, still laughing at Nathan's half-joking offer to 'ask around the office' about Jason Bannon- an unnecessary effort, she felt fairly sure, given how unnervingly direct the young man seemed. Even so, it was always nice to know people who could do that sort of thing. Just in case. She watched her only child over the rim of her glass as the girl rose from her seat and started heading away from the group. "Mmm?" Autumn blinked, finding herself a short distance from the table and moving vaguely in the direction she and Jacob had come from earlier. "Oh, um." That was actually a really great question. Where was she going? "Nowhere, I guess," she confessed uncertainly, taking a few steps back toward her family before her feet carried her once more in the opposite direction. "Just waiting." Absently she smoothed her shorts back down where they'd ridden up a bit, sea-hued eyes scanning the crowd as though searching for a ship on the horizon. Apprehension and anticipation animated her restless frame in defiance of the meal they'd just had, and as she paced slowly, methodically along the demarcation of shade and sunlight at the edge of their little picnic area, Autumn very deliberately waited- or, at least, avoided wandering off to find Jason herself, which was basically the same thing anyway. And then he was crossing the open space from the more public areas of the field, appearing without fanfare as if he'd been there all along, and she paused, squinting slightly in the bright afternoon sun. She waited, watching as he closed the distance with that effortless economy of movement that was, itself, a kind of grace, and every step applied another degree of torsion to the coil of energy that twisted like a spring in her limbs. There was movement behind her, bemused commentary about the sudden end to her pacing, and in an effort to hold still a little longer Autumn rocked forward onto her toes and back onto her heels, leaves crinkling softly beneath the soles of her sneakers. He looked different, dressed casually, but even from a distance... Exhaling, she shoved her hands resolutely into her back pockets, and she waited. He saw her there, of course. Pale eyes sought and locked on to the tumble of bright copper hair before taking in the cutely freckled features that began to light with a smile as she met his gaze. As was his way he subjected her posture to calm appraisal as he drew nearer, studying the faint flex of the muscles of her calves as she rocked on her feet, noting the way her hands were firmly placed away from temptation, marking the faint indentation of her teeth in her lower lip. Her manner spoke of restraint to him, of wanting yet also desiring to not appear to want. Beyond her, the faces of her family reflected bemusement - some smiles and exchanged glances as they marked the athletic girl's behaviour. His crystalline mind catalogued all of this, choosing a course of behaviour and action. These people were important to Autumn. What they thought of her was important to her. What they thought of him also mattered to her. He understood this as a cognitive analysis rather than from any innate empathy - mostly. After all, it was true he liked that Gar seemed to like Autumn. He liked that she made his father smile. Was it important to him that it be so? He filed that question away in the back of his mind for later examination as he came to a stop before his girlfriend. He wanted to reach out, pull her close, to feel the shape of her body against his through their clothes as he drank kisses from her panting lips. But this was not the time for that. There was a level of propriety to be observed in front of relatives, was there not? Their earlier 'greeting' had been unrestrained, abandoned to desire. This setting was... more formal. "Hey." he smiled faintly, the corners of his eyes tightening as he leaned forward and down, brushing his lips over hers in a firm, but relatively chaste kiss, one hand lightly curling around her waist and resting on her hip for the brief embrace before he straightened up again. "How was lunch?" "Good," she replied, smiling as she reached up, idly tracing the first few letters printed on his shirt. The contact was brief, and not nearly as direct as she wanted, but they were in front of her family, and after the scene earlier, and Marissa's commentary... Patience, the crisp black characters seemed to chide her, and the sprinkling of freckles on her nose took on an entirely new pattern as they scrunched together. Ugh. Even his clothes were frustrating: partly because she was attaching meaning to something completely random, and partly because he was still wearing them. "There was some smack talked," Autumn continued, lacing her fingers through his and drawing him with her, taking a few steps backward as the smile-turned-grimace broadened into a grin. "And some shade thrown, obviously, but the food was good, the sun's out, and now I'm fat and happy. Also," she added in a theatrically conspiratorial tone, "my mom's asked if you'd mind going easy on them." "I heard that," her father retorted dryly as the younger of the Keane ladies beamed innocently at him over her shoulder, and the elder snickered and opened a bottle of cider for herself. With a brief glance at his wife's friend, Ian set his drink on the checkered cloth and rose, brushing his hands lightly over the crisp fabric of his khakis before rounding the table. Autumn couldn't help but feel a twinge of anxiety as Ian approached, more so than she had with her mother; that first meeting had mostly been embarrassing and awkward because of Dana's assumption that something was going on. Which- at the time- hadn't been true at all, but now Jason was meeting her dad, as her for-real boyfriend, and until a few days ago that wasn't a conversation she'd ever expected to have. So... It's fine. Just breathe, Autumn. It'll be fine. The earnest young woman took a deep breath, her fingers tightening slightly on Jase's as she drew her shoulders back and glanced fleetingly up at the laconic young genius's profile, then back at her father. "Dad, this is Jason Bannon. Jase, this is my dad." "Ian Keane," the realtor added with a polite smile as he approached, extending a hand in greeting. "Pleasure to meet you, Jason. And, 'Ian' is fine." "Pleased to meet you too, Ian." Jase replied, taking the older man's hand in a polite clasp and shake. As Mr Keane kept his measuring gaze on Jason, so too did the pale, glimmering eyes of the youth not waver from Autumn's father's stare as his lips twitched upwards in a faint smile. Ian wasn't sure he liked the way he was being looked at. It wasn't hostile or mocking - in fact the older man didn't get any sense of animosity at all. Rather, he experienced the same sensation Dana had on the first handshake: of being assessed without any particular bias, as though it didn't matter at all to the assessor, at this stage, whether or not you liked him. Dana, perhaps due to her calling in life, had compared Jason in that moment to an undomesticated creature, deciding whether someone was friend or foe and not personally invested in either outcome. Autumn's dad, on the other hand, just felt that there was something entirely too self-composed and confident in the teen's bearing. A career in realty had taught him that everyone got nerves meeting new people, even in friendly relaxed circumstances. Even he got emotionally tense and had to work to steady himself before meeting with new clients. Folks smiled a little too broadly, talked a little too fast, at least until they settled down a little and the newness of the encounter faded somewhat. The kid carried himself like he had nothing to prove and no-one to prove it to - not from some affected teenage nihilism, but like a much older, more seasoned man should. "Do you prefer Jase, or Jason?" he asked, indicating a space at the table in silent invitation to sit. "My friends call me Jase." Exhibit A said calmly as he took the invitation and sat, nodding to Jacob in the manner of teen males. His eyes crinkled slightly at the corners as he smiled at Dana, then Autumn, before glancing back at Ian. "And since I've been asked nicely to take it easy on you, Jase is fine." That got another snicker from Dana and a snort from Autumn as Nathan Crocker smiled and leaned across the table, hand also extended. "Nathan Crocker, Jacob's dad. It's a pleasure, Jase." "Warden." Jason inclined his head fractionally as he shook Nathan's hand much as he had Ian's. "I actually remember you from Middle School, when you came and gave a talk. It actually kindled my interest - I spent a lot of time after that researching Montana's ecosystem and began taking camping trips." "Really?" Nathan blinked, smiling a little as he sat back. "Always nice to meet another outdoorsman. Do you hunt?" "I've not hunted yet." Jason shrugged, accepting a drink of lemonade from Autumn as she slid herself onto the seat next to him, avoiding the urge to reach up and play with the ends of his shaggy hair. Nathan watched him as he spoke, forming much the same first impression as Dana had of the youth - but also tinged with the knowledge he had regarding Autumn and his suspicions of her new friends. "You'll have to get Autumn to take you out there." Dana suggested as she sipped her cider. "True. She's a good shot - most of the time." Jacob grinned at his friend. In answer, Autumn made the kind of face at him that usually earned a parental admonishment that, if she kept making it, it'd eventually stick. "Good enough!" she protested, playfully prodding Jacob's shin under the table with the toe of her shoe. "As long as it's a clean kill, I don't have to be able to take the wings off a fly at a hundred paces or anything. I remember watching some of the state archery competitions, and some of the international ones on Youtube. Nuh uh." She shook her head emphatically, shifting a little so that her hip was pressed against Jase's."Hard pass. I'll get better eventually, just by doing it. I don't want to kill the fact that I enjoy it by treating it like a job, y'know?" "Some colleges," her mother interjected innocuously, chin on one hand as she watched the three teenagers, "have archery scholarships. Just a thought." "Okay, yes, but," Autumn countered, meeting Dana's gaze and directing a pointed glance at the lean form of the young man sitting next to her, before peering meaningfully back at the veterinarian with the laughing hazel eyes. It would've been more subtle if she'd written "This is supposed to be about him right now!" across her face with a marker, and on the other side of the table Nathan narrowly managed to stifle a grin by getting up to retrieve another drink from the cooler. "That's a conversation for Future Autumn to have, not Today Autumn." "Mmm. Future Autumn. Right." The auburn-haired woman took in the girl's expression, smiling bemusedly as she took a drink from the bottle in her hand. Her daughter couldn't hide what she was thinking to save her life, and her new beau... Well, who knew what he was thinking? "Let's hope she's getting better grades than the other one." Today Autumn's head fell back as she sighed expressively, her long, drawn-out exhalation ending in the guttural ugghhh that suggested frustration and being generally over a subject. They'd already talked about this earlier, hadn't they? Nothing had changed in the couple of hours since. Straightening, she took a sip of lemonade to cool off a bit. "Yes, she will be. Like I said, Jase and I have Chemistry together-" "I do recall you mentioning that," Ian interrupted, some of the earlier dry humor in his voice returning as he reclaimed his seat. "I just didn't expect to see it myself." "Oh my god," the redhead groaned, clapping her hands over her face as a surge of bright pink bloomed from her collar all the way up to her hairline, nearly obscuring her freckles in vivid rose. Of course. He did see them, and it felt too much like the violation of some pre-Dark-confronting taboo to pray right then for a meteor strike or for the earth to open up or to just spontaneously combust. Instead, she just wished fervently for time to skip forward, past the part where her parents amused themselves in front of Jase at her expense. "No," she protested plaintively through her fingers, "you know what I mean! The class! We have Chem class together, and he's helping me!" "Of course that's what you meant." Jacob nodded, smirking. "You were very clear as to your meaning." Jason put in, not in the least abashed or discomfited. Indeed, his delivery was so deadpan even Autumn had to double check to be sure of the glint of devilish amusement in the pale jade eyes that turned to smile at her. "Noooo. Don't you start." she warned him, raising an admonishing finger to add weight to her words. It was no good, of course. It was hard enough to maintain mortified outrage in the face of the ancient humour behind those eyes, let alone when his body was touching hers and she could feel the heat of him permeating her skin almost as warm as the blush on her face. "I was merely agreeing with you." Jase tilted his head to one side. For someone who was compelled to speak the literal truth, he was pretty good at quiet innuendo and wordplay. Demonstrated amply by his waiting a beat, then stating "On all counts." As Autumn made a noise somewhere between a groan of frustration and a squeak of embarrassment, letting her head fall into her hands, Ian spared a smile for his daughter's plight before once more focusing his parental attention on Jason. "So what are your college plans, Jase?" he asked casually, regarding the youth over his beer. "Tentative and formless." Jase replied with a slight shrug of one shoulder. "I have a great interest in STEM field subjects, and am currently working out how best to pursue multiple degrees, then doctorates in the more specialised topics which interest me most. It's that last part that's currently giving me pause to consider: which areas to pursue doctoral study in." "Doctorates. Plural." Ian stated, raising his brows and exchanging a look with Dana, who shrugged very slightly. "That sounds time-consuming and expensive." "Perhaps. I am confident that the financial aspect will not be a worry. There are foundations who fund education for those of demonstrated ability." he said earnestly, sipping his lemonade. Autumn froze, grateful that her face was still in her hands as her eyes swivelled sideways to study Jason's profile. Aeon. He had to be talking about that Aeon Society. Or did he? Perhaps he was simply saying he'd find it easy to earn scholarships and grants. Which was indeed also likely. "You sound pretty confident of that." Jacob's brow furrowed as he stared at Jason, who nodded. "I am." he stated simply. "But what will you do after that?" Ian asked. "What's the career plan? Or is there one?" "I don't yet know where my doctoral studies will lie. Until that is decided, a career plan is superfluous." Jason admitted. He smiled very slightly then, curling a free arm around Autumn's waist, enjoying her nearness. "If everything falls through and entropy makes mockery of my plans, I will make new ones." Despite the mention of Aeon and her father's polite interrogation, Autumn relaxed a little as Jase's hand slid across her back to rest just above her hip, his thumb idly brushing over the faded cotton of her t-shirt. She couldn't be sure if it was a deliberate gesture of comfort on his part, or if that was something he'd consciously consider in this situation- but even if not, the intentions behind an action didn't always have anything to do with the results, and anyway it felt good, so whatever. Resisting the temptation to press closer against him, to feel more of that warmth radiating from his skin, as she lowered her hands from her still-pink cheeks she instead rested one on his knee, briefly running her fingertips across the new-denim texture of his jeans. It was different, a notable deviation from the typical Jason Bannon uniform, but not unappealingly so, she decided, admiring the way the breeze tousled his hair and privately hoping he didn't decide to change too much. "So, no concrete plans, then, but you're thinking about something in one of the science or tech areas. All right. What about plans not related to your career, then? Travel, or family, or hobbies you might pursue," Ian elaborated, his free hand indicating the general area of the field and the wider world beyond. "Autumn hasn't really told me much about you, so I'm interested in finding out more about who Jason Bannon is. And, as my wife pointed out earlier today, you're probably the best source of information on the subject." "Travel, for certain. I enjoy new experiences - especially food-related ones." Jase tilted his head, smiling slightly and studying the others at the table as he answered. "I also like learning languages and studying cultures." "Autumn said you speak six languages?" Jacob looked skeptical, though not offensively so. Jason nodded. "Aside from English, yes. Ancient Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Russian and Italian." The glacially composed teen explained. "Self-taught - well, with the aid of books, audio teaching materials and Youtube language coaches. In fact, today I picked up some materials to start learning German." He paused, considering for a moment. "My spoken fluency is likely quite stilted and formal, without much in the way of idiom or colloquialism. That would take speaking the languages conversationally with native speakers for awhile - it's hard to converse with audio tapes, even if I practice mimicking the inflections and vowel sounds. But I can read and understand the languages mostly fluently." "As for hobbies..." he shrugged. "I read a lot. Poetry, literature, technical manuals, medical texts, philosophical works, histories, fictions." He smiled, a quick flash of amusement. "Pretty much anything and everything. I enjoy cooking, gardening, running, hanging out with my friends." "He's glossing over the fact that he's got an indoor garden filled with the most beautiful collection of flowers I've ever seen." Autumn smiled as she nudged Jase playfully. "It's like paradise in there." He returned her smile with a faint one of his own. "I'm glad you like it." He said softly, meeting her eyes for a moment before glancing back at Ian. "As for family... Perhaps? One day. I'm still just sixteen, after all. I think it'd be wise to figure out how and where I fit into this world before making such plans." "Sometimes you don't get the chance to figure it out, though." Nathan put in with a wry smile. "Sometimes, life - or love - happens while you're making those plans." Jase nodded agreement. "Then I adapt to the new challenge." "Not a bad way to look at it," Dana commented airily, giving her daughter a wink and a quick smile of encouragement as the freckled teenager squirmed more under Ian's questioning than the subject of the parental examination himself. "Being resilient is a good thing, and-" The pretty vet paused for a moment, the smile softening a little as she regarded her not-so-little girl with misty eyes, reflecting on the emotional exchange and revelations of the night before. "And I think we're all learning to adapt to new challenges lately, yeah?" "Yeah." Autumn smiled despite the liquid brightness of her eyes as she rose from the table and circled around to where her mother sat. Kneeling next to Dana, the active redhead wrapped her arms around the other woman's waist. She didn't cry. She was done crying for a while, and just thinking about it was exhausting. Even so, she pressed her face against her mom's side, absorbing the admission of a shared but unspoken grief, and the scent of home, and the feeling of safety as Dana murmured reassurances and gently stroked her hair, here and there tucking a stray curl back into the haphazard braid from which it had escaped. Distracted, Ian made to get up, but his wife shook her head. "It's fine. She's fine. We just... had a talk last night." She drew Autumn up into a fierce hug, squeezing her spirited, copper-crowned daughter tightly enough to make her squeak softly and return the embrace. "Girl talk," she added, drawing back and pinching the girl's cheek with an impish grin that belied the fondness in her gaze, and both women's noses crinkled as the rest of their extended family looked on with varying degrees of concern and confusion. "Girl talk," Autumn affirmed, still smiling a little as she settled back down on the bench next to Jase. Jacob frowned across the table at her, eyebrows drawn together in wordless curiosity; like Dana, however, she just shook her head. Inhaling, she blinked the moisture from her eyes and straightened, then slowly exhaled again. Just breathe, Autumn. You have all day. Taking one more centering breath, she let her hand drift back to Jase's knee and offered her father a quick, apologetic grin. "Sorry, sorry. Please, let the grand inquisition continue." Ian frowned, wondering what on earth they could possibly have talked about that would've evoked that kind of response, and made a mental note to ask about it later; again, he had the uncomfortable experience of feeling as if he were on the outside of his own family, looking in. Directing his attention back to the strange young man beside Autumn, the blue-eyed salesman took a thoughtful swig from his bottle and asked pointedly, "Right. So. Where exactly does my daughter fit into these not-quite-plans, then?" Inwardly, Autumn cringed- it wasn't quite "What are your intentions with my daughter?" level bad, but it was pretty darn close, and knowing Jase, he was likely to say almost anything. She was about to speak up, to protest that they'd only been dating a couple of days, but- "That is up to Autumn to decide, not anyone else." It was a simple, unadorned statement, but one spoken with conviction. Five pairs of eyes locked onto the impassive genius's angular features as, for a solid fifteen seconds that felt like the passing of an age to the non-Teulu majority, no one at the table made a single sound. One corner of Dana's mouth slowly curved upward in an approving smile and although Jacob's eyes narrowed slightly, he tipped his cup in Jase's direction in a gesture of grudging respect. "See?" The cheeks of the girl in question were tinged with a pleased flush as she beamed triumphantly at her father, then up into the pale green eyes of her brilliant, kissable, impenetrable, amazing boyfriend. "That, gentlemen, is why I like him." "Is it?" Jason sounded intrigued and curious as he looked at Autumn, then shrugged at the others smiling faintly, a lopsided crooked quirk of the lips. "I thought it was just the car." Ian was still staring at him as though trying to figure out whether Area 51 was missing some alien experiment or cyborg - a not uncommon reaction to the new, post-summer party Jason. "Ugh." Autumn elbowed him gently as chuckles came from her family. She grinned at him through her fading blush. "Speaking of, when are you going to let me drive it?" "Get an A in Chem and we'll talk." Came the deadpan reply. Jacob snorted with laughter and Dana broke into snickering: even Ian smiled at that. Nathan watched the interplay with a raised eyebrow and a grin. "An A?!" "Winners drive the Charger." Jase shrugged in the face of the blue-eyed glare he was being subjected to, the glint of challenge in his own eyes unrepentant. "Losers get to sit in the passenger seat and look beautiful." He spread his hands in a 'what can you do?' gesture. "It's the rules." "Really?" Autumn set her mouth in a tight line to avoid the urge to start giggling, even as a renewed flush threatened her freckled cheeks at being called 'beautiful' by him again - and this time in front of her family. "An A, huh? And then I can drive?" "One 'A' in Chem or English means you get to drive the Charger on one occasion for a decent amount of time. An 'A' in both at the same round of assessment becomes five occasions. 