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Everything posted by Autumn Keane

  1. Lunch: Football Field Lilly kept Marissa's advice to heart and for the next few periods did her best to hide her fatigue, mostly consisting of being conscious of her posture and general body language, and expression, which took a fair bit of concentration. It made her idly wonder if Marissa was always doing the same to project the proper 'face' to the outside world (which she probably was) and how much effort it took. The simple bit of advice gave Lilly more than a little bit of insight and actually some newfound respect and appreciation for the discipline Marissa much actually have. Huh. Who would've thought? She did her best to focus on whatever class was at hand, but between her mental and physical fatigue, and thoughts drifting elsewhere, she found it somewhat difficult, even though she was outwardly hiding it. Mostly she was trying to make it through to lunch where Autumn could hopefully help. There were, of course, the typical welcome backs and at least superficial concern for her missing the previous day from some other students ranging from various classmates, acquaintances, and friends to members of the football team who also brought her up to speed on recent developments on the team. When the lunch bell finally rang Lilly grabbed her bag and made the all too familiar trek down toward the athletic fields. In her time at Shelly High, she had probably spent as much time, if not more, down on the fields than in actual classrooms between her training and various practices so she found a certain degree of familiarity and comfort there. As she approached the bleachers, the smell of fresh cut grass greeted her nose and she allowed herself a faint smile, soaking it in. The smell had always been soothing to her, right down to her soul, and right now it was a welcomed comfort. It was hot sitting on the grass next to the track, her face shaded from the midday sun only by the rectangular banner that advertised the PTO's annual Homecoming bake sale. Stupid hot, Autumn's weather app informed her grimly: 'So hot you can just lick your arm before doing a tequila shot.' Well, there wasn't any tequila, but the pink-cheeked post-PE redhead was feeling a little salty, if she was totally honest. Plucking at the collar of her bright yellow GSA t-shirt, she made a soft guttural sound that was half huff, half nonverbal grumble which nevertheless perfectly encapsulated the feeling of damp fabric sticking uncomfortably to one's skin. Of course, it had to be basically 90 degrees on the one day she had suggested Lilly meet her outside; so much for planning ahead. With a rueful little snort, Autumn straightened her legs and glanced up again, shielding her eyes against the cloudless brilliance of the late summer sky. Nope. Not yet. According to Jay, Lilly had been in Mr. Jelbert's class that morning, and Jase seemed convinced she really did need help. Maybe she'll show this time. It was an uncharitable thought, but there it was, ugly and honest. Nose crinkling as she made a face, the vibrant redhead downed another long swallow from her water bottle and tipped the last of the M&Ms out of their packet and into her free hand, cradling them distractedly. It could've been worse, of course. It could've been raining. ...Although then they would've just made different plans, so on second thought, no. Not really much of a consolation. Popping the few remaining chocolate candies into her mouth, Autumn gathered up the remains of her improvised lunch from the vending machine and got to her feet, idly brushing the grass from her bare legs. "...Every turn I take, every trail I track, every path I make, every road hmhmm..." The quiet refrain faded into humming as she neared the vacant concession stand, tossing the plastic remnants of candy-coated chocolate and a pepperoni pizza Lunchable into the trash. Pacing, water bottle sloshing softly in her hand, she was about to dig her phone out of her shorts pocket to text Jase when the enviably athletic woman of the hour came into view near the entrance to the field. It was a start, at least, she conceded, raising a pale arm overhead in greeting. Lilly raised an arm to return the greeting and shifted from a walk to a light jog to close the distance. She was grateful for Autumn being willing to meet and possibly help her, but she did not want to take up too much of the lunch period. As she drew near the redhead, she slowed back to a walk. "Hey." she said in greeting with whatever smile she could muster, dropping the facade she has been working to hold up all morning. Lilly was clearly not her usual self. She was much more subdued with her shoulders slumping a bit and her usual vibrancy gone. She looked truly worn down, a state that few, if any, could say they had ever saw her in. "Thanks for seeing me. I didn't want to bother you, or anybody really, but I can't keep going on like this. Jase suggested I see you. Something about you could maybe help sooth mental and emotional traumas, I guess by helping the mind deal with it rather than forgetting." she said and this shrugged. "I.. I dunno." she sighed and then continued. "I dunno how your abilities work. I just hope you can help because I really need it right now. Enterich messed my head up bad." she admitted with more than a hint of defeat in her voice. Nodding, Autumn chewed the inside of her lower lip for a moment as the... argument? Disagreement?... whatever from last night flickered briefly in the forefront of her mind. "Yeah," she sighed, the corner of her mouth curving upward in a crooked, rueful smile. "We did kinda talk about it. He seemed worried about you." Pause. "Well," she amended, the smile widening a little as she shook her head, one hand gesturing vaguely back and forth as her haphazard ponytail swayed sluggishly behind her. "Y'know. Jase-worried. Anyway." With the twitch of a shoulder in a quick shrug she refocused on the matter at hand, on the oddly diminished, small seeming figure before her- looking not at, or even through Lilly, but into her, tracing the threads of Radiance that made up the warp and weft of the dark-eyed girl's life; here the frayed edge of fatigue, there the near-invisible mending of an old injury long since healed. The gifted young athlete's present hurts, however, were visible to Autumn only in the physical accumulation of secondary ills they were generating. Whatever had happened to her on Monday, she wasn't bouncing back, which was... kind of weird. Unless, maybe Enterich had triggered some kind of issues Lilly already had, and- -And it doesn't really matter right now, does it? Hell, we all probably need therapy at this point. Fucking focus, Autumn. "Full disclosure," she added distractedly, blinking away the lingering traces of that other, stranger vision that was slowly becoming notably less strange with each passing day. "I'm not a hundred percent sure how this works, either. I did, however, spend about two hours last night on Wikipedia researching brain function in case you asked, so I'd at least be able to come up with something that sounded good. So." With another little half-shrug as if to say, 'that's that,' the energetic Girl Scout sat down on the edge of the bottom-most bleacher, pushing sweat-damp curls back from her face. "Just sit on the grass here, that way if you, like, pass out or something you're good." Autumn's eyes widened suddenly, a flicker of panic on her freckled features as she hastily added, "Not that I'm expecting you to pass out! It'll be totally fine. Should be totally fine," the redhead continued quickly, visibly torn between complete honesty and a desire to reassure. "I've kind of done this before, just not this specifically. I mean, I haven't really sat down with somebody for the sole purpose of rewiring the way their brains work, so... y'know. If you start seeing sounds, or smelling burnt toast, or feeling any pain or numbness or anything like that, just, um. Maybe let me know." Smooth, Autumn, she groaned internally. As if this isn't awkward enough. "Hey, if I pass out then at least I end up getting some rest." Lilly weakly joked with a shrug as she took a seat on the grass where indicated with a relaxed sigh. The fact that she was even awake and relatively functional was a testament to her toughness, supernatural or otherwise. "And dude. You didn't need to study or whatever for my benefit. I just need some help.. your help. How it works isn't that big a deal I guess. I mean, I figured I would get through this on my own, one way or another, eventually, but I dunno how long that would be and I am tired of being on the sidelines or whatever." she sighed. Lilly turned and looked over her shoulder at Autumn, looking up to meet her gaze. "And you know, not matter if this works or not, thanks for even trying." she said with sincerity as she blinked away tears that her eyes were threatening to loose. Fuck, Autumn swore internally, feeling that involuntary sting of sympathy behind her own eyelids in response as the other girl's shadow-ringed eyes looked up at her with a mixture of desperation, hope, and despair. Nope. Nuh uh. Not right now, we are so not doing this. "It works," the redhead replied and exhaled slowly, gently but firmly placing her hands on either side of Lilly's head and turning her to face forward again as she got comfortable. "And the research wasn't just for your benefit. Admittedly, yeah, your whole..." She paused as she slid off Lilly's headband and set it aside, unsure how to refer to what had happened. "Situation did kind of give me some motivation, though. I've been kind of just guessing so far, going on instinct and the way it looks or, or feels to me, but that makes it hard to explain it to other people. Especially when we're still trying to figure out how we do what we do. Jase and Sean have this whole huge theory they're working on, which is great, but that's big-picture stuff, y'know? It'd be nice to know more about what I'm doing, that's all." Then, more quietly as she combed Lilly's hair back with her fingers, surreptitiously glancing up to watch as a pair of groundskeepers in stained shirts headed back toward the gate: "And, no problem. Any questions before I get started?" "Questions? Not really. But so you know what you are dealing with here..." Lilly said and let out a long sigh. "It's like he pulled up all of my fears, and I mean all of them, even ones I thought I didn't have anymore, and ones I did not know I had. I mean, I guess I knew I had them, on some level, but not, like, consciously, if that makes sense. Anyways, he pulled them all up and, I dunno, magnified them to the point I couldn't think about anything else. I'm not even sure how I managed to drive home, honestly. I really don't remember anything from the last few days until yesterday afternoon." she explained as she began to slowly, idly rub her forearm to subconsciously comfort herself. "It finally started to, well, 'fade' is not the right word. I dunno. I got, or wrestled back some control, I guess. It took everything I had to just go to the meeting. But when I close my eyes or try to rest, it's like that pit of fears is just waiting to pull me back in. I've tried to sleep, but it's basically one long nightmare and sure as hell is not restful. Like, even right now I can feel them gnawing at my mind. They still pop into my head at the sight of certain people, or things, or when certain thoughts cross my mind. I have to... I don't even know how to describe dealing with it, but it's exhausting..." she said and shook her head, as if to try and shake out the undesirable thoughts, and then lowered her head in fatigue. "Oh! Sorry." she said, realizing her had lowered her head and lifting it back up again unto the position Autumn had indicated before. "And if that doesn't help you, then sorry for the TMI." Autumn remained largely quiet while Lilly described, slowly and uncertainly, something of what she'd experienced during her private ordeal. Offering only the occasional mhmm of acknowledgement, she simply listened, comparing what she was hearing and what she'd seen on her initial assessment to what she'd read the night before about the physical effects of stress and fear. It was a little bit surreal, admittedly, hearing Lilly Pryor talk about being afraid of... well, pretty much anything. She was outgoing and popular, sort of like a more wholesome version of Marissa. They even had kind of a similar look, if she thought about it. But- Nobody's really got all their shit together, I guess. The red-haired teen squinted a little as her gaze flicked briefly up to the field and the indistinct figures in the bleachers on the opposite side. I sure as hell don't, she admitted ruefully to herself. "Not TMI," she replied after a moment's relative silence, the distant laughter and raised voices of other students drifting past in the hot afternoon air. Lilly had obviously dealt with a lot, but if Autumn was totally honest with herself, it sounded like she'd gotten off pretty fucking easily, all things considered- no nightmare world, no knee-deep pools of clotted blood, no chance of imminent death by things that shouldn't exist. Maybe a part of the athletic brunette felt that way, too; guilt could be a total bitch, after all, and maybe that was one of the insecurities Enterich had preyed on. Regardless, that's not why the young vitakinetic was there, and it didn't really matter anyway. Lilly was Jase's friend, and part of the Fellowship, and she'd asked for help, and there was visible, tangible evidence of emotional trauma in her brain, so... So. "Seriously, you're good," the earnest redhead added, nudging the other girl's arm with her knee for emphasis. "The whole point of this is to try to repair the damage he did, and hopefully to help you process so you can function. Doesn't really matter whether talking about what happened is useful to me or not, because it's not about me. So," she continued, returning to practical matters, "basically I thought I'd just give you a French braid. Super simple, won't look like we're crazy sitting here, and your hair will already be done for practice later. I have to actually touch you to do this, so it was the best option I could think of. That cool?" Lilly nodded and let out a long sigh, holding at a bay another of her fears and allowing herself the luxury of relaxing a little bit feeling somewhat comforted by the redhead's words and confident in her ability to help her. "Yeah. That's cool. Thanks." "Okay." Exhaling, Autumn leaned forward slightly, sectioning off three even sections of Lilly's hair as she focused on the subtle hum of Radiance responding to her own. As with Marissa, there was that curious impression of potential, of a vast untapped wellspring that was so very different from most of the other members of the group- if the extraordinarily loose affiliation of teens could be called that anymore. That similarity gave the redhead a moment's pause; Lilly and Cade had been deemed to possess 'Hero-Shine.' Marissa and Cade were not, so far as Radiance was concerned, anything alike. And yet... this. Had something changed since that afternoon at the farm over a week ago? Was that even possible? she wondered, half-consciously weaving another layer of dark hair through her fingers in movements so familiar they might as well have been autonomic. Maybe their original assumptions had been wrong, but according to Jase's explanation she and Cade could collapse possible outcomes into the one they wanted, or something like that. Cody Sikes had changed, she reminded herself as the warm ripples of her Shine lapped cautiously against the shores of the exhausted brunette's awareness. But he was manipulated by the Hunter, or at least by some twisted earthbound echo of him. If Lilly had also changed on a noetic level, how? Who changed her, if anyone- and if it wasn't because of some outside force, was it a conscious effort on her part, or some natural evolution? Was she even aware of it? Did it have anything to do with the week she was gone? With Enterich's interference? Could it happen spontaneously to someone else? They'd more or less established that Cody had chosen his path, awful and uncompromising as the result was, so did that also mean there were still choices to be made, options left open to them that could reshape the fundamental essence of who they were? Could they reproduce this change? ...Without the terrifyingly awful corruption, obviously. And if it was possible now, would that always be the case, or would they eventually- The sound of an exuberant shout across the field brought her abruptly back to the present, the heat of the afternoon sun on her face matched only by the flush of shame that suffused it. -Get around to fixing Lilly's mind before she fucking loses it completely? Yep. That'd be great. Swearing internally, Autumn took a deep breath to re-center, grounding herself in the solidity of the well-worn dirt beneath her feet and the hard, sun-warmed metal she was sitting on. Why the hell were there so many questions lately, and why was there apparently never a good time to ask them? Sure, it was kind of exciting, thinking about the possibilities, but also frustrating. And of course it was all abstract, theoretical curiosity, too- and it wasn't as if she could get any kind of meaningful answers right now, anyway. Or at least not practical ones. And she was supposed to be in the middle of doing something ever-so-slightly more important. Ugh. Later. There was always Study Hall, or after school. Until then... Focus. Seriously. As freckled fingers deftly braided the beleaguered teen's coffee-colored strands into a sleek plait, tendrils of Autumn's Shine likewise wove themselves along her neural pathways. She could feel... Frowning, the red-haired vitakinetic tried to define what she was feeling, exactly, through that near-tactile connection, that awareness of the other girl's essential vitality. There was trauma, for sure, but not like it had been with, say, Jason or Jacob, or even Sophia and Tawny. There was no physical injury, no hemorrhaging or fractures, but there was damage; a series of ominous bruise-like lesions, dark against the background luminosity of Lilly's intrinsic pattern. What the hell...? Probing further, tentatively exploring the boundaries of one of those strange contusions, Autumn cringed in revulsion and instinctive horror at the wrongness of it, at the weirdly organic pattern of its edges, livid filaments extending and expanding outward like occlusive spider webs or- Oh. Oh, fuck. No, no no no nono. It was all she could do not to physically recoil from the image that had sprung, unbidden, to mind, and for a moment her fingers froze: the gnarled roots of a dark and ancient tree, working their way inexorably into Lilly's psyche. That couldn't be what was happening, obviously, because the Tree itself was gone, and the spirit that tended it, or served it, or whatever. It was just too recent, too fresh not to make that comparison. It's fine, she reminded herself, swallowing despite the sudden dryness of her throat. She could almost smell the scent of iron, metallic and wet and old- It's like a, a... Her mental flailing for the name only made it worse, and eventually she gave in, falling back on the generic in desperation. Like one of those fucking inkblot tests or something. Just shapes. Even so, they were ugly, and rather than showing any evidence of healing, the neurochemical markers all indicated a definitive downward spiral that could only spell more suffering. Cortisol and adrenaline levels were high enough that Autumn could feel a sort of sympathetic jolt through her attunement to Lilly, the phantom taste of something bitter lingering on the back of her tongue. No wonder she feels like a wreck, she grimaced mentally, scooting back on the metal bench seat to adjust her grasp on the three interwoven sections of hair looped over her fingers. It wasn't what she'd expected to find, poking around in the other girl's brain- but then, she reflected ruefully, having expectations at all was probably her first mistake. Gently scintillating waves of sunset hues permeated the former Olympian hopeful's mind and enveloped the most deeply-affected areas, re-balancing the chemical activity of Lilly's amygdala, her hippocampus, and her prefrontal cortex even as that same restless energy eagerly redirected and restructured the delicate neural pathways, encouraging the growth of new connections. She wasn't sure how Enterich had done it, but somehow he'd managed to disrupt not only the instinctive, emotional center of Lilly's brain, but probably also her ability to regulate those emotional impulses or even distinguish between her fears and reality. For a moment, Autumn was implausibly happy not to be a mind-reader; the soft resonance of the brunette's Shine with her own, that ephemeral tether that thrummed with synchronous heartbeats, spoke volumes on its own. [NOTE: This interaction is a work in progress, and this post will be updated when the collab with Lilly's player is complete. The current iteration is being posted here for the sake of continuity.]
  2. Exhaling, Autumn ticked off a count of four in her head, resolutely holding her ground despite the intense laser-focus of those bright green eyes- eyes that sometimes felt like a slow-motion dissection in progress, and sometimes like the heat of a blast furnace directed at her face. It's fine, she reminded herself. He doesn't get the nuanced stuff, right? He's still learning how this works, so just... Just... explain the situation. "Wrong in the sense of being inaccurate?" she began, glancing over at the table and trying to keep her voice low. "No. Well, maybe." The redhead frowned and lowered her phone, considering the fact that Tawny and Sophia were the only ones she'd helped in that way, and they couldn't be sure the effects were permanent yet, or even stable. "Probably. In the sense that you volunteered me for something without saying anything to me about it, though? Yeah. Yeah, that's kind of wrong." "Oh." Just that, as he considered. "I did stress to her that I wasn't volunteering you." he remarked, thinking. "Merely that you were possibly a solution and she may wish to seek you out." He paused, considering the taut unhappy expression on Autumn's face. "I didn't consider that you might feel obligated to help." He studied her in that intent way of his. "Is that why you are upset? That I didn't suggest it to you first?" he asked, eyes narrowing in thought. Sighing, Autumn tucked her phone away in her back pocket and dragged a hand back through the rebellious coils of copper atop her head, fingers buried amidst the loosening strands that were gradually working their way free of her ponytail. It felt too easy, this simple, straightforward process of acknowledgement and apology. And, sure, it was nice not to argue, or have to go through a lot of stupid drama and misunderstandings and all that, but... It kind of just seemed clinical. ...Which, yeah, made sense considering the lack of intuitive empathy, and she definitely didn't hate the fact that he listened and took her seriously when she had a problem. Is it always going to be like this, though? she wondered. Like, if they dated for a long time, would it eventually get easier for him, or for her, to speak the other's metaphorical language? "I just," she murmured, peering up at him as if eye contact alone could convey emotional nuance and content. "I don't mind helping, if I can. I just want to be the one who decides if and when and how I do it. Like with the marshal. I did that because I wanted to," the expressive redhead insisted, leaning in a little more as the sound of the adult voices in the background quieted a bit. "I made that choice on my own, for my own reasons. Look, I get that Lilly's your friend, but honestly, I barely know her at all and she hasn't said a single word to me since she disappeared for her competition or whatever. Not one, Jase. Not when we were all here at the farm, not at the picnic. Nothing. Maybe she feels awkward because I'm dating you now." With a shrug, she dismissed the thought. "Honestly don't know, and mostly don't care. That's a Lilly problem. The Autumn problem is that I don't want other people, even my friend or boyfriend, offering me up. Tell me what's going on, or what your suggestion is, and let me decide." Wide blue eyes, their depths flecked with glimmers of gold and green and shadowed with grey, searched Jason's angular features. "Does that make sense?" "It does." he said, his eyes never leaving hers as his hand came up to brush at a coppery curl that lay against her freckled ivory cheek. "I apologise. I didn't think of it as offering you up, but I can see why it might feel that way." "As for Lilly... She expressed that she didn't feel comfortable necessarily approaching you, that you seemed distant to her." He pondered for a moment. "I don't understand why she hasn't spoken to you before now either. I pointed out that so far as I knew, you had no problem with her, and you were willing to heal the hands of the person who shot me, so I doubted there was any level of animosity that would prevent you from at least considering helping her." He hesitated at the change in Autumn's expression, his own eyes blinking in momentary confusion. "I... shouldn't have said that either, should I?" he asked slowly, realising that there was another blip appearing on the threat radar. For a moment, one that felt to her as if it stretched on interminably, Autumn didn't respond. She simply stared back at him, eyes wide and incredulous as her pupils shrank to tiny islands lost amidst a turbulent grey sea of anger and confusion. Why would he do that? Anyone else might have gotten off with the excuse that they just didn't think, but Jason? He had reasons for everything he did, it was all a conscious, considered choice. Wasn't it? "No," she managed finally, exhaling the single syllable on one long, shuddering breath. "No, you shouldn't, and I'm not sure why you thought it was a good idea. Not only is it none of Lilly fucking Pryor's goddamned business," she hissed through clenched teeth, "or anybody else's, it's not your place to tell people about what I do, or don't do. Especially not when I deliberately didn't fucking tell anybody, my fucking parents included, because the millisecond it gets out that I healed her and she talked, unless Enterich is gone, she's probably dead," the redhead seethed, her inner voice's screams of frustration reaching a piercing crescendo as she railed against the impenetrable, inscrutable inhumanness of her boyfriend. "I thought we had an agreement, an, an..." Her free hand twitched, fingers flexing in a restrained motion that- in different circumstances- would have been an outflung arm reaching for the words she couldn't quite find. "An understanding," she whispered sharply up at him, a liquid, shimmering veil of emotion welling up in her eyes. This was stupid, and Autumn knew it. It might even be unfair, all things considered, when earlier that morning he'd nearly died. And getting angry wasn't going to help- it was rarely productive, even with normal people who had normal brains in normal arguments. If anything, history seemed to suggest that directing emotional outbursts at Jason Fucking Bannon tended to go badly for whatever unlucky, intemperate idiot was doing the emoting. And yet, despite knowing that, there was nothing she could do to stop it. "We don't tell other people's stories. Not unless we have to. Did you really think I needed a goddamned character reference that fucking badly?" "It wasn't about giving you a 'character reference'." he replied calmly, though not without a tightening at the edges of his eyes. "It was about convincing Lilly to seek help. She was the victim of a supernatural attack on her psyche, one that shattered her confidence and courage, leaving emotional scars even I could detect." He kept his gaze on Autumn's, his tone level and quiet as, nearby, their parents chuckled at some quip. "To reiterate: I shouldn't have approached her without talking to you first. I placed you on the spot, and in your words, offered you up. That was thoughtless of me. I didn't, however, tell her any details about who shot me, or that she talked, the extent of the damage to her hands or indeed anything about the situation other than the fact that you healed them." He paused for a moment, considering. "Ideally, were I able to do it over, I would have approached you first on the matter and then let you decide how to approach Lilly. I tried to resolve the situation and persuade Lilly of the wisdom of seeking help as efficiently as was prudent, but I didn't stop to consider your feelings on the matter." His lips twitched in a slight frown. "I didn't mean to cause offence." Everything was wrong. The whole day- not just these last few minutes of tense, quiet argument, or even the last few hours of finger-pointing and venom-spitting- had gone completely sideways and upside-down and awful. They'd barely made it out of the hellscape of Arawn's blighted nightmare world the night before, and then, somehow, all the bad things that hadn't already happened the previous week all fell together in one godforsaken day; she might have laughed at the ridiculousness of it all if she weren't already furious and exasperated and about to cry from the sheer overwhelming amount of what-the-actual-fuck. It wasn't even about Lilly, or Marissa, or any one specific thing, it was just- "If you had just- uggghhhh," Autumn groaned, the soft subvocalization little more than a low, throaty exhalation as she pressed her hand over her eyes, blocking out the sight of her boyfriend, his kitchen, and their families for a moment. Yes. 'If he had.' But he didn't, that inner Autumn grudgingly pointed out. He didn't, and unless he's thrown together a time machine in the last few days, he can't. So... So...? So, deal with it. The redhead's arm fell limply back to her side. "- the worst interview of my life. I'm not even kidding," Ian swore cheerfully, leaning back in his chair with one hand held aloft and the other resting on his heart. "I was totally unprepared, totally out of my depth, and to make things even worse, it wasn't even for a paid position. They wanted a damn intern." With a rueful chuckle, the native New Yorker tipped back his mug, draining the last of the coffee within. "So when I slunk out of there, I thought, 'I wonder if that cute redhead and her friends are still up at that coffee shop?' And," he added, shrugging slightly as he smiled at his wife, a hint of boyishness lingering around his eyes, "I guess I hadn't used up all my luck yet that day, because they were." "I need some air," Autumn announced suddenly, turning away from her boyfriend and the maybe-annoyed, maybe-thoughtful expression suggested by the subtle narrowing of his pale eyes. Was he angry? Disappointed? Offended? Did any of those descriptions even apply to him? It was hard to tell, and she didn't really feel like adding another entry to her 'Bannon For Dummies' notes at the moment, or listening to the story of how her parents hooked up a hundred years ago. If nothing else, she could ask him once she'd calmed down enough to deal with conversation again, but for now... She needed to move, to walk under the stars in all their glittering, indifferent glory, to do something with the restrained energy and emotion practically vibrating along every nerve and sinew. "Just headed outside for a minute," she explained, setting her coffee cup on the counter and offering the adults what she hoped might pass for a smile. "Back in a bit." "Oh..? Okay." Ian looked round from the conversation, smiling in slight bemusement as Autumn headed for the door. Dana, with her more sensitive maternal antennae, frowned very slightly as she scrutinised her daughter and the silent, still figure leaning against the kitchen counter. Autumn was already stepping out of the back door onto the porch that ran around the farmhouse, however, and Jason was watching her leave with only a faint tilt of his head to mark any expression before his gaze shifted unerringly to meet the older redhead's. Not human, the thought came unbidden to Dana as she met that depthless, intent pale stare, and though she was almost immediately ashamed of the atavistic chill that prickled the back of her neck. At least she knew, now, why the strange young man was so strange. And there was a curious quality to that knowledge, as though believing him to be perhaps autistic or just 'different' had made him less threatening whereas, now, she knew his oddness marked him as a predator. Not in the sense of behaviour, as humans might refer to other humans as 'predatory'. But as a function of his nature, like a wolf, or a big cat, perhaps? A cat, Dana decided as she studied that impassive, scarred face with it's lambent green eyes that saw much and gave back little. You couldn't be certain what was going on behind that gaze - all you could go off was how he acted. Oddly, thinking of him as an intelligent two-legged predatory animal helped, as though that was somehow easier to process than 'genetically engineered alien warrior'. "So how did you meet your wife?" Dana heard her own voice say, then caught herself and looked at Gar wide-eyed. She'd asked the question innocently, almost autonomically, as a way to distract herself from the silent youth across the room. "Oh... I'm sorry-!" "No, it's fine." Gar interrupted her, raising a hand slightly. "Seriously. It's... Not as sore a point as it used to be. We've..." he cast a glance over at Jason. "We've actually been back in touch recently." "Really?" Dana also glanced at Jason, who was silent, unmoving... unmoved, even. "Yeah." Gar smiled a little. "So I don't mind telling the story. It was in college - we had a couple classes together and she was eye-catching, but aloof from everyone. She didn't hang out with girlfriends or boys, didn't laugh or smile. She just showed up, did the work, asked questions - good ones most of the time - then left to go God-knows where." Jason stirred, whatever contemplations that had been going on in his head obviously done with for now, and as he watched his father smile faintly as he told the tale, he silently thanked Dana for providing the additional distraction. Quietly, unobtrusively, he slipped out of the kitchen door after Autumn. "...So my friend ran a ju-jitsu class on campus, and I was getting pretty good at it, helping out with the teaching. So when the gorgeous blonde from class showed up wanting to learn I was naturally assigned to coach her like any other beginner..." His father's voice fell away behind him as Jason stepped, soft-footed, into the late summer night, letting his eyes adjust as he glanced around, looking for his girlfriend. The evening air was blessedly cool on her flushed skin as Autumn jogged quickly down the handful of wooden steps leading from the wraparound porch to the lawn, her gaze sweeping across the dark sea of overgrown fields as she circled around the side of the house. The moon, nearly half-full, glowed pale over the southwest horizon like the heavy-lidded eye of some distant celestial observer- seeing all, revealing little- and for the redhead who instinctively sought its position against the deepening darkness of the night sky, that was... mostly fine. Better an uncaring universe than an actively malevolent one, after all, even if the events of recent weeks had given her a growing sense of uncertainty about which they actually lived in. 'I need some air,' she'd said. Space to move, room to breathe. And wandering through the unfamiliar environs rendered stranger still by the faint moonlight, Autumn found precisely that. Sure, she'd been to the Bannon farm before, but the presence of others and preoccupation with the days' activities had always been something of a distraction. Now, with some distance between herself and any other humans- or near-humans, for that matter- it was easier to think. ...Or, more to the point, easier not to think. Not to think about walking nightmares, near-death experiences, conspiracies, school, alien gods, or even just sort-of-alien geniuses who said and did stupid, infuriating things because their mental calculus didn't provide for emotional variables or normal human expectations. Ugh. Wincing a little as she tugged the elastic band from her hair, Autumn gingerly rubbed her scalp where the ponytail holder had been pulled free of an unruly snarl of curls. "Ow," she hissed sharply, running her fingers carefully through the tangled locks as she navigated the shadowy yard. The barn that housed Jason's miniature Eden loomed as a massive black shape nearby, along with the smaller one for the Bannons' vehicles and machinery, and, further on, a pair of gnarled trees whose leafy boughs stretched out in silhouette against the distant star-flecked sky. Rolling the elastic band onto her wrist, the redhead shifted course and, hands thrust into her jeans pockets, wandered toward them. Probably fruit trees? she guessed as she approached, given that they were near-ish to the farmhouse, though in the dark it was impossible to tell what kind. Running her hand lightly over the trunk of the larger one, she could feel the faint hum of energy there beneath the bark, the not-quite-vibration of healthy arboreal life intersecting with her own, the tenuous barrier separating them, and smiled a little, despite her frustration. On impulse, the energetic redhead glanced up into the boughs overhead and, with a little jump, grabbed hold of one of the low-hanging branches. It was a good tree, she knew, with an instinct born of a youth spent clambering into- and falling out of- many like it. Kicking her feet up against the trunk for leverage, she hauled herself up onto the limb and sat astride it, legs swinging as she leaned back against the solidity of the living wood behind her and closed her eyes, letting the scents and sounds of the summer evening carry her away from herself for a moment. It had taken him a few minutes to work out where she'd gone. Jason had silently circled the porch in the gloom, letting his eyes get used to the darkness, and had seen no sign of her in the immediate environs of the farmhouse . So he'd stopped for a moment, thinking, then had drifted around to the rear of the house, pale eyes searching for movement near the barns or- Yes. There was a lithe shape currently scrambling up into the apple tree that grew out of the uncut grass just beyond the vegetable patch. It seemed very Autumn-like: that restless burst of energy, fueled by her irritation, driving her to activity, any activity. Motion, warmth and energy where he was stillness, cool and contained. He pondered that contrast as he silently padded through the night toward her, his fingertips brushing the ends of the long grass, his eyes on the shape now relaxing against the trunk, legs idly dangling down. He could pick out the faint glints of copper in her tumbling hair in the moonlight, and mused that their natures weren't so easily defined as opposite - after all, in the right (or wrong) circumstances he could be furious, searing heat without limitation or conscience. She occupied the middle ground between the binary of his own nature, but there was more to the two of them than a simple balancing act, wasn't there? He stopped a few metres away from the tree, silently studying the lines of her upturned face, glowing ivory in the pale light of the half moon. Yes. Yes there was. There was attraction, desire, a sense of enjoyment of one another's company. He took pleasure in her smile... and her being upset left him with a sense of disquiet that was faint, but profound. He recalled his words to her in the hospital earlier that day: "You matter to me" True words, spoken sincerely. She mattered to him - her happiness mattered to him. It occurred to the detached young near-human that his life was richer, more textured for having her in it. Could she understand that? Did he even fully understand it? Perhaps she still thought he had feelings for Marissa, it occurred to him as he watched her profile. After all, they had gotten together with the understanding that it was possible Marissa would decide she wanted him after all... But the lean youth realised he no longer even felt conflicted about that possibility, as he had perhaps 24 hours ago. He didn't want Marissa Jauntsen, for all her imperious beauty and grace, for all her pride and calculating nature. Once, yes, he'd found her admirable, if confusing, but that time was days in the past now. She might not be his enemy, she might even become a friend again, but when compared with the warm passionate energy kindled by the tousle-haired, freckle-faced redhead in the tree Marissa seemed a cold, distant star indeed. Perhaps too similar to himself - in that respect anyway. But Autumn... she created something else within the searing core of his being. A desire for warmth, and to warm in turn. He focused, tiny motes of golden-orange light beginning to form in the air in front of him as he gently fed energy into the molecules and atoms there. A balancing act - heat that would warm rather than burn, fire that wouldn't ignite whatever it touched. The motes swirled in the air before him, growing in number and brightness - hundreds, then thousands of them. In theory, it was similar to the firenado he had called down on Arawn/Cody. But the heat was diffuse, the individual motes of fire contained rather than blending into a roaring, terrible, destructive inferno. Instead of that, there was a swarm of literal fire-flies, their radiance flickering and dancing in the night as he cast them out and up, into and around the branches of the tree, letting them dance there like a galaxy's worth of golden stars around his girlfriend. The subtle swirls of color behind Autumn's closed eyelids brightened as she sat there amid the leaves, vaguely aware of the progress of an ant ticklishly exploring her bare forearm. Her whole world, it seemed, had shrunk from the contemplation of her own exasperations and worries to simple sensation: the rough texture of the bark through her t-shirt, the hint of a cool breeze whispering across her face, the weight of her feet swinging lazily beneath her, the occasional soft call of a night bird seeking its mate. Flickers of warm sunlight filtered through the deep, drowsy currents in which her mind had been drifting, drawing her back toward awareness. And it was warm, she realized, eyes flying open as she straightened suddenly and- -immediately froze, wide-eyed at the luminous points of incandescent gold whirling in incomprehensible constellations through the night air around her. "Oh, holy fuck," she thought/gasped simultaneously, reflexively tightening the grip of her thighs on either side of the branch beneath her as the world contracted in shock. Smothering the instinctive flare of panic at being encircled by a shower of sparks, she sat perfectly still for a long moment, clutching the tree limb, barely breathing. "What the hell...?" she whispered finally, when the crown of the apple tree didn't erupt into flames and no pinpricks of scorching heat seared her skin. Tentatively raising a hand, the awestruck redhead trailed her fingertips through the scintillating, swirling display, leaving the tiny, flickering lights to eddy and spiral in the wake of her movement. Whatever they were, they didn't seem dangerous, and though she could feel faint traces of residual heat, they weren't actually hot. "They're like... little stars," she murmured, a broad, childlike smile slowly curving her lips as she shifted on the branch, steadying herself to gaze up into the glimmering lights weaving through the darkness. It wasn't the weirdest thing she'd seen lately, not by a long shot- but it was among the coolest. Leaning forward, Autumn pushed her hair behind her ears and turned this way and that, trying to take in the contrast of brilliant orange and gold against the velvet shadows beyond; as a sudden thought struck, she fished her cell phone from her pocket and straightened again, snapping a quick photo of the incredible phenomenon. "Where did you come from?" she wondered aloud, as she might have asked a stray dog that found its way to her doorstep. As if in answer, the dancing motes of golden flame swirled and spread out, some remaining near the wonder-struck girl as the rest created their shifting, scintillating constellation centered around the tree in which she sat. The light they cast was less concentrated now, and Autumn could make out a lean figure quietly moving through the grass below the branch she was perched on. He gazed up at her, golden sparks reflected in the green depths of his eyes as the fiery motes swirled over his head, striking glints of dark and light bronze and from his skin and hair. "You like them?" he asked quietly, studying her expression with that intent way of his, head tilted slightly as he took in her reaction. "I wanted to show you... how you make me feel. When you smile at me. When you fought for me. When you held me, a week and a lifetime ago, just over there on the porch bench." His eyes left her face for a moment, glancing at the slowly moving miniature starfield he had called into being before his gaze fixed on her again. "Wonder. Joy. Warmth. You give those things to me, just by being in my life." He paused, trying to gauge her expression. It was kind of unfair, honestly, if she thought about it- and, for just a few seconds, she did, looking down at him looking up at her. Cheating, a little rebellious part of her mind, still fully dedicated to being annoyed with him, asserted hotly. After all, even if a normal human boyfriend might still have upset her for exactly the same reason, he wouldn't have been able to conjure up a scene like this or utter those words without stuttering and making it sound like total cringe. Jason meant it, though, she knew, just as he'd meant he didn't care if the marshals lived or died, that he struggled with relating to people, and that he loved Marissa Jauntsen. And that... was also kind of unfair, wasn't it? One day she'd have to explain to him that it was possible for normal human women to misunderstand those sorts of comments or thoughtful gestures, especially when combined with his characteristically straightforward delivery and the near-hypnotic pull of those green eyes. Some future girlfriend- not her, of course- could easily get the wrong idea, and so one day she'd need to warn him. Just... not today, she decided, ignoring the accompanying little twinge of guilt for the sensation of warmth his gaze kindled within her. "First, I don't like them," Autumn clarified, carefully slipping her phone back into her jeans pocket. "I love them," she enthused quietly, that giddy, guileless smile returning for a moment. "I mean, just... Wow." The last syllable was a soft, almost reverent exhalation as she leaned back against the trunk of the tree, lifting her gaze to watch the silent dance of the miniature candle flames flickering and flaring around them. "You know?" Glancing back down at the tall wiry form of her boyfriend for confirmation, she grinned in spite of herself, shaking her head in disbelief. "Every time you use your powers for something new, I keep thinking, 'That's amazing. I don't think he could possibly do anything any more amazing than that.' And then," she shrugged with a quiet huff of laughter, "you do." He smiled slightly, a crinkling of the edges of his eyes emphasising the pleased glow of the reflected fireflies as his lips curved for a moment. He glanced around at the field of stars circling the tree under which he stood and in which Autumn sat, and then raised his face once more to her, head tilting in curiousity. "And second?" "Second," she sighed, swinging her leg over the branch to face him directly, "apology accepted. I mean, you didn't really have to go quite this far," the redhead added with a bemused grin, a flash of humor in her eyes captured by the twinkling of the airborne embers around them. "But." Bracing her palms atop the limb on either side of her hips, feet swinging in a half-conscious expression of the energy that animated her, Autumn leaned forward slightly, meeting his gaze as the weight of her hair tumbled forward over her shoulders. "I appreciate it. So, thanks for that. For this," she amended. "Just, y'know. Please try not to just decide things on my behalf in the future, unless you have to. Like, I'm bleeding to death and need a transfusion or I'll die, or something."
