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Everything posted by Autumn Keane

  1. "Well, we've been in classes together and so on since I moved to Shelly." Jason replied calmly, dextrous fingers and sharp knife making swift work of the tomatoes. "Aware of each other, without really talking." Dana nodded, setting the olive oil on the counter. Jason tilted his head to one side. "Do you have any balsamic vinegar?" he asked casually, causing Dana to think a moment before nodding and retrieving that bottle from the cupboard too as her guest started in on the onions. Dana checked the oven temperature and lightly oiled the potatoes before setting them on a tray. "But we started talking last Friday." Jason went on. "Autumn bumped her head on a door - it swung back into her face, to be exact, and one of my friends noticed the tumble. She grabbed me, because I have a certain level of medical knowledge, and we went to check on Autumn." He glanced up at her, giving a faint smile. "She was fine other than a bruise. Fine enough that she was giving me a hard stare for walking into the girls bathroom and caring more that she didn't have a concussion. I got her some ice for the bruise, then we invited her to sit down with us." The corners of his eyes crinkled slightly as he started arranging neat slices of tomato and even thinner sliced onion in the dish. "Not the best of starts. I really got the impression she thought we were oddballs and that I was up to no good." "I probably would have assumed the same thing if someone I barely knew followed me into the women's restroom," Dana replied a trifle archly, narrowly suppressing a smile. That did sound like Autumn, all right, or at least her propensity for mishaps. "So," she continued, adding a little coarse salt and pepper to the potatoes as she leaned over to examine Jason's handiwork. "You started talking on Friday, last week." With a little hm and a nod of approval at his progress, she turned back to her own preparations. "And, from the sound of it, not necessarily under ideal circumstances. Thank you for looking after her, by the way." Hazel eyes flickered once more in his direction, considering his profile as he worked. There was something unusual about Jason Bannon, though she couldn't quite put her finger on it. He seemed too... mature, really. He didn't give off the impression of being a drug-running miscreant now that she was talking to him in person, but he didn't quite seem like a teenager, either- didn't conduct himself like one, or move with that awkward semi-conscious lack of spatial awareness most of them had, didn't use the same slang terminology. "So how did you two end up getting close enough since then for her to invite you up to the creek?" He made a soft sound of amusement - a proto-chuckle of sorts. "Well, she hung out with a bunch of us at my home on Sunday, and left without her hoodie. On Monday evening she came to get it back, and then stayed to talk." Satisfied with his arrangement of the layers of tomato and onion, he inquired after a bowl and whisk and began mixing some olive oil and balsamic in the bowl, before slowly whisking them together. "I... I was having a bad day. Personal issues. Autumn was able to get me to talk about them - indeed, she was the only one who cared to talk to me about them." He paused, eyes going distant as he recalled the night - her warm hug, the conversation in the kitchen, the teasing and laughter. "I think..." he said slowly. "I think Autumn is the only person who really, really tried - and tries - to understand me." The words were matter-of-factly spoken, but seemed to come from a place of vast distance, or so it seemed to Dana. There was no self-pity there, or sorrow, but there was a sense of alienation, of a young life lived in apart-ness. He looked up from grinding some salt and pepper into the bowl, his gaze direct as he regarded Dana. "Autumn made an impact on me. I think that's when we became friends." He dropped his gaze and considered the bowl of dressing, then raised it to his face and gave it a sniff, pondering for a second before adding a touch more pepper. "And the rest is her defending me at school, then inviting me camping. And... I suddenly realised - we both did, I think - what was there." He chuckled again. "Perhaps it didn't exist until that moment, like Schrödinger's Cat. Until we opened the box and looked." He shrugged his lean shoulders. "I'm not really an expert on this sort of thing. Autumn is the first girl that ever kissed me." Leaning back against the counter, arms folded across her chest, Dana Keane listened quietly as Jason related the very brief series of events that had led, more or less, to finding the pair of them on the front porch. It was gratifying, in a sense, to hear someone- a stranger to herself- praise her daughter's character, as if in confirmation that she'd been raised well by people who loved her. And yet, that same maternal inclination, some completely mundane and yet unfathomable instinct, told her that this polite, well-spoken young man might have no idea what that felt like. The thought didn't lessen her worry for her daughter, necessarily, but his account did reinforce Autumn's insistence that they really had just been friends. ...Which, given the rapid escalation of their relationship, was more than enough to justify a measure of concern. A responsible 16 year-old was still a 16 year-old, after all, with all the dubious judgement that entailed. "Really?" she asked when he'd finished, one auburn brow raised skeptically as a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. Her keen hazel eyes appraised his height, the faintly Mediterranean cast of his features, the pale green gaze Autumn had remarked on more than once. "I find that hard to believe. You're a nice-looking young man. Surely my daughter isn't the first one to think so." "I never claimed that." A fin of humour flashed in the depths of his eyes, echoed in another of those small but genuine smiles as he glanced back at Dana, meeting her gaze once more without any of the discomfort that should be present in a teenage boy talking about such a subject with an older woman. No blush, no self-deprecating aww-shucks shrug. It was both impressive and somewhat disturbing. "I've known there've been girls that took interest in me, at least according to sources other than my own perceptions. I've not had a lot of luck following up on that, though." Giving the dressing a final whisk, he artfully drizzled it over the dish of layered tomato and onion. "Like I said - Autumn's the first who actually kissed me. And honestly, the fact that it was her meant more than the fact it was a kiss." He picked up the dish and moved over to the refrigerator, opening the door and selected a spot on the shelf on which to place the salad. Closing the door, he turned and faced Dana from across the kitchen, the corners of his eyes crinkling in a micro-smile. "You worry for Autumn." he stated calmly, arms hanging at his sides with a relaxed poise that had nothing of the defensive or bashful about it. "It's good: seeing that love you hold, the way you care. I won't hurt her, Dana. I'm not careless with my friendship... or other feelings." "Can you really guarantee me that?" she replied, head tilted slightly in an attitude of intent curiosity. It was a largely rhetorical question, born of the older woman's objection to what she saw as his naïve optimism. Although Jason Bannon had the manner of an adult, the bearing of someone considerably more mature than his actual age would seem to indicate, he was, she reflected, still a boy, after all. "That you won't hurt her." Dana shook her head slowly as if in answer to her own question, but remained leaning comfortably against the counter. "No," she continued, not unkindly, but with the certainty of one accustomed to promises and the fickleness of both circumstance and human nature. "You can tell me that you'll try not to. You can reassure me that you won't do it intentionally." Her eyebrows drew together in a little frown, an expression of thoughtfulness her daughter unconsciously adopted when considering a problem. "But, eventually, you will. Even if you're not careless. Even if you don't mean to." She was quiet for a moment, glancing past Jason and toward the doorway where Autumn had vanished to go upstairs. "I do worry," Dana agreed, moving to gather up the utensils to be washed and glancing up at her daughter's strange new companion. "She's my child, my little girl, the hardest and the best thing that's ever happened to me. And I know that, even though she'll be my baby as long as she lives, she won't be a baby nearly that long. So, I'd rather you didn't tell me something unrealistic, like the fact that you won't hurt her. Tell me how you'll handle it when you do." He focused on the question, on her words, and his brow furrowed in concentration as he gave the matter his full attention. As Dana kept one eye on him, he paced a few short steps, hands going into the pockets of his sweat pants, then turned and paced back. Then he went motionless, as if all extraneous energy had been turned off and the actual Being of Jason Bannon was elsewhere, eyes staring unseeingly at the counter-top in front of him. He didn't even seem to breathe. And then motion and animus returned, and his head came up, eyes glancing towards Dana once more. "I think..." he said slowly, as if analysing his thoughts as they were verbalised. "That people often hurt each other. Even those close to them, though that seems to be mostly selfishness, mistake or carelessness. I can eliminate carelessness as a cause for Autumn's pain. I can do my utmost to limit selfishness as a cause. But I will make mistakes." He frowned. "You're right. It is not so much a question of whether I will hurt Autumn - probability indicates that even with the best of intentions, I could upset her." He turned to face Dana, nodding as the analysis reached its conclusion. "I think that if I hurt Autumn I would handle it by assessing how, by discussing it with her, and by not repeating the mistake." Dana stared at him for a long moment, warm hazel eyes nearly as wide as her daughter's as she struggled with the conflicting urges to simultaneously laugh and weep. Both teens had said they'd met at school, but she was half-convinced her intrepid daughter had unearthed this increasingly odd boy from a government research lab. ...Something with extraterrestrials or artificial intelligence, maybe, like the television shows the girls at the office watched. The more he spoke, the less he seemed like the slouching thug from the rumors, but that wasn't necessarily reason not to be concerned. "That is an answer," she allowed with a sigh, her expression a strange commingling of resignation and amusement. "Although at least now I know for sure you were serious about never having had a girlfriend before. Speaking of which." Reaching up into one of the cabinets overhead, the svelte redhead pulled down a coffee filter and busied herself measuring grounds from an airtight canister on the counter. "Autumn mentioned you had a few," she paused, the corner of her mouth curving into a wry half-smile. "Quirks. So what should I know about you, Jason Bannon?" "Quirks." He smiled faintly. "I suppose I do." He relaxed, leaning back against the counter on his butt and hands, a lean symmetrical form in repose. "It's always a little odd, to describe yourself to someone else, isn't it?" Dana shot him a warm smile as she heard the wry humor in his tone. "Hmm. Things you