'A' average over the course of the semester means you get driving rights until the end of the next semester." Jase stated, smiling slightly. "Sound fair?" "You own a Charger?" Ian looked interested, despite his evident humor and grudging approval at watching Autumn get challenged in such a way. Dana was in danger of choking on her cider at the expression on her daughter's face as the younger redhead stared calculatingly at her boyfriend. "1970 turbocharged V8. Found a junker with the engine in restorable condition for a few hundred dollars, then restored it myself with some help from friends." Jason explained, nodding. "It's been pointed out that perhaps she's not the most practical ride for a Montana winter, but I like classic muscle cars. If I get stuck in a drift, I'll push her out." Autumn considered Jason's profile while he spoke, her wide eyes narrowed speculatively as she half-listened to him detail for the others present the particulars of the great black beast, technical specifications that might as well have been one of the foreign languages he'd studied. Honestly, she hadn't really cared anything about driving the Charger at all- mostly she'd just been carrying on the running joke of people begging to get behind the wheel. At least, that was true until he'd said she could only do it if. That one word "if" suggested a lot, like, maybe he thought she could pull it off, but didn't think she would. Or maybe he wanted to see what would happen if she tried, or he was just giving her a hard time in front of her family because it was funny, or he was just interested in seeing her reaction, or he was actually thinking about her future career prospects, which was maybe not entirely unreasonable for an alien genius, or- At least three reasons, she reminded herself, chewing idly on the inside of her lower lip. So, okay. Screwing with me is definitely on the list. Probably he also wants to see if I'm willing to do it, and what'll happen, and I also don't think he'd bother bringing it up if he didn't believe it was possible. Hm. She didn't really care about the car. The car didn't matter. Driving the car didn't matter. What mattered was that he'd set the bar and dared her to reach it. Fuck it. Why not? What was the worst that could happen, right? "Hey, Dad? Uncle Nathan?" she chimed in decisively. "Can one of you guys teach me how to drive a stick?" There was a defiant gleam in her eye as she interrupted the guy talk, a bright smile drawing out the curve of her mouth and accenting the dimples that framed it. "I'm gonna need the practice for next semester." "Ahh, if only you'd been so enthusiastic about studying before," Dana quipped, the bemused half-smile lingering as she began clearing away the remains of lunch, packing up the leftovers and empty containers. As she reached across the table to retrieve the bowl of cherry tomatoes and baby carrots, Autumn very pointedly pulled it out of her mother's reach, curling one arm around it and claiming the little trove of snacks for her own. Dana gave a soft snort of laughter, resigning herself to rolling up the half-empty bags of chips instead. "Where was all this last year, hmm?" "Could we please talk about something besides school?" Autumn pleaded without looking up, eyebrows drawn together in a little frown as she studied the contents of her hoard and picked out some of the choicest tomatoes from the lot. "The semester literally just started, and all afternoon it's been grades and college, grades and college. This was supposed to be a day off." "Well," the elder redhead drawled blithely as she leaned over, deftly plucking a prize from the bowl and earning a huff of protest and an exaggerated scowl of mock-reproach from her daughter. "Jason's the one who brought it up this time, but I suppose we could always talk about that camping trip you two took. If you'd prefer." The crunch of the bite-sized carrot was audible, terminal punctuation to a statement that might otherwise have seemed open to interpretation. "School's fine," Autumn capitulated quickly, shaking her head even as she grinned in response to her mother's teasing. "I'm good with school." "Mmhmm. I thought you might be." Dana's impish expression grew more thoughtful as she regarded the self-possessed young man, but his eyes were on Autumn, and hers on him as he intently devoured the cherry tomato she'd placed against his mouth. Something about the gesture reminded her of seeing them together in the kitchen at home, and as Autumn's fingers brushed his lower lip, the pretty vet quickly intervened before there was another hands-on situation. This was definitely not the time or the place for PDA, especially with Ian around. And, poor Jacob... Although, she realized, he seemed to mostly be taking it in stride- certainly he was handling the news that Autumn had apparently moved on much better than Dana had expected. "Jase, would you mind giving me a hand getting these back to the Jeep? I think everyone's done eating, so that'll give us some more room." That icy jade gaze flicked from Autumn's face to Dana's as he ate the rest of the cherry tomato, his girlfriend's fingers still lingering in a brushing touch on his jaw, as though she were focusing on the movement of muscle and bone under his olive-tanned skin as he chewed. "Sure." he replied in his soft-spoken tone, smiling a fraction as he looked back at Autumn and took in the slight pout of her lower lip at having her fun-with-food interrupted. "I'll be back soon." he told her quietly, his smile widening and reaching his eyes as he leaned in and gently kissed that pouty lip before getting to his feet, picking up an armload of containers and letting Dana lead the way. "Oh! Hang on a sec, I'll help," Autumn offered as she hopped up from her seat, lips still tingling from the brief kiss in a way that left her feeling momentarily uncertain whether that warm effervescence was due to her Shine, or his pheromones, or some combination of both, and ultimately deciding that Today Autumn didn't care much either way. And of course, going with them had absolutely nothing at all to do with wanting to steal another one. Or two. Or three. She was supposed to help out with stuff like that, anyway, not just sit around and let other people do it for her. Jacob nodded, apparently reaching more or less the same conclusion as he stood up and stretched a little, taking a quick mental inventory of what they might still need for later. "So will I. What can I carry, Dana?" "No, no, don't be silly," Dana all but chirped in reply, breezily waving them off with a quick shooing motion of her free hand. "We've got it. Besides, if you're serious about this driving thing you still need to convince your dad over there. You take care of that, and we'll handle this." "But-" It was a fruitless protest. As she watched her mother conscript her boyfriend into helping with post-lunch cleanup, Autumn couldn't help but feel simultaneously guilty for not pitching in, and uneasy that Dana had pulled him away. She shot Jacob a quick glance across the table: Why are we being let off the hook? her expression demanded, but he looked just as confused as she felt. Being told to do nothing while the guest was put to work was, for the two young Shelly natives, an unprecedented experience that left them both unsettled. What was the protocol for something like this? Was it okay to not help? Autumn shifted her weight uncertainly from one foot to the other, torn between following after them anyway and taking the chance to talk Ian into helping her. "Tell you what," Nathan cut in abruptly, leaning forward and catching the girl's attention with a quick tap on her elbow. "If your dad'll teach you the basics, I'll cover the rest- bad weather, bad roads, bears- things like that. You know." He grinned affably, tipping back his drink and savoring the sensorial contrast of cold beer on such a warm afternoon. "Driving conditions." "Bears are a driving condition?" Autumn blinked owlishly at him, distracted momentarily from the conundrum of pursuing either filial duty or personal interest. "They are where we'll be headed." The warden winked at her, then glanced from the independent-minded redhead to her more conventional father. "If, obviously, your old man says it's all right." "Sweetheart, I don't mind helping you. I do, however," he emphasized, pausing slightly for effect, "have some concerns we’ll need to address, and I thought you said when you got your license last year you didn't actually want to start driving." "Yeah, no, I still don't. I mean..." She paused, frowning a little as she considered the practical limitations of a bicycle for long-distance travel. Assuming she managed to survive high school, there probably would come a time when it was no longer convenient. "Eventually...? Right now, though, I don't need a car, so I'm not gonna worry too much about it until that changes. Maybe if I end up going to college." "When. When you end up going." Ian shook his head, refusing to yield on this point. "Take a city like Billings, for example. If you go to MSU, you'll almost have to drive. It's huge, compared to Shelly: over a hundred thousand people versus maybe, maybe three percent of that here." "Okay, fine, when I go. I can totally get away with keeping my bike as long as I live in a small town, though," Autumn countered, grinning as she reclaimed her seat, resting her elbows on the table and swinging her feet idly underneath. "Maybe I could get a job monitoring the effect of tourism on the ecosystem around... Hmmm. Mt. Vesuvius, or something." "In Italy." Rarely had four syllables, distributed over two small words, ever been laden with such skepticism; Autumn suddenly got the impression that if she'd Googled "doubt" at that moment, a picture of her father's face would've replaced that old video game meme in the search results. "Just a thought! Bikes are legitimately a thing in lots of places in Europe. Or up in the Pacific Northwest, or something. The pictures I've seen of the mountains up there are crazy gorgeous. Or, I don't know. Maybe I could see if we've still got family over in Ireland, see what that's like. I could do like a study abroad thing after high school." She shrugged. That was more Future Autumn stuff. "Anyway, I don't need to own a car with a stick shift to be able to drive one, and Jase's happens to be available. -Ish." "Whoa, whoa. Just so I'm clear on this. You're seriously willing to try to get A's in Chem and English just so that you can drive Bannon's car, but not to get into college?" Jacob laughed incredulously. "No, not just," she tossed a carrot stick at him, unable to suppress an answering grin as her childhood friend caught the edible missile deftly and popped it into his mouth. "So, look, it's not about driving the car, really. It's more about proving I can do it." The earnest young woman hesitated, then admitted, "...And, also that I can do it first. Okay, okay," Autumn spread her hands as she laughed, fingers outstretched, "I know how that sounds, but he's always just said 'no' when people've asked before. And, honestly, now I'm kind of curious to see what it's like." "Well, if you want extra help, and your dad's busy, or mine is, or whatever." Jacob leaned back a little, stretching his legs under the table. "The truck's a straight shift. Besides, I've gotta admit I'm kinda looking forward to seeing Jason Bannon riding shotgun in his own car." The Effing Girlfriend's smile widened, lighting up her freckled features with mischief. "Same." Meanwhile... Having successfully maneuvered her daughter's slightly, er, peculiar new boyfriend away from prying eyes and ears and freckled fingers, Dana Keane was left with a new problem: the boyfriend himself. Specifically, she reflected as she pushed the button on the key fob, how to confirm or deny her suspicions about their supposed extracurricular-curricular activities. History project, my butt, she grumbled silently as the rear hatch of the Jeep popped open. For some reason, it just hadn't clicked into place that they'd talked about the old family ritual the night before, on the same day the kids had supposedly gone up to the reservation. But once Nathan had spoken up at the table, she remembered some of the other hints of strangeness, of changes she'd noticed lately, and the whole situation started to seem... What was the word Autumn used? ..."Sus." "Thank you," the slender veterinarian huffed softly as she heaved an overloaded tote bag into the back of the vehicle. "For going up there with Autumn yesterday. Our family-" She paused, rearranging the cargo a little to make more room for the containers Jason was carrying. "Well, my side of it anyway, Dad's family- has been here in Shelly for a long, long time, so there's plenty of history to be studied." Turning, she regarded the pale-eyed young man thoughtfully, leaning her hip against the frame. "So what kind of project were you guys working on?" "Autumn didn't tell you?" Jason asked casually, without any qualm or hesitation as he shuffled the armload of containers into the space provided, and Dana took a moment to be both amused and impressed at the attempted deflection without falsehood. Unfortunately for the lean youth with the direct stare, however, she had been expecting something of the sort, and her own gaze was unwavering as he straightened up and turned to look at her. "Oh, Autumn told me." Dana folded her arms and narrowed her eyes slightly, noting how Jason didn't shuffle, didn't shift his weight, didn't look away under the feminine suspicion. He simply stood, hands loose at his sides, regarding her with that omnipresent eerie self-possession. "I'm just curious what answer you would give." "Interesting." Jase's head tilted slightly, a faint smile quirking at the corner of his mouth. "What's interesting?" "That you think I would answer differently." Jason shrugged slightly. "It reminds me of a joke." Dana stared hard at him for a long moment, but when that didn't cause so much as an eyeblink she sighed. "Fine. I'll bite. What's the joke?" "Can you keep a secret?" Jase asked, leaning forward a fraction. Dana sighed again. "I'm supposed to say 'yes', and then you say 'so can I'." she shook her head, lips tightening. Jase straightened up again. "Oh, you've heard it." he said without any trace of surprise or disappointment. Dana counted to five. Raising her voice at him probably wouldn't achieve anything. Invoking parental authority, her instincts told her, would be a non-starter. Pressuring her daughter's boyfriend in any adversarial fashion would likely yield only negative results. Give a little, to get a little in turn. "Something's going on." she said quietly, her eyes searching his and finding only gleaming jade mirrors. She remembered the letters, and the talk with Autumn. "Autumn told me she went out to the reservation because of her grandfather's letters. My dad believed in ancient tales, and monsters, and Evil with a capital E-" she broke off, forcing herself to keep meeting that unyielding gaze. "Crazy tales. But Autumn hinted she believes in them too. And I know Nathan knows something about it." "You care about my daughter." she went on, seeing a flicker of something in the still pools of Jason's gaze as he nodded at that. "I just need to know... what's going on. That she isn't in danger. Please." He went still for a moment. It was similar to that time a couple of days ago in the kitchen, when she'd asked Jase what he'd do if he hurt Autumn accidentally. The youth's presence seemed to go away, somewhere behind the portals of his eyes. Then he took a slow breath, and returned again. "I think Autumn has things she wants to tell you." He said softly. "I think she is going to tell you soon, but wanted to enjoy a family day with you, and Ian, and the Crockers first. I can't speak for her, Dana. It wouldn't be right." Dana found herself nodding reflexively as the sounds of the afternoon- lively, celebratory sounds, the familiar background noise of human interaction, exclamations and laughter, faint music- drained away with the blood in her face. That wasn't a 'No,' she realized. It wasn't a denial, or even a polite reassurance that she was wrong, that her assumption was irrational and completely off-base. It wasn't a, 'Your daughter is perfectly safe and you have nothing to worry about.' Jason Bannon could have said almost anything, and the day would've carried on just as it had been. But he didn't. He very deliberately didn't say it, and what he didn't say drowned out even the dull underwater roar of silence in her ears. There was a moment, then, as the axis of the universe tipped beneath and around her, that Dana remembered the hospice nurse taking her hand as they'd sat with Owen. How the woman had said nothing at all, because there weren't any words to truthfully shape the sounds of those emotions. This... This was different, though. There was no bed, no dimly-lit room. Autumn wasn't sick- she was strong, she was healthy, she was vibrant and so, so full of life, and whatever was going on, whatever was really happening, it wasn't that. Her daughter wasn't helpless, and neither was she. Not this time. And Dana nodded, drawing in a slow, shaky breath as the world resolved from blurred, wavering shapes back into the sharp, stoic features of the strange, distant young man her daughter had brought home like some exotic lizard she'd found while roaming the trails behind the house. "All right then," she grudgingly conceded after a moment, running a hand back through her auburn hair as she exhaled and closed the rear door of the Jeep. "That's fair. I don't like it, but... it's fair. We'll revisit this later." The last was a firm statement, unequivocal in its certainty and as unyielding as her tone. Glancing back toward the picnic area, Dana extended her other hand toward the odd, green-eyed youth. "Come on, then. You’re right. She can speak for herself, but I want to be there to hear it."