  3. The trip up to the Bannon Farm was without incident. It always seemed to be that way, Autumn couldn't help but muse as she sat behind her parents in the back of their car. Whatever fears or excitement were intertwined with her visits to the lonely farmhouse atop the rise in the land overlooking Shelly, the actual getting there was uneventful. No thunder and lightning casting the Bannon home into stark relief against the grey sky, no portents such as crows lining the telephone wires watching, waiting for something to need their services - whether as psychopomps or as carrion disposal. It was to all appearances a normal, if slightly shabby, house on an unremarkable plot of mostly disused farmland, the porch light on, a welcoming island of golden radiance in the dusk. The Keanes were following Gar's jeep as it turned off the road and headed up the dirt and gravel track, though more than once Ian and Dana would cast a glance at the mirrors, at the sleek black Charger following them in turn, its dimmed headlights the baleful eyes of some beast carved from the gloom of the coming night. As they rolled to a stop alongside Gar's vehicle, the Charger turned and followed a smaller dirt track to behind the house, over to the smaller of the two barns. "Come on up." Gar told Autumn and her family warmly as they exited their car, waving them to follow as he led the way up onto the porch and round to the side door which, Autumn knew, led to the kitchen. "Jase will be a minute or two putting his car away, so we can at least get comfortable." The kitchen was much as Autumn recalled it. Decent-sized, clean, and maintained, saucepans on hanging racks, every surface wiped, every knife put away in the block. Two plates with their cutlery were stacked by the sink, two glasses beside them the only signs of recent use. A fair-sized table, large enough for six, with chairs occupied one half of the floor space next to a long, low window the sill of which was covered in small plant pots containing various herbs. A three-row bookshelf on one wall contained a variety of recipe books, and all the usual kitchen appliances and gadgets were present, including a filter coffee pot. It was to this Gar headed after flicking the lights on, smiling over one shoulder at the Keanes as he got five mugs down from the cupboard. "Go ahead, grab a seat. I'll get the coffee started - unless anyone wants something else?" he offered, pausing a moment to regard the three of them. Ian made to raise his hand out of habit, but his wife gently pressed his arm down again, shaking her head. "No, ah, coffee's great, thank you," Dana replied smoothly, eyes wide as she silently implored him not to ask the maybe-recovering-alcoholic for a beer. He stared at her for a moment, then- Oh, shit. They'd talked about this at the field the day before, hadn't they? About Gar Bannon apparently sobering up recently? Grimacing in mute comprehension the keen-eyed entrepreneur nodded, sinking into one of the nearby chairs. "Wait 'til we get home," she murmured, giving his shoulder a reassuring squeeze before letting her hand slip away again. "Sounds ah-mazing," his daughter enthused, visibly cheered at the prospect of real coffee after gamely giving the medical center's commercial brew one more try. She paced restlessly behind her parents, fidgeting with a loose strand of serpentine copper snaking over her shoulder as Dana likewise took a seat at the table. "The Bannons seriously have the best coffee. I don't know what kind of voodoo they do on it, but... ugh," she sighed rapturously, grinning across at Gar as he busied himself with the coffee pot. "So good." "So I've heard." With a bemused eye, the pretty vet watched as Autumn roamed the kitchen, very obviously trying not to be too obvious about the fact that she was waiting for Jase to finish up outside. "You have a lovely home," she continued, both of the elder Keanes giving the kitchen a quick appraisal- or, at least, Dana's was quick, little more than a polite, cursory scan that noted the overall impression of tidiness she wouldn't have expected from a pair of bachelors. Ian, on the other hand, assessed the window frames, the fixtures and fittings, the smoothness of the ceiling and the level of the floor underfoot with a sharp, professional eye. "It is nice, yeah," he nodded agreeably, leaning back to get a better, broader view of the room. "Looks pretty solid. Old farmhouses like this usually have good bones. You guys done any kind of reno work or improvements?" "Bits and pieces, over the years." Gar replied, nodding at the window that ran along the wall next to the table. "Couple years ago, storm took out that window good, so we got the whole thing rebuilt, new frame and all. Had to fix the plumbing after that, too. Re-roofed the north side last year. We've been lucky: Jack Cassidy helped us out at just over cost. Oh, and there's all the shelves we had put in." "Shelves?" Ian asked curiously. Gar smiled, motioning to Autumn's dad to step over to the doorway that led to the rest of the house as he flicked the light switch in the hallway outside. "My God." Ian's tone was surprised enough to cause Dana to likewise get up and peer over her husband's shoulder. Trailing behind, Autumn smiled, knowing already what they were going to see. Bookshelves. Lining the staircase, lining the walls of the hall, floor to ceiling with only an occasional break here and there for electrical outlets. Shelves packed tight with books of all shapes and sizes and subjects, in no particular order but nevertheless tidily stored. It was like looking into a library from the kitchen doorway. "We did the lounge, the dining room, and the upstairs hall. Jase's own room, too." Gar admitted, shrugging at the Keanes with a smile. "They're mostly his, truth be told. He's... uh... a reader." "Has he read all of them?" Ian asked with a faint hush to his voice. There was something almost daunting about the filled shelving, that weight of knowledge, surely more than one person could reasonably work through and comprehend, especially a teenage boy. "Most of them." Jason's voice intruded on the reverie from a few feet behind the party clustered in the kitchen doorway. True to form, he'd padded up behind them silently and was watching them, head tilted slightly, green eyes gleaming. "Recently I've had more important things to do, so I got a little behind." "'Most of them,' he says," the realtor repeated wonderingly, momentarily setting aside fatherly concerns about Jason Bannon having 'more important things to do.' Dealing with interdimensional monsters and aliens and government agencies and... and... whatever else fell under the general heading of 'Insanity' in his 43 years of experience was, Ian Keane decided, a reasonable excuse for not keeping up with the Genius Overachiever's Book Club. It probably had nothing at all to do with Jason being sixteen or so years old, dating his energetic, impressionable, also sixteen-year-old daughter. Maybe. Hopefully. "Well," he added dryly, interrupting his own train of thought and glancing over his shoulder at the young woman in question. "If you're going to be tutoring her anyway, maybe some of that will rub off on Autumn. We've tried getting her to read more, but she's always treated it more like a punishment than anything." Before the girl herself could protest, Dana spoke up, a hint of fond mischief in her warm hazel eyes as she regarded her daughter. "Which is odd, considering this afternoon we got an Amazon delivery of a copy of-" "Oh, good!" Autumn chimed in abruptly, a sudden flush of warmth and high, vivid rose blooming beneath her skin. "I was waiting for that. I'll, uh, get it when we get home. Thanks." Fuck, she swore internally. I can't believe I forgot about- "What?" her mother asked innocently, considering first the impassive, inscrutable boyfriend and then her furiously blushing child with a knowing smirk that tugged at one corner of her mouth, one elegant eyebrow arching skyward. "Sweetheart, you're sixteen. There's nothing wrong with wanting to learn more about-" "Mom!" the horrified redhead all but hissed, as Dana, laughing, relented. "All right, all right." Pulling Autumn close, the grinning veterinarian held her in a one-armed hug for a long moment, kissing the top of her dishevelled hair and giving a quick wink to a thoroughly bewildered Ian, who seemed visibly torn between asking what was going on and talking about the built-ins again. "Let's focus on Jase's collection then. Did he inherit this love of books from you, Gar, or is that something he gets from his mother's side of the family?" There was the slightest pause as Autumn and Gar both thought about Jason's mother's 'side of the family', then Gar leaned a shoulder comfortably against the wall and shrugged. "Bit of both, maybe?" He said with a smile as he glanced at his son speculatively. "I like to read, but if I had to nail it down, I'd say he got his hunger for knowledge mostly from his mother. She'd read everything from history and philosophy to current affairs, always seeking to understand more than she did. I'd find her with her head in my biochemistry textbooks and journals, even - Jase is kinda like that... only turned up to eleven." The elder Bannon gestured at the bookshelves lining the hall. "Other than our favorites which get kept, that's a rotating population of books. Most of those you see there Jase only got and read in the last year or so. When he's done, we donate them to charity or libraries, then go out and buy second hand books from the same places." He shrugged at Ian and Dana's expressions, grinning self-deprecatingly. "I guess it's a bit strange, yeah?" "Everyone's got their own strangeness. It's better than having muddy boots trip you up when you walk in the house." Ian smiled slightly. His wife nodded, nudging Autumn as the younger redhead's freckled features flushed pink. "Or having a teenager who apparently cannot study or do homework without loud music and dancing around her bedroom." Dana added slyly. Autumn reddened further, then cleared her throat and stepped out from under the maternal arm. "So, hey! Coffee smells great. Why don't I go and help Jase with it?" she asked brightly, noticing that the silent, green-eyed Effing One was drifting over to the coffee pot as it finished filling. Without waiting for the go ahead, she moved up next to him, brushing his hip with hers as she smiled sideways up at his impassive features. He flashed her a small smile in return, passing over the cream and sugar as they floated from the fridge to his hands. "Pretty sure my parents are gonna try to trade me for you," she mused, adding a spoonful of sugar to her mug and slightly less to Dana and Ian's as she turned, watching the adults over her shoulder for a moment. "If they ever see how clean your room is, I'm done for." Ian sighed, craning his neck slightly to peer back into the kitchen from whence they'd come, watching the two teens busy themselves with filling mugs and murmuring to each other. He could see the shape of his daughter's smile in profile as she cast a brief glance up at her more reserved beau, but there was something more than just the normal paternal wariness behind his eyes as he considered not only his little girl's immediate happiness, but her future, as well. Even without weird powers, Jason himself really was a little strange- too grown-up by half, too attentive, too inquisitive, too... Different. Not bad, per se, if his treatment of Autumn and his response to the Jauntsens' acrimony was any indication, but... He glanced again at the book-lined walls and exhaled again, as Dana peered up at him. "Keep sighing like that and they'll put you to work at one of those wind farms." Sparing a faint smile for her husband, Dana turned back to Gar and nodded. "And donating books back once you've read them sounds like a practical way to manage things, especially if you're that voracious a reader. Otherwise they'd just take over the house." She hesitated then, wondering if it was all right to ask why he'd used the past-tense when referring to Jason's mother, and why neither of the teens had mentioned her at all. There had been rumors, of course... But those rumors had also painted Jase as a drug-running criminal mastermind and Gareth as a drunken wreck; neither of those, as far as she could tell in the moment, seemed accurate. "It really is an impressive collection," she added, electing to err on the side of caution for now. "And that coffee really does smell amazing. Now that we've had a chance to relax a little after that godawful meeting, I could definitely use a cup." "Coffee's up!" Autumn announced as if in answer to Dana's words, her and Jason bringing the prepared mugs over to the kitchen table as the adults drifted back from their contemplation of the unusual decor. Seats were taken, appreciative inhales were made, coffee was sipped. "Wow." Dana looked down at her cup, then at her husband. "That's-" "Really good." Ian confirmed, relaxing somewhat into his chair as he finished his wife's thought. "I mean, it hardly needs sugar." "Right?" Autumn hmm'd happily as she took another sip from her mug. "I could live here just for the coffee." Gar chuckled, shaking his head. "Jase again." he gestured to his strange son. "He's finicky about food and drink in the home - though I've seen him down three corndogs and five portions of deep fried ice cream at fairs." "Ugh, five?" Autumn made a face, her nose wrinkling as she grinned at her boyfriend. "I feel sick after two." Jase smiled faintly back at her, his green eyes tightening at the corners as he returned her amused glance over his own mug of coffee, emblazoned with the phrase 'I run entirely on coffee, sarcasm and inappropriate thoughts.' There was a moment or two of comfortable, contemplative silence as everyone relaxed, mugs in hand. "So..." Gar said after the moment had passed, leaning his elbows on the table's wooden surface as he cradled his mug in both hands, looking at Autumn's parents sympathetically. "How're you guys holding up after the recent revelations? Better than I did when everything first broke on me, I bet." "After yesterday, I think most of it was..." Ian started to sigh again, but caught himself, casting a surreptitious glance at the auburn-haired woman beside him as she took another slow sip of coffee. "It was a little easier to swallow, but I’m definitely going to need some time to digest it all, if you take my meaning." "Mmm," Dana agreed, setting her mug down as she nodded. A pair of delicate parallel lines appeared between her brows as she focused on the table in front of her, and Autumn had a sudden vision of herself, years hence, frowning in that same, thoughtful way. "I had a bit of an advantage over Ian," she admitted, her teeth catching at the inside of her cheek as her voice tightened. "Dad talked about old family legends and things, the Enemy, Blackfoot myths, crazy local stories and superstitions my whole life." Slender fingers, curled around the reassuring warmth of the cup in her hand, drummed idly against its side. "I didn't believe him, of course. And then he died." Her lips thinned into the ghost of a smile as she looked up, swallowing the taste of the bitterness that lingered on her tongue in defiance of the sweet black brew. "And then last week Autumn came home with letters he'd written, that he'd locked up in an office we'd never been able to open, and yesterday I found out that it wasn't-" Drawing in a deep, shuddering breath, Dana steadied herself as Autumn leaned over, resting her cheek against her mother's arm. "That it wasn't so crazy. I mean, I have a rose made of ice in my freezer that your son just pulled out of nothing and nowhere while we sat at my dining room table." "That-" Autumn cut in, then paused, straightening as she studied her mother's face; Dana was struggling, but holding together, and the younger redhead pursed her lips. Her wide, sea-colored eyes were uncharacteristically serious as she weighed her options, and made her choice. "It wasn't just the letters. There are journals in there... Tons of them, some of them going back before Shelly was Shelly. I was thinking of bringing them up to the house and... if it's okay..." Glancing across at her inscrutable, inquisitive boyfriend, she tried not to think too far ahead, to just ask. What was the worst that could happen? "I thought Jase might want to come by tomorrow, after school, and help me go through them. Maybe we could see if there's anything else in there that might help." Her parents exchanged a glance with each other, then looked at Jason, then at Autumn, who tried not to flush under the scrutiny. Dana looked back at her husband, frowning slightly at the doubtful hesitation on Ian's face. He didn't like the idea, that much was obvious, but couldn't frame a refusal out of thin air. "I'd be happy to help." Jason put in calmly, his gaze showing a flicker of interest. "Primary sources from people who were aware of the Enemy going back as far as your family does locally? It might prove very useful." "I..." Ian started, then paused as he regarded the glacial eyes of the young man across the table from him. "Before we agree to anything" he said cautiously but firmly, holding a hand up slightly as Autumn shifted in her seat. "I think we should discuss something that was brought up in the meeting." "Liam Day." Jase replied, his gaze unwavering as he nodded. Ian nodded in return. "Of course. What would you like to know?" "Your side of things." Ian said. Dana nodded slightly, her eyes on Autumn's face for a moment before shifting her attention to the composed youth. Gar remained silent, his expression tense. "Liam attacked Lona Wilson, sought to rape her." Jase said, matter-of-factly. "It suits some to frame her account of events in doubt, but I saw the bruises and scratches she suffered. She was expressing reluctance to go to the police, possibly because she just wanted to forget about it, or possibly because she felt she wouldn't be believed and it would be drama she didn't need. Whatever her reasons, I knew that Liam Day had a reputation for spiking drinks and generally trying to prey on girls as young as sophomores when he himself graduated last year. His attack on my friend made me angry." "I don't pretend what I did was heroic, or justice. What I did was vengeance, or perhaps punishment. I wanted to hurt him badly enough that he would never contemplate such an action again, to make him feel as helpless and afraid as he made Lona. Did I go too far?" He paused, considering, his pale eyes distant for a moment as he thought. "I think so, in retrospect, yes. I would not handle such a thing in the same way again - not out of any consideration for a rapist, but simply because it alarmed and disturbed my friends, and placed them in a difficult position." For several long moments, silence reigned over the cozy farmhouse kitchen as those present weighed the grave import of that declaration. There was different, after all, and there was distant, and then there was the remote, almost inhuman way in which Jason Bannon had reflected on and described Liam Day’s brutalization. Even Dana, who had begun to develop a sort of nascent fondness for the quiet, quick-witted young genius, felt an icy frisson skitter up her spine on delicate legs; there was no regret in his voice, no remorse in his expression, no sense at all that he gave any thought to the living human target of his wrath. By most accounts- even ones not laced with enough venom to make the local rattlesnake population jealous- the Day boy was unlikely to ever walk, or even speak again. Strange or not, what kind of teenager could do that and apparently feel nothing? Wordlessly, she turned again to her daughter, and only then was the stillness broken as Autumn’s head fell forward onto the table with a quiet, despairing groan. He’d told the truth, of course. The young redhead couldn’t fault him for that, even as she buried her face in her arms and grit her teeth, choking back a scream of impotent frustration. It was the way he’d told it, calmly and conversationally in that infuriatingly rational, quintessentially ‘Jason Fucking Bannon’ manner. That’s not how human beings- at least not ones that weren’t fundamentally broken in some way- dealt with trauma. But he’s not human, is he? No. And he never will be, Autumn. You might as well be dating a wolf... A wild thing that’s only civilized for as long as he wants to be. And that, too, was a truth she couldn’t fault him for, however impossible it made him. Ian was still trying to process Jason’s callousness toward another person- not to mention his tacit rejection of civil authority- when Autumn groaned and half-collapsed onto the table, and the movement jarred something loose in the paternal mechanism of his brain. Liam Day had been targeting sophomores last year, apart from Lona Wilson… Last year… “Autumn.” The utterance of her name was tense, terse, thick with a sudden anxious worry he refused to put words to just yet. “Last year, did-“ Exhaling again, he took a drink of coffee and, not for the last time, wished it were something a little stronger. “Did he ever, I mean-“ “Liam?” She lifted her head, her face flushed from being pressed into her forearms and silently venting her frustrations into the table, and peered at her father as if he’d just asked her about the chemical composition of rocket fuel. “Oh, god, no. He’s always been gross, but he never touched me.” One shoulder twitched upward in an indolent shrug as Autumn sat up again, turning from Ian back to the creamy swirls of caffeinated salvation in her half-full cup. “I-“ Ian hesitated again, then shook his head, idly rubbing the bridge of his nose. “All right. We can… talk about that later, I guess. For now just- just let me clarify, Jason. You attacked Liam Day. You didn't go to the police... Regardless of what he had or hadn't done, you used these powers of yours to ruin his life, and that… That doesn’t bother you?” "Interesting turn of phrase: 'regardless of what he had or hadn't done'. As if my actions took place in a vacuum, as if there was no context, no cause or effect." Jase's tone was mild, but his eyes narrowed faintly. "It was not 'regardless of what he did'. It was entirely based on what he did. I didn't walk out at random and attack a target of opportunity to satisfy some urge - Liam did. Unfortunately for him, his target was my friend." "But it doesn't bother you." Ian repeated, a not-quite-a-question. Jason looked at Autumn for a long moment, a flicker of something in his gaze, then at Dana, his head tilting slightly as he absorbed her expression, then at Ian, meeting the older man's eyes. "I handled it poorly. Would I handle things differently, in retrospect? Yes, as I have said. Do I feel any empathy or remorse for Liam Day? No. His actions defined him as my enemy." he said with slow precision. He glanced at his father's taut expression. "We may as well put all the cards on the table." he stated, looking back at the Keanes. "You would likely find out sooner or later, and I don't want secrets or omissions between us." His eyes rested on Autumn for a moment. "Whatever the truth costs me." "I'm not human, you see." He nodded towards the Keanes’ daughter, her eyes wide as she gazed at him then at her parents. "Autumn knows this, and Devin. It's possible, indeed likely that the Project suspect it." He smiled faintly at the blankly incredulous expressions on Dana and Ian's faces. "I know, I look like a normal young adult, but I'm genetically a little further removed from homo sapiens than they are from homo neanderthalensis." Dana looked sideways at Gar, who was watching intently. "Is this a joke?" Jason's dad shook his head. "No joke. But he definitely gets that from his mothers side of the family." Gar said softly. "I only found out about it myself the other day." "So what are you?" Ian asked, skepticism warring with wariness in his expression and body language. Oddly, Autumn answered. "An offshoot hominid race designed and deliberately evolved for fearlessness, heightened intelligence and aggression, pragmatism, and similar traits that further survival and propagation." she recited, smiling faintly at the surprise that flickered for a second in his gaze. "Yeah. I remembered." she told him, blinking back a moist feeling in her blue eyes. This was it. Any moment now, her parents would drag her out of there, forbid her from seeing him…
  4. "And I mean it. Straight home," Ian Keane reiterated, cool blue eyes narrowed slightly against the morning sunlight as he regarded his still-sleepy daughter. The response was a grumbled assent punctuated by a soft huff as Autumn finished unstrapping her bike from the rack and lowered it down to the paved parking lot just behind her father's silver Range Rover. "No detours, no hanging around after hours," he added firmly, frowning a little as she sighed, tightening the ratchet straps on the crossbar down again. "And remember what I said about Jason coming by: Not past ten. And I want you to-" "Text you when I-," the drowsy redhead nodded, her features scrunching up as she stifled a yawn with the back of her hand and rocked forward onto her toes, the bicycle frame bouncing lightly against her thigh. "Mm. When I get there. I will, Dad. I promise. Thanks for bringing me." "You're welcome, sweetheart. Be careful today, all right?" Leaning in, he pressed a quick kiss to her temple, pushing the haphazard braid back over her shoulder and giving her a quick visual check-in for confirmation. "Mhm, you, too. See you tomorrow?" "See you tomorrow." "Hey Dad?" Autumn asked, palms resting on the handlebars as she watched her father walk away and feeling, for some unknown reason, a vague apprehension. Nothing was going to happen today, probably. Not like yesterday, or the day before that. But, still... "Hmm?" Pausing as he opened the driver's side door, Ian glanced back at his not-so-little girl, her features framed in a halo of copper flame as she smiled, freckled nose crinkling. "Love you." He paused at that, at the simple, slightly embarrassed public admission of his teenaged daughter, and broke into a broad grin. "Love you, too," her gratified father replied. With a quick jingle of keys as he waved, Ian ducked back into his new SUV and started the engine, then slowly made his way through the line of parents dropping off their kids near the front doors before disappearing, ostensibly on his way to meet a client in Helena. The queue seemed longer today, Autumn noted, the Shelly natives no doubt keeping their offspring a little closer now amid the swirl of rumors surrounding Charlie and Cody and the sudden appearance- and subsequent disappearance- of a mysterious serial killer in their midst. And that was only a tiny part of the truth. If they knew the rest, how many of them would even have let their children leave the house? It was a small miracle her own folks were taking it so well, especially after finding out about Jason the night before. She'd half expected them to pack her off somewhere, or ban him from the property, or pull her out of school altogether- which would've completely made sense, all things considered, and they had had a few choice words when they'd gotten home after visiting the Bannon farm. Plus there was that godawful fucking meeting, and the picnic, and... Well, everything, basically. But, she admitted, rolling her bike up onto the sidewalk toward the row of upright racks near the entrance, they seemed to be trying, at least. Rumor, gossip and snatches of conversation and laughter buzzed around her head as Autumn, still blinking sleep away, made her way to her locker and dumped her bag inside before scooping up her books for first period- Chemistry- the thought of which was good for some color in her cheeks and a slight increase in the spring in her step as she headed to the cafeteria. There was still time for breakfast, and Jase had promised to show up with a thermos of coffee. …After which they'd have Chemistry together in, she snorted to herself in abashed amusement, more ways than one. Had she mentioned that her parents were awesome and trying really hard? They really were, especially where Jase was concerned. "Mornin', A-Rae." The familiar tone, the familiar nickname announced Jacob as he fell into step with her, book bag slung over one broad shoulder as he assessed her with a bright grin that belied the careful expression in his eyes. He was a morning person - not merely someone who woke up with a minimum of effort and fuss, like Jase, but rather someone who was at their most energetic and cheerful first thing in the day, barely even needing coffee. Ugh. "I was wondering if it'd be okay if I sat with and asked you something over breakfast?" he said, leaning conspiratorially closer as they walked through the halls. "Y'know. About all the... stuff going on. I tried to grill Bannon over it but he said there were unwritten rules about you guys telling each others friends and families." Jacob made a face. "Can't really argue with that, I guess. By the way," The warden's son nudged Autumn playfully. "Your new boyfriend is weird. Not bad weird." he went on hastily, shrugging. "Just weird." Giving her tall, once-and-future friend a sidelong glance, the redhead chewed over that sentiment for a moment as they headed toward the cafeteria. 'Bad' was definitely a subjective kind of thing where Jason Bannon was concerned, because while the potential existed for him to be very, very bad indeed, he was choosing not to act on it; a couple of weeks ago she wouldn't have been able to maintain eye contact with him for more than half a second, and she was pretty sure her parents had some totally reasonable (if, in her opinion, inaccurate) misgivings about the fact that she was dating him. ...Well, in fairness, they probably had misgivings about her dating anyone who wasn't a known quantity, like Jacob. But that ship had sailed, and apparently docked in Tawny Harbor, and that was a good thing, right? That he was happy? Peering up at Jay, Autumn nodded at his assessment. That they both were happy, she amended silently, or at least as much as they could be with all this craziness hanging over their heads. "He is, yeah," she admitted thoughtfully, one corner of her mouth curving upward as the pair of teens wove through the crowd to take their place in line. "Super weird. But interesting, and a lot of fun. He's-" She paused, her clear, sea-colored eyes narrowing speculatively as she glanced up at Jacob again. "Hey, listen," the earnest young woman began, smile fading by degrees. "Is it... Is this weird? Talking about, y'know. New boyfriends and stuff. Does it bother you?" "A little?" he said with a wry tilt to his lips. "And, being honest, a week ago it'd have been worse. But all the weirdness, all the scary stuff... It really made me think about what's important." he went on in his straightforward, honest way. "And it's important that we're friends. We were friends before we sort of fell into dating, and though that ended sorta... messy-" "Yeah." Autumn muttered as she nodded, grabbing a plate from the stack and slipping it onto her tray as she remembered how messy things had gotten. "-yeah... but the point is, you're happy now. And so am I. And really, us being friends again is more important - to me anyway. And it's pretty plain from watching my friend with her new boyfriend that she's pretty damn into him. So I’m not gonna be a dick and pretend like it's not a part of your life, y'know? Even if he is weird." Jacob went on, grabbing a carton of OJ and a plate of eggs and hashbrowns as he followed her in the line. "So you're good with being friends," she stated simply, eyes flicking up to his face again before glancing back at the food on offer. Grabbing a spoonful of fried apples and a waffle, Autumn pursed her lips and added a couple of strips of bacon to her plate. "Oooh, crap. Can you grab me a milk? Thanks," she added, grimacing as Jacob gave a rueful shake of his head and reached back along the line, a bemused server helpfully settling the red and white carton in his grasp. "Thank you!" she called down to the cafeteria worker, giving her an abashed little wave as she forged ahead, feeling the warmth rising in her cheeks as the rest of the line alternately snickered and rolled their eyes. "Thank you," the ruddy-faced redhead murmured more quietly, flashing her companion a quick smile. "No problem," he replied easily. "And, yeah. I'm good with being friends." The handsome athlete paused for a moment, considering something as they cashed out and scanned the cafeteria for an empty seat. "Are you?" Blinking up at her oldest friend, Autumn hesitated for a scant few seconds, astonishment writ plain across her features. "I mean... Yeah? That's been one of the worst parts of-" Gesturing with her free hand as she balanced her tray on the other, the red-haired teen waved in a sort of ill-defined circle, indicating something beyond the scope of words. "You know. This. It was just like, everything happening at once, and we weren't talking, and I guess I kind of missed that." "Window seat." Jacob nodded towards an empty table and the two of them stepped smartly, trying to bag the decent spot before someone else did. "And yeah, same." he went on as they settled in across the table from one another, sliding their trays into place before sitting. "The worst part about it all was that suddenly, my friend wasn't around anymore. And when I saw you with Bannon at the Carousel..." "Oh god..." Autumn went deep red under her dusting of freckles as she recalled exactly how she'd broken the news to Jacob. "Don't remind me!" "No, listen." Jacob waved away her mortification. "It didn't bother me like I thought it should. Like, there was a teeny little phantom pang of jealousy, sure. But mostly I was kinda..." He waved a hand, glancing out the window as he wrestled with the awkwardness. "Glad. Like 'wow, she seems happy, that's awesome'." He glanced back at her, smiling a little. "Which is when I decided that, yeah, I'd see if I could be happy with Tawny. But also... it kinda pushed on me that you've changed some, and I missed it because I was too busy trying to remember when you were who you used to be rather than seeing who you are now." "I'm different?" Autumn blinked, fork halfway to her mouth, considering. Her mom had said something similar, not too long ago. About how she'd changed somehow. "Yeah, you are." Jacob grinned at his friend's confusion. "I dunno if it's the-" he dropped his voice "-Shine, or your new friends, or the things you've had to do. But you're different, A-Rae. It's a good difference, though. I think. Not pod-person, body-snatcher different." "Mmm," she replied as she rested her cheek in the palm of her hand, a mouthful of waffle and butter and spiced apples delaying further discussion of the matter. It was a sober, thoughtful "mmm," a contemplative sound mirrored in the distant expression in her eyes as she likewise