should know..." Jason mused, his eyes on his girlfriend's mom as she set the coffee machine up. "I have an acute sense of smell and taste - which is one reason I like to cook and garden - specifically flowers, but I dabble with other growing things as well, like a vegetable and herb patch I've started at home. I tend to be - as you likely noticed - analytical. A lot of nuanced human interaction goes over my head." he admitted with a shrug. "I don't lie." "Really?" Dana raised a brow as she started the coffee to drip and turned to regard him skeptically. He just nodded, a faint smile at the corners of his lips. "Really. Outright lies offend me. I'm perfectly capable of evasion, concealment, half-truths, misdirection and letting someone jump to the wrong conclusion, though." he said with a small grin. "But the thought of categorically stating an untruth revolts me." He shrugged again. "It's just the way I'm made, I suppose. If I say a thing is so, then to the best of my knowledge it is." "Huh. Good to know." Dana wasn't sure she believed it, but other than a wry amusement at how she was reacting, he didn't seem to be playing with her. "Anything else?" "I speak six languages not including English and plan to learn more, because I like languages." he stated with another of his expressive, lean shrugs. "I have perfect recall of every moment of my life, every experience, sight, sound, smell and touch - both good and bad. I've never taken a proper intelligence test, but I imagine I would score fairly high, based on my speed of information absorption and comprehension." He considered. "I think that covers things you should know." "For a narrow definition of 'should,' I suspect," his girlfriend's mother observed dryly, having missed neither the emphasis of the term by repetition nor Jason's candid assessment of truth-telling. "But for now, since this is the first time we're talking, and Autumn will probably shower as quickly as she can to limit my opportunities to either ask something embarrassing or tell you something embarrassing, I'll take it." He seemed sincere enough despite the incredible claims he was making, or at least confident enough in what he was saying that it passed for sincerity, and yet if he was telling the truth it made his involvement with her daughter seem all the more unusual. Neither their interests nor abilities seemed to intersect, she mused, removing a pair of mugs from the rack as the coffee burbled in the machine. And yet, at least one shared interest seemed patently obvious, she remembered, still feeling more than a little voyeuristic at having seen them interacting in the doorway. "I am curious, though." Glancing briefly at the lean, green-eyed youth as she passed, Dana pulled a small container of heavy cream from the refrigerator. "All of that sounds fascinating, and while I'm firmly and unwaveringly convinced that my daughter is essentially perfect... because she's mine," the pretty veterinarian added good-naturedly. "The two of you don't seem to have much in common. Where's the connection?" "I think we have more in common than some might suspect." Jason replied calmly, smiling a little at her. "As I said before, we bonded over a single long conversation, and I find her to be curious, brave and warm. She's restless rather than studious, but she seeks understanding. We both enjoy hiking, camping and outdoor activities, finding the same peace and sense of pitting ourselves against the elements in the pastime." He smiled a little wider at a memory. "Last night-" "Am I going to want to hear this?" Dana said half-seriously. Jason grinned then, actually grinned - a flash of humor that transformed his composed features for a moment, making him seem his age, before fading to a smile with the mirth still dancing in his jade gaze. "I'm not that forthcoming." he remarked somewhat impishly. "No. We were talking, and I mentioned something about quantum theory in passing, and she recalled myself and Sean talking about it on Sunday last week, so she asked what it was all about. So I explained about the current search for the Grand Unifying Theory, the gaps and holes in it, and some theories about what might fill those gaps." He shrugged. "She listened, she asked questions, she was curious. She's not narrow-minded, interested only in what her immediate experiences provide. And nor am I. There's a commonality that goes beyond mere learning." His smile softened, just a fraction of warmth touching the cool shade of his eyes. "I find her amazing." "Do you," Dana observed/inquired quietly, honey-colored eyes narrowing speculatively at the subtle shift in Jason's expression. Autumn and Jacob had grown up together, were fond of each other, had been thick as thieves before the break-up and the rift that grew between them- but the word "amazing" had never entered the conversation. Now, in the span of a few minutes, both her daughter and this strange, moderately unnerving newcomer had each used that specific term- totally independently- to describe the other. It was simultaneously sweet and unsettling, the thought that the tall, spare young man who'd put such a light in her daughter's eyes might himself possess a bit of that same spark... especially when it had flared into existence so suddenly. "How do you take your coffee?" she continued conversationally, considering the way he'd described Autumn, the tone and the phrasing he'd employed. Had he really only known her for a week? Could he actually have drawn such conclusions on the basis of… What had he called it? ...A single long conversation? Most teenage boys, she reflected ruefully, would have used rather different words to describe the athletic young woman. ...Then again, Jason Bannon was evidently not 'most teenage boys.' "In a mug, usually. If I'm really jonesing, I just snort the grounds." Jason said casually as he crouched down and fussed over Lexi, who had come up and was sat at his feet looking up imploringly for attention. Dana noticed how intent and deliberate he was, the long slender fingers gently scritching behind the pit's ears, then down the sides of her neck as Lexi panted happily even as the slender veterinarian let out a snort and a musical chuckle at Jason's comment. He glanced up from the dog and smiled, head tilting to one side and eyebrow raised in wry humor, and a few things clicked into place for Dana as to why Autumn was so into the youth - other than the obvious. He was intent on whatever was before him, utterly present in each moment, took emotional topics seriously rather than deflecting with jokes or embarrassment, and yet was possessed of a curious dry understated humor. His eyes were glacial and icy on first meeting, but as he opened up they took on a richer, warmer expression which was only rarely echoed in his features. When he looked at a person he really looked, and they either felt an uncomfortable sense of being stared at by a wolf... Or they felt like they were the focus of his entire universe. Whoa. "Black and plain is perfect." Jason said as Dana stared at him in that moment, causing the normally self-possessed woman to start slightly and then nod, turning away and letting out a breath. She still wasn't entirely happy with the speed at which Autumn and this young man had evidently fallen into each other - but she understood it a little - okay, a lot better. And this is when he's sixteen and on his first girlfriend. Saints preserve all good women when he 'grows up'. As she poured the coffee, she heard the sound of footfalls on the stairs as Autumn tried to walk - rather than run - back down and prevent the maternal inquisition from squeezing too many uncomfortable facts from her boyfriend. "Apparently, there was a study that said someone who drinks their coffee black is more likely to be a psychopath," Dana teased as the sound of bare feet on hardwood reached her ears, skipping down the last couple of steps to the accompaniment of clawed canine paws clicking on the bright maple floor. She was just handing Jason his mug as Autumn rounded the corner with her Shepherd escort, the young woman's damp red-gold curls loose around her shoulders and her fair skin still faintly pink from the heat of the shower. Nothing was said about the faint purplish smudge at the juncture of the girl's throat and shoulder, just visible over the neckline of her shirt; her mother merely sighed, peering sharply at her daughter's new boyfriend over the rim of her cup as she took a drink. It could be worse, she reminded herself, trying not to think of the rising teen pregnancy rate and finding precious little reassurance in the way Autumn's gaze was drawn by some unerring feminine instinct to her boyfriend's face. "We've got a little while, yet, before dinner," she stated pointedly, glancing at the timer on the oven. "You guys are welcome to watch some television in the living room, or we can play cards..." Her voice trailed off, and a gleam of mischief sparkled in the depths of her hazel eyes. "Ooorrrr, I can bring down your old photo album! You know, Jason, we've got the most adorable pictures of Autumn from when she-" "Mom, come on, not cool!" Autumn protested vehemently, sweeping past both of them to grab a mug from the rack. She'd changed into a pair of dark green running shorts and a slightly oversized t-shirt, which Dana would normally consider a perfectly modest outfit to wear around an interested teenage boy; a quick glance at Jason and the direction of his gaze, however, left her with the unsettling feeling that it might not matter what she wore. "Since you're our guest, Jason, do you have a preference?" her mother inquired, putting the cream away as Autumn finished up. He had indeed been studying Autumn's shape, barely hinted at under the t-shirt but then more clearly outlined by the running shorts and the smooth musculature of her legs as she leaned to grab the mug from the rack. As Dana spoke to him, however the heat faded from his gaze as it shifted back to the older woman, replaced with a faint smile that touched the corners of his eyes. "The photos sound intriguing-" "Ugh!" Autumn glared at him over her shoulder, the pink in her features now nothing to do with the shower. "No. No way. Not unless you bring yours to the table too." she added with a crinkle of her nose as she smiled, imagining a small, grave faced ragamuffin with too-large eyes. Then the redhead blinked, turning back to her coffee as she remembered that she had, as a matter of fact, seen a young Jason - merely ten years old and newly arrived in Shelly - trying to get his hands around a boy's throat with a coldly intent expression in his eyes... and then turn and sink his teeth bone-deep into a teacher's wrist when he'd been pulled off. Before that, he'd been the quiet, shy new kid, and even though afterwards he never so much as got into a scuffle, the memory had stayed with Autumn if only subconsciously, to be pulled up only by the innocent random thought of imagining him as a child. Perhaps it had even contributed to her dislike of him, which seemed likely. Odd, how a fleeting moment of shock and fear could only be undone years later by a seeming random tide of Fate causing the two of them to enter each other's orbits. It did make her wonder, though - had he ever truly been a child, as human beings understood the term? "That seems fair." Jason smiled a little wider at the loose collection of reddish curls as they tumbled down Autumn's back, glinting with pinpoints of golden fire in the light. He wanted to bury his face there, to inhale the scent of