  4. The path back to the shaded picnic spot their families shared wasn't a long one, even accounting for the roving, shifting bands of people that clustered and scattered, seemingly at random. Somehow, though, it seemed much farther than it had a few minutes ago. She and Jacob had been talking. Sort of. Things were- okay, maybe they weren't ideal, but at least they were moving in the general direction of "better," right? But then Marissa had happened, as she invariably did, like a prettier, more socially-acceptable version of a Biblical plague that descended whenever someone, somewhere, experienced a fleeting moment of happiness. And of course, in the interest of trying to maintain the peace and not spend what could be their "last day in the sun" arguing, Autumn hadn't really said anything, even though a part of her felt like she should have. Scowling, the redhead half-heartedly kicked a piece of pine bark from the footpath as the pair trudged back the way they'd come. Even Jase had- "Jason Bannon. Really." It was a question phrased as a statement, flat and uninterrogative and unamused. Unimpressed, maybe. She glanced sharply up at her former best friend, blue eyes narrowed in frustration and not a little suspicion, as if he'd somehow guessed the direction of her thoughts. He couldn't do that, right? Maybe it was just that weird not-quite-telepathy of people who knew each other really well. Probably, it was luck. "Yes, Jason-Bannon-Really," she shot back with a soft huff of annoyance, tugging the elastic band off her ponytail and freeing the mass of unruly copper curls that were beginning to escape its grasp. It wasn't Jacob's fault things had started sliding sideways, she reminded herself. It wasn't. "And?" Jacob blinked down at her, surprise and something else registering momentarily in his eyes before he shook his head, stared resolutely down the path ahead of them. "And," he repeated intently, "I don't get it, Autumn. He's dangerous. You know that." She did know. Jason Effing Bannon was dangerous in all sorts of ways, but the ones Jay was worried about were probably of the least actual concern. "Yeah. Yeah, he is." The vibrant redhead nodded briefly, a concession to the truth of his statement, as she swept her hair back from her face. Weaving the rebellious strands into a thick plait as they walked gave her something to do with her hands, something else to focus on besides the little knot of anxiety twisting in her chest. "But he's also here. And he's honest, and smart, and a lot of other things. And-" He likes me. She hesitated for a moment, unable to actually say the words with conviction as the memory of Jase's unrebuffed flirtation with Marissa added another strand of uncertainty to the snarl of conflicting thoughts. His interest seemed genuine enough, and he was obviously attracted to her, but if he was still in love with Mari, even if the gorgeous brunette didn't care about him at all... It's fine. No big deal. Exhaling, Autumn flipped the finished braid back over her shoulder. Totally fine. "And I like him," she finished simply. "Like him." Jacob's tone was flat - neither accepting nor dismissing her statement, he seemed to be turning it over in his head. "Yeah, I saw." "It's not like that." Autumn protested, flushing and elbowing her oldest friend in the ribs, causing Jacob to grin a little as she reconsidered her words. "Okay, not just like that." she amended. "I mean, I liked him before the kissing started." "Because he's honest and smart and a bunch of other stuff?" Jacob hazarded, then raised his hands placatingly as the redhead shot him a scowl. "Okay. Okay. I swear, I'm wearing my 'concerned friend' hat right now, A-Rae, not my 'ex boyfriend' hat. I'm not dumb - Bannon's changed over the summer: walks taller, hot car, acing classes... but he's also getting into fights and threatening guys with hay hooks." Jacob's handsome features were earnest as he spoke, his eyes examining her for clues to the mystery. "So what I'm asking is 'why?'" "Why what?" Dana looked up from where she was setting out a pitcher of iced tea, having caught the last few words as the two friends approached. She glanced at Jacob, then at Autumn, then back the way they'd come from, and an eyebrow was raised in wry understanding. "Oh." Apparently the maternal antennae were as sharp as ever. "Oh, what?" Ian glanced over from where he was chatting to Nathan by the grill, beer in hand, then saw the teens and smiled. "Want to load up a plate?" He clapped the boy on the shoulder approvingly, then looked at Autumn as he indicated Effing-wards with his bottle. "So. That's the guy?” "Who's the-?" Before she'd even managed to finish asking the question, Autumn's brain finally caught up to her mouth and provided the obvious answer: he'd seen Jason. If her dad had drawn that particular conclusion, then logically, that also meant he'd seen her with Jason. Oh, god. Wordlessly, she turned to Dana, the faint sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach turning to so much lead as the older woman struggled visibly to keep from laughing and shook her head, busying herself with putting napkins and glasses of ice on the table. Thanks, mom, she grumbled to herself. She'd apparently get no help there. Well... Fine, then. She straightened a little, exhaling sharply as she did so. If Ian had seen them, he'd seen them, and, and so what? Jase was her boyfriend, she reaffirmed mentally, setting other concerns about flirting and exes briefly aside. There was nothing wrong with kissing him. Even in public. Even in front of her parents. Nobody was naked, and no small children had been traumatized, so... It was fine. Sure, having someone draw attention to it was embarrassing, but wasn't like she'd committed a crime or anything. Right? Right. People kissed in public all the time. Not like that, they don't, that other Autumn pointed out helpfully. "Oh. Yeah," the girl replied aloud, concentrating on the reassuring warmth of the sunlight on her back and definitely not on the heat rising in her cheeks as she nodded and poured herself a glass of lemonade from one of the pitchers. "The tall one?" She glanced briefly at her father for confirmation, and nodded again. "That's Jase, yep. He and his dad are about to eat lunch, too, but he said he'd come over once they're done." Well... Assuming the Mantis doesn't devour him, first, the uncharitable part of her brain added. She'd seemed annoyed about something, for sure, but nothing would happen with Cassie over there to act as a buffer, right? "Sounds good." Autumn's dad said noncommittally as he sat down, exchanging glances with her mom. "Nathan was saying that his dad is in a militia." It wasn't quite a question, and wasn't quite an accusation. Autumn set her shoulders and counted to five as she turned back to the table. "Then he also told you they're not troublemakers." The redhead sat, helping herself to food. She smiled brightly at Nathan, who shrugged and nodded agreement. "The way Gar describes it, it's mostly just an excuse for a bunch of guys to go camping and run around in the woods once a month." Her dad grunted, chewing that over for a moment before glancing at Jacob. "You know the guy?" "Oh no." the teen in question waved his hands defensively. "Don't drag me into this." "I'm just curious about him, is all." Ian said. "I've been away for a little while, and now my little girl's dating some guy I've never heard of." Jacob glanced at Autumn, then shrugged as he spooned some potato salad onto his plate. "I barely know the guy, and only then because the school's a small place. He's always been the quiet kid who hangs around with one or two other people and doesn't say much, y'know? One time I tried to talk to him in freshman year, he wouldn't look at me and didn't say much." He paused, then, "He's different this year, though. Maybe he was going through an awkward phase or something." The teen smirked as a memory occurred to him. "He schooled Mr Jelbert in U.S. History the other day." "Schooled him?" Jacob's dad looked askance at his son, who nodded. "Mr Jelbert called him out for not paying attention just as he's starting to talk about banking, and the guy goes and rattles off the entire history of the Federal Reserve - and some of what he spouted wasn't even in the textbook. Told Mr Jelbert that when he taught something he didn't know, then he'd pay attention." Jacob built himself a burger. "Got to admit, that was kind of weirdly cool. Rude, though." "So he's a smartass?" Ian frowned, tapping his fingers on the table. "He's apparently very intelligent." Dana replied, looking at Autumn. "When I spoke with him, he was very forthcoming about it. Admitted to speaking six languages." Her tone was conversational, but took on a slight edge. "You know how rumors can be in a small town. Best just to meet the boy yourself rather than listen to gossip." "Hmm." Ian's murmur was neither agreeing nor disagreeing, but he nodded. "Guess so." Autumn’s teeth bit into her lower lip as her father- who’d spent more time working over the last year than he had at home- commented on not knowing someone she’d hung out with. He was busy. He had to travel for his job. Real estate wasn’t exactly a booming industry near Shelly. She got it, and she didn’t want to make him feel like shit for not being around, but, at the same time, the temptation to point out there might be a pretty freaking obvious reason he didn’t know most of the people she did was strong. On the other hand, though… Up until the last couple of weeks, her circle of friends and acquaintances hadn’t really changed much since elementary school, so even if a part of her wanted to be petty and spiteful, it also made sense that he wouldn’t know because this was all happening so crazy fast. If she could barely keep up with what was going on herself, how could she expect her dad to? Ugh. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, inhaling the smell of charcoal and wood smoke, cooking meat, and grass crushed underfoot. There was no way to solve everything in one afternoon. She couldn’t fix things with Jacob, find a way to get through to Marissa, reconnect with her dad, and figure out how to tell them all about the Dark and Not-Cody while still enjoying the day as a family, and maybe- hopefully- get a few moments to spend with her new boyfriend somewhere in the midst of all that. They were going to have to fight for real later on, so was it really worth stressing out and arguing about all of the other stuff now? No. No, of course it wasn’t. If- when, the restive redhead corrected herself as she exhaled slowly- they all got back home, there would be plenty of time to deal with the petty, spiteful, absolutely and completely trivial bullshit afterward. “Six languages apart from English,” the younger of the Keane girls added with a little smile that suggested she wasn’t quite bragging on his behalf, opening her eyes as she finally sat down at the table next to Jacob and nodded in her mother’s direction. “His dad’s super chill, by the way. I think-“ She hesitated, spooning pasta salad onto her plate next to a pile of potato chips. Diplomacy wasn’t exactly Autumn’s strong suit, but in the case of the Bannons’ complicated family life, discretion seemed like the safest bet even to her. “I think he’s just been through a lot. He’s not a crazy hermit with a secret stash of explosives or anything. The couple of times I’ve talked to him, Gar’s been really down-to-earth. Just… A decent guy, you know?” "Sometimes people aren't as everyone seems to think." Dana commented as she poured herself some lemonade. She smiled somewhat mischievously. "And sometimes people grow and change, like Jay said. I mean, compared to Devin Jauntsen being pleasant and chatting politely while helping me in the kitchen, Autumn dating Jase seems pretty mundane." That was good for an almost spit-take from Jacob, who started coughing on a mouthful of burger as Ian stared. Devin Jauntsen was a name even the travelling real-estate salesman knew - whereas Jase had been a peripheral nonentity slouching out of sight, Devin was a front-row-center troublemaker. Autumn winced internally as Ian, Jacob and even Nathan turned to look at her. "The Jauntsen kid was at the house?" Ian asked with a touch of incredulity. "Mmhmm." Dana nodded, a definite Puckish air about her, though whether directed at her daughter or her largely absentee husband was tough to say. "Yesterday, in fact. He, Jase, and Cassandra Allen were spending the day with Autumn, so they came over to have breakfast before they went out." She popped a cherry tomato in her mouth. "He was very polite, talked about growing up and trying to put the bullying and bad behaviour behind him." "Pod people. Has to be." Jacob said flatly, deadpan. "No way otherwise would Cassie and Autumn be hanging out with Jauntsen and Bannon. And Jauntsen talking about turning over a new leaf? Bannon dating?" He mimicked turning a lamp to glare into Autumn's face. "Who are you, and what have you done with Autumn? When does the alien invasion begin?" "They just went with me up to the Rez," she protested, laughing in spite of herself as she batted his hand and the imaginary light aside. Nathan frowned thoughtfully at that, tipping back the bottle of beer in his hand as he considered the pair of teenagers in front of him. “It’s not like we all got together and cried and ate junk food while we binge-watched Gilmore Girls, or anything,” the energetic young woman grinned at her childhood friend over the rim of her glass as she drank. “And, yes,” Autumn conceded, replacing the red plastic cup on the table. “Devin Jauntsen was at the house, and no, he’s not one of my favorite people. He’s gonna have to do a lot more than just talk a good game before that changes. His sister, too.” She shrugged a little, taking up her cheeseburger in both hands. “Like I said earlier, though. If they want to change, I’m willing to let them try. If they totally fu-“ A flying potato chip caught her in the arm, and Autumn glanced up, shocked, to see her mother glaring intently at her across the table. “Fall on their faces,” she amended grudgingly as Dana’s eyes rolled heavenward, “then fine. But they should get the chance to do that. “ “Sounds reasonable,” Nathan allowed. Then, a little more cautiously: “So did you guys find what you needed up there?” Autumn could almost feel the emotional weight of the attention being directed at her: casual interest from her parents, curiosity and confusion from Jacob, and pointed inquiry from her virtual uncle. She hadn’t been willing to tell him who the others like her were when they’d spoken in the kitchen, and the expressive redhead groaned inwardly, dismay etched plain on her freckled features as she realized she’d just done exactly that. Fucking hell. Resisting the urge to bang her forehead on the table, she nodded mutely, taking a bite of burger that seemed oddly flavorless in the wake of her unintended admission. Jacob wasn’t stupid, and his dad definitely wasn’t, and what the latter had probably guessed, the former would work out pretty quickly. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, absently rubbing the toe of one shoe against the back of the opposite ankle. Maybe it would be okay? Maybe it didn’t even matter if he knew, now, since they were going after the Dark. Ian’s head tilted as he gauged his daughter’s reaction, eyes narrowing measuringly. “What were you guys up to at the Reservation?” “Mm,” Nathan interjected, holding up a finger as he finished chewing. “She told me last week she had a group project, looking into Shelly’s history. I suggested she head up there, see about meeting up with one of Owen’s friends, maybe talk to the elders about getting their side of things. Dig into the old stories.” He smiled, faintly, at the young red-haired girl he’d helped raise. “I’m glad it helped.” She swallowed guiltily, returning the smile with a tiny one of her own. It wasn’t a lie, not really, but it wasn’t exactly true, either. “It did, yeah. We got a lot of good information.” Her clear blue eyes met the warden’s, and in that moment, Autumn decided. “We’re going to finish everything tonight, actually.”
  5. “Jacob,” the dark-eyed Shelly native corrected Marissa tersely as they watched the new couple greet each other, and the venomous beauty had the satisfaction of seeing her barbs finally strike home; at least something today was going the way she wanted. Not so for the young man next to her, whose robust frame seemed to waver on the cusp of intervention as the line of his jaw hardened visibly. A new boyfriend was one thing. That new boyfriend being Jason Bannon was another issue entirely. “A-Rae, what the hell are you doing?” he muttered, dragging a hand back through his hair. "Consider yourself caught," Autumn breathed, drawing back slightly with a giddy grin she could feel all the way down to her toes. Was this what it felt like to be iron near a magnet? Whether this, whatever this was, could be described as physics, chemistry, or pure biology, it was unquestionably real. Crazy, and a little unsettling, but real. As real as the sun on her face, and what felt like a hundred tiny suns in her chest all rising at once at the sight of him. Jason smiled a little in answer, or at least she thought he did, if the near-imperceptible crinkling at the corners of his eyes was any indication. It was too risky to hazard a glance down at his mouth, still so perilously close to hers, to really be sure. He was Jason Goddamn Bannon after all, and dangerous, especially in such close proximity. "I was caught a couple days ago," he murmured, his fingertips tracing a line of fire over the redhead’s freckled cheek as he tugged a rogue strand of hair back from her face, and all pretense of self-control fled in the wake of that simple, unaffected statement. Weaponized honesty, she recalled dizzily. She could feel the faintest whisper of his breath, her lips tingling in renewed anticipation, and there was a flicker of… something that surfaced in the deepening sea-blue pools of her eyes as she felt herself moving again, fingers sliding upward through his hair- -And then someone whistled, shrilly, and with a sudden start Autumn felt her higher brain functions re-engage, lungs expanding as they drew in air she hadn’t realized she’d needed. Oh. Oh, god. To her embarrassment and dismay, she realized abruptly that they had an audience, and that her chances of breaking the news to Jacob in any kind of normal, natural way were now pretty much zero. An incendiary flush of bright rose bloomed beneath her skin as the girl with flaming hair and cheeks to match sank back down onto her heels, feeling the solidity of the earth beneath her feet for the first time since she’d seen him there. Well, of fucking course there’s an audience. We’re at the carousel on Labor Day. My old best friend is standing over there with my new best friend, I’m pretty sure both of them want me dead, and here I am in the middle of everybody, climbing Jase like a fucking stepladder. Jesus fuck, Autumn. But, still... it could be way worse. Her parents could be watching.
  6. The two teens walked side by side with hands thrust into their pockets: he in trail-tested khakis, she in the cuffed cut-off shorts that were once her favorite jeans. They had done this a half-dozen times over the years, just the two of them, and it felt easy, somehow. Normal. Almost as if the last couple of weeks hadn’t happened, and they’d never argued, and she’d never lashed out and he hadn’t pulled away. Only ‘almost,’ though. There was a measure of synchronization in their steps despite the disparity in height, an unconscious kinesthetic familiarity developed over the course of a lifetime and woven inextricably into the malleable fibres of muscle and sinew and bone- something she could actually feel now if she concentrated, the countless miniscule adjustments being made as they moved through the growing crowds near the picnic area. Once upon a time, that had seemed a special kind of magic, the unconscious physiological manifestation of some deeper bond between them. Maybe it had been, back then. If so, what was it now? Habit? Muscle memory? “Guessing you went up to the Rez this weekend.” Part question and part statement, as icebreakers went it was more hammer than pick, blunt force rather than precision or finesse, but it served the purpose. Autumn blinked up at her childhood friend as she nodded, one hand rising to shield her eyes against the sun; gone were the halcyon days when she could look down at him, before he’d stretched like a rubber band pulled taut and then filled out again. Did all guys do that? She was pretty sure Cade Allister had never physically been a child, or at least she couldn’t remember him as one, Sean Cassidy had some… developmental issues, and Jason Bannon... well. He’d physically been a child, sure, but mentally? Yeah, I kind of doubt it, she reflected soberly, blinking away the memory. For most guys, Jay included, there didn’t seem to be much in-between- one day they were ten, and short, and skinny, and then practically overnight they were six feet tall… and also skinny. Until they weren’t anymore. “Mmm. Your dad?” Her tone wasn’t quite accusatory; despite everything that had happened they were practically family, after all. It made sense that if the warden had told Autumn about Jacob when he’d visited on Wednesday, he might also have talked to Jacob about her. The broad-shouldered young man shook his head and she frowned, a question in the clear, bright eyes that regarded him: If not Nathan, then…? “Mary,” he returned, avoiding her gaze. Ahh, right. Autumn nodded again, this time in recognition rather than confirmation. Joe’s granddaughter. The pretty one that Devin had shamelessly flirted with- not that she’d ever seen any evidence the elder Jauntsen twin could actually be ashamed of anything. “Didn’t realize you were close,” she murmured tonelessly, turning her attention from his expression to the carousel, the awnings, the distant trees. Why did it bother her? Was it just that she missed hanging out with him? Was it the feeling that she’d been replaced? Or maybe that now there was so much to say, it was almost impossible to say it? Frowning, the red-haired girl continued to poke at the thought as they moved. He shrugged in mute reply, dark eyes passively skimming over the faces of the other teens also milling around as they meandered through the few stalls that had been set up, heading aimlessly in the direction of the temporary stage where local musicians had already begun to play. It occurred to her that there were probably a lot of things she didn’t realize, or just didn’t know about him anymore. Recent events had proven that things could change drastically in just a few days, and they’d been apart for… too long, possibly. “She seems-” The restless young woman’s hand twitched upward in a wave at Marissa as they passed the twins and their parents, the greeting itself yet another indication that her life had veered dramatically from its previous course, like a river shaken from its bed by tectonic shifts far below the surface of the earth. “Nice, I guess,” she allowed, finally. Jacob was quiet for a few more steps, and his head dipped briefly in a nod, breeze ruffling his dark hair. “She is, yeah.” Autumn had no ready reply for that, although privately the redhead wondered what the older Blackfoot girl was to him, or he to her. Not that it was any of her business, of course, even if she was curious. It would be weird if he hadn’t dated anyone by now, or hooked up, or… whatever. For fuck’s sake, does it even matter? Seriously. Then, cautiously, he ventured another question of his own. “What’d they say?” It was her turn to shrug, to deny him the satisfaction of a straightforward answer, but even as she did so Autumn recognized how petty a gesture it was. Nathan had taken Jacob up to the reservation already, and so he knew at least something about what was going on, and this was way more important than their personal issues. Hurt feelings and resentment paled in comparison to the scope of what they were up against. Exhaling, she drifted a little closer, lowering her voice and glancing up at her unusually laconic companion to make sure she had his attention. “I got the history lesson,” she began slowly, tugging at an errant strand of bright copper that lay coiled over her shoulder and wishing she’d kept her hoodie on, despite the warmth of the day; at least she’d have had something to fidget with while she talked. “So-” Autumn hesitated, the toe of one sneaker scuffing gracelessly at the dry grass being trampled underfoot. She knew that Jay was a lot of things, and ‘stupid’ wasn’t one of them. It’s just that pragmatism was practically embedded in both families’ DNA. He’d been up to the Rez and heard the stories from the Elders way before she had, but that didn’t necessarily mean he took any of it seriously, did it? After all, she’d seen the effects of the Dark firsthand, and a part of her still wanted to rationalize it all away. “Do you believe any of it? The stories about the, ah…” Her gaze was fixed on his features as she leaned closer, one hand gesturing in a loose circle as if to encompass a range of ideas. “You know. The Enemy, or the Dawning Light, or the whole bit about gods walking the earth, and the cycle thing.” Jacob’s eyes narrowed slightly as he peered into hers, studying the reflection of cloudless skies in their depths for a long moment before swearing under his breath and turning away. He dragged a hand back through his hair and, with an exasperated sigh, nodded. Despite the awkwardness, the tension that lingered like a chasm between them, there was something like relief in his voice, his shoulders gradually relaxing when he spoke again. “Yeah. Not all of it, maybe, but my dad showed me the journals our family’s been keeping. Generations of us might have been crazy, sure, but that’s a very specific flavor of crazy to be. And since you know now, I guess that’ll make it easier for us all to keep an eye on things. That’s all we really have to-” “But it isn’t,” Autumn interrupted quietly, freckled fingers twining together in a knot of wordless anxiety. “Not for me, anyway.” He frowned, stopped there in the middle of the throng, and stared uncomprehending down at her face, at the earnest and uncertain expression gazing back up at him. “Your dad knows. I thought he might’ve told you, but…” She shrugged again, an almost imperceptible movement that seemed more apology than dismissal. “Look, Jay, I know things aren’t-” Swallowing past the sudden tightness in her throat, the vibrant redhead exhaled slowly, counting as she did so. Today might be her last chance to say anything, and this hurt, this twisting, tangled snarl of regret and anger and loneliness, would not stop her from saying it. “They’re not great, and they haven’t been, and I’m sorry. I really, really am,” she whispered tautly, blinking rapidly as his features rippled as though underwater. “I just wanted you to know, in case something hap-” The remainder of the sentence was cut off as the tall young man who’d been her friend once pulled her off the path and into a hug. "It's fine, A-Rae. Okay? It's fine," he murmured, watching their families laughing and drinking in the shade back the way they'd come.