gazed out the window and watched the flocks of birds swirling between treetops arrayed across the manicured lawn. She didn't feel any different, but was she? The question reminded her of another conversation she'd had not that long ago, about the way it was easy to miss changes sometimes because you were the one living them moment to moment. Maybe that's what was happening with her. Hell, with everyone, all the time, but especially now. "So." Taking a sip of milk, Autumn dismissed that thought for the consideration of her future self and turned her attention back to the familiar-yet-unfamiliar face of the young man seated across from her. "Change of subject," she announced, spearing another bite of cinnamon-spiced fruit and waffle goodness with her fork. "You said you wanted to talk about the, uh. Local news. Where should I start?" "Well, I kinda know the stories, right? The family folklore about the Enemy, and some of the secret stuff that happened in Shelly before..." Jacob motioned with his fork before taking a shovel-load of bacon and eggs with it. "Sho." he said around the mouthful. "I guess what I want to know first is when: did the stories stop just being stories for you? How'd you get sucked into all this." "Well, about-" Autumn made a show of checking a watch. "-two weeks ago, I walked into a door." "Like the door you were talking about Monday night with our folks? The hell-place door?" "Nope." Autumn smiled despite her flush of embarrassment. "That door over there. I wasn't paying attention and it swung back and caught me in the face, knocked me on my ass." Amidst the snickering, she outlined that first, strange meeting with Jase and Clara, how they'd checked on her, then performed miracles, then told her she was like them. And how, almost before she could check her progress, she'd ended up skipping class to go into the woods, nearly gotten eaten by a monster, and seen even more weird miracles - like Marissa Jauntsen hugging her and saying they should be friends. "That wasn't quite the craziest thing that I saw that day." she finished, swiping a section of waffle through some spiced apple residue on her plate and steadfastly refusing to think - overmuch - about Jason naked and covered in blood and fire. "But it definitely was the capstone on a day of 'what the fuck?'" she grinned self-deprecatingly. "Jesus." Jacob breathed, sipping at his OJ. "So you and the super-friends-" "Fellowship." Autumn corrected, taking a gulp of milk. "Right. You tracked down and fought the Enemy - I overheard that from the living room when you all were talking in the kitchen." Jacob admitted, toying with his drink. "So what I want to know is: What happens now? And is it true you can heal with a touch, or was that my concussion talking? What exactly can you all do?" "So," she began tentatively, balancing her fork on one tine as she twirled it against her empty plate. "I'm not sure about the whole, 'fighting the Enemy,' thing. What I mean is, it might be bigger than just that one part we saw. And so, honestly, I'm not really sure what happens now. Like, there are still some things we need to do, to hopefully deal with it once and for all, but after that...?" Her voice trailed off, one shoulder twitching upward in a helpless shrug. "I wish I knew. Life sort of goes back to normal, I guess. For a given value of 'normal,'" she added, remembering the talk she'd had with her mom. Jacob nodded, chewing a bite of greasy, salty hashbrown as he considered that for a moment. "Makes sense. I guess what 'normal' is does look different after all this." "You are not kidding," his breakfast companion agreed ruefully, her lips curving into a faint grin. "As far as the, uh." Casting a surreptitious glance around, she leaned in slightly, resting her chin on her elbow. "The healing thing, yeah. It's..." She paused, her features scrunching into something like a grimace. "How can I say this? It's easier to take things apart than to put them back together. You were tricky," she admitted softly, studying her childhood friend's features with an odd mixture of feelings both sentimental and clinical, simultaneously assessing his current health and reflecting on how worried she'd been when they'd found him in the woods near Champion's Field. "Lots of swelling, bleeding on the brain. I'm just..." Exhaling sharply, Autumn glanced back down at her plate, shoving grim thoughts firmly aside. "I'm just glad you're okay." "Makes two of us." Jacob replied softly, catching her eye. "Still, it's a hell of a gift you got. Gotta say, I'm a little jealous." he added with a grin. "Not about the fighting monsters and stuff, but, you know... Being super." Autumn snorted at that, rolling her blue eyes expressively. "Puh-lease." She waved away the 'super' comment. "I'm not even sure how I feel about it from day to day. Sometimes it's scary as hell, and sometimes it's really cool." "Only sometimes?" her friend asked, eyebrow raised skeptically. "Okay, mostly more cool than scary, especially lately. I just..." Autumn gestured with her fingers. "I'm not sure what to do about having these… gifts. Not really. How is it going to change everyday life? Is it even going to? That sort of thing." "I suppose so." Jacob mused, rubbing his chin in thought and looking like a younger version of his dad in that moment. "Maybe-" A tray was slid into place next to Autumn's. "Morning." Jase said as he relaxed into the chair beside her, setting a thermos of coffee down between them as he poured syrup on his pancakes. His shaggy hair was damp from the showers after his run, a few beads of water here and there still on his skin as he regarded both his girlfriend and her friend with his usual air of composed faint curiousity on his scarred features. "Morning," Autumn smiled, angling her chair to face both guys a little more comfortably as she nudged her boyfriend's knee companionably with her own. "You're just in time. We were just talking about terrifying super powers and how having them may, or may not, change the world as we know it. We started with mine," she added somewhat distractedly and then trailed off, her attention caught by the dark ends of Jason's hair as they clung to the nape of his neck. He'd just come from a shower... Had he gone running, maybe, and cleaned up after, or just taken his time getting to school? "So we didn't... Um..." Autumn. Hey. Hey! You're staring. Mhmm. She could almost smell his soap, or cologne, or whatever it was past the cloying sweetness of syrups and baked goods, that clean, vaguely herbal scent that made her want to lean over and breathe it in, or maybe just steal one of his shirts or something. Seriously? her inner voice chided her. You. Are. At. School. Oh, for- Jesus fuck, Autumn, could you not- "Autumn?" Blinking as the sound of her name broke through her reverie, she turned to peer blankly at Jacob as his fork struck the tray with a clatter. He dropped his face into his hand with a muffled, "Oh my God. I can't even," choking back an incredulous laugh at the expression on his best friend's face. Another moment passed as the slow realization- accompanied by an inexorable wave of bright crimson flooding her face- finally settled in. "Oh my God," she echoed in a despairing hiss, resolutely not looking up at Jason's face as she very slowly, very deliberately, straightened in her seat. "Oh my God, I'm so- Oh my God. Um." Flailing verbally for some way out of the situation, some escape from the fact that she'd just had her face pressed against Jason Goddamn Bannon's shoulder at the breakfast table- in the cafeteria, of all places!- like some crazy person, and reminded suddenly that people had probably already heard about the way she'd enthusiastically greeted him at the picnic on Monday, Autumn grabbed at the thermos he'd brought as though it were a rope thrown to a shipwreck survivor adrift at sea. "Oh, look. Coffee!" she exclaimed, fumbling with the lid and swearing silently to herself as she poured a cup. "So, guess we know what your super power is, huh?” Jacob asked Jase with a grin, giving Autumn a sly, teasing glance. The crimson-faced redhead glared at him and Jacob felt a short, sharp strike to his shin, hard enough to make him wince a little as Autumn glanced out of the window, sipping her coffee and pretending nothing had happened. "Turning up with coffee." Jase replied with a slow, deadpan nod as he poured himself a cup, then offered the thermos to Jacob. "I'm good, thanks though." the warden's son said, holding his hand up forestallingly. "I want to be able to sit still in first period, which I won't if I'm wired." He explained with a smile. "If there's any left at lunchtime, I'll definitely take you up on it." "If." Autumn agreed pleasantly, turning back from contemplating the panorama outside the window now that her face had cooled somewhat - only to freeze like a deer in delicious jade headlights as Jase leaned towards her this time. If she could have formed a coherent thought, it would likely have been 'If he kisses me here I'm going to end up climbing all over him at the breakfast table.' but all she was capable of was 'Umm...' as the olive toned, scarred face came closer still... and then his lips brushed her freckled cheek and a fresh wave of delighted pink spread from her hairline in sync with her smile. "I'm psychokinetic." Jase explained to Jacob as he straightened up, cutting a forkful of pancakes and taking a mouthful, washed down by coffee as Autumn's friend mulled that over for a moment. "So that's like telekinetic?" "Same thing, pretty much." Jason allowed. "The devil is in the detail of the word. Telekinesis is one of the things I can do - moving things. But my control over kinetic energy goes down pretty far - I can control the motion of molecules - slowing them down or speeding them up." "So that would mean... making things cooler or hotter?" Jacob hazarded, recalling some thermodynamics from Physics last year. Jason nodded. "But how does that work?" The young athlete asked, fascinated. "How do you do it?" "Still working on figuring that out." Jason shrugged, taking another bite of his breakfast, syrup clinging to his lips as he ate. "I have theories, but no way to coherently test them yet. We can all feel the energy - Shine - that we tap into, and some of us can feel it in detail, but there's a ton of 'what if?' and 'don't know' still to clear up." "There's other names for the energy, whatever it is," Autumn added, pouring the last bit of milk from her carton into her coffee. "Dawning Light's what the Blackfeet call it." Jacob nodded; his own trip to the reservation and subsequent talks with his father had given him at least a rudimentary framework, of sorts, to support what he'd been hearing over the last few days, which was more useful now that he had some direct experience. "But, yeah. For me, it's all about dealing with living things, or I guess," she frowned, teeth catching momentarily at her lower lip, "just life in general, and all the processes that go into that. People, animals... plants, even, to a certain extent. Healing is a part of that, but just a part. I'm hoping I can learn more on Saturday when I go in with Mom and Dad, maybe see what else I can do, or find better ways to do it. There's kind of a range of things that go into these... abilities, y'know? It's like how Jase can start a fire, or make a drink cold, or give people airplanes, or-" Inhaling as she caught sight of the pale line etched into her boyfriend's skin again, she gave a wan smile. "Or stop bullets." "Bullets?" Jacob repeated, the deep furrow of a frown creasing his forehead as he put two and two together. "Hang on a minute. You mean-" He gestured toward the scar cresting Jason's cheek, a faded mark he'd assumed was a remnant of their fight with the Enemy. "That?" "Yes." Jason inclined his head slowly, not at all self-conscious of the scar. "We have more mundane enemies. One of their... agents sent some people to kill me yesterday." "Holy shit..." Jacob breathed, his eyes widening as he looked at the scar more carefully. "They shot you in the-" "Side of the head." Jase finished, half-turning his head and lifting the hair a little so the other young man could see. "I can put up forcefields that blunt kinetic energy and disperse it. I was a little slow getting one up because I didn't see the attack coming until almost too late. It slowed the bullet enough for it to merely fracture my skull and glance off rather than drill right through." He let his hair fall back into place and went back to eating. "Fuck." Jacob stated, blinking both at the evidence of the attack and at the matter-of-fact reporting of it, glancing at Autumn. "If it hadn't been for Autumn, I'd likely be dead. And if it hadn't been for Devin, I'd probably have died before Autumn could save me." Jase agreed, his pale eyes examining Jacob. "The world contains more than monsters. There's humans who want to control, or contain us. Failing that, I believe they will try to destroy us." "Sure you don't want any coffee?" Autumn chimed in, offering her friend both a sympathetic smile and her cup as he again declined with a polite shake of his head. "Suit yourself." Taking another sip, she nodded her agreement with Jason as she glanced in his direction, trying to focus on the subject matter at hand, and not to think about the fact that he'd actually kissed her for a change; even if it was only on the cheek, she could almost feel the phantom pressure of his lips against her skin, a faint tingle of memory. Not for real, obviously, but almost. Turning back to Jacob and more pressing (if less appealing) concerns, she pursed her lips, nose crinkling unhappily. "The whole situation is complicated, I guess, and to be honest I'm trying not to think too much about that right now. But it does kind of go with what we were talking about earlier... the 'what next?' stuff. Just having these powers might not change our lives much, but-" Movement over Jay's shoulder caught Autumn's attention and her eyes followed, tracking the distant clatter of empty plates and trays being dropped off as increasing numbers of students pushed back their chairs and filtered out of the cafeteria in small groups. What time was it? she wondered, realizing she hadn't looked at her phone at all yet that morning. Sliding it from her pocket as, catching her air of urgency, Jacob glanced at his watch, the two childhood friends immediately came to the same conclusion: the first bell was about to ring. "Crap," they muttered, almost in unison, and grinned. "Okay," Autumn laughed, simultaneously relieved not to be discussing assassins and hellscapes so early in the day and frustrated that they hadn't been able to finish talking. "We'll talk more later, yeah?" "Yeah," the future FWP administrator agreed, smiling as the trio gathered up plates and bags. "Sounds good." With a quick check of his own phone and a brief wave, Jacob melted into the surging crowd. Jason shoved the last mouthful of his breakfast into his mouth and stood as he washed it down with the last swallow of coffee in his cup. A tap on his arm brought him face to face with Autumn, who smiled up into his eyes as she proffered the other thermos cup lid. "Thanks." the young redhead told her boyfriend, nose crinkling as he nodded, smiling back and screwing the cup into place. "Uh..." Autumn's eyes found the smear of syrup on his lower lip and locked onto it. "You've got a little something..." she murmured, suddenly once more keenly, painfully aware of his nearness as she lifted a hand to indicate the offending condiment. Jase, hands full of book bag and thermos, licked his lower lip in a gesture that sent an electrical shiver down Autumn's spine. "Better?" he asked, glancing around to ensure he hadn't left anything behind as he stepped away from where he'd been sitting. Fuck it. Slender, strong hands gently cupped his jaw, Autumn's fingers playing over his smooth and scarred cheeks as she brought him round and down to face her, her mouth hungrily searching out his. The kiss was brief, her tongue gently playing over his lower lip, sucking gently before she let him go, gazing up at him with a smile. Someone, somewhere else in the cafeteria, wolf-whistled. Jase stared at her for a moment, taking in the pink cheeks, the blue eyes dark with desire, his senses afire with the sudden fierceness of her kiss. "Thanks." he murmured, smiling slightly. "Mmm. No problem." Autumn breathed back, stepping a pace away so as not to be tempted to go further. Later, though, she mentally promised herself. And him. "We'd, uh, better get to Chem." "Right." Jase nodded, shoving his thermos in his bag and falling into step with her as they dropped off their trays and left the cafeteria together.
  5. Jesus fuck, Autumn swore mentally, raking a hand back through the tousled remnants of what had, perhaps an hour ago, been a ponytail. No more meetings. That's it. I'm so fucking over it. Sure, they'd have to get together to make plans for Site B eventually, but as with so many other things, that was a problem for Future Autumn to worry about, because it clearly wasn't happening tonight. Tonight had, unfortunately, more or less lived up to her expectations, and the biggest difference was that Lilly had actually shown up, which... maybe was a positive thing? It was hard to say. The situation was weirdly convenient, yeah- especially since Enterich was apparently involved- but it was at least better than reading about pieces of her being found all across Toole County. That was a grim thought, for sure, and the redhead shivered a little in spite of herself. As chairs slid back from the table and people began casting about for some clue on how to proceed, she glanced down at the Jauntsens: defiant, arrogant, and- to the earnest, straightforward young woman- largely incomprehensible. They'd said themselves they weren't part of the group, and now their mother had reinforced that notion with a parental edict. And maybe they were being influenced by the Dark, and... Nothing. Blinking, Autumn realized she felt nothing at all about their attitude, their insults, or their potential exclusion. And that, more than all the frustration and disappointment, bothered her. It felt weird to just not feel, especially when dealing with people whose mere existence all but demanded some kind of reaction. Then again, maybe it would be weirder if she wasn't completely emotionally exhausted after everything that had happened since the ride to school that morning. Getting to her feet, the red-haired teen stretched as she stood, folding her arms behind her head with a soft huff. "I need to go talk to Annette before we go," she murmured, addressing her parents. "Give me just a minute?" "Sure," Dana agreed quietly, reaching up to smooth the stray curls back from her daughter's face with a faint, wistful smile. "That'll give us time to make sure we have everyone's numbers. Go ahead." "Thanks," the younger Keane girl replied gratefully, leaning over to hug her mom with one arm before heading off around the table in pursuit of the Aeon representative. "'Scuse me, Miss Giles? Hey, have you got a sec?" Annette paused at the open door and turned, smiling a little as her dark eyes met Autumn's sky-blues. "Ms Keane." she acknowledged, her tone friendly enough as she pursed her lips slightly, considering for a heartbeat before nodding. "Yes, I have moment or two. How can I help you?" she asked with polite warmth. Behind Autumn, back at the table, Dana was quietly speaking with Teresa Allen and Ian was likewise murmuring with the Allisters as the meeting started to break up. "Cool. So, listen. Uh, that was a mess." A grimace etched faint lines in Autumn's bronze-flecked forehead and around her eyes as she regarded the older, more sophisticated woman somewhat self-consciously. It was hard to tell if Annette was sincere in her desire to help, or whether she was moving them all around like pawns on a chess board in the way Dale had ascribed to Enterich, or even both simultaneously; knowing she'd potentially had information about the attack on Jase wasn't exactly a mark in her favor. "Sorry about that, and thanks. For setting this up, I mean." Rocking back on her heels, the energetic teen considered all the plans they'd made already that hadn't worked out, and wondered idly whether these would be any different. Taking a deep breath, she glanced back over her shoulder, watching as several of the parents studied the cards Annette had placed on the table and exchanged contact details. The meeting had been a massive disappointment, of course, but it was over, and that was that; no take-backs, no do-overs. Not that she had the mental energy to work out what she'd have done differently right now, anyway. The only thing left to do was look forward, focus on the practical. Everything else could be handled later. Tomorrow, maybe, she allowed cautiously, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. "Anyway, you mentioned you thought I might be able to help with the cats we brought back. Or with the big one, at least. When could we set something like that up?" Annette's smile widened a little as she studied the young woman. "As soon as is convenient for you, I'm certain. Understand, please, that I don't want to get you - or myself - into trouble with your parents. Assuming they agree, you can contact me and come in whenever you are free to do so - giving me a day or so's notice would be best, of course. If one or both of your parents wish to accompany you to observe, that is also fine." "Oh." The girl's wide, expressive eyes widened further at the suggestion. Having her folks come along was a good idea, definitely, and the fact that she hadn't actually considered it beforehand was writ plain across her face. Not only would it help her parents get a better grasp on what she could do, and- more specifically- what she was trying to do, they'd be a lot more chill about the whole situation if they could actually be there with her. Well, she conceded, remembering her father's one-hundred-percent not chill reaction to Jason's powers at the Field. Probably more chill. Maybe. "Yeah, sure. That sounds good. I mean, there are other things I want to ask you, but honestly, I'm kind of over today already and I'm guessing you are, too, so I'll talk to Mom and Dad and see if they're okay with coming out this weekend, and we can deal with it then." Her features scrunched slightly again- not quite a grimace, this time, and not quite a smile. "If that's cool with you." "Perfectly acceptable, Ms Keane." Annette inclined her head, lips quirking warmly. "It's not an exaggeration at all for me to say I shall be looking forward to it." "Same," Autumn replied succinctly, a note of enthusiasm adding color to the otherwise monosyllabic response. Back at the table, the Bannons had gotten to their feet and were sliding their chairs back under the polished conference table. In contrast to Jason's glacial calm, Gar looked like he was ready to chew up barbed wire and spit nails. "I should be giving them a piece of my mind." he muttered under his breath to his son, casting a dark sideways glance at the Jauntsens. "Here and now, it'd be wasted." Jase replied phlegmatically, his own voice an undertone. "Serving only to attract their spite to you, at which point things would simply escalate. Save your energy for those who are worth it." He straightened up slightly as Ian and Dana Keane, done with the other parents, approached. "Hey." Gar said, half-turning to regard the Keanes with a mixture of friendliness and wariness. Neither of Autumn's parents missed the tight expression around the older Bannon's eyes, though he made an effort to relax as he smiled wanly at them. "Heck of a meeting, huh? Lots to process, for sure." "That's one way to put it," Ian agreed dryly, acknowledging the understatement with a faint, crooked grin. "I'm not sure if I need a physics degree to work through what I just heard, or one in psychology." "Maybe both." Arching an auburn brow bemusedly at Gar and then her husband, Dana's expression softened a little as she turned to Jase, once more studying the new-old scar along his cheekbone. "I'm sorry about what happened this morning. I knew you'd been attacked, but I had no idea you'd been-" Exhaling, the pretty veterinarian licked her lips, her mouth going dry at the idea of someone doing to her, or to Ian, what the two marshals had done to Jason. "That you were shot," she added a little more quietly, studying the laconic young man for any sign of distress and, disconcertingly, finding none. "Autumn didn't mention it earlier. I suppose she didn't want me to worry about something that had already been resolved." Her mouth curved in a gentle, slightly rueful smile. "...And I didn't think it was my place to say." Rubbing the back of his neck, Ian had the good grace and presence of mind to look uncomfortable, and rightly so. He'd had ample opportunity to share the gory details over the course of the afternoon, but... how could he? He'd seen what Jason Bannon had looked like lying there by the roadside, and special powers or no, it was hard to reconcile that image burned into his memory with the lanky, composed teenaged boy standing before him now. "Which, in hindsight," he admitted grudgingly as his wife's warm hazel eyes swung sharply in his direction, "might not have been the best call." "It's okay, Ian." Jase said in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone, bright green eyes regarding both adults with that air he had of someone studying, of learning how people were, how they reacted. "I imagine it'd be hard to broach as a topic of discussion at the best of times." "Yeah." Gar nodded, his own voice thickening slightly as he glanced at the still-composed youth. "It's a lot. Cassie Allen's vote of confidence in Jase's resilience is all very well, but..." He didn't finish the thought and, picking up on some indefinable parental harmonic, neither Dana nor Ian needed him to. My child was the silent, uniting unspoken thought between the three. "But anyway, he's here. And alive." Gar said gruffly as he fought back the urge to hug his strange son to him, simply reaching up and patting Jason on the shoulder. "Much to some people's dismay, I am sure." Jason said calmly, something unpleasant glimmering for a second in the depths of his cold eyes. "Don't, boy." Gar shook his head, the hand on Jason's shoulder becoming a firm grasp. "Don't mistake angry, ignorant and scared-stupid people with enemies. Nobody needs that right now, hear?" "If you say so." Jason glanced at his dad, shrugging as his expression settled back into its usual mask of calm contemplation. "And," Dana interjected, her smile warming by degrees as she regarded first the elder Bannon, and then the younger. "There are plenty of people who'd rather see you well and happy than not- one of whom I've raised, so on that basis alone I'd say it's a pretty great group. I... may be biased," she allowed, her tone light and musing as she looked pointedly at the others around the room and then nodded in the direction of the door, where Autumn and Annette were talking. "You're right, though." Shifting back to the more pressing topic, the svelte Shelly native sobered a little. "It really is a lot to process, even with Autumn filling us in about a lot of this. Spaceships, gods, other dimensions..." A quick shake of her head and a brief glance skyward provided a wordless summation of her feelings on the utterly unbelievable revelations of the evening. Maybe Dad wasn't completely wrong, after all, she reflected, considering Owen Kavanagh's odd blend of pragmatism and superstition. "We've been catching up with some of the other parents, just making sure everyone has our contact information, and thought we could exchange phone numbers. You know," she added unnecessarily, her long, slim fingers twining together. "Just in case." Her meaning required no additional explanation- not after all that had happened, and might still in the days to come. "Well, yes," Ian put in, gingerly resting a hand on the small of his wife's back, and although she didn't pull away, neither did she lean into the tentative embrace. "That, too. We were talking earlier, and since we didn't have a chance to get together at the picnic yesterday, Dana and I also thought it might be a good idea for the five of us to meet up for coffee, dinner... That kind of thing. Y'know, since our kids are-" He took a deep breath, his cool blue eyes roving around the room before settling on Jason's impassive features again. "Spending a lot of time together. Obviously, we don't know much about you guys, and I'm guessing the reverse is true." "Sure. That actually sounds like a good idea." Gar nodded as the notion sank in, smiling at both Keanes as he rubbed at the back of his neck, thinking it over. "So when-?" "How about tonight?" Jase suggested straightforwardly, causing all three adults to blink and exchange glances as he went on, unfazed. "It's not exactly late. You could come up to the farm for coffee and a talk - just a getting-to-know-you thing." "Uh..." Gar looked at his son for a moment, then at Ian and Dana. "I dunno... I don't see a problem with it on my side. How about you guys?" "I..." Clearly taken aback, Autumn's father flailed about for a response, blinking in surprise. "No?" He hazarded, glancing down at his wife, who shrugged and smiled, as if to say, 'Why not?' "No, I guess... I guess there's no problem with that. We weren't sure how late this thing was going to run, so the two of us have already eaten. What time were you thinking? We, uh. Don't want to impose." "We've already eaten as well. And it's no imposition." Gar replied with a shrug of his own, smiling at Dana self-deprecatingly. "Being a bachelor household, it's not like we run to a schedule." He glanced at Jason, who whilst appearing mostly calm was examining all three grown-ups expectantly. "And it'd be nice to have company over." he added, returning his gaze to the Keanes and smiling once more. Nodding, Ian Keane checked his watch, momentarily lost in thought. It was still early, even if it was technically a school night, and it wasn't as if Autumn would be out on her own... No. Not anymore, she won't be, he decided. Not until this is all over. "Why don't we follow you guys out, then?" Dana proposed to the Bannons, frowning a little at the expression on her husband's face and nudging his side gently in a silent bid for input. "Hm?" He blinked, his gaze moving from face to face as her suggestion finally penetrated the grim depths of his thoughts. "Oh, right." With an abashed smile, the canny entrepreneur shook his head. "Sorry, I was somewhere else for a second there. I think that's a solid plan, yeah." It took only a few moments more to finalize the arrangements: they'd meet in the medical center parking lot, and the Keane family would trail Jason and Gar out to the farm. After a few brief goodbyes, Ian and Dana escorted their daughter out of the room and into a quieter- ostensibly saner- evening.
  6. "We just went through this literally two hours ago," Autumn muttered under her breath, suddenly unsure if she'd rather laugh or cry at the ridiculousness of it all. Instead of just comforting or even trying to reassure Lilly after hearing what had happened to her and leaving it at that, the twins had to take one more opportunity to do exactly what she'd accused them of... And she was right. At least, the redhead amended silently, about the fact that they were being divisive. The rest sounded like a lot of blind hope and idealism that even the visibly frustrated Girl Scout couldn't co-sign. Maybe they really were being influenced by the Dark. Maybe they'd even made that decision willingly- a possibility she had to consider. Either way, whether they were corrupted, or just regular humans who happened to be terrible people, it was getting harder and harder to actually care, to accept the responsibility of trying to pull them back from that threshold. Was it even her responsibility at all to get them to see that there were better ways to be, or just to offer the choice and let them succeed or fail on their own? Tomorrow, of course, she might feel differently. Tomorrow would be another day they'd survived. Tomorrow, when the lurid vision of Jason's bloodied face and limp body and the frustration of the seemingly endless arguing and hypocrisy were a little further from the forefront of her mind, she might find her patience and empathy somewhat restored. But right now? No. Not so much. Right now she wanted to scream, to rage against the pettiness and dishonesty even as she knew, deep down, that it wouldn't help and it wouldn't change anything. I can't do this. I can't sit here. If I keep listening to this, I'm absolutely one hundred percent going to lose my shit. "Annette, I'm down for helping with the cats," she interjected suddenly, pitching her voice to carry down to the other end of the table as much to distract herself as everyone else. Glancing at Cade, she frowned a little, shaking her head. "I think, if I understand what you can do, you'll be able to help once the implants are removed. I know you couldn't see what they'd done to the big guy, but it's bad, and I don't think it's something that can be fixed while he's awake. If we can undo what they did to him, though, you'd be a huge help getting him at least socialized enough to be safe until he can be sent back, or whatever." Taking a deep breath, Autumn slid her chair back, rising to her feet. "And now I'm gonna step outside for a minute, before I say something everybody will regret. We don't need to get any further off-track." With her face practically aflame, the red-haired vitakinetic circled around the table behind Annette and out the door without so much as looking at anyone else, hands clenched at her sides. It hadn't been enough for them to go after Jason, oh, no, she fumed, the sound of her sneakers a brisk drumbeat as she stalked down the quiet, mostly empty hallway. They'd had to drag Cade into it, who hadn't done anything wrong apart from liking Marissa for some dumb reason, Sarah, who wasn't even there to defend herself, and poor Charlie... who maybe hadn't been her friend, but who had fucking died because he'd somehow slipped through the cracks and none of them had noticed. It was possible the same could've eventually happened to Lilly, she realized- although the timing of her disappearances was a little sus, her emotional explanation of how she'd met Enterich at least seemed genuine. Had Marissa known about that, too? Maybe that's why Devin contacted Lilly... Slamming the heel of her hand against the door to the ladies' room as she pushed her way inside, Autumn stubbornly refused to blink, willing the hot, sharp sting of the tears in her eyes to disperse, and the anguished nausea writhing in her gut to subside. She'd just run her hands under the cold water for a little while, splash some on her face, and go back in. It was fine. It was going to be fine.