her: wanted it so badly it felt like the most gnawing of hungers. "I choose TV, then." Dana hmmed quietly as though in disappointment. "Ah, well. Come by sometime when she's not home and I'll show you," the older redhead smirked, patting Jase lightly on the shoulder as she passed, coffee mug in hand. Although she wasn't entirely comfortable leaving the two young paramours alone for more than a few minutes, she did at least trust her daughter enough to make good choices. ...Or, failing that, not catastrophic ones. Autumn dropped the spoon she'd used to stir her coffee into the sink, nose crinkling as she made a face at her mother's back. "Keep it up, Autumn Rae" the pretty vet called over her shoulder as she headed into the other room. "One day it'll freeze like that." Abashed, the animated young woman took a sip of her coffee, the rose of her cheeks deepening further. Then, with the petulance of a girl half her age, quickly stuck her tongue out and gave a good-humored huff. "I've never figured out how she does that," she grinned, extending her hand. "C'mon. If you don't sit with me you'll have to fight the dogs for a place. They're spoiled." ---------------------------------------------------------------------- The TV chattered and blared as the hero fought the villain, who was extruding a whip of living fire from his hand, the movements of both combatants choreographed to heighten the drama and tension and sense of mortal peril the protagonist was facing. Flips, kicks, somersaults and shouts filled the screen with noise and action. As shows went, Wu Assassins was pretty good, both teens had agreed as they’d settled in to watch some thirty minutes earlier. It was a shame, then, that currently the artistry and action on the screen was being ignored. It was Jason’s fault- at least, that was Autumn’s stance on the matter. He’d put an arm comfortably around her shoulders as they’d nestled together, and then idly toyed with the curls of her glory of red-gold hair, running his slender fingers through it gently to stroke her neck and shoulder, causing tingles of warmth to race through her nerves. So strongly did Autumn feel that it was her boyfriend’s fault that she, in fact, felt the need to tell him between kisses. “It’s your fault.” she murmured softly, her arms resting around his neck, lips grazing his ear before her teeth lightly nibbled at the lobe, gratified to feel his reaction in the sharp intake of breath as well as in another, more tangible fashion. “Nope.” his reply was likewise a murmur as he kissed the curve of Autumn’s neck where it met her shoulder. His hands were loosely tangled in her fall of red hair, the scent of which he breathed in. “You’re the one that moved. And now we’re missing the show.” Autumn grinned as she withdrew a little to look into his eyes. True enough, she had moved first, swinging a bare leg over him and straddling his thighs so she could properly give him her attention - and he could give her his. “You want to watch the show?” she asked with an arch of her brow. “Don’t put words in my mouth.” His eyes were heated, dark with passion even as he smiled slightly. “I was merely observing we were- mmph.” he finished softly as Autumn pressed her body and mouth to his, arms tightening around his neck as though to prevent even the remote possibility he would try to get away - which, to be honest, was so remote as to not be worth considering. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Dana wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scowl as she stepped into the lounge and saw the pair of them. At least he didn’t have his hands on her butt this time. Progress! The slender, pretty veterinarian thought wryly. Autumn made a sound that was half gasp, half giggle as she slid off her beau, trying to look contrite and failing miserably. She seemed lively, and happy, and it was good to see. Dana took a breath, counted to ten, then spoke again. “Okay. New rule, you two. None of-” she made a gesture indicating the pair of them and their misbehaviour “-that in the lounge, porch, dining room, kitchen or indeed anywhere in this house except the bedroom when I’m home. I’m not going to try and stop teenagers being teenagers, but I don’t want to walk into my own lounge and see it. Am I clear?” “Yes, mom.” Autumn nodded, somewhat soberly. Jason turned his gaze to Dana and nodded assent, or at least understanding, gravely. “Good! Now, dinner is a few minutes away, so both of you can come and help set the table.” She was unable to resist cracking a smirk, raising an eyebrow at them. “Take a moment to, ah, compose yourselves, and for God’s sake wash your hands first.”
  2. Not a dragon, then, the thought sprang up unbidden, and a part of her was oddly disappointed in the inability of the universe to make what obviously would have been the superior choice. Although he'd responded in the same near-clinical fashion she was accustomed to, attributing no more emotional weight to any of the words than if he'd been reading from a grocery list, a few of them caught her attention anyway: hominid; designed; deliberately evolved. Sure, the rest sounded like a rough description of the inscrutable young man whose hands she was currently holding, but... "Okay, so..." Autumn's eyes narrowed slightly in concentration as she worked to process exactly what all of them, in combination, actually meant. "A close relative of humans, selectively bred to be... what...? Warriors, or something?" "Yes. Apparently, long ago two highly advanced beings wanted warriors with traits similar to human psychopaths, but capable of teamwork and in-group loyalty, faster maturation and capable of more rapid reproduction. According to the history I've been given they took some humans and changed them on the genetic level. I am, if this is true, genetically further away from Homo Sapiens than the Neanderthal Man." He regarded her with a faint twitch of wry amusement at the corner of his mouth. "Apparently still compatible, though." "Mmm," Autumn nodded, lips pursed and intent enough on the rest of what he'd said that- for once- she missed the innuendo entirely. He'd answered her next question before she'd asked it: Why? and also implied that even he wasn't entirely sure if he believed what Ms. Forster had told him during her visit. ...Which, in all honesty, was probably the only real response someone could have to that kind of bombshell, followed immediately by a demand for proof- something she herself had been considering since entering her grandfather’s study on Thursday. It wouldn't be hard to find out if he really was genetically different- there were tests for that- but that wasn't the biggest issue here. Jason Fucking Bannon didn't need her, of all people, to point that out, so for a moment the redhead put aside all the other questions his answer raised. "I'm a little bit- okay," she amended, a slightly abashed grin curving her lips, "a lot curious, but before I ask you a dozen less important questions about the hows and whys..." The earnest young woman took a step toward him, squeezing his hands gently as she peered up into his eyes. "How do you feel about what she told you?" "I won't lie- Heh." He chuckled, a short breath of quiet amusement. "Can't, really. Turns out that's another change hardwired into us. Anyway." He sighed, intently examining her face and expression, analysing her tone and, most of all, feeling the reassuring squeeze of her hands, a tactile cue that carried more weight to his perceptions than any other. "It is a lot to process." he said more quietly. "I had built a foundation of myself as different, but human. Now... I'm not human. But it doesn't tangibly change anything about my life." he went on, frowning a tiny amount. "It's momentous, but doesn't have much practical impact on what is going on in my life... or who I care about. Whether I'm called Jason Bannon, or Jason out of Catheen of the Ddraig by Gareth Bannon, I still feel the same. I'm still me." "Still a fixed star," she agreed, turning one of his hands over as she lifted it, pressing a quick kiss to his palm and tugging him onward before letting his fingers slide from hers as she walked. The woman who was his mother- or had been at one time- could have been lying. She could be trying to manipulate him for some reason- why come back now, after disappearing for years? And even if it was true... and she couldn't rule out the possibility, not with all the other varieties of crazy she'd seen and heard recently... how did it fit in with everything else? What were these people like, the other half of Jase's family? "So," she glanced back over her shoulder at him, then returned her attention to picking a path over the growing number of half-buried stones among the leaf litter underfoot. "Out of curiosity, why tell me?" "I trust you. I plan to tell everyone, eventually, but I wanted you to be one of the first to know because I value your perspective and your kindness." he watched her pick the path and followed close behind, his eyes now and then lingering on the movements of Autumn's hips, or the tumble of her hair down her back, or the way she placed her feet, that curious mixture of the carnal and the purely aesthetic sensibilities informing his perceptions. "And, given you agreed to date me... It seemed fair. I would have mentioned it last night - almost did, in fact - but there were other things happening and I'm just selfish enough I didn't want them to stop." He concluded without any sense of shame in his tone. "It was one reason I was pretty insistent about the condom thing - despite really, really not wanting to stop. Because if it's true, and if my mother wasn't just spinning a line, my people have... let's call them 'highly dominant genes'." Autumn didn't have to turn around for Jase to gauge her reaction; even as she felt the blood rising in her cheeks, a slow suffusion of bright pink crept up the back of her neck, clearly visible beneath the sway of her long, copper-red ponytail. "Oh," she replied quietly, swallowing hard as she remembered the "other things" that were happening at the time. "I mean, I'm glad you told me. Not just because of that," his girlfriend added quickly, "but it is, um, good to know. Assuming she wasn't lying, though, I am really curious what else she told you about them- about you, too, I guess." "Mentally we mature faster than humans. Physically too, only not quite as noticeably. At least for the males." He found it helped to analyse what he'd been told, speaking it aloud for another's benefit. "Female Teulu - that's what they call themselves - mature very fast. Usually at childbearing age around ten years old, and they will look sixteen to eighteen or so. Four sets of ovaries, and it's very common for female Teulu to give birth to twins. They're also fertile longer - menopause takes place no earlier than fifty years of age." He ducked a low, thin branch, meeting her eyes as she looked back to check on him. "Longer lived, too. Barring accidents, Teulu can live in good health past one hundred years." He frowned a touch, eyes tightening as he considered something. "Some have very, very limited Shine. And they live in a clan-based system with each clan competing with others for members and resources. Very social Darwinist, very pragmatic. Violence is common even within clans, though such violence is governed by a code of behaviour that places the good of the clan first. The aggression and dominance hardwired into us means that a leader must be smart, strong and ruthless as well as good for the clan as