  7. Around noon-thirty. (-ish.) "...haven't really thought all that much about it, I guess.” Autumn leaned back on her hands, enjoying the tickle of the warm grass between her fingers and against her bare legs as she reclined next to her father’s chair, half in the early afternoon sun and half in the shade cast by the trees nearby. As end-of-summer celebrations went, this one was going pretty well, so far. The weather was beautiful, there was plenty to do and to eat, and for the first time in forever, her extended family was all together- even if she still hadn’t managed to catch up with Jacob yet to apologize for going off on him on Tuesday. She needed to handle that soon. Glancing over at him, sprawled out and dozing on one of the blankets as they waited for lunch and the inevitable food coma, she felt that little twinge of guilt again. Yeah. Today. Definitely. For now, though, focus, Autumn. You’re having a conversation. “Something with the EPA, maybe? I’ve got Environmental Science this year, and Miss Kyleson said they do a lot of internships. Not all of them are paid, obviously, but doing it for a summer or something after I graduate might help me decide. If I graduate,” she added on reflection, grinning a little as she considered her academic performance thus far and defiantly, resolutely, did not consider any other reasons she might not finish high school. Nope. Nuh-uh. There were plenty of things she needed to do today, that she wanted to do today, and dwelling on what might or might not happen later wasn’t one of them; she’d gotten all her crying done already. Nathan Crocker tilted his head to regard her curiously, idly turning the half-full bottle of Corona on the armrest of his folding chair. His boy had already made it clear he wanted to get involved in the administrative side of the agency, and everyone had assumed Autumn’s path was equally apparent, if not stated outright. “Not Fish and Wildlife?” he asked, brow furrowing slightly beneath the bill of his faded green baseball cap; her parents’ expressions mirrored his confusion. After all, she’d grown up hearing about the ins and outs of being a Warden on an almost daily basis, loved the outdoors like other girls loved Sephora or pumpkin spice, wasn’t afraid of getting dirty or bloody, and had idolized Owen and everything he did. “I mean, I thought about that, yeah. And it still might be what I end up doing, but between you and Grandpa I feel like I already know so much about it that I should try something else first.” Autumn’s nose crinkled slightly as she grinned up at him, stretching her legs out on the ground while the warmth of the sunlight soaked into her skin. “Maybe a few something elses. You know, expand my horizons a little bit. And, honestly, I haven’t even graduated yet, so I don’t wanna think about eight more years of college, or whatever, that I’d have to do if I wanted to be a vet. Plus, being in an office sounds boring, nurses and teachers get treated like shi- uh, like crap,” she hastily corrected, remembering who she was with as her mother frowned disapprovingly, “and I’d hate the military. So.” With a dismissive shrug, the earnest young woman glossed over her slip of the tongue and summed up her thoughts on her future career prospects. “So,” Dana countered, still scowling a little over her glass of iced tea, “you do realize you’re going to have to get a degree for a government job, right? Especially for an agency like the EPA. And with your grades-“ “I know, I know,” the younger redhead protested half-heartedly. “My grades really are getting better, though!” At her mother’s dubious expression, she added, sheepishly, “…a little. Chem isn’t that bad. It’s mostly just the math that sucks, but Jason’s helping, and I was thinking about asking Marissa to help me out with the English stuff. At least the literature part. She’s always quoting something or other.” “Jason, and… Marissa?” Nathan tipped back his beer, one prematurely silver eyebrow raised as the muffled sound of a tiny bell chimed from the pocket of Autumn’s faded cutoff shorts. “Yeah,” she nodded absently, pulling out her phone and swiping the lock screen away. “Bannon and Jauntsen. We’re friends now, I guess.” The sound was a generic tone with the standard vibration pattern, which meant the sender was someone she didn’t know. Huh. //My new number. For the Fellowship only, please. Jason// Wait, Jason actually has a phone now?! She blinked and re-read the text again one more time, just to make sure. Suddenly, the trip to Great Falls made sense, even if Laurie’s intent curiosity didn’t, exactly. A broad smile slowly spread from the generous curve of Autumn’s mouth to the corners of her eyes as- Nathan’s question forgotten entirely- she began swiftly tapping the screen with both thumbs, adding the new number to his contact info and only vaguely aware that the adults were talking around her. It seemed totally unreasonable that just the sight of his name, the knowledge that the succinct, perfunctory message was from him, inspired such a reaction: a sudden wave of warmth, not unlike the feeling of the sunlight washing over her through a break in the clouds. And yet, unreasonable or not, it did. It wasn’t the same sensation of fiery-faced embarrassment as when he teased her, or even the heat sparked by his gaze or, more searingly, his kisses. It just… Sort of, was. Like some weird, immutable law of the universe. Also weird was that she was one-hundred percent aware that it was weird, because barely more than a week ago she’d thought of him as some sort of slouchy, murder-stare-having cryptid to be avoided at all costs, but it was also simultaneously kind of… not weird? Maybe? At least, not capital-w Weird, anyway. Catching her lower lip between her teeth, she scrolled through the list of notification options, still smiling. What should I use for his ringtone, just in case? He might not call or text much, if at all, unless it was an emergency or something logistical, and it seemed like the sort of pragmatic reason he’d buy one in the first place, but… Maybe? Hmm. It chimed again. The eager redhead tapped the icon that appeared and instantly regretted it, feeling a rising wave of scarlet rushing up to her face as the reminder of peak Autumness stared back at her. She could almost, almost picture his exact expression, too: the gleam in his eyes, the little twitch at the corner of his mouth that hinted at laughter. Mother. Fucker. It was one of her favorite compound curse words, but in that moment it seemed somehow inadequate to describe the feeling of total embarrassment, indignant fury, and grudging amusement roiling in a tumultuous storm within her. Credit where it was due, it was an apt meme, and it was a funny reminder of how they’d actually met, but for fuck's sake, it wasn't fair! He couldn't even get flustered, and at least once a day since they'd become friends he'd made her feel like she was about to spontaneously combust. Couldn't she eventually gain some kind of immunity to that? Please? Obviously, he was deliberately screwing with her, and obviously there would have to be reprisals. [You suck! Just wait until I catch you, LOL.] If he wasn’t back in Shelly yet, that gave her some time to- “Autumn Rae.” She blinked at the pointed tone of her father’s voice, the inclusion of her middle name sending an alarm signal directly to her unconscious: almost immediately, the preoccupied teen glanced up from the messaging app and the list of sound files she’d been browsing. “Hmm?” Not exactly the most eloquent response. Ian glowered down at his distracted daughter, displeasure writ plain on his features, and she winced, her cheeks reddening even further. Shit. There was no point pretending she’d been paying attention when she very obviously hadn’t. “Sorry. Um. What was the question?” “Oh, for f-“ The glare Dana had given Autumn earlier was suddenly directed at her husband, who hesitated visibly under that withering stare, and then sighed. “Warden Crocker was asking about your new friends.” Something about the way he said that last word- friends- suggested that the initial question hadn’t been posed neutrally. Which… Yeah. That was fair. Jason did have a pretty sketchy reputation, and everyone present knew about her history with Shelly High’s unofficial princess (even if most of the adults in town considered the glamorous brunette an immaculate angel, beyond reproach). But things changed, right? People changed. Or at least, they could. Couldn’t they? “It’s only ‘Warden’ Crocker when I’m on duty, Ian.” Nathan smiled affably, tipping the near-empty bottle toward the real estate broker and receiving a similar salute in kind as Autumn’s father reluctantly conceded the point. “I’ve always been kind of partial to ‘Uncle Nathan,’ myself.” “Sorry,” she repeated contritely, resting the edge of her phone on her knee and wobbling it mindlessly back and forth. It wasn’t her favorite subject, but it was a welcome distraction from freaking eggplants. Ugh. “I mean, as far as Jase and Marissa go, stuff just happens, you know? Sometimes you learn things about people that can change how you think about them. Like, Jason’s not a serial killer, just kind of quiet, and Marissa’s not a terrible person, she’s just a bitch.” “Autumn!” Dana hissed sharply, lobbing a crumpled napkin at her offspring in frustration as the FWP warden stifled a laugh and her father groaned. With another grimace, the younger redhead instinctively batted the offending missile aside. “Okay, fine, but we already talked about this last week, and she totally is! I can’t help it, Mom. I didn’t make her that way. And, like…” Folding her legs, she glanced back at her former best friend and realized that at some point while she was tinkering with her settings and blushing furiously at the meme Jase had sent, he’d sat up and started paying attention to the conversation. Of course. Why not? she lamented inwardly. Why wouldn’t a day in the life of Autumn Keane be full of awkward? “It’s just, I can tell that she’s making an effort. And, yeah, she’s not really great at the whole friend thing right now, but if I don’t give her a chance to at least try, she might not ever be.” Inhaling, she tried to meet Jacob’s gaze, his dark hazel eyes shadowed beneath windblown hair and almost unreadable. “Maybe she was pretty awful to me, and maybe I hated her for it for a while. Maybe I still haven’t totally forgiven her yet.” Autumn watched his lips thin, his expression hardening slightly in a way she’d learned to recognize unconsciously in him over the years, and now consciously through making notes of Jason’s subtle facial cues. “But maybe I also want things to be better. I hope they can be, anyway.” “Yeah. Maybe.” Nathan glanced down at his son, who’d barely spoken a word until that moment as he’d lain in the shade after lunch, then questioningly at Autumn. “Gotta have hope, either way, right?” Cautiously, she nodded, and Jacob did likewise in some tentative, unspoken teenage accord. Exhaling as he stood and stretched, the tall athlete gave the adults a quick, polite smile. “I’m gonna go walk around, see who’s here.” There was a pause, and she plucked at the blanket she was sitting on, trying to decide whether they’d both actually been having the same conversation. “You wanna come with?” She couldn’t read his expression, silhouetted as he was against the afternoon sky; it took a moment for her brain to register that he was talking to her, because that basically never happened anymore, did it? “Yeah, sure.” In spite of herself, Autumn felt herself smiling, just a little, as she got to her feet and brushed the grass from her legs. “Sounds good.” Casual invitation, casual response. It was a start, at least.
  8. "Jack," Ian greeted the big man with an affable smile and a quick handshake, and extended the same friendly courtesy to his wife. "Carolyn. Laurelai. Good to see you. Nice day, isn't it?" He glanced around, taking in the scant crowd so early in the day and then back at his own girls, who smiled and waved at the group as Autumn leaned in the driver's side and popped open the hatch at the rear of the Jeep. "The help would be appreciated, thanks. You know, you guys are welcome to stop by this evening, grab a bite and a cold one. Warden Crocker's got the steaks, and we've got the ribs, and I don't think the five of us will be able to eat it all." "Are you kidding? Jacob can eat his own weight in ribeyes, and I'm pretty sure Autumn's not far behind him," Dana interjected with a laugh, brushing non-existent dirt from her hands onto the legs of her neat denim capris as she joined them. "Hey, Jack, hi, Carolyn," the pretty vet smiled warmly, then turned to Laurie and her caprine companion with a knowing, vaguely disapproving grin as she eyed the cotton candy in the young girl's hand: an actual pair of Rascals. "Morning, you two. Good to see you're keeping her out of trouble," she quipped, eyeing first the goat and then the red-haired teen. The young woman had the presence of mind to look at least a little sheepish as she brushed an errant wisp of spun sugar from the goat's furry cheek. "Seriously, though, if you don't have anything else planned, swing by. I think Nathan's already setting up, so we'll have all the food in the same place. And probably too much of it." She paused for a moment, considering something, then glanced at her husband. "Although if Jason hasn't eaten yet when he gets here, Autumn might bring him by, too." The Cassidys exchanged a look, eyebrows raised in wordless surprise: their Jason? Had the half-wild cub they'd adopted as one of their own- one rapidly growing into an adult with at least the seeming of civility- found a second family to help feed him? Unaware of the silent conversation between the other couple, Ian nodded, his smile broadening into a grin that didn't quite reach his eyes; he'd hoped to spend the day with his family, and even these essentially trivial, perfectly normal shifts in his daughter's social life like new crushes and fallings-out with friends were reminders of how tenuous their connection was lately. "True, yeah. Hey, maybe we won't have a week's worth of leftovers this year. We should probably ask-" He turned, but his impatient offspring was already out of earshot, carrying one of the large plastic storage containers off toward the shady spot where the Crockers were almost finished lighting the charcoal for the brats they'd brought for lunch later. Jacob was jogging up to greet her, and Dana followed the direction of her husband's gaze, then met it and offered a little shrug. "Well," he laughed, "I guess we ought to get started, or there's not going to be anything left to unload." As the three families hauled coolers and containers into the shade, the men bantered about hockey and the ladies discussed work and current events in town. The three teenagers, for their part, kept conversation light and casual- while skirting the subject of the Homecoming dance, they talked animatedly about the game itself and Laurie's excitement-slash-anxiety about actually getting to play. It didn't take long to get everything organized: neatly-stacked bags of charcoal, bins of ice for the drinks (alcoholic and otherwise) and uncooked food, and then the grills were lit, blankets spread, chairs unfolded, and tablecloths taped down onto folding tables. By the time all was said and done, the little tree-covered area the Crockers and Keanes had carved out was almost a self-contained Labor Day celebration on its own. "Hey, thanks." Laurie squinted slightly against the sun as the energetic young woman handed her a bottle of water from the depths of the cooler and rose, absent-mindedly nudging the lid shut with her knee. The youngest of the Cassidy clan still hadn't worked out how or why her brother and his best friend had managed to skip town so early, or what the group of teens were planning, and it was driving her crazy. ...But Autumn's parents had mentioned Jason, and she knew they all hung out at least once in a while, so maybe she could get some info from the Girl Scout? It was worth a shot, anyway. "Sooo." As openings went, it sounded casual enough, and the other girl smiled as she cracked open her own bottle. "Sooo?" "So," the sophomore repeated with slightly more conviction this time, sighing appreciatively as she took a sip of the cold water. "Great Falls, huh?" Autumn blinked at her, suddenly distracted from watching Rascal playing a boisterous game of tag with someone's black Lab and wondering if they should've brought the kids along after all. "Sean and Jason," she clarified, as comprehension dawned in the older redhead's eyes. Good. That meant she did know something. Now all she had to do was find out what, and the best way to do that was to pretend she already knew. Affecting an air of nonchalance as she screwed the cap back on the plastic bottle, she pressed a little further. "How come you didn't go?" Autumn's brows knit together in a brief, but expressive frown, her blue eyes narrowing, and Laurie cursed silently to herself. "Why would I go to Great Falls? My dad's home." Crap. She'd forgotten about that little detail- or, rather, it hadn't occurred to her, since she didn't really know the outdoorsy junior all that well. For that matter, she wasn't sure her brother did, either, but that was an issue for later. "Sorry, sorry," she conceded, grimacing in genuine apology; she really did feel kind of bad about carelessly drawing attention to Ian's absence. "I just wondered if they'd invited you, that's all." "Mmm." There was an uncomfortable pause, and then: "It's fine." Autumn nodded slowly, ponytail swaying as her expression gradually softened into a faint smile. It wasn't Laurie's fault her dad was away so much, even if being reminded of it stung a little. It would've come up at some point during the day, anyway, from Nathan if not someone else. I need to talk to him, she reminded herself, glancing back at the inquisitive girl and her goat, who had come bounding back over. "Yeah, no, they didn't. I mean," she shrugged, unscrewing the lid of her drink. "There's nothing I needed there anyway. I think they were just-" And then she remembered, abruptly, that Jason had mentioned one very specific thing he intended on getting while they were out, and- ohgod- she took a long, slow drink of the icy water in her hand as if it might somehow quench the sudden rush of warmth that surged beneath her skin. "Just shopping," she finished lamely, refusing to meet the other girl's eyes as the natural pink of her cheeks deepened to a vivid scarlet that rivalled the brilliance of her hair. "Shopping. Riiight." There was obviously something more there, but as badly as she wanted to press the issue, Laurie didn't think she'd get much further right then. Not with Autumn looking for all the world like she could light all the grills in Shelly just by proximity. Maybe she could try again later, or maybe one of the others would be able to tell her more, if she could track them down. "Well, anyway, good talk and, uh, I'll see ya later?" "Yeah, sure. See ya." The young vitakinetic smiled, despite the near-ignition of her fiery hair, and headed over to rejoin her parents as the sprightly pair of mischief-makers meandered off again.