  7. "Are you guys done?" Autumn asked bluntly, leaning forward around her mother as she peered down the length of the table at the twins, the freckles on her cheeks almost invisible against the flush of angry red that had been steadily creeping up the sides of her throat for the last few minutes. She had to admit, though, that Marissa had been right about one thing, at least: the fact that this was pointless. The Jauntsens were apparently on their own side, and no one else’s, and that didn’t seem likely to change, especially since they were clearly separating themselves from the others. So why were they even here, unless it was just for this? Just to pose in front of an audience and make royal proclamations, to pass judgement under the guise of being helpful… To stir up trouble. A whisper of unease snaked up the redhead’s spine as a sudden realization sank in. She’d been assuming that the twins were trying to change, to help in their own way; that they were all kind of just stumbling through this together, trying to figure out how to get along and hopefully save the world, or whatever it was they were supposed to do. Maybe they weren’t great at the whole friendship thing, sure, but sometimes it seemed like they were trying. What if that wasn’t true, though? What if that assumption of good intentions was completely and utterly wrong? "Yeah, sure. We're good." Devin’s reply was succinct and to the point, his tone as frosty as the expression on his sister’s perfect features. Autumn couldn’t tell what either of them were thinking, but if recent events were any indication, it probably involved bridges and kerosene. And, if it did… What was she supposed to do about it? After everything that had happened that day, her first instinct was to just hand them a match. Fuck it, right? If they wanted to go, it wasn’t her place to stop them, especially if they were willingly working with this Enterich guy, or someone like him. But then again, if the Dark did have some hold on them, and they weren’t too far gone to be pulled back… God fucking damn it, she sighed inwardly. “Cool,” the expressive young woman affirmed, studying the brick wall that was the Jauntsen family for a moment longer before turning the opposite direction to look at Annette. “So, back to the cats, before Cade jumps on the chance to play Captain America: Jungle Edition. The smilodon wasn’t the only one we rescued. So, just as a reminder, I’m still waiting to hear back from you guys about how they’re doing. As far as the rest goes, what Cassie said is true, as far as I know. I wasn’t involved until…” Her nose scrunched slightly, fingers tapping softly on the tabletop as she counted back over the madness of recent days. “It was Friday, right after school started. And, yeah, what happened at the trailer was-” Autumn hesitated, searching for a word that sufficiently conveyed the nightmare quality of that landscape, the sounds they’d heard, the strange burnt-sugar smell of the air and the unsettling mirror-ness of the place. “Terrifying,” she settled on finally, quietly, with an unconscious glance up at her mother beside her. “But that was us being flipped over to that side, or that world, or whatever, and what happened here was kind of the opposite of that. The Dark didn’t pull us through, it pushed through from the other side into this one somehow.” “Through the Door you talked about? The one you said you needed to close?” Dana asked thoughtfully, sharing a look with her husband as she remembered how Autumn had described the barrier between worlds during the ruined Labor Day celebration. “Maybe. Honestly, I don’t know how all that works yet,” the younger Keane admitted, chewing for a moment on her lower lip. Jason had explained- sans crayons- some of the rudiments of quantum theory when they’d gone camping, but she had a long way to go before she could wrap her mind around subquantum or interdimensional anything, much less how their abilities worked in any kind of academic sense. It wasn’t magic, obviously, but there was a line she couldn’t immediately attribute that said something about any sufficiently advanced tech being basically indistinguishable from it. “And we still need to, yeah,” she agreed, even as her parents exchanged another look. Ian Keane leaned back in his chair, cool blue eyes roving over the faces assembled around the table, taking in the mixed reactions to not only what Cassandra had said, but the Jauntsen Twins and the sheriff, as well. It was ridiculous, almost laughably unbelievable, but he'd witnessed the proof himself, hadn't he? It was too much to hope for a mass delusion now, especially after seeing the state Autumn and Jason had been in when they'd come back the night before. His gaze lingered for a moment on the lean, composed figure of his daughter’s new boyfriend, and then at the flushed, uncharacteristically pensive features of Autumn herself. “Well,” he drawled, “that’s certainly a lot to digest. Personal issues aside,” the keen-eyed entrepreneur continued, giving Jason another long, measuring look before eyeing the Sheriff, Captain Williams, and Lt. Col. Pryor, “I’m not exactly thrilled that the authorities kept us in the dark while our kids were in danger. What if my daughter hadn’t made it back from this prison break, hm? What if your son hadn’t, Sheriff? Because, frankly, the fact that we’re only now learning about this- after one of the kids was killed in his own home by some monster-“ His voice trembled with the effort required to keep it steady as he swallowed the rest of the sentence, and his hands, clasped on top of the table, were white-knuckled with restrained emotion. “So when the hell were any of you planning on telling us? Or were you just leaving that to our kids to handle, as well?”
  8. “Is there anything else you want to tell us?” Ian asked soberly, glancing up as the soft, rhythmic sound of bare feet descending the stairway stopped at the sound of his voice. Dana, likewise, looked up from her plate of half-finished spaghetti expectantly. It had been nearly an hour since Jason had brought their daughter home, almost half of which she’d spent in the shower after reminding them about the meeting at the medical center and chasing the dogs around the yard to burn off some nervous energy. “Go Take A Hike!” the pink-cheeked girl’s bright blue t-shirt cheerfully suggested, and knowing more or less which families were meant to be in attendance, the older redhead wondered idly if the choice of attire was deliberate. Autumn paused at the foot of the stairs, her towel and still-damp hair draped over her shoulders, one hand reaching automatically downward to rub the top of Zephyr’s head as the golden-furred Shepherd mix padded over to greet her. It was a loaded question, of course. What her father really meant, she knew from experience, was: “Is there anything you’d like to confess now, before we hear it from someone else?” She’d already told them some things, sure- not about what happened with the Marshal-Formerly-Known-As-Dale, obviously, or the whole Coyote/Man in Black thing, or the fact that her boyfriend was apparently, maybe, an interdimensional alien, or about the Crossroads prison conspiracy- but the immediate stuff. Things they’d actually needed to know. Priorities. And since no one had ever bothered discussing anything specific that they didn’t want discussed, Autumn had a feeling it was going to get pretty tense. “The short answer,” she replied after a moment’s uncertainty, visibly uncomfortable at the quiet scrutiny of her parents from the adjoining room, “is ‘yes.’ Probably,” she amended quickly. “But, honestly, that’s why we’re going to this thing in the first place. So much has happened in the last week or so, I couldn’t cover everything if I wanted to. There’s stuff I don’t remember, or didn’t think was really important, or wouldn’t be able to tell you without getting into a whole other conversation just to explain how we even got to that point. Plus, some of it happened before I even got involved. And… some of it’s not my business to tell you anyway,” the earnest teen hedged, acknowledging the promise she’d made to them at the Carousel. “So this way you get to hear all that kind of firsthand: who everyone is, what’s been going on. Just…” Smiling slightly at the feeling of a cool, wet nose pressed against her palm, Autumn focused for a moment on the dog at her feet, kneeling down to rub a happily squirming Zee’s neck and shoulders vigorously with both hands. “Just try to keep in mind that, um.” That all of this is crazy, and so are most of the people involved? “Some of it’s gonna be a lot to deal with, and I’m not really sure how much everyone else has told their families, you know? So… expect chaos.” “Fantastic,” her father sighed, shaking his head as he tore off another bite of garlic bread and Dana poured herself another half-glass of wine. A little later... “…I’m just saying, we don’t really know what kind of people these-“ There was a moment’s pause as their escorts stepped away and Ian stopped in the doorway of the conference room, blue eyes quickly taking in the measure of the room’s occupants. “Oh.” The conversation he’d been having with his wife ended abruptly on that awkward, monosyllabic exhalation as he realized that some of the people he was referring to were already present. “Evening,” the entrepreneur added after taking a heartbeat to recover, smiling affably and continuing through the door as Dana and Autumn followed him in. “Ah, you must be-“ “Annette Giles,” the poised Aeon representative replied, rising smoothly from her seat as the Keanes approached and the traditional handshakes and parental courtesies were observed. “Of course, of course,” Ian nodded, still smiling. “Autumn’s told us…” The smile turned wry as he glanced over at his daughter, the dry sarcasm of his tone unmistakable. “So much about you. And this is my wife, Dana, and this-“ “Dad,” the younger redhead murmured in bemused exasperation, nudging her father with her elbow. “She knows who I am.” “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Giles,” the elder Keane woman interjected with a smile, clasping Annette’s hand warmly in her own as Autumn and Ian exchanged a quick flurry of playful nudges and hushed exhortations to quit playing around. “The pleasure is mine.” Her reply seemed genuine enough, as far as Ian could tell, although he couldn’t quite put his finger on the faint accent that marked it. “Please, make yourselves comfortable while we wait for the others.” Ian nodded, turning back to the few other folks arrayed around the table, glancing from the Allisters to the two men sitting with their backs to the door, and then the well-dressed foursome at the far end of the room from Annette Giles. Were there really enough kids involved to require that many empty chairs? he wondered, approaching the older man seated nearby. “Hi, I’m-“ He stood there for half a second, hand extended as he caught sight of the lanky, slouching figure he’d somehow missed before, and realization dawned. “He’s my dad,” Autumn supplied helpfully as she ducked around his arm, smiling at Gar and, beyond him, at the remote youth sitting next to him. “Ian. And this,” she indicated the taller, svelte redhead who likewise offered the Bannons a smile, “is my older sister. Ow!” She complained, grinning even as she rubbed the spot on her side where Dana had pinched her. “My mom. Dana. Mom, Dad, this is Jase’s dad, Gar Bannon.” "Nice to meet you at last." Gar had risen from his seat a trifle awkwardly, as though he hadn't expected the courtesies, but his smile was genuine as he took Ian's hand in a firm clasp and shake. The differences in manner were noticeable between his nervous warmth and his son's composed, though equally genuine faint smile-and-nod of greeting to the Keane clan. "Likewise." Autumn's father said by way of introduction as he returned the handshake. He'd heard around town that Gar was a drunken bum and a bit of a nut, but the hazel eyes were clear and alert, the face was shaved and hair was combed, and he was dressed in standard Montana-casual of plaid shirt and jeans rather than the 'prepper chic' of Army surplus clothing Ian had been half-expecting. Beyond him, Jase unwound from the chair he'd been inhabiting and stood. Ian looked at him. "Good to see you're okay, Jase." he remarked, a heartfelt enough statement. Sure, the kid was odd, unnerving and, worse, was dating his little girl, but Ian didn't actually wish him ill. Dana moved forward and shook Gar's hand, still smiling, as Ian stepped back. "Autumn's told us a little about you." she confided. "Thank you for making her welcome at your place." "She's a real pleasure to have around." Gar replied, his smile widening a little as he winked at the younger redhead, who smiled widely through her faint blush. Dana cast an amused doubtful glance at both of them, but said nothing as she stepped a little past Gar and gave Jase a quick hug. "I'm glad you're okay too." she told the lean young man, studying the scar that ran from over his ear down his cheek. It looked months old - Autumn's 'gift' at work undoubtedly - but was still noticeable against the bronze-olive tan of his face. "Thanks." Jason replied, giving her a slight smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling a little, as Dana stepped back. His pale jade gaze found Autumn, the smile still lingering in his eyes. "Hey." he said to her softly. “Hey,” the freckled vitakinetic replied quietly, the faint rose in her cheeks deepening by degrees, and it was only the light pressure of her father’s hand on her shoulder that reminded her where she was. Tearing her attention away from the frosty green eyes that threatened to swallow her where she stood, Autumn nodded politely at the Jauntsens, her enthusiasm dimming slightly as the older Keanes likewise offered the somewhat infamous family a cordial- if distant- smile and wave of greeting. Carl and Misti reciprocated with the faux-friendliness of experienced socialites; if Autumn hadn't seen their behavior at the hospital first-hand, she realized, she probably wouldn't have known they weren't sincere. Gently, but inexorably, her parents steered her back towards Annette, pausing for a moment to once again observe the obligatory semi-formal ritual of greeting with the Allisters. Ducking away from the guiding paternal hand, Autumn continued around the table a little further before taking the seat directly opposite Jase and settled in, waiting for her less-impatient family to catch up. They were still missing the Cassidys, Allens, and... Barrases? Was that right? Slipping her cell phone from her pocket she frowned a little, scrolling through her contacts as her toes skimmed the floor. “Really?” Ian murmured a trifle archly as he sat next to his daughter, earning a bemused smile and shrug from Dana as she took the chair to Autumn’s left. “Really,” the youngest of the Keane trio confirmed, switching her phone to vibrate and placing it face-down on the table.
  9. Pointing out that Jase not really being capable of caring had more to do with biology than courtesy- or reminding Marissa that the "other priorities" she'd mentioned basically consisted of everyone trying not to go crazy or get murdered- wasn't going to get her anywhere, Autumn conceded with an inward sigh. And since Marissa seemed more than capable of shifting a given conversation to her benefit, even a simple, straightforward statement about any of the topics she'd raised could be twisted and transformed in the beautiful socialite's flawlessly-manicured hands as she moulded truth and fiction like a sculptor with so much clay. It didn't help that no matter how much she claimed to not want to talk about him, Shelly High's teen queen kept adeptly turning the subject back to Jason Bannon, almost as if she were daring the redhead to contradict her, or to bring him up herself. Is she? Autumn wondered, copper brows arrowing together briefly in a frown. Marissa could be low-key trying to pick a fight, or to restart the conversation/argument from the training session, or to figure out whether Autumn was going to completely bail on her. Or... none of those things. Or all of them. "If you're going for Lana, try putting your hair up, maybe? The way you just had it. Draws attention to your eyes, I think," she noted as Marissa tested out various hairstyles in the mirror, having averted her eyes politely as she'd finished changing clothes. Even if neither of them was embarrassed, it still felt weird to just watch. It would've been easy to hate the girl for her wealth, her beauty, the sheer enormity of her presence; it was easier to hate her for her personality, though, her best friend acknowledged with a mixture of guilt and resentment. In moments like this, when Marissa was being honest, that seemed unfair. Maybe she really did consider Autumn her only friend. And that just made it harder to tell if the girl she'd seen behind the mask at that sleepover was the real Mari, or if the selfish, self-centered Mantis was. But after the attack that morning, Cassie's revelations, Dale's recovery, and this absolute shitshow of a "meeting," it was kind of hard to find the energy to care. Even being angry had mostly subsided into impotent frustration, and obviously, Marissa felt more or less the same way. Or didn't feel. Or whatever. Hell, maybe they were all... not coping. Maybe that was okay. Or, maybe it was better to just keep moving forward, even if it meant some things got left behind. "And, yeah," she agreed finally, half-consciously reaching for the drawstring of her hoodie before she caught herself and sighed; that was gonna be hard to get used to. "Yeah, I'll text you. I was thinking of doing a thing this weekend, like a camping trip for everybody, but..." With a rueful half-smile tugging at one corner of her mouth, the restless red-haired girl shrugged again. "I guess we'll see. Anyway." She glanced toward the window, through which the late afternoon sunlight filtered in a hazy golden glow. "You need to get ready, and my ride's waiting, so... See you at the next catastrophe." The crooked smile faded, replaced with a slightly more genuine, if taut one, as Autumn gave a quick wave and headed back downstairs.
  10. "No." Autumn's shoulders twitched upward in a shrug, the pitch of her voice rising in similarly fleeting fashion on the monosyllabic refusal. "If you want her to have them, and she wants to wear them, cool, but that's between you two. I'm not playing delivery girl so you guys can avoid each other. I asked for help with the whole walking-in-heels thing, and I'm still down for that after I've had a chance to process. But sis," she added, deliberately emphasizing a word she rarely had occasion to use. "I seriously I don't have it in me to talk about Homecoming and why people are pissed at each other today. I don't." She shook her head, the heavy ponytail of tenuously-bound copper curls swaying vigorously behind her. "Maybe that's how you cope, but I can't just ignore what happened and pretend I'm okay with it. There's clearly stuff you're not okay with, either, and that's fine. We can deal with it like normal people: smoke out, talk shit, figure it the fuck out. Eat too much pizza and too much ice cream. Cry. Whatever." With a soft huff of frustration, the energetic redhead interlaced her fingers atop her hair for a moment, then let her arms fall again. "You already know I'm not good at this. So. As your friend... even if we don't like each other... that's my suggestion. No group discussion, no audience, no referee. You talk, I talk, we get fucked up and your brother tells everybody we're having some weird underwear pillow fight thing. You down?"
  11. Autumn's features, reflected in the vanity mirror, went rigid with exasperation as she plucked the squares of gauze from Marissa's hand. Just breathe, Autumn. Breathe. For a moment she hesitated, torn between the conflicting urges to tell her exactly what she thought and probably start another fight, or to just walk out of the twins' house and never look back. Devin had even been the one to say that none of them had added anything to the Jauntsens' lives that'd be missed if it was gone; well, that went both ways, didn't it? Would it really be that terrible to just say precisely what was on her mind and get it over with? Because after listening to everything downstairs, the redhead had plenty to say- But that was the problem. There really was so much to be said, and so much emotion seething and roiling behind the words bubbling up in her brain, that if she started right now she might not be able to stop again. So... Later. Right. "Okay, look," she exhaled slowly, moderating her tone as much as possible as she focused on reapplying the fresh dressings to her friend's wounds. She could be reasonable. Totally reasonable. It was fine. "Last night sucked. We were all there, we all could've died, and I'm pretty sure everybody except Jase and your totally-not-a-boyfriend are still going to be having nightmares about it a month from now. I mean, I'm definitely gonna be asking my mom if her insurance covers therapy, because I probably need it at this point." There was a fleeting pause as she reached out, palm up. "Tape." As the annoyed brunette dropped a small roll of medical tape into her waiting hand she picked up the thread of the conversation again, tearing off and applying the adhesive strips with a deftness born of frequent practice. "I also offered to help you and Devin the other night, and both of you blew me off, so I don't need the sarcasm when I'm trying to be nice. Seriously. I was asking how it felt because I wanted to know how you were healing, if you've had any other problems besides just pain. Like itching, or swelling, heat around the cuts and bite marks, anything unusual." Another pause, wide eyes narrowing slightly as the red-haired Girl Scout scrutinized her work. Holding the tape briefly between her lips, Autumn frowned, moving Marissa's shoulder to make sure the dressings weren't too taut to be comfortable. Satisfied, she leaned forward, carefully tossing the roll back onto the countertop. "You know. Because I kind of low-key felt bad that you were hurt, and I wanted to make sure you were okay. So pretty please, Marissa, for fuck's sake, could you drop the attitude for five minutes? Please," she repeated earnestly, catching the other girl's eyes in the mirror. "I'm trying, here."
  12. It was hard to see this whole event as anything more than a massive waste of time and energy as the group fragmented and the purpose for their gathering- rather than being focused and productive- dissipated like the scent of Marissa’s perfume on the air. Autumn had come expecting an argument, sure, particularly since Cassie had asked her to be there for moral support… But what was she even supposed to be supporting, exactly? There was a big speech, some finger-pointing, and a lot of verbal T-posing. No challenges, no curiosity, no actual fucking discussion, just… Ugh. It was amazing how quickly things had collapsed into chaos, even for this group, and a part of her wondered if that hadn’t been part of Marissa’s goal in dragging them all here to begin with. “Wow. I mean, I don’t even know where to start,” the redhead admitted, her expression incredulous as she looked from Cassandra to Devin, and then to the few who remained. How about, ‘Fuck this, fuck all of that, and fuck you?’ It was tempting to say exactly that as the warm flush of anger crept up the sides of her throat, flooding her cheeks with scarlet, but she bit the inside of her lip to hold back the torrent of invective she could feel welling up on her tongue. It would feel good to loose that furious tide, obviously- probably really good- but it wouldn’t actually help. Admittedly at this point, with Jason leaving them all to their own devices, Marissa brooding in her ivory tower, Devin locked in sarcastic asshole mode, Cassie being uncharacteristically timid, Cade playing the good soldier act again, Sean once more being the silent observer, and poor Kat dipping her toes into the piranha-infested waters of the Fellowship’s interpersonal drama, probably fucking nothing would help. Raking a hand back through her hair, pale fingers catching on the curls struggling to escape from her ponytail, Autumn exhaled slowly and counted to four. “I’m tired,” she sighed. “I’m hungry, and this is fucking stupid, especially since we get to sit through this with our parents again in a little while. I just… I can’t. I’m sorry. So I’m gonna go upstairs, bang my head against a wall, and then go home and pretend anybody in this whole-ass house right now, me included, is anything close to sane.” Without waiting for comment, the visibly frustrated teen suited action to word and headed up the stairs, focusing on the feeling of the wooden railing under her hand as she tried to calm down. Arriving in the hallway she’d seen only once before- taupe carpet, ivory walls, tastefully arranged artwork- Autumn paused for a moment at the top and briefly pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. Just one day. One. Fucking. Day. That’s it. That’s all she really wanted. Just a pause, a break from the crazy- because now they didn’t just have to worry about people and forces outside the Fellowship threatening them, did they? But, whatever. If Marissa really had been working with Annette, it wouldn’t be hard to find out, and they could just… Deal with it then. Later. Always later. In the meantime, she had an obligation, and questions to ask. Personal issues aside, if she and Marissa were supposed to be friends, she was entitled to certain considerations, just as Jase was, or as Cassie would be. Dropping her hands to her sides, the red-haired teen glanced briefly at the framed panoramic print of Lake McDonald on the wall ahead of her. It was a beautiful photo, taken some time during the summer when the water reflected both the clear blue of the sky and the verdant green of the surrounding mountains, and it gave her a much-needed moment of peace before the conversation to come. She knew Devin’s room lay through the door immediately on her right, but her own horror at the idea of having her space invaded overrode any nascent curiosity about what was actually in there. Instead, she took a deep breath and turned down the hall, then paused outside the Mantis’s lair. She was alone, without allies, and unarmed, but it was fine. She’d done this before. Lifting her hand, she knocked on the door. “Hey, it’s Autumn. You got a minute?”
  13. “Hard pass.” Autumn laughed, shaking her head and rolling her eyes briefly skyward. Even if Devin was kind of obnoxious, and even if there was still some lingering resentment which hadn't entirely been erased by a week of borderline decency on his part, it was hard to deny that his awful jokes could occasionally be the perfect distraction. It was almost as if the awkwardness he created somehow canceled out the ambient awkwardness of the situation for a minute and left her free to think about something besides the events of the day. ...And, she had to admit, that was a welcome bit of mental interference. “Honestly, I don’t even think I have any yoga pants, and I wouldn’t even know where to start, anyway. Coming by to try some of the other stuff out, though? Maybe, yeah,” she allowed, resting her forearms on the railing as she surveyed the impressive set-up. “The bars could be cool to learn, or at least it’d be interesting to see how they work. Might be fun to try some beginner tumbling, too. I’m kind of okay at cartwheels, but when I tried a walkover at camp year before last I ended up flat on my back.” Her nose crinkled slightly, freckled features scrunching into a rueful grimace at the memory of the troop leader's concern and the laughter of a half-dozen eight-year-olds. “I just couldn’t get my feet down fast enough," she admitted, her sun-warmed cheeks going pink in the late afternoon sun. "So, yeah, if somebody can show me how to avoid making that a repeat performance, I’m down." "That," he pointed towards her. "Is a flexibility and balance issue. I used to do the same thing, it just took some time and practice to build technique and confidence. If you’re interested, I'd be glad to go through the specifics with you. You're athletic, but that doesn't always equate to being limber, so don't get discouraged and you'll be fine. Some flexibility training, even if it’s not part of a yoga practice, would help with that." He sounded different as he spoke about his gymnastics capability and willingness to teach. His usual jokes and Devin-isms took a backseat to serious, open ended dialogue and appraisal. It appeared he was genuinely interested in teaching her... if only to get her into workout clothes, at the very least. The sound of the doorbell chimed through the house, and Marissa kept talking with everyone in the kitchen as though she couldn’t hear it; although she chatted mostly with Cade, it gave her a great excuse to force everyone else to listen to the sound of her voice. After a few more moments of the door not being answered Devin sighed, politely smiling at Autumn. "Excuse me a second." She nodded as he went, glancing briefly over her shoulder to peer through the patio door as he strolled back in and walked past everyone in the kitchen. "I'll get it," he said to his sister sarcastically, spreading his hands. "Please, don't trouble yourself." "Great, thanks!" Marissa shot back with a brilliant but patently artificial smile. "Thot," he muttered just loud enough for her to hear, rounding the corner while she made a face behind his back. Back on the patio, Autumn took a sip from the soda he'd given her, her expression going distant for a moment as she watched the shifting patterns of light scattered across the surface of the swimming pool. The Jauntsens had everything, at a glance, didn't they? A huge home, a refrigerator that could probably do their homework, new cars, specialized exercise equipment, closets full of clothes. But they didn't have dogs, or a little vegetable garden, or a half-built tree house, or the perfect camp site. Was it worth it, she wondered, to have everything and nothing? Was that enough for them? And with that, she was right back to thinking about Marissa, and Enterich, and the marshals, and all the frustrating moral quandaries in which they were currently mired. Sighing, she realized the person ringing the doorbell had to be the last of their number to arrive, so she turned from the potential distractions in the yard and headed back into the kitchen just as Cassie was finishing her apology. “It’s fine. Might as well get started, yeah,” she agreed, gently bumping Jase with her hip as she passed. Setting her half-full soda on the counter, Autumn planted her hands on the edge and hopped up on the island a little further down from Kat, offering the waifish French girl a friendly smile.
  14. The sharp bite of the icy Coke on Autumn's tongue was a satisfying- if fleeting- distraction from the shop-talk and theorizing... which was, she felt, also largely a distraction from the gorgeous brunette elephant in the room. Cassie had said that Marissa was being defensive about whatever they'd discussed, and meeting here was her idea, so it wasn't like she was unaware of the situation. And yet, here she was, casually chatting about Homecoming and makeovers and everything else as if they'd just decided to have a group study session or something, and it was a totally normal day . What the actual fuck? It didn't make sense. Granted, a lot of things in life didn't make much sense lately, but "supernatural crazy" and "regular crazy" were different things. How the hell is she so calm? I mean, seriously. I'm not even the one in trouble here and I'm more nervous than she is. Jesus. Listening to Marissa, it was like nothing that had happened even mattered to her. Maybe, Autumn realized with a pang of uneasiness, it actually didn't. Even if, by chance, Enterich had used her, she could still be writing her name on that dotted line one letter at a time, walking into the Dark with her eyes wide open. "Sorry," she admitted. "Was kind of lost in thought there for a minute. It's been a day, you know? Anyway, I guess... We can talk about the dress thing later." It's always "later," isn't it? Exhaling as her fingertips drummed a soft metallic cadence on the side of the frosty aluminum can, Autumn glanced toward the rear of the house, and then back at the others. Kat probably had no clue what this was about. Sean should, but it was hard to tell. Jason could be a blank slate with enviable ease, Devin probably knew but didn't care, and Marissa... Well, who the hell knew what she was thinking? Everyone else seemed totally chill, totally fine, but standing there in the dining room the restive redhead felt like she was being slowly strangled by frustration and nerves. Suddenly, fresh air and a walk sounded like an amazing idea. "Hey, Devin? Think you could show me the backyard? I kind of want to see the equipment and stuff you talked about on Sunday."
