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Autumn Keane last won the day on June 16

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About Autumn Keane

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    Shelly, MT

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  1. Enterich... Enterich. Hmm. Autumn chewed over Cassie's revelations along with a bite of her fries, resting her phone on her thigh. It didn't sound like a Shelly name, if there was such a thing; a lot of the older families had Irish roots, and this sounded sort of German. Someone from Marias, or the military, maybe? If he had something to do with Bulwark, that could explain how he knew Cody's... What would you even call him? His predecessor, she guessed. There were other possibilities, sure, apart from being someone on the base- that it wasn't his real name, that it was part of some crazy-convoluted plot by Mr. Black as he played chess with peoples' lives, that he might be Mr. Black himself, or that through the miracle of the internet the guy wasn't even geographically anywhere near them, like some rando on a subreddit. That didn't explain how Cody got involved, though, did it? There were probably- no, definitely- options she couldn't even imagine. Cass was right, regardless: if this guy was involved, whoever he was, they needed to find him and figure out the part he was playing in what was happening. What she'd said about ritual sacrifice did, in an awful way, sort of fit with what they'd found in the Old Town Hall, especially those weird drawings scattered around. Which meant maybe this Enterich had been the one to bring Cody into it. There were other thoughts, too, or at least fragments of them, but after what they'd seen down there, it was hard to put them in any kind of order; every time she tried, the image of those little reflective strips glowing incandescent in the shadows filled her mind's eye. The ride to Bunnee's had helped a little, the fresh air both cleansing her lungs and drying the faint trails her tears had left in the smudges of dirt on her cheeks, while salt and grease (somewhat ironically) were helping with the lingering nausea. Once the food was gone, though, and this was over... She shivered involuntarily and took another drink of her soda. Just focus on what you can do right now, she reminded herself. There was a time and a place for meltdowns, and as the past week had illustrated so very clearly, it was almost always going to be "later," and "not here." "It doesn't sound familiar to me," the red-haired teen finally replied, her brows knitting together in an uncharacteristically thoughtful frown. "So either he's not from Shelly originally, or-" "Hey, ladies, have you decided?" Their waitress, a somewhat matronly woman who, despite looking generally exhausted with life was still making a laudable effort to sound pleasant, derailed Autumn's train of thought. "Oh, hey, sorry. Um, yeah," the redhead replied, picking up the menu she hadn't really given more than a cursory glance yet. Aware of the warmth flooding her cheeks under Connie's polite scrutiny, her eyes flicked across the table at Cass in a silent plea. "Right! So, I'm thinking the extra thick chocolate shake looks good," Cassie chimed in helpfully. "What exactly makes it 'extra thick,' though?" As the weary server patiently explained that they used three times the normal serving of chocolate ice cream, so it was almost impossible to drink it through a straw, Autumn quickly scanned the list of flavor options and silently thanked whatever innate telepathy girls seemed to share. "Oooh, good to know," the future Pulitzer winner chirped brightly. "Yeah, I'll have that. And maybe a spoon. Autumn?" "Umm... Yeah, I think I'm gonna go with the strawberry shortcake shake this time. Thanks." Smiling up at the obviously overworked waitress, she waited until the older woman was almost back to the counter before continuing. Just in case. "Okay, so... Where was I?" "He's not from Shelly, or..." "Right, yeah. Okay. So, maybe he's not a native, or maybe it's not his real name, but you're right. If he was the one who put Air Force guy up to..." Autumn hesitated, sucked in a sharp breath, and pushed onward. "Up to that, then we need to know more about him. God, this is all crazy. It's like, the more we find out, the more we realize how much we don't know. You know?" Meanwhile The Jauntsen compound, as their neighbors joked, lit up the Montana horizon with a brilliant dome of soft white light visible from quite a distance away. It originated from the training yard the family had constructed about two years ago. It was a large area, roughly a fifty yard square on their property that was dedicated to various gymnastic and acrobatic athletic endeavors separated by stretching and rest stations throughout. Like a fifty yard by fifty yard gymnastic obstacle course in possessed nearly everything from space of a floor show to station for rings to one for vaulting. Uneven bars and parallel bars were about half way through the course, since those were what Devin favored the least, making sure he had to do use them or live with knowing he skipped them and left his work out incomplete. It was a sly trick on his father's part, preying on his son's ego and 'not a quitter' attitude. Carl Jauntsen had the construction commissioned a couple years back so his son would have something to do while he was bored in Shelly. Most of the equipment itself wasn't difficult to obtain inexpensively on line once the workers had cleared and leveled the land. Since then it was where his son had retired nearly every evening for no less than an hour, often times longer and when he was particularly stressed or irritated, Devin could spend all day on the course. Marissa, to a lesser degree, would use the stretching station and open floor for yoga and stretching exercises. It allowed the twins more time together and kept them out of their parents' hair. Devin and Marissa were out there now, talking and carrying on about whatever the twin's found time to gossip about. They lowered closer and closer to ground as their legs slipped further and further apart until they were both doing the splits side by side. Marissa leaned to right and left, stretching her body and leaning forward so her chest touched the mat. Devin was no less flexible. Resting his palms on the mat he slowly lifted himself until he was horizontal, then pushing himself up until he was in a handstand with his legs still in the splits. "Look! Look!" His voice was strained trying to get his sister's attention under his own weight. "I got it! Do I get a laser sword now?" "What? Like a Jedi?" Marissa answers, looking back in his direction as she continued stretching. "And they're called 'lightsabers', dumbass. Also, I don't think so. You have to be able to do that with nothing but your magical space body parasites or something... I don't know. I was never really a big fan of Star Wars. It's so convoluted. I mean, Terry Brooks might be wordy, but at least he's always made sense and not changed his mind mid-story.” “Nerd.” He grunted, as he continued to push himself up slowly, bringing his legs together in an attempt to rise to a full hand stand. “I'm not a nerd, I just read. You know, books? Those things with pages and all the words.” When the blinking of Devin's phone caught her eye she rolled from her stretching and scooped it up, swiping it on to take a look at who was texting. “Texts from Autumn, huh? She says they're all good.” Devin's arms wobbled from the exertion but his legs came together and he allowed himself to arch forward swiftly, bending until legs touched the mat and he swung himself up until he was standing next to his sister. “Better,” she critiqued. “You need more strength training though, you're still too wobbly.” “Yeah,” he nodded in agreement. “It's harder than I thought it would be. Lemme see,” he accepted his phone from her and took a look at the screen. “Looks like they're done with the Scooby Dooing.” Glaring at the screen he tapped out a response. [Nice, Scrappy. Good to know you two are okay. If you and Velma need anything, HMU.] He set down his phone and scooped up a towel, padding himself across his shoulders and forehead. He quieted a bit as he dried himself from his exertions. “Alright, what's up?” His sister sighed, noticing he was a bit less interesting after replying to their text. “Spill.” “Huh? Oh, nothing really,” Devin had both ends of the towel and looped up and over the back his neck. “It's just, being current year, I don't want to be all macho and smother them when they go out to do something stupid like that alone, I mean, I dunno.” “You're worried about them.” Marissa said plainly, dabbing her abdomen with her own towel and letting it drape over one shoulder before twisting the cap off a bottle of water. “Yeah, I mean, I trust them, sure, but, if something were to happen and I wasn't there-” “Then you'd be either dead or dying right along with them,” Shelly's Queen Bee put it simply. “Those two want to explore spooky ruins on their own without thinking of taking an obvious, instant, emergency exit along with them 'just in case', then I say Darwinism will simply do the work that social media, bullying and public schooling have failed at. Pick your battles, Galahad.” “You're all heart, Emjay.” Devin smirked. “Alright, two more sets, lets go.” The twins stepped away from their phones and went back to their exercises.
  2. At first, there was nothing but the sounds of the building slowly decaying over their heads as Autumn waited, glancing now and then at Cass who sat still as stone on the floor with the dusty, blood-flecked shoe in her hands. Restless and on-edge, the red-haired young woman shifted from one foot to the other, occasionally giving the heavy wrecking bar an experimental swing. It was reassuringly heavy, solid, something tangible to hold onto as the minutes crept ponderously by in the oppressive gloom. The past two days had flown past, but now- when she wanted time to go quickly- her concept of what time even meant seemed to just sort of... dissolve. It left nowhere to direct her energy, nothing to do but wait, as if her entire body were a bowstring drawn without an arrow. Directionless. Unfocused. Nothing to concentrate on but the smell of death, the sound of the old Hall breathing around them in the darkness, and the awful image of dark rust-red stains on a small white shoe. Then Cassie cried out in alarm, and all of that potential translated into movement: the beam of her flashlight cutting through the shadows, the pry bar falling to the filthy concrete like the angry tolling of an iron bell, her hiking boots striking the floor in a quick flurry of steps that brought her to the pretty blonde's side. "It's okay," Autumn replied automatically as awareness dawned on her companion's face at the sound of her name, her arms going around Cassandra's shoulders even as she tried to slow the mad surging of her own heartbeat. The horrors the young seer had borne witness to manifested in violent trembling as the redhead squeezed her close, resting her chin atop the other girl's hair. "It's okay," she tried again, wanting to at least sound as if she believed it, attempting to summon forth some of the confident reassurance her mom used with agitated animals and what are panicking teenagers but seriously agitated animals but... Could it be okay? Even without hearing any specifics, it was pretty obvious from Cass's reaction that whoever had owned that little shoe didn't miraculously escape the basement to return home safe and sound. The same awful feeling she'd had on seeing it- really seeing it and recognizing what it meant- constricted around her heart, mingling horror and despair into an unfamiliar weight in her chest. Things like this didn't happen in the world she knew. But does that world even exist anymore? Did it ever? These weren't questions to be considered in the dark, surrounded by tiny furred bodies and ominous drawings and the almost unbearable psychic miasma of suffering and fear. Swallowing her nerves and revulsion, Autumn slowly got to her feet and glanced from the door to the Door, pulling Cass carefully up with her. "Hey, listen... Let's get out of here," she all-but whispered as she gave the plucky reporter another quick squeeze, almost succeeding in keeping the quaver from her voice. There was no guarantee that just because no-one had caught them there yet, no one would, and she had absolutely zero desire to be there any longer than absolutely necessary. "I need some fresh air and a whole lot of sugar, and not to be here." She was quiet for a moment and then added soberly, "...without a couple of gas cans and some matches." Before long the two girls, both looking dishevelled and ill-at-ease, were seated on opposite sides of a massive basket of fries, the overhead lights of Bunnee's relegating literal darkness to the world outside the diner. Carbohydrate therapy was a time-honored and well-documented practice, and one of which Autumn was particularly fond. As she scraped a pile of golden-fried deliciousness onto her plate, she peered across the table at her friend- because after the hospital and now this, Cassie had to be a friend, right?- and then back at the crowded restaurant. Saturday night in Shelly. "What kind of milkshake are you thinking?" the redhead began conversationally, breaking the relative silence. "I mean, I know we probably need to talk about... Well." Shrugging uncomfortably, she made a vague gesture with the fork in her hand. "About what you saw. I just kind of wanted to, I don't know... Just breathe for a little bit, first, you know?" Pause. "Also, we should probably text Devin, because I don't trust him to not grab Jason and go looking for us." She managed to muster up what felt like a smile and took a sip of her soda, pulling her phone from the zippered side pocket of the pack sitting next to her on the seat. Swiping the screen with her thumb, Autumn savored the comforting normality of French fries and a Coke before tapping out a quick message to the teleporter. [We're out. No search party needed. Meet at my house for breakfast in the AM, 0830ish if you're hungry. Will let Cass and Jase know. Ask if you need directions.]
  3. "I don't... I don't know, Cass," she replied distantly, the sound of the other girl's voice and the light pressure on her shoulder dragging the horror-stricken young woman back from the nightmarish precipice. She blinked, turning to focus on vague shape of the pretty blonde who, in the grayish ambience of their flashlights, was also visibly struggling to keep from totally losing her shit. "I mean, maybe...? But this looks like it's been here a few weeks, at least." As she spoke, something clicked into place, a puzzle piece that suddenly fit. "...Since before Cody disappeared. Oh, fuck." Never the most studious or intellectual of her peers, Autumn was nevertheless faced with what seemed, in the face of what they'd seen in the last few minutes, to be an inevitable conclusion: Cody Sikes probably wasn't the first, or the only person aiding the Dark in Shelly. If the drawings were any indication, there may even have been other "Codys" before him. The whole cycle-thing had been going on for decades- generations, really- but was it always like this? This... horned, skeletal figure? Someone being possessed? Like a, a cult, or something... And if so, could some of the people from the last time, people who weren't stopped, still be in town? She kind of wished she'd gone through some of those old journals, now, but that'd have to wait. A shiver rippled down her spine that had nothing to do with the chill in the dank air, or the ticklish trickle of icy sweat that rolled down her neck. Slowly, she got to her feet, freezing as the end of the pry bar scraped in angry protest against the grimy concrete floor, but only the ordinary sounds of old buildings filled that aeons-long moment of tense silence, the muffled groans of aged wood and the skittering of mice insinuating themselves into the space between heartbeats. The tense, hard line of her jaw softened fractionally, and the redhead took a shaky breath before exhaling. "Listen, um." She hesitated, joining the young seer next to the ominous sketch on the wall. "If you want to find out what happened..." The earnest, wide-eyed adventuress peering at Cassandra from the shadows of the basement hesitated, her free hand instinctively rising in a placating gesture, fingers spread. "And if you don't want to do it, I totally get it, and it's fine, because this is a whole lot and I kind of want to just set the building on fire and walk away, but we still have stuff to do, so... Maybe you could do the thing from Dr. Cook's office? On the, uh... On the shoe, I mean. And, maybe you're right, you know?" Autumn continued, attempting to inject what she thought sounded like optimism into her voice. "Maybe somebody was just... I don't know, just playing down here, and nothing happened, right? But we'll know for sure, and then we can just not worry about it and focus on all the other stuff."
  4. "Fuck." The thought and the its vocalization were simultaneous, the latter being more quietly intense- an anguished exhalation at the sight of the abandoned shoe and the recognition of what it signified. "Jesus fucking..." The strained whisper trailed off into silence. As the bright beam of her flashlight wavered, the wide-eyed redhead stepped somnolently forward, gaze fixed on the reflective yellow-green-silver stripes as they flashed bright in the darkness. Blazed like a beacon. Like a warning. The blue-white circle of light shrank as Autumn got closer, knelt down beside the little shoe that looked so painfully out of place down here. She didn't want to look. Didn't want to see it. Didn't want to think about it. Something in her brain rebelled against every movement, an instinctual urge for self-preservation that extended not only to her physical well-being, but the retention of her sanity as well, as if the unconscious part of her was somehow aware that this single, mundane object was more dangerous to her peace of mind than all the nightmare beasts and inter-dimensional horrors she'd experienced thus far. That any of them had experienced thus far. And yet... Before she realized it, her hand was outstretched, trembling fingertips brushing against the dingy white faux-leather. The thin, superficial layer of dust smudged easily, and the mold prevalent throughout the building had only just begun to creep over its surface; it couldn't have been here more than a couple of months, at most. Even as the pragmatic portion of her brain processed that, synthesizing this new information with what had -before her involvement with all of this insanity- seemed sad, if fairly ordinary news at the time, a soft, despairing whimper clawed past the lump in Autumn's throat as the child-sized shoe rolled toward her. The rust-brown smudges, the dark flecks on the gently-worn interior fabric and embedded in the rough texture of the tiny velcro closures, were neither mold nor dirt. Oh god. Ohgod, ohgodohfuckfuckfuck Skittering gracelessly backward and falling into an awkward seated position on the dirty floor, Autumn clamped a hand over her mouth as hot tears streamed down suddenly ashen cheeks. The animals were bad enough, but this... Dimly aware that it was just a child's shoe, that there was no broken little body left behind, no garish resolution to the implication of its abandonment here save for the marks leading to the wall, the girl's chest hitched painfully, spasmodically, her sobs stifled only through sheer force of will and the fear of being discovered. All thoughts of whether Not-Cody could ever be Cody again, of the decades-old drawings on the walls, of secret government facilities and implausible family legacies and strange powers, fled abruptly in the face of this forlorn little remnant of a lost boy's life.
  5. She'd heard the occasional complaint about someone's pet going missing lately, mostly from her mom, but hawks, coyotes, wolves, inattentive drivers- there were all kinds of perils to be blamed for Mittens not coming home. Now, though? Now they knew the real reason, for all that she wished they didn't. "Ohgod," Autumn managed hoarsely, choking back the bile she could taste at the back of her throat. The nausea was as much a response to the sight itself, to the smell of the small flyblown corpses now that they were close enough, as to the pointless savagery of the cats' deaths and the haphazard disposal of their bodies. Even when hunting, the goal was supposed to be to make the kill as quick and painless as possible, to treat the animal with respect because it was going to feed you and keep you alive. This was... It was as wrong, in its way, as the oil-slick feeling of the air on her skin, or the burnt-sugar smell of those other woods. She shook her head as the reality of what Cass had told them about Not-Cody finally began to sink in. The instant she'd processed how brutally they'd been killed and casually disposed of, another, more gut-wrenching thought occurred to the horrified redhead: what if they were still- No. Nuh-uh. Absolutely fucking not, Autumn Keane. Not right now, because if you don't move your ass, you might find out for sure. Worry about it when you get what you need and both of you get the fuck out of here. It was hard to argue the logic. Grimacing at both the scene and the dull ache in the pit of her stomach, the redhead exhaled slowly and swallowed. Hard. They hadn't even gotten to the basement yet, and she wondered, not for the first time that day, what she was even doing. "Get a picture, and let's, um. Let's go." Turning back toward the door they'd come through, Autumn lingered just inside the room, waiting and listening to the quiet creaks of the near-century-old building. "Do you..." She hesitated, her voice barely more than a whisper. "Do you think Cody did this?"
  6. No backing out now. Not that she would have- probably not even that she could have, if she'd wanted to. Grimacing slightly at the musty smell of decaying wood and creeping mold, Autumn exhaled quietly and unclipped the sturdy little tactical flashlight from her belt. Even in broad daylight, there was no way to tell what color it had originally been painted, so scuffed and abraded was the aluminum; it had seen its share of adventures, and the redhead felt a little better just feeling the metal grow warm in her palm. With her thumb on the button, she pointed it downward, clicking it quickly on and off to make sure- one last time- that it was working before they set out. Directed at the floorboards, the bright strobe of the blue-white beam wasn't quite blinding, but it was enough to make her wince. Maybe next time I shouldn't wait until my eyes are adjusted to the dark. ...If, y'know, there is a next time. There were, after all, plenty of reasons there might not be. Rather than focus on any of them, however, Autumn blinked rapidly to clear her vision and gave herself a quick final check-over as Cassie did the same. Multi-tool. Camp knife. Crowbar. Pepper spray. Flashlight. Everything she might need quickly was either in hand already, or near to it, and the rest was bundled up in her backpack and out of the way. Maybe none of it would be necessary. Hopefully none of it would be necessary, she reminded herself, but it was always better to have and not need, than need and not have. There could be very mundane, practical problems quite apart from those of Not-Cody and whatever hellish things might be hanging out in his creepy AF bachelor pad- the websites she'd looked at for UrbEx resources put wild animals, vagrants, and structural damage at the top of the list of hazards. She guessed those people had probably never spent time in Shelly, or they might have prioritized a little differently. "Okay," she murmured, her voice barely audible in her own ears over the steady, rapid drum of her heartbeat. "On the up-side, I don't think we have a lot of ground to cover, and it should be pretty hard to get lost in here. We just need to do a quick check, see what's up, and move on. I know you said you were looking through to wherever Cody was, but do you remember, or did you see, where it connected to our side?" Even in the shadowy interior of the building, Cassandra could just make out the way her freckled companion angled toward the sagging doorframe, all her attention directed toward the darker rectangle in the decaying walls. "I was thinking we're gonna want to be as thorough as we can, so nobody's blind-sided when we come back here." There was a brief pause, after which the redhead added, her thumb idly rubbing the button on the end of her flashlight, "Hopefully."