  9. The Keane Residence, 0830. -ish. It was the smell of coffee, rather than the sound of the dogs or the brilliant sunlight pouring through her window, that roused Autumn from her dreams. Blinking against the light, she groaned and dragged a pillow over her face. She’d just been sitting in front of a campfire with Jason, in a tiny ring of orange glowing amidst the deep blue-black nothingness of the woods at night, and he was smiling that little half-smile of his over the rim of his mug. What had he just said? She frowned, trying to remember the sound of the syllables, the shape of his mouth, the exact cadence of his speech, but it was already fading. Ugh. Why was it that when people talked to you in dreams, it made sense, but afterwards it just dissolved into gibberish? Or maybe it was nonsense to start with, and because you were dreaming you just got to decide what it meant. Or maybe… She sighed, flinging the pillow and the blankets off as she peered up at the sunlit ceiling overhead, the faint outline of pale green stars just visible here and there in the wash of brilliant white. Maybe she’d just dreamed in Russian, or something. Crazier things have happened, right? Like finding a radio that changes dimensions. Like seeing actual monsters. Like rescuing cats from a secret prison, or discovering that aliens are real, or that you and other people at your school have super-powers. Or, you know. Like dating someone who actually speaks Russian. She smiled sleepily at that, shifting around a little on the striped sheets. Or like… She blinked again as something else occurred to her. Going to sleep on the couch and waking up in your own room? As she sat upright, the redhead’s sleep-fogged brain struggled to piece together the series of events that had somehow led to this particular outcome. She swung her feet over the edge of the bed, letting them dangle there for a moment as she stared blankly at the haphazard arrangement of clothes on the chair nearby. They’d been watching Braveheart, she was pretty sure, and she didn’t remember coming upstairs, but… here she was. So, how…? Almost fully awake now, she could just make out the drone of conversation from downstairs. Voices. Her mom’s, and a deeper, more masculine one- Suddenly everything clicked into place. “Dad!” she yelled, bounding out of bed and down the stairs, accompanied by a chorus of excited canine voices as the dogs rushed to meet her. “Morning guys,” she greeted them in passing, idly reaching down to pet whichever happened to be closest on her way to the kitchen. “...definitely your daughter,” he was just saying as Autumn rounded the corner and, with an excited whoop, launched herself at the father she hadn’t seen in what seemed like months. “Ooofff, hey, careful. Coffee,” Ian chided her with a grin and a one-armed hug, absorbing the impact of her energetic embrace as he held the half-full mug up and away to avoid the fallout. With a bemused shrug, Dana took it adroitly from his hand and set it on the island, watching as her typically not-a-morning-person offspring squeezed the breath from him before she’d even said hello. “Hey, sweetheart,” he greeted her, returning the hug with both arms this time and planting a kiss atop the dishevelled red-gold curls she hadn’t yet bothered to comb. “How’s my little firecracker doing this morning, hmm?” “‘m good,” came the pleased reply as they swayed back and forth like that for a few moments. She didn’t even protest the childish nickname, cringey as it was, since he was the only one who’d ever used it anyway. ...Well, and even apart from that, it was a little reminder that even in Billings or Bozeman or Missoula or Helena, he was still her dad. He still remembered. Note to self: do not let him call me that in front of anyone today. The grin in her mind refused to remain hidden there, irrepressibly curving the corners of Autumn’s mouth upward as she squeezed him tightly. He was home. Finally. “Missed you.” “I know. I missed you, too.” “What time did you get in?” she asked, grabbing an oversized mug and glancing back in Ian’s direction as she poured herself a “cup” of coffee. “Eh, a little later than I intended,” her father admitted sheepishly, exchanging a look with Dana over Autumn’s head as he reclaimed his own mug from the counter. “You two were already out.” He smiled, reaching out to tousle her hair fondly as she grinned and ducked away with a grumble of half-hearted protest. “So I thought we’d head out a little early today, find a good spot to set up and just spend the day together. The three of us.” “Cool. Yeah, that sounds good.” The girl’s nose crinkled slightly as she smiled, stirring sugar and cream into her drink. “It does,” the older Keane woman agreed. “Maybe she’ll even introduce you to her boyfriend.” “Boyfriend?” Ian blinked, pale blue eyes wide as he looked from his daughter to his wife. “You mean, not…?” Dana shook her head: No. She didn’t mean Jacob. Not anymore, at least. Comprehension dawned, and he nodded, taking a quick sip from his mug. “That’s right. I remember now. Your mother did say something about a… camping trip, I think?” He glanced at his daughter for confirmation, and she rewarded him with a smile and a quick nod, her amber-speckled features going faintly pink. “Mhmm, and he came over for dinner after that.” she replied cautiously, checking from the corner of her eye to see if her mom planned to explain why, exactly, he’d been invited to stay. The auburn-haired vet caught the none-too-subtle glance, and smirked. ‘He did,” Dana added breezily. “And he was a great help, too. Very hands-on.” Warm hazel eyes danced with mischief as she arched an eyebrow at her daughter, whose rosy cheeks flushed to a deeper scarlet at the memory. Amused, she turned to check the breakfast quiche in the oven then, leaving her concerns about the swiftness of their developing relationship for another conversation. It was still early in the day, after all, and Ian ought to have the chance to meet Jason for himself before more serious parental discussions were had. “Oh? Good to hear,” he replied distractedly, glancing at his watch. It wasn’t quite nine yet, but Warden Crocker had already called to let them know what he and Jacob were bringing for the day-long picnic- he also suspected it was to find out if he’d actually made it back to Shelly this time. It was hard to fault him for that, the tall real estate broker reflected with a pang of guilt that rendered the mouthful of black brew he swallowed slightly bitter on his tongue. “So, is this new guy a junior, too, this year?” “Yeah, we have Chemistry together.” There was a moment of what definitely felt like an awkward silence in the kitchen, and Autumn’s eyes widened. “The class, I mean,” she clarified quickly, groaning inwardly at her father’s expression and wishing fervently that she could crawl inside her coffee mug. “Well, and, uh, Study Hall.” “Chemistry,” her father reiterated flatly, warily glancing from her to Dana as the latter stifled a laugh and resolutely switched off the oven, refusing to return the look she could feel being burned into her back. “Well that’s… That’s great, sweetie. Just great.” ------------- Later that morning. “They’ll be fine,” the pretty vet reassured her husband, smiling as she scratched under Zee’s chin. The Keanes had been loading up the Jeep for a little while now, packing it with enough coolers and bags to feed and entertain the trio for at least a week, but it wasn’t intended solely for them: sandwiches and cold salads for lunch, ribs and thick pork chops to grill later, sodas and iced tea and a couple of six packs of summery IPAs and traditional lagers. “They’ve got plenty of water out, and lots of shade if it does turn warm this afternoon. We’re not going to be gone all day,” she reminded him, watching as their energetic daughter hefted the last bag of ice into a plastic storage container and snapped the lid shut. “How do you think they manage when I’m at work and Autumn’s at school?” She paused for a moment and, tentatively, rested her hand on his. “It’ll be fine.” “Fine, or fine?” Autumn interjected with a grin, going up on her tiptoes to give both parents a kiss on the cheek. Dana rolled her eyes at that, smiling, and shook her head. “I’m gonna do one last door check and grab my phone. Anything you guys want me to get while I’m in there?” Her father patted his pockets, frowning a little, then shrugged and offered her an easy smile. “No, no, I think I’ve got everything.” His gaze moved over her shoulder, catching his wife’s eye as the paternal expression softened slightly. “Everything I need, anyway.” He didn’t miss Autumn’s requisite grimace of teenaged disgust at the thought of parental romance, or the softly-murmured “Gross,” under her breath as she turned and jogged back up to the house with the dogs at her heels. He shrugged again, a sort of uncomfortable one-shouldered gesture Dana immediately recognized as one her child had adopted. “Parents,” he opined laconically, opening the passenger door for his bride. “Totally,” she replied, deadpan, and climbed inside. “So, this new guy,” Ian began cautiously, leaning against the side of the SUV. “You’ve met him. Is he… I mean, what’s he like? Jacob’s a good kid. Good guy, I guess.” He corrected himself, realizing that a seventeen-year-old wasn’t much of a kid anymore. Not really. “I thought they got along really well. I mean, hell, they grew up together, and then-” With a sigh, he gestured vaguely, helplessly, toward the house. “‘And then’, yeah,” Dana replied thoughtfully, nodding as she followed his reflection in the side mirror. There was no need to elaborate further on that particular point; Owen’s passing had hit a few people pretty hard, his granddaughter especially. Until recently, seeing Autumn taking interest in other people and going out again, she hadn’t realized exactly how hard the girl had taken it- or even how hard she’d taken it herself. And then last night… Well, the air felt a little clearer, didn’t it? “I kind of half-expected them to get married right out of high school, to be honest. And I like Jacob, I really do, and maybe they’ll work things out and find each other again later. I’m just…” She sighed, thinking back on the weird charge in the atmosphere when her daughter and the Bannon boy had been in the kitchen, the pair so intent on each other that at times she’d almost wondered if she’d even really been present there in the room. It wasn’t exactly reassuring, but the very nature of that intensity, and their youth, all but dictated that it couldn’t last long. The brightest flames burned quickest, after all. “I’m just glad,” she finally allowed, “that I don’t have to worry about that for her anymore.” “Mmmm.” The reply was noncommittal, Ian watching the house as his wife watched him. “Jason Bannon, you said?” “I did. As for what he’s like?” She paused, her expression pensive; there really wasn’t a satisfying answer to that. “He’s… Well, it’s hard to say.” Dana smiled as her husband glanced at the mirror, meeting her eyes through the reflective glass. “I guess you’ll just have to see for yourself.” Oddly, it was easier talking about her daughter’s shiny new relationship than it was to discuss her own nearly twenty-year-old one, and the two fell quiet after a moment, listening to the small but beloved pack of fosters they’d taken in huffing and whining and yelping softly as they gamboled about in the front yard. Autumn’s father opened his mouth as a thought occurred to him, something he felt he ought to have said already, when the girl herself came bounding down the porch steps, pausing to distribute head scratches and belly rubs aplenty before heading over to the car. “‘Kay, all set.” Clambering into the crowded back seat, she checked her phone out of habit and tucked it in the pocket of her hoodie as Ian closed the door. She’d obviously fixed her hair a little, added a few hints of makeup, but otherwise hadn't fussed too much over her appearance; maybe this boyfriend thing wasn't such a big deal. Nothing to worry about, he reassured himself. “So,” he tried again, getting situated himself and glancing at his pink-cheeked offspring in the rearview mirror. “This Jason guy. How’d you guys meet? What’s he like?” Dana snorted softly under her breath and turned, watching the house disappear behind them. True to form, if Ian wanted something, he’d try all avenues available to get it. It made him a great realtor, but an annoying partner sometimes. Shrugging, the restless redhead peered conspicuously out the window, ignoring the warmth creeping up the sides of her face. How was she supposed to describe him to her dad, of all people, when Jason Effing Bannon was still a mystery to her? Maybe always would be. Huh. “I mean, he’s kind of-” She paused, pursing her lips as the trees whizzed past. “Different. But he should be there today. I hope. So, I guess you can meet him and see for yourself?” With an exasperated sigh, Ian returned his gaze briefly to his wife- who was also staring out the window- and turned out onto the highway. “What is this, a conspiracy?” “Nope. It’s a mutiny,” Dana quipped, cutting her eyes at him. “While the captain’s away, the crew will play, or something like that.” Muffled laughter from the back seat answered her, but her husband’s expression was less amused. Even if Autumn hadn’t caught the edge hidden in her mother’s joke, he had, and it stung. Moreso because it was true, and he had no right to deny it. “Ahh, that must be why the rum’s gone, then,” he replied with a taut smile, and a levity he didn’t quite feel. Labor Day, indeed: he was apparently going to have to work his ass off to get this right.
  10. The Keane home, sometime that evening. “Hey, Mom?” They were a little more than halfway through Jurassic Park, both Keane women in their most comfortable pajamas and curled up with dogs occupying every inch of couch-space their humans weren’t. During the commercials, they’d argued over which of the male protagonists was hotter, and Autumn had showed her mother a dozen or so of the better memes the movie had inspired in the nearly three decades since its release. “Hmm?” Dana popped another handful of buttery popcorn into her mouth, glancing absently at her daughter across Zee and Dakota’s heads. “Remember when I took that stuff back to the other house on Thursday?” “Mhmm. Yeah, the… oh, what was it? The fishing tackle and the jigsaw?” “Yeah, and a couple of other things Dad borrowed. So, I went inside, you know, just to make sure everything was still good. No leaks or weird smells or broken windows or anything.” “Right…” Something in the girl’s tone caught her ear, distracted her from the television- suddenly the rugged paleontologist wasn’t all that interesting anymore. Autumn took a breath, realizing that the box was open now and that shutting it again was not the easy option, and forged on. “Well, I checked the basement, and- did you know Grandpa had an office down there?” She asked, regarding her mom curiously for any sign of recognition. “An office,” Dana repeated carefully. “No, I didn’t. Why?” No going back now. The younger redhead absently petted one of the dogs using her as a pillow, drawing reassurance from their solidity. “I found a couple of letters, and one of them was to us. Me and you, I mean.” There was no response; Dana’s face was frozen in the flickering light of the TV. Hesitating only a moment, Autumn continued. “Do you want me to bring it down?” There was another pause, followed by a hasty confession born of guilt. “Sorry, I got curious, I already read them both…. But, um-“ “Go get them.” The older woman’s response was quiet, scarcely audible over the panicked cries of the children on screen. Her hazel eyes were fixed not on the television, but somewhere above it. Beyond it. Autumn nodded, unsure if her mother noticed the gesture of assent, and squirmed her way out from beneath Briggs and Lexi, who’d managed to arrange themselves simultaneously across her lap and against her side, imprisoning her against the arm of the couch. “Sorry, guys,” she murmured as they grumbled, roused from their drowsing by her movement. Was her mom angry? A furtive glance at Dana’s cameo-perfect profile in the dim light of the television didn’t reveal much, and she headed uncertainly up the stairs. By the time she returned to the living room, the light was on, the bowl of popcorn was on the coffee table, and her mother was sitting on the edge of the couch, her gaze one of too-calm expectation. “So, this is the one for us.” Autumn fought down the flutter of nervousness as she handed over the strangely heavy envelope with its folded stationery. The room was silent then, Autumn reclaiming her spot on the couch and watching as her mother slid the letter from its container, unfolded it and read it. It didn’t take long. Dana’s eyes closed momentarily as she folded the letter back up and returned it to the envelope. She bore the look of a woman struggling with some deep-seated emotion as she carefully set the letter aside and looked at Autumn questioningly. “And you read this?” Autumn nodded. “Give me the other one.” There was a sense of energy in the room now, something swirling and tense, and it was with the same growing unease she’d felt when she’d followed Jason Effing Bannon into the woods to an abandoned trailer a week and a lifetime ago that Autumn placed the other missive into her mom’s hands. Again, there was the rustle of paper being slid from an envelope, and the unfurling of the letter. Again, there was the silence as the older Keane woman read. This time, however, the reaction was different. Autumn watched as her mother’s face darkened, her eyes narrowing as she reached the end of her father’s last words. “Bullshit.” It was just two syllables, spoken quietly, intensely, but there was something behind them Autumn recognized, although then the voice had been her own. The word was jagged and tremulous with a raw edge unsmoothed by time or the careful, assiduous avoidance of unpleasant thoughts. “Mom, I don’t-“ she began tentatively. “Bullshit!” Dana all but shouted, crumpling the paper and throwing it violently at the floor, startling the dogs. “This is such ridiculous, insane, absolute fucking bullshit! He, what? Left these just… lying around in a magical locked office in his own fucking house expecting some random similarly magical fucking idiot from god knows where to just stumble across them? Fucking magically?! He knew he was goddamn dying and this is what he decided to do- leave a note for some meth-head looking for a DVD player to pawn? Jesus fucking Christ, Dad! What the fuck were you thinking?!” Autumn had expected her to be a little angry because even she’d gotten kind of pissed off herself at first. She’d also maybe thought her mom would just be totally dismissive of the whole thing, but this… This was waaaay beyond her experience or understanding. This was not parental behavior. Not at all. Especially not for her parents. Her parents were sane. Normal. They were usually pretty chill, and she never once questioned whether they loved her because they’d never given her reason to. Yeah, sure, there was maybe some weird or awkward stuff between them, grown-up stuff, but it had just never really seemed like that big a deal because they’d never made it one. For Dana to go from 0 to 100 this fast, though? Weren’t adults supposed to have their shit together? Oh. Oh, god. I don’t- I don’t even know what to do with this. There was nothing she could do but stare as her mother