  15. Around 1630, Marias Medical Center. She wasn't sure how much time had passed. She hovered for awhile in that iridescent scarlet and gold expanse, tugged both towards and, more powerfully, away from the far distant edge of All Things... or something like that, she mused, then realised that there was a consciousness with which to muse, and that with that realisation noise and sensation came back to her. "...hrist almighty - she's..." Dale's voice, fading in and out, sounding like Autumn's ears were underwater. "...pecial, yes." Etienne's voice, coming from closer by. "...at's wrong... do that?" "I don't know." Someone had picked her up and sat her in the chair once more, Autumn realised as sight returned, blurry at first but then sharpening. Hands were on her shoulders, steadying her, and Etienne's worried face filled her vision. It wasn't the worst thing to wake up to - provided you didn't know the handsome spy's history. Beyond his shoulder she could see Dale, staring at and flexing her healed hands inside the clear plastic protective sheaths. "I think she's coming out of it." Etienne sounded relieved, standing up but keeping a hand on Autumn's shoulder in case she slumped over again. Dale's eyes were wide with both wonder and shock as she glanced from her hands to Autumn. "What are you people?" she asked wonderingly, fearfully. "Tired." Autumn murmured. "And also no longer any of your concern." Etienne added firmly. There was a sound of footsteps as two men in orderly scrubs - but with shoulders and a manner that suggested otherwise - came into view and began unhooking various monitors from Dale. "You're going to join your friend. After which..." he shrugged. "About the only thing I can predict is that you'll not go to a regular prison, nor be executed. We certainly can't have you running around knowing what you know." Dale opened her mouth to protest, but shut it again, her face paling somewhat as her situation sank in. The orderlies, finished with the unhooking and preparation, made ready to wheel her away. Etienne's hand was still on Autumn's shoulder as he leaned down and spoke to her. "Are you okay, Ms Keane? Do you need anything?" "Water, please," she husked, nodding carefully as her equilibrium slowly returned. Jesus, I hope I never have to do that again. Did it work, at least? "Just. Something to drink, yeah." The attractive twenty-something agent glanced at one of the orderlies, who likewise nodded and excused himself while the others adjusted the casters on the bed. It was hard to tell through the clear protective cases, but... it did look like there was movement. That was a good sign. Even her thoughts felt lethargic as she sat there; the tickle of sweat-sticky hair glued to her neck pricked annoyingly at her awareness, but she couldn't quite rouse herself to do anything about it, and so she just stared straight ahead at the woman in front of her. She'd need physical therapy, for sure, although that was way better than the alternative. What would it be like to have new hands? she wondered. Are they a different color, now, since they have brand new skin? Does she have, like, those really thin, sharp fingernails like babies, or normal grown-up ones? Are her fingerprints the same as they used to be? Or... Does she even have fingerprints at all, now? Maybe she'd ask later, at the Not-A-PTA-Meeting meeting. Leaning back in the hard plastic chair, Autumn let her head rest against the wall behind her as she watched the hospital staff go about their work. She licked her lips, wondering how far the nearest drinking fountain was. "Hey. Uh. Miss Dale." The dazed marshal turned her head, exhausted and uncertain of her future. "Don't know if this'll make you feel better or worse, but you didn't kill him. I'm not saying you're forgiven for trying, or that you didn't earn every bit of this. But at least you're not an actual murderer." "He's still alive?" Dale's attention was taken away from her new hands at that, her head jerking as she looked at Autumn in shock for a moment before understanding dawned. "Guess you did that, too." she sighed, nodding acceptance of the situation, her expression neutral. "Not sure whether I feel better or worse either, kid." she murmured, her mouth quirking wryly. "On the one hand - I'm still a murderer. On the other, at least there's not a teenage body on my tally." She sighed again, her eyes on Autumn as the orderlies wheeled her bed out. "Thanks, anyway." she said by way of farewell. Etienne reappeared next to the exhausted redhead then, holding out a bottle of water and a candy bar. "You look beat." he told Autumn quietly as she accepted the offered items with a wan smile of thanks. There wasn't much to say to that, so instead she swallowed a couple of mouthfuls from the bottle then tore open the candy wrapper and ate in silence. It likely wasn't enough - she could feel through her heightened awareness of her body that she'd need something more substantial, and soon. But it'd do for now. Perhaps Jase would swing past McDonalds or something on the way to the meeting at the Jauntsens, the thought of which was good for a mental Ugh! This day was stretching out too much. Just get through the day, Autumn promised herself. Get through the crazy, and then go up to her treehouse and watch the stars and light up a joint. Maybe invite Jase over to share it with. Yeah. Cuddling and a smoke - she could go for that right now. After food, anyway. Autumn chewed the last bite of caramel and peanuts quickly as the awkwardness of sitting in an empty ICU room with a gigolo-spy-turned-maybe-good-guy outgrew her diminished tolerance. It would've been easier if they'd sent someone else, someone she either knew better, or not at all. As it was, her passing familiarity with Etienne meant that it felt wrong not to make some attempt at conversation, but didn't actually leave her much to talk about except how gross she thought his relationship with Clara had been. But Clara was gone, and Canada might as well be another planet. A thought flickered through her mind for just an instant, then, as she set the water bottle on the floor: that there had been other members of the nascent Fellowship, like Clara, who might have to cope with something like this on their own. But... She couldn't do anything about it, could she? She could do something about, Sophia though. About Dale. About the treehouse that needed finishing and questioning potential accomplices to a murder attempt, and about Homecoming and learning to skateboard and driving Jase's car. She licked a smear of melted chocolate from her thumb before slipping the phone from her pocket and tapping out a quick text. [Hey. Business is all done. You still available?] "So, is this a probationary thing for you, or did they give you a job, or what?" the spent high-schooler asked finally, crumpling the empty wrapper in her free hand with a muffled crackle of plastic. Glancing up at her observer, she balanced the edge of the phone case on her thigh, see-sawing it back and forth out of habit until even that felt like too much effort. "Probationary." He gave her a wry shrug. "In view of my attempted change of heart which landed me in Site C, Ms. Giles is giving me a chance to be useful." She nodded, and it occurred to her that his last comment to the marshal applied to him, as well. "Mm. I guess that makes sense." And it did. ...And then nothing. She had nothing else to say. It felt weird to talk about what had just happened, especially knowing he was there to keep an eye on her, and it felt weird to say nothing at all. There was another minute or so of uncomfortable silence before her phone vibrated softly and Autumn flipped it over with an audible sigh of relief. In keeping with Jase's usual level of efficiency, he'd used the minimum number of words to reply- //"On my way"// -but it might as well have been a sonnet. Oh, thank god. A slow smile warmed the soft sea-blue of Autumn's eyes as she re-read the text. If Jase had been there in person, she'd have kissed him. Difficult conversations notwithstanding- because they were going to happen, and hopefully sooner rather than later- she probably would kiss him anyway, when she saw him again. Her thumbs moved quickly over the screen, accompanied by the faint crinkle of the candy wrapper. [You = the actual best. I'll be outside by the main entrance.] "Okay," she announced, leaning down to grab the cap of the water bottle. "My ride's on the way, so... Yeah." Exhaling, the redhead slowly, cautiously got to her feet, making sure she was steady before hazarding a step forward. "Good luck with the, um. You know. The job and everything." "Such as it is." Etienne smiled self-deprecatingly as he accompanied her from the room. Autumn half-worried that he was going to walk her all the way out, but the Project agent turned down a different side corridor with a discreet farewell wave. With a sigh of relief, the fire-haired teen navigated her way out of the Marias Medical Maze a lot more easily than she'd plumbed its secrets. She'd saved lives, altered lives, taken lives, and all in one day, she reflected as stared thoughtfully just ahead of her shoes. Saved Jase, arguably saved the marshals from Jase, and saved Sophia, in a way. She had altered the course of Dale's life. She had excised the horror that had been growing inside Sophia. None of those things would have been probable, if not possible, without her. Had she left things better than they would otherwise have been? It was hard to see how she hadn't, even if there might still have been more ideal outcomes than these. She emerged into bright sunshine and blinked her wide blue eyes as she looked about her, moving to sit on a stone bench to one side of the main entrance. Checking her texts caused her to smile at Jason's reply and shoot off a response of her own. Idly shuffling her feet on the paving, lost in thought, she didn't register the sullen grumble of the Charger until she heard a door opening not too far from her and heard a voice call to her. "I got a text: Someone wanted to look hot riding shotgun?" Snapping her head up, she met the pale green eyes and faint smile from the Black Beast's driver through the open passenger-side door. "Only until I learn to drive it," Autumn retorted, grinning despite the bright flush slowly blooming in her cheeks as she swept the half-full bottle of water from the bench and rose. It was good to see him, she realized. Not just in a casual, hey-there's-someone-I-know way, but in a way that made that little almost-smile (the kind of thing she'd never have noticed if she didn't know how to look for it) totally worth dealing with everything else that was going on. How to Speak Bannon was still a work in progress, sure, but not everything demanded an immediate explanation; sometimes there were more effective ways of communicating than just talking. Settling into the passenger seat a moment later, she tugged the door closed and, instead of going through the motions of putting on the safety belt, turned. "Hey," she murmured, still smiling as she shifted to face her perplexing and dangerous and utterly impossible boyfriend. Before any further greetings or replies or banter could be exchanged, the lithe redhead's arms slid over Jason's shoulders, her fingers gliding through the dark hair at the back of his head. Leaning over the gear shift she pressed her lips to his in a slow, searching kiss, hmmming with delight at the brush of his palm across her cheek. Whatever this feeling was, this whiskey-sweet warmth he could spark with nothing more than a touch- "pheromones," or simple chemistry, or something less quantifiable- it was hard to deny how incredibly addictive it was becoming. "Missed you." The words were a whisper, if that, a half-conscious exhalation just before her teeth grazed his lower lip, followed by a teasing flick of her tongue. She was aware, somewhere in the back of her mind, that they were in the front of his car, in front of a busy hospital, but that mattered less than the fact that he was right there, his breath on her skin, and the steady rhythm of his heart against her chest. Missed you, she'd said. Rather, she'd breathed those words into him as their lips met, as though the exhalation had carried the words unbidden from within her. She'd missed him - not some abstraction of him, not some fanciful imagining of him. Him. And Jase was profoundly rocked by the realisation that he, too, had missed her for the scant few hours they'd been apart, in defiance of common logic and reason, knowing that he'd see her again soon: he'd still missed her. And even as the Mandelbrot of his experience with Autumn opened and unfurled yet another vista for Jason Bannon to consider, there was the caress of her tongue on his lip, and the feel of her heated cheek under his palm, and the sweetness of her lips just millimetres from his own... Kissing her wasn't so much a conscious action as it was an act as natural and necessary as drawing breath. Their lips met, her hands tightening in his hair as the gentle exploratory brush of lips became a deeper, more passionate give and take. He was aware of the pleased 'Mmm' from her, the scent of her warm hair, and the way she pressed her body against his without fear or self-consciousness. How long the kiss lasted was hard to say, but it broke eventually, the two of them leaning together, foreheads touching as they searched each other's desire-darkened eyes. "I wish we didn't have anything to do for a few hours." Autumn confessed, her fingers playing delightfully with the strands of his hair over his ear. "So do I." Jase replied honestly. "Yet we do." With a sigh that was as heartfelt as it was shared, the two parted a little, Autumn strapping herself in as Jase put the Charger in gear. "To be continued." he said with a sideways smile at her. "Yeah." Autumn smiled back despite feeling somewhat grumpy that, yet again, there was something (allegedly) more important going on than the chemistry, the pheromones, the fwoosh. There shouldn't be, damn it. "How did it go?" Jason asked as he carefully pulled the Charger out of the parking lot. Glancing at her, he clarified. "If you want to discuss it, that is." That drew another sigh from her lips, one decidedly less rapturous than the last. Leaning back against the headrest, Autumn relaxed into the dull rumble of the engine, the faint thrum of movement that hummed through the car and into her bones. She really, really didn't feel like going to either of these meetings, especially not with the seductive growl of the Charger urging her to just close her eyes for a few moments, but maybe it'd go quickly. It was the best she could hope for at this point, since drama seemed destined to destroy every chance they had to relax. "It went okay. Better than I thought it would, but also not at all the way I thought it would," she admitted, one corner of her mouth curving upward in a rueful half-smile as they pulled out onto the road. "Checked on Sophia. She's..." The drowsy girl considered, for a moment, what he might consider relevant. "Recovering. Physically, she's fine, but she remembers too much, I think, to ever go back to the way she was. She went through a lot." Her voice trailed off, wide eyes reflecting the distant blue of the sky as she remembered the way the brunette's hand had shaken during her recounting of that hellish nightmare. "Dale," she began again, quickly changing the subject, "is a whole other thing. So, I may have... sort of... let her think you were dead," Autumn admitted grudgingly, a guilty flush suffusing her features. "And she told me about Enterich, too, stuff Cassie didn’t know: that he's apparently really influential, plays people like a game of chess, manipulates them and uses things they’ve done against them later. He’s also connected to Crossroads somehow, and some local developers who worked on the prison, and apparently he brought in Marissa after he got a call about the break-in there last week. So he could also have something to do with that Dr. Klein guy who was running the experiments there, maybe, since he was the one who had Etienne when we went to get him. I don’t know, it just seems like a weird coincidence.” She took a deep breath, carefully weighing how much more to tell the inscrutable genius sitting next to her. If he still had feelings for Marissa- and it was hard to imagine that he didn’t- the idea that she could potentially be a traitor would have to be even harder for him to deal with than it was for the rest of them. Maybe not bringing up the fact that she got paid a hundred fucking grand to give Enterich a file that resulted in the attempt on his life was the better option for now. She could always mention it later, if it seemed relevant, right? No point making things any worse, and besides, there was always the chance that her first new friend in ages would have a really great, totally rational explanation for everything. “Anyway, she said he told them- the marshals- you were telekinetic, but not about the other things you can do. And there’s something else about the situation with Dale that I want to throw on the table, next time you and I get to sit down and talk for a while, but not today. Honestly, today I just want to go to these stupid meetings with you, and drag you off somewhere to get high AF and be irresponsible for a couple of hours." Huffing softly in frustration, Autumn reached up to tuck a rogue curl behind her ear. "Anyway, the marshal's doing okay, probably. I gave her her hands back." There was a note of quiet pride in her tone, a hint of awe in the little smile that bowed her lips. "Like real, brand-new, working hands. I did that." He’d listened silently as she’d relayed the fruits of her talk with Dale, his expression neutral, his manner relaxed as he drove the car. Her admission that she’d let the renegade marshal believe him dead elicited a small nod - an acknowledgement, a sign of approval, or both: it was hard to tell. Otherwise, the only reactions were a slight narrowing of the eyes, an air of focus as she told him about Enterich. When she finished, he was silent for a moment or two before speaking. “So if he brought in Marissa - and possibly paid her off with whatever was in the duffel - that could also mean he has something on her.” Jason said softly. “And used that to pull her in. The payoff… the payoff was simply to ensnare her further, perhaps. Carrot and stick. A connection to Crossroads - it makes sense that he would start to target us. Obviously he - and those he’s working for - want the team that tore apart their facility neutralised. Probably before we can go after Site B.” He tapped the edges of the steering wheel absently, then glanced at the girl in the passenger seat. Jase thought for a few moments, his eyes following the road as he mulled over the other import of Autumn's words. First and foremost, of course, was the fact that she could grow limbs back from pretty much stumps "That’s something we should probably address once we’ve discovered the depths of Marissa’s involvement. For now, I admit, I’m more intrigued by the fact that you regrew limbs. That's impressive." he said, glancing her way. "It's an incredibly complex biological machine - bone, tendon, muscle and nerves, not to mention the skin. Being able to repair it is something, but being able to regrow parts is amazing." He pondered her other statement - that she wanted to throw something about Dale onto the table next time they continued their Conversation. That implied something about her reaction to what he'd done to the woman who'd tried to kill him. He worked that around in his head some as they drove: plainly, she wasn't outright rejecting him over that - more likely, she simply wanted to understand his logic. Which was simple enough - he wanted to punish Dale and terrify Marshall, to cut loose and cause pain to those who'd dared to hurt him. His sparing of Dale at the last minute was as much due to his wavering consciousness as it was to a change of heart - he didn't have the resources to wait until she'd slowly burned to death whilst Marshall watched. Which took his thoughts down another line. Was he a sadist for taking satisfaction in the terror and pain of his enemies? Probably, at least by some people's definitions. It wasn't a sexual pleasure, or an obsession with the causing of pain. He didn't enjoy the suffering of those who had done him no harm and actively sought to prevent or avenge the suffering of friends. So: a sadist? Or was it simply his instinct being satisfied - enemies should suffer and know fear, should be dominated, or else die. He filed that away into another part of his mind for continued examination. "I wonder - did your Shine seem to know what needed to be done, to rebuild such delicate machines?" he asked Autumn, a note of curiousity in his voice. "How did you observe the experience of healing her?" "Hmmm." She rolled that around in her mind as they drove, trying to piece together a description that both matched her experience and was semi-coherent when she strung the words together. "You know how they say people who've lost a hand- or a leg, or whatever- sometimes still feel it? Like, it's still attached somehow. ‘Phantom limb,’ I think it's called. Well, in a way, maybe it is still there." Turning to watch Jase's profile for a moment, Autumn tipped the water bottle back and forth in her hand, the contents softly sloshing while she thought. What was the word he used for their powers? The scientific term. "Or... More like, the body has a memory of it being there, remembers where it was and how it was shaped, how all those pieces fit together. Sort of like a-” Noetic? Was it noetic? That sounds right. “A noetic blueprint, or something. I could see that, with Dale," she explained, unconsciously flexing her fingers in imitation of that phantasmal framework. "I didn't need to really guess or try to figure it out on my own, because her pattern was already there. I just needed to follow it. It was..." Her smile broadened a little as she returned her attention to the road ahead. "It was incredible. Totally draining, but also worth it just to know that I could do it, you know?" And just as quickly as she'd turned away, she was shifting in the seat to look at him again, her eyes intent. "Okay, so, I was thinking about this, and I didn't get to ask her before they hauled her off to the basement, or wherever. So I wanna hear what you think, and then we can bug Annette or somebody to find out. She's got new hands, right? Do you think she has the same fingerprints? Does she need to learn to use them again, through physical therapy and practice? Or are they just copies of the hands and arms she had before, with the same manual dexterity and skin texture and everything? Because it wasn't all just lumps of scar tissue, right? But it's driving me crazy that I don't know if they're really new, or just duplicates of what she already had, because those are really different things." "If you are working from an existing template - that blueprint you mentioned - then her fingerprints should in theory be exactly the same - minus any callouses or scars that she had there." Jason answered after a few seconds to think. "Our DNA carries the blueprints for all inherent details of our bodies - which is what it sounds like you were accessing to rebuild her hands. Individual DNA will determine a person's fingerprint from that template." He steered the car past some lights and turned onto the road leading to the Jauntsen house, idly musing on the fact that he'd only last week first visited the place as he turned his mind back to her question. "So I'd say that the hands are both new, because they lack the wear of her life to date, and also duplicates, because they are using the same template as before. Fresh duplicates, perhaps should be the label. As for the other questions..." He pondered. "They won't be any stronger or more dexterous than the template allows, though again, any weakness or lack of mobility from wounds or tendon damage would be reset. Learning to use them again... I doubt she even had time to adjust to the fact she lost them." He glanced at Autumn, his cold green eyes glinting gold in the reflecting sunlight from outside the car. "I would think any rehabilitation would be swift - they are her hands, after all. If there's any adjustment period needed at all." "More interestingly even than that - could you enhance someone's natural template? We know you can regrow tissue. You can boost a person's natural healing - probably a manipulation of blood cells to increase clotting and repair. You can even repair damage to the brain." He glanced her way again, his words calling her attention to the faint line of the scar against the darker skin of his cheek. "So... can you enhance other biological functions? Can you make someone stronger, or taller, or alter that blueprint you mentioned?" "I... think so," she replied carefully. "I remember getting the feeling when I helped you after the fight that I could probably have pushed a little farther, not just healed you but made improvements. I did it to Devin, just a little, when we went into the prison. Made him a little bit tougher. It’s something we’d have to test, for sure." Autumn thought about the other part, whether she could make more dramatic changes, as she watched the power lines roll by through the driver's side window behind him- Oh, damn it, I totally forgot to ask about food! "Crap, I'm sorry, I got carried away talking- is there any way you could hit a drive thru before we go? This meeting is not gonna go well if I walk in hangry, and I'm absolutely starving. Etienne gave me a candy bar earlier but-" She paused, backtracking mentally for a moment. Context, Autumn. "Sorry. I guess they've got him working there now, since they can't just let him walk out knowing about all this. They had him babysitting me while I was with Dale. Anyway, yes. Food, please? When I said it was a draining experience, it really was. I feel like I haven't eaten all day." "Sure." Jase thought for a second, then turned right instead of left at the next junction. A few more turns put the Charger in the drive-thru lane of a McDonalds. Burgers, fries, and a few sundries were swiftly ordered and paid for and then the teens were back on the road again, Autumn already working her way through a double cheeseburger with occasional happy hmm-ing sounds as her boyfriend steered the gleaming black car back into traffic and helped himself to fries. "I think we could probably do some experiments with plants again - see if you can change the color of a rose or alter the growth parameters of an orchid, for instance." Jase suggested, glancing at the copper-haired girl beside him. Autumn, her mouth full, simply nodded, blue eyes communicating her own curiosity about her capabilities. "Sorry... mmf." she said, swallowing. "Yeah. That's a good idea." "If you can alter the genetics of plants, that just by itself has huge potential." Jase went on. "Disease-resistant crops. New pharmaceutical properties engineered into existing plants." His eyes were on the road, narrowing as he considered the possibilities. "Even plants that can grow in hostile, toxic environments, turning the toxicity harmless, for example. Just as a possibility: imagine a strain of grass that uses radiation as part of its photosynthesis and renders it harmless. You could potentially reclaim poisoned land like Chernobyl." His lips twitched in a rare smile as he looked at her. "By the way, that would officially make you more amazing than me." And just like that, she went from thinking about future explorations of the limits and scope of her abilities to the here-and-now immediacy of being teased by her boyfriend. Stifling a snort of laughter, Autumn covered her mouth with the back of her hand as she shook her head. It took the Titian-tressed girl a moment to finish chewing and swallowing before she could elaborate on that mute denial, even as her face reddened slightly beneath his gaze. "Hm-mm. That would make what I do more amazing, maybe." Taking a sip from the large cup of soda they were sharing, she pretended to give the matter serious consideration- more serious, even, than the possibility of restoring the environment from catastrophe- with a dramatically furrowed brow and pursed lips. "Amazing is something that you are, after all, not something you do," she intoned, the corners of her mouth twitching as she looked down at the remainder of her sandwich, the trees out the window, the drink between her knees, anywhere but directly at him, and tried desperately not to grin. "It's just part of you, you know? Genetic, maybe. Like being tall, or having really gorgeous eyes or giving really good hugs. You can't help it. It's how you were born." She shrugged, casting him a sidelong glance as the smile that threatened to surface on her lips sparkled instead in her eyes. "Amazing and impossible." "Ugh." Jase pantomimed rolling those aforementioned gorgeous eyes, glancing at her with that shimmering witchfire of humour in the jade depths as he plucked the drink from between her legs and took a sip before dramatically proclaiming, "Fine, you win this round." Autumn giggled, the laughter welling up from her stomach, thankful this time that he hadn't waited for her to take a bite of her sandwich. Of all the things, Jason Bannon mimicking a sixteen year old girl - namely her - pouting was just the right combination of surreal and observation comedy. "You said it wrong." she told him fondly, reaching over and trailing her fingers through the ends of his hair where they brushed his collar. She wondered idly if he'd ever cut it, or how long he'd grow it. Then she snatched the drink cup back and grinned, her cheeks reddening under the bronze dusting of freckles, as she took a sip. "I did?" "Yep. You said 'ugh'. It's 'ugh'." she informed the Impossible One, trying not to look into the glitter of his gaze as she studied his cheekbones, his nose, his lips... "More a sound of disgust than a word. Good work on the 'fine' though." she added airily, with the manner of an old hand imparting wisdom and encouragement. She took a bite of her sandwich, conscious that the iridescence of his gaze was on her now, and determined to finish her meal rather than get lost in his stare again. Plenty of time for that later, she told herself, aware of a nagging twinge of something in her chest at the word 'later'. Very faint, just an echo of the pang she'd felt this morning when she'd seen him lying on the road, covered in his blood... But he was fine, now. Just fine. "I'll bear that in mind." he said in a grave manner belied by the twitch of his lips as he went back to driving, now and then reaching for a handful of fries. Too soon, it seemed, they pulled into the driveway leading up to the Jauntsen house. "Looks like at least one of them is here." Jase noted as he took in Sean’s vehicle. His tone was back to being neutral, Autumn realised, glancing at him once more and seeing the warm humour and flirtation of just a few moments ago gone, locked behind an air of calculated wariness. "Mhmm." She watched him for a moment longer, wondering not for the first time at the abruptness of his changing mood. Or was it maybe closer to a mindset than a mood? A switch in his head he could turn off and on at will. Of course it would be totally normal for him, if so, but... what a weird concept it was for his average sixteen-year-old girlfriend with her average human brain. Was it unique to him, to Jason Effing Bannon, a conscious part of his efforts to interact with the people around him, or was it part of his genetic makeup, engraved into his DNA as a survival mechanism by whomever (or whatever) designed his species? Like so many other things she wanted to ask him, though, it would have to wait. For now, at least. There were a few questions she felt pretty sure she could get away with, though, prolonging the moments of calm before the storm, and as they got out of the car, gazing at the sizeable home across the immaculate lawn, Autumn came up alongside him. "Hey, are you really okay?" she inquired, peering up at him and squinting slightly at the brightness of the sky above his head. "No trouble breathing, or fuzzy memories, or anything like that?" He turned to face her at the question, and as the cold emerald of gaze met her cerulean blue eyes once more the frost melted from his manner and, at least for a fleeting moment, his gaze was warm - and warming. The scar along his cheek, so stark and forbidding when his eyes were cold and his face was blank, seemed more rakish as his lips twitched and the corners of his eyes crinkled in a smile. "No." he said after a moment of reflection, his eyes still on hers. "I feel fine. I even remember fading in and out of consciousness, Devin talking to me before you got there, keeping me alive." He glanced at the house at that, his gaze more reflective than wary in that moment, then back at Autumn. "I am... reluctant to confront the possibility I have an enemy in that house." he said very softly, in the manner of one admitting a failing. "I do not enjoy the consideration of what that will mean. Of what that will require of me." Autumn's eyes widened slightly as the shock of his response set in. It wasn't so much that he'd confessed to having reservations about the potential outcome of the meeting, or even that he'd thought about the possible consequences, the actions he'd take to survive if things went completely sideways. After the events of the day, events which nearly fucking killed him, that level of pragmatic mental preparation was absolutely to be expected- especially from Jase. But this reluctance to admit someone he trusted might want to hurt him was definitely not. At least, not given what she knew of him so far; even knowing how those pale eyes could smoulder with a primal inner fire, or that when he really smiled there was a hint of dimple in his cheeks, it was impossible to ignore his acerbic wit and frosty, incisive intellect. He seemed so damned clinical most of the time, so matter-of-fact about things like killing the marshals, it was hard to imagine him having second thoughts. And yet, the very fact that it was such an unusual demonstration of vulnerability from someone who could hardly be called "vulnerable" tugged wrenchingly at the expressive young woman's heartstrings. There was that twinge, again, that faint ache in her chest that demanded movement, demanded that she do something. Almost before she realized it Autumn was stepping forward, slipping her arms around Jason's waist until the full length of her body was pressed against his, her ear against the muted drum of his heart. She hugged him tightly, fiercely, her fingers curling into fists in the back of his shirt, and as she did the athletic redhead felt the echo of that contact through her Shine, that soft, crystalline hum just beyond the threshold of hearing as her awareness resonated in some intangible way with his own. "What can I say that'd help right now?" she asked quietly, closing her eyes at the feeling of his lean arms encircling her. "Because I really want to, but I have no idea how to do it." He held Autumn close, feeling that vibrancy, that warm scarlet and gold that was her Shine as it wrapped around him much as the feel and scent of her hair enfolded his senses as he rested his cheek against the top of her head. And as he did so, Jase considered his own actions. A week ago, he'd have walked into the meeting without expressing any misgivings to anyone. He'd have still experienced them, but would not have shared what was going on behind the mask of his expression. A week ago, though, he hadn't been close to someone the way he was close to the lithe redhead pressing herself against him, holding him close with fierce gentleness. So much had changed in such a short time, it seemed. "You're doing it." he murmured, his lips moving against an errant curl of copper hair. "You've been doing it, ever since you cycled up to my home to ask for your hoodie back. Even if we weren't dating, even if you didn't light a fire in my blood, there's still no-one I'd rather walk in there with." He looked down into her wide blue eyes as she lifted her head from his chest and stared up at him, his own expression grave as he lowered his face to hers, stopping barely half an inch from her mouth. "Thank you." he whispered, his breath warm on her cheek before he brushed his lips firmly against hers in a lingering kiss. Coming from anyone else- or in most other circumstances- Jason’s somber, semi-dramatic declaration and the formality of its delivery would have demanded some sort of light-hearted, teasing response. In this case, however, Autumn just couldn’t bring herself to laugh, even if only to lighten the mood: in part because the portion of her brain normally responsible for coherent thought was largely focused on the warmth of his kiss and the faint scent of tobacco from his shirt, and in part because if the last week of talking to the detached genius had shown her anything, it was that in that moment he was utterly serious. And that was… a lot to think about on a day when there was already a lot to think about. “Same,” she replied with a sigh, reluctantly pulling away and wondering, briefly, what it said about her that she hadn’t run for the hills yet. “And, anytime. Seriously. You don’t have to thank me for doing something I want to do, though.” Smoothing the wrinkles she’d created on Jase’s shirt, Autumn released him with a quick, uncertain smile, then reached up and tugged the elastic band from her hair, freckled fingers weaving the uncooperative mane into a more manageable braid as they moved side-by-side up the pristine walkway. “You guys are lucky,” Devin announced with a smirk as he waved them inside, opening the door to greet them. “I was this close to turning the sprinklers on. Come on in.” The house was just as Insta-worthy as she remembered from the last time she was here, a week and forever ago. Only then it’d been as someone hoping to make a friend, and now… Taking a deep breath, the redhead steeled herself as she followed the more gregarious Jauntsen twin into the dining room where the others were gathering. Now she was just hoping not to lose one. “Hey,” she offered in greeting, her lips thinning out into a smile. “Sorry I’m late. I had a couple of things to take care of.”
  16. Just before 4pm, Marias Medical Center. Normally, the fact that it took Autumn longer to walk to the hospital than it would have to bike there would not be considered an advantage of any kind; at the very least, it was demonstrably less efficient. Normally, of course, she would also have had her bike, and it wouldn't have mattered. Since that wasn't the case, however, the endlessly energetic redhead decided to use the extra time as an opportunity to clear her head, to break the inertia of her mood through forward physical movement and put sneakers to pavement. It wasn't really all that far from the grounds of the high school to the medical center, anyway, and contrary to the interpersonal storms looming on the horizon, the late summer sky was bright and clear. It was a good day for a walk, if nothing else, a good day to stretch her legs and her brain and shake off some of the awkwardness involved in deliberately not talking to Marissa all afternoon. Serious conversations were off the table until later, after all, and there was no way Autumn could just talk to her about Homecoming or french fries or whatever as if nothing had happened. A whole fucking lot had happened, and while there wasn't much she could do about most of it... Maybe this would be different. Possibly. Probably. She hoped. So it was that she arrived at the massive, state-of-the-art medical facility for the second time that day, in slightly better spirits and considerably dustier shoes. The place was still, as always, a maze to her, the gleaming hallways seemingly identical and perhaps intentionally designed to be confusing, but at least for now there was no particular urgency to her wandering, and it didn't take long to get from the patient intake desk to the main one a little further on. Okay. Taking a deep breath, Autumn made a half-hearted attempt to smooth back the rogue strands that had escaped her ponytail as she approached the nurse's desk. Fingers crossed. "Hi," she began, smiling at the petite older woman on duty. She looked to be in her fifties, maybe? Not un-pretty, though, which seemed weirdly standard for a tiny town in rural Montana. "I'm here to see a patient. I know I need to check in, but I'm not sure what room she's in. Can you help me?" "Who's the patient, honey?" The nurse asked she set down her mug, taking in the rambunctious curls and large blue eyes with an answering smile. "Sophia Fingleman?" Autumn tucked her hands in her back pockets as the nurse nodded, clucking sympathetically as she checked her register. "Poor girl... ah, yes. She's in room 114. You'll need to sign the visitor's log." The nurse motioned to the book on the counter, then continued as Autumn quickly jotted down her name and the room number. "It's right down the main corridor, first left, and just along there on your right as you go down. Are you a friend from school?" "Yes ma'am, we go to school together," Autumn nodded, rocking back slightly on her heels as she glanced down the hall the nurse had described. They weren't friends, really, but she felt pretty sure it would be weird to point that out, under the circumstances. In fact, given how little they'd actually interacted over the years, it felt a little weird coming to visit Sophia at all. If I didn't know what happened to her, would I even be doing this? she wondered, but found no immediate answer. "I know she's probably tired, so I won't stay too long. Thank you for your help!" With another polite smile, the copper-tressed teen headed off in the direction of Sophia's room. It occurred to her, halfway down the main hall, that the Finglemans themselves might be there, and it took all of her resolve to keep walking rather than turn around and ask about the ICU. "Well, fuck," she sighed, hoping she didn't run into them. Or, at least, that they didn't ask a lot of super awkward questions if she did. Room 114 really was shockingly easy to find, given the bewildering layout of the place- it was almost as if the nurse's directions were some kind of magic spell or secret code that settled the labyrinth of hallways into a navigable configuration. At least she didn't have enough time to get nervous, or think too much about what she was going to say, because, honestly... She had no idea. The door was slightly ajar when she arrived, and although she couldn't hear any conversation through the narrow gap, Autumn hesitated briefly before knocking quietly on the frame. "Yes?" A quiet female voice answered the knock. Autumn wasn't certain whether she was disappointed or relieved at that, but regardless it was too late to run away now even if she'd wanted to. Taking a breath - It will be fine - she pushed the door open and stuck her head through. Sophia's bed was in a semi-upright position, allowing her to recline whilst not having to crane her neck to watch the TV - currently muted - or to speak to visitors. The room was a double, but the other bed was currently unoccupied, an also not-uncommon occurrence in Shelly's hospital, over-equipped and over-large as it was for the town. Shapeless in a hospital gown, and with an I.V in one arm, Sophia looked at the newcomer with a certain amount of curious surprise, though perhaps not as much astonishment as Autumn felt at seeing the room's other visitor. For seated on the edge of Sophia's bed, her hair an artificially dark red that complemented her tight sweater and scarlet lipstick, was Courtney. The two redheads stared at each other for a moment, each seemingly nonplussed at the sight of the other, until Sophia smiled wanly at her new visitor. "Heya, Autumn. Come on in. I... I was hoping some of you guys would stop by - while I was awake anyway. I heard that Devin looked in on me, but I was sleeping." The pale brunette seemed a little dopey, a sense of calm that Autumn instinctively sensed was chemical in origin permeating her mood. "Courtney was just telling me that you guys went through hell." She blinked a little, her eyes filling with tears. "Thank you." Well, fuck. This is awkward. Shifting her weight uncomfortably from one foot to another as she lingered in the doorway, Autumn considered for a moment how unpleasant this was likely to get. She'd been a little anxious about Sophia's parents being there, and how to deal with the barrage of questions they'd probably unload on her- because, obviously, she hadn't exactly prepared a list of answers ahead of time- but Courtney Adams was one of the last people the young vitakinetic had expected to see here. And, if she was honest, one of the last people she would have wanted to see. She still hadn't forgotten when the glamorous cheerleader had been Cook's pet, eagerly threatening to get more "hands on" if he'd just give the word, and part of her hoped, disagreeably, that she'd try it sometime. Nothing she'd done in the days since had exactly endeared her to the 'plain redhead of Shelly High,' either, but if Sean and Sophia could tolerate her after everything else... Eh. With a mental shrug, she pushed the lingering rancor to the back of her mind; that wasn't why she'd come. "Yeah," she nodded and slid into the room, a faint smile of her own answering that of the girl in the hospital bed. No matter what they'd been through, it'd only been a few minutes, at most. Sophia Fingleman had clearly been in there- with Not-Cody, and the Tree, and everything else- for way longer than that. "I mean, it wasn't the worst trip I've ever had, but I'm not in a hurry to do it again, if you feel me." The tomboyish redhead scanned the room, blue eyes alighting on an empty chair moments before she perched there herself, hands tucked under her thighs as she leaned forward to look the curvy brunette over more carefully, her vision overlaid suddenly with drifting currents of vital energy. "How are you feeling, anyway? And, sorry if I interrupted." "It was just catching up." Courtney smiled, looking back at Sophia, who nodded, giving both redheads a weak smile. "I'm..." The smile faded like mist, and Sophia looked down at her hands. "I'm supposed to say 'I'm fine', right? That's what my mom and dad want to hear. That I'm fine." she said in a small voice. Autumn could see the work she'd done last night, the soothing of the traumas both mental and physical, was still holding. But it was plain that Sophia, though perhaps not traumatised in the classic sense, still remembered far too much of what she had gone through. She looked up at Autumn, chin sticking out slightly as she firmed her jaw, trying not to cry. "They've got me on something to stop me freaking out. But I don't feel like I'm going to freak out. I just feel sad, and hurt, and not at all okay. And Charlie..." Her voice trailed off for a moment, and Courtney reached out and placed a hand atop of hers, the glamorous girl's dark eyes full of something that could only be... empathy. "I just want to cry my eyes out. But my mom was doing that in here last night, and then she started having hysterics when they talked about... you know, assault and stuff, and dad had to take her home, and I feel like if I start crying I won't stop." Sophia went on after a pause. And Autumn could see the emotional pain, the hurt that the memories caused even if the damage had been healed, like the aching of scars. And there was more there, something she'd perceived last night during the chaos. A tiny life pattern, part of Sophia's yet distinct. So tiny that only her Shine could tell for certain it was there at all. Autumn exhaled, the sound one of audible uncertainty as she nodded again. Whether they knew each other well or not, it was clear the girl had been through something awful, and a hard, tight knot of indecision constricted in the red-haired Girl Scout's chest. How many years of therapy would it take Sophia to recover? Would she ever really recover? And, for that matter, would any of them? Shifting forward slightly in her seat, Autumn rubbed her palms over the threadbare knees of her jeans. "I know that feeling. About the crying, I mean," she clarified quietly. "So, y'know. If you need to, just do it. Just cry until you can't anymore, because there's no reason you should be fine right now. And-" Autumn hesitated, compassion warring with courtesy as her freckled features scrunched slightly in a grimace. She was supposed to say that it'd be fine, that it was over, and all of that, but how could she tell someone else what she didn't really even believe herself? And knowing what she did about both the prevalence of the Weird and about Sophia's situation in particular, just thinking about saying it felt weirdly empty, even if she could have made up some Hallmark card inspirational stuff. "...And, honestly, it's probably not going to start getting better right away, so I think if it helps to cry, or scream, or whatever to get it out, it's fine." Clear, expressive eyes narrowed fractionally in consideration as she weighed whether or not it was worth it to mention the reason for her visit, or if it would be better to come back another day- potentially without an audience. "It's better than trying to pretend things