  7. It had been a couple of hours since the low rumble of the Charger's engine faded into the distance, but the parting words of the green-eyed devil who'd tamed that growling beast still rang in Autumn's ears: "Care over curiosity." For all his stoicism and evenness of temperament, there was a note of something she thought she recognized as concern in Jason's voice as they'd said their goodbyes on the front porch. Keeping that in mind, she'd considered carefully what to wear, what to carry- although she'd never broken into a building before, a little Googling suggested that most "urban explorer" kits consisted mostly of common-sense gear anyway. Well, common-sense for someone who went on solo hikes into the Montana woods for fun, at least. She’d dressed for practicality in dark green weatherproof, rip-stop climbing pants and belt, with a long-sleeved button-down shirt over the requisite tee, the ever-present hoodie, and hiking boots, her hair French-braided and covered with a navy bandana; Marissa would have been apoplectic at the mere sight. Everything else fit into a backpack, and the heavy pry bar would just get strapped to the frame of her bike once she got outside. The only issue she really agonized over was whether or not to bring the bracelets her grandfather had been keeping... but without knowing how they worked, or whether they’d cause a reaction like the one Cassie’d had when she came in contact with Devin’s, it was hard to justify the risk- even if they might be useful. “Mom, I’m going out,” she called as she jogged lightly down the stairs, shouldering the small, lightweight pack after reviewing its contents one last time. “Out?” Dana inquired, her head appearing over the back of the couch where she and the four other residents of the Keane household were relaxing after the unexpected events of the evening. “Yep! Remember, I said earlier I was going to hang out with Cassie Allen for a little while?” “Don’t you think one adventure in a day is enough?” the elder redhead retorted dryly, reflecting on her first meeting with the intense, inscrutable young man who’d just left earlier. Disquieting as the pretty vet found him, the fact that his presence seemed to have put her daughter in high spirits was undeniable. “Nope!” came the breezy reply as Autumn swept into the living room and gave her mother a cheerful kiss. “And don’t worry. Cass is cool. She’s on the newspaper, good student, wants to be a journalist. We have Chem together, with Jase,” she added by way of explanation. “She’s one of the people I want to invite up to the camp site later, if everything works out. Actually,” she paused for a moment, considering. They had planned to go to the Rez, hadn’t they? “We’re getting together with a couple of the others from school tomorrow morning, so I can just have them meet up here and introduce you, if you want?” “Sure,” Dana agreed with a faint smile, hazel eyes sparkling. It was hard to say no to that face, so open and earnest and obviously excited, as much as her protective maternal instinct might urge her to do so, particularly after that business at school, and the medical center. “As long as this introduction doesn’t turn out the same way the last one did.” “Hey,” Autumn protested, her cheeks growing warm under her mother’s bemused scrutiny. “It’s current year. Besides,” she added impishly, her own blue eyes warming with mischief, “even if it did, there’s no chance this one could possibly give you grandkids.” “Oh, for- Autumn Rae!” the woman too young to be a grandmother spluttered, her attempt to sound indignant failing miserably in the face of her daughter’s teasing. The adventurous teen just grinned in response, her nose crinkling slightly as Dana sighed in mock resignation, trying not to laugh as she shook her head. “Fine. Go on, then, and don’t be out too late.” “I won’t,” the younger Keane reassured her, pressing another quick kiss to her mother’s forehead and looping an arm around her shoulders in a brief squeeze as she turned to go. “...And keep your phone turned on!” Her mother’s voice followed her out of the room. “I will,” Autumn called from the hallway, the laughter evident in her voice even across the house.. “And be careful, and remember I love you!” came the inevitable reminder, followed by the familiar response. “I know, I love you too!” Within just a few minutes of the door closing behind her, she was on her way down the narrow road that wound between acres of shadowy pines dotted with hidden glades. The long, solitary ride to the Old Town Hall was quiet and uneventful as the sun sank inexorably toward the horizon, wooded hills giving way to the seemingly endless miles of flat, unremarkable farmland. It was, more or less, the same trip Autumn made almost every morning, though typically with a greater sense of urgency after having overslept. This time, there was no rush, and by the time she got to Shelly proper she could just begin to feel the muscles of her calves and thighs growing warm. Despite the deepening twilight and the ominous nature of the task before the pair of intrepid explorers, it was a clear, beautiful late summer evening. Her spirits buoyed by the prospect of being able to contribute to the group’s efforts and help unravel some of the mysteries surrounding them, the redhead drew in a deep lungful of clean air and pedalled a little faster. The thought that a certain someone would be going with them in the morning was totally, absolutely not lingering in the back of her mind, keeping her cheeks warm despite the rush of wind past her face. Nope. Not even a little. Catching sight of a dark-clad figure near the next intersection, just outside the circle of light cast by the street lamp, Autumn lifted a hand in greeting as Cass waved her over. “Hey,” she replied with an enthusiastic smile, putting one foot down to stop herself. “I think I’m good. I looked up a couple of websites on urban exploration, and the only things I didn’t bother with, apart from all the camera stuff, were a respirator and coveralls. Light, snacks, water, first aid, and tools… Um, pepper spray, too, just in case someone’s living in there. I’m not really sure what to expect, to be honest, so I tried to pack light in case we need to get out in a hurry.” Nudging the kickstand down, she knelt next to her bike and unstrapped the velcro bindings keeping a sturdy-looking two-foot wrecking bar tight against the frame. “This, um, wasn’t on any of the lists,” the perpetual Girl Scout admitted a little sheepishly. “I just didn’t know how locked-down the building would be.” She glanced across at the silent, derelict building, suppressing a shiver. "Do you think we should hide our bikes somewhere? I haven't really done anything like this before."
  8. Owen Kavanagh had been gone from this world for more than a year, his ashes scattered at Logan Pass just as the dawn broke over Going-to-the-Sun Mountain one morning in late June. It was exactly the farewell he’d asked for, an informal gathering of two small families and a wary flock of bighorn sheep watching from the mist-veiled hillside. The somewhat fussier to-do had come a couple of weeks later, an obligatory ritual to satisfy the townsfolk’s compulsion to foist their condolences and casseroles onto people who didn’t necessarily want either. The clutching hands of near-strangers, the almost metronomic litany of sorry-for-your-losses, the forest’s worth of paper fashioned into mass-produced sympathy cards- all well-intentioned gestures that, ultimately, seemed shallow and meaningless. For them, life would go on. And yet, even now, something of her grandfather lingered in this room, in every amorphous whorl of dark-grained wood and whisper of aromatic tobacco that rose from the plush carpet, her toes sinking in with each step. It was a bittersweet feeling, this flicker of wonder at the mysteries the place contained overlaid with the emptiness of loss, the uncomfortable tightening in her chest at odds with the warmth of her affection for someone who could no longer share it. Autumn stared at the envelopes on the desk, eyes tracing the neat script she recognized from documents they’d shredded, and from half a dozen birthday cards kept in a box of treasures under her bed. Deep blue ink on crisp white paper stared back at her. Sit, it bade her, and she did, unthinking, sinking into the wooden chair that gave only a half-hearted creak of protest after long disuse. As Autumn glanced at the first envelope, the one addressed to herself and her mother, her fingers practically twitched with the urge to reach out, to open it, but she hadn’t come here for sentiment alone. She’d come for the journals, to see if what Nathan had said was true. This is what she reminded herself, that there was a point to all of this, a purpose. Her grandfather’s notes, the historical references he’d collected could be useful, could maybe help them figure out what was happening in Shelly and why… And, maybe, if they were lucky, how to stop it. For all the strangeness of feeling surrounded by the presence of someone she’d known and loved in a place she’d never been- and it was strange, and strangely reassuring- there were more pressing issues to deal with first. Priorities. “To Whomsoever Opened The Door,” she murmured, smiling in spite of herself. “Still putting on your good manners for company, huh?” She took up the second envelope- after all, she was the one who unlocked the door, so it should be totally fine. Right? Right. Opening it, she took a deep breath and drew forth two sheets of stationery folded together. There was no date, no emblem or monogram, just faint grey horizontal lines on paper that felt heavier, more official somehow, than the kind used for normal note-taking or correspondence. Exhaling, she leaned back in the chair and began to read. “To Whomsoever Opened The Door,” she repeated quietly, and in the stillness of the room the young redhead could almost hear the words in her grandfather’s rumbling voice. “Obviously, I’m not here to greet you in person. A source of great sorrow to me, but not so great as the sorrow I feel in leaving my family in sadness and without protection. Unless my old friend…” She paused, frowning at the name that followed, and hazarded a clumsy attempt at pronouncing the unfamiliar arrangement of syllables. “...my old friend Askuwheteau was wrong- and in all the time I’ve known him, he never has been- you have what the Blackfeet call the ‘Dawning Light’. Either that, or the protection his grandfather gave mine doesn’t work and the whole lot of them have been laughing at us this whole time.” Huh. ‘Dawning Light.' Pausing, Autumn considered the sound of it, the way the words felt in her head. She had to admit, it sounded a little better than “the Shine,” which reminded her unpleasantly of that old horror movie with the guy who went crazy in a hotel, tried to kill his family, and froze to death in a hedge maze. Ugh. Suppressing a shiver, the girl pushed the thought aside. So far, what she’d read seemed to fit Nathan’s story- that people from their families who underwent ...whatever this coming-of-age ritual was... were supposed to be protected somehow from the Dark and those influenced by it. “Pardon, stranger. I feel death coming, and it makes me bitter.” There was no warning, no way to prepare for the shock of reading that admission aloud. The words swam before her eyes as if blurred by a surge of warm waves in clear blue shallows, remnants of which dripped silently down her cheeks. No. No, no, no. Absolutely not. You do not have time to cry right now, Autumn! Get it together. This is important, her inner voice chided her, and despite the sudden, sharp aching in her chest, practicality demanded she focus. Blinking rapidly as if to banish the upwelling of the emotional sea within her, the heir apparent to this increasingly strange legacy quickly skimmed the rest of the paragraph, her eyes catching here and there on certain words but not stopping to process them fully until she reached a passage that seemed safer. Less personal. “A man who is like a son to me has also been entrusted with this, but I am asking you as well, though I have no right…” Okay, yeah. That would have to be Warden Crocker, who’d said he’d come on her grandfather’s behalf- as much as she loved her dad, her grandfather had been as much a part of Nathan’s childhood as Nathan was of hers. She paused, as a sudden thought struck home: if Nathan really had been asked directly by her grandfather to talk to her, that meant he’d been carrying this around for almost a year and a half, along with everything else he was dealing with at home. Oh, god. Her heart sank a little at the realization, made heavier by a twinge of guilt at the little selfish surge of resentment she’d felt when he’d dumped all this in her lap yesterday. “...See that my granddaughter goes to the Reservation,” she continued soberly, “and meets either with Askuwheteau - ‘Laughing Joe’ they call him - or with whoever is in his place. Tell them she is Owen Kavanagh’s granddaughter, and they will know what is to be done.” Well, she conceded, ‘Laughing Joe’ was definitely easier to pronounce, at least. It was nice to have a name she wouldn’t be likely to screw up when she asked for him. When she’d talked to everyone at the bleachers, earlier, she hadn’t been entirely sure who she was looking for, and Sophia seemed nice, but she wasn’t like them and Autumn didn’t really know her, and Devin had freaked out, and things had just been kind of… weird. Though, she guessed they’d been weird for a little while now, hadn’t they? Or Weird, even; the memory of her phone call with Jase, brief though it was, brought a sudden rush of warmth to her cheeks. With a quick shake of her head, Autumn tried again to concentrate on the task at hand, toes drawing formless designs in the carpet as she swung her feet. “In the bottom drawer of my desk is a small lockbox. One of the keys on my old key ring opens it. If you are what I hope you are, what Laughing Joe thought you’d be, then what’s in there is for you. ‘Protections for warriors’, he called it.” A thrill of excitement raced through her at this new revelation, sea-colored eyes intent on the bold blue script as she leaned forward, eliciting a faint creak from the old chair. The letter didn’t specify what they were, or how they worked, and apparently this friend of her grandfather’s wasn’t sure, either- just that they’d been passed down to him ‘against a time promised when warriors would come and drive out the Darkness.’ Frustratingly, there was no further explanation of the nature of the protection, the warriors they were meant for, or the fact that it suggested some kind of prophecy. She’d just have to find out on Sunday, which, in that moment, seemed a lifetime away to the restive red-haired girl. Her grandfather did, however, mention the journals she’d come to find, although apparently they hadn’t been of much help to him. Maybe it would be different for the Fellowship? Sure, they were still trying to piece things together themselves, but Nathan had said on Wednesday that he’d never actually seen some of the things she’d described, so maybe that perspective would give them some kind of advantage reading through the old records. “A final favor I ask of you, stranger. A favor to a dead man, who will not be able to repay it.” Autumn’s voice wavered threateningly, that telltale stinging behind her eyes again as she exhaled slowly and forged ahead. “Take the other letter on my desk to my daughter and granddaughter, along with the talisman that hangs above the door of my den. Tell them that it was my wish for them to read the letter together and to follow the instructions therein.” Unconsciously, her gaze drifted up to the strange beaded object above the doorway, its outline luminous in her mind’s eye, down to the envelope with her name and her mother’s name on it, and back to the letter trembling faintly in her hands. Why? The dull, hollow feeling of grief and the flickers of pleasure at happy memories were familiar to Autumn when thinking of her grandfather, were easily processed, but this frustration Ms. Kyleson had conjured yesterday… this anger, was still relatively new, and as she felt her face grow hot a part of her couldn’t help but wonder why he’d done all this. Why didn’t he ever say anything when he was alive?! How could he just… just push that responsibility off onto other people, like Nathan, and this random person he was blindly trusting to do what he asked? Why would he trust a total stranger to find out who she and her mom were, and deliver his message? What if he’d been wrong, and no one had ever said anything, or found the room?! How were they even supposed to have found it, anyway, or gotten the keys, or put all of it together? “Fuck,” she groaned, leaning back abruptly to rest her head on the back of the chair. “Sorry, I know I’m not supposed to swear, but seriously, Grandpa. Seriously. This isn’t fair, you know?” Only silence answered her. Closing her eyes, the faint scents of smoke and long-unopened rooms filled her awareness, along with the solidity of the chair she was sitting in and the soft, dense pile of the carpet beneath her feet. There couldn’t be an answer, of course, to any of it. It was as pointless to ask as it was to be angry at someone who wasn’t there, and there were plenty of other things, other people more deserving of her ire. She knew that. The knowing didn’t make it any easier. With a sigh, Autumn opened her eyes again, staring up at the painted wood ceiling before sitting upright and returning her attention to the paper in her hand. “May the Dawning Light guide your path, and may you always know your star,” she breathed finally. It seemed unnecessary to read his signature aloud, especially after such an uncharacteristically poetic line. It reminded her a little of camping trips they’d all taken when she was younger, when both families had all been together, and her grandfather and Joe Crocker had told her and Jacob stories about how the constellations came to be, and how to use them to find your way if you were ever lost in the world. Truth be told, she was feeling kind of lost, and she wondered for a moment exactly how long she’d felt that way. ...Or whether, if it hadn’t been for the events of the past few days, she would ever even have noticed. Still, she kind of liked the sound of it, almost like a prayer, or a benediction. May you always know your star. “Thanks, Grandpa,” she murmured, smiling a little. “I’ll be sure to keep an eye out. For now, though, let’s see what these ‘protections for warriors’ are.” Reaching into the pocket of her hoodie, Autumn pulled the plastic keyring out again, bits of brass and nickel silver jingling musically in a quick, bright chime of encouragement. To her surprise, the wooden drawer slid open easily, empty but for a slightly weathered metal lockbox that seemed to shimmer with soft luminescence as the inquisitive teen lifted it out almost reverently and set it on the desk.