broke down, flinging the blanket aside while the dogs whined nervously, scattering, and Dana rose suddenly from the couch, furious tears streaming down her flushed cheeks. “It’s been over a year, Dad! A fucking year! And I’ve been doing the best I fucking can, trying to figure this shit out on my own, and I thought I was doing pretty fucking okay, you know? I thought I was doing a pretty fucking good job just not losing my shit completely and taking care of everything that had to be done, the hospice visits and the memorial and the fucking house and all the accounts and the stupid fucking legal bullshit because, hey, people can’t just fucking die and be dead and have that be the end of it, can they?” As Autumn watched with mounting horror the woman who had raised her storming aimlessly, erratically about the living room, a sudden realization struck, lightning in the midst of the tempest raging around her: just because Dana had been doing all the normal mom-things, the boring grown-up stuff, it didn’t mean she wasn’t having a hard time. “And this? This fucking bat-shit ignorant fairy tale nonsense is what I get? More of your fucking stories? Heartfelt letters to a goddamned stranger when you couldn’t even be bothered to tell your own fucking family you were sick until it was too late to do anything about it?! Magic fucking spells?! What the fuck, Dad?! What the actual-“ Whatever Dana was about to say was cut off as Autumn flung desperate arms around her, dragging her fiercely, bodily into a hug. It was like hearing that awful, broken laughter all over again, except instead of being a twisted mockery of self-deprecating mirth it was just raw, unvarnished grief and fury all roiling together into something unbearable. But, still, it was pain, so blatant in its expression the impulsive young woman could almost feel the ragged edges of it herself, her mother’s tearful exhortations dissolving into shuddering sobs as she squeezed her close. They clung to each other like the survivors of some terrible cataclysm, a living Mobius strip of pale arms and red hair and hot tears entwined together in the aftermath of the explosion that had detonated their quiet life a year and a half before, but whose shockwaves were only really reaching them now. A little later... “Autumn.” Her mom sounded better. Still raw, still hoarse from crying, but once more ‘Mom’ - the adult with their composure restored, not the hurting child torn with grief and anger. The two of them were cuddled together on the couch, Autumn holding Dana and letting her grieve until the older woman recovered, at least enough to talk. “Yeah?” “Why did you tell me about this now? Tonight?” “It just… I guess it just seemed like the right time. There’s been so much going on, and I wanted to wait and talk to this guy that was supposed to be Grandpa’s friend, you know? Laughing Joe. I didn’t wanna say anything to you until I’d been out there, because it really… I mean, it’s a lot.” “It is… ‘a lot,’ yeah.” Apart from Lexi’s tentative snuffling at Autumn’s hand, the room was almost silent. “So I’m guessing they had you go through the ritual, then? At the reservation.” Autumn just shook her head, rubbing the even-tempered Pit’s head in a wordless reassurance that, yes, things were okay now. Or, at least, that they seemed to be. “Mmmh.” Dana nodded, plucking at the hem of the blanket tucked around them. She was quiet for a moment, pensive and visibly exhausted from the emotional outpouring. “I knew about it, at your age, but I never would go. Dad tried to convince me. I just never understood why it was so important to him, all those old stories. I thought he should focus on the real evils in the world, the ones that you don’t need some medicine man to investigate. Maybe I should’ve humored him,” she mused bitterly, glancing down at the tousled head resting against her shoulder, the pale, red-rimmed eyes that peered up at her. “Maybe I would’ve understood him a little better.” How did you respond to something like that? Owen was her grandfather, sure, but he was her mom’s dad. That was a whole different thing, and again she felt that uncoiling of guilt, of shame for not recognizing what had been in front of her the whole time. “I mean, if you didn’t believe in it, though,” Autumn began, her voice trailing off as she realized she really had no idea what to say in this situation. Maybe she’d already used up all her ability to people for the day. “I didn’t. Don’t,” her mother amended. “But he did, and his believing formed the basis for a lot of the things he did, the…” The older woman sighed, a heavy, weary sound, absently resting her cheek against her daughter’s hair, breathing in the citrusy scent- sweet and bright, like ripe tangerine, but with a hint of grapefruit’s woody, underlying bitterness. “The choices he made, even if they didn’t make sense to anyone else but him.” Another pause. “What about you?” Autumn hesitated. “…Yeah? Probably. Not exactly the same way he did, maybe. I don’t know. We didn’t really talk about it, to be honest. Not the whole Kavanagh thing, anyway. I guess…” She frowned, wrinkling her nose as she burrowed close against her mother’s side. “I guess if I had to explain what I think about what he thought, which sounds kind of weird, I’d say that there’s maybe too much of the world, of everything, for us to really understand all of it. I mean, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try, just that it’s too big for us to see all of it at once, and we come up with stories. Like the elephant and the blind men. So maybe Grandpa was feeling the trunk, and you got the leg, and I’m touching the side of it, you know? It’s all the same thing, the same elephant. Just…” She gestured under the blanket, her hands spreading apart and lifting the patterned fabric slightly, and shrugged. “Like, I don’t think magic is a real thing, and I’m not sure if Grandpa did, or if it was just how he framed the stuff that was too big to see.” “Mhmm. When did you get so talkative?” Autumn shrugged a little, pressing her face against the reassuring solidity of her mother's shoulder as she felt the telltale flush creeping up the sides of her throat. "I dunno," she mumbled, her words only half-audible through the blanket. It wasn't entirely true, of course- she had an idea that it might've had something to do with spending the day around someone who actually listened, but you didn't say that to your mom, obviously. The tired young redhead nestled closer, seeking out that maternal warmth that had so often been a source of comfort. With a knowing smile, Dana kissed the top of her daughter's head. "Should I blame Jason Bannon, do you think?" Her initial answer was a muffled sound that might have been agreement, followed by a soft, "Maybe." As Autumn hugged her mother's waist, the older, wiser redhead pulled her close; how many more of these little-girl moments would she get before the adventurous teen went off on her own for good? Not enough, the pretty veterinarian decided, exhaling as her eyes drifted closed for a moment as behind her lids bittersweet memories of family played out, of chubby, sunburned toddler cheeks and the rare sound of Owen's laughter, the smell of grilling meat and sweet grass underfoot. "I'm sorry about the letters." The apology, softly-spoken, was scarcely more than a murmur against her mother's arm as Autumn stared at the images moving on the television screen. "I just thought you'd want to see them." "No, I'm sorry." Her mom's voice was soft, her tone reflective as she squeezed the girl's shoulder. "You were right to show them to me." She sighed then, feeling her daughter's hair under her fingers as she stroked her back. "So maybe you're right - about the elephant thing. Perhaps your grandpa was trying to put a shape or a name to something that was too big for him to fully understand. I mean, isn't that what religion is?" Dana asked rhetorically. "He had faith - even if it was in something crazy, it was also in us." A thought occurred to her then, as she looked down at the copper curls crowning her not-so-little-anymore girl's head. "You know, if he believed that only a special person could find the letters, and you found them - maybe it wasn't so crazy." she commented, smiling a little. "Someone special did find the letters." Another pause as a further thought occurred, ideas beginning to take shape of all the strangeness that had happened of late. A series of random incidences, perhaps - the medical center lockdown, the fight, Autumn changing in ways that were surprising, new friends like... Jason Bannon? Devin Jauntsen!? It wasn't a fully formed thought. More a zygote of a thought. A fleeting sense of potentiality that was lost in the background noise of her emotional exhaustion and the contentment of holding her daughter close, but one that would, perhaps, surface again later in quiet moments. "You know..." Dana said casually. "Dad's letter mentioned a talisman bundle. I don't suppose there was such a thing?" "Mmhmm," Autumn hummed in half-conscious confirmation, the combination of physical and emotional weariness with soft canine snoring and her mother's gentle touch having led her perilously close to the edge of slumber. "Brought it back with the letters. It's on my desk, 's got feathers and stuff on it." She stirred, blinking as the hand on her back stilled and the vague shapes of the furniture and photos on the wall slowly came back into focus. That had been the whole point of talking about the office, hadn't it? The hope that her mom might actually consider at least going through the motions of the ritual. The bracelets, the talisman- even if she didn't understand how they worked, particularly, she'd seen some of the evidence that they did with her own eyes in the soft, shimmering silver of the Light surrounding them, and talking to Joe had helped lay a few of her concerns to rest. That, she considered, turning the morning's conversations over in her mind like a smooth river stone in her hand, had helped too, just hearing from someone who'd known her grandfather that he wasn't crazy. Or, at least, no crazier than anyone else in Shelly. Shifting, the drowsy young woman straightened, extricating herself with obvious reluctance from her mother's embrace. "I can show it to you, if you want?" "Please." Dana nodded, smiling a little at her sleepy-eyed girl. Smiling back, Autumn wormed off the couch again and went to retrieve the talisman, returning to the living room with it in hand and carefully passing it over before plopping back down on the couch. Her mom examined it, fingertips running over the mixture of long and short feathers, the polished stones, the occasional tooth or claw. the intricate braided leather thongs. "I should have listened more to him." the older redhead said quietly, her head bowing as she closed her eyes against threatened tears. "Maybe if I'd listened, tried to understand, he would have felt he could trust me with- With other things. I'm sorry, Dad." The last was said almost as a whisper as she drew in a steadying breath and raised her head again, smiling at Autumn through fresh tears which she wiped away with one hand, holding the talisman out on her palm. "Do... How do you feel about his instructions? I mean... It's silly, but I feel it would be right, somehow. Wouldn't it?" Dana asked, a trifle uncertainly as she regarded her daughter. She wanted to tell her mom it wouldn't be silly at all, that her grandfather had been right- mostly, anyway- and that it was okay. That it would be okay, because even after he was gone he was trying to protect his family, his daughter, and because she was going to help finish what Owen couldn't. But she couldn't say that, could she? There was no way to make that promise and be sure she could keep it. What if she couldn't? "I think," the expressive young woman replied slowly, earnest blue eyes narrowing slightly as she considered the question and the tumult of her thoughts tumbling over each other. "I think it feels like the right thing to do, yeah. It was obviously important enough to him that he left-" Autumn hesitated, her throat constricting around the sounds she wanted to shape, the words her lips couldn't quite form as she watched the tears drip silently down her mother's cheeks. Oh, god. Oh, fuck. I don't know if- "I mean," she managed haltingly, "I think it would. Um." Keep talking, Autumn. You're almost done. She swallowed hard, Dana's face rippling and wavering in her field of vision as if she were looking up through the surface of the creek, eyes stinging in the current. "It would help. Maybe." She nodded, lips compressed into a taut, pale line that suggested a smile. Her mom's answering smile was almost a mirror of Autumn's, tight-lipped with the urge not to sob as her own warm hazel eyes went liquid with hitherto unshed tears, but her nod of agreement was firm. "It will be like having another part of him still with us." Dana said, almost as much to herself as to Autumn. And then she smiled a little wider, carefully drawing Autumn into a one-armed hug, a hug which the warmly emotional young woman returned. The decision made, there was not much more to discuss. Mutual consent decided that over the front door would be the ideal spot for Grandpa's last bequest, the stepping-stool was fetched from the kitchen, the sewing box from the lounge. Exchanging glances, the two Kavanagh women - for such they were, by their blood and their roots in this land - each pricked their forefingers and dabbed a spot of blood on the strange talisman. There was an air of solemnity about the process, a sense that something sacred was being enacted, and then Autumn stood up on the stool, stretching upwards to hang the talisman on a small hook before stepping back down to stand alongside her mother. It was gradual, a faint whisper on the edge of her awareness, but it was enough to prompt the lithe young teen to focus her... sixth sense? Third eye? Shine-vision? And there it was, a tracery of silver so pale as to be almost translucent grey, a net of Radiance limning the doorframe, the walls, spreading from the talisman. And there was more, too. A sense that she'd only felt at her grandparent's house before now, and realized was the cessation of the spiritual smog that was omnipresent almost everywhere within Toole County. Here, the metaphysical air was clear for the first time, and Autumn could not help but smile slightly as she took a deep, steadying breath of it. Dana felt it too, at least on some level. Autumn could sense the tension flow out of her mom, could see the subtle lifting of her shoulders as though a weight was gone from them. "Yeah," she murmured, leaning against her mother's side as she peered up at the talisman with its claws, quills, and feathers where it hung above the door, just next to a frame that held one of her grandmother's embroidered blessings. "Yeah, I think that does help." Even without the faint web of intangible, invisible silver weaving itself protectively around the house, it really did just seem... right. It wasn't even about having the physical reminder of Owen, because until she'd found it in the secret room at the other house, Autumn hadn't known the odd little bundle even existed. The thing itself held no association with her grandfather in the energetic redhead's memory; it was the idea of the talisman, the notion that one of the last things he'd tried to do, in his own way, was to make sure they were protected from the Dark. The Enemy. And now, as her mom had suggested, some part of him was bound up in that ritual, that memory, to be kept safe and cherished as he'd wanted to keep them. This- Shelly- was her home. Their home, she reflected soberly. Not just that of her distant ancestors, but her family's. Her friends'. And paired with that thought was a curious possessiveness, a half-formed sense that the forces arrayed against them were wholly alien, antithetical to life, and therefore couldn’t be allowed to remain. As if, at least in part, she was entitled to make that decision. There were also people like her grandfather, like Nathan and Jacob and Laughing Joe who maybe knew what was going on, or had a vague idea of it, but who couldn't act directly- not like she, or the others in the Fellowship, could. Warden Crocker had called her the “Kavanagh in the hot seat,” and said they’d support her if she needed them. Rubbing her cheek idly against the soft flannel of her mom’s night shirt, Autumn didn’t bother blinking back the tears this time as something cold and tense suddenly twisted like a snake in her stomach. She might need them after all, because tomorrow, she was supposed to defend that home. It would be okay, right? She’d reassured herself of that earlier, but- Her arms tightened around Dana’s waist, eyes squeezed shut as she buried her face against her mother’s shoulder. For all the nightmarish horror, the undercurrent of raw and primal fear that gnawed at her belly and pounded against her ribs and shrieked and hissed inaudibly that she was six-fucking-teen, and there was a whole world she’d never get to see, and other people could handle it, and that it would totally destroy her family if she didn’t come home… There was also the quiet, undeniable truth that it wasn’t just her; the meeting with Laughing Joe, the journals, the training, and the talks had proved, definitively, that she wasn’t alone. She had seen, for just a moment with Marissa at the farm, the sheer enormity of what she was part of- of the ring, or spiral or whatever it was. Others had been where she was now. Others had taken risks. Others had asked these questions, wrestled with the same doubts, and still chosen to do what had to be done, even if they were afraid. Even if they didn’t want to. Everyone was fighting in their own way, she guessed, peering back up at the talisman. Even after they were gone. Autumn sucked in a shuddering breath and shook her head to dispel the uncommon existential bleakness of her thoughts for a moment, pulling away long enough for the two women to put everything back in order. They didn’t discuss the faint, dull ache of the matching pinpricks on their fingers, or how appropriate it was that Owen’s rough bundle of wild magic now hung next to his beloved Caroline’s more refined, domestic version. Nothing much was said at all, in fact, until they shared a brief, subdued exchange regarding what movie they should watch next. More popcorn (with a medically inadvisable amount of butter and salt) filled the big mixing bowl, blankets were straightened, and sleepy dogs rearranged themselves around the pair of redheads- a living barrier of soft snores and warm, furry bellies to ward off any lingering shadows as they all settled back in to cuddle for what the youngest of the Kavanaghs resignedly acknowledged might be the last time. “…Didn't I tell ya before? It's my island.” “Hamish, ride ahead to Edinburgh and assemble the council...” It was well after midnight when the front door opened and then closed again, but not yet so late- or so early- that the light of dawn had begun to steal across the sky. Dakota stirred and peered over the back of the couch, Zephyr grumbled, and Lexi yawned, while Briggs just whined softly without waking. “Hey, guys,” Ian murmured with a weary smile as he rubbed the big sable Shepherd’s head, glancing first at the flickering screen and then at the two women fast asleep on the couch in each other’s arms, with the pale light of the television sparking hints of gold in their hair. “I’m home.”