are okay when they're not." Sophia nodded, tears welling up in her eyes again. "He showed me Charlie." Her voice broke at the mention of the dead boy's name. "Forced me to look, like it... like it gave him a s-s-sick thrill seeing me cry. He said all kinds of horrible things and..." she looked at Autumn, her wide eyes filled questions as tears streamed down her pale cheeks. "It was the Dark, right? That's what made him do that stuff?" "Cody was always bad." Courtney said with conviction, tapping the side of her head again by way of illustration. "Most people think stuff they'd never do or say, right? A bitchy comment, a mean expression, kicking some asshole in the balls. Everyone does it, which fucked me up when my gift came along. I felt like everyone was two-faced, a hypocrite. I could read enough to see the contrast but not enough to provide all the context. I've only recently started, I don't know, finding my way back from that. After Cook, and finding out about the Fellowship, and so on." Her lips quirked slightly as she shrugged at both the other girls. "Anyway, Cody would absolutely do all the things he thought of unless he was convinced he'd get caught and punished for it. He wasn't just an awkward guy or on the spectrum - he got off on tormenting weaker creatures." Courtney frowned, her gaze distant. "At the time I thought he was just a useful mad dog so long as Chet or Devin could hold his leash. Boy, was I ever dumb. Point being, Sophia darling, Cody was a monster in the making before the Dark got him." The girl in the bed nodded, reaching for a tissue and blowing her nose, her eyes reddened from the tears that still flowed. "I... yeah, he was always sort of a creep, wasn't he?" she asked the other two rhetorically. Both redheads nodded, each with their own remembrances of Cody's actions over the years. "I kind of feel b-better talking about it with you guys. Is that fucked up? I mean, we've never been friendly, but..." she paused. "I feel like I can talk to you." "Friendly or not, we've all seen some shit. Kind of makes it easier when the people you're talking to don't automatically assume you're crazy, doesn't it?" Almost everyone, it seemed- or at least, everyone with two X chromosomes- had a story about Cody being that guy, but that was when he was still human. Sophia, however, was in a unique and definitely not enviable position. Well, yeah. Her new boyfriend got murked by a legit monster who dragged her off to Nightmare World and did god-knows-what to her, and now she's- "Sooo," Autumn drawled, cutting off that line of thought before it could develop fully. "Listen, um. I do need to talk to you about something. Specifically, I have to ask you something, but it's... complicated, I guess. I don't want to make this harder for you, so if you don't want to answer any questions about what happened, I totally get it. One hundred percent." The lively redhead spread her hands, palms forward, in a gesture of sincerity. "It's a massively fucked up situation. I just-" She paused, struggling with the desire to just ask what Cody had done to her and get it over with so they could move forward, and conversely to not fuck up Sophia's fragile mental state even more than it was already. "I want to help, but I'm really, really not good at this kind of stuff, and if I just ask the stupid question, I'm afraid it's gonna make everything worse. And... you've been through enough, so, yeah," she finished quietly. Her meaning was not lost on either of the other two, Courtney nodding silently in agreement with Autumn's last statement as she looked from her to Sophia. The brunette's pallor had increased a notch, but she seemed collected still as she considered the vibrant redhead in the frayed jeans. "People asked me the question." she said quietly, her fingers twisting in the blanket covering her lap. "That's when my mom freaked out, before I could answer. I guess they don't want to ask me without mom or dad present..." She took a long, quavering breath, then looked directly at Autumn, her jaw set. "The answer is 'yes'. That thing - Cody - he did..." Sophia swallowed her eyes looking up above Autumn's head now, unable to face the expressions of either of the other girls. "He raped me." she finished in a small voice. Her gaze dropped as she looked down at her fingers. "He raped me." she said again, more firmly, her eyes fixed on her hands. "I tried to fight him... But then he forced me to look in his eyes. I remember feeling like I was being squeezed - inside my own head. And I don't remember much after that. Just..." She clenched her fingers together, nails creasing the skin on her hands. "Just bits. Pictures. Like you guys, and how I was so, so hungry, and then pain, and then I woke up here." Jesus fucking Christ. It was the worst possible scenario, wasn't it? It took a moment for the initial shock to wear off, the surprise at how plainly Sophia had admitted what'd happened to her, and how Cody had overpowered her. Changed her, or corrupted her, or whatever. How openly she'd described how it felt, even though it was obviously difficult. Whether it was bravery that'd moved her to speak up, or the drugs lowering her inhibitions, or just a simple, desperate desire to be heard, there was no turning back now. Autumn exhaled a slow, steadying breath, then glanced surreptitiously at the lush-lipped bombshell on the other side of the bed before nodding at the distraught brunette. Courtney was being... not awful? Empathetic, even? It was almost as uncomfortable as this whole visit itself, but she was not about to complain. "All of this stays inside this room, then." Or at least as much inside this room as the Project's or Branch 9's or whoever's surveillance allows, she reminded herself. Fuck, fuck, fuck. As she leaned back in her chair, the soft tap tap tap of her sneakers on the polished floor was the only sound for a long moment. Now what? "Okay." Even white teeth worried visibly at the inside of her lower lip. "Okay," she repeated, as if in confirmation. It's fine, Autumn. It'll be fine. "So, like I said, I'm really bad at this, and if I say the wrong thing, I'm sorry." Inhaling, the flannel-clad redhead straightened again, silently willing the tension in her chest to unravel itself. "I mean, I'm sorry anyway, because that's not something anybody should have to deal with, and the fact that you got through it is amazing." There was no point telling the poor girl how they'd found her, she decided. This was going to be bad enough on its own. "One more question, though, and I promise I'll answer any you have." She paused briefly as Sophia, very tentatively, inclined her head in agreement. "Did you have sex with anybody else over the weekend?" Courtney stiffened slightly, her honey-brown eyes widening in sharp inquiry as she glanced at Autumn, causing the other redhead to wonder if Court was going to lift the information out of her mind. She narrowed her eyes at Courtney for a moment warningly, shaking her head very slightly, then looked back at Sophia, who was biting her lip. "Well... Charlie, before-" she stopped, closing her eyes tight against tears, then opened them, a rapid intake of breath accompanying a sudden realisation as she looked at Autumn. "Why are you asking?" Her voice was strained, a note of a quiver at the end of the question as she looked from Autumn to Courtney, then back at Autumn, a mute and fearful query in her gaze. "Why would you ask that?" she asked in the tone of one with a dreadful, inevitable suspicion. Autumn swallowed, closing her eyes as her lips compressed into a thin, pale line. It was a fair question. It was actually the only reasonable question, under the circumstances, and also the hardest one to answer. "Because," she began, pale fingers clutching at her knees to keep her hands still. Better to just be honest, right? Hopefully? "You know when we came to get you and Tawny, you were-" Briefest of hesitations. "You were hurt pretty badly. We kind of patched you up, and in the process I saw something." A sudden thought occurred to her, that Sophia might think other people knew if she did, and she shook her head vehemently, errant copper curls swaying around her face. "Nobody else knows, Sophia, I swear, and I'm sorry, I know this is a lot to put on you, but I thought it was important, and I didn't want you to find out when it was too late to do anything about it, if you wanted to, I mean, and-" Autumn. For fuck's sake, girl. Take a breath, or you're going to pass out before you tell her why you're here. Inhaling, she fixed her gaze on Sophia's wide-eyed, stricken expression, and counted to four. One. Two. Three- "And you're pregnant," she exhaled in a rush. "No." Sophia was already shaking her head, eyes wide in her pale face like dark wounds in her soul as she tried to process what she was hearing. "No. That's not right." she repeated through stiff lips. "It can't be right." Courtney reached over and placed her hand firmly over the brunette's twisting fingers, stilling them - and that stillness seemed to spread through Sophia like the opposite of a ripple in a pool. "It might be Charlie's." The glamorous redhead suggested softly. Sophia was still shaking her head as she moved her gaze to Courtney, no longer about to panic but far from 'okay'. "We used condoms." she near-whispered in the silent room. "I mean... It can't be Charlie's. Which means it... it has to be..." She looked down at herself, at where hers and Courtney's hands were over her belly. Fresh tears came, a fresh wave of grief and pain almost physically emanating from the girl. Autumn saw Courtney wince, eyes tightening as though fighting off a headache, but the cheerleader kept contact with Sophia, her voice still gentle. "Condoms aren't a hundred percent." she said firmly. "Close, but not certain." She glanced from Sophia to Autumn then, a question in her eyes. "Can you tell? For sure, I mean?" Autumn blinked, momentarily taken aback by the calming effect Courtney seemed to have on the traumatized girl. She'd expected an outburst, especially following the stupidly blunt way she'd made her pronouncement- Really, stellar job there. Slow clap. -But this was... Wow. Courtney was not only not being much like the Courtney she knew, she was actively helping. Okay. Well, that made this a little easier. "I don't know," she admitted, frowning. "I mean, it's so early I'm surprised I noticed at all, and I don't really have any way of comparing-" The soft, uneven hitch of Sophia's breath made her stomach clench, freezing the words in her throat. Even if it was the truth, she realized, it wasn't helpful. Shifting a little in the chair, Autumn tried again, her eyes earnest and not a little regretful as she glanced at Courtney, unable to meet the despairing look of the girl next to her. "I've never done it before. I mean... It's probably something I should be able to do, but I don't really know how. I can try, I just..." "Would you?" Sophia asked quietly, red-rimmed eyes boring into her with an intensity completely at odds with the calmness of her manner. There was more than curiosity or sadness in that gaze, and even with Courtney's reassuring influence it was easy for even Autumn to read the desperate need there. The young vitakinetic nodded slowly in response, scooting the chair a little closer to the bed with a discordant scraping sound. She'd already gone this far. She couldn't just drop a bomb like that and walk away, could she? "Fair warning. I don't know if this will work, okay? And, I'm sorry. I just thought you should know, so you could decide for yourself what you wanted to do about it, instead of just finding out later. Are you ready?" As Sophia nodded, Autumn looked at her for a moment, then, hesitantly, opened what some of the Fellowship were calling her 'Third Eye' and Looked again. This was that rudimentary awareness she'd discovered during that horrible time last week in this very hospital, and then studied more whilst camping with Jason - she could feel both Courtney and Sophia's life, could tell that they were distinct and separate members of the same species. Somewhere, nearby and on the edge of her heightened awareness, she could feel other human lives, each different, yet with common threads. She could even feel the tiny life just starting to develop inside Sophia, though its 'signal' was hard to discern against the background. Barely more than bacteria, right now. Taking a deep breath, Autumn reached over and placed her hand on Sophia's arm, letting her more thorough, more precise and keen senses flow through the brunette's aura, noting the sedative in her bloodstream, the neurochemical bitterness of sadness and fear in her brain. She focused downwards, moving through Sophia's body... There It was microscopic, a tiny thing, a fertilised egg just beginning to become more. For a moment, Autumn was lost in contemplation - almost awe - at the feel of it. Such potential, in such a small cluster of cells. We all start like this, she mused with a shock akin to revelation before collecting herself and examining the embryonic life form more closely. A chill ran down her spine as realisation dawned - this living thing was not wholly human. In fact, the 'feel' of it was so different from human, given her experience of such things, that it wasn't even a close cousin like a Teulu. It felt... malignant. Wrong, somehow. A microscopic pinprick of something Dark. Autumn went utterly still for a moment, all her restless energy crystallized into a single point of concentrated horror that chilled her blood- not for herself, but for Sophia, and what it meant that Cody had done this. Hell, that he'd even been able to do it. Her eyes, pupils tiny flecks of black in wide, turbulent seas, fixed on the now-expectant young woman's face. Was this part of some long-term plan, or just more pointless, purposeless awful? There was no hiding the stricken expression on her freckled features as she shook her head. "What is it?" Courtney pressed, her slender, well-manicured fingers squeezing Sophia's. "Did it not work?" The other redhead opened her mouth to speak, but the words wouldn't come. How do I tell her? she wondered, feeling the dull, queasy lurch of nausea in the pit of her stomach. Should I even tell her? Or should I just... I don't know, say there's something wrong with it, and it won't survive? I could make her have a miscarriage, couldn't I? I mean... How would she even know? Wouldn't that be easier? Was there a handbook? Some crazy pamphlet in the entryway of the hospital, like, 'So You Were Raped By A Corrupt Spirit In Physical Form: A Guide For Expectant Vessels.' The thought, ridiculous as it was, tore a quiet, choking sound from her lips that wasn't quite manic laughter, and wasn't quite a horrified sob, but some ugly mixture of both. It only lasted the span of a single breath, but she could feel Sophia's arm tense reflexively beneath her hand. Get your shit together, Autumn. You came here to help, right? So help. Let her choose. "It's not Charlie's," she managed, her voice barely more than a whisper. God, this was fucking hard. It would've been easier to deal with those monsters around the Tree again than tell her the truth. "Sophia, I'm sorry. I can-" She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes as the other girl's face crumpled. "I can help you. I will help you, okay? I-if you want. It's your choice." Sophia cried. She didn't wail, or tear at herself, or scream out. She simply wept, as though some instinct told her screams and noise were pointless, and all there was... was the horror and grief. So she cried, one hand seeking out Autumn's and clamping down on it as though for support as her other hand gripped Courtney's manicured fingers. The cheerleading Senior reached over and took Autumn's other hand, and the vitakinetic realised that Court was likewise silently crying, her perfect mascara running down her cheeks as, for now at least, the brash, brassy telepath was unable or, perhaps more accurately, unwilling to shield herself from the pain in the room. Eventually Sophia's sobs tailed off, the tears still drenching her cheeks, and her fingers gently squeezed Autumn's hand. "Yes. Help me with it." Sophia stated in a broken voice. "If it was Charlie's, then maybe... But no. Not him." The last word was delivered with something near venomous vehemence. "Get it out of me." There was no further discussion necessary. Sophia never needed to know that this thing inside her was inhuman, that even if it wasn't hurting her right now, it would eventually consume or kill her if allowed to grow to full-term. It wasn't a person, and could never be a person- even with all the Cassies in the world to help purge the Darkness, there wouldn't be enough left of it to survive. Even Cody had been human at one time. This, though... In spite of herself, Autumn shivered at that feeling of wrongness. "Okay." Autumn drew in a long breath, and in her mind's eye delicate threads of crimson uncoiled within her, tiny filaments of energy racing eagerly down her arm and through her fingertips. They hummed along Sophia's veins, followed the currents of her lifeforce and arrowed, unerringly, toward the infinitesimally small malignancy within her belly. It was barely anything. Barely more than a few cells clustered together. ...And, with a thought, it wasn't even that anymore- the tiny kernel of life extinguished, pierced by a thousand impossibly fine blades and smothered in the sanguine stream of her power. There was no guilt, no feeling of regret, but rather an odd sense of satisfaction, she realized with a little jolt; it was an excision, not a murder. "Let me know when you're going to start," Sophia murmured soberly, squaring her shoulders a little as if to prepare for an uncomfortable procedure. "It's already done." The tip of Autumn's tongue darted out to moisten suddenly dry lips as she mentally blinked away the shimmering tides of vital energy that coursed around and through them all. "I want to check in with you again in a week or two, just to make sure nothing weird happens, but it's done." Sophia nodded, mild surprise at the ease and painlessness of the whole procedure giving way to profound gratitude as she squeezed Autumn's hand again. Though her nose and cheeks were red and blotchy from crying, and though there were still tears aplenty waiting to be shed, she managed a small, but genuine smile. "Thank you." she whispered. "Thank you so much. I... I don't know how-" Abruptly she leaned close and awkwardly hugged the young vitakinetic. "It's fine." Autumn returned the hug as best she could, patting the other girl's back reassuringly. "Really, it's no problem. You just focus on you, okay?" Her blue eyes found themselves looking at Courtney over Sophia's shoulder, the cheerleader discreetly wiping away her smudged mascara and tears as she met Autumn's gaze and smiled slightly, nodding. "I'll be around to help. Or if you need to talk. Or just want to hang out." Courtney told Sophia as the pale brunette relinquished her embrace of Autumn and sank back against the pillows. "A buttload of 'experts' are going to come along and try to get you to talk about this stuff. Your folks are gonna worry a bunch about you, too. It's going to get frustrating, and painful, and sometimes you're going to feel like venting. Having someone else around will help you." She smiled slightly, a quirk of her scarlet lips. "Autumn will be keeping an eye on you too, from the sounds of it." she said with an overly-conspiratorial wink at the other redhead in the room. "I absolutely will." Autumn responded, smiling at Sophia. Courtney being an actual human being was somewhat throwing her off-balance - sort of like when she realised Jase was not, in fact, the boogeyman she'd expected him to be when she'd cycled up to brave the dragon in his lair, a week and a day and a lifetime ago. She stood up, tugging at the sleeves of her flannel shirt. "So, uh, I've got a day ahead of me, so I should get moving." Both the other girls nodded. Giving them both a nod and a waist-high wave, Autumn let herself out of the room. One down, two to go. she mentally recited, checking the first item off her to-do list. Did I handle that right? the restive redhead wondered, sidestepping a pair of hospital staff chatting quietly in the hall as she followed the signs and arrows through the maze of corridors. If I hadn't told her at all- just, like, took care of it on my own- it wouldn't have been her decision. She wouldn't have to deal with knowing that thing got her pregnant, obviously, but... It's her body, so, her choice. Isn't it? Or, it should be, I think. And, Autumn admitted to herself, I don't think I could've actually told her the other stuff... Either that it was Charlie's but wouldn't survive, or the whole truth. Both of those would've just been cruel, wouldn't they? For different reasons, but, still. She was uncharacteristically lost in thought as she walked, wondering about the hows and whys of dead monsters and ones that had never lived, the ends of her sleeves drawn taut over her hands; idly, she wished she had her hoodie. It felt kind of strange to be out without it, just as it felt kind of strange to be more preoccupied with ethics and murder attempts and scary-smart boyfriends than homework and the start of hunting season. "Can I help you?" a warm, feminine voice inquired suddenly, breaking her out of her reverie. The owner of the voice, as Autumn blinked and turned her head, was a slim, dark-skinned woman in plum-colored scrubs, her short, curly hair frosted here and there with grey, and she glanced pointedly- bemusedly- at the glass-covered list of names and office numbers at which the red-haired girl had been staring for a little while now. For a moment, the flustered junior's features were a mask of confusion and embarrassment, and she shook her head as warmth flooded her cheeks. Without realizing it, she must've wandered back to the intersection where she and Cassie had ended up when searching for Dr. Cook. Great. "Um. Maybe?" Autumn admitted uncertainly. "I'm trying to get to the ICU, um, wing, I guess? There's a patient I need to visit." "You are way off track, then, sweetheart," the other woman laughed, giving her a quick once-over. "You must've just come from school, huh?" As the red-faced teen nodded, she grinned back and shook her head. "Mhmm. Thought so. You've got that look, like all the lights are on but nobody's home. My kids used to do the same thing when they came home in the afternoons. Zombies, both of 'em, until almost dinner time." She gave the flushed young woman another measuring glance, her expression softer now, more nostalgic than amused, and tipped her head toward another corridor. "Head down that way, past the stairs. Go through the double doors, turn right at the next big intersection and you'll see the nurse's station a little farther down on your left-hand side. They'll get you signed in." Autumn ducked her head in a quick nod, and gave an abashed, but grateful smile in response. "Awesome," she enthused, "thanks for the help. Hope you have a nice day!" "You, too, sweetheart. Hope everything works out for you." That makes two of us, Autumn thought wryly as she turned, her feet carrying her onward once more. She didn't envy the hospital staff here, well-funded though the place obviously was. Especially lately, with all the messed up stuff that'd been happening. At least they seemed nice, though? And that made days like today, which was already massively fucked up, a teeny bit easier to deal with. The trick now, though, wasn't just finding the ICU wing, or ward, or whatever, but actually getting into Dale's room. As she pushed cautiously through the heavy double doors and approached the desk her guide had indicated, it occurred to the impulsive redhead that maybe her plan should've been just a little bit more specific on that point. Too late now! her brain chimed up, and she had to agree. The only thing to do was keep going forward. Fortune favors the bold, or something. Right? "Hey, hi," she began, smiling politely at the small handful of people working behind the counter. "Is this where visitors sign in?" "It is, sweetie." Replied the closest nurse behind the counter, as she turned away from what she was doing and smiled professionally at Autumn. Tapping a couple of keys on her terminal she looked at the redhead expectantly. "Who're you here to see?" Briefly Autumn wondered how many patients a small-town ICU could have - surely not many, right? "Ms Dale, I think the name is?" she replied, then mentally cursed at the alert, searching glance the nurse gave her. "You think?" The nurse, still maintaining professional pleasantness despite the suspicion in her gaze. "Sorry, sweetie, but if you don't know the person I can't let you see them. And if you do, I have standing orders to call -" Her eyes flicked over Autumn's shoulder and she stopped. "It's fine, Molly." came a male voice from behind Autumn, young with a hint of an accent. Glancing back over her shoulder, Autumn was mildly surprised to see Etienne, wearing a doctor's white coat that did nothing for his pasty complexion. Cook's former spy looked like he'd been through hell and was just recovering, certainly not appearing like the fresh-faced twenty-year old he'd been posing as, but his eyes were alert and his tone firm as he went on. "She's expected." "Right." And just like that, the nurse nodded and turned back to what she'd been doing. No entry to the visitors log, no questions. Etienne gave Autumn a slight smile and a nod, gesturing down the hallway to a doorway at the end. A man in security uniform stood to one side of the open doorway, but like the guys who'd been outside Jase's room earlier, this one didn't look like a run-of-the-mill rentacop. "I'm to stay with you." Etienne said as she fell into step and they approached the ICU room. "She's sedated at the moment, drifting in and out - barely conscious at the best of times. Which is lucky for her, considering the pain she must be in." He shrugged. "I've been assigned as a pair of eyes and a potential friendly face should she come round." "Friendly," Autumn repeated skeptically, her eyes lingering with evident suspicion on his profile. "Right." It was solid confirmation that they'd been listening when she and Jason had talked about Dale earlier, and while part of her bristled at the observation of their time together, the practical result was that she didn't have to wait for an escort. I guess I'll call that a W. Or maybe a w. Etienne, though? Seriously? With a sigh, she turned back to the hallway, and the undertaking, ahead. "So, look. The plan is that she does wake up, because it's gonna be really hard to talk to her otherwise. I get that you're not just here for moral support, which... whatever, okay. Birds aren't real, big brother is watching, I get it. Just..." Frowning, she shook her head, glancing briefly down at her hands as she rolled her sleeves up to her elbows, revealing the faded glow of a summer tan and amber freckles like constellations scattered all over. It was a half-conscious task, like braiding her hair, and half-consciously she wondered what she'd do if, like Dale, that capability was suddenly taken from her. "Listen. I'm not here to hurt her, but it might hurt anyway, if she's as bad as I've heard." Etienne made a face, nodding agreement as they stepped past the guard on the door. "I figured. I've enough medical knowledge to know that the nerves in her hands and forearms are likely shot - mostly because there's precious little flesh there to contain nerves anymore. All the pain will be at the top of the forearm. Your b- Bannon did a number on her." "Yeah, well I'm not exactly crying on her behalf." Autumn retorted. "Me either. Look, I owe you guys - for rescuing me after Cook turned me over to Klein." Etienne said sincerely as they approached the bed, currently hidden from view behind curtains. The beeping of monitors was audible in the otherwise quiet space. "I'm not pointing fingers, just giving a friendly warning that it's not pleasant." "No, it's... fair," the spirited young woman conceded. It was pretty obvious that Jase's capacity for violence was daunting, to say the least. He didn't think like a human, or respond to things the way humans did. Well. In some ways he does, her brain reminded her slyly as she huffed, twisting her hair up into a knot and looping it through the ponytail holder again. And even if you didn't know what he could do, he wasn't exactly approachable. Or, hadn't been. Did he change, or did she? Or was it only the perspective that was different? Could he even change? Huh. "And he- Bannon," she clarified quietly, "is my boyfriend. You can say it. It's not some huge deal, and if I was that worried about how people would react I wouldn't be dating him in the first place." Etienne's description, combined with the bits and pieces she'd already heard, had painted a fairly grim picture of what awaited her behind the white privacy curtain. Somehow, it was still inadequate. The woman lying in the bed- or what Autumn could see of her, through the tangle of cords and tubing- looked to be in maybe her mid-thirties with shortish, dirty blonde hair. In decent shape, she thought, with a strong jaw, and long lashes above the delicate creases and faint purple shadows ringing her eyes. Dale's hands, though... The redhead swallowed hard as she was confronted with the reality of what Jason had done to her, her fingers finding purchase on the cold metal rail of the hospital bed to steady herself. Encased in sealed, oxygenated clear plastic 'mittens,' the marshal's hands were just- "Gone," she whispered, half-disbelieving. "Jesus fuck." She was going to kill him, the girl reminded herself as she stared, trembling, at what had been fingers, now curled into blackened claws. Bits of charred flesh clung tenaciously to the bone, growing steadily wetter and pinker and- oh- ohgod -meatier up the woman's forearm just before the pressure cuff. A wave of nausea roiled through her and the red-haired teen blanched visibly, knuckles going white as she gripped the cool, reassuring solidity of the steel frame. She was going to kill him. She was. But if he'd wanted her dead, she would be. Wouldn't she? Which means... He did it on purpose. Inch by inch. Not in an attempt to disable her, or even just eliminate her outright. This had- Wounds like this had taken a little while. Had taken focus. "Can I have a chair, please?" she murmured hoarsely. "Sure." Etienne disappeared outside the curtains once more, leaving Autumn to stare at the crippled woman for a long moment before he reappeared, setting down a hospital-issue plastic chair next to the bed. Then he stood back at the foot of the bed, watching as Autumn released her death grip on the steel frame and sank into the chair with a murmured "Thanks." "He once threatened to do that to me if he ever caught me snooping around his home, according to Clara." the youthful-seeming spy observed, his own gaze seeming to be drawn to the ruin that was the renegade marshal's hands. "Burn me to death by inches." Autumn inhaled sharply, seemingly surprised at the sound of another human voice as she blinked up at Etienne, and then back down to the still form of the woman in the bed before them. She watched quietly as the tiny lights on the monitors flashed, and then nodded. "Then... Yeah. He probably would have," she agreed slowly, her manner subdued. "But if that's really how it happened, I think maybe he was warning you through her. He's-" Pausing for a moment, she licked her lips. "He's not really the threatening type, you know?" Etienne nodded and fell silent Autumn took a deep breath and focused on Dale. The eddies and flows of vibrancy that were the woman's life-force sprang into sight, streaks of red and scarlet shooting through the aura from the burned flesh of her arms, muted and deflected from the pain centers of her brain by narcotics, though not completely. If she'd been conscious, she'd have been in agony, painkillers or not. The tissue damage was... terrible. Terrible and complete. Her brain latched onto a conversation by phone, last Thursday. "...I was attempting to see if there were actually any purpose to the cruelty I was witnessing..." was what Jason had said when asked about why he'd not spoken up sooner about rescuing the cats. Did he see purpose in this, then? What were his reasons - and more to the point, did she want to know? After all, whatever his reasons, he'd agreed - without much of a fight - to let her heal Dale's wounds. And to leave both marshals alone, to let the authorities take care of the problem. Because she, Autumn Keane, had asked him to do so. That was kind of a weird thought, right there, and hearkened back to her earlier thought - was he changing because of her? Or was he the same, and she was simply discovering new facets of his character untouched by others. Without Autumn Keane, would Dale and Marshall even now be facing an excruciating death? She shook those thoughts aside for later, and concentrated. She could 'see' where the hands were supposed to be, like a pattern or... or blueprint of sorts, overlaid on the ruin that was left. She wasn't sure if she could actually regrow hands, though - that was well beyond what she'd tried to date. Or was it? After all, she'd repaired a damaged brain and excised a deadly pregnancy today. Perhaps this was simply another step up. Either way, they were about to find out, weren't they? And if she couldn't do it... Well, in fairness, Marshal Attempted Murder wouldn't be any worse off than she was now. "I'm gonna try to shut her pain off before I wake her up." As she broke the long, uncomfortable moment of silence, Autumn drew in a long, steadying breath and exhaled. Although largely unnecessary, just the act of saying it out loud seemed to help her focus, to quiet the less-than-productive thoughts. Besides- unlike most of the others in the Fellowship, her powers didn't always have any kind of visual component, so she figured it was a little less weird if she at least described what she was doing. "After that," she continued, "we'll cut the drugs off, and I'll start bringing her out of it." With a quick glance up at Etienne to confirm he'd heard her, she scooted the chair forward and reached out, gingerly resting one hand on Dale's upper arm. Autumn's vicarious experience of pain was a strange thing, even as she recognized how useful it was- among other things- in protecting her own psyche. She was aware of the feeling, and could even gauge its type and intensity, but she never really felt it directly. Not when helping Jason after the fight in the hall, not when testing her abilities with Devin, not when patching Jay up or getting the others back on their feet once they'd dealt with Not-Cody. Not even when Jason was bleeding to death on the ground in front of her. Her ability was a tactile experience, a near-physical connection at once more intimate than sex and yet less so, with pleasure and pain and all the assorted functions of living and dying laid bare before the relentless, restless questing of the vitakinetic's power. "Okay," the pale redhead murmured to herself, grimacing slightly as her mind recoiled from even the dulled edges of Dale's agony, the sensation one of a thin blanket being laid over jagged shards of broken glass. It was, as Etienne had suggested, a mercy of sorts that she was unconscious. "There're way too many nerve endings to shut them all down one at a time. I wonder if I can-" Her voice trailed off as she frowned, traced the thousands upon thousands of nerves backward, followed tiny rivulets to broader streams where the older woman's energy eddied and churned. Somewhere between her ruined hands and the brain which told her even in drugged slumber that they were damaged beyond repair, Autumn knew there had to be an intermediary of some kind- a place where smaller tributaries of vitality met in a greater river, and it was that confluence she needed to interrupt. Just a slight deviation... There. It was simpler to just temporarily block the pain before it reached her spinal cord instead of trying to "soothe" it like a normal injury, and more efficient; if she could give Dale her hands back, everything else should resolve on its own, right? Besides, Autumn still didn't know how she was going to do that, or how much it would take out of her, and there was no point wasting time or energy. It was awful, the whole situation, but... also weirdly satisfying? Knowing what she could do, as long as she didn't think too much about why she needed to do it, sent an odd little thrill zinging through her. "I think that should do it." Pressing her lips together as she studied the effects of her interference, it did seem to be working. The pain wasn't gone, per se, but it wasn't getting through, and for all practical purposes that was the same thing right now. "Can you switch that off? I need to start getting the drugs out of her system." Wide, sea-colored eyes turned to regard Etienne through the shimmering curtains and currents. He nodded, moving around to the other side of the bed and making some adjustments to the IV monitoring station. As the digital display zeroed out, he then turned and carefully brought a velcro strap up from the side of the bed, curling it around the still-unconscious woman's arm at the elbow and fastening it out of sight. Moving around the bed, he did similarly to her legs, then moved past Autumn to attend to the other arm. "In case she wakes up fighting, or tries to hurt you or herself." Etienne explained quietly as he performed this task. "We're not really worried that she could hurt you, mind. Not in this condition - but trying would mess her up worse." "Right." Autumn nodded, frowning a little at the restraint but seeing the sense in it. If Dale freaked, or tried to lash out, she could easily add extra damage to what she had suffered. As Etienne finished his work and moved past her back to the foot of the bed, she turned her gaze back on Dale and focused once more on the slow-moving, undulating curtain of her vital essence. It was comparatively easy, after everything else she'd done today, to detoxify the sedatives from the woman's system. A mere brush of her power send the filtration mechanisms of the body into overdrive and forced the opiate receptors of the brain to ignore any lingering signals. A murmur came from Dale's throat within seconds, her eyelids fluttering then opening as she stared up at the hospital ceiling with a gasp. Her brown eyes darted this way, then that as she took stock of her situation, the straps holding her to the bed creaking slightly as she instinctively tried to sit up. Then she gave up, head and shoulders sinking back into the pillows as her gaze focused on the silent figure at the foot of her bed, then swivelled to look at the closer redhead sitting beside her. "Shit." she muttered through dry lips, her eyes narrowing in faint recognition. "You're one of his friends." Her eyes widened again, darting from Autumn's face to Etienne and then trying to see past the curtains in vain. "Is he here?" Autumn shook her head, watching fear and resignation war on the marshal's careworn features. It was like she'd genuinely expected him to be there, like she thought this was some crazy torture scenario. "You and your partner shot him in the head and buried a bullet in his chest." There was a moment of quiet, save for the muted beep of the heart monitor, in the wake of that terse statement. "No, he's not here," she stated as calmly as she could, sitting a little straighter in her chair and squaring her shoulders and definitely not scuffing her shoes back and forth against the tile floor. "It's just me. Well," the red-haired teen amended with a faint, taut smile, "me, and my chaperone there. You're at the medical center, by the way. So, apart from 'trapped,' how're you feeling?" Dale looked guiltily relieved as she sighed deeply. "Look, I'm sorry he's gone. But I didn't have a choice-" She began, but a glance at the redhead shut her up. It was obvious, though, that Dale had taken Autumn's words as a statement that Jase was dead. "As to how I feel... I don't hurt. Why don't I hurt? I remember being on f-" and then she looked down at her hands. A choked noise came from her throat as she lifted the twisted, blackened claws in their clear plastic mittens as best she could, a wheeze that should be a scream, except there was no breath to make it. She gasped, then took a deep breath, tears starting in her eyes. "Oh god shit fuck. That fucking freak! What the fuck did he do?" she croaked staring in horror at her hands. You can do this. It's fine. You're not lying, and you can maybe help her. It'll be fine. "Does it matter?" Hands folded in her lap to mask their shaking, Autumn rooted herself to the seat, to the cold commercial flooring underfoot as the marshal's dark, panic-stricken eyes darted in her direction. "He can't undo it, any more than you can undo what you did." She could feel the tiny crescent shapes of her nails digging into her palms as she watched Dale's world come crashing down around her with little more to mark its passing than a gut-wrenching groan from the woman's cracked lips. Her career, her whole life- it was all over. It hurt, almost physically, to just sit there in silence- even knowing what she'd done, the almost animal quality of Dale's wheezing, desperate cries was nearly intolerable. Nearly. "I just want to know why," Autumn asked finally, perched rigidly in the plastic chair. "You said you had no choice, but there's always, always a fucking choice." "Jesus. Kids." A bitter hoarse bark of a laugh followed the earnest teen's statement, even as Dale's eyes leaked tears. "You've got no damn idea. The guy I work for? He ruins people. Like, literally, ruins their lives. Takes everything away, leaves fucking nothing behind. Scorched..." she looked at her hands again, then up at the ceiling tiles resignedly, her voice still a hoarse murmur. "...scorched husks of people. He has stuff on me. That's it, that's my reason - to keep my life intact." She laughed again. "Fat lot of good it did me." "You know, you're right." Autumn nodded, her jaw clenched as she shrugged. "I've got no idea. Not a clue." She inhaled abruptly, the toe of one shoe tapping a soft staccato rhythm of frustration on the floor. "Which is why I'm here, and why you're awake right now. Enterich didn't ruin your life. You did. So explain to me why, since I'm so clueless, and I might- might," she stressed, "be able to help you." "Help me?" The tear-filled brown eyes glared at her. "How can you help me? I'm facing murder one and then life in jail with hooks for hands, Red. Where in all of that will my telling you every fucking sordid thing I've ever done help me?" She rested her head back against the pillow again, closing her eyes. "What are you going to do, put in a good word with the State Police? Visit me in the pen?" "Okay. Yeah," she admitted with another little shrug, a quick upward twitch of her shoulders as she watched a tear roll silently down Dale's cheek. It was weird, the mix of contempt and sympathy that knotted in her stomach for the broken woman- a complicated feeling for a complicated situation. "Fair questions. So," Autumn sighed as she leaned forward, the toes of both shoes now alternating that soft tapping; it was easier than getting up to pace around in such a tiny room already crowded with the bed and machinery. "I told you there's always a choice," the redhead replied quietly. "And I'm not here to get you to like, testify or anything, and no, I don't know anybody in the State Police. I don't even want to know what shitty thing you did that Enterich is holding over your head. I just want to know what you know about him, what he's doing here. This is your chance to unfuck things." "Too late for that." Dale's voice was world-weary as she spoke, her eyes still closed. "I'm still alive, and I'll bet he can get to me even in a prison." A shudder ran through the woman. "I didn't want to kill that kid. Didn't want to do a lot of things." Her eyes opened and she looked at Autumn again, her expression that of a woman making a decision. "Fuck it." she sighed. "It won't bring your buddy back, but if you really wanna know.... I don't know what he wants here. Not really. I know he's involved with Crossroads, that private-run prison. And with some local developers who were in on the deal for that place." She frowned slightly, concentrating on remembering. "He got a call from there, last week. Something about an escape, or a break-in, or something. People hurt, property damaged or stolen. I could only hear his side of it. It was after that he had us pick up the Jauntsen brat to have a little talk with her. She goes off after shaking hands with him and being all polite, and the next thing she's bringing him a file and he's paying her off: one hundred grand, small bills. That's when he put out the kill order on the kid. Said he was dangerous and to be careful, but to get it done." She snorted slightly. "Said he had telekinesis. Didn't say nothing about setting people on fire or being able to walk after taking a shot to the head. Crazy shit. Crazy world." "And what I know about him? He's a fix-it guy. That's how he always comes to you: you have a problem, he can fix it. Sometimes it's a problem he caused, or he represents the people who have the problem with you. Either way, that's how it starts. He's connected like you wouldn't believe. And once he has you on the hook, he'll let you get on with your life till he needs you, and then he'll shift pieces around the chess board till he's got you where he wants you to be." Dale sighed again, closing her eyes once more. "That's all I know, kid." Autumn exhaled slowly, letting out a long, shaky breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "That's... Okay. Okay," she repeated, turning to look at Etienne for a moment. Going in to rescue him had been the catalyst for this, hadn't it? It might have happened anyway, and sure, it wasn't really his fault, but... fuck, this was going to be a lot to process, and it sure as hell looked bad for Marissa. "That's more than we knew this morning. So... All right. I can't keep you out of jail, or any of that stuff. I don't have that kind of clout." Getting to her feet, she nudged the chair backward and moved to stand beside the exhausted woman's bedside. "I do think I can help you, though," she insisted. "Or, at least I'm going to try. And-" There was a moment's hesitation, an uncertainty in the girl's voice as she leaned forward. "I'm sorry in advance." Dale's eyes shot open at that, a question already forming on her lips as she turned her head, but the earnest young woman next to her had already grasped her arm and the world suddenly exploded into searing, blinding agony for the second time that day. The phantasmal structure Autumn had seen before flared to life in her enhanced vision, like an imprint or echo that Dale's life force hadn't yet forgotten. Everything would have to be remade, of course. Everything. And not just once, but twice. Could she do both arms at the same time? Muscle and blood vessels and glands and hair follicles and- Fuck it, she decided. The faster she got it done, the better. Like tearing off a... a really, really big band-aid. Through the contact of her fingertips, that connection to another person forged by her Shine, the redhead's energy flowed out of her in luminous streams of scarlet and gold- slowly at first- simultaneously an open flame and a sunset setting the ocean aglow with reflected light. It rose and surged as she focused, a roaring, rushing tide that coursed in bright torrents to fill the void where healthy flesh and hot blood had once been. From somewhere in the distance she could hear shouting and a guttural, bestial cry, but then even that was drowned out by the percussive, rhythmic beat of a drum that vibrated through her bones in an irresistible primal imperative. More, demanded the voiceless voice within she'd come to know, only this time it wasn't a thirst to be slaked, a shared hunger to be sated, but rather a debt that must be paid. And then, there was pain all her own, a voracious scouring sensation that began behind her eyes and rapidly spread throughout what Autumn was aware of as her own body, hollowing her out, draining every ounce of energy she could muster from what had always seemed a boundless reservoir. There was a glimmer in the distance, movement on a horizon she couldn't see, but only dimly perceive. The edge of a ring... or a spiral, perhaps. It was too far to reach, but even so, the young life-witch could feel a part of herself reaching, straining toward it- Through clenched teeth she whimpered, heedless of the sound of her own voice as the marshal's blackened, shrunken hands twitched in their sealed chambers, flakes of charcoal crumbling away as the carbonized outer layer split to reveal pale ivory beneath- a pair of ossified butterflies emerging from their ruptured chrysalises. Dead tissue sloughed away as Autumn's Radiance flooded the same pathways she'd traced earlier, cutting free what couldn't be saved and forging tissue anew in the cellular crucible of life itself. It took forever. It took only a few minutes. And when it was done, and she was empty in truth, she simply sat, missing the edge of the chair behind her to slide gracelessly to the floor.