  9. "Well, we've been in classes together and so on since I moved to Shelly." Jason replied calmly, dextrous fingers and sharp knife making swift work of the tomatoes. "Aware of each other, without really talking." Dana nodded, setting the olive oil on the counter. Jason tilted his head to one side. "Do you have any balsamic vinegar?" he asked casually, causing Dana to think a moment before nodding and retrieving that bottle from the cupboard too as her guest started in on the onions. Dana checked the oven temperature and lightly oiled the potatoes before setting them on a tray. "But we started talking last Friday." Jason went on. "Autumn bumped her head on a door - it swung back into her face, to be exact, and one of my friends noticed the tumble. She grabbed me, because I have a certain level of medical knowledge, and we went to check on Autumn." He glanced up at her, giving a faint smile. "She was fine other than a bruise. Fine enough that she was giving me a hard stare for walking into the girls bathroom and caring more that she didn't have a concussion. I got her some ice for the bruise, then we invited her to sit down with us." The corners of his eyes crinkled slightly as he started arranging neat slices of tomato and even thinner sliced onion in the dish. "Not the best of starts. I really got the impression she thought we were oddballs and that I was up to no good." "I probably would have assumed the same thing if someone I barely knew followed me into the women's restroom," Dana replied a trifle archly, narrowly suppressing a smile. That did sound like Autumn, all right, or at least her propensity for mishaps. "So," she continued, adding a little coarse salt and pepper to the potatoes as she leaned over to examine Jason's handiwork. "You started talking on Friday, last week." With a little hm and a nod of approval at his progress, she turned back to her own preparations. "And, from the sound of it, not necessarily under ideal circumstances. Thank you for looking after her, by the way." Hazel eyes flickered once more in his direction, considering his profile as he worked. There was something unusual about Jason Bannon, though she couldn't quite put her finger on it. He seemed too... mature, really. He didn't give off the impression of being a drug-running miscreant now that she was talking to him in person, but he didn't quite seem like a teenager, either- didn't conduct himself like one, or move with that awkward semi-conscious lack of spatial awareness most of them had, didn't use the same slang terminology. "So how did you two end up getting close enough since then for her to invite you up to the creek?" He made a soft sound of amusement - a proto-chuckle of sorts. "Well, she hung out with a bunch of us at my home on Sunday, and left without her hoodie. On Monday evening she came to get it back, and then stayed to talk." Satisfied with his arrangement of the layers of tomato and onion, he inquired after a bowl and whisk and began mixing some olive oil and balsamic in the bowl, before slowly whisking them together. "I... I was having a bad day. Personal issues. Autumn was able to get me to talk about them - indeed, she was the only one who cared to talk to me about them." He paused, eyes going distant as he recalled the night - her warm hug, the conversation in the kitchen, the teasing and laughter. "I think..." he said slowly. "I think Autumn is the only person who really, really tried - and tries - to understand me." The words were matter-of-factly spoken, but seemed to come from a place of vast distance, or so it seemed to Dana. There was no self-pity there, or sorrow, but there was a sense of alienation, of a young life lived in apart-ness. He looked up from grinding some salt and pepper into the bowl, his gaze direct as he regarded Dana. "Autumn made an impact on me. I think that's when we became friends." He dropped his gaze and considered the bowl of dressing, then raised it to his face and gave it a sniff, pondering for a second before adding a touch more pepper. "And the rest is her defending me at school, then inviting me camping. And... I suddenly realised - we both did, I think - what was there." He chuckled again. "Perhaps it didn't exist until that moment, like Schrödinger's Cat. Until we opened the box and looked." He shrugged his lean shoulders. "I'm not really an expert on this sort of thing. Autumn is the first girl that ever kissed me." Leaning back against the counter, arms folded across her chest, Dana Keane listened quietly as Jason related the very brief series of events that had led, more or less, to finding the pair of them on the front porch. It was gratifying, in a sense, to hear someone- a stranger to herself- praise her daughter's character, as if in confirmation that she'd been raised well by people who loved her. And yet, that same maternal inclination, some completely mundane and yet unfathomable instinct, told her that this polite, well-spoken young man might have no idea what that felt like. The thought didn't lessen her worry for her daughter, necessarily, but his account did reinforce Autumn's insistence that they really had just been friends. ...Which, given the rapid escalation of their relationship, was more than enough to justify a measure of concern. A responsible 16 year-old was still a 16 year-old, after all, with all the dubious judgement that entailed. "Really?" she asked when he'd finished, one auburn brow raised skeptically as a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. Her keen hazel eyes appraised his height, the faintly Mediterranean cast of his features, the pale green gaze Autumn had remarked on more than once. "I find that hard to believe. You're a nice-looking young man. Surely my daughter isn't the first one to think so." "I never claimed that." A fin of humour flashed in the depths of his eyes, echoed in another of those small but genuine smiles as he glanced back at Dana, meeting her gaze once more without any of the discomfort that should be present in a teenage boy talking about such a subject with an older woman. No blush, no self-deprecating aww-shucks shrug. It was both impressive and somewhat disturbing. "I've known there've been girls that took interest in me, at least according to sources other than my own perceptions. I've not had a lot of luck following up on that, though." Giving the dressing a final whisk, he artfully drizzled it over the dish of layered tomato and onion. "Like I said - Autumn's the first who actually kissed me. And honestly, the fact that it was her meant more than the fact it was a kiss." He picked up the dish and moved over to the refrigerator, opening the door and selected a spot on the shelf on which to place the salad. Closing the door, he turned and faced Dana from across the kitchen, the corners of his eyes crinkling in a micro-smile. "You worry for Autumn." he stated calmly, arms hanging at his sides with a relaxed poise that had nothing of the defensive or bashful about it. "It's good: seeing that love you hold, the way you care. I won't hurt her, Dana. I'm not careless with my friendship... or other feelings." "Can you really guarantee me that?" she replied, head tilted slightly in an attitude of intent curiosity. It was a largely rhetorical question, born of the older woman's objection to what she saw as his naïve optimism. Although Jason Bannon had the manner of an adult, the bearing of someone considerably more mature than his actual age would seem to indicate, he was, she reflected, still a boy, after all. "That you won't hurt her." Dana shook her head slowly as if in answer to her own question, but remained leaning comfortably against the counter. "No," she continued, not unkindly, but with the certainty of one accustomed to promises and the fickleness of both circumstance and human nature. "You can tell me that you'll try not to. You can reassure me that you won't do it intentionally." Her eyebrows drew together in a little frown, an expression of thoughtfulness her daughter unconsciously adopted when considering a problem. "But, eventually, you will. Even if you're not careless. Even if you don't mean to." She was quiet for a moment, glancing past Jason and toward the doorway where Autumn had vanished to go upstairs. "I do worry," Dana agreed, moving to gather up the utensils to be washed and glancing up at her daughter's strange new companion. "She's my child, my little girl, the hardest and the best thing that's ever happened to me. And I know that, even though she'll be my baby as long as she lives, she won't be a baby nearly that long. So, I'd rather you didn't tell me something unrealistic, like the fact that you won't hurt her. Tell me how you'll handle it when you do." He focused on the question, on her words, and his brow furrowed in concentration as he gave the matter his full attention. As Dana kept one eye on him, he paced a few short steps, hands going into the pockets of his sweat pants, then turned and paced back. Then he went motionless, as if all extraneous energy had been turned off and the actual Being of Jason Bannon was elsewhere, eyes staring unseeingly at the counter-top in front of him. He didn't even seem to breathe. And then motion and animus returned, and his head came up, eyes glancing towards Dana once more. "I think..." he said slowly, as if analysing his thoughts as they were verbalised. "That people often hurt each other. Even those close to them, though that seems to be mostly selfishness, mistake or carelessness. I can eliminate carelessness as a cause for Autumn's pain. I can do my utmost to limit selfishness as a cause. But I will make mistakes." He frowned. "You're right. It is not so much a question of whether I will hurt Autumn - probability indicates that even with the best of intentions, I could upset her." He turned to face Dana, nodding as the analysis reached its conclusion. "I think that if I hurt Autumn I would handle it by assessing how, by discussing it with her, and by not repeating the mistake." Dana stared at him for a long moment, warm hazel eyes nearly as wide as her daughter's as she struggled with the conflicting urges to simultaneously laugh and weep. Both teens had said they'd met at school, but she was half-convinced her intrepid daughter had unearthed this increasingly odd boy from a government research lab. ...Something with extraterrestrials or artificial intelligence, maybe, like the television shows the girls at the office watched. The more he spoke, the less he seemed like the slouching thug from the rumors, but that wasn't necessarily reason not to be concerned. "That is an answer," she allowed with a sigh, her expression a strange commingling of resignation and amusement. "Although at least now I know for sure you were serious about never having had a girlfriend before. Speaking of which." Reaching up into one of the cabinets overhead, the svelte redhead pulled down a coffee filter and busied herself measuring grounds from an airtight canister on the counter. "Autumn mentioned you had a few," she paused, the corner of her mouth curving into a wry half-smile. "Quirks. So what should I know about you, Jason Bannon?" "Quirks." He smiled faintly. "I suppose I do." He relaxed, leaning back against the counter on his butt and hands, a lean symmetrical form in repose. "It's always a little odd, to describe yourself to someone else, isn't it?" Dana shot him a warm smile as she heard the wry humor in his tone. "Hmm. Things you should know..." Jason mused, his eyes on his girlfriend's mom as she set the coffee machine up. "I have an acute sense of smell and taste - which is one reason I like to cook and garden - specifically flowers, but I dabble with other growing things as well, like a vegetable and herb patch I've started at home. I tend to be - as you likely noticed - analytical. A lot of nuanced human interaction goes over my head." he admitted with a shrug. "I don't lie." "Really?" Dana raised a brow as she started the coffee to drip and turned to regard him skeptically. He just nodded, a faint smile at the corners of his lips. "Really. Outright lies offend me. I'm perfectly capable of evasion, concealment, half-truths, misdirection and letting someone jump to the wrong conclusion, though." he said with a small grin. "But the thought of categorically stating an untruth revolts me." He shrugged again. "It's just the way I'm made, I suppose. If I say a thing is so, then to the best of my knowledge it is." "Huh. Good to know." Dana wasn't sure she believed it, but other than a wry amusement at how she was reacting, he didn't seem to be playing with her. "Anything else?" "I speak six languages not including English and plan to learn more, because I like languages." he stated with another of his expressive, lean shrugs. "I have perfect recall of every moment of my life, every experience, sight, sound, smell and touch - both good and bad. I've never taken a proper intelligence test, but I imagine I would score fairly high, based on my speed of information absorption and comprehension." He considered. "I think that covers things you should know." "For a narrow definition of 'should,' I suspect," his girlfriend's mother observed dryly, having missed neither the emphasis of the term by repetition nor Jason's candid assessment of truth-telling. "But for now, since this is the first time we're talking, and Autumn will probably shower as quickly as she can to limit my opportunities to either ask something embarrassing or tell you something embarrassing, I'll take it." He seemed sincere enough despite the incredible claims he was making, or at least confident enough in what he was saying that it passed for sincerity, and yet if he was telling the truth it made his involvement with her daughter seem all the more unusual. Neither their interests nor abilities seemed to intersect, she mused, removing a pair of mugs from the rack as the coffee burbled in the machine. And yet, at least one shared interest seemed patently obvious, she remembered, still feeling more than a little voyeuristic at having seen them interacting in the doorway. "I am curious, though." Glancing briefly at the lean, green-eyed youth as she passed, Dana pulled a small container of heavy cream from the refrigerator. "All of that sounds fascinating, and while I'm firmly and unwaveringly convinced that my daughter is essentially perfect... because she's mine," the pretty veterinarian added good-naturedly. "The two of you don't seem to have much in common. Where's the connection?" "I think we have more in common than some might suspect." Jason replied calmly, smiling a little at her. "As I said before, we bonded over a single long conversation, and I find her to be curious, brave and warm. She's restless rather than studious, but she seeks understanding. We both enjoy hiking, camping and outdoor activities, finding the same peace and sense of pitting ourselves against the elements in the pastime." He smiled a little wider at a memory. "Last night-" "Am I going to want to hear this?" Dana said half-seriously. Jason grinned then, actually grinned - a flash of humor that transformed his composed features for a moment, making him seem his age, before fading to a smile with the mirth still dancing in his jade gaze. "I'm not that forthcoming." he remarked somewhat impishly. "No. We were talking, and I mentioned something about quantum theory in passing, and she recalled myself and Sean talking about it on Sunday last week, so she asked what it was all about. So I explained about the current search for the Grand Unifying Theory, the gaps and holes in it, and some theories about what might fill those gaps." He shrugged. "She listened, she asked questions, she was curious. She's not narrow-minded, interested only in what her immediate experiences provide. And nor am I. There's a commonality that goes beyond mere learning." His smile softened, just a fraction of warmth touching the cool shade of his eyes. "I find her amazing." "Do you," Dana observed/inquired quietly, honey-colored eyes narrowing speculatively at the subtle shift in Jason's expression. Autumn and Jacob had grown up together, were fond of each other, had been thick as thieves before the break-up and the rift that grew between them- but the word "amazing" had never entered the conversation. Now, in the span of a few minutes, both her daughter and this strange, moderately unnerving newcomer had each used that specific term- totally independently- to describe the other. It was simultaneously sweet and unsettling, the thought that the tall, spare young man who'd put such a light in her daughter's eyes might himself possess a bit of that same spark... especially when it had flared into existence so suddenly. "How do you take your coffee?" she continued conversationally, considering the way he'd described Autumn, the tone and the phrasing he'd employed. Had he really only known her for a week? Could he actually have drawn such conclusions on the basis of… What had he called it? ...A single long conversation? Most teenage boys, she reflected ruefully, would have used rather different words to describe the athletic young woman. ...Then again, Jason Bannon was evidently not 'most teenage boys.' "In a mug, usually. If I'm really jonesing, I just snort the grounds." Jason said casually as he crouched down and fussed over Lexi, who had come up and was sat at his feet looking up imploringly for attention. Dana noticed how intent and deliberate he was, the long slender fingers gently scritching behind the pit's ears, then down the sides of her neck as Lexi panted happily even as the slender veterinarian let out a snort and a musical chuckle at Jason's comment. He glanced up from the dog and smiled, head tilting to one side and eyebrow raised in wry humor, and a few things clicked into place for Dana as to why Autumn was so into the youth - other than the obvious. He was intent on whatever was before him, utterly present in each moment, took emotional topics seriously rather than deflecting with jokes or embarrassment, and yet was possessed of a curious dry understated humor. His eyes were glacial and icy on first meeting, but as he opened up they took on a richer, warmer expression which was only rarely echoed in his features. When he looked at a person he really looked, and they either felt an uncomfortable sense of being stared at by a wolf... Or they felt like they were the focus of his entire universe. Whoa. "Black and plain is perfect." Jason said as Dana stared at him in that moment, causing the normally self-possessed woman to start slightly and then nod, turning away and letting out a breath. She still wasn't entirely happy with the speed at which Autumn and this young man had evidently fallen into each other - but she understood it a little - okay, a lot better. And this is when he's sixteen and on his first girlfriend. Saints preserve all good women when he 'grows up'. As she poured the coffee, she heard the sound of footfalls on the stairs as Autumn tried to walk - rather than run - back down and prevent the maternal inquisition from squeezing too many uncomfortable facts from her boyfriend. "Apparently, there was a study that said someone who drinks their coffee black is more likely to be a psychopath," Dana teased as the sound of bare feet on hardwood reached her ears, skipping down the last couple of steps to the accompaniment of clawed canine paws clicking on the bright maple floor. She was just handing Jason his mug as Autumn rounded the corner with her Shepherd escort, the young woman's damp red-gold curls loose around her shoulders and her fair skin still faintly pink from the heat of the shower. Nothing was said about the faint purplish smudge at the juncture of the girl's throat and shoulder, just visible over the neckline of her shirt; her mother merely sighed, peering sharply at her daughter's new boyfriend over the rim of her cup as she took a drink. It could be worse, she reminded herself, trying not to think of the rising teen pregnancy rate and finding precious little reassurance in the way Autumn's gaze was drawn by some unerring feminine instinct to her boyfriend's face. "We've got a little while, yet, before dinner," she stated pointedly, glancing at the timer on the oven. "You guys are welcome to watch some television in the living room, or we can play cards..." Her voice trailed off, and a gleam of mischief sparkled in the depths of her hazel eyes. "Ooorrrr, I can bring down your old photo album! You know, Jason, we've got the most adorable pictures of Autumn from when she-" "Mom, come on, not cool!" Autumn protested vehemently, sweeping past both of them to grab a mug from the rack. She'd changed into a pair of dark green running shorts and a slightly oversized t-shirt, which Dana would normally consider a perfectly modest outfit to wear around an interested teenage boy; a quick glance at Jason and the direction of his gaze, however, left her with the unsettling feeling that it might not matter what she wore. "Since you're our guest, Jason, do you have a preference?" her mother inquired, putting the cream away as Autumn finished up. He had indeed been studying Autumn's shape, barely hinted at under the t-shirt but then more clearly outlined by the running shorts and the smooth musculature of her legs as she leaned to grab the mug from the rack. As Dana spoke to him, however the heat faded from his gaze as it shifted back to the older woman, replaced with a faint smile that touched the corners of his eyes. "The photos sound intriguing-" "Ugh!" Autumn glared at him over her shoulder, the pink in her features now nothing to do with the shower. "No. No way. Not unless you bring yours to the table too." she added with a crinkle of her nose as she smiled, imagining a small, grave faced ragamuffin with too-large eyes. Then the redhead blinked, turning back to her coffee as she remembered that she had, as a matter of fact, seen a young Jason - merely ten years old and newly arrived in Shelly - trying to get his hands around a boy's throat with a coldly intent expression in his eyes... and then turn and sink his teeth bone-deep into a teacher's wrist when he'd been pulled off. Before that, he'd been the quiet, shy new kid, and even though afterwards he never so much as got into a scuffle, the memory had stayed with Autumn if only subconsciously, to be pulled up only by the innocent random thought of imagining him as a child. Perhaps it had even contributed to her dislike of him, which seemed likely. Odd, how a fleeting moment of shock and fear could only be undone years later by a seeming random tide of Fate causing the two of them to enter each other's orbits. It did make her wonder, though - had he ever truly been a child, as human beings understood the term? "That seems fair." Jason smiled a little wider at the loose collection of reddish curls as they tumbled down Autumn's back, glinting with pinpoints of golden fire in the light. He wanted to bury his face there, to inhale the scent of her: wanted it so badly it felt like the most gnawing of hungers. "I choose TV, then." Dana hmmed quietly as though in disappointment. "Ah, well. Come by sometime when she's not home and I'll show you," the older redhead smirked, patting Jase lightly on the shoulder as she passed, coffee mug in hand. Although she wasn't entirely comfortable leaving the two young paramours alone for more than a few minutes, she did at least trust her daughter enough to make good choices. ...Or, failing that, not catastrophic ones. Autumn dropped the spoon she'd used to stir her coffee into the sink, nose crinkling as she made a face at her mother's back. "Keep it up, Autumn Rae" the pretty vet called over her shoulder as she headed into the other room. "One day it'll freeze like that." Abashed, the animated young woman took a sip of her coffee, the rose of her cheeks deepening further. Then, with the petulance of a girl half her age, quickly stuck her tongue out and gave a good-humored huff. "I've never figured out how she does that," she grinned, extending her hand. "C'mon. If you don't sit with me you'll have to fight the dogs for a place. They're spoiled." ---------------------------------------------------------------------- The TV chattered and blared as the hero fought the villain, who was extruding a whip of living fire from his hand, the movements of both combatants choreographed to heighten the drama and tension and sense of mortal peril the protagonist was facing. Flips, kicks, somersaults and shouts filled the screen with noise and action. As shows went, Wu Assassins was pretty good, both teens had agreed as they’d settled in to watch some thirty minutes earlier. It was a shame, then, that currently the artistry and action on the screen was being ignored. It was Jason’s fault- at least, that was Autumn’s stance on the matter. He’d put an arm comfortably around her shoulders as they’d nestled together, and then idly toyed with the curls of her glory of red-gold hair, running his slender fingers through it gently to stroke her neck and shoulder, causing tingles of warmth to race through her nerves. So strongly did Autumn feel that it was her boyfriend’s fault that she, in fact, felt the need to tell him between kisses. “It’s your fault.” she murmured softly, her arms resting around his neck, lips grazing his ear before her teeth lightly nibbled at the lobe, gratified to feel his reaction in the sharp intake of breath as well as in another, more tangible fashion. “Nope.” his reply was likewise a murmur as he kissed the curve of Autumn’s neck where it met her shoulder. His hands were loosely tangled in her fall of red hair, the scent of which he breathed in. “You’re the one that moved. And now we’re missing the show.” Autumn grinned as she withdrew a little to look into his eyes. True enough, she had moved first, swinging a bare leg over him and straddling his thighs so she could properly give him her attention - and he could give her his. “You want to watch the show?” she asked with an arch of her brow. “Don’t put words in my mouth.” His eyes were heated, dark with passion even as he smiled slightly. “I was merely observing we were- mmph.” he finished softly as Autumn pressed her body and mouth to his, arms tightening around his neck as though to prevent even the remote possibility he would try to get away - which, to be honest, was so remote as to not be worth considering. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Dana wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scowl as she stepped into the lounge and saw the pair of them. At least he didn’t have his hands on her butt this time. Progress! The slender, pretty veterinarian thought wryly. Autumn made a sound that was half gasp, half giggle as she slid off her beau, trying to look contrite and failing miserably. She seemed lively, and happy, and it was good to see. Dana took a breath, counted to ten, then spoke again. “Okay. New rule, you two. None of-” she made a gesture indicating the pair of them and their misbehaviour “-that in the lounge, porch, dining room, kitchen or indeed anywhere in this house except the bedroom when I’m home. I’m not going to try and stop teenagers being teenagers, but I don’t want to walk into my own lounge and see it. Am I clear?” “Yes, mom.” Autumn nodded, somewhat soberly. Jason turned his gaze to Dana and nodded assent, or at least understanding, gravely. “Good! Now, dinner is a few minutes away, so both of you can come and help set the table.” She was unable to resist cracking a smirk, raising an eyebrow at them. “Take a moment to, ah, compose yourselves, and for God’s sake wash your hands first.”