a whole. They don't seem to prize kindness, or gentleness, or mercy. Cunning, intelligence, strength, pragmatic ruthlessness, physical attractiveness and fertility are the virtues they hold highest. My mother..." he paused again. "She claims she's a throwback to their more human ancestors, at least mentally. She can feel fear, and remorse. It's why she ran away from them, and from me." "Fuck," the otherwise wholesome redhead swore softly, pausing as she turned back to regard Jason with a mixture of awe and curiosity. "You weren't kidding when you said that was a lot to process. Holy shit. I mean, I guess it makes sense, if you're creating a race or species or whatever that are designed to kill each other, they'd need to be able to reach adulthood and reproduce quickly, or they'll just wipe each other out in a generation or so. I wonder how many actually make it to a hundred, though, if they're always at war." As his longer strides made up the distance between them, she smiled in spite of herself, a hint of rose lingering beneath the pale amber of her freckles. "If those are the virtues they admire, then, these... Teulu," Autumn repeated the unfamiliar word as best she could. "I guess you're a good example, hm?" "Perhaps." he allowed, the corners of his eyes crinkling a little as a playful smile quirked at the corner of his mouth. Coming abreast of where she waited, he too stopped, turning towards her and stepping closer with a commingling of playful humor and warm hunger in his emerald gaze. "I appreciate some of the human qualities I've experienced." he said frankly as he reached up and gently traced the outline of her cheek with a fingertip as his other hand slid over her waist above her hip. "Though I'm flattered you think I'm a good example of physical attractiveness." "Must be the pheromones," Autumn teased, though even as she spoke the words there was a familiar tension in her abdomen, a half-conscious urge described in the slight upward tilt of her chin toward him. Her eyes lingered, briefly, on the faint curve of his lips as he smiled, her fingers trailing lightly down his sides, and then she sighed, the exhalation a little shaky as she fought the urge to press herself closer. "I do, though," she admitted, a fresh wave of crimson staining her features. "Enough that if I'm not careful, you'll be the only climbing I get done today." Her blushing admission, her touch, the way her face turned up towards his and, most of all, the reflection in her clear blue eyes of the same hunger he felt, were almost - almost - a match to dry tinder. Or more precisely, fresh firewood placed across well-banked embers. He leaned close, watching the way her eyes flickered to his mouth then back up. The clean scent of her hair, warm with exertion and the sun, was itself a test of his control. "Can I assume you're okay with this news, then? Assuming it's all true, I mean." he asked her softly. A touch of deviltry glinted in his eye as he teased, "It's still not too late to run." Leaning up on her tiptoes, she pressed a slow, deliberate kiss to the corner of his mouth, her lips lingering there for a moment before she drew back to regard him a little more seriously. "Assuming it's true, it doesn't change anything about you as a person. Just what I know about you. And since I like knowing more about you..." Her voice trailed off and she shrugged, smiling. "The running might be fun sometime, though." The clear blue of her eyes deepened, the note of playful challenge stirring shadows there as she gazed up at him. There was a sense that she was walking along a precipice, taunting a force with the inevitability of gravity, but it was almost impossible to resist going right up to the very edge. "If you don't mind losing, that is." His own gaze was equal parts answering challenge, mirth and desire as he gently touched his forehead to hers, looking deep into Autumn's eyes as she felt rather than heard his chuckle. "I'm sure that whether I win or lose, it will be fun." he murmured. "For both of us." He still felt the tingling from the press of her lips and, unable to resist, he answered the kiss she'd given him with a fleeting, urgent one of his own, letting the furnace door of his amoral Want for this girl to open, just for a searing white-hot second, before slamming it shut once more. Taking a breath to steady himself, Jason slowly straightened up. "I really wouldn't mind being the only climbing you do today, but I only have so much control over this urge. It's very new, and very raw, and not at all gentle." He smiled faintly at her. "It's like a flicker of warmth when you're near, while we talk, but when we touch it flares up like a wildfire." Nodding in mute understanding, Autumn took a half-step back, her fingertips catching fleetingly at the fabric of Jase's shirt. The heat his kiss had sparked in her core smouldered, glowing embers threatening to flare into sudden, scorching life even as she stood there. That this brief contact alone was enough to ignite her nerve endings so acutely, so intensely, and so consistently was both thrilling and dangerous; just as the day before, kissing the green-eyed devil before her made it extraordinarily difficult to think of anything but kissing him. It certainly wasn't helped by the fact that he was so adept at describing how he felt, what he wanted... With a little, involuntary shiver, she licked suddenly dry lips and exhaled. "I think..." Focus, Autumn. "I think, probably, that 'to be continued' is gonna need to be continued pretty soon. And that I also need a drink, and to not touch you for a few minutes, although that is not what I want to do. So... Yeah. I can empathize. A little, maybe." Wordlessly, he offered her a bottle of water from his pack, the outside of the bottle taking on a sheen of condensation as it's temperature went down from warm-ambient to fresh-from-the fridge. As she took it with a smile and nod of thanks, he drew out one for himself, likewise cooling it and taking a long drink. Without words, and definitely without touching, but with more than a few lingering glances at one another, the pair continued on their way. Privately, and with his usual wry humor even when it came to internal analysis, Jason mused that it wasn't just his pheromones that seemed to be 'just fine'. He knew it wasn't just naked instinct that drove him - he'd never felt such an impulse towards abandon with anyone else in his admittedly short life. There was something about Autumn: no single aspect of her, but rather that combination of facets which together evoked this response. Strong, yet undeniably feminine. Kind, yet tough when need arose. Curious, open, and brave. Or perhaps, his wry internal observer mused, he was overthinking it. Analysis had its place, but perhaps his attraction for her and hers for him could not be so simply rendered into a chemical formula. What he did know was that the other complexities and concerns of his life were not on his mind as he followed his girlfriend towards their destination. ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Saturday Afternoon. They were weary, dirty and dusty from the climb, but carrying a sense of quiet elation for having made it to the lookout point Autumn had described and, sharing some trail bars, jerky and water, sitting with their feet dangling over the edge and just gazing out over Shelly. At some point during their rest-break, Autumn’s hand had found Jason’s - or perhaps his hand found hers - and the contented, quiet joy of the moment took on a more tangible texture and feel as they sat together. Eventually they had stood, stretched, then followed the path from the top of the cliff around and down and back to the campsite, balancing over a makeshift log bridge across the creek further down, then picking their way along another game trail. Autumn, used to such hikes and with that tireless energy that was one of her signature traits, noted that Jason, whilst obviously feeling the exertion, neither complained nor insisted on taking extraneous rest breaks, instead keeping the steady pace she set. Striking camp, they packed everything away, setting the site to rights and policing their trash before tying the bundles and packs to the ATV for the return journey. It was a weird contrast to yesterday for the redheaded girl - whereas before she had been acutely aware of Jason Effing Bannon murmuring that he would be sure to get a good grip and trying not to let her face catch fire as a result, this time she felt a thrilling, tightening sensation in her abdomen as his hands slid around her waist and he leaned against her back. For Jase, too, the trip and the manner of it took on differing context, his tactile awareness of Autumn’s body against his and the scent of her hair now shaded with carnal and emotional overtones that transformed a simple, pragmatic hanging on so as not to fall off into something almost sensual. Somehow, Autumn managed to get them back to the Keane home without either crashing the ATV or stopping along the way; a testament to her willpower, certainly. Bringing the four-wheeler to a stop under the lean-to shelter, the two teens dismounted and unpacked the bundles. Shouldering his own pack, Jase helped Autumn with the rest of the supplies, carrying the storage chest up to the porch and setting it down as she did likewise with the cooler. From inside came the sound of excited dogs, and Autumn sighed, stretching her back as she set down her burden and turned to the lean figure standing nearby. “Thanks.” she told him, nose crinkling as she smiled warmly and stepped closer. “For the help with the campsite. And… for a great time.” she added with a blush suffusing her freckled face as she looked up at him. “I really had fun.” “So did I.” he observed quietly, regarding her with a slight smile, his pale green eyes vivid against the dark of his hair and the tan of his features. “You made it so. We definitely have to do this again.” “Yeah.” she nodded, feeling tongue-tied as he, too, stepped closer to her. Almost of their own accord, her hands came up to drape over his shoulders, then slide to the back of his neck, feeling the trailing edges of his shaggy hair. A dim warning light blinked unheeded in the back of her head - informed by the fact her mom’s car was there in the drive and that meant she was probably around somewhere. But more important was the curve of her boyfriend’s mouth, and the feel of his body against hers as they each stepped into each other, lips meeting as the circuit completed and fire surged along their nerves. His hands slid around her and down to her jeans-clad backside, their firm pressure causing her to inhale sharply in the kiss and then press even closer against him, eyes closing as her hands tightened in his hair, unwilling to even give him the opportunity to draw back. Somewhere outside the throb of their heartbeats in their ears, both teens were aware of a door opening but ascribed no special meaning to it - until the sound of a female throat being cleared intruded on their pink haze. “Well! Hello there!” Dana Keane’s tone was bright, almost cheery as she was confronted with her daughter locked in what seemed an incredibly un-platonic clinch with Jason Bannon. “I was just coming to see if you kids needed any help with the camping gear. It looks like you have things well in hand, though!” she commented, eyes flicking down to where Jase’s hands currently were.