  17. She'd been waiting a little while after speaking with her dad. Ian Keane hadn't been exactly happy about leaving his daughter 'alone' - meaning 'with Jason' - at the hospital, but hadn't really been able to find a suitable reason for refusing to do so other than 'because I say so'. And right now, with everything out of kilter, with monsters and mysterious yet undeniable powers, the older man was acutely aware of how much of a distance there was between him and his family. Not so much a distance of affection as a distance of experience, and though he was reasonably certain Dana wouldn't outright undercut his parental authority in front of Autumn, it was a fair bet she'd privately give him hell if he made their little girl miserable without very good reason. So, with a stern injunction for her to go on to school once she'd had coffee with Jase, her dad had headed on home. He had a business meeting in Helena tomorrow to prepare for, and a worried Dana to bring up to speed on what had happened with their daughter's odd boyfriend. So now Autumn sat quietly in the waiting area chair, one foot tapping as she scrolled through TikTok videos, seeking distraction even as her mind nibbled away at the problems of the day. Her reverie was disturbed as the door to Jase's room opened and Gar stepped out, giving her a smile. "He's decent now, at least." The elder Bannon told her as Hank stepped out after him, nodding to the lithe redhead. Graskle was a gruff, hard man by his general demeanour, and tough to read, but Autumn fancied that his manner to her, at least, was friendly. "He's got the packed breakfast and the coffee out, if you're hungry." Gar went on. "It's not fancy, but it's food." The whole situation felt surreal. Unreal, even. After everything that'd happened yesterday, to wake up to this, to murder attempts and conspiracies and beautiful other-dimensional girls and maybe betrayals, seemed almost impossible. At what point, she'd wondered, more or less blindly swiping through the auto-curated 'For You Page,' does this get easier? She'd only just managed to avoid freaking right the hell out when Cassie had starting talking about her vision earlier, and the sheer gratitude in Gar's eyes when he'd hugged her had nearly broken the dam on her own tears right there in the hospital room. Shouldn't there be a break, at some point? Didn't they fucking deserve one? "Starving," she affirmed wholeheartedly as Jason's father and his friend reappeared, an earnest- if fleeting- smile brightening the girl's freckled features for a moment as she tucked her phone away again. "I don't care if it's oatmeal, leftover pizza, or a granola bar, at this point. I'm just glad I still get to eat it with him." She stopped suddenly, eyes widening with sudden horror at the realization of what she'd said. Nice, Autumn. Good job. "Because we missed breakfast, I mean, not because- , ah, fuck," she swore softly, grimacing. "I mean, frick. Sorry. And thanks for bringing it. I know you probably had other things on your mind." Exhaling, Autumn got to her feet, idly hitching up her jeans. "So," the redhead began uncertainly, eyes darting from Gar's open, expressive gaze to Hank's more guarded one. "Are you guys heading out already? I thought you'd wanna take him home." "He was pretty insistent he could get home under his own power." Gar said, making a face which Autumn interpreted as oddly close to her own father's expression, though Gar was more resigned, more used to his son being almost aggressively self-reliant. "We're headed down to the sheriff's office - going to get Jase's car and whatever is in it sprung from their clutches. His phone, school stuff, and so on." "Then we're gonna get his car cleaned." Hank put in. "After which, we've got some prep to start doing up and around the farm. Jase said he didn't know for certain who was gunning for him yet, but anyone comes to the farm looking for trouble they'll damn well find it. Tarnished Federal ID or not." He subsided as Gar laid a hand on his shoulder briefly, then nodded to Autumn. "Go on in now, before he eats all the scrambled eggs." Jase's dad told her with another fond smile, stepping out of the way for her. "Don't have to tell me twice," Autumn agreed sensibly, her nose scrunching slightly as she flashed the two men a grin. "Thanks, Gar. See you later tonight. And you, too, Mr. Graskle. Take care." Her hand twitched upward in a quick, almost-polite wave as the gnawing emptiness in her stomach pushed her back toward the hospital room. The Pop-Tart she'd eaten on the way out the door felt like it'd been days ago, rather than just a few hours, and she guessed Jase himself was feeling similarly ravenous. Leaving both older men in the waiting room, the hungry redhead rapped on the door frame and peeked inside. Wearing a loose-fitting white t-shirt and- Of course, a rueful inner voice noted- grey sweatpants, the Effing One was sitting on the bed with the thermos his father had brought, long legs folded comfortably as he opened the lid of a Tupperware container. She wondered if he owned any other color, and if not, whether they would ever stop being so distracting. This was certainly not the time or the place to think about the way they'd looked after the spar with Devin on Sunday, dripping wet and dipping low around his hips, beads of water gleaming... Nope. Nuh uh. Definitely not. You are in a hospital, Autumn Rae, and he nearly died this morning. Chill. It was a sobering thought, although perversely she felt somehow more aware of him now that he'd gotten dressed. "Hey, again." Hands tucked in her back pockets, the pink-cheeked redhead slipped into the room, her gaze skipping back upward to her boyfriend's face. He seemed alert, and, as usual, largely untouched by the events of the day. She'd been a little worried about his reaction to Cassie's revelations, especially when the temperature had dropped so sharply, but nothing else had happened; a tiny frisson slithered up the back of Autumn's neck as she remembered her previous impression of him, that of something primal and dangerous and aware waiting in the depths of a frozen lake. Was the demonstration of his powers, then, the equivalent of a fin breaking the surface? An instinctive reaction, or a warning? And, if so, to whom? It was impossible to guess, really, since no one that had threatened him was there at the time. Probably for the best, she decided, approaching the side of the bed. "How're you holding up?" "Well enough." Jason glanced up from the still-warm mixture of scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and salsa in the Tupperware box, indicating the other container which seemed to have something similar inside. "Dad threw us something together." he added, leaning forward and patting an empty spot on the bed in invitation, then setting a spoon atop the box meant for Autumn. As she came over, he poured a some coffee from the Thermos into the lid/cup, setting it on one of those hospital trays on wheels that was nearby, convenient for either teen to reach for it. Autumn settled onto the bed, folding her own legs similarly to him before popping open the container before her. There was plenty of the protein scramble in the clear plastic containers, which was just as well, given the voraciousness with which the pair of them fell to eating. They ate in relative silence for a few minutes, now and then exchanging glances, and there was a curious similarity to last Friday evening, eating by the campfire after an afternoon spent enjoying each others company as friends had culminated in that first searing kiss. Now as then, Autumn found her cheeks warming just from his proximity, and then as now Jase would look up silently from his meal, pale emerald gaze anything but cold as it fell upon her. It was pleasant, the warm mid-morning sunlight still illuminating the room, with the bustle of the hospital seeming miles away, muffled by the door. Just the two of them, it felt like in that too-brief collection of moments. No murderers, no conspiracies, no doubts. Just the happiness of being alive, and sharing a meal with someone special. A plastic rattling noise accompanied both teens scraping the last of the breakfast from the Tupperware into their open mouths. Jase refilled the coffee cup, which both had sipped from during their meal, and set his empty container aside as he regarded Autumn again. "What about you?" he asked softly. "How are you holding up?" Lips pursed thoughtfully, Autumn considered her response as she stacked her empty bowl inside his before leaning forward, chin in hand with her elbow resting on a knee. There was no point in pretending everything was okay when she was pretty sure those piercing green eyes really could see into someone's skull, and no reason to do so when it was just the two of them anyway. "Honestly?" she asked, acutely aware that it was an unnecessary question where Jason Bannon was concerned. "I really don't know. We've barely had time to deal with last night, and now... this." A soft sigh escaped her lips just before they curved into a faint, fleeting smile that faded as she continued. "I'm glad you're okay. Freaked out that you might not have been. Pissed that it happened. Worried that it might happen again, or worse. Frustrated that we have to wait to find out what's going on and who's doing what. Like-" Frowning, the restless young woman leaned back suddenly, bracing herself on her hands and considering Jason's expression as she searched for the right words. "Like, I have a thousand questions, right? And I want to talk to the ones who attacked you, instead of just sitting here until Ms. Giles or whoever decides to update us. But I can't do that. I have to just go to school and try not to think about it, and sit through classes with somebody who might have been working with them." "We don't have to wait on Giles, or anyone." Jason's voice was quiet, calm as he went on. "She has the male in custody. But the female is up here, in the ICU. She's likely sedated to prevent pain, but you could counteract that - if you wished to." He took a sip of coffee, setting the cup down again as he went on. "In all likelihood, she doesn't have anything important to add to Cassandra's information. The man, too, is likely clueless. Who they are and how they came to be in Enterich's employ is not something I really care about. Certainly I doubt they have anything to tell us that would be worth their lives." This last was added casually - without fanfare or any significant expression in the cool jade eyes, but the redhead had been studying Bannonology 101 now for over a week, and very keenly indeed for the last few days. There was a definite air of intent, of finality, in that last statement of his, as though a decision didn't even need to be made. Autumn blinked at that, sea-colored eyes widening slightly at the conversational weight of that sentence as they met his. The absence of a visible emotional response shouldn't have been all that surprising, especially in light of his unnervingly frosty reaction earlier, and she kicked herself mentally for having expected one, for thoughtlessly trying to ascribe typical human behaviors to someone who was really neither typical nor human. Even if he was angry about what had happened, he obviously didn't process those feelings the same way she did; all his empathy and consideration was a conscious exercise, something he had to actually think about. And so... What he said kind of made sense, in the context of what they'd talked about before. 'A lack of nuance,' he'd called it, with little space between the 0 and 11 of his impulses, and not for the first time the earnest redhead felt impossibly out of her depth with the stoic young genius. Just knowing things about him doesn't really help much if you don't actually apply the knowledge, does it? Exhaling audibly, she plucked at the hospital blanket, copper brows knit in thought. "Okay," she began after a moment, straightening to face him more fully. "Then, I want to talk to this woman, whoever she is. Maybe she can't tell us anything Cassie didn't, and maybe she can. We have no way of knowing until we ask. We might be able to learn more about Enterich, stuff her spy-vision couldn't see, and even if you don't care who they are and why they tried to kill you, I do." The last two words bore a subtle emphasis, a variation in pitch and tone that suggested the verbal equivalent of italicized text, an emotional content that provided striking contrast to the neutrality of his own statement moments before. "Why they tried to kill me is obvious." Jase responded, even as his head tilted very slightly, eyes roaming the warm girl's bronze-flecked features curiously. "Enterich told them to. Cassie even said that neither of them were happy with the task - their sole investment in my death was that a man they were afraid of told them to do it. That said..." he paused for a moment as he considered, then went on. "Information they have about Enterich might be useful. Even if it's only observations." "Right." Autumn took a sip of the black coffee in the Thermos cup, nodding agreement as her taste buds assessed the unsweetened, un-creamed brew. It was surprisingly good. She passed the cup to him. smoothing her hands over her jeans as she watched him drink. "I doubt Dale, the woman, will simply offer up information to you, though." Jase said in a reasonable tone as he lowered the cup and set it back on the tray. "To her mind, she's a corrupt U.S. marshal who is facing an attempted murder charge. She will seek concessions for her cooperation, and right now likely doesn't see herself as having anything to lose by refusing to answer." "You sound like you're leading up to something." Autumn remarked, trying not to think the worst. Still, this was Jason. Mercy and restraint, especially towards people who harmed or tried to kill him, was not likely to be one of his virtues. "I am. A question." Pale green pools of ice regarded her, something moving in the glacial depths behind the surface. "What do you plan to offer her?" "A choice," the redhead replied simply as she felt her face growing warmer, resisting the instinctual urge to turn away from the careful scrutiny to which she was being subjected. "I've been thinking a lot about that, honestly, and not just because of today." She took a deep breath to dispel some of the tension gathering in the pit of her stomach, bits of the earlier conversations with her father resurfacing in her memory. Jase was different, but not unreasonable, and as long as he was willing to listen, everything was still fine. ...Right? "Cody made a choice. These two marshals, or whoever they are, made choices. Maybe Marissa, too," she conceded with obvious reluctance, tugging at one of the stray curls snaking over her shoulder. "Maybe what happened with Cody couldn't have turned out any other way, and it really was too late to bring him back. But the others are still people, you know? Fucked up, yeah, but people, and people can be..." Hmm-ing to herself, Autumn frowned as she remembered the two seniors who'd been brought to this same hospital, and for similar reasons. "Pushed. Manipulated. And I know that nothing they do or say un-makes those decisions, but what if they could still make new ones, change things?" She shook her head, finally breaking eye contact and glancing instead down at her hands as they fidgeted, twisting together in her lap. "I don't know what to do about the others, yet. I'm not even sure I can do anything." She shrugged a little, then, an uncertain upward twitch of her shoulders. "This Dale woman, though... I can give her something nobody else can, and that might be valuable enough to her that it'll make a difference. At least, I hope so," she added quietly. "You plan to heal her." Jason didn't sound accusatory, or even particularly upset as he made the connection. If anything, his voice held a faint note of curiousity, underscored by the way he was studying her with his head slightly canted. "You do realise that the Tree is gone, right? That the... active spiritual pollution, one could say, of the Dark is largely gone too? Both of these marshals were fully cognisant of their choice - to the point of being unhappy with it. No dark force was puppeteering them." "I know." Autumn forced her eyes to meet his. "Look, maybe they felt like they had no choice. People can get like that - scared stupid." Abruptly she realised what she'd said, and fresh roses bloomed in her cheeks. On impulse, she reached out and took his hand in hers. "Human people can, anyway. You know what I mean, right?" At his nod, she sighed and looked down at their joined hands, her pale ivory skin dusted with bronze against the slender, seemingly delicate olive-hued fingers. "I forget sometimes that you've never been afraid. Well... not forget - overlook it, I guess. Because it's kind of a huge thing for us - learning to deal with being afraid, to understand why someone might do stupid shit out of fear." "I understand it... somewhat." Jase replied softly. "Survival instinct is something I possess too. And my instinct tells me that letting people who try to kill me live is a bad strategy. Human people, or otherwise." He, too, dropped his gaze to consider their contrasting skin tones, his fingers gently stroking the back of her hand. "I held back during the Crossroads raid because I had promised Devin - having reasoned beforehand that killing would be largely unnecessary anyway. I held back with those two seniors because I could tell they were Shades... and because I was foolishly and, it appears, pointlessly trying to prove to some people that I could hold back. But this is different, Autumn. Two people, pressured or not, reluctantly or not, tried to kill me in cold blood. Along with the seniors, that makes two times in as many weeks. I'm getting tired of being a pinata, whether literally or, in Marissa's case, figuratively. And I'm coming to believe the best way to stop people poking me is to remove their fingers when they do." "That... is an option," she admitted grudgingly. "And I can't even argue that it's totally unjustified. I mean, hell, I was so scared and angry earlier that I didn't bother going to see if they needed help once you were okay, and I wasn't even the one they tried to kill." Even now it was hard to get the words out, to swallow the lump in her throat that heralded an upwelling of emotion. It's over, Autumn, she reminded herself, exhaling slowly. It's fine. He's fine. "But that's kind of the point, right? They tried to kill you." Her eyes sought his, warm, mercurial blue meeting cool, ageless green. "They failed. And," she continued, forging ahead emphatically, "you're right. There are consequences, regardless of why they did it, and there should be. They're responsible for the choices they've made up to this point, and they deserved whatever you did to them back there. And honestly, even if Dale helps us, and even if I heal her arms, it'd take a whole other kind of power to make her forget how that felt." Leaning forward, the redhead carefully folded her other hand around their twined fingers to stop its trembling, the vibration there mirrored in her voice despite her best efforts; she hadn't seen the maimed woman yet, but the descriptions she'd heard were awful, to say the least. "If she lives to be a hundred years old, it'll probably still wake her up some nights. Look, I'm not saying you should just let it go, and if they won't cooperate and they're still dangerous, fine. I-" Autumn drew in a long, shuddering breath, blinking back the sudden stinging of tears as her vision started to ripple and blur. "I get it," she conceded. "I just think they should have the chance to make another choice, you know? I mean, I would want one." Time slowed for him as he took in the shuddering in her breath, the hitch in her voice, and the tears in her eyes. Tears without physical harm - another thing he didn't have in common with those he was closest to. For him, they were usually a physiological response - certain types or intensities of pain would trigger tears. He'd only cried twice in his life over emotional causes - once when he'd realised his mother had abandoned him, and once when he'd seen his father break down and cry from shame. Both times the tears had been almost incidental, without sobbing or hitching of breath or other symptoms he'd observed in others - an echo of pain, somewhat of a curiousity for him as he'd reached up to his cheek and felt the moisture there. As he now reached up with his free hand, a finger gently brushing away the tear that had escaped Autumn's best efforts to blink back and had begun it's slow, shining descent over the freckled rose of her cheek. His other hand squeezed hers, feeling the tremor there, discerning how upset she was as his intense green eyes focused on the glistening bead of saline on his finger's tip. There was something precious here, he sensed rather than reasoned. This warmth of hers that he so treasured - it was intrinsic to Autumn as her red hair and the way her nose wrinkled when she grinned. A hearth fire, attractive and welcoming, by which he could be warmed, by which he could perceive something like happiness. And for her to not show compassion, even to such as the marshals... would be to dim that hearth fire. "Alright." he decided, dropping his free hand to rest atop their entwined hands. She looked at him askance, causing the edges of his eyes to crinkle slightly. "Because you asked. Because ultimately, whether they live or die doesn't really matter personally to me - but it does to you. And you matter to me. So..." he shrugged, as if that explained everything. "You matter to me," he'd said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. As if it was obvious. As if they'd just been discussing where to eat dinner and he'd conceded to getting Chinese instead of pizza, rather than whether or not the two would-be assassins should face summary execution at his hands. But how did that even make sense? A part of her acknowledged that if he wanted revenge, it would be totally justified, even if only to make sure they didn't get another chance to come after him... And he'd just shrugged it off because she'd asked? Her. Autumn Keane. The girl who'd just started talking to him a week ago. But, why? Was it because they were friends, or maybe even because she was his first girlfriend, or was there something in her argument that had swayed him? She desperately wanted to ask, but ultimately, the reason was less important than the decision itself. "You're serious," the expressive girl stated wonderingly, her fingers tightening reflexively on Jase's as he nodded. With a bodily sigh of relief, one that resounded from the soles of her be-socked feet to the rose-flushed crown of her head, Autumn released his hands, sliding her arms around his torso as she leaned over her folded legs to draw him into a hug. "Thank you," she breathed against the lean youth's collarbone, squeezing her eyes shut as she willed the mingled hope and gratitude she felt to somehow reach him through the shared resonance of their Shine. "That means a lot to me." And now the warmth encircled him, the flicker of her Shine against his matching the clasp of her arms even as he returned the hug, one hand gently stroking the ends of her tumbling red hair as he rested his scarred cheek against the top of her head, his eyes half-closing as he absorbed the simple pleasure of this moment. There was a faint awareness within him of the change she had caused - or, more precisely, of the change she had caused him to cause. More alchemy perhaps, that wry observer-within remarked. He wanted to experience this warmth, and he wanted to spare her unhappiness, and so he was choosing to alter his behaviour towards that set of circumstances. An ephemeral tether, connecting him intimately to another living being, causing him to choose to alter his nature at least temporarily. He kissed her cheek, watching Autumn's expression as she smiled and scooched closer, forcing him to move his legs to allow her to lean more comfortably against him as she looked up into his face, blue eyes studying him anew - or so it seemed to him. Wordlessly, he lowered his mouth to hers almost on reflex at the sight of her lips, drinking a gentle kiss from her. "And you mean a lot to me." he stated softly in the wake of that caress, aware of the clash between the tender warmth and something more demanding and savage within him. He tried not to think about how she felt in his arms right now - whilst at the same time recognising the impossibility of such a task: how could he not? How indeed, he mused, letting his fingers gently stroke her cheek, teasing a couple of errant copper curls as he studied her features. With little more than a touch, the worries and problems of the moment vanished again, retreating like fading rime before the advance of the morning sun that spilled through the blinds. The contrast between this Jason, the one whose kisses sent sparks of delight racing along her nerves, and the one who could casually announce his intent to kill someone who'd wronged him, was stark indeed. And yet, the redhead mused dazedly as the lingering heat from his lips on hers kindled the glowing embers of her desire for him into new life, she was the one who'd agreed to date a psychopath. You realize you've got nobody to blame for this but yourself. "Mhmm." The soft hum combined contentment and agreement with her inner critic as she turned her head, chasing the faint pressure of his fingertips against her skin. And, really, she reasoned, so what if there was a whole world of problems outside the door to this sterile little room? If the universe wasn't going to give them a break from the awfulness and insanity, she'd just have to steal moments like this for herself where she could. "I hope you don't get any more visitors for a little while," she murmured, leaning in to rest her forehead in the curve of his throat. There was still a faint trace there of the vaguely herbal body wash he used, and Autumn nuzzled closer, breathing in the scent of him as she moulded herself against his side. A couple of hours ago, he'd been bathed in blood and unconscious on the side of the road, but now... He was awake, and whole, and warm, and alive, and- perhaps most importantly- firmly wrapped up in her arms.
  18. "Oh." Autumn blinked as Marissa explained, in her typical off-hand fashion, why her lip balm was on Jase's forehead. Math was not the energetic redhead's strongest subject (as evidenced by her less-than-stellar Chem performance since the start of the semester), and calculating exactly why someone who was openly contemptuous and admittedly fearful of Jason Bannon would kiss him in celebration of his well-being was well beyond her current capability. It made more sense in the opposite direction; he was in love with Marissa, despite her rejection, so of course he'd be fine with the gesture. That... stung, a little, she realized, remembering that the gorgeous brunette hadn't brushed off his flirtation at the Carousel. ...And then a little knot of shame coiled in the pit of her stomach, tighter and more uncomfortable than whatever that stupid, completely trivial other feeling was. He could be fucking dead right now, instead of sitting more or less comfortably in a hospital room with the scent of raspberry lip gloss on his face. What difference did it make where it came from? At least he was here. Literally every other issue was less important at the moment. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Close call, right?" A part of the exhausted Girl Scout felt like she should make some effort to laugh, or smile, or do something to make things feel less awkward, less serious, but she just... couldn't. Instead, she took a deep breath and focused on the rest of what Mari had said, which was one hundred percent more relevant to the current situation: Cassie and Sean were on their way. The elder Bannon and Hank Graskle were also on their way. This room's about to get crowded, she sighed inwardly, sliding off the edge of the hospital bed and getting to her feet. "'Kay then, I'm gonna let my dad know what's going on. Before we have any other witnesses to ruin your reputation," the earnest young woman added, approaching the twins. "Thank you. Both of you," she emphasized with a pointed look at Marissa, her ocean blue eyes guileless and alert despite the faint shadows under them.
  19. El. Ellie herself. Teir fa Thunn. The Blight- a term which, like the Dark, seemed capitalized even in casual speech. Site B. The bracelets, and how they, from Coyote- the Trickster, she reminded herself- ended up with the Blackfeet, and thus her grandfather, and then the Fellowship. Not-Cody. The Huntsman. Gods. The Teulu themselves, and the gunmen. There were so many questions, so many coincidences that just... couldn't be all coincidences, right? But now wasn't the time for that. Now, she was just happy no one else had vanished into the darkness, literally or metaphorically. "Oh, we like pockets," Autumn replied, lifting the cup back to Jase's lips as she watched him watching the otherworldly beauty, studying his expression for some sign of what was going on behind those cool green eyes. He seemed... interested? ...But that was all, and not interested interested as far as she could tell, the curious young woman noted with a twinge of what felt suspiciously like relief. "It's just that most of the companies that make clothes don't like giving them to us. And just women, too. Guys can have all the pockets they want, but we're supposed to carry purses," the redhead grumbled contemptuously. "It's supposed to look nicer, or something, but I don't want to spend extra money for a giant pocket on a strap that's just gonna get caught on literally everything I walk past, and I don't care what it looks like. I want pockets in my jeans, real ones, not those stupid fake ones you can't even fit your whole hand in. I just want to be able to carry my chapstick, my wallet, my knife and my phone. That's it. It's not even complicated, and if you're gonna go to the trouble of stitching on a little half-sized pocket for looks, you might as well give me the whole damn thing. Ugh," she exhaled in frustration, the terminal subvocalization less a linguistic part of the rant and more an instinctual expression of annoyance with the subject. "Anyway," Autumn continued, resolutely ignoring the flicker of amusement in her boyfriend's eyes as they shifted to observe the faint bloom of rose coloring her cheeks. "I don't think my jeans would fit you," she observed, her tone conspicuously less heated as the pocket controversy was abandoned for the moment. "Marissa's might, though. Or we could always hit Goodwill before the meeting, or something, because honestly, I have so, so many questions, but I also don't want to be rude." She paused for a moment, half-consciously tucking a lock of Jason's hair behind his ear as she turned back to him. "Speaking of clothes, I called your dad while you were asleep. He's bringing some for you. Probably something to eat, too. I thought you might be a little hungry." Her eyes caught on the neat, pale line that, oddly, seemed to accentuate the angle of his cheekbone, and the tip of her tongue darted out to moisten suddenly dry lips; if they'd been even a couple of minutes later, mundane issues like wanting a glass of water or something for breakfast wouldn't have even mattered. "I'll hang out until I get that coffee you promised." A faint smile tugged briefly at the corners of Autumn's mouth and she leaned forward, pressing a brief kiss to his temple. "Also..." Straightening, the inquisitive teen set the empty cup on the nearby table, her nose crinkling slightly at the sweet, fruity scent that clung to him. "Why do you smell like a Jolly Rancher?"
  20. 'Ellie.' This is the girl Devin was talking about. There was no essential physical resemblance to Jason Bannon; something about the willowy blonde's upright bearing, however, the intent quality of her gaze, and the slightly formal, concise manner of her speech suggested some level of kinship belied by their superficial differences. Were these things somehow common to all the Teulu? Some weird facet of being (if what Jase had said was true) designed and engineered for certain traits and behaviors? If so, she reflected, wide eyes narrowing thoughtfully as she considered the beautiful stranger, that'd be pretty incredible. At least as incredible as Marissa resting her hand on Jason's shoulder- a fact Autumn noted and set aside for later. Her tolerance for repeated crises was already being tested, and there was no point deliberately courting another one today. "It's good to meet you, too, Ellie," she replied in answer to the newcomer's general greeting, the redhead's polite 'meeting a new person' smile growing a little as Jase's fingers brushed hers around the cup of water. ...And then it widened further, an impish light gleaming in the thalassic depths of her eyes as she added, "Especially since Devin was so excited talking about you and how awesome you were. I'm Autumn, by the way."