  10. Not a dragon, then, the thought sprang up unbidden, and a part of her was oddly disappointed in the inability of the universe to make what obviously would have been the superior choice. Although he'd responded in the same near-clinical fashion she was accustomed to, attributing no more emotional weight to any of the words than if he'd been reading from a grocery list, a few of them caught her attention anyway: hominid; designed; deliberately evolved. Sure, the rest sounded like a rough description of the inscrutable young man whose hands she was currently holding, but... "Okay, so..." Autumn's eyes narrowed slightly in concentration as she worked to process exactly what all of them, in combination, actually meant. "A close relative of humans, selectively bred to be... what...? Warriors, or something?" "Yes. Apparently, long ago two highly advanced beings wanted warriors with traits similar to human psychopaths, but capable of teamwork and in-group loyalty, faster maturation and capable of more rapid reproduction. According to the history I've been given they took some humans and changed them on the genetic level. I am, if this is true, genetically further away from Homo Sapiens than the Neanderthal Man." He regarded her with a faint twitch of wry amusement at the corner of his mouth. "Apparently still compatible, though." "Mmm," Autumn nodded, lips pursed and intent enough on the rest of what he'd said that- for once- she missed the innuendo entirely. He'd answered her next question before she'd asked it: Why? and also implied that even he wasn't entirely sure if he believed what Ms. Forster had told him during her visit. ...Which, in all honesty, was probably the only real response someone could have to that kind of bombshell, followed immediately by a demand for proof- something she herself had been considering since entering her grandfather’s study on Thursday. It wouldn't be hard to find out if he really was genetically different- there were tests for that- but that wasn't the biggest issue here. Jason Fucking Bannon didn't need her, of all people, to point that out, so for a moment the redhead put aside all the other questions his answer raised. "I'm a little bit- okay," she amended, a slightly abashed grin curving her lips, "a lot curious, but before I ask you a dozen less important questions about the hows and whys..." The earnest young woman took a step toward him, squeezing his hands gently as she peered up into his eyes. "How do you feel about what she told you?" "I won't lie- Heh." He chuckled, a short breath of quiet amusement. "Can't, really. Turns out that's another change hardwired into us. Anyway." He sighed, intently examining her face and expression, analysing her tone and, most of all, feeling the reassuring squeeze of her hands, a tactile cue that carried more weight to his perceptions than any other. "It is a lot to process." he said more quietly. "I had built a foundation of myself as different, but human. Now... I'm not human. But it doesn't tangibly change anything about my life." he went on, frowning a tiny amount. "It's momentous, but doesn't have much practical impact on what is going on in my life... or who I care about. Whether I'm called Jason Bannon, or Jason out of Catheen of the Ddraig by Gareth Bannon, I still feel the same. I'm still me." "Still a fixed star," she agreed, turning one of his hands over as she lifted it, pressing a quick kiss to his palm and tugging him onward before letting his fingers slide from hers as she walked. The woman who was his mother- or had been at one time- could have been lying. She could be trying to manipulate him for some reason- why come back now, after disappearing for years? And even if it was true... and she couldn't rule out the possibility, not with all the other varieties of crazy she'd seen and heard recently... how did it fit in with everything else? What were these people like, the other half of Jase's family? "So," she glanced back over her shoulder at him, then returned her attention to picking a path over the growing number of half-buried stones among the leaf litter underfoot. "Out of curiosity, why tell me?" "I trust you. I plan to tell everyone, eventually, but I wanted you to be one of the first to know because I value your perspective and your kindness." he watched her pick the path and followed close behind, his eyes now and then lingering on the movements of Autumn's hips, or the tumble of her hair down her back, or the way she placed her feet, that curious mixture of the carnal and the purely aesthetic sensibilities informing his perceptions. "And, given you agreed to date me... It seemed fair. I would have mentioned it last night - almost did, in fact - but there were other things happening and I'm just selfish enough I didn't want them to stop." He concluded without any sense of shame in his tone. "It was one reason I was pretty insistent about the condom thing - despite really, really not wanting to stop. Because if it's true, and if my mother wasn't just spinning a line, my people have... let's call them 'highly dominant genes'." Autumn didn't have to turn around for Jase to gauge her reaction; even as she felt the blood rising in her cheeks, a slow suffusion of bright pink crept up the back of her neck, clearly visible beneath the sway of her long, copper-red ponytail. "Oh," she replied quietly, swallowing hard as she remembered the "other things" that were happening at the time. "I mean, I'm glad you told me. Not just because of that," his girlfriend added quickly, "but it is, um, good to know. Assuming she wasn't lying, though, I am really curious what else she told you about them- about you, too, I guess." "Mentally we mature faster than humans. Physically too, only not quite as noticeably. At least for the males." He found it helped to analyse what he'd been told, speaking it aloud for another's benefit. "Female Teulu - that's what they call themselves - mature very fast. Usually at childbearing age around ten years old, and they will look sixteen to eighteen or so. Four sets of ovaries, and it's very common for female Teulu to give birth to twins. They're also fertile longer - menopause takes place no earlier than fifty years of age." He ducked a low, thin branch, meeting her eyes as she looked back to check on him. "Longer lived, too. Barring accidents, Teulu can live in good health past one hundred years." He frowned a touch, eyes tightening as he considered something. "Some have very, very limited Shine. And they live in a clan-based system with each clan competing with others for members and resources. Very social Darwinist, very pragmatic. Violence is common even within clans, though such violence is governed by a code of behaviour that places the good of the clan first. The aggression and dominance hardwired into us means that a leader must be smart, strong and ruthless as well as good for the clan as a whole. They don't seem to prize kindness, or gentleness, or mercy. Cunning, intelligence, strength, pragmatic ruthlessness, physical attractiveness and fertility are the virtues they hold highest. My mother..." he paused again. "She claims she's a throwback to their more human ancestors, at least mentally. She can feel fear, and remorse. It's why she ran away from them, and from me." "Fuck," the otherwise wholesome redhead swore softly, pausing as she turned back to regard Jason with a mixture of awe and curiosity. "You weren't kidding when you said that was a lot to process. Holy shit. I mean, I guess it makes sense, if you're creating a race or species or whatever that are designed to kill each other, they'd need to be able to reach adulthood and reproduce quickly, or they'll just wipe each other out in a generation or so. I wonder how many actually make it to a hundred, though, if they're always at war." As his longer strides made up the distance between them, she smiled in spite of herself, a hint of rose lingering beneath the pale amber of her freckles. "If those are the virtues they admire, then, these... Teulu," Autumn repeated the unfamiliar word as best she could. "I guess you're a good example, hm?" "Perhaps." he allowed, the corners of his eyes crinkling a little as a playful smile quirked at the corner of his mouth. Coming abreast of where she waited, he too stopped, turning towards her and stepping closer with a commingling of playful humor and warm hunger in his emerald gaze. "I appreciate some of the human qualities I've experienced." he said frankly as he reached up and gently traced the outline of her cheek with a fingertip as his other hand slid over her waist above her hip. "Though I'm flattered you think I'm a good example of physical attractiveness." "Must be the pheromones," Autumn teased, though even as she spoke the words there was a familiar tension in her abdomen, a half-conscious urge described in the slight upward tilt of her chin toward him. Her eyes lingered, briefly, on the faint curve of his lips as he smiled, her fingers trailing lightly down his sides, and then she sighed, the exhalation a little shaky as she fought the urge to press herself closer. "I do, though," she admitted, a fresh wave of crimson staining her features. "Enough that if I'm not careful, you'll be the only climbing I get done today." Her blushing admission, her touch, the way her face turned up towards his and, most of all, the reflection in her clear blue eyes of the same hunger he felt, were almost - almost - a match to dry tinder. Or more precisely, fresh firewood placed across well-banked embers. He leaned close, watching the way her eyes flickered to his mouth then back up. The clean scent of her hair, warm with exertion and the sun, was itself a test of his control. "Can I assume you're okay with this news, then? Assuming it's all true, I mean." he asked her softly. A touch of deviltry glinted in his eye as he teased, "It's still not too late to run." Leaning up on her tiptoes, she pressed a slow, deliberate kiss to the corner of his mouth, her lips lingering there for a moment before she drew back to regard him a little more seriously. "Assuming it's true, it doesn't change anything about you as a person. Just what I know about you. And since I like knowing more about you..." Her voice trailed off and she shrugged, smiling. "The running might be fun sometime, though." The clear blue of her eyes deepened, the note of playful challenge stirring shadows there as she gazed up at him. There was a sense that she was walking along a precipice, taunting a force with the inevitability of gravity, but it was almost impossible to resist going right up to the very edge. "If you don't mind losing, that is." His own gaze was equal parts answering challenge, mirth and desire as he gently touched his forehead to hers, looking deep into Autumn's eyes as she felt rather than heard his chuckle. "I'm sure that whether I win or lose, it will be fun." he murmured. "For both of us." He still felt the tingling from the press of her lips and, unable to resist, he answered the kiss she'd given him with a fleeting, urgent one of his own, letting the furnace door of his amoral Want for this girl to open, just for a searing white-hot second, before slamming it shut once more. Taking a breath to steady himself, Jason slowly straightened up. "I really wouldn't mind being the only climbing you do today, but I only have so much control over this urge. It's very new, and very raw, and not at all gentle." He smiled faintly at her. "It's like a flicker of warmth when you're near, while we talk, but when we touch it flares up like a wildfire." Nodding in mute understanding, Autumn took a half-step back, her fingertips catching fleetingly at the fabric of Jase's shirt. The heat his kiss had sparked in her core smouldered, glowing embers threatening to flare into sudden, scorching life even as she stood there. That this brief contact alone was enough to ignite her nerve endings so acutely, so intensely, and so consistently was both thrilling and dangerous; just as the day before, kissing the green-eyed devil before her made it extraordinarily difficult to think of anything but kissing him. It certainly wasn't helped by the fact that he was so adept at describing how he felt, what he wanted... With a little, involuntary shiver, she licked suddenly dry lips and exhaled. "I think..." Focus, Autumn. "I think, probably, that 'to be continued' is gonna need to be continued pretty soon. And that I also need a drink, and to not touch you for a few minutes, although that is not what I want to do. So... Yeah. I can empathize. A little, maybe." Wordlessly, he offered her a bottle of water from his pack, the outside of the bottle taking on a sheen of condensation as it's temperature went down from warm-ambient to fresh-from-the fridge. As she took it with a smile and nod of thanks, he drew out one for himself, likewise cooling it and taking a long drink. Without words, and definitely without touching, but with more than a few lingering glances at one another, the pair continued on their way. Privately, and with his usual wry humor even when it came to internal analysis, Jason mused that it wasn't just his pheromones that seemed to be 'just fine'. He knew it wasn't just naked instinct that drove him - he'd never felt such an impulse towards abandon with anyone else in his admittedly short life. There was something about Autumn: no single aspect of her, but rather that combination of facets which together evoked this response. Strong, yet undeniably feminine. Kind, yet tough when need arose. Curious, open, and brave. Or perhaps, his wry internal observer mused, he was overthinking it. Analysis had its place, but perhaps his attraction for her and hers for him could not be so simply rendered into a chemical formula. What he did know was that the other complexities and concerns of his life were not on his mind as he followed his girlfriend towards their destination. ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Saturday Afternoon. They were weary, dirty and dusty from the climb, but carrying a sense of quiet elation for having made it to the lookout point Autumn had described and, sharing some trail bars, jerky and water, sitting with their feet dangling over the edge and just gazing out over Shelly. At some point during their rest-break, Autumn’s hand had found Jason’s - or perhaps his hand found hers - and the contented, quiet joy of the moment took on a more tangible texture and feel as they sat together. Eventually they had stood, stretched, then followed the path from the top of the cliff around and down and back to the campsite, balancing over a makeshift log bridge across the creek further down, then picking their way along another game trail. Autumn, used to such hikes and with that tireless energy that was one of her signature traits, noted that Jason, whilst obviously feeling the exertion, neither complained nor insisted on taking extraneous rest breaks, instead keeping the steady pace she set. Striking camp, they packed everything away, setting the site to rights and policing their trash before tying the bundles and packs to the ATV for the return journey. It was a weird contrast to yesterday for the redheaded girl - whereas before she had been acutely aware of Jason Effing Bannon murmuring that he would be sure to get a good grip and trying not to let her face catch fire as a result, this time she felt a thrilling, tightening sensation in her abdomen as his hands slid around her waist and he leaned against her back. For Jase, too, the trip and the manner of it took on differing context, his tactile awareness of Autumn’s body against his and the scent of her hair now shaded with carnal and emotional overtones that transformed a simple, pragmatic hanging on so as not to fall off into something almost sensual. Somehow, Autumn managed to get them back to the Keane home without either crashing the ATV or stopping along the way; a testament to her willpower, certainly. Bringing the four-wheeler to a stop under the lean-to shelter, the two teens dismounted and unpacked the bundles. Shouldering his own pack, Jase helped Autumn with the rest of the supplies, carrying the storage chest up to the porch and setting it down as she did likewise with the cooler. From inside came the sound of excited dogs, and Autumn sighed, stretching her back as she set down her burden and turned to the lean figure standing nearby. “Thanks.” she told him, nose crinkling as she smiled warmly and stepped closer. “For the help with the campsite. And… for a great time.” she added with a blush suffusing her freckled face as she looked up at him. “I really had fun.” “So did I.” he observed quietly, regarding her with a slight smile, his pale green eyes vivid against the dark of his hair and the tan of his features. “You made it so. We definitely have to do this again.” “Yeah.” she nodded, feeling tongue-tied as he, too, stepped closer to her. Almost of their own accord, her hands came up to drape over his shoulders, then slide to the back of his neck, feeling the trailing edges of his shaggy hair. A dim warning light blinked unheeded in the back of her head - informed by the fact her mom’s car was there in the drive and that meant she was probably around somewhere. But more important was the curve of her boyfriend’s mouth, and the feel of his body against hers as they each stepped into each other, lips meeting as the circuit completed and fire surged along their nerves. His hands slid around her and down to her jeans-clad backside, their firm pressure causing her to inhale sharply in the kiss and then press even closer against him, eyes closing as her hands tightened in his hair, unwilling to even give him the opportunity to draw back. Somewhere outside the throb of their heartbeats in their ears, both teens were aware of a door opening but ascribed no special meaning to it - until the sound of a female throat being cleared intruded on their pink haze. “Well! Hello there!” Dana Keane’s tone was bright, almost cheery as she was confronted with her daughter locked in what seemed an incredibly un-platonic clinch with Jason Bannon. “I was just coming to see if you kids needed any help with the camping gear. It looks like you have things well in hand, though!” she commented, eyes flicking down to where Jase’s hands currently were.