  3. He’d sat up and watched as she moved around the clearing, noting how her bright hair and pale skin loaned the lithe girl a sylvan quality, as though the banality of the everyday could not cling to her, not here - not in her garden. He felt this moment embed itself prominently in his memories - her quiet laugh, the way the fire’s light played over the curves and lines of her body as she bent and swayed, moving around the camp and picking up their clothing: a wood-nymph gathering scattered flowers left in the wake of a tempest. He wondered how this moment, this experience would change him, or her for that matter. Would this excitement, this playful hunger that yet stirred and lingered in them both carry through into other aspects of their lives? Or would it only be the magic of this place? He hoped it was the former. He found it hard to envision himself not wanting, in a quiet moment, to pull Autumn into a shadowed corner and kiss her until both their nerves were lit up as though a time-lapse photograph of a city’s streets at night, seen from above, streaks of white and crimson light rendering individual sensation meaningless in the patterns of desire. She came back to sit next to him, proffering the bottle and glancing at him when he didn’t immediately take it, and was struck by the intent, predatory way he had, she realised, been watching her ever since she’d stood up. He was motionless, unaffectedly naked as he sat, one knee bent with an arm resting on it, half-turned towards her with his manhood resting quietly against his thigh, yet his gaze was sharp, unselfconscious and, in its own way, as naked as the rest of him. Naked enough to make her own mouth feel dry and for parts low down in her torso to catch and tighten as he reached out and took the bottle finally, with a nod. “Thank you.” he murmured, taking a long drink as she busied herself sorting their clothes, then handing her the bottle in turn. She traded him the towel, which he patted himself with as he watched her drink, admiring the sweep of her throat and the scattering of freckles across her breastbone, the way her firm, high breasts were capped with pale rose. He remembered the scent and taste of her skin, the way his tongue on her flesh had made her gasp as he looked at her, and when Autumn lowered the bottle and glanced back at him her sudden renewed blush and her downward glance made him realise his cock had stirred once more. “You better get these on first.” she said, an answering hunger springing up in her own expression as she thrust his combat pants at him. “And fast.” He smiled, taking the garment and slowly standing. “If I must.” he replied, lazily stretching in a way that Autumn was pretty sure was calculated. At least partly so, she decided, feeling her fingers twitch with the urge to reach out and touch- “You must.” She pulled on her t-shirt, leaving the bikini top aside for now, and was simultaneously relieved and disappointed when, by the time she’d gotten the shirt on and her hair extricated from it, the baggy Army surplus pants had been pulled on and fastened, Jase drawing the belt into place. That was better, she decided. At least for now. Half-naked was better than all-naked, when it came to boyfriends who were dangerous in all sorts of ways, not least of which to her self-control. Jase settled back down beside her, pulling on his own shirt over his head and relaxing, leaning back on his hands and watching the fire leap and flicker, its light playing over his features, immobile as they were in repose. His thoughts danced and leapt as much as the flames, trying to make sense of everything he had experienced. One thing was easy to make sense of - he now knew what it was to be desired, to have that desire communicated through touch and word and caress. And more properly he knew what it was to desire in a real, tangible way. No distant fantasy, or idealised construct of desire. No ethereal dream born of inexperienced longing and a vivid imagination. It was revelatory, and breathtaking, all the more so because there had been a point where he had chosen to give his control to someone else, to set aside the chains that were also his armor and simply experience the moment in a series of sensations and, yes, emotions. If he had not been without fear, would he even have been capable of that level of surrender? That was an interesting paradox, indeed. “Penny for your thoughts?” Autumn nudged up against him, her hand sliding up his back to tickle the shaggy hair at the nape of his neck. He turned slightly, looping an arm over and around her, drawing her close as they sat together, his green eyes regarding her still faintly-rosy features. “Mmm. I was congratulating myself.” he told her, a faint spark of mischief in his eyes. “I have excellent taste in girlfriends.” “Oh, do you, now? That... is a bold statement,” she countered with a grin, unable to resist the sudden urge to lean up for a kiss- a teasing, too-brief caress of her lips on his- before she settled companionably against his side again, still smiling as her arm slid down to his waist. “Got any evidence to back up that claim?” It hadn’t even been a few hours yet, after all, and although there was the definite sense he was teasing her (at least a little) she was also pleased enough at the suggestion that she wasn’t inclined to argue the point- instead just leaning against him as she watched the frenetic movement of the orange flames burning low, her fingertips absently straying under the hem of Jase’s t-shirt to drift over his skin as he sat quietly next to her. He smiled at the warm press of her lips, studying the glimmer of her hair in the dancing light of the fire. This closeness, this intimate contact was addictive, as though the emotional warmth of the girl snugged against his side was sunlight on the icy slopes of his mind. He wondered if that was how it was for normal people: if the shimmering heat of others were something that only existed in their presence, and without it all was cold. Probably not, or at least not to the same extent. Some warmth would linger between contact, between times spent in the presence of a lover. For him, though, there was only the memory of the connection without the comforting sense of its presence. "More of a feeling. Though admittedly the statistical sample is small at present, I think the bar has been set pretty high." He nuzzled his lips and nose against her coppery hair, breathing her in for a moment. "You make me feel warm in the cold places." The ticklish sensation of his breath in her hair elicited a grin, her nose crinkling slightly as she squirmed in response. There was that honesty again, the unfiltered opinion of someone who had no idea what it meant to be self-conscious, or how deeply affecting that level of forthrightness could be; gods help her if he ever figured it out, since she’d probably give everyone within ten feet heat stroke. “I mean, you make me feel warm in all the places, so I guess that’s fair?” she admitted with a laugh, unthinking- -And immediately went still as her brain caught up to the words she’d just uttered. Oh. Oh, god. I said that out loud, didn’t I? Hazarding a quick peek up at his face, Autumn groaned inwardly as Jason blinked slowly, starting to smile. "I do, hmm?" She could only nod, her hands coming up to cover her rapidly reddening face as a muffled sound of agreement escaped from between her fingers. It was true, of course, in more ways than one, but how was she supposed to tell him that without sounding like a crazy person? How could she possibly explain what she didn’t fully grasp the limits of herself? The simple glow of pleasure, of uncomplicated and earnest delight she took in his companionship. The tangible, reassuring warmth generated by his actual, physical presence next to her. The very real, but less obviously tactile heat that smouldered even now at the very core of her being, kindled into hungry flame and stoked by proximity alone. ...And something else, a whisper of feeling that wasn’t quite any of those things, but which- nameless and formless- subtly comprised them all, and more besides. The implicit acknowledgement of that “something else” in her response was somehow more jarring than the fact that it existed- as if it had been perfectly natural, and not at all crazy to be so intensely attracted to someone so quickly. The mortified girl looked away from the boy beside her, unable or unwilling to meet his eyes in that instant, certain somehow that the penetrating quality of his gaze would lay bare her thoughts. In accordance with her nature, she instead took refuge in activity, casting about for something productive to do and finding few options remaining after their earlier efforts at cleaning up. “So, I’m gonna, um... Yeah. I’ll go grab some more wood,” she managed haltingly, her cheeks blazing scarlet in the firelight. “Be right back.” What am I doing?! Autumn asked herself, sighing as she got to her feet and set about the simple, blessedly uncomplicated task of making sure the fire would last the night. Why do I feel like this? I mean, we barely know each other but it feels... right. Like, scary-right. It took a few moments of searching to find a couple of logs of reasonable size and condition to keep the fire going, which, thankfully, gave the cooler evening breeze an opportunity to steal some of the heat from her face, and gave Autumn herself a chance to find a way to change the subject. “So, um, any ideas on what you’d like to do in the morning? Maybe a hike or something after breakfast?” she tentatively called over her shoulder, trying not to imagine Jase watching her with that not-quite-a-smirk that was somehow worse than an actual one. There was a brief pause before she added, more defiantly, “And for the record, Hmmm is still not an acceptable answer.” “A hike sounds good.” Jason said calmly, leaning back on his hands and watching his red-faced girlfriend recover her composure somewhat, his pale eyes watchful, studying her. He didn’t quite understand why she’d been embarrassed - to him, such unfiltered truth spoken straight from her heart seemed the height of charming, but he had observed people enough to know that they often felt vulnerable revealing themselves so nakedly. There was still that aspect of separateness, though. For him, vulnerability was a pragmatic, physical, tangible thing. To confide in the wrong person was to risk ostracisation, even institutionalisation: to complicate his life unnecessarily. Autumn’s embarrassment could not come from that practical consideration, surely? He wasn’t going to hurt her, or cast her aside for having genuine warm feeling for him- Was that it, perhaps? Did she think that by entrusting such feelings to him, by allowing herself to experience them, that she risked harm - emotional or otherwise? She wouldn’t be the first girl he knew to believe that - Marissa for instance, who had settled on Cade as a boyfriend because she needed to feel safe and in control. Emotionally safe and in control, as if by following her natural feelings she left herself vulnerable. Autumn obviously felt similarly - though she wasn’t preventing herself from following her desires, it still made her feel vulnerable to voice them. “Cool. We can take some climbing gear - if the weather holds there’s a nice rock face to go up where you can get a view over Shelly.” Autumn came back with a couple of suitably dry chunks of firewood in hand, setting one on the fire and the other next to it for later. As the flames licked up, she settled back down next to Jase, who shifted a little to face her, his manner serious as he reached out and took her hands in his, looking into