  21. The antiseptic scent of the hospital was becoming entirely too familiar. As she sat in one of the room's two chairs- this one pulled up alongside the bed where Jase's chest rose and fell beneath the blanket with reassuring regularity- Autumn sighed and tapped the second entry in her contacts list under his name. While Devin and Marissa were busy handling the Fellowship side of things, there was still another call to be made. She wasn't even sure if Gar would be home, but much as she'd preferred to tell Devin about Tawny in person, the sad-eyed father of her new boyfriend might want to hear the news from someone he actually knew. He could be outside working, or on his way to Great Falls to get supplies or parts, or... A sudden chill rippled up her spine as the connection to the land line was made, and the house phone on the other end began to ring. What if they'd gone to Jase's house, too? "Fuck," she muttered, glancing out into the hall where her dad was busy conferring with one of the deputies. Or maybe, just maybe, the sheriff already called, and he's on his way. Just... see if he answers, and then start worrying if he doesn't. The phone rang several times, then several more, and Autumn was just recalling when she'd first called the home of the slender youth currently unconscious beside her, how the phone had rung for what seemed forever as she waited on tenderhooks for him to pick it up... click "Bannon Farm?" The by-now-familiar soft-spoken voice, deep but not particularly resonant, of Jason's father picking up. "Hey, Mr- uh, Gar." Leaning forward slightly in her seat, the redhead couldn't suppress the soft sigh of relief as he answered the call. "It's Autumn." There was a moment's hesitation, even as she watched the flicker of the younger Bannon's eyelashes. "So, first, um. Jase's fine," she began. "But he is here at the medical center. Resting, right now." There was a long moment of silence as the man on the other end collected his thoughts. Finally, the sound of a deep, slightly unsteady intake of breath came over the line. "What happened, Autumn?" "He-" Fuck, how much can I say right now? Swallowing hard, she exhaled and slouched backward again, sliding down in the seat in a passable imitation of pre-party Bannon as she stared up at the acoustic ceiling tiles. "He was attacked on the way to school." Her eyes stung, the pinprick patterns overhead swimming until she squeezed them shut and forced the words as calmly as she could past the tightness in her throat. "They, um. They shot him. Only two of the bullets actually hit. It looks like he fought back, and the two that attacked him are here somewhere, in custody. He's sleeping, now. He's fine," she stressed, her voice wavering slightly with suppressed emotion. "Seriously. He's fine." Another male voice spoke up from the background - Hank, Autumn realised as she recognised the harsher, gruffer growl of the Bannon's friend. "Jase was shot. Autumn's with him, and says he's fine." Gar replied to the unheard question, then returned to speaking with his son's girlfriend. "Okay, we're on our way down." Though he sounded stoic, Autumn could detect the note of concern in the older Bannon's voice. "Do either of you need anything?" "Ummm," she blinked, focusing on the question as she sat upright again, unable to really get comfortable surrounded by the smell of cleaning chemicals and gleaming tile and the general atmosphere of sterility. "He's gonna want clean clothes, I think. Something comfortable." She paused for a moment longer, considering. "Some kind of breakfast, maybe? And... Coffee. Please. And-" She swallowed again, and exhaled. "And I'm sorry to worry you. I just thought it might be better if you heard it from somebody you knew. ...You know?" "I do." Gar's voice was steadying now, losing its earlier tremor. "If you say he's fine, then I'm not too worried." The vote of confidence was heartfelt. "We'll grab some things and be down right away. And Autumn...? Thank you." "Yeah," The smile in her voice was audible across the distance of the phone connection. "I'll see you guys when you get here." She tapped the red icon on the screen, ending the call with a near-inaudible click. "Hey," she murmured, resting her cheek against the edge of the thin hospital mattress, her gaze tracing the shape of his profile silhouetted against the morning light filtering through the blinds. "If you can hear me in there, your dad and Hank are on their way, so just... Just rest, okay?" Shifting her weight to nudge the chair a little closer, the redhead folded her arms across her chest, wishing idly she'd had her hoodie as her own eyes drifted shut.
  22. "Not sure a near-death experience is worth it," Autumn murmured distractedly as the bleeding from the lurid gash across Jason's face slowed to a trickle, then finally stopped altogether. A final chain of tiny crimson droplets oozed out, dark and glistening as pomegranate seeds as the lacerated flesh across his cheekbone sealed completely, leaving in its place a pale line graven into the warm olive of his skin- a permanent reminder of how close he'd come to oblivion that morning. It was an odd experience, she realized distantly, like watching the wound being inflicted in reverse. She was less concerned with how it looked, though, and more focused on the fact that it had healed neatly and quickly so that she could move on to the next life-threatening injury. The swelling on his brain was likewise slowly draining away, the damage caused by the kinetic impact and fragmentation of bone dissipating; she could sense the shift in his breathing and the growing strength of his heartbeat thrumming- or so it felt- through her own veins. He hadn't yet started stirring, though, which was both a blessing and a cause for worry. On the one hand, it meant he wouldn't feel the part that came next, and it would give his body time to recover more naturally, albeit with some help from the accelerated healing her powers afforded. On the other... It's fine, Autumn, she reminded herself as something in her chest tightened uncomfortably. Worry about keeping him alive first. "Okay." Huffing softly as she exhaled, the redhead used her forearm to push the loose hair back from her forehead, squinting a little into the sunlight and taking stock of what the others were doing. She could see Marissa and her father doing something with blankets off to the side and set her jaw, lips compressing briefly into a taut line. She didn't have time to worry about them; this was her priority right now. Her freckled fingers trembled, slick with the blood that masked Jase's still, impassive features. "Okay. We need to get that bullet out. If I heal him now, the skin and muscle will just close up around it. You up for this?" she asked, lines of worry etched around the corners of her eyes as she glanced up at Devin. "If not, I can do it, I'm just..." She hesitated. "Just trying not to do more damage in the process." The weary teleporter took a deep breath, rolling his shoulders as if in preparation for some great feat of athleticism rather than simply removing a small lump of metal from a few inches away. "You kidding?" he quipped, managing a crooked grin. "I mean, I dunno if you should be asking that with your boyfriend right here, but I'm flattered, Granola. Really. We'll talk, 'kay?" "'Kay," she replied, smiling faintly in spite of herself. "If you can pull it out, I can take care of the rest. We just need to be quick about it. Ready?" From the corner of her eye, she could see Devin's head bob in a brisk nod. "Do it." With a grimace and a low, pained groan of effort, Autumn's erstwhile tormentor concentrated on the shape, the position of the bullet relative to himself, one fist clenching reflexively in the torn and bloodied remnants of the towel under his palm. She could sense the exhaustion rolling off him in waves as she watched Jason's eyelids for signs of movement, could feel the physical vibration of his arm against her as he pushed through the discomfort and fatigue. It should've been such an easy thing for him, no more strenuous than snatching a penny from a table; in truth, she'd been more concerned about his ability to deal with the visceral aspects of the injury than the actual removal of the near-fatal projectile, but it seemed she'd had her expectations in the wrong order. The red-haired girl was just about to tell him to stop as something shifted almost imperceptibly in the prone young man's expression, but then- "Got it," Devin gasped triumphantly, followed immediately by a soft shimmer of faded violet as the misshapen bit of lead hit the pavement nearby with a faint metallic sound. "Holy balls," he breathed. "That sucked." With a hiss of relief and anxiety, Autumn pushed away the towel, her palm resting near the neat hole that had come so perilously close to his heart. If the bullet had gone just a little deeper... Shaking her head, she focused on the current problem rather than what could have happened, her power knitting the torn muscle fibre and delicate nerves together once more in a stabilizing tapestry of interconnected energy and tissue that helped strengthen the whole. As the last layer of skin- paler than the flesh around it- drew the small circular wound closed, Ian and Marissa glanced up at the sound of approaching sirens.
  23. Note: Some of these examples describe a problematic or contentious aspect of the value in question; this is intentional. No one value is solely positive or negative. These are ideas or pursuits that Autumn values, after all, and while they do help define her character for good or ill, there’s always a certain measure of nuance and variation in their application that helps create internal and external conflict. Core Character Values Achievement: There are few things more satisfying to Autumn than succeeding in some endeavor as a result of her own efforts, and the greater the difficulty she faces, the greater the sense of accomplishment. This isn’t strictly a function of winning, or even of competition itself, but rather of persevering through hardship or overcoming some trial in her quest to improve. It’s more important to her that she work for something and earn it through sheer dogged determination, trial and error, practice, or the exertion of will and energy than through any other means. It doesn’t require external validation of success (though such acknowledgements aren’t proscribed), and people who pursue public acclaim over personal satisfaction are obviously missing the point. While there’s no reason not to celebrate a hard-won victory, the party or fame or shiny thing to put on the mantel isn’t enough reason for Autumn on its own. Trophies, like the one from her first successful hunt, or the progressively complex embroidery and macramé projects she’s done, hang on her wall as tangible reminders- milestones by which to gauge her progress and urge her onward. They’re not the ultimate goal. Example: Sometimes, it’s the little things: learning to climb by scrabbling up limestone outcroppings and boulders, then progressing to scaling rough cliff faces, and then perhaps one day, Everest itself. Life is full of mountains, both real and metaphorical, and working out how to deal with them is one of her primary drives. Autumn’s reward for reaching the summit is the view, the ache in her muscles, and the knowledge that she accomplished what she’d set out to do. Primary Synergy: Autonomy, manifests via the desire to learn how to do something for herself rather than ask that it be done for her. Autonomy: Lessons about self-reliance and self-determination came early and often for Autumn, a commonality shared with many who have grown up in places like Shelly. “Responsible risk-taking” was encouraged from a very young age, and though initially it was simply intended to build confidence in children, in Autumn it also fostered a strong independent streak and a desire for agency in making her own decisions. This dovetailed with observations of her grandfather’s stoic-mindedness, such that she believes others should also enjoy those same freedoms, and with the same level of accountability. While not predisposed to automatically resent or reject authority (at least what she’d consider reasonable authority), she also doesn’t feel compelled to submit without question. It’s also made her more comfortable with being on her own, somewhat protective of the spaces she defines as “hers,” and resentful of intrusion, coercion, or being expected to do things solely to please others. Obviously, this can have a (potentially serious) knock-on effect in her interactions with other people, particularly in the depth and nature of the relationships themselves and her reluctance to rely on the judgement or capabilities of others over her own. Example: Autumn wants to finish the tree house her grandfather was building with her before the weather becomes too cold and uncooperative to work on it. The project would be completed much faster with help, but it hasn’t occurred to her to ask because while it’s important to her, it’s not specifically important (or relevant) to anyone else. Why should it be? They have their own interests and pursuits, after all, just as she does. Primary Synergy: Challenge, manifests via the drive to refine her skills on her own and seek out new ways of testing herself. Challenge: Autumn thrives on being pushed to improve, to constantly better herself in some way even if she’s the one doing the pushing. Although not especially ambitious (a fact which frustrates and infuriates her parents), an integral part of Autumn’s character is the need to keep moving forward through adversity, to chase the next bend in the road and see what’s there. Part of this is due to a certain natural curiosity (“Can I do this?”) and part, of course, is simple pride (often a response to, “I don’t think you can do this.”) Once the bar has been set, and she’s implicitly or explicitly accepted a challenge, she’ll devote herself fully to reaching it. Naturally, this can lead to a lot of personal frustration at repeated failures or unforeseen complications, or can alternately result in her being manipulated into doing something. She rather uncharitably views people who don’t share a similar outlook as boring, lazy, or complacent. Example: Jason sparked Autumn’s interest in improving her weakest grades with an indirect challenge, subtly suggesting she might not be capable of winning a prize she hadn’t even cared about previously, but which suddenly became more appealing when framed as entertainment/gratification. “It’ll help your college transcript” is a lame reason because it doesn’t coincide with her interests; saying “I’ll have to ride in the passenger seat and look pretty while you drive” makes it more of a game than a chore, because it’s not specifically about the car, but about Jason being obliged to do something silly. Primary Synergy: Achievement, manifests via the satisfaction gained through self-improvement and completing especially difficult tasks. Family: More than simply Autumn’s relationship with her parents, or even her kinship with extended relatives like the Crockers and those few friends who might be brought in by association, the idea of family for her is also one of shared history, legacy, and deep roots. “Family” is one of the few constants in her life, a fixed point by which she navigates the world in a metaphorical and literal sense. From family she’s learned not only practical skills, but also about life and herself, how to treat others, how she should expect to be treated. She treasures things given by or inherited from her predecessors, from recipes to camp sites and threadbare quilts, and feels a sense of responsibility to their former owners that such heirlooms are cared for, and -when possible- that others are made aware of their significance. Knowing where you’ve come from is, for Autumn, a key part of a person’s identity. As such, she takes a dim view of those who are dismissive of the provenance and emotional importance of these objects (even within their own families), or of their own heritage and what it can teach. Example: Hearing others flippantly refer to the bracelets she discovered in her grandfather’s office as “decoder rings,” “gadgets,” and the like would be a point of contention for her- especially after the visit to the reservation, the training day, and the subsequent explanation of their origins to the group. It was (and is) important to her that such things be understood. Primary Synergy: Integrity, manifests via respect for lessons and ideals demonstrated and/or passed down to her by her parents and grandparents. Integrity: Most people have trouble keeping secrets, telling lies, cheating or taking advantage of others, and intentionally behaving dishonestly or in ways that are inconsistent with their personal philosophy. For Autumn, this is as much a part of her character and upbringing as it is an aspect of normal human psychology. That’s not to say that she’s incapable of doing these things, but rather that it makes her extremely (and almost invariably visibly) uncomfortable, making her one of the worst possible choices for anything involving deliberate deception because she’s almost guaranteed to fail hilariously/catastrophically. Integrity encompasses more than simple earnestness; it’s less a personality trait and more an ideal she consciously tries (not always successfully) to uphold. People who are obviously inauthentic or lack integrity in her eyes are kept at arms’ length, and usually treated with the bare minimum level of common courtesy, which might earn her a lecture or two about manners; she learned a lot from her grandfather, not all of it appropriate for a teenage girl. Example: If Marissa had told Autumn about Enterich, the money, and the threats to her parents, and then sworn her to secrecy, Autumn would be in an awful position in which this particular value would prick at her conscience no matter how she proceeded. If she told the group, she’d be violating Marissa’s trust and conceivably risking the Jauntsens’ safety; if she didn’t, she’d be withholding vital information in a move that could potentially put them all at risk, or hinder their fight against the Dark. Ugh! Primary Synergy: Family, manifests via cultivation of strong personal identity rooted in tradition. Standard Character Values Adventure: Activities like creeping around in places she shouldn’t be (#TeamPluck) and venturing into places no one’s ever been are enormously appealing to Autumn, especially if there’s an element of risk involved. Generally, there should be a purpose to the trip, something of benefit to be gained (information, for example), but in some cases that benefit could simply be the experience itself rather than something tangible. Trekking across the steppes of Mongolia for a month? Sure, sounds like fun! Diving into a long-forgotten cenote in the Yucatán to look for Mayan relics? Heck yeah! Riding down the side of an erupting volcano monastery on an alien world on the back of a six-legged lizard-goat to escape the clutches of a cabal of interdimensional space wizards? ...Obviously. Change & Variety: It’s no secret that Autumn gets bored, that she quickly becomes restless and frustrated if stuck in one place or mired in one activity for too long. All that energy needs to be directed somewhere (see: Achievement, Challenge), and she’s usually happiest when she can try something new, explore new possibilities and discover things she’d never seen or considered. It’s important that she find new ways to engage and be engaged with life, to indulge her inherent curiosity about the world and pursue interesting ideas and activities whenever possible. Help others: One of the ideals impressed on Autumn not only by her family but through experience with groups like the Girl Scouts is the concept of service, of being helpful and directly useful to others. Living in such a way that you don’t actively harm or diminish others’ quality of life is important, but acting in ways that actually benefit them is much more rewarding, and intrinsically more valuable. It should be noted that actually helping is the goal, rather than simply repeating encouraging but ultimately empty platitudes or offering pointless charity. Knowledge: Autumn’s pursuit of knowledge isn’t an abstract one. Far from the cerebral sort, it’s her curiosity and need to understand things- people, ideas, and so on- that helps establish her relationship with and position in the world. Trivia is pointless information, random bits of data that don’t have any practical bearing on her life; she would rather take an active role in exploring, discovering, and inquiring about something that interests her than simply read a book or internet article on the subject. The knowledge she’s after is experiential rather than academic, relevant and applicable rather than obscure and arcane, and when she asks questions, it’s because she genuinely wants to know the answer (even if she’s not necessarily prepared for it). Leisure: “All work and no play…” is no way to live. Even with the threat of imminent death hanging over her head, Autumn will find or make time to go for a walk in the woods, enjoy a cup of really good coffee, play with her four-footed family, or work on whatever project has sparked her interest. Time, after all, is the one commodity that no one ever feels they have enough of, and she’d rather not look back on her life with a long list of regrets about things she didn’t do. Pleasure: If you can’t enjoy yourself, what’s the point? Whether it’s the thrill of kissing someone who excites her, the simple luxury of napping in a hammock on a summer afternoon, the sensual joy of eating or drinking (or smoking) something delicious, or the satisfaction of finally finishing a gruelling backwoods hike, Autumn isn’t immune to the allure of indulgence or delight. It could be argued, in fact, that one of the motivators for her behaviors (or human behavior in general) is the appreciation of some form of pleasure as a reward; that she doesn’t actively chase gratification for its own sake, as an end in and of itself, is the defining difference between pleasure as something she values generally, and a value intrinsic to her.
  24. The trio of gleaming black vehicles- Jase's Charger, Marissa's Mercedes, and Devin's Ducati- were a strange, incongruous sight next to the unassuming sedan and the one that looked, at first glance, like some kind of law-enforcement thing. But Autumn didn't waste time trying to figure out which branch it might belong to, because as soon as her dad's SUV approached the impromptu parking area, she clicked off the seatbelt, flung open the passenger door despite her father's shout of protest and the sudden, jarring application of the brakes. She saw- -Marissa, standing over someone (?) near the side of the road. -Devin, shirtless and kneeling next to the driver's side of the predatory beast Jason was going to have to let her drive when her grades went up... Because that was the deal, right? -Combat boots. ...He wore those everywhere, which was kind of crazy considering how quietly he moved around, but they were super practical. It was one of those little quirks she appreciated about him, the fact that he didn't really care about all the superfluous stuff. -Long, slender fingers, relaxed in a graceful curve where his hand lay on the ground. ...The same fingers that felt so warm twined in hers, that faint current of something running between them. -Bright white towels stained red. So very, very red. Vivid as the roses he cultivated in the barn, fragrant blooms with velvet petals and dark thorns, their sanguine hue blooming here, instead, on the thick cloth pressed to Jason's chest, wound tight around his head. And then father and Range Rover and school were forgotten. She could feel the shift, the tactile crunch of the gravel underfoot as she sprinted across the road heedless of traffic, the sting of the rocks through her well-worn jeans as she hit her knees next to Devin. Even without seeing the wounds, the second she touched the unconscious telekinetic she could feel them, raw and brutal and life-stealing. The injury to his skull was the worst, the most immediately dangerous, but there was a fucking bullet in his chest, a weird alien otherness to the lump of metal she could only really feel by the shape of the pain around it. "All right, so... the one is fortunately-" Fortunately?! Jesus fuck, Autumn, how is anything about this fortunate?!- " just buried in the muscle between his ribs. Didn't hit his heart, or lungs, or..." Oh, Jesus. Oh, god, oh fuck. "Fuck," she swore. "Fuck, fuck, fuck. Um..." Okay. Okay okay okay. Think, Autumn. Focus. Running a trembling hand back over her hair, the ashen-faced redhead frantically tried to process what to do first, but her thoughts were racing too fast to keep hold of for longer than a moment. There was a vague sense that other people were also hurt nearby- one of them badly- but if those were the gunmen he'd mentioned in his text, well. Fuck them. They can wait. "Okay." Exhaling, she took hold of the makeshift terrycloth turban wound around Jason's brow. "Skull first. Right. Um, Devin." She glanced at the blood-smeared gymnast on her right, his handsome features a mask of concentration. "Keep pressure on his chest for me right now, please and thank you. I'm gonna need your help with that in a minute." She drew in another deep breath, gingerly peeling back the saturated towel as a quiet, choked sound escaped her throat at the sight beneath. No. No, no, no nonono. Fucking- You know, just no. Just fucking no. "We are definitely gonna need to talk about this whole head trauma thing," Autumn muttered shakily, her fingers slipping around the bloody line of her boyfriend's jaw. The fact that he'd survived at all was almost incomprehensible, as was the reason he'd been attacked in the first place, but they could deal with that later. Extending her senses, she let the faint icy ripples of his Shine intersect and resonate with her own, providing clarity as the young vitakinetic traced the jagged edges of the fracture with her power and painstakingly rejoined each fragment of splintered bone. She could feel the tiny flickers at the core of his cells, their vital energy responding to hers as she coaxed shrieking nerves and ruptured blood vessels together, weaving the visceral fabric of his flesh and life back into a coherent whole. As Ian watched, circling around his daughter to take in the horror of the scene before him, he saw her clear blue eyes go distant, darkening slightly with the expansion of her pupils. It was almost, he thought, like she was seeing something he couldn't, something beyond the frighteningly still form of the young man he'd just shared coffee with at the kitchen table the night before. He'd seen what Jason Bannon could do then, but this... This was someone's life, not manipulating kinetic energy, or however the boy had described it. That's not how the world worked. "I'm calling an ambulance," he announced tersely, grabbing the cell phone from his pocket and raking a fingertip over the screen. "This is-" "Crazy?" Devin supplied helpfully, leaning forward to keep his weight on the bullet wound. "Yep. And it's probably going to get a whole lot crazier. 911's not a bad idea, though." Jerking his head in the direction of his sister and the two Marshals, the athletic teen glanced briefly up at the elder Keane. "Those guys're gonna need it." Blinking, the older man looked from his daughter over to where Shelly's dressed-down beauty queen was grumbling at the two prone figures. "Shit," he sighed, and pressed the button to dial.
  25. Even with the help of a little bit (okay, a lot) of self-medication, sleep had eluded Autumn for most of the night. They'd struck a blow against the Dark, eliminating a very real threat under circumstances which, a few weeks ago, would have seemed anything but. Sitting in her tree house, wreathed in smoke and silence, it had still all felt kind of unbelievable. Like a bad trip, or a nightmare she was just waking up from... Except that it'd be more accurate to say that the nightmare itself was a kind of waking-up, an uncomfortable realization that the reality she'd known had been just a comfortable illusion. Was it normal to have an existential crisis at sixteen? Probably. For a given value of "normal," anyway, which also included things like alternate dimensions and aliens and old legends proving true. Apart from Jacob and the dogs, in fact, almost no one in the Keane house had slept soundly that night; there were too many questions, too many things left unresolved. Still... As the crisp, cool chime that heralded a text message confirmed, some uncertainty wasn't necessarily a bad thing. A soft knock on the door frame drew Autumn's attention away from the image of bemused green eyes to the groggy, unshaven smile of her father. "Morning, sweetheart. I didn't think you'd be awake yet." He paused for a moment, noting the phone already in her hands. "You said breakfast starts at 7:30?" "Mhmm," she hummed, stifling a yawn with her arm and squirming comfortably under the quilt. It was, she had to admit, kind of weird having her dad around, but weird in a good way. Unfamiliar, but not unwelcome. "Morning, Dad. Anybody in the shower?" "Not yet, but you should probably hurry if you want to sneak in there before your mom." "Yeahhhh..." A long stretch, a sleepy smile, and a resigned sigh brought her upright, pushing a tangle of copper curls back out of her face as she sat amongst the blankets. "Probably." As she stood under the warm spray a few minutes later, hair slathered generously in the thick conditioner Marissa had recommended, Autumn's thoughts slowly shifted from the events of the night before to a rough outline of the day ahead. Riding in with her dad. Coffee and breakfast with Jase at school. Going to classes and going through the motions of whatever passed for a "normal" day now, with two fewer students- ones who hadn't just moved to Canada or wherever, but who really really wouldn't be coming back, ever. That was... Well, it was a thing, anyway. Talking to Marissa during Study Hall about Homecoming, maybe. The meeting at the medical center... Ugh. Not looking forward to that. She grimaced at the prospect of being trapped in a room with a bunch of people all trying to talk over each other as she carefully rinsed the fragrant masque from the heavy mass of uncoiled curls, combing her fingers through them again and again until the water ran clear. "Autumn?" her mother's voice called out above the sound of the torrent. "Leave some hot water for me, please. Going down to put the coffee on, now, so don't be too long." "Sorry!" she yelled back, quickly scrubbing away the remnants of sleep from her skin. "Just a minute!" True to her word, the young redhead was bundled in towels and padding back across the landing shortly thereafter, just as Dana came up the stairs. "Morning," she greeted the still-sleepy vet with a smile, eyes flicking downward as she paused to make sure she wasn't dripping on the floor. "Oh, hey! Is Jay up?" "Not yet." Dana shook her head, returning the smile with one of her own as she took in her daughter's sudden shift in demeanor, the pink cheeks still flushed and rosy from the shower; there'd been a time when talking about Jacob Crocker had elicited that response on its own. "Why don't you go check on him? Once you're presentable, of course," she teased gently, planting a quick kiss on the girl's freckled forehead as she headed in to get ready for work. Autumn was just about to remark that he'd seen her in a lot less than towels before so it wasn't really a big deal, but caught herself- that was not a conversation she wanted to start this early in the day. Instead, she busied herself with getting dressed, giving herself a quick once-over in the mirror as she toweled off and marveled briefly at the fading pink lines on her skin. Within another day or two, they'd likely be completely healed, vanishing as if the whole thing had never happened. The old scars still lingered, though, faint white traces marking out memories of adventures and mishaps. That was interesting- certainly something to think about. Maybe one of the brainier members of the Fellowship would have a theory about why that was so. Leaving her rather sad-looking hoodie on the chair next to the closet, she slipped on a well-worn flannel over the typical Autumn uniform of jeans and t-shirt instead and skipped briskly down the stairs in her sock feet. Her mother had been mostly right: Jacob wasn't really up and about, but he was awake, sitting up in the guest room and talking quietly with Nathan. Someone had made him oatmeal, which the ravenous young man devoured as she checked in; there didn't seem to be any lingering effects, apart from the residual discomfort of being thrown around by a creature with inhuman strength. Even so, the general consensus was that taking a day to rest and get checked out by an actual doctor wouldn't be a bad idea. There was more to be said, as always, but it would have to wait. Giving both the Crockers quick hugs and quicker apologies, Autumn promised to call during lunch, and to let them know what happened at the not-PTA meeting later. For now, there were dogs to take out for a run around the yard, and breakfast to get to. ------------- It was just after seven when Ian's silver Range Rover pulled out of the drive, Autumn already fiddling with the controls on the dashboard of the new-ish SUV. "Do you have Spotify on this?" He blinked at her, momentarily distracted from the road and thoughts of how to address what had happened yesterday, and in that brief pause she'd already located the green icon on the console display. "Oh, yeah, cool. Can I link my account, so we have stuff to listen to on the way?" Almost before he'd gotten out a slightly-bewildered 'sure,' the animated young woman was tapping contentedly away at her phone, and within moments the folksy sound of a mellow guitar thrummed through the air, accompanied by a clear, male voice he didn't quite recognize, but which felt somehow familiar. "Oooh, this one's good," she nodded, apparently satisfied at the algorithm's selection. "So," he began, glancing at her from the corner of his eye as she hummed along, murmuring bits of the lyrics here and there. "Are you-" His not-so-little-anymore girl turned, blue eyes expectant, and he cleared his throat, reaching for the travel mug of coffee he'd brought. "How're you holding up?" "I'm... okay, I think," she replied, weighing her words carefully as she spoke them. "Like... It's nice to not have this thing hanging over my head, you know? I feel like I have room to breathe." "Even though your friend is gone?" The surprise registered clearly in his voice, and another cursory glance in Autumn's direction found her watching the trees roll lazily past the open window as the breeze ruffled strands of her still-damp ponytail. "Charlie wasn't my friend." She frowned into the mirror, a little twinge of guilt twisting in her chest. "I know it sounds-" Maybe don't say ''shitty,' or 'fucking' in front of your Dad. Just a thought. "It sounds awful. But he really wasn't. It sucks that he died, but I barely knew him, so it's just..." Exhaling, she looked over at Ian, brow furrowing slightly as she searched for the words. "I feel like I don't feel as bad as I should, and that makes me feel bad. I care that he's gone, but it's not personal, I guess. Not like with Grandpa," she finished more quietly, peering at her father's profile while he drove. "You know?" "Mhmm." Ian nodded, his gaze on the road and morning traffic ahead. "Like, the whole thing with Cody upsets me because I feel like, I don't know. Like we could've done something differently, and instead of dying in a fire as some monster in a nightmare hellscape, he could've just gotten therapy or gone to jail, or whatever. I mean, yeah, it was his choices that put him there, but could our choices have changed anything?" They sat in silence for a few moments, and then, abruptly: "He was like us." "Like you?" That warranted another quick glance at the passenger side as he tried to maintain some semblance of a neutral expression. "You mean, with the- the powers?" "Yeah." Autumn went back to watching the landscape slip past them, twisting a lock of red-gold hair around her fingers contemplatively as Marissa's words at the hospital came back to her. "He was like us, and turned into this awful, evil thing. So... If one of us makes the wrong choice, like he did, could the others bring us back? Or will we end up like him?" A crisp, vaguely frosty note interrupted then, saving Ian from another uncomfortable discussion so close on the heels of the one from last night, and the energetic teen felt herself smiling in spite of the tone of the conversation. She swiped away the lock screen and tapped the notification- //Been attacked. 2 gunmen, neutralised. Head wound, bleeding. Need you both. Road into town from my place, two miles down. Be careful.// "Sweetheart?" She could hear her dad talking, but he sounded so far away as she read the message again, his voice distant and distorted like the sound of someone underwater. Or maybe she was the one under the waves, drowning in shock and sinking with the sudden weight in her gut as the words swam before her eyes. "Is everything okay?" "No," she managed, then shook her head. No. No, everything is not okay at all. Just don't... Don't fucking cry right now. Okay? Don't, Autumn. Don't cry, and don't panic. Just go. Just fucking go. "Dad, you've gotta turn around. We have to go get Jase." "Okay." He had a dozen questions, the foremost of those being 'Why?' But the note of fear in his daughter's voice, the desperation in her bright blue eyes as she whirled to look at him, tugged at his heart and sent a pang of worry lancing through his chest. "Okay," he repeated, checking the mirrors and taking a deep breath, steeling himself for whatever they were about to find. "We will. Just tell me where to go, all right?" She nodded, a choked sound of assent narrowly escaping the rapid constriction of her throat as she blinked back tears. NO. NO CRYING. CRYING IS NOT HELPFUL, AUTUMN RAE. "Umm. You can-" Struggling to regain control of her breathing, Autumn forced herself to inhale, counting silently to four and defying the upwelling of panic surging within her. She exhaled, focusing on the sensation of the breeze from the window, the feeling of the upholstered seat beneath her, the weight of the phone in her hand and the sense of her own body in space. It was fine. She was fine. Jason was fine. Everything was fine. "You can turn up there, by Bunnees." Clutching the phone in a white-knuckled death grip, the terrified redhead gestured toward an intersection that led out of town toward the Bannon and Heath farms. "He said- ohh, god," she breathed, shaking her head to clear it. "Um. He said he was attacked, and they had guns, and-" Her father's eyes widened, hands tightening on the steering wheel. Guns. Were they still there? Was it safe to even go? he wondered. And then: Was it a random attack, or did the Bannon boy do something? Almost immediately, he felt guilty for even considering it, but... There was definitely something strange about him, even without the whole crazy powers thing, and he'd heard a few rumors while he'd been home. The bit about his dad being involved in a militia, of course, but maybe it was more than that. The distraught girl's voice wavered dangerously, and she swallowed, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes. "And he actually asked for help, which means it's gotta be bad, and-" There was another chime, this one different from the first, and both Ian and Autumn glanced anxiously at the screen. //Jason needs you. He's hurt. On my way to get you, send me a pin.// "It's, uh. Marissa," she explained, grateful for something else to focus on for just a moment or two as she started tapping out a reply with trembling fingers. "I guess she heard, too. I need to text her back. Gonna see if she'll meet us there." [Just got a txt from him, omw there now w my dad. Meet us there, please? Not sure exactly where he is. Trying not to freak out.] Even after pressing 'send,' Autumn kept typing away as the SUV headed out toward the edge of town, sending a string of increasingly worried texts to Jason's phone that remained unread.
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