  11. He’d sat up and watched as she moved around the clearing, noting how her bright hair and pale skin loaned the lithe girl a sylvan quality, as though the banality of the everyday could not cling to her, not here - not in her garden. He felt this moment embed itself prominently in his memories - her quiet laugh, the way the fire’s light played over the curves and lines of her body as she bent and swayed, moving around the camp and picking up their clothing: a wood-nymph gathering scattered flowers left in the wake of a tempest. He wondered how this moment, this experience would change him, or her for that matter. Would this excitement, this playful hunger that yet stirred and lingered in them both carry through into other aspects of their lives? Or would it only be the magic of this place? He hoped it was the former. He found it hard to envision himself not wanting, in a quiet moment, to pull Autumn into a shadowed corner and kiss her until both their nerves were lit up as though a time-lapse photograph of a city’s streets at night, seen from above, streaks of white and crimson light rendering individual sensation meaningless in the patterns of desire. She came back to sit next to him, proffering the bottle and glancing at him when he didn’t immediately take it, and was struck by the intent, predatory way he had, she realised, been watching her ever since she’d stood up. He was motionless, unaffectedly naked as he sat, one knee bent with an arm resting on it, half-turned towards her with his manhood resting quietly against his thigh, yet his gaze was sharp, unselfconscious and, in its own way, as naked as the rest of him. Naked enough to make her own mouth feel dry and for parts low down in her torso to catch and tighten as he reached out and took the bottle finally, with a nod. “Thank you.” he murmured, taking a long drink as she busied herself sorting their clothes, then handing her the bottle in turn. She traded him the towel, which he patted himself with as he watched her drink, admiring the sweep of her throat and the scattering of freckles across her breastbone, the way her firm, high breasts were capped with pale rose. He remembered the scent and taste of her skin, the way his tongue on her flesh had made her gasp as he looked at her, and when Autumn lowered the bottle and glanced back at him her sudden renewed blush and her downward glance made him realise his cock had stirred once more. “You better get these on first.” she said, an answering hunger springing up in her own expression as she thrust his combat pants at him. “And fast.” He smiled, taking the garment and slowly standing. “If I must.” he replied, lazily stretching in a way that Autumn was pretty sure was calculated. At least partly so, she decided, feeling her fingers twitch with the urge to reach out and touch- “You must.” She pulled on her t-shirt, leaving the bikini top aside for now, and was simultaneously relieved and disappointed when, by the time she’d gotten the shirt on and her hair extricated from it, the baggy Army surplus pants had been pulled on and fastened, Jase drawing the belt into place. That was better, she decided. At least for now. Half-naked was better than all-naked, when it came to boyfriends who were dangerous in all sorts of ways, not least of which to her self-control. Jase settled back down beside her, pulling on his own shirt over his head and relaxing, leaning back on his hands and watching the fire leap and flicker, its light playing over his features, immobile as they were in repose. His thoughts danced and leapt as much as the flames, trying to make sense of everything he had experienced. One thing was easy to make sense of - he now knew what it was to be desired, to have that desire communicated through touch and word and caress. And more properly he knew what it was to desire in a real, tangible way. No distant fantasy, or idealised construct of desire. No ethereal dream born of inexperienced longing and a vivid imagination. It was revelatory, and breathtaking, all the more so because there had been a point where he had chosen to give his control to someone else, to set aside the chains that were also his armor and simply experience the moment in a series of sensations and, yes, emotions. If he had not been without fear, would he even have been capable of that level of surrender? That was an interesting paradox, indeed. “Penny for your thoughts?” Autumn nudged up against him, her hand sliding up his back to tickle the shaggy hair at the nape of his neck. He turned slightly, looping an arm over and around her, drawing her close as they sat together, his green eyes regarding her still faintly-rosy features. “Mmm. I was congratulating myself.” he told her, a faint spark of mischief in his eyes. “I have excellent taste in girlfriends.” “Oh, do you, now? That... is a bold statement,” she countered with a grin, unable to resist the sudden urge to lean up for a kiss- a teasing, too-brief caress of her lips on his- before she settled companionably against his side again, still smiling as her arm slid down to his waist. “Got any evidence to back up that claim?” It hadn’t even been a few hours yet, after all, and although there was the definite sense he was teasing her (at least a little) she was also pleased enough at the suggestion that she wasn’t inclined to argue the point- instead just leaning against him as she watched the frenetic movement of the orange flames burning low, her fingertips absently straying under the hem of Jase’s t-shirt to drift over his skin as he sat quietly next to her. He smiled at the warm press of her lips, studying the glimmer of her hair in the dancing light of the fire. This closeness, this intimate contact was addictive, as though the emotional warmth of the girl snugged against his side was sunlight on the icy slopes of his mind. He wondered if that was how it was for normal people: if the shimmering heat of others were something that only existed in their presence, and without it all was cold. Probably not, or at least not to the same extent. Some warmth would linger between contact, between times spent in the presence of a lover. For him, though, there was only the memory of the connection without the comforting sense of its presence. "More of a feeling. Though admittedly the statistical sample is small at present, I think the bar has been set pretty high." He nuzzled his lips and nose against her coppery hair, breathing her in for a moment. "You make me feel warm in the cold places." The ticklish sensation of his breath in her hair elicited a grin, her nose crinkling slightly as she squirmed in response. There was that honesty again, the unfiltered opinion of someone who had no idea what it meant to be self-conscious, or how deeply affecting that level of forthrightness could be; gods help her if he ever figured it out, since she’d probably give everyone within ten feet heat stroke. “I mean, you make me feel warm in all the places, so I guess that’s fair?” she admitted with a laugh, unthinking- -And immediately went still as her brain caught up to the words she’d just uttered. Oh. Oh, god. I said that out loud, didn’t I? Hazarding a quick peek up at his face, Autumn groaned inwardly as Jason blinked slowly, starting to smile. "I do, hmm?" She could only nod, her hands coming up to cover her rapidly reddening face as a muffled sound of agreement escaped from between her fingers. It was true, of course, in more ways than one, but how was she supposed to tell him that without sounding like a crazy person? How could she possibly explain what she didn’t fully grasp the limits of herself? The simple glow of pleasure, of uncomplicated and earnest delight she took in his companionship. The tangible, reassuring warmth generated by his actual, physical presence next to her. The very real, but less obviously tactile heat that smouldered even now at the very core of her being, kindled into hungry flame and stoked by proximity alone. ...And something else, a whisper of feeling that wasn’t quite any of those things, but which- nameless and formless- subtly comprised them all, and more besides. The implicit acknowledgement of that “something else” in her response was somehow more jarring than the fact that it existed- as if it had been perfectly natural, and not at all crazy to be so intensely attracted to someone so quickly. The mortified girl looked away from the boy beside her, unable or unwilling to meet his eyes in that instant, certain somehow that the penetrating quality of his gaze would lay bare her thoughts. In accordance with her nature, she instead took refuge in activity, casting about for something productive to do and finding few options remaining after their earlier efforts at cleaning up. “So, I’m gonna, um... Yeah. I’ll go grab some more wood,” she managed haltingly, her cheeks blazing scarlet in the firelight. “Be right back.” What am I doing?! Autumn asked herself, sighing as she got to her feet and set about the simple, blessedly uncomplicated task of making sure the fire would last the night. Why do I feel like this? I mean, we barely know each other but it feels... right. Like, scary-right. It took a few moments of searching to find a couple of logs of reasonable size and condition to keep the fire going, which, thankfully, gave the cooler evening breeze an opportunity to steal some of the heat from her face, and gave Autumn herself a chance to find a way to change the subject. “So, um, any ideas on what you’d like to do in the morning? Maybe a hike or something after breakfast?” she tentatively called over her shoulder, trying not to imagine Jase watching her with that not-quite-a-smirk that was somehow worse than an actual one. There was a brief pause before she added, more defiantly, “And for the record, Hmmm is still not an acceptable answer.” “A hike sounds good.” Jason said calmly, leaning back on his hands and watching his red-faced girlfriend recover her composure somewhat, his pale eyes watchful, studying her. He didn’t quite understand why she’d been embarrassed - to him, such unfiltered truth spoken straight from her heart seemed the height of charming, but he had observed people enough to know that they often felt vulnerable revealing themselves so nakedly. There was still that aspect of separateness, though. For him, vulnerability was a pragmatic, physical, tangible thing. To confide in the wrong person was to risk ostracisation, even institutionalisation: to complicate his life unnecessarily. Autumn’s embarrassment could not come from that practical consideration, surely? He wasn’t going to hurt her, or cast her aside for having genuine warm feeling for him- Was that it, perhaps? Did she think that by entrusting such feelings to him, by allowing herself to experience them, that she risked harm - emotional or otherwise? She wouldn’t be the first girl he knew to believe that - Marissa for instance, who had settled on Cade as a boyfriend because she needed to feel safe and in control. Emotionally safe and in control, as if by following her natural feelings she left herself vulnerable. Autumn obviously felt similarly - though she wasn’t preventing herself from following her desires, it still made her feel vulnerable to voice them. “Cool. We can take some climbing gear - if the weather holds there’s a nice rock face to go up where you can get a view over Shelly.” Autumn came back with a couple of suitably dry chunks of firewood in hand, setting one on the fire and the other next to it for later. As the flames licked up, she settled back down next to Jase, who shifted a little to face her, his manner serious as he reached out and took her hands in his, looking into her eyes. “Thank you.” he said quietly. “For letting me know how I make you feel. I can see it made you uncomfortable - and I’m curious why.” His pale jade eyes searched her ocean-tinted ones, searched her face for answers. “Is it me? Do I make you feel uncomfortable voicing such things?” he asked without nervousness or accusation, his head tilting slightly. “Because if you’re worried about what I think about it - I find it totally charming that you speak your mind and heart so fearlessly. And while I might find your blushes amusing, I don’t find your feelings for me funny at all.” His voice was quiet as his lips curved in a smile. “They’re… something I treasure.” "No!" Autumn replied quickly, vehemently, gazing up at him through wide eyes bright with firelight and emotion. "No, it doesn't- I mean, you don't make me uncomfortable. It’s not you. It's..." She pressed her lips together, holding her breath for a long moment before exhaling slowly to settle her nerves. Her voice was a little softer when she began again, the slow interweaving of her fingers through his lending her words the intimacy of a confession. "Honestly, the fact that you do say things like that makes me really happy. Because I feel like you're not just doing it to please me, or because you think you're supposed to, you know? People just say things all the time and don't mean them, either because they think that's what the other person wants to hear, or because it's…” Autumn shook her head, frowning slightly. “I don't know, convenient. Look, I just... I realized there were several different ways to take what I said, and that all of them were true, and I didn't want you to think I was weird or something since we were barely on speaking terms a week ago, and now all of a sudden I don't want to stop kissing you, and it’s kind of a lot, and I’m not totally sure what to do with that." Her eyes moved over his face, hope and nervousness and not a little fear churning in rough currents in their depths as the torrent of thoughts and words slowed, and finally stilled. "Did any of that make sense?" For a moment he was silent, his face expressionless in repose as his eyes took her in. In contact as they were, it was easy for her to feel his energy, to again get the experience of standing on a frozen lake with something massive, alien and primordial moving deep below her feet. Only… It wasn’t so unknowable, now. She’d felt the outlines of it, felt the cold waters grow warm as it drew nearer to the surface, felt the crust of ice displaced by its heated presence when they kissed. Familiarity helped allay terror, but there was still the healthy fear - not of what he would do, but that she wasn’t sure where the limits of what he was capable of doing lay. His code defined that, of course… But she wasn’t even sure of the details of that. What she was sure of was that he was unaffected, honest - if not always forthcoming - and was into her in a way she’d not experienced before, with no reservations or uncertainty about what he wanted. For Jason, it was a moment filled with analysis. He caught the warm waves of restless emotionality in Autumn’s Shine, felt them lapping against him as she spoke. He dimly wished, in that moment, that he could feel something more nuanced than physical desire, or intellectual regard for a person’s qualities. Some sense of natural justice told him Autumn deserved that rich warm complexity in turn… But then, she had also said that he was making her happy. That was strangely pleasing, perhaps because it was so unusual. His father had said he was proud of him before. Sean had said he liked him, or he made him laugh. No-one had ever said ‘You make me happy’ to him before. For that matter, he wasn’t even sure what happiness really was. Like sadness, it was largely outside his experience - the closest he came was contentment, or satisfaction, or mirth - but in his reading and studying of the human condition he had come across descriptions of the emotion. This warm sensation tickling the edges of his consciousness, making him feel at peace when he looked into Autumn’s eyes - the aforementioned warmth in the cold places… Happiness? Or perhaps as close as he could manage to come to it… But some of that wasn’t entirely true, was it. He had felt more than physical sensation under her touch, and now as he looked into her eyes. He wasn’t sure what it was, but ‘warm in the cold places’ was as accurate as any descriptor he could conjure. He considered, without fear of the prospect, that he would miss Autumn if she disappeared, or didn’t want to see him anymore, and the thought was a curious one that he turned over and over in his head. The intensity of sensation she had evoked was a reflection of the intensity of feeling she had stirred, he realised with a sudden cool rush of wonder. Perhaps, were he capable of fear, he would relate to her nervousness. Because it was a lot, this thing that flared and coiled between them. Finally he lifted her hands to his lips and kissed each of them gently, his eyes on hers. “It makes sense, now. Thank you for explaining it.” he said quietly, leaning forward and gently planting a kiss at the corner of her mouth, letting it linger there a moment before pulling back. “I’m not really the best judge of whether someone is weird or not, but I certainly don’t think this - what is between us - is a bad thing. It feels very natural. And-” he smiled a little, one corner of his mouth quirking upwards. “- I’m glad I’m not the only one that wants to spend all their time kissing the other.” He was feeling that urge right now, and gently pushed it to one side, though not without a small struggle as his eyes strayed to her lips for a second, his aesthetic sensibilities remarking how red they seemed after all the kissing they had already endured, and how delightful the curve of them was. “It’s dangerously distracting, this feeling. Especially when we should probably be getting some rest before we go for that hike tomorrow.” he remarked, making no move to let go of her hands or to stand up. “Mmhmm,” Autumn agreed without particular enthusiasm; tomorrow was the last thing on her mind, with the lingering sensation of his kiss and the rich gold-green of his eyes occupying her thoughts in a way that made the phrase ‘dangerously distracting’ seem somehow inadequate. “We probably should.” I mean, yeah, she conceded, he’s right. I don’t even know what time it is, and we should probably get an early start if we’re gonna go out far enough for climbing in the morning. It was likely getting late, and sunrise would come early, but… But he’d listened. But he’d called her ‘beautiful.’ But they were in front of a warm fire, under an open sky filled with more stars than the beaches and deserts had grains of sand, in a place she loved. “But I’m not really tired,” she added quietly, shifting closer on the blanket as she took Jason’s hands- still clasped in her own- and slowly draped his arms around her waist. “And… I’m not ready for it to be tomorrow just yet.” The admission was accompanied by a smile as she tilted her face up toward him, bright lashes framing the wide, clear eyes that met his with a mixture of anticipation and desire. His ardent girlfriend was struck again, in such dangerously close proximity, by the sense that she could almost willingly drown in the primordial flames contained there, the heat of which even now warmed her face and wound languidly through her veins. That wouldn’t be so terrible, would it, to be consumed in emerald fire, dissolved utterly by brilliant copper sparks? Even if Jase did tease her, or enjoy making her blush, he was also careful to give serious consideration to her questions, and even if he couldn’t really understand her feelings in an intuitive sense, he apparently appreciated that she expressed them. He was interested, intent and engaged in a way that Jacob hadn’t been, in a way that made her stomach tense and her mouth go dry with just a look; that alone was almost worth the immolation of Self, wasn’t it? She could feel the faint whisper of his breath this close, smell the lingering echoes of the vaguely herbal scent that rose from his fire-warmed skin and reminded her, distantly, of that glorious garden he tended so carefully. Untangling her fingers from his, Autumn’s hands slid up her lover’s arms and into his hair, weaving gently through its shaggy length as she tried to fix an image of this moment in her mind: the way the firelight rendered his features into those of some ageless bronze sculpture from antiquity, the glimmer of his eyes, and the faint curvature of his mouth, which she admired with an interest that was in no way academic. “So,” she added a moment later, still smiling through the rush of warmth suffusing her skin as she met his gaze once more. “Can I have you for a little while longer?” It was an earnest plea, mingled with playfulness and the warm energy that would forever be synonymous with ‘Autumn’ in his mind. Jason examined her soberly, letting his gaze roam her freckled features, not for the first time noting the fetching hue of deepening rose tinting her skin as he did so. Once more, he was struck by how direct and yet tender her expression of desire was - the way she told it in the depths of her sea-shaded eyes, the upward tilt of her face towards him, the warm sweetness of her breath and how she shifted her body just so to fit more perfectly within his arms, which tightened a little around her waist as he drew her closer. “I think” he said softly, not smiling as he gazed into her eyes. “That you will always have a part of me. Like a room in a house where you can step into it and know that it belongs to another.” “Well,” Autumn replied, her fingers absently moving through the tousled strands of Jase’s hair as she returned the gaze with a faint, soft smile, eyes wide and wondering as they met his. “If there is a room like that, I hope you’ll help me fill it up with lots of fun, interesting things, so it’s never empty or dark.” It was true, too. Jason was too open, too intently sincere for her to seek to deflect the unfamiliar emotions his words engendered with flippancy. She found that she couldn’t do that: not at this moment, not to him. The answer to that was a kiss which deepened and lengthened, their mouths slightly opening against each other’s. Not as urgent and needy as before, each taking their time, but echoes of the passion of earlier were there like glowing embers, lending a searing intense quality to even this tender moment despite the pair being mindful not to fan those embers back to full roaring flame. The kiss broke, Jason leaning his forehead against Autumn’s much as he had less than a week and more than a lifetime ago after she’d hugged him. How different things seemed right now, though. This closeness meant something, did it not? His awareness of her, the way her scent tickled his nervous system, the way her warmth permeated him… It gave a richness to everything, from the firelight to the sounds of the night creatures. He’d meant what he said, of course. He knew that, if by the tides of existence he and Autumn were to part ways, he would register the lack of her in his life. He would measure future lovers by the experience that was her - from her simple emotional honesty to her warmth, loyalty and courage to the way her kisses made his blood leap like the tides under the moon. It was so unlike the fascination he’d felt for Marissa that he wondered if the feelings were even akin. “I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then? But sucked on country pleasures, childishly? Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den? ’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be. If ever any beauty I did see, Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.” The words were softly spoken, unhurried in their cadence, the murmur of Jason’s voice as he recited the verse hypnotic as it blended with the fire’s crackle and the distant whirring of crickets. Autumn’s eyes were wide, and liquid with emotions he still wasn’t confident of fathoming, but the smile curving her lips was more reassuring. “John Donne. ‘The Good-Morrow’” Jason said by way of explanation. Autumn let her fingertips glide down from his hair to his cheeks, then clasped her hands behind his neck and kissed him briefly. “Is there more of it?” she breathed, smiling as he nodded and, turning her head to one side, nestled closer, her red curls against his chin, her ear to his chest, feeling as much as hearing his voice as he continued. “And now good-morrow to our waking souls, Which watch not one another out of fear; For love, all love of other sights controls, And makes one little room an everywhere. Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone, Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown, Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.” “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears, And true plain hearts do in the faces rest; Where can we find two better hemispheres, Without sharp north, without declining west? Whatever dies, was not mixed equally; If our two loves be one, or, thou and I Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.” Her face hot with her blushes, Autumn was nonetheless grinning as Jason finished. Her fingers lightly grasping the hair at the back of his head, she tilted her face up once more and pulled his face down to hers for a sound kiss which deepened and lengthened, sighing her contentment and desire into his mouth as the two of them lay back together on the blanket. The sparks from the fire whirling up into the velvet of the night sky, the sounds of the creek and the chorus of night birds, all went unheeded as the pair focused all attention on each other. And though their clothing stayed on, neither of them slept for quite a while as they lay together, entwined and murmuring to one another between kisses, until well into the night.