  11. Thursday, 29th August. 6th Period. Her head full of binomials and logarithms, Kat pensively walked out of the classroom, heading for what was going to be Study Hall. She wasn't really sure she needed Study Hall. What good would it do to her to mull over something she already had integrated and was already eager to apply to a thousand things, would she know more about its actual fields of application? She could see the use in practicing a newfound skill, like her powers, but then her powers didn't really compare with Maths. To her, there was a world of differences between theory and matter. Mainly the fact that if you do it right, theory is always right, when any given experiment might fail because of an uncontrolled parameter being either unknown or handled clumsily. Like what she experienced in the hospital. It clearly demonstrated that unlike theory, you must practice with a physical skill in order to successfully use it. Maths weren't a physical skill, but rather a mind tool requiring solid logics to be used. And boy, was her own logical tool solid. She had complete faith in her ability to complete the Maths class by the end of the semester. As to surviving till the end of the semester, well, that was another topic. She shuddered at the memory of the Spawns of the Dark. She was mulling over that, and a whole lot of other things, when an unruly mane of fiery curls caught her attention. Autumn. She said something about Study Hall, at the bleachers. Oh right, Homecoming! She increased her walking pace to catch up with the taller redhead. Study Hall, in theory, was an opportunity for students to review notes, catch up on reading and assignments, and make some headway on group projects. In practice, it was usually more like a social hour at the end of the day, where diligent academics dutifully blocked out the chatter with discreet earbuds and read Horace or polished their college entrance applications. As Autumn ducked under the arm of one of the football players leaning against the door frame to flirt with a grinning blonde, she muttered a quick "'Scuse me," and headed into the classroom. The last week had been a whirlwind of fear and excitement, a seemingly never-ending roller coaster of white-knuckle drops, exhilarating loops and twists, and madness-inducing inversions interspersed with too-brief interludes of seeming peace before they were all hurled headlong into the unknown again as the tracks fell away beneath them. It was, Autumn reflected as the mental image of a nightmarish theme park faded from her mind, kind of a lot. Things were happening so quickly, even in her own personal life, it was hard to keep up: in the last few days she had gained two new friends (?), she'd stayed over at Marissa-Fucking-Jauntsen's house, and The Impenetrable Jason Bannon had agreed to go camping with her tomorrow night... Plus there was the whole sort of vague plan of inviting the rest of the crew out there before Homecoming. What the fuck am I even doing? It wasn't like she'd never had any friends at all, or that she didn't know how to “people,” but she'd spent an unusual amount of time with the other teens in the group recently, and it felt a little odd, if she was honest. With the low groan of her chair seconding the redhead's unsettled state of mind as she melted bodily into it, Autumn watched from her seat near the window as the other students filtered in. For the Fellowship, this was their chance to fill each other in on things they'd discovered or plans they were making... But they'd already done that during lunch, sooo... Her toes tapped rhythmically on the floor as she hummed quietly, debating whether she should stop somewhere for actual food after class, or just wait until she got home. With the usual crowd intermittently making their appearances, her blue eyes skimmed over the faces of the other students as they entered. Her gaze stopped on a fragile figure that had somehow become familiar over the last few days. Sand-grey booties. Blue jeans. Grey T-shirt. Really pale skin. The French girl. Kat. She definitely could use a bit of sun. She watched as the petite redhead made her way through the flock of students picking their tables, to the one Autumn was sitting at. She looked... twitchy, with the arrhythmic pace of her steps, with her grey-blue eyes jumping to a million places at once, faithful image of her focus solely driven by stimuli. "Hey," the French girl dropped, once she finally reached her destination. The word held an underlying question the teen was not sure how to ask, but her eyes now firmly set on Autumn told she had some business with her. "Hey," the American redhead replied automatically, unthinking, abruptly distracted from her fantasy of a double order of garlic parmesan fries. She blinked, focusing on the delicate newcomer's features, and tried again. "Sorry, hi," Autumn amended with a grin that was at least partly in keeping with the casual apology, but partly not. French fries were serious business, after all. The young Shelly native took another look at Kat, at her uncertain expression, and tilted her head, eyebrows raised in inquiry. "What's up?" The petite redhead rubbed the back of her head and looked around, replying with a low voice: "Er... At lunch I understood you could explain to me, during Study Hall, what... Homecoming... is? Mind if I sit?" Autumn's lips rounded to an 'o' as she watched Kat's hand mechanically travel to the back of her head, a gesture of discomfort stressed by the pout she suddenly made while adding: "To be honest, since the day I came here I've kinda felt like I'm learning life all over again..." "You are not wrong," Autumn grinned, nodding in commiseration. "And I've lived here all my life, so..." The slight upward twitch of her shoulders served as physical punctuation, the implied termination of a thought not worth pursuing; it would be nice to have a conversation that only involved normal sources of awkwardness and social anxiety, for a change, rather than the nightmare levels of weird they'd all been exposed to recently. Gesturing toward an empty seat, the Shelly native straightened in her chair as the bell rang. She had suggested Kat save the Homecoming discussion until after their meeting at the bleachers, and although she herself planned on flying solo, filling the new girl in would give her a chance to decide if she wanted to do the same, or to find a decent date- or to just skip the whole thing altogether. "So. Homecoming," she began, keeping her voice low as she pulled out her Environmental Science textbook and opened it, flipping to the review section at the end of the first chapter. "Maybe you guys have something kind of like it in France? It's sort of like..." Peering up through her lashes at the fretful waif in front of her, Autumn pursed her lips. "Like a big school festival. It goes on for a week or so, and kind of gets the whole fall sports season started. It's kind of a big deal, more for the football team than anything else, but there's the game, and the parade, and all that. The dance is what a lot of people think about, though. I mean, it's not as big as, like, prom, but still kind of important. I'm pretty sure Marissa's had her dress planned since last Homecoming," the freckled redhead quipped, glancing surreptitiously toward the front of the room to catch a glimpse of her self-proclaimed bestie. Kat moved to the chair next to the one Autumn was sitting on and pulled it back while listening pensively. She pulled out a couple books from her backpack and sat down, flipping the pages of her English course at a fast but regular pace, her eyes scanning the words she read at their usual speed... lightning speed. English didn't feel as boring as Maths, but to be honest with herself, Kat realized that compared to her calculating skills, her English was far from perfect. Still, that book wouldn't last longer than any other book she had ever set her eyes upon. At Autumn's last comment, the petite redhead's eyebrows jumped sky high. "Woah, sounds like a big deal." She replied in a whisper, actually amazed. "I don't think we have anything like that in France, at least in high school. Maybe in college but, well, I've never been to college..." The pages of her book stopped flipping and Kat remained silent for a while. "I don't know if I'm gonna go... is it worth it going without a date?" She asked, turning to her new friend. "I mean, look at me, finding one is gonna be hard work, half the damn school thinks I'm twelve, and before I started putting some make-up on, they also thought I was a boy!" Autumn blinked at that last, a wave of bright pink flooding her cheeks as she averted her gaze. "Yeah... Sorry about that. Not that I actually said it out loud, or anything, but, um. I did kind of think it," she admitted with a slightly guilty grin, her nose crinkling. "I, uh... I also wondered if you might be related to Sean, at first, since you guys look sort of alike, and in a weird way, it fit, I guess? A boy who looks like a girl, and a girl who looks like a boy, I mean." The light bronze flecks sprinkled across the restive red-haired girl's face all but disappeared as her blush deepened at the admission. "Just a first-impression thing." Way to go, Autumn, just make the new girl feel even more awkward, why don't you? The toes of her sneakers scuffed at the floor as she swung her feet. "Anyway. If you want to go to the dance, you don't have to get a date date." The American pursed her lips, resting her chin on her fist as she really looked at the petite girl next to her, at her elfin features, almost translucent skin, and delicate frame; like Sean, Kat would probably get carded for everything, for the rest of her life. "You probably could- I mean, you're definitely cute enough- but there's only a couple of weeks, and chances are good they'd just be trying to get into your pants." There was a long pause, and Autumn grinned again, more mischief than apology this time. "Unless that's what you want," she teased. "If not, you could always go with a friend, or friends plural. I plan on flying solo, myself. I did the date thing last year, but we're-" Again, the freckles on Autumn's nose scrunched together. "It's complicated," she finally conceded after a moment, turning the page between her fingers idly back and forth. "Hm, hm," the French girl nodded, while silently glaring at her book. She couldn't decide yet. Too soon, and yet too late. She was indeed not intending to get anyone into her pants - yet, she thought - but dancing sounded nice. If she managed to somehow find a decent dress, then maybe she'd 'fly solo', as her friend just said. She leaned over the table, resting her forehead on her arms. "How complicated?" she asked, as the curious enough part of her brains managed to squeeze the question out. "Used to be my best friend, complicated," she replied, all mischief and levity vanishing from her features like a clear sky suddenly overshadowed by late summer storms. The sun outside was still shining, though, as the athletic young woman tugged at the string of her hoodie and glanced out the window, away from the new girl and the uncomfortable question she'd inadvertently asked. She couldn't even talk to Jacob about Jacob, so how was she supposed to explain it to anyone else? Autumn could hear Sean chatting with (probably) Jason somewhere nearby, the technophile's sweetly girlish voice easy to pick out even in a crowd, and someone listening to Ava Max a little too loudly behind her, but there was still an odd sort of silence in the wake of her admission. "So, yeah. Not really an option this time. It's fine." It's fine, she repeated mentally. Shrugging dismissively, the Shelly native flipped the page in her textbook, not even glancing at the text printed there. "The best part's the parties after, anyway." There was a brief pause as Autumn turned back to her 'study partner' and realized she knew basically nothing about Kat. At all. "Actually, do you party?" Whoops. Kat's hand mechanically travelled to the back of her head and rubbed it. Under her folded arms, her English book suddenly looked interesting as she considered her friend's - question mark? she thought - reaction. Nice one. Shouldn't have asked that. Bad Kat. Wait, did she ask me something? "Do I... party?" The French girl winced before adding: "Hmm... I don't go outside much..." She gestured at herself, from head to toes. The gesture in itself wasn't very lengthy, but spoke eloquently of the reason why. Autumn stared at her for a moment, her features a mask of uncertainty and confusion as she followed the movement, panning down the other girl’s slim frame where she sat perched uncomfortably in the chair. "Party," she repeated slowly, meeting Kat’s eyes for emphasis. "Like, do you drink? Smoke? Get a little faded? You, uh. Don't really have to do it outside." The petite redhead blinked, then chuckled at the thought. "Oh, that! Yeah, when the mood calls for it, I guess." She fiddled with the pages of her book, taking a look around at the other students. "Don't take it the wrong way, but I really don't like Study Hall." She paused for a moment before clarifying. "It's just... you know, it feels like watching a show a second time. Not as interesting to me because I know what's going to happen. Same thing for... this." She pointed at her book. "You ever get that feeling?" "About homework?" With a quick shake of her head, Autumn choked back a laugh. If this girl thought she was going to get anywhere on scholastic merit, poor Kat was going to be sadly disappointed. "No, I don't. I'm honestly just praying I graduate on time. The struggle's pretty real. I mean, in theory Chem'll be a little easier with Jase and Cassie at the table, but that still leaves English. You'd think being born here would make the language easier." Her grin broadened, and she flipped the end of the thick braid Marissa had woven back over her shoulder. "So, what else do you wanna know about Homecoming?" The French girl was starting to get hungry, her stomach producing a faint menacing growl, loud enough to raise a curious eyebrow from a couple faces around. A cute pout appeared on Kat's lips for a while, as she wondered if being ready to go to Homecoming - just in case - was a good idea. "Hmph... I don't know if I'm going," she replied, "but if I do, I need a dress. Any good shop you recommend in Great Falls?" Well, at least I'm not the only one thinking about food, the freckled girl laughed to herself. If she didn't already have plans for the afternoon, she'd probably invite the newest addition to Shelly's impressive array of redheads out for something delicious and possibly regrettable. "Honestly," she admitted, "no, I really don't. I’m not really all that into shopping, so I'm probably just gonna go with my mom at some point, or maybe... pick something up online? I don't know. I mean, I just want something comfortable, that fits, and doesn't cost a metric fuckton. But if you really want to go all out-" Autumn hesitated, a question implicit in her tone. Sure, Kat had met Marissa, but meeting Marissa was something altogether different. "Devin's sister, the really, like, crazy pretty girl with dark hair? That's kind of her thing." "Oh, yeah, sure... She seems... nice?" Kat checked the time on her phone before putting it away with a deft flick of her hand. "I didn't really talk to her yet. I mean, my Dad's girlfriend probably has some good advice too. We went shopping yesterday, it was fun.... until I accidentally activated something in my brains and it scared the shit out of me" She added in a low whisper. That got Autumn’s undivided attention in a way that talking about dresses hadn’t. With all thought of hunger and fries and similarly mouth-watering badness banished to whichever part of the brain happy dreams disappear on waking, she peered thoughtfully at the other girl, warm blue eyes narrowing in evident concern. She activated something in her brain that scared the shit out of her. Okay. So… What did that mean, exactly? Obviously some new aspect of Kat’s powers had surfaced, and of course that would be terrifying- especially if it happened by accident, and in public. The thought of being in that position herself sent a shiver rippling down her spine like icy fingertips, and she couldn’t help but shudder a little despite the warmth of the day, grimacing. That was kind of a nightmare scenario, wasn’t it? The French girl didn’t miss her friend’s glance. “I just… did some weird stuff with my Shine, and it kind of took me by surprise.” She whispered with a shrug. “Probably won’t happen again. At least not randomly. I mean, I know it’s there now.” She glanced back at Autumn with a poor grin. “I really hope Sunday’s training will help.” Weird stuff. Huh. Resisting the sudden instinctive urge to give the tiny redhead a hug, Autumn instead just nodded her agreement; not only were they in class, which would’ve made it super weird, she barely knew the girl… which would’ve taken it from “weird” straight to “outright fucking creepy.” Still, Kat’s attempt at a smile wasn’t exactly convincing, and a pang of sympathy twisted uncomfortably on itself in the pit of her stomach. There weren’t really any instructions on how to deal with hell-spawned nightmare beasts, or aliens, or alternate dimensions inhabited by things that wanted to destroy and consume and kill you- in roughly that order. There weren’t even any instructions on how to just get through junior year without totally losing your mind, or how to cope with losing someone you loved. Watching the porcelain-skinned pixie’s expression falter, her features wavering for a moment between the need to be strong and the desire to break down again at the memory of what had happened with Tess, Autumn nodded again, as if in confirmation. Everybody was dealing with something, weren’t they? Hmm. “Hey.” She smiled a little, her sea-colored gaze warmly encouraging as she reached out an amber-flecked hand. “Lemme see your phone. Just for a second.” Dubiously, the gamine French import complied, and her American counterpart deftly swiped the screen with her thumb as she hummed quietly to herself, shifting a little in her seat. As Kat watched, her new friend (?) snapped a quick selfie that was all white teeth, pink cheeks and cheerful blue eyes, and then rapidly entered her contact information. “There,” she declared finally, returning the smartphone to its rightful owner with an air of triumph. “Text me sometime. You can come smoke with me and we’ll go make poor life decisions involving salt, grease, and too much sugar.” “Sure.” The French girl replied with a genuine smile that was all dimples. At that moment she decided that she liked Autumn. Kat was nothing like an outdoors girl, but somehow she felt like she needed friends more than anything else in her new world. Besides, if the world were ever to turn into Darkspawn shit, at least she knew she could count on a few people here. And Autumn was really nice. There was something with her, that Kat couldn’t quite put into words, but it made her want to know her better. “Thanks,” she added with a wicked grin, “I think I need more sugar in my life…” Truth be told, Kat’s stomach couldn’t agree more. It did so, loudly. Fortunately for the ravenous teen and her stomach, the low rumble went unheard amidst the chaos of the final bell and the mass exodus of students to their lockers, the parking lot, and the field. The two girls smiled at each other, perhaps a little less awkwardly than they had at the beginning of class, and reflected as they headed their separate ways that maybe Study Hall had been good for learning something new, after all.
  12. Watching everyone milling around- upstairs, downstairs, in the door and out and in again- without any particular plan or idea of what they were supposed to be doing, but instead just sort of doing it, was oddly relaxing. Sure, the kitchen was a little crowded, and a little noisy, but it wasn’t what Autumn would consider hectic, just… Active, with people chatting amongst themselves and cleaning up, relaxing, winding down after the excitement of discovering more about each other, and about what they could do. Where they fit. Where they belonged. It was certainly less chaotic than trying to cook bacon with four excited dogs all jockeying for position around her feet. Smiling, she pulled down a couple of mugs from the rack as the coffee maker beeped that it was finished, enjoying the warm tides of vital energy that ebbed and flowed around her. Even after the discoveries she’d made in her grandfather’s study and what they’d learned that afternoon from Laughing Joe, the lively, rose-cheeked young woman still had a thousand questions which might never be answered. In fact, most of the answers she’d gotten seemed only to inspire more questions. Still, knowing that generations of her forebears had stood against these same rising shadows, that they had laid out the path forward in the very marrow of her bones and the blood in her veins, made it all a little easier to bear. Forging the link with Marissa earlier had demonstrated beyond her wildest imaginings that she really was part of this, part of a greater design, an unfathomably complex tapestry- maybe not a part of the Fellowship, specifically, but a part of what was happening, at least. And some of them were her friends, and there were Rules. Which reminded her: she hadn’t actually seen Marissa in a while, and they still had a conversation to finish. She’d said they would, after all. Rule Number Three. Autumn set the pair of mugs on the counter as Cassie came prowling back in through the door where Devin had just departed. Leaving the coffee for a moment, the vibrant redhead peered out through the kitchen door, catching sight of the gymnast as he headed toward the insanely expensive motorcycle he drove like a lunatic down the backroads of Shelly. “Hey,” she called, stepping out onto the porch and jogging down the steps after him. “Hey, did your sister leave? We were talking, and then training, and pizza, and-“ Hesitating, she shrugged. “You know. She just didn’t say goodbye, so.” Left unspoken was the implicit, “…so I wanted to make sure nothing happened.” “Oh, yeah, she’s fine.” Pulling his shirt down over his head, Devin shot a quick smile in her direction, a glimpse of white teeth that flashed and disappeared. “She text me not long ago, said Mom called her home for an errand or something. Now that we have our licenses, we get to do all the running they don’t feel like doing. She did dart out in a hurry, so chances are Mom pissed her off, don’t take it personally.” “Cool, cool,” she nodded. “I’ll text her later, then. So, listen. DeeJay.” She smiled a little, fleetingly, at the use of the nickname. “You didn’t have to help out this morning, or go to the Rez. But you did. And…” Autumn drew in a deep breath, sighing as she dipped her head briefly in concession. “It was nice not to have to do it by myself. So, thanks.” Squinting slightly at him in the bright light, her blue eyes narrowed and the freckles across her nose crinkled together in another unique, utterly singular pattern of bronze specks. “I mean it. Having you guys there helped a lot.” “Anytime, Granola.” He shrugged dismissively, as though it was no big deal. “I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m trying to be as good of a friend as I can be, even if some don’t want me as one. I’m not saying I blame them, but, y’know, if you need me, for anything, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll be there in a…” He smirked. “A flash.” That earned him a roll of her eyes as the expressive redhead returned the smirk with one of her own, a crooked half-smile that tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Mhmm. I’ll… keep that in mind, yeah. Anyway. See you tomorrow.” It was a statement, not a question; whatever else she expected of Devin, if anything at all, it apparently didn’t involve him bailing on them last minute. “Yeah, see ya,” he replied with a quick wave, turning back to the sleek Ducati as Autumn headed back up the porch steps and into the crowded kitchen. Maneuvering around the table where Tawny was carefully inspecting the contents of Jason’s backpack, she made a bee-line back to the coffee maker. It wasn’t a terrible idea, she reflected as she filled both mugs, leaving one pristine and pitch-black and profaning the other with sugar, followed by a splash of cream she got from the fridge. It would be easy enough to put something together that would keep her going for a couple of days, at least; it would just take a little re-shuffling of the supplies she’d taken to the Old Town Hall the previous night. Mentally, she ticked off the list of changes she would need to make, picking up the pair of mugs and turning just as Jase descended the stairs. He moved, as always, with the economy of motion and accompanying stealth that had startled and unsettled her on so many occasions, and only the warning flash of movement she caught from the corner of her eye prevented a scalding hot, highly-caffeinated disaster. Mother fucker, she swore inwardly as her heart leapt into her throat, a rueful grin curving her lips. If they were going to be spending more time together, she’d have to put a bell on him, or something. Christ. But where, exactly, would you put it? The thought was enough to send a tingling rush of pink flooding up into her cheeks from somewhere farther south, and as the cool green of his eyes met her warmer blue ones, Autumn held up the coffee she’d poured for him. An offering. A gesture of… something. Of what, exactly, she wasn’t sure, but it seemed appropriate. “Thanks,” he murmured, his gaze intent on her face, which seemed to her more feverish by the moment. “Mhmm,” she managed, even as her internal voice screamed at her to just freaking kiss him already. Was one word supposed to sound so… so… hot? Ugh. He was just thanking her for the coffee, for crying out loud, but- But then his fingertips were warm on hers as he took the cup, even that incidental contact sparking a sudden flicker of something galvanic down her spine. Autumn could feel herself leaning up, drawn toward the inscrutable young man as if by some new form of gravity, and then- “Excuse me, Jason Bannon. According to my sources, you're offering something called 'airplanes.' Can you comment on that?" The cheerful blonde seer swept around the table with a triumphant grin, having finally tracked down her elusive prey. “I’ve decided to write a companion piece to my main story.”