her eyes. “Thank you.” he said quietly. “For letting me know how I make you feel. I can see it made you uncomfortable - and I’m curious why.” His pale jade eyes searched her ocean-tinted ones, searched her face for answers. “Is it me? Do I make you feel uncomfortable voicing such things?” he asked without nervousness or accusation, his head tilting slightly. “Because if you’re worried about what I think about it - I find it totally charming that you speak your mind and heart so fearlessly. And while I might find your blushes amusing, I don’t find your feelings for me funny at all.” His voice was quiet as his lips curved in a smile. “They’re… something I treasure.” "No!" Autumn replied quickly, vehemently, gazing up at him through wide eyes bright with firelight and emotion. "No, it doesn't- I mean, you don't make me uncomfortable. It’s not you. It's..." She pressed her lips together, holding her breath for a long moment before exhaling slowly to settle her nerves. Her voice was a little softer when she began again, the slow interweaving of her fingers through his lending her words the intimacy of a confession. "Honestly, the fact that you do say things like that makes me really happy. Because I feel like you're not just doing it to please me, or because you think you're supposed to, you know? People just say things all the time and don't mean them, either because they think that's what the other person wants to hear, or because it's…” Autumn shook her head, frowning slightly. “I don't know, convenient. Look, I just... I realized there were several different ways to take what I said, and that all of them were true, and I didn't want you to think I was weird or something since we were barely on speaking terms a week ago, and now all of a sudden I don't want to stop kissing you, and it’s kind of a lot, and I’m not totally sure what to do with that." Her eyes moved over his face, hope and nervousness and not a little fear churning in rough currents in their depths as the torrent of thoughts and words slowed, and finally stilled. "Did any of that make sense?" For a moment he was silent, his face expressionless in repose as his eyes took her in. In contact as they were, it was easy for her to feel his energy, to again get the experience of standing on a frozen lake with something massive, alien and primordial moving deep below her feet. Only… It wasn’t so unknowable, now. She’d felt the outlines of it, felt the cold waters grow warm as it drew nearer to the surface, felt the crust of ice displaced by its heated presence when they kissed. Familiarity helped allay terror, but there was still the healthy fear - not of what he would do, but that she wasn’t sure where the limits of what he was capable of doing lay. His code defined that, of course… But she wasn’t even sure of the details of that. What she was sure of was that he was unaffected, honest - if not always forthcoming - and was into her in a way she’d not experienced before, with no reservations or uncertainty about what he wanted. For Jason, it was a moment filled with analysis. He caught the warm waves of restless emotionality in Autumn’s Shine, felt them lapping against him as she spoke. He dimly wished, in that moment, that he could feel something more nuanced than physical desire, or intellectual regard for a person’s qualities. Some sense of natural justice told him Autumn deserved that rich warm complexity in turn… But then, she had also said that he was making her happy. That was strangely pleasing, perhaps because it was so unusual. His father had said he was proud of him before. Sean had said he liked him, or he made him laugh. No-one had ever said ‘You make me happy’ to him before. For that matter, he wasn’t even sure what happiness really was. Like sadness, it was largely outside his experience - the closest he came was contentment, or satisfaction, or mirth - but in his reading and studying of the human condition he had come across descriptions of the emotion. This warm sensation tickling the edges of his consciousness, making him feel at peace when he looked into Autumn’s eyes - the aforementioned warmth in the cold places… Happiness? Or perhaps as close as he could manage to come to it… But some of that wasn’t entirely true, was it. He had felt more than physical sensation under her touch, and now as he looked into her eyes. He wasn’t sure what it was, but ‘warm in the cold places’ was as accurate as any descriptor he could conjure. He considered, without fear of the prospect, that he would miss Autumn if she disappeared, or didn’t want to see him anymore, and the thought was a curious one that he turned over and over in his head. The intensity of sensation she had evoked was a reflection of the intensity of feeling she had stirred, he realised with a sudden cool rush of wonder. Perhaps, were he capable of fear, he would relate to her nervousness. Because it was a lot, this thing that flared and coiled between them. Finally he lifted her hands to his lips and kissed each of them gently, his eyes on hers. “It makes sense, now. Thank you for explaining it.” he said quietly, leaning forward and gently planting a kiss at the corner of her mouth, letting it linger there a moment before pulling back. “I’m not really the best judge of whether someone is weird or not, but I certainly don’t think this - what is between us - is a bad thing. It feels very natural. And-” he smiled a little, one corner of his mouth quirking upwards. “- I’m glad I’m not the only one that wants to spend all their time kissing the other.” He was feeling that urge right now, and gently pushed it to one side, though not without a small struggle as his eyes strayed to her lips for a second, his aesthetic sensibilities remarking how red they seemed after all the kissing they had already endured, and how delightful the curve of them was. “It’s dangerously distracting, this feeling. Especially when we should probably be getting some rest before we go for that hike tomorrow.” he remarked, making no move to let go of her hands or to stand up. “Mmhmm,” Autumn agreed without particular enthusiasm; tomorrow was the last thing on her mind, with the lingering sensation of his kiss and the rich gold-green of his eyes occupying her thoughts in a way that made the phrase ‘dangerously distracting’ seem somehow inadequate. “We probably should.” I mean, yeah, she conceded, he’s right. I don’t even know what time it is, and we should probably get an early start if we’re gonna go out far enough for climbing in the morning. It was likely getting late, and sunrise would come early, but… But he’d listened. But he’d called her ‘beautiful.’ But they were in front of a warm fire, under an open sky filled with more stars than the beaches and deserts had grains of sand, in a place she loved. “But I’m not really tired,” she added quietly, shifting closer on the blanket as she took Jason’s hands- still clasped in her own- and slowly draped his arms around her waist. “And… I’m not ready for it to be tomorrow just yet.” The admission was accompanied by a smile as she tilted her face up toward him, bright lashes framing the wide, clear eyes that met his with a mixture of anticipation and desire. His ardent girlfriend was struck again, in such dangerously close proximity, by the sense that she could almost willingly drown in the primordial flames contained there, the heat of which even now warmed her face and wound languidly through her veins. That wouldn’t be so terrible, would it, to be consumed in emerald fire, dissolved utterly by brilliant copper sparks? Even if Jase did tease her, or enjoy making her blush, he was also careful to give serious consideration to her questions, and even if he couldn’t really understand her feelings in an intuitive sense, he apparently appreciated that she expressed them. He was interested, intent and engaged in a way that Jacob hadn’t been, in a way that made her stomach tense and her mouth go dry with just a look; that alone was almost worth the immolation of Self, wasn’t it? She could feel the faint whisper of his breath this close, smell the lingering echoes of the vaguely herbal scent that rose from his fire-warmed skin and reminded her, distantly, of that glorious garden he tended so carefully. Untangling her fingers from his, Autumn’s hands slid up her lover’s arms and into his hair, weaving gently through its shaggy length as she tried to fix an image of this moment in her mind: the way the firelight rendered his features into those of some ageless bronze sculpture from antiquity, the glimmer of his eyes, and the faint curvature of his mouth, which she admired with an interest that was in no way academic. “So,” she added a moment later, still smiling through the rush of warmth suffusing her skin as she met his gaze once more. “Can I have you for a little while longer?” It was an earnest plea, mingled with playfulness and the warm energy that would forever be synonymous with ‘Autumn’ in his mind. Jason examined her soberly, letting his gaze roam her freckled features, not for the first time noting the fetching hue of deepening rose tinting her skin as he did so. Once more, he was struck by how direct and yet tender her expression of desire was - the way she told it in the depths of her sea-shaded eyes, the upward tilt of her face towards him, the warm sweetness of her breath and how she shifted her body just so to fit more perfectly within his arms, which tightened a little around her waist as he drew her closer. “I think” he said softly, not smiling as he gazed into her eyes. “That you will always have a part of me. Like a room in a house where you can step into it and know that it belongs to another.” “Well,” Autumn replied, her fingers absently moving through the tousled strands of Jase’s hair as she returned the gaze with a faint, soft smile, eyes wide and wondering as they met his. “If there is a room like that, I hope you’ll help me fill it up with lots of fun, interesting things, so it’s never empty or dark.” It was true, too. Jason was too open, too intently sincere for her to seek to deflect the unfamiliar emotions his words engendered with flippancy. She found that she couldn’t do that: not at this moment, not to him. The answer to that was a kiss which deepened and lengthened, their mouths slightly opening against each other’s. Not as urgent and needy as before, each taking their time, but echoes of the passion of earlier were there like glowing embers, lending a searing intense quality to even this tender moment despite the pair being mindful not to fan those embers back to full roaring flame. The kiss broke, Jason leaning his forehead against Autumn’s much as he had less than a week and more than a lifetime ago after she’d hugged him. How different things seemed right now, though. This closeness meant something, did it not? His awareness of her, the way her scent tickled his nervous system, the way her warmth permeated him… It gave a richness to everything, from the firelight to the sounds of the night creatures. He’d meant what he said, of course. He knew that, if by the tides of existence he and Autumn were to part ways, he would register the lack of her in his life. He would measure future lovers by the experience that was her - from her simple emotional honesty to her warmth, loyalty and courage to the way her kisses made his blood leap like the tides under the moon. It was so unlike the fascination he’d felt for Marissa that he wondered if the feelings were even akin. “I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then? But sucked on country pleasures, childishly? Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den? ’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be. If ever any beauty I did see, Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.” The words were softly spoken, unhurried in their cadence, the murmur of Jason’s voice as he recited the verse hypnotic as it blended with the fire’s crackle and the distant whirring of crickets. Autumn’s eyes were wide, and liquid with emotions he still wasn’t confident of fathoming, but the smile curving her lips was more reassuring. “John Donne. ‘The Good-Morrow’” Jason said by way of explanation. Autumn let her fingertips glide down from his hair to his cheeks, then clasped her hands behind his neck and kissed him briefly. “Is there more of it?” she breathed, smiling as he nodded and, turning her head to one side, nestled closer, her red curls against his chin, her ear to his chest, feeling as much as hearing his voice as he continued. “And now good-morrow to our waking souls, Which watch not one another out of fear; For love, all love of other sights controls, And makes one little room an everywhere. Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone, Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown, Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.” “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears, And true plain hearts do in the faces rest; Where can we find two better hemispheres, Without sharp north, without declining west? Whatever dies, was not mixed equally; If our two loves be one, or, thou and I Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.” Her face hot with her blushes, Autumn was nonetheless grinning as Jason finished. Her fingers lightly grasping the hair at the back of his head, she tilted her face up once more and pulled his face down to hers for a sound kiss which deepened and lengthened, sighing her contentment and desire into his mouth as the two of them lay back together on the blanket. The sparks from the fire whirling up into the velvet of the night sky, the sounds of the creek and the chorus of night birds, all went unheeded as the pair focused all attention on each other. And though their clothing stayed on, neither of them slept for quite a while as they lay together, entwined and murmuring to one another between kisses, until well into the night.
  4. Naked torso time seemed a great idea, and Autumn sat up astride him as she, too, started to peel off the t-shirt that was the only thing keeping her skin from touching his - an unbearable barrier that would not be tolerated any longer. For a moment Jase watched as the pale skin of her stomach and ribs came into view, then an impulse seized him as Autumn’s arms raised, hands going behind her head to tug the shirt off - and he sat up with a smooth coiling of his stomach muscles and reached out, catching her hands behind her head as the t-shirt covered her eyes, just her nose and lips free beneath the edge of the material. The girl made a small sound of protest, but she smiled then, her arms tensing a little as though in playful struggle against his grasp. Jason let her feel his smile on her lips for a moment, then withdrew his kiss, eliciting another small sound of protest. Even in his inexperience, it was not in his nature to be passive for longer than necessary, and the sweet torments of Autumn’s touches, nibbles and kisses needed repaying, so it seemed. He drew back a little, studying her nakedness with a possessive, hungry gaze that the fair-skinned captive in his arms could practically feel like sunlight on her flesh. One hand still pinning her wrists, long fingers encircling them, he brought his other hand down to trace a fingertip along her jaw, across her lower lip - teasingly moving it as she sought to catch it in her mouth - then down the line of her throat. She had freckles down below her collarbone, a dusting of bronze in the firelight against the cream of her skin - currently flushed as her face was. He let the tips of his fingers play over the markings, teasing touches that made her shift a little in his lap. “What are you doing?” she murmured, smiling as she arched her body into his touch, trying to get more contact and catching her bottom lip between her teeth as her breath hitched, stifling a whimper. “Admiring you.” Jason replied matter-of-factly, sweeping his exploring hand down across her breastbone. Dipping his head, he kissed the base of her throat, then her jawline, then her lips briefly - too briefly - before once more trailing flame down the line of her throat. Another impulse seized him and he rolled slowly, chuckling as Autumn gave out a little yelp as she found herself laying back on the blanket now. The firelight played over her body, deepening the colours and lending flickering shadows to her contours, and the aesthete in Bannon’s soul marvelled for a moment, pondering the nature of beauty and how very subjective it was, how very enslaved to circumstance and company such things could be. “You’re beautiful.” he stated, smiling as he started to kiss her collarbone, lips finding each freckle and paying homage to it as they made their warm path down over her body, his tongue now and then flicking against her heated skin, his teeth gently nibbling, his whole attention focused on tasting her as she squirmed under his attention. Whatever his lack of experience may have suggested, there was nothing clumsy or boyish in the way he touched her, nothing shy or furtive in the leisurely exploration he was making of her body. She wasn't exactly virginal, and in her curiosity had found a lot of things on the internet she’d either gamely tried or secretly wanted to- but this was as far beyond the scope of Autumn’s expectations as Jason himself. A tingle of warmth rippled through her at the unexpected compliment, manifesting in a delicate wash of pale pink spreading just beneath the surface of her exposed skin; his particular brand of unabashed, unaffected sincerity was every bit as seductive as the insistent pressure of his hand on her wrists overhead. It was the newness of the sensations- the thrill of trading the ability to see what Jase was doing for the exquisitely heightened experience of the feeling itself, of sacrificing awareness for anticipation- that kept Autumn’s natural impatience narrowly in check. Even so, the contrast of hot breath and cool night air as his mouth moved over her skin was enough to test the limits of her willpower in a way that drew her taut as a bowstring beneath him, the space beneath her ribs hollowing slightly as her spine curved in a wordless arc of delight. Oh. My FUCKing. GOD! the still-rational part of her mind all but shrieked at the combination of teeth and tongue on sensitive flesh, though the high, plaintive note that escaped her lips wasn’t nearly so coherent. She couldn’t tell which was louder: the erratic, halting rush of her breathing, or the mad cadence of the blood pounding in her ears, but neither could drown out the voiceless, searing imperative of desire. More. The muscles along Autumn’s spine flexed as her hips rolled down against the blanket, pressing her chest upward in a half-conscious attempt to gain closer, more direct contact than the teasing kisses with which Jase was intently mapping the topography of her form in scorching lines. She wasn’t alone in her urgency. Whatever volcanic fires roiled in Jason’s soul seethed and roared in their chains, his arousal causing them to leap and dash themselves clumsily against his glacial self control to get at the girl - this treasure in his arms - who had taught him with words, each breath, each brush of her own lips on him, each caress of her fingers on his skin what connection truly was, what it could be. His own breath quickened at her cries, birdlike and pure despite the carnal demands they heralded, and his hot breath bathed her skin in rose as her blood too, so it seemed, surged upwards to meet him. He removed the slender hand pinning her wrists, yet a stronger grasp maintained Autumn’s helpless posture as his mind, powerful beyond the constraints of his young body, kept her in gentle imprisonment. Both hands were now free to touch her, to wreak havoc with her nerves as delicate fingertips tapped and traced a hidden pattern across her freckled shoulders and collarbone, a cipher for lovers punctuated by warm kisses as his touch moved lower, playing over the gentle swells of her breasts that the young woman’s body offered up with every rolling arc of her body. And now he focused there, taking his time with each caress, his eyes moving from the soft mounds to Autumn’s half-hidden face with the intentness of a musician regarding the conductor. Softly, very softly he trailed flame along her nerves: now with a warm brush of a palm, now with the pads of his fingertips as they traced the soft pink of her areolae. As she made soft, but steadily louder sounds of need and protest, he smiled a little and lowered his head, capturing one stiff little bud tenderly between his lips, kissing at first, then lightly scraping with his teeth to draw music from her before ‘soothing’ the tormented flesh with a gentle laving of his tongue. She tasted sweet, clean and female, a scent he was not unfamiliar with by itself but with richness added from the warm arousal that suffused the air from her pores. As his mouth paid languorous homage to her breasts, the green-eyed devil lightly raked his nails down across Autumn’s ribs and stomach, feeling the taut ivory of her skin quiver and warm further under his touch. Mischief seized him, along with a desire for further connection, and with a slight tug of his power the makeshift blindfold was lifted from the redhead’s eyes so she could look down and see the blazing emerald of his gaze on hers as he tormented her. Smiling as his fingertips teased along and just within the waistline of her jeans, Jason nuzzled his lips against her softness then switched his attentions to her other breast, flicking the tip of his tongue across her nipple before drawing it into his warm mouth. There was a moment’s disorientation as the collar of her t-shirt was tugged upward and away, and at first Autumn saw only a few orange sparks drifting like fireflies up into the vast expanse of dark sky above. Those trackless depths were scattered all throughout with the faint pinpricks of countless distant suns: glimmers of dying scarlet, coruscating points of sapphire, flecks of glittering, crystalline white, and- she glanced down, the scope of her vision shrinking- virescent gold, twin stars captured in corporeal form and rendered incandescent in the glow of the firelight. It was enough to make her breath catch as the alien, incomprehensible heat of Jase’s gaze slowly reduced any lingering reservations to ash. Had anyone actually touched her before? Maybe it was some shared resonance, some echo of their nascent gifts, that this, this must be the quintessence of contact, every atom set aglow by the merest brush of his fingertips. Unable to look away, to escape the dizzying sensory feedback of both seeing and being seen, Autumn’s wrists flexed against the invisible restraint, fingernails biting into her palms as she shivered at the intensity of the hunger in those pale green eyes. The languid, worshipful caress of Jason’s tongue drew a ragged gasp from her lips; it seemed unfair, somehow, that he could be so careful, so composed, when she could feel herself burning like a torch, dissolving from the inside out until all that remained was need, raw