  12. Naked torso time seemed a great idea, and Autumn sat up astride him as she, too, started to peel off the t-shirt that was the only thing keeping her skin from touching his - an unbearable barrier that would not be tolerated any longer. For a moment Jase watched as the pale skin of her stomach and ribs came into view, then an impulse seized him as Autumn’s arms raised, hands going behind her head to tug the shirt off - and he sat up with a smooth coiling of his stomach muscles and reached out, catching her hands behind her head as the t-shirt covered her eyes, just her nose and lips free beneath the edge of the material. The girl made a small sound of protest, but she smiled then, her arms tensing a little as though in playful struggle against his grasp. Jason let her feel his smile on her lips for a moment, then withdrew his kiss, eliciting another small sound of protest. Even in his inexperience, it was not in his nature to be passive for longer than necessary, and the sweet torments of Autumn’s touches, nibbles and kisses needed repaying, so it seemed. He drew back a little, studying her nakedness with a possessive, hungry gaze that the fair-skinned captive in his arms could practically feel like sunlight on her flesh. One hand still pinning her wrists, long fingers encircling them, he brought his other hand down to trace a fingertip along her jaw, across her lower lip - teasingly moving it as she sought to catch it in her mouth - then down the line of her throat. She had freckles down below her collarbone, a dusting of bronze in the firelight against the cream of her skin - currently flushed as her face was. He let the tips of his fingers play over the markings, teasing touches that made her shift a little in his lap. “What are you doing?” she murmured, smiling as she arched her body into his touch, trying to get more contact and catching her bottom lip between her teeth as her breath hitched, stifling a whimper. “Admiring you.” Jason replied matter-of-factly, sweeping his exploring hand down across her breastbone. Dipping his head, he kissed the base of her throat, then her jawline, then her lips briefly - too briefly - before once more trailing flame down the line of her throat. Another impulse seized him and he rolled slowly, chuckling as Autumn gave out a little yelp as she found herself laying back on the blanket now. The firelight played over her body, deepening the colours and lending flickering shadows to her contours, and the aesthete in Bannon’s soul marvelled for a moment, pondering the nature of beauty and how very subjective it was, how very enslaved to circumstance and company such things could be. “You’re beautiful.” he stated, smiling as he started to kiss her collarbone, lips finding each freckle and paying homage to it as they made their warm path down over her body, his tongue now and then flicking against her heated skin, his teeth gently nibbling, his whole attention focused on tasting her as she squirmed under his attention. Whatever his lack of experience may have suggested, there was nothing clumsy or boyish in the way he touched her, nothing shy or furtive in the leisurely exploration he was making of her body. She wasn't exactly virginal, and in her curiosity had found a lot of things on the internet she’d either gamely tried or secretly wanted to- but this was as far beyond the scope of Autumn’s expectations as Jason himself. A tingle of warmth rippled through her at the unexpected compliment, manifesting in a delicate wash of pale pink spreading just beneath the surface of her exposed skin; his particular brand of unabashed, unaffected sincerity was every bit as seductive as the insistent pressure of his hand on her wrists overhead. It was the newness of the sensations- the thrill of trading the ability to see what Jase was doing for the exquisitely heightened experience of the feeling itself, of sacrificing awareness for anticipation- that kept Autumn’s natural impatience narrowly in check. Even so, the contrast of hot breath and cool night air as his mouth moved over her skin was enough to test the limits of her willpower in a way that drew her taut as a bowstring beneath him, the space beneath her ribs hollowing slightly as her spine curved in a wordless arc of delight. Oh. My FUCKing. GOD! the still-rational part of her mind all but shrieked at the combination of teeth and tongue on sensitive flesh, though the high, plaintive note that escaped her lips wasn’t nearly so coherent. She couldn’t tell which was louder: the erratic, halting rush of her breathing, or the mad cadence of the blood pounding in her ears, but neither could drown out the voiceless, searing imperative of desire. More. The muscles along Autumn’s spine flexed as her hips rolled down against the blanket, pressing her chest upward in a half-conscious attempt to gain closer, more direct contact than the teasing kisses with which Jase was intently mapping the topography of her form in scorching lines. She wasn’t alone in her urgency. Whatever volcanic fires roiled in Jason’s soul seethed and roared in their chains, his arousal causing them to leap and dash themselves clumsily against his glacial self control to get at the girl - this treasure in his arms - who had taught him with words, each breath, each brush of her own lips on him, each caress of her fingers on his skin what connection truly was, what it could be. His own breath quickened at her cries, birdlike and pure despite the carnal demands they heralded, and his hot breath bathed her skin in rose as her blood too, so it seemed, surged upwards to meet him. He removed the slender hand pinning her wrists, yet a stronger grasp maintained Autumn’s helpless posture as his mind, powerful beyond the constraints of his young body, kept her in gentle imprisonment. Both hands were now free to touch her, to wreak havoc with her nerves as delicate fingertips tapped and traced a hidden pattern across her freckled shoulders and collarbone, a cipher for lovers punctuated by warm kisses as his touch moved lower, playing over the gentle swells of her breasts that the young woman’s body offered up with every rolling arc of her body. And now he focused there, taking his time with each caress, his eyes moving from the soft mounds to Autumn’s half-hidden face with the intentness of a musician regarding the conductor. Softly, very softly he trailed flame along her nerves: now with a warm brush of a palm, now with the pads of his fingertips as they traced the soft pink of her areolae. As she made soft, but steadily louder sounds of need and protest, he smiled a little and lowered his head, capturing one stiff little bud tenderly between his lips, kissing at first, then lightly scraping with his teeth to draw music from her before ‘soothing’ the tormented flesh with a gentle laving of his tongue. She tasted sweet, clean and female, a scent he was not unfamiliar with by itself but with richness added from the warm arousal that suffused the air from her pores. As his mouth paid languorous homage to her breasts, the green-eyed devil lightly raked his nails down across Autumn’s ribs and stomach, feeling the taut ivory of her skin quiver and warm further under his touch. Mischief seized him, along with a desire for further connection, and with a slight tug of his power the makeshift blindfold was lifted from the redhead’s eyes so she could look down and see the blazing emerald of his gaze on hers as he tormented her. Smiling as his fingertips teased along and just within the waistline of her jeans, Jason nuzzled his lips against her softness then switched his attentions to her other breast, flicking the tip of his tongue across her nipple before drawing it into his warm mouth. There was a moment’s disorientation as the collar of her t-shirt was tugged upward and away, and at first Autumn saw only a few orange sparks drifting like fireflies up into the vast expanse of dark sky above. Those trackless depths were scattered all throughout with the faint pinpricks of countless distant suns: glimmers of dying scarlet, coruscating points of sapphire, flecks of glittering, crystalline white, and- she glanced down, the scope of her vision shrinking- virescent gold, twin stars captured in corporeal form and rendered incandescent in the glow of the firelight. It was enough to make her breath catch as the alien, incomprehensible heat of Jase’s gaze slowly reduced any lingering reservations to ash. Had anyone actually touched her before? Maybe it was some shared resonance, some echo of their nascent gifts, that this, this must be the quintessence of contact, every atom set aglow by the merest brush of his fingertips. Unable to look away, to escape the dizzying sensory feedback of both seeing and being seen, Autumn’s wrists flexed against the invisible restraint, fingernails biting into her palms as she shivered at the intensity of the hunger in those pale green eyes. The languid, worshipful caress of Jason’s tongue drew a ragged gasp from her lips; it seemed unfair, somehow, that he could be so careful, so composed, when she could feel herself burning like a torch, dissolving from the inside out until all that remained was need, raw and desperate. More, it demanded again, and God, I want you, and she had no way of knowing if the sounds she made were words at all, or just formless, tortured cries in response to the all-encompassing warmth of his lips, his tongue encircling the aching bud of her nipple. As her fists knotted restlessly in the cotton fabric of her t-shirt, Autumn shifted beneath him, rearranging the tangle of their legs until she managed to get one of Jason’s knees between her thighs. Unable to touch him any other way, the captive redhead arched against him, twisting her hips in an urgent bid for friction, pressure- anything to get her body closer to his. What is the opposite of a sadist? Jase wondered with that always-present, wry analytical corner of his mind not currently occupied with sensual appetite for Autumn’s flesh under his touch, under his kiss. He was being pitiless, merciless in the sensation he was inflicting, but it was pleasure not pain, and to see Autumn’s flushed features transported in ecstacy, to know that it was he that was causing the alternately throaty and birdlike cries of wanton need was deeply, profoundly satisfying as well as arousing, the sensation burning like fine liquor in his belly and spreading through his body. He pressed his knee back against the arching pressure of her lithe body, fancying he could feel the heat there as the athletic girl ground against him, her moans lengthening and deepening as she rocked her hips back and forth. He trailed his lips in swift, light kisses back up her body from her breasts, arranging himself as he moved so that his knee remained in place for the hungry need of his lover whilst he caressed her flushed features with one hand before freeing her tumble of hair from the t-shirt that still shrouded it, red-gold waves spilling out across the blanket like the ransom of kings. The other remained lower down, fingertips dipping inside the waistline of her jeans and drawing small designs on the soft, tender skin of her abdomen. Her eyes were dark pools, wide as they looked up at him with raw emotion, portals to her depths which he studied, head tilting slightly as he regarded her, trailing his long fingers through her hair. Autumn flexed her hands against his telekinetic grasp again, wanting to reach out to him, grab his head and pull him to her. She moaned, a low keening sound of protest, as he dropped a delicate kiss on her lips and pulled back with a smile before she could respond. However cool and focused he seemed the detachment was skin deep, the near-delirious girl could tell with a feminine instinct that was as unerring as it was primal. Jason’s eyes blazed, his own features were darkened with the stain of desire. Almost intuitively, Autumn knew that if she could but touch him, she could scratch through that veneer of control and set loose what was inside. She arched her body, pressing her breasts to the warm smoothness of his torso and letting out a moan, a wordless command / plea that was emotion given form. Jason felt that demand and responded to it, pressing his lips to hers more firmly than before as, with a wordless relaxation of his will, he released Autumn’s bound wrists. The kiss Jase gave her, deep and sure, was a gift- one she returned fiercely and without hesitation the moment she was freed. All the energy that had been bound up with the restriction of Autumn’s movements uncoiled in a rush, her body rising up to meet him in a wave of hunger and warm flesh as she reached up with one hand, pale fingers tangling in his thick, dark hair to pull him close. There was no plea in the crush of her lips on his, no mute supplication in the claim her tongue laid to his own, and precious little consideration given to the need for air. There was only want, pure and unfettered, and the feverish pursuit of its fulfillment. Whoever she’d been moments before, who she might be in the moments that followed, if a future beyond this could even be conceived of- these were trivial, transient concerns that her mundane Self would have to address later. The burning brilliance surging through her- crimson as her own blood, golden as living flame- demanded tribute. It stretched through Autumn’s fingertips, through the fervent press of her mouth against his, through the friction of bare skin and the contrast of soft curves against taut muscle and bone, until she could feel the rush of Jason’s breath in her lungs, the hot pulse of his life in her veins… And, still, it wasn’t enough. Not by half. The near-mathematical symmetry of the lean muscle along Jase’s spine as her free hand snaked downward and around his side, nails grazing his hip beneath the swim trunks he wore. The tightening of his fingers in her hair, triggering an answering tension in the smooth skin he’d traced with arcane symbols of desire. The faint taste of salt on his shoulder as Autumn dipped her head, white teeth marking the tanned flesh there without playfulness or trepidation. The sound of her own voice, hoarse and hungry as her hips moved against him, breathing his name against his throat. It was almost overwhelming, the rush of awareness, and the needy redhead drank the heady mix of impressions in, exulting in the echoes of sensation she could feel returned to her. It was more than simply erotic or pleasurable; it was power, to savor the resonance of that vital spark in him thrumming in her own body. Could he sense it, too? some distant part of her mind wondered. Could he feel the heat beneath her skin, the faint tremor of anticipation in her fingertips as they plucked at the button keeping the too-loose combat pants around his waist? Maybe not, what remained of Autumn decided, leaning up to capture Jase’s lips in another bruising kiss. But she was going to make sure he felt something. All was Her, his focus narrowing as he felt his self-possession evaporate, his sense of Self a guttering defiant flame in a hurricane, now and then nearly being blown out altogether in the tumult of sensation, of connection. The scent of Autumn’s skin and hair, the taste of her tongue pushing insistently against his own and the feel - oh the feel! - of her body pressed to his as her fingers explored his skin. The wry observer was silent now, sheltering somewhere inside that guttering flame as everything became fire and hunger, caution and prudence drawn forth from his lean body as if with his breath from one of Autumn’s yearning kisses, to be scattered like the embers of the fire that whirled overhead as the two teens lay tangled in each others arms. Jase was hyper-aware of her fingers toying with the fastening of his pants, of the hungry heat of her body, of the so very perfect way in which their bodies seemed to flow together. Autumn’s murmur of his name against his neck seared his blood, set it to boiling as he ran his thumb over the embossed top button of her jeans before, with a nimble flick, he unfastened it. Autumn drew in a breath, feeling it, practically hearing the soft fabric sound as deceptively slender fingers dipped inside her jeans to stroke over the soft cloth of her bikini. She whined deep in her throat as a garment which, not long ago, she’d been concerned might be provocative now seemed to be a blighted impedance. His fingertips swirled down over her covered mound, and Jason could feel the warmth and humidity there, turning his hand to press it to her aching body, pressing against her through the cloth as his fingers stroked. His frustration mirrored hers, though. He wanted more than this, more of her and so, true to his essential nature he took it, slipping his touch back up, then down inside the swimsuit bottoms. He felt Autumn go still, one hand tightening in his hair, the other resting against his taut stomach, and he gazed into her eyes as she lifted them to regard him, her lips - rouged from kissing - opening in an ‘oh’ of soft anticipation. His fingers caressed her mound, gently tugging at the soft down he felt before straying lower still, seeking out her warmth. Even as his mind supplied the theory, his fingers and palm carried out the practical experiment, cupping the heated wetness, stroking the sensitive tips of his fingers over the folds he discovered. He softly kissed her panting mouth, nuzzled his cheek along her jawline, trailed his lips to her earlobe and, once there, whispered her name as an invocation while his hand learned, slowly, to play the oldest notes of pleasure on his lover’s body. The convergence of sensations had been almost dizzying, an exhilarating confluence of the real- the tactile experience of Jason’s skin, the steady drum of his heartbeat and the scent of something vaguely herbal in his tousled hair- with other, less tangible impressions of his essential vitality, bright as a bonfire in her arms and just as dangerous. With so much to delight in, the dull, sweet ache winding through her belly and the soft whimpers he coaxed from her lips were almost secondary considerations; until she felt deft fingers slipping with startling ease between the slick folds of her sex, Autumn had no concrete notion of exactly how eagerly her body had anticipated his touch. Her eyes widened up at him as the realization struck, desire and disbelief vying for supremacy in their depths, and she was dimly aware that if it were physically possible, she’d be blushing down to her toes beneath the wave of renewed heat washing over her. Instead, her shoulders pressed into the ground, hips arching up to demand yet more of his questing fingertips. Not enough. She trembled, panting, heedless of anything but how much she wanted him in that moment and how little of him she could actually have. There was no slow, measured climb toward some transcendent peak, despite the curious, exploratory quality of his caresses, but rather a rapid ascent only hastened by the invocation of her name: two syllables without any supernatural quality of their own, transmuted into a fey charm by the urgent whisper of a lover. The comely redhead shivered bodily at the warmth of Jase’s breath on her ear, her head dropping back onto the blanket as everything within her stretched toward the feeling of liquid tension building between her thighs, reaching feverishly toward the threshold of its release. Autumn’s fingers slid from his hair, wandering aimlessly across angular shoulder blades as the totality of her existence focused on the exquisite tease of his thumb brushing, almost incidentally, against the tender bud of her clit. With a near-frantic moan, she slid her free hand down over his, no longer satisfied with simply letting him dictate the pace of his own discovery. “Lesson can wait,” Autumn gasped, guiding him into the patterns she desperately craved. “I ca- han’t!” Her voice broke in a sharp, tremulous cry as one of those dextrous, sensitive fingers probed at her entrance before slipping inside, triggering the sudden contraction of her abdomen and a torrent of incoherent pleas to unnamed gods. All rational thought vanished, dissolving like hot ashes on the wind as her hips rolled faster, a frenetic rhythm that matched the insistent pressure of her palm on the back of his hand. She was already so close, breath coming in ragged gasps underscored by a soft, pleading whine, when she felt Jase shift slightly, followed by the brush of his cheek against the high curve of her breast. “Oh-” Autumn began breathlessly, heavy lids opening slightly in confusion. Then- “Ohhhh, FUCK!” as the tip of his tongue circled her nipple and he captured it between his lips. The ache, the heat inside her swelled, searing crimson and gold against the inside of her skin, and for a brief, terrifying moment the delirious teen thought she might actually be dying, torn shrieking from the world on a surging wave of incandescent lust. One hand clutched blindly, wildly at Jason’s wrist as her body tensed, muscles flexing beneath the rose-flushed ivory of her skin, while the other seized a fistful of the blanket behind him. Her eyes were wide, unseeing, as her spine arched, driving her bucking hips harder against his fingers; as the world went black around the edges, a high, keening wail escaped her lips, carrying the echo of his name through the night. It was revelatory: every part of the experience was sounding depths in his soul that even the acutely self-aware young man had not previously fathomed. Autumn’s body rose and tautened, her voice rising high, carrying his name in a wild paean of ecstasy under his touch while her feverishly clutching left hand latched onto his wrist in a futile attempt to anchor herself against the tempest coursing through her nerves. Jason felt in that grip the bruising strength of her rapture, his refined sense of touch reading the spasms of her wetness seeking to draw his fingers deeper, and as he watched her lovely features transported with pleasure the detached genius felt something within him stir, something possessive yet gentle that responded to the bold young woman who had reached out to and, if he was honest, into him. His other arm encircled her shoulders, cradling Autumn gently as she cried out and trembled against him, surging through the riptide of her delight, and Jason absorbed the simple fact of her being inside his awareness with a shock that resonated in the halls of his mind. It was startling, and discomfiting to think that just a week ago, he’d thought in his innocence such a thing could only be within the reach of one girl. But this intimacy was far beyond anything he had pictured. Such was the tumult of his own desires that he had no ready answer to why that was, and so he set the question aside and focused on the delirium of the Now, slowly moving his fingers inside his flame-haired vision, feeling her slippery wetness on his hand and grazing the pad of his thumb around her clit in unconscious time with the quiver of her inner walls. Autumn’s hands released the blanket and his wrist, coming up to cling to his shoulders and back as she raised her face to his, her warm breath and insistent, greedy tongue seeming to carry her soul into the kiss before she broke off to whimper loudly, her voice rhythmically rising in pitch, taking on an almost panicked note. Her thoughts were as leaves in a gale, the astonished realisation that it was happening again all she could grasp from the fleeting shreds of consciousness before her body was set ablaze once more. Already sensitised nerves sang as she felt her lower abdomen become a molten pool from which ripples spread out through her form, growing in intensity and becoming a series of moving walls of searing flame, each more heated than the last, each tearing a more loudly piercing melodious cry from her breathless throat. The series of cataclysms lasted forever and a moment, and left her twitching, gasping, a sheen of perspiration coating the rose stain of desire that flooded her face, throat and bosom. Autumn’s nails clutched at the skin of Jase’s back and shoulder, scoring his skin with red despite their pragmatically short length, before she managed to find purchase on her consciousness and bring one hand down to still the motions of his fingers inside her joyously spasming folds. “No... more...” she managed, though part of her did want more, wanted to see if there was an end to this soaring pleasure, wanted to burn up into motes, molten fragments like a meteorite breaking up from entering the atmosphere so fast. That need to be so consumed was intense – to be burned up by the flame of her lover, to forever cease to exist as Autumn and exist solely as a collection of white-hot motes of pleasure, yearning for his touch. It was terrifying and exhilarating. He was terrifying and exhilarating, even now as he acquiesced, gently slipping his fingers from her heated, needy sex, glancing down at the way her honey made his fingers glisten before his green eyes travelled again along the length of her euphoria-saturated form to meet her gaze again. His eyes burned still with his own lust, and there was an uncompromisingly possessive quality to Jason’s stare as he examined her, from the tumbling halo of firelit red and gold that framed her flushed face, to the dilated centers of her blue eyes, to her panting lips. Though his smile was oddly tender, even as it was still quintessentially Jason Effing Bannon: an expression equal parts satisfaction and amusement. “Told you.” He said matter-of-factly as he brought his hand closer to his face, eyes considering the slickness coating it before he, with seeming great attention to the process and equal enjoyment, licked the sweet evidence of her delight from his fingers as though it were a fairground treat. She watched with lust-dazed fascination as his agile tongue cleaned the digits that had brought her such pleasure, then his gaze turned back to her and smiled slightly, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he repeated what he’d said earlier. “Sort of loud. Noisy, even.” Autumn blinked up at him, her brain still reeling as it worked to assemble scattered, fragmented impulses and impressions into language and the basic structure of coherent thought- a process complicated somewhat by the sight of Jason adroitly licking the taste of her from his fingers. Not only was the display an extremely provocative reminder of the meal they’d just shared earlier, it suggested a number of other shared activities at which he might be equally adept, vivid images of which came to mind far more readily than the words she needed to describe them. Tilting her head and shifting a little closer to him, the sated redhead admired, wonderingly, the way the low flames nearby cast his features into sharp relief, warm bronze highlights contrasted with the near-black contours, and lent their glow to the hungry, wicked sparks of mischief in his eyes. It was enough to make her breath catch in her throat, kindling an answering flush of residual heat in her own expression as she considered his. “Sorry, was it?” she finally managed, still a little breathless but not at all apologetic as she reached up with a slightly giddy smile, her fingertips delicately following that line of demarcation between light and shadow that made him seem somehow otherworldly, unknowable. “I’ll try to be quieter next time.” "No need." The fire in the depths of his eyes was undimmed as he turned his head fractionally, kissing her fingers, his gaze not leaving her face. "Not on my account, anyway."