  13. Pressing her heels into the floor, Autumn got to her feet with a quiet huff of effort and stretched, luxuriating in the elongation of idle limbs and arching up onto her toes as she reached skyward. Her fingertips lingered on the coarse fabric encasing the spine of the slim volume as she, relaxing, slid it carefully back into place; it would have to stay here with the others, for now, until she could figure out what to do with them. The contents of the remaining envelope, still unopened on the desk blotter, were to be read with her mother- “together,” the other letter had specified, along with something about instructions to be followed. Maybe it held the yellowed deed to the lost mine they’d imagined, or the combination to the secret shelter beneath the memorial, or something even stranger... Or maybe it was just a practical list of what Owen had wanted saved and sold, along with a mundane explanation for why he’d kept the Dark and the cancer a secret- something he’d never given them when he was alive. Maybe something he couldn’t have given them, then. Would she have believed him, though, if he’d tried? Before Friday, if someone had told her what she now knew about Shelly, about their family history and the Crockers’ as well, would it have mattered- even if that someone had been her grandfather? She mulled that over, making another circuit around the office. Hm. No, probably not; they wouldn’t have had proof. Before Jason Freaking Bannon and Clara Wright had cornered her in the girls’ bathroom, scared the hell out of her, and casually dismantled what she’d thought she’d known about reality, she would’ve probably laughed it off, wouldn’t she? Maybe assumed they were teasing her or had taken some of the local stories a little too seriously. According to what Nathan had suggested, that had more or less been her mom’s reaction at her age, and it was a perfectly rational response to irrational claims; after all, if something could be asserted without evidence, it could just as easily be dismissed in the same way. Now that she knew the truth, of course, there was no going back to the Autumn of an hour ago, or the day before, or last week. ...And the more she learned, the more she realized how very little she’d actually known. The better she could see the road that lay behind her, the less she recognized the one that now stretched under her feet, vanishing over the horizon as it wound toward… what? It was unsettling, in a way. Disorienting. Like the unexpected shift of a compass needle, the slow creep of fog across a well-worn path, the alien arrangement of stars in a once-familiar sky. Even if she hadn’t been totally sure where she was going, hadn’t even really made plans for what to do after graduation yet, life had always seemed reassuringly straightforward. Not easy, but at least generally comprehensible. Now she couldn’t even say with certainty that reality itself was real. But, honestly, so what? This was the universe she lived in, now. It was terrifying and it was strange, even exhilarating in some ways, but her grandfather and generations of Kavanaghs had lived in it, too, hadn’t they? And they’d done it without the benefit of nascent powers, or allies who shared them. It hadn’t been in her grandfather’s nature to turn away from the things that made him uncomfortable or afraid, and she’d like to believe it wasn’t in hers, either. Besides- She closed the cabinet doors, reminded of the brief conversation she’d had with Gar Bannon at the hospital. The only thing that had changed, really, was her understanding of the world. Not the world itself. Knowing that these monsters were out there didn’t change the fact that they’d been there before, that all of this had already happened, over and over again. Still, it had to mean something, right? That she, out of all her ancestors with all their stories chronicled on the bookshelf over there, had the ‘Dawning Light.’ The journals and the bracelets and the Blackfeet, the roots of a family tree grown so deep into Shelly’s soil that they were almost one and the same- even her mother, who was brilliant and beautiful and could’ve had a career and a life and a family anywhere else, ended up coming home, as if it couldn’t have happened any other way. Even if it was something the Man in Black had engineered or designed somehow, and even if she had no idea what she was doing or could do in all of this, it still felt… right, somehow, that it should be her? Appropriate? Hmmm. No, not exactly. More… Her gaze fell on a faded map, framed and hanging on the wall, pensive blue eyes tracing the flow of rivers which branched off into tributaries and smaller streams but always found their way to the ocean, in the end. More… Inevitable. Huh. At least as inevitable as the fact that she was going to read that second letter, the impetuous teen decided after a few moments of contemplation, not bothering to take a seat this time as deft fingers withdrew the crisp handwritten missive from its envelope. The first one hadn’t said that it needed to be read exclusively together with her mother, after all, and something in it might be useful, and she was already here anyway, and surely Grandpa wouldn’t mind. Right? Right. Of course. Why would he? “To my darling Dana and my dearest Autumn.” Even softly murmured in the quiet of the hidden study, even though it was the second she’d read and even in her own voice, the words stretched back across the days and months until she could almost hear him, warmth and love and a little humor resonating under the habitual gruffness. Suddenly the chair looked a lot more appealing, its smooth wooden arms welcoming as she sank back down into the comforting solidity of its embrace. “If everything has gone right, you have been brought this letter by the person who opened my den door. Dana, I know it’d likely have been you that went to clean out the house, and I’m sorry none of the keys worked. That was a little medicine from my friend Laughing Joe, whom you likely don’t remember too fondly. Suffice to say that no-one normal could have opened the door. Only someone blessed by the Dawning Light.” Hmm. Her eyes drifted upward unconsciously, unfocused. That was going to be tricky to explain, wasn’t it? Either she’d need to lie and say that someone else had given her the letters, and then keep lying to build up the rest of the story about who they were and where they’d gone- stupidly complicated and awkward and definitely not her preferred option- or admit that she’d been the one to get them. Which… On reflection, that might not be so bad, maybe? If her mom didn’t believe in any of this craziness, and it absolutely was craziness, then a rational explanation for the key just coincidentally working could be found. Perhaps something had settled or shifted, the change of temperature or humidity or something like that finally being just right. Her mom would find a way to make events fit her view of the world. If she did believe, though, what would that mean? After the fight on Tuesday, Dana had been freaked out enough to tell her dad, and the two of them had actually grounded her. Which was also craziness in that it was pretty much unprecedented, even if it hadn’t changed much in a practical sense (apart from, maybe, not being able to follow through on her plans to show Jason the campsite over the weekend). What would her reaction to finding out about the Dark and the Fellowship be, if she thought it was all true? She’d probably send me off to that convent in Eastern Europe she’s been threatening to call up for the last couple of years. “I know, I know. ‘That old tale again.’ I can hear your sharp tongue scolding me, daughter mine. Set aside my silly obsession with local legends and just accept this - I love you with all my heart, you and Autumn both.” Unexpectedly, her voice faltered, cracking at the sound of her own name. No. No, no. Not yet. Drawing in a lungful of the faintly fragrant air, she steadied herself, delaying the inevitable for a few moments longer. “And from that love, and from where I now watch over you, I’m asking you to do a thing for me.” “You are both Kavanagh women by blood. I want one or, better yet both of you to take the talisman bundle the person who delivers this letter brings you and, pricking your fingers, dab some of your blood on it.” Autumn blinked, grimacing a little as she glanced up at the odd assortment of beads, feathers, and claws. “Stop wrinkling your noses, girls.” The unerring prediction caught her by surprise, and she made a choked, startled sound that would, under any other circumstances, have been actual laughter. “This is my last request, penned by my hand, and I will be scowling at you if you refuse it. Once that’s done, hang the bundle high up in your home, out of the way over a door or a window on the inside. Any door, any window, doesn’t matter. And then you can forget about it until you move house, in which case do it again especially, and I mean this, if you still live within Toole County.” Sunday, she told herself. Sunday, after we go to the Reservation. I'll talk to her then. “Do this not because you believe as I believe, but out of love and respect for my wishes. For I love you both and want nothing more than to rest easy knowing my family are safe as I can make them.” The rest, she couldn’t bring herself to say aloud: With More Love Than My Heart Can Hold Pa / Grandpa Owen It was strange, the power those lines penned in blue ink held. The words themselves were oddly formal, proper, even in the one addressed to family, as if he were being very conscious of getting them exactly right. To anyone else who might’ve found them, they would’ve meant nothing- a set of requests and instructions from one stranger to another, with all the emotional content of a dictionary entry or shopping list. To the young girl who’d stepped through the doorway into that little room and simultaneously onto a road winding toward invisible horizons both ahead and behind, they were the sure stroke of a surgeon’s scalpel and the balm after. As she replaced the letter with trembling fingers, the dam against which her emotions had been building suddenly broke, washing away all thought of history, legend, and her place in the world in the swift and onrushing tide of bitter tears and great, wrenching sobs. Later that evening, with the room locked again, Autumn trudged back upstairs through the house that was and wasn't hers to put the borrowed tools away; the ride home was quiet as only time spent enveloped in noise could be, wind and engine and thoughts insulating her as she drove, feeling utterly drained. Later still, after the conversation with her mother about the fight on Tuesday, and after replacing the keys on the hook next to the phone downstairs and rummaging through her closet, her nightstands, and finally her desk, Autumn managed to unearth a blank notebook patterned with white and yellow flowers. It didn’t look at all like the ones on the shelf in the other house, of course, but that was fine; it was hers, after all, not theirs, although she, too, was writing for someone she might never meet. “It all started with a door,” she began, and then paused, thinking of the numerous literal and metaphorical thresholds crossed since the week before, and the multitude she’d not yet encountered. That they, she corrected herself mentally, hadn’t yet encountered. With a faint, slightly crooked smile, she lowered the pen once more to the page. “But, I guess it always does. Doesn’t it?”
  14. [[Devin.]] The redhead frowned and stretched out her hand toward him. The spot where her fingertips made contact with his bare skin throbbed briefly, a sharp, burning sensation as if he’d been stung by a wasp, or accidentally touched bare metal left in the summer sun too long. …But that was all. A momentary flash of discomfort that appeared from nowhere and vanished almost as suddenly. “Is that it?” He shook his head in disappointment, brows arrowing together in a disparaging frown. “Seriously? C’mon, Granola. You can do better than that. A bee sting’s not gonna stop whatever Cody’s turned into. Don’t half-ass it. Think of this as your chance to get back at me for three years of giving you shit.” He tapped his chest again, regarding her with an air of open challenge. “Let’s go. I’m right here.” Autumn exhaled and pressed her hand flat against his skin, her eyes darkening as the wide, deep pools of her pupils expanded. Devin’s impressive athletic ability was something he’d gained through countless hours of grueling effort, of trial and error. He knew what it felt like to fail spectacularly until he finally got something right, and he’d had his fair share of sprains and pulled muscles and bad falls; the pain he experienced at the instant she touched him a second time outstripped all of them. It forced the air from his lungs as his diaphragm collapsed, and then so did he, crumpling like wet paper, folding in on himself gracelessly, helplessly. He hit his knees, breathless as blinding, unrelenting torment spread like wildfire from his solar plexus through his chest, setting off alarms all throughout his brain that whatever this was, it was going to kill him. He was going to die, he felt sure- even as his rational, logical mind reassured him that he’d been here before and in just a few seconds the feeling would ease, that he’d just had the wind knocked out of him and it would be fine. Except, it wasn’t fine, not at all. The feeling didn’t subside. He could only suck in tiny breaths in hitches and spasms as his eyes watered and the world blurred around the edges with bright sparks dancing in his field of vision and his stomach kept heaving but nothing happened and the only sounds he could make were guttural animal moans because there was no air and maybe he was going to die right there on the grass at Jason Bannon’s farm twitching like a beetle on its back and had he ever made anyone else feel like this and there were so many girls he’d never gotten to see naked and Tee was gonna look terrible in black and why wasn’t it stopping? It should have stopped, or lessened, or at the very least he should’ve passed out by now, but no. Stubbornly, consciousness persisted. The feeling of being unable to breathe persisted. The pain persisted, without diminishing and without respite. Agony and horror intermingled in the chaotic tumble of his thoughts as the interminable moments passed: he really was going to die. Except he wasn’t. And that was, for just a moment, the worst possible thing he could imagine. “-ey, …evi… …re …ou okay? Devin!” And then he was aware of Autumn kneeling beside him on the grass, her hands on his shoulders, shaking him, and it was over. Just like that, it was done, as if it had never happened, except that he was lying on the ground with the bitter, acrid taste of bile on his tongue, and the eyes that had looked at him with such reproach only a few minutes before were rimmed in red. [[Autumn.]] Okay, so he wasn’t going to teleport away, so… What was she supposed to do? She didn’t really have to injure him or anything, obviously; he just needed to know what she was capable of, so he could give her advice. That was all. It was fine. No big deal. Like Jason had said, there was nothing inherently malicious in it, and Devin wasn’t a threat to anything but her sanity. It’s fine. Stretching out her hand toward him, Autumn concentrated on that faint sensation of something streaming beneath her skin that was like, and yet not like blood, too intangible to be seen but nevertheless hot and bright in her mind’s eye. She touched his chest, bare fingertips on bare skin, and through that tentative contact felt the physical totality of Devin, the strange impression of movement that she’d felt when she’d hugged him in the hospital, as if he were only partially- or, no, intermittently- occupying the space she could perceive. As her awareness of his essential energy, his vitality sharpened, a flicker of that luminous scarlet Shine reached through her fingers and into the currents of his life, uncoiling in slender filaments that rasped across his nerves. He flinched and she recoiled reflexively, breaking the connection. “Is that it?” Devin grimaced a little and shook his head scornfully, eyes narrowing as she withdrew. “Seriously? C’mon, Granola. You can do better than that. A bee sting’s not gonna stop whatever Cody’s turned into. Don’t half-ass it. Think of this as your chance to get back at me for three years of giving you shit.” Squaring his shoulders, the gymnast smacked an open palm against his chest. “Let’s go. I’m right here.” Autumn exhaled. He was right. He’d asked to see what she could do, and, yeah, she’d technically shown him, but… But not for real. She wouldn’t have the option to pull metaphorical punches with Cody, or any of the other creatures serving the Dark. Right. Okay. She reached out again, pressing her hand flat against his chest, just beneath the breastbone. Again she could sense the blood and bone and sinew that made up his form, the strengths and frailties of the flesh, but this time she let his invocation of the torment and harassment he’d inflicted shape the expression of her power. It was shockingly, almost shamefully easy, the redhead realized, to bring that unresolved anger to the surface; where emotion met essence the sanguine energy flared bright, surging in rich crimson streams through her veins and the physical/spiritual connection of skin on skin to crash furiously, gratifyingly into him like an invisible wave of resentment and pain- And then he folded, dark eyes wide with shock and already welling with tears as the brash young teleporter hit the ground. His body curled in on itself, convulsing with the conflicting need to retch violently and draw in air, neither of which were physically possible, and a growing sense of unease washed away the haze of red that had flooded Autumn’s vision. Any second, it would wear off- he’d suck in a deep breath, maybe laugh, and say something stupid. It would be fine. But as the moments passed, and the gasping turned not to laughter but to guttural, animal wheezing, like a deer with an arrow in its lung, she started to worry. Oh, fuck. What if I really hurt him? A sudden rush of panic lanced down her spine, pushing her forward as she knelt on the grass beside him. Was he messing with her? A quick look at his contorted, reddened features suggested otherwise. Almost frantic now, the fiery young woman rolled Devin onto his side, ran her hands over his back and- No. Nothing was broken, there was nothing actually wrong with him, so why wasn’t he- “Hey, Devin. Hey, stop screwing around, are you okay? Devin!” And then it hit her: There was nothing wrong with him. It was pure sensation, not an injury. There was no way for his brain to cope with that, to compensate for the fact that there was no point of origin, no wound- she had completely bypassed his body’s ability to produce neurochemicals to adjust to pain. What the actual fuck, Autumn? That’s totally- No, no, fuck it, nevermind. Worry about that later. Almost on instinct she reached out, mentally dashing away the connection her touch had forged, and Devin shuddered once, violently, before collapsing onto his back. Shit, shit shit! Oh, fuck, oh god, she swore silently. The world went suddenly liquid as she grabbed his shoulders and tried to pull him up, but her fingers kept slipping on the sheen of sweat that coated his now-flushed skin. Come on, come on, you annoying motherfu- “’m good,” he croaked suddenly, wearily lifting one arm in a shaky thumbs-up as his pupils contracted, focusing on her face. “S’all groovy. Gonna die now.” “Oh, thank fuck,” she breathed aloud, releasing him and sagging backward to sit on her heels as her heart finally slowed its hammering inside her ribs. “Okay, it’s fine, you’re fine. Just, uh. Just try to breathe.” The words could’ve been meant for either of them.
  15. Fondler's First-Aid and Molester's Massacre. Really? That’s fucking hilarious coming from a guy whose powers are all about running away or making himself the center of the world. After those little quips Autumn was roughly two seconds from telling Devin with one finger what she thought of him, but that would defeat the whole purpose of talking to him in the first place, wouldn’t it? God, that was fucking annoying. Exhaling sharply, she pressed the palms of her hands over her eyes, staring into the faint patterns and formless waves of color that overlaid the darkness; it occurred to her after several moments of slow, measured breathing that to him, it probably actually was hilarious. …And she had sort of set the standard herself with the leg-humping comment. So- Fine. Whatever. "Spooked?" She took one more deep breath and let her hands fall back to her sides, considering what she’d seen of the teleporter himself as much as the actual words he'd used. "No. Not 'spooked.' I don't have nightmares. I don't wake up in cold sweats. I'm not afraid that I’m going to lose control and accidentally turn everybody inside out, or anything like that. What's holding me back from using them is knowing how to use them.” Squinting a little, she tugged at the end of the fiery braid draped over her shoulder, looking out at the broad sweep of open fields behind Devin as the sun glared down. “Jase gave me some really good ideas on how to practice the actual powers themselves, which will definitely make learning how they actually work and what the limits are a lot easier. Plants don’t move, though, and they don’t fight back, and everything the Dark throws at us sure as hell does. That’s why I’m talking to you, and you can either help me with that, or you can’t.” “Look, I get that you have seen some shit, and you’re trying to be less of a monster than the things out there that want to eat our faces. Awesome. I am here for it, one hundred percent.” The ocean-hued eyes that had been dark and tempestuous in the loft were calmer now, her gaze clear and direct as she levelled it at the former bully. “But this whole Broda vibe you’ve got going on right now isn’t working for me. We’re not at the point in…” She gestured vaguely with one cinnamon-speckled hand, indicating the space between them. “Whatever this is… that I’m ready to talk to you about feels. Hell, your sister and I are supposed to be best friends, and I’m not even sure we’re there yet. So, if you really want to know what I can do, all right. I’ll show you. Well,” she amended with a one-shouldered shrug. “Part of it, anyway.”
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