  13. The second time he said her name, the words themselves barely managing to pierce the heady fog of desire clouding her thoughts, it finally registered that Jase was actually saying something of import. “Fuck,” she swore with quiet intensity, stiffening slightly in his arms as she struggled to focus on something, anything other than the heat of his body and the feel of his hands anchoring her to him. As much as Autumn wanted to rail against his appeal to sanity, to protest that she didn’t care and it was fine, she did and it wasn’t. That was the reality of the situation. Of fucking course he didn’t have condoms. Why would he? She’d invited him out to go camping, for crying out loud, which was exactly why she hadn’t brought any, either. Suddenly acutely aware of the fact that she’d maybe almost just had sex with Jason Bannon, that she had definitely wanted to, and that she actually had just totally been all over him- that she was still all over him- the redhead squeezed her eyes shut, burying her face against his shoulder. “Yeah,” she murmured, quiet resignation in the soft, slightly raspy reply as she caught her breath. “Me, either.” Where scorching need retreated, the cold, unfamiliar sting of self-consciousness crept in, and yet Autumn found herself clinging to him still, wrapping her arms tightly around his chest and selfishly committing every nuance of Jason’s physical presence to memory as best she could. Whatever happened next, this moment, this feeling at least, was hers. “C’mon,” she sighed when she couldn’t stand it any longer, lifting her head and gently tapping his side in a bid to be set down. “Dinner should be almost done. I’ll grab napkins.” She hadn’t actually died earlier; she sort of wished she could now. He caught her eye, easy enough as he was still holding her off the ground and their eyes were roughly level, and she realised he was studying her expression with a calm concern in his gaze, almost clinical if it weren’t for the residual warmth still there. “Hey.” he said softly. “This isn’t ‘not happening’, it’s just ‘to be continued’.” He examined her face a little more, eyes lingering on her kiss-reddened lips and flushed cheeks, then smiled slightly as he met her eyes again. “That is,” he said more quietly, “if you want it to.” Autumn blinked, startled at his suggestion, then licked her lips, nodding as the high color in her cheeks deepened further. "Yeah," she replied so quietly it was scarcely more than a whisper. "Yeah, I really do." His smile widened a little, and he gently kissed her lips as he lowered her to the ground, her legs reluctantly releasing his waist so her feet could touch down. The pretty redhead made a soft little sound, her arms tightening around his chest as though to hold herself up for a moment before she finally relaxed her grip and, smiling now, slowly stepped away on legs that felt more than a little shaky. Jason kept his hands on her waist for a moment longer, his gaze somewhere between warm and unreadable as he watched her take a couple of coltish steps towards the fire before her equilibrium returned. “Good.” Jase said as he moved to join her by the fire, calling a bottle of water to his hand and cooling it with a thought, condensation forming on the sides of the plastic before her eyes as he unscrewed the lid and went to take a sip, then paused, considering for a moment before offering it to her. She gratefully took a drink and passed the bottle back with a smile, took a moment to tie her hair back for safety, then crouched to check the foil packages. “Because,” the emerald-eyed monster said as he sat beside her, watching what she was doing keenly. He grinned, studying her profile and the curve of her hips in her jeans. “I think we’ll need to be further away from your house. Sound carries, especially at night. And though I’m no expert, I’m thinking it’ll be sort of loud. Noisy, even.” She should be immune to this stuff by now, Autumn reflected as she felt a heat in her face that had nothing to do with the fire. For heaven’s sakes, she wasn’t a virginal choirgirl. She’d just been climbing him like a stepladder, had felt his body reacting to hers as much as hers reacting to his. And yet with a line that from any other boy would have been met with an eye-roll and a ‘sure, buddy’ snort he could set fire to her skin. Hell, he could do that with a look. “Make yourself useful and fish these parcels out of the coals.” she said over her shoulder at him, trying to narrow her eyes sternly and having the effect ruined by the mirthful sparkle in their depths. “If you insist.” Jase smiled, then gestured in unnecessary theatricality, the two packages gliding from the coals and coming to rest on the ring of stones around the edge of the firepit. Shifting position to kneel beside Autumn as she turned to grab napkins, he deftly brushed errant embers from the parcels and then carefully opened them. Fragrant steam billowed forth, and both teens heard each other’s stomachs growl as the scent of herbs, butter and garlic mixed with the smell of cooked meat and vegetables. “Damn.” Jase nodded approval. “Smells good. Worth remembering this trick.” Taking another sniff appreciatively, he settled back and watched Autumn, taking another drink of water. “It is,” she agreed pleasantly. “I have a fork if you want it, by the way. If you let it cool a little, the pieces are also big enough to just eat with your fingers.” Glancing back at him again, Autumn grinned. “That’s how we did it at Girl Scout Camp. Bunch of eight-year-old girls sitting around a fire, singing songs and stuffing our faces like savages. Good times. Oh,” she added, as if an afterthought, then leaned over Jase’s shoulder where he sat near the fire. “And you did bring up a good point. About the sound, I mean.” When he turned to regard her with the arched brow that- in her mind- was rapidly becoming emblematic of the detached, analytical young genius, a very un-Girl-Scout-like smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “So I guess I’ll just have to think of a good way to keep you quiet,” the mischievous young redhead murmured as a fresh wave of crimson stained her cheeks, and then kissed him again- briefly, but in earnest. It was the same as before- from that single point of contact a spark flared into life, spreading liquid heat through her veins that had nothing whatsoever to do with the nearby fire. Having succumbed to the temptation to kiss him once already, the impulse to do it again was almost irresistible- but, then again, she hadn’t really tried to resist it in the first place, had she? ...And, truthfully, she wasn’t entirely sure she would be able to stop kissing him if she got started again, especially not when he was looking at her that way. Reluctantly, Autumn managed to tear herself away and headed to the cooler to grab something very, very cold to drink. Is this okay? she wondered, grimacing a little as she rummaged in the ice for another bottle of water. Unpleasant as the chill felt, the frigid water was bracing, clearing away some of the residual endorphins. She hadn’t just almost kissed Jason Bannon this time, the mere thought of which had kept her up most of the night a week prior. Autumn couldn’t help but feel a twinge of uncertainty over the lingering sensation of physical need: she didn’t exactly have a great number of friends, and this definitely complicated things. The last guy she’d been involved with had also started as a friend, and tacking “with benefits” on, and the sort of weird presumption that they were then dating, had kind of… ended badly, and she wasn’t interested in a repeat performance of that particular show. Jase was Jase, though, not Jacob, the blue-eyed young woman reminded herself. Pulling a full bottle from the cooler, she twisted the cap off and nudged the lid closed with her elbow, turning back to find him watching her again. In spite of herself, she smiled a little, swiping the fork she’d mentioned from a small collection of tools nearby and heading back to the blanket to wait for their dinner to cool. Whether it was actually a bad idea or not… it was nice having him there, she decided. Maybe not peaceful exactly, but interesting. Challenging. Fun. They ate in relative silence for awhile, Jase using the fork at first but then setting it aside and copying Autumn, plucking morsels from the parcel with his fingers and popping them into his mouth with relish. He ate with evident enjoyment, taking his time to enjoy the meal as he sat facing his… girlfriend? Was that right? Did the term fit? Or perhaps that was something formally acknowledged, rather than implied. How strange it felt, rolling the term around the crystalline halls of his mind. A friend who happened to be a girl was nothing new. Lilly, Avalon, even Clara and Marissa fell into that category. Of all of them Autumn was the one who’d most sought to comprehend him: though the others had certainly made efforts, ranging from sincere to token, to understand facets of him, or why he did a specific thing, Autumn was the one who’d sat down and wanted to try and understand as much as possible. The act of observation changes both the observer and the observed - a standard principle of physics, and perhaps it was no different here. Thermodynamics of trust and desire, he mused, chewing a tender piece of sirloin. In order to observe me, she had to let herself be observed in turn, and that act of observing her fear caused me to wish to lessen it… Why? Trust given by a friend should be treasured, that is the code. And how do we treasure trust? - we extend it in turn. “You’re staring at me.” Autumn said as she finished taking a drink, smiling warmly at him. “I’m watching you.” He replied calmly, the corners of his eyes crinkling a little. And he was - the entire time he’d been working on analysing his responses he’d been storing every little detail of her, and this moment. “Does it bother you?” “No. Yes.” she laughed a little, her cheeks rosing again. “I do wonder what you see, though.” "Something unexpected, but welcome. Alchemy of sorts. In just a week, suspicion and fear on your part and detachment on mine have transmuted into friendship, trust..." he smiled at her, his eyes taking on that faint hungry quality that warmed their coldness. "Desire." An answering warmth rose in her cheeks and she nodded, glancing down at the food in her hands with a grin of pleasure at the memory. "Unexpected, definitely. Not that I minded, I guess. I mean, obviously." The red-haired girl laughed at that, hazarding a look at her companion through the fringe of her lashes. "But, yeah. I have to admit, I'm having more fun than I thought I would." The firelight flickered across his lean, high cheek-boned face and reflected in his eyes as he nodded soberly, the faint smile still playing around the corners of his mouth as he regarded the rose tinting her freckled ivory features. "It is fun. You're fun - and not just to tease, but to talk with - and to kiss. And to think I was on the verge of swearing off physical relations altogether not long ago." he added with a wry quirk of one corner of his lips. "Swearing them off?" Autumn blinked incredulously at him as she leaned forward, eyes wide and faintly luminous in the warm glow of the nearby flames. "Without even knowing what it was like, without even experiencing..." She shook her head, her free hand gesturing expansively at the world outside the faint ring of firelight. "Any of it? Why?" "Pique, perhaps." His smile widened a little at her reaction, head tilting to one side as he considered. "Monday was a bad day before you showed up. Bear in mind I was also on the verge of leaving Shelly after scorching a big ‘fuck you’ into the sports field: my mood was... poor." He finished with a slight understatement. Sitting here, that state of mind, that cold anger and disdain and the sense of being just done with it all, seemed very far away. In fact, as he studied Autumn's shining blue eyes, he was aware of a flicker of warmth that was unusual, something he took at first to be the embers of the recent flare of desire - but possessed of a different quality. "Anyway, I’d find abstinence pretty tough now. Thanks to you, I get what all the shouting is about" "...before you showed up." The idea that she had helped- that despite being utterly terrified of the brooding and dangerous young man and totally out of her depth, she had somehow still made an awful day a little better- was every bit as warming, as gratifying as the glimmer of interest in his pale green eyes. Before Monday, if he had disappeared, she would've been more worried about reprisals or delayed vengeance than why he'd gone, or whether he was all right. Now, though, things were... different. She grinned around a mouthful of steak as he grew quiet again, meeting his gaze with an expression that was equal parts mischief and promise, and shook her head once more- slowly, deliberately. "No. Not yet, you don't. That was just a kiss." He didn’t blush, merely blinked once, then cocked his head slightly to one side and smiled at her, raising an eyebrow. The redhead pursed her lips, considering. “You don’t get flustered, do you? I am never going to see you blush, or be lost for words.” “Embarrassment isn’t something I feel. I do experience a pause as my train of thought gets derailed, but there’s no real flustering there. I blink, adapt, and that’s it.” Jase tilted the foil packet at one end, draining the juices from the meat and vegetables into his mouth, then licked his fingers clean. “You blinked just now. So… I derailed your train of thought.” Autumn smiled widely, trying not to focus on his tongue cleaning his fingers. “I’m claiming that as a win.” “I blinked earlier too, when you said my pheromones were fine and again when you called me amazing.” Jason corrected evenly. Autumn went red as she recalled, looking down at her meal abashedly. “Well… Yes. You are.” She said, glancing at him through her lashes. “And they are.” “So it seems.” he nodded, folding the foil into a square, then wiping his hands dry on a napkin, his eyes never leaving her features. “Soooo, that’s three blinks, which I am claiming as blushes, for me.” Autumn pronounced, lifting her chin in triumph. “Versus twenty-three for me.” The Effing One returned. “Including full blushes, times lost for words, and those delightful little blushes where just your cheeks go rosy.” “Doesn’t matter.” Autumn tossed her head, smiling even as another of the aforementioned little blushes stained her skin. “I’m a redhead, a girl, and with a normal brain. You are Bannon, Greatest and Chiefest of Calamities. A blink from you is worth… twenty blushes. At least.” He rubbed his chin as though considering that, his eyes narrowing, then nodded. “I suppose, seeing as it’s the price of being amazing.” he said with a faint sigh, as though conceding a defeat. Autumn giggled around a mouthful of food, nodding in agreement, and he smiled at her. A sudden notion struck him and, evaluating it in a split second, he saw no reason not to go with it. “So, assuming you haven’t gotten tired of my amazing self by then, would you go to the Homecoming Dance with me? As my girlfriend, I mean." he clarified. “That…” she began slowly, the expression on her freckled features a curious mixture of surprise and confusion. “Out of all the questions I would ever have expected you to ask me, that one wasn’t on the list.” “Really?” Jason seemed mildly curious about that, his head tilting slightly to one side as he regarded her. “I suppose it was presumptive of me. It came to me while we were eating - we get along well, we are different enough to be interesting to one another, I enjoy talking with you a surprising amount…” “Surprising, huh?” Autumn narrowed her eyes at him as she finished her own meal, wiping her hands on a napkin as she set the folded foil in the trash bag. “Surprising, how?” What, had he expected to be bored? “I don’t usually enjoy talking to most people this much.” he said with a small smile. “It’s something I do, because it’s necessary as part of the interaction. But with you it’s entertaining - and not just because you blush like a sunset. You’re lively, emotionally honest and open, enthusiastic about life. You have an active mind: you’re curious and not content with just banal explanations - in that we’re very alike. I think you’ve a lot of very attractive qualities.” His smile widened slightly, his gaze studying her features intently with a heat in its depths that caused Autumn’s stomach to tighten. “And our chemistry seems to be… compatible.” Autumn had been trying resolutely not to blush under that scrutiny and his words, though she’d felt the heat rising in her face regardless as her blue eyes studied his features in turn. When he mentioned their chemistry, the blush burst its dam and coloured her cheeks deep rose, though she didn’t look away. Yes, she wanted him. Her lips remembered that last kiss just before they ate - her body remembered that kiss, short and sweet as it had been. And judging by the way he looked at her, with an intent unveiled hunger in his eyes as they met hers that - her feminine intuition screamed - had nothing to do with his stomach, he felt that too. The look wasn’t affected, she realised. It was raw desire without conscience, shame or hesitation, and the force of it was making her breath catch. “Okay.” she managed. “But I thought you didn’t date.” She had to deflect his attention a little, deflect that gaze that heated her like he was setting her on fire - metaphorically and in the best way possible. “I didn’t.” Jase shrugged, his smoulder relenting a little as he took a drink of water. “I was wearing a mask, hiding myself and keeping everyone at arm's length. Dating would have been counterproductive.” “That’s one reason.” Autumn said with a faint air of triumph. “Hmm?” “Don’t ‘hmm’ me, Bannon the Impenetrable. Three reasons - don’t think I’ve not been paying attention. You always have three reasons.” Her gaze met his challengingly, and she was gratified to see a flash of white teeth as he grinned. “Very well - I also didn’t feel the need for physical connection before.” he allowed, smiling at her with a good-natured gleam in his eyes. “It just seemed… irrelevant before the summer. I didn’t like people touching me, and whilst I liked looking at pretty girls, it was more aesthetic than carnal.” “Late bloomer.” Autumn teased, smiling. Jase nodded, shrugging a shoulder as he smiled back. “Hopefully worth the wait.” he said slyly. “And the third reason was Marissa.” “Right.” Autumn blinked, feeling a dash of cold water to the brain at the mention of that name. “Don’t you love her, or something?” Jason sighed at that, a pensive look entering his eyes as he looked up, watching sparks from the fire rising into the air. “I do - I’ve been drawn to her for a long time. But I’m not going to hang around pining for her - I’m not even sure she’s a wise choice for me. She has made it plain she will never seek to understand me beyond the limits of her own fear. Perhaps that will change - but that is entirely up to her. Any further discussion will come from her initiation.” “So… You’ve moved on?” Autumn blinked. “Yes. I plan to live and enjoy the experience, like I said in my kitchen on Monday. While the matter of Marissa’s true feelings works itself out, one way or the other.” “One way or the other?” “Yes. Either she likes me in truth, but she’s playing a game or doesn’t know her own mind, in which case she’s going to need to grow up and elevate her thinking a little. Or it will come to light she has no special attraction to me or can never accept me - in which case I shall treat the whole matter as a learning experience.” “Wow. I mean, yeah that makes perfect logical sense, but still…” Autumn peered at her stoic friend. “And you don’t feel sad, or angry, or anything?” Jason said nothing, just shook his head with his eyes on hers. The redhead sat back slightly, considering him with slightly narrowed eyes. Bannon. Dating Bannon. Jase as a boyfriend - not just a friend with bennies, but a for-real, dating… “What does being a boyfriend or girlfriend mean to you?” she asked earnestly, leaning forward again. He looked thoughtful. “Someone who is a good friend, who you are also attracted to and want to make space in your life for.” he answered in a measured tone. “I see a lot of high school couples who don’t really seem to be friends at all - they just ‘date’ which, from overheard conversation, seems to be only hanging out together to fumble in each other’s clothes. Not that I don’t see the attraction, but what I picture is something less… casual? As I said, we seem to get along really well. I like you, and I trust you. And you’ve said similar to me.” He smiled faintly. “And I really, really like kissing you. I just want to see where all that goes, if it could lead anywhere, rather than assuming it means nothing.”
  14. And they did. As they got the campsite fit for purpose, Jase laid out the current theory of quantum forces as the underpinnings of all creation, including the massive gap in the theory as it stood right now. He then went on to explain how the existence of a subquantum layer of reality filled in that gap, providing a unifying force tying everything together. Then, with a few short examples from his observations of various members of the Fellowship’s gifts, he demonstrated how the psionic level of reality and the subquantum layer had to be one and the same, and that it was a layer where the normal rules of time, space and physics were malleable and subject to the will of the psionically gifted. Indeed, it could be considered the level of reality that consciousness and willpower existed on. The realm of the soul, for want of a better word. By the time the exploration into the foundations of all reality was over, Jase was sitting by a crackling fire that had been laid in the pit Autumn had cleaned out as the flame-haired girl paced around the campsite. The contrast between them was notable - one a picture of stillness between one considered, purpose-laden movement and the next, the other constantly shifting in restless tandem with the activity of her mind as it took everything in. The afternoon had progressed into early evening, though there was still plenty of light from the sun as it dipped towards the horizon. “So.” Jase leaned back on his elbows, raising a brow at Autumn as the firelight danced on his composed features. “I won’t ask if you have any questions, because I know I still do and I’m pretty sure you’re not that easily satisfied either. But does the explanation help, at least?” Something about the act of just moving around made it easier for her to focus. While the rest of her had been arranging firewood to promote airflow, setting up her tent, and stretching the brand-new hammock she’d gotten at the start of school between the usual trees, her brain found itself free to concentrate on what Jase was- with an impressive degree of patience, and without crayons- trying to explain. He understood the subject matter well enough to be able to convey it simply, without condescension, and without seeming bored. If anything, assuming that her study of Jase Expressions for Noobs was accurate, he actually seemed pleased to be sharing information. He could also just be humoring her- she was still in the early days of her anthropological observations after all, so it was difficult to tell. “It does help,” Autumn agreed slowly, still processing Jase’s elementary unpacking of what was, essentially, a theory of everything. “It gives me a place to start, anyway. And, yeah,” she grinned, tossing a twig into the fire, “I have questions. There are always questions, every time we talk about something. Well,” she amended, the smile audible in her voice as she headed over to the cooler. “About something serious, anyway. And then you answer them, and then I have more. It’s like I’m in class, but actually paying attention.” A cold water bottle appeared in front of his eyes as the red-haired girl walked up behind him, nudging him gently with her knee. “Thought you might be thirsty after the lesson, Professor Bannon.” As he cracked open the seal on his drink, she carried hers over to the striped wool blanket spread near the fire and finally settled down. “‘Professor,’ is it now?” her companion inquired as he took a long drink of water, the bottle going slightly cloudy with the formation of tiny ice crystals within to adjust the temperature. “Mhmm. You can’t be a high school science teacher.” Cutting her eyes at him as she tilted her head just slightly, the redhead took a sip from her own bottle and added with a smirk, “You’re not old, bald, ugly, overweight, or divorced, and you haven’t given up on life yet. Sorry,” she shrugged, as if there was nothing she could do. “You don’t meet the job requirements. Go teach some hot college girls first, get involved in a couple of scandals, come back when you’ve had your midlife crisis.” “Well, I admit the thought of fooling around scandalously with college girls has its appeal.” Jase smiled slightly, causing Autumn to experience a pang of anxiety on behalf of her college-aged sisterhood. “Older women, and all. Experienced hands on my tiller.” Autumn turned bright red even as she snorted around a mouthful of water, thankful not to have another choking coughing episode like the one in his kitchen this time. It was the way he delivered the cheesy double-entendre utterly deadpan, with just a hint of a pause before the word ‘tiller’. She didn’t dare look at him, knowing that he’d be wearing an expression of mildly amused interest in her plight that would cause her to lose her shit entirely. Instead she took a deep breath, finished her drink, took another deep breath, then unable to help herself she glanced sideways. He was watching her with the exact expression she had expected, only as he noticed her look at him he raised a solitary eyebrow archly, then winked. “You-” she wagged a finger in a passable imitation of her mother scolding her. “-are totally…” “Utterly.” he said with an air of agreement, nodding as he scooched over to sit on her blanket. “Couldn’t agree more. Though I think I’ll pass on having a midlife crisis. They seem tedious.” “You don’t ever stop and re-evaluate everything in your life and who you are?” Autumn glanced at him again, smiling a little. “I constantly re-evaluate everything in my life, especially lately. As to who I am, that doesn’t change” Jason stated somewhat somberly as he stared into the fire. “That’s why having a friend who understands that is important.” he added with a sideways smile. “Mmmm,” she nodded, taking another drink as she weighed his words quietly, rolling them over in her mind as the fire crackled and snapped softly in the amber glow of the fading daylight. “I can see that. Sort of the idea that who a person is, at their core, can’t really be changed in any fundamental way. Especially so for you, maybe,” Autumn allowed, leaning over for a moment to bump his shoulder with her own. “I don’t know that I necessarily agree completely, but your boots are too big for me to walk very far in.” Smiling, she gave a small shrug. “I mean, I know that I’d like to think that what I feel as ‘Autumn,’ in my head, is a fixed point. That I could use that to navigate through life, knowing as long as I kept it in sight, I’d be fine.” She paused, wondering (not for the first time) if it was Jase’s presence, or something in the atmosphere that made her feel oddly pensive. “Other times, I think about whether that’s really true, or just what I want to think is true, you know? Honestly, I wonder if the ‘Autumn’ I think I am isn’t something I can chart a course by, but just a compass needle that points somewhere else.” She frowned at that, her eyebrows knitting together in consternation. “Physically, we’re different people all the time. New skin, new bones, new blood, all of it. And, I know that other things about me change, too. Have changed, even just in little ways.” With a quick sweep of her hand, she gestured toward Jase himself in acknowledgement of their nascent friendship. “Maybe even in ways I haven’t noticed yet, because I’m too busy actually doing it. Like, not knowing you’re getting taller until your clothes don’t fit anymore.” There was a moment of quiet as Autumn took another drink, and then offered him a slightly abashed smile. “So, not that you asked, but that’s what I think.” Then, a moment later, “Professor.” He smiled a little at the adornment, shaking his head, but his mood was reflective as he considered her words. It was certainly true that one adapted to changing situations. It was also true that the core of a person, at least himself, was not all that malleable. He wondered if that was due to the malleability being a function of intuitive socialisation - one adapted to fit the circumstances, up to and including the infamous Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages could experience something very like love towards their captors and vice versa. Did his knowledge that he was not human, that he was of a different species entirely, change who he was? Or merely how he perceived that who. “I think both are true.” he said eventually, after a comfortable silence in which both teens were considering. In response to Autumn’s glance his way, he half turned towards her, his gaze assessing. “You - Autumn - are the point of reference: the star if you will, that you steer by, and you are also the compass needle. For you, each acts on the other. Most of the time, the needle points to where you already know you should be as dictated by the position of your central star. And sometimes it points to a place you haven’t considered, and the solid point of reference shifts, but remains Autumn.” He smiled at her, the expression reaching his firelit eyes. “For me, perhaps it’s the same. I don’t know. I still feel the same as I did before the summer, the party, the powers. I have elected to drop my mask, so I appear changed to others, but I don’t know if I’ve changed inside. I fought a hellbeast, then went and ate pizza, cheered Lilly on at the game, brutalised Liam all in the same evening, and I feel no different as a result of those things. It’s like the central star that is me doesn’t shift, even as new facets of it come to light and everything I do is in relation to it.” He turned his gaze to the fire again, its light shining off his shaggy dark hair. “Right now I feel different, though. Less cold, more warm. Peaceful.” He glanced at her, meeting her eyes. “That’s your doing, I think. And thank you for that.” That gave her a moment’s pause, the conversation suddenly veering off in a direction she would never have expected… Which, to be fair, wasn’t unusual on its own, but both the openness of his admission and the fact that he was directing it at her left her momentarily at a total loss for words. “I mean, you’re welcome, but… I don’t think I’ve done anything you would need to thank me for. Seriously.” Sliding a couple inches closer, she nudged his shoulder again. “Apologize for, maybe, for being a dirty cheat-” Autumn caught herself, pursing her lips. “For… taking unfair advantage of the unwritten nature of a rule,” she corrected, unable to resist glowering up at him in mock fury, her eyes fairly aglow with humor. “But, not thank me. You’re right, though, you do seem a little different. It could just be this place, you know? It is peaceful, here, and it just kind of melts into you, every part of you, into your bones. Something in the air, or the water, I don’t know.” Smiling, she looked beyond the fire to the stream, where the encroaching twilight gazed down at its reflection in the slow-moving current. “It’s probably my favorite place in the world. I’m glad you like it- hopefully, everyone else will like it, too.” Taking another long sip of water, she thought about that for a moment, the idea of bringing so many people- people like her, who were also very unlike her- here. Would they appreciate it? Would they be respectful? She’d been to plenty of overnight parties where that wasn’t the case, and she knew she would be taking a risk, inviting the others… But, it was something new, something she hadn’t tried before, and- she didn’t have to look over at her companion to know he was there, a feeling of warmth and vitality suggesting his presence- thus far, she seemed to be having pretty good luck with new things. She’d been prepared for the sleepover at Marissa’s to blow up in her face, and fully expected to get the Cora treatment when she’d gone to pick up her hoodie, hadn’t she? Maybe this would be the same. With a crinkle of plastic, she drained the last swallow of water from her bottle and fished the cap out of her pocket before glancing over at him and smiling encouragingly. He didn’t seem to mind the quiet, not filling the silences with pointless conversation- which was a fortunate thing this far out from Shelly itself. “Are you hungry yet?” she asked, getting to her feet and screwing the bottle cap back on, eyeing the fire speculatively. “It’s almost burned down enough to cook, so whenever you’re ready it should be fine. If not, I brought cards and stuff, in case we got bored.” “I’m always hungry.” Jase looked up at her with a sharp grin that put Autumn in mind of a fox when someone said the word ‘chicken’. “I don’t think I’ve ever cooked on an open fire before - not counting marshmallows and Smores - but I’ve read about it. Dad and Hank usually set up a portable gas grill.” He watched with interest as Autumn, shooting him a smile, extracted two fair-sized foil parcels from the small cold-bag and brought them back to the fireside. “Cubed sirloin with veggies and red potatoes.” she said in answer to his curious glance. “We bury them like so...” Autumn knelt down, handing him one of the packets and picking up a stick, poking a depression in the glowing coals toward the edge of the fire before depositing her foil package carefully, then pulling the coals over. She turned to see Jase imitating her almost exactly… except that the lean youth was using his bare hands to scoop red-hot embers aside, then carefully pat them back into place over the parcel before dusting his hands off. Autumn's first, instinctive reaction was a momentary flicker of panic: bare skin, live coals. Oh, shit! She took a half step toward her friend, then hesitated. He was- fine? Startled, she watched Jase for several seconds, wide-eyed, and took a few deep breaths to slow the rapid surge in her heartbeat. It was strange, she marveled, to see how seamlessly he'd integrated his own powers into his life, as if they were simply part of who he was intrinsically, rather than just something he could do. He seemed perfectly at ease, like he'd done this a thousand times before. For all she knew, maybe he had. At the same time, it was a stark reminder of how inarguably strange Jason Bannon was, something she'd conveniently pushed to the back of her mind while they'd played in the stream and gotten the camp site in order. He was a person, sure, but also more than that. Different. Chewing her lower lip thoughtfully, she shook her head. It's fine, the redhead reminded herself, as something else occurred to her. "Cheater," she grumbled under her breath, viciously jabbing her newly-designated poking stick into the coals. “Oh, there are rules for that too?” Jase responded with a hint of a smile. Autumn stuck her tongue out at him, then smiled as she sat back, regarding him with a mixture of friendly good humor, curiousity, and a tinge of exasperation. “Just trying to figure out how you do that.” she said, squinting a little at him over her smile. “Thermokinetic diffusion?” “No. I mean - do it so easily. Like it’s not even a special effort. No big ‘ta-da’.” Autumn’s freckle-speckled nose screwed up slightly. “It still kind of freaks me out, this ‘Shine’ thing.” “I’m not unique there. Devin thinks nothing of teleporting to Athens for pizza or Bangkok for Thai food, or even teleporting his dresser to him to change clothes.” Jase shuffled around to face her as he spoke. “Charlie shifted his head into a reasonable copy of a female newsreader’s and scared the country girl glow out of Tawny’s cheeks.” He smirked as he remembered that. “I wonder if Devin got around to fully explaining to her what the hell is going on yet? Anyway, that was the first casual use of his powers I’ve ever seen Charlie make, so there’s hope there - though his timing and the company present could have been better.” He rolled his eyes, then pondered, his gaze on her features. “Most of the others seem to be getting more relaxed about it, but I don’t think they put a lot of thought into how their powers could be used. For instance you share Charlie’s gift to an extent, which means you might be able to physically adapt to extreme heat enough that you, too, could pick up a red hot coal.” He shrugged. “I’m pretty sure that Sean spends a lot of time reading people’s texts and emails as they go whizzing through the air. At least, I would if I were him. Same with Sara’s telepathy - I’d be constantly skimming people’s moods and surface thoughts, hoping to understand them better.” “Cheating.” Autumn grinned at him, poking his arm with a finger. “Working imaginatively to overcome a limitation.” Jase responded, grinning back at her. “If I had yours and Charlie’s gift, I’d grow gills and go swimming. Or experiment with altering my own pheromones. Or anything, really. The key is first, establish How my powers work. Then ask the question ‘what else can I do?’ Let the imagination soar, and don’t be afraid.” He paused, considering that. “Easy for me to say, perhaps. But doesn’t make it untrue.” Something in her eyes had lit up when he started talking about what he would do with other people’s powers; although she’d made a valiant and concerted effort to keep still and listen quietly, when he finally grew quiet, all the energy she’d been holding came out in a rush. “Okay, okay, but!” Hopping up to her feet suddenly, Autumn took a few steps to get her thoughts in order, then turned to face him again. “First, trust me. Your pheromones are fine. No problem there.” Her cheeks flushed slightly in the firelight as she gestured expansively in his general direction, but she grinned anyway. “Also, what if you don’t need to be able to grow gills to do that? Like, what if you just used one of your force-fields to make a bubble around yourself? I mean, you can breathe inside them, right? And then, if you can’t swim because you’re not touching the water, just… Airplane yourself.” She paused for a second, her expression suddenly serious. “Please tell me you’ve tried that, because if not, I don’t know that we can be friends. Not the underwater part, I mean, but flying.” "I have tried." Jase admitted with a small smile. "I can do it, but at the moment it causes the kind of headache I associate with psionic strain. Like lifting too much with your arms can cause them to hurt." “Seriously?!” the restive redhead all but crowed, bouncing on the balls of her feet as she laughed. “That’s so freakin’ cool, though! I mean, yeah, you could probably do all kinds of crazy stuff with Sean’s abilities, or Sara’s, or whatever, but you’re learning to fly. When you figure out how all this works together, how to do it without hurting yourself, you could go anywhere, see anything, and nothing could hurt you. Like…” Resting her hands on top of her head, she paused, reflecting long enough to breathe amid the torrent of words and thoughts. “Devin can go anywhere, which is awesome, but can he survive there? Under the ocean, or, or in a volcano, or… hell, in space. I can’t even imagine having that kind of freedom,” she breathed, though her expression of rapt fascination rather suggested otherwise. “What you can do, how natural it is for you, that’s- it’s amazing. You’re amazing, you know?”
  15. "A very little key will open a very heavy door." -Charles Dickens, 'The Strange Gentleman' "Never open a door that you can’t lock again." -Persian Proverb Thursday afternoon, 29th August. The keys to the other house- once her grandparents' house and one day hers, but always the "other" house- had been in the same place they always were, hanging on a little hook by the phone in the kitchen. There were at least a dozen of them, most made of old brass, all linked on a ring with a bright yellow tag that read "Oasis Bar & Casino" in worn red letters. (The Oasis was a little hole in the wall dive on Main Street near the hardware store, with a big sign that read "DANCING;" though Autumn had never been inside, she'd always wondered if anybody in Shelly actually went there for that purpose.) Some of the keys, she knew, went to the front and back doors, to the shed, to the gun safe and the liquor cabinet. One used to belong to her grandfather's pickup truck, and one fit the padlock on the heavy utility gate across the gravel driveway. The others, though, were mysteries, an assortment of keys in shapes and sizes that didn't seem to correspond to any of the doors or security locks in either home. She and her mother had talked about it after the memorial service, when they'd cleared out most of the miscellaneous clutter and bric-a-brac Owen and Caroline had amassed in all their years together; the furniture had stayed, of course, in part because most of it had been custom-built, but much of the home's contents had been either sold or donated. Sitting at the dining room table afterward in the oddly-silent house, Autumn and Dana had gone through the keys one by one for no other reason than that it gave them something mundane to focus on, something to take away the feeling of being gutted and hollow for just a few minutes more while they drank the coffee other people had made. One of them, they decided, was probably for a post office box. Another, smaller and well-worn, looked like it would fit a locker- maybe the one he'd used at work. There was no way of knowing, obviously, and as a result the keys that couldn't be accounted for acquired an appealingly mysterious provenance. In those few stolen moments of distraction from the reality of their loss, the two Keane women proposed increasingly fantastical origins and purposes for them: a safe deposit box containing the deed to a lost mine; a secret door at the Veterans' Memorial that led to a nuclear fallout shelter; a vault in the Highlander Self-Service Laundry that contained all the missing socks that had ever disappeared from Shelly dryers. Those keys, with all the stories attached to them- both remembered and imagined- now jingled in the pocket of her hoodie. Looking back on that afternoon as she strapped a couple of boxes onto the back of the four-wheeler, it occurred to Autumn that in sorting out the keyring, she didn't think her mother had ever mentioned the door in the basement. She couldn't remember whether she'd ever seen it herself growing up, couldn't picture where it might have been... but then, she'd never had much reason to go down there, either. The refrigerator and the television and the fireplace and her grandfather's big chair were all upstairs, and there was no tidy, fenced-in yard for a playground but all the hills and wild places all around the cabin to keep her occupied. Why would she have wanted to go poking around for secret libraries when there were trees to climb and fox dens to find and clouds to watch? Mom must've known about it though, she reflected, frowning as she went through the motions of closing the garage door before stepping back out into the warm, late-August sun. I mean, she lived there as a kid, and she was the one who went through the basement. If she'd cleaned it out, I'd have seen all the books and stuff, so... Did she not want to tell me, or was it just more than she felt like dealing with at the time, or what? If Autumn's thoughts were of a somewhat murkier cast than normal when she started up the road, muddied by the prospect of unearthing family secrets and prodding at wounds not yet entirely healed, the ride up to her grandparents' property proved restorative. She took her time, letting the low rumble of the motor drown out everything else and focusing instead on the road ahead, the wind lifting her hair, and the sharp scent of pine filling her lungs. It was the closest she could get to flight- at least, without demanding another airplane from Jason Goddamn Bannon. The memory of that feeling- of swooping and circling over everyone's heads just a few short days before, of the sound of laughter ringing out bright and free as if to spite the encroaching darkness- brought a smile to her lips and a pleasant warmth to her cheeks as the gate came into view up ahead. Into the driveway. Downshift. Brake. Out came the ring of keys, down went her feet onto the gravel. With a little fiddling, the padlock popped open, and the rusted metal gate followed suit; Autumn nudged the ATV forward again, then barred the way behind her. She'd done it countless times before, but never with this same sense of... nervousness? Anticipation? It felt a little like pedaling down the road to the farm on Monday, wondering the entire time if it was a good idea, knowing it probably wasn't, and still being unwilling to turn around. Maybe Nathan was screwing with her, but maybe he wasn't. Maybe her grandfather really did know about the Dark- Warden Crocker had, so it wasn't all that crazy an idea. Maybe... Autumn swallowed hard as she brought the four-wheeler to a stop in front of the two-story log house Owen Kavanagh had built decades ago for his freckled, flame-haired bride. Maybe he could still help. Leaving the boxes for now, his granddaughter hopped off the ATV and followed the stacked stone retaining wall up to the front of the house. The darkened windows that greeted her might, in any other context, have seemed sinister- here, though, they only suggested dormancy. Another key unlocked the front door and she crossed the threshold into the mud room without hesitation, nudging the door shut with her heel. It wasn't remotely the first time she'd been here in the year since Owen had passed, but every time she walked through that door Autumn could swear she smelled fresh coffee and the faint scent of pipe smoke. Today was no exception. Smiling despite the sudden liquid blurriness of her vision, the redhead pulled off her shoes and left them there, padding in her sock feet down the rug-covered hallway. "Hey, Grandpa," she called out quietly, her voice sounding taut even to her own ears as she passed the open kitchen. It was a silly habit, but one she couldn't seem to break just because he wasn't here to answer anymore; it would probably feel weirder if she did stop. Of course there was no coffee in the house, and no one to make it, but she couldn't help but glance over just the same. "Brought back that tackle box Dad got from you, and some other stuff we borrowed from the shop. Sorry it took so long." Exhaling in a long, shuddering breath, Autumn blinked, pausing at the broad entryway to the living area and dining room to switch on the lights. "So, um. Nathan Crocker came by yesterday," she continued, the keys jingling softly as she thrust her hands into the pockets of her hoodie. Moving past the big wood-framed sectional couch and the enormous stone fireplace mantel crowned by dusty pheasants, she headed toward the utility room and the stairs down to the basement. "We talked about you a little, and he, um. He said you knew about all of this, the stuff that's going on? Which, y'know. I was kind of surprised, because you never said anything, and Mom never said anything..." The house was silent in response, save for her breathing and the faint rhythm of her footsteps. "And, I mean, I guess I get it." She shrugged, flipping the toggle switch for the lights to the stairwell and opening the door that led to the lower level of the house. "It's crazy, right? Like, how do you even bring that up in conversation? 'Heard ya had problems with that Jauntsen kid again. Evil little bastard. Ya know, there's a chance he might be possessed by an ancient force of darkness that corrupts folks and makes 'em do some twisted shit. What do you think, m' girl? Seen anything like that?'" Sighing, Autumn headed down the stairs. "Yeah, Grandpa. Yeah, I have."
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