and desperate. More, it demanded again, and God, I want you, and she had no way of knowing if the sounds she made were words at all, or just formless, tortured cries in response to the all-encompassing warmth of his lips, his tongue encircling the aching bud of her nipple. As her fists knotted restlessly in the cotton fabric of her t-shirt, Autumn shifted beneath him, rearranging the tangle of their legs until she managed to get one of Jason’s knees between her thighs. Unable to touch him any other way, the captive redhead arched against him, twisting her hips in an urgent bid for friction, pressure- anything to get her body closer to his. What is the opposite of a sadist? Jase wondered with that always-present, wry analytical corner of his mind not currently occupied with sensual appetite for Autumn’s flesh under his touch, under his kiss. He was being pitiless, merciless in the sensation he was inflicting, but it was pleasure not pain, and to see Autumn’s flushed features transported in ecstacy, to know that it was he that was causing the alternately throaty and birdlike cries of wanton need was deeply, profoundly satisfying as well as arousing, the sensation burning like fine liquor in his belly and spreading through his body. He pressed his knee back against the arching pressure of her lithe body, fancying he could feel the heat there as the athletic girl ground against him, her moans lengthening and deepening as she rocked her hips back and forth. He trailed his lips in swift, light kisses back up her body from her breasts, arranging himself as he moved so that his knee remained in place for the hungry need of his lover whilst he caressed her flushed features with one hand before freeing her tumble of hair from the t-shirt that still shrouded it, red-gold waves spilling out across the blanket like the ransom of kings. The other remained lower down, fingertips dipping inside the waistline of her jeans and drawing small designs on the soft, tender skin of her abdomen. Her eyes were dark pools, wide as they looked up at him with raw emotion, portals to her depths which he studied, head tilting slightly as he regarded her, trailing his long fingers through her hair. Autumn flexed her hands against his telekinetic grasp again, wanting to reach out to him, grab his head and pull him to her. She moaned, a low keening sound of protest, as he dropped a delicate kiss on her lips and pulled back with a smile before she could respond. However cool and focused he seemed the detachment was skin deep, the near-delirious girl could tell with a feminine instinct that was as unerring as it was primal. Jason’s eyes blazed, his own features were darkened with the stain of desire. Almost intuitively, Autumn knew that if she could but touch him, she could scratch through that veneer of control and set loose what was inside. She arched her body, pressing her breasts to the warm smoothness of his torso and letting out a moan, a wordless command / plea that was emotion given form. Jason felt that demand and responded to it, pressing his lips to hers more firmly than before as, with a wordless relaxation of his will, he released Autumn’s bound wrists. The kiss Jase gave her, deep and sure, was a gift- one she returned fiercely and without hesitation the moment she was freed. All the energy that had been bound up with the restriction of Autumn’s movements uncoiled in a rush, her body rising up to meet him in a wave of hunger and warm flesh as she reached up with one hand, pale fingers tangling in his thick, dark hair to pull him close. There was no plea in the crush of her lips on his, no mute supplication in the claim her tongue laid to his own, and precious little consideration given to the need for air. There was only want, pure and unfettered, and the feverish pursuit of its fulfillment. Whoever she’d been moments before, who she might be in the moments that followed, if a future beyond this could even be conceived of- these were trivial, transient concerns that her mundane Self would have to address later. The burning brilliance surging through her- crimson as her own blood, golden as living flame- demanded tribute. It stretched through Autumn’s fingertips, through the fervent press of her mouth against his, through the friction of bare skin and the contrast of soft curves against taut muscle and bone, until she could feel the rush of Jason’s breath in her lungs, the hot pulse of his life in her veins… And, still, it wasn’t enough. Not by half. The near-mathematical symmetry of the lean muscle along Jase’s spine as her free hand snaked downward and around his side, nails grazing his hip beneath the swim trunks he wore. The tightening of his fingers in her hair, triggering an answering tension in the smooth skin he’d traced with arcane symbols of desire. The faint taste of salt on his shoulder as Autumn dipped her head, white teeth marking the tanned flesh there without playfulness or trepidation. The sound of her own voice, hoarse and hungry as her hips moved against him, breathing his name against his throat. It was almost overwhelming, the rush of awareness, and the needy redhead drank the heady mix of impressions in, exulting in the echoes of sensation she could feel returned to her. It was more than simply erotic or pleasurable; it was power, to savor the resonance of that vital spark in him thrumming in her own body. Could he sense it, too? some distant part of her mind wondered. Could he feel the heat beneath her skin, the faint tremor of anticipation in her fingertips as they plucked at the button keeping the too-loose combat pants around his waist? Maybe not, what remained of Autumn decided, leaning up to capture Jase’s lips in another bruising kiss. But she was going to make sure he felt something. All was Her, his focus narrowing as he felt his self-possession evaporate, his sense of Self a guttering defiant flame in a hurricane, now and then nearly being blown out altogether in the tumult of sensation, of connection. The scent of Autumn’s skin and hair, the taste of her tongue pushing insistently against his own and the feel - oh the feel! - of her body pressed to his as her fingers explored his skin. The wry observer was silent now, sheltering somewhere inside that guttering flame as everything became fire and hunger, caution and prudence drawn forth from his lean body as if with his breath from one of Autumn’s yearning kisses, to be scattered like the embers of the fire that whirled overhead as the two teens lay tangled in each others arms. Jase was hyper-aware of her fingers toying with the fastening of his pants, of the hungry heat of her body, of the so very perfect way in which their bodies seemed to flow together. Autumn’s murmur of his name against his neck seared his blood, set it to boiling as he ran his thumb over the embossed top button of her jeans before, with a nimble flick, he unfastened it. Autumn drew in a breath, feeling it, practically hearing the soft fabric sound as deceptively slender fingers dipped inside her jeans to stroke over the soft cloth of her bikini. She whined deep in her throat as a garment which, not long ago, she’d been concerned might be provocative now seemed to be a blighted impedance. His fingertips swirled down over her covered mound, and Jason could feel the warmth and humidity there, turning his hand to press it to her aching body, pressing against her through the cloth as his fingers stroked. His frustration mirrored hers, though. He wanted more than this, more of her and so, true to his essential nature he took it, slipping his touch back up, then down inside the swimsuit bottoms. He felt Autumn go still, one hand tightening in his hair, the other resting against his taut stomach, and he gazed into her eyes as she lifted them to regard him, her lips - rouged from kissing - opening in an ‘oh’ of soft anticipation. His fingers caressed her mound, gently tugging at the soft down he felt before straying lower still, seeking out her warmth. Even as his mind supplied the theory, his fingers and palm carried out the practical experiment, cupping the heated wetness, stroking the sensitive tips of his fingers over the folds he discovered. He softly kissed her panting mouth, nuzzled his cheek along her jawline, trailed his lips to her earlobe and, once there, whispered her name as an invocation while his hand learned, slowly, to play the oldest notes of pleasure on his lover’s body. The convergence of sensations had been almost dizzying, an exhilarating confluence of the real- the tactile experience of Jason’s skin, the steady drum of his heartbeat and the scent of something vaguely herbal in his tousled hair- with other, less tangible impressions of his essential vitality, bright as a bonfire in her arms and just as dangerous. With so much to delight in, the dull, sweet ache winding through her belly and the soft whimpers he coaxed from her lips were almost secondary considerations; until she felt deft fingers slipping with startling ease between the slick folds of her sex, Autumn had no concrete notion of exactly how eagerly her body had anticipated his touch. Her eyes widened up at him as the realization struck, desire and disbelief vying for supremacy in their depths, and she was dimly aware that if it were physically possible, she’d be blushing down to her toes beneath the wave of renewed heat washing over her. Instead, her shoulders pressed into the ground, hips arching up to demand yet more of his questing fingertips. Not enough. She trembled, panting, heedless of anything but how much she wanted him in that moment and how little of him she could actually have. There was no slow, measured climb toward some transcendent peak, despite the curious, exploratory quality of his caresses, but rather a rapid ascent only hastened by the invocation of her name: two syllables without any supernatural quality of their own, transmuted into a fey charm by the urgent whisper of a lover. The comely redhead shivered bodily at the warmth of Jase’s breath on her ear, her head dropping back onto the blanket as everything within her stretched toward the feeling of liquid tension building between her thighs, reaching feverishly toward the threshold of its release. Autumn’s fingers slid from his hair, wandering aimlessly across angular shoulder blades as the totality of her existence focused on the exquisite tease of his thumb brushing, almost incidentally, against the tender bud of her clit. With a near-frantic moan, she slid her free hand down over his, no longer satisfied with simply letting him dictate the pace of his own discovery. “Lesson can wait,” Autumn gasped, guiding him into the patterns she desperately craved. “I ca- han’t!” Her voice broke in a sharp, tremulous cry as one of those dextrous, sensitive fingers probed at her entrance before slipping inside, triggering the sudden contraction of her abdomen and a torrent of incoherent pleas to unnamed gods. All rational thought vanished, dissolving like hot ashes on the wind as her hips rolled faster, a frenetic rhythm that matched the insistent pressure of her palm on the back of his hand. She was already so close, breath coming in ragged gasps underscored by a soft, pleading whine, when she felt Jase shift slightly, followed by the brush of his cheek against the high curve of her breast. “Oh-” Autumn began breathlessly, heavy lids opening slightly in confusion. Then- “Ohhhh, FUCK!” as the tip of his tongue circled her nipple and he captured it between his lips. The ache, the heat inside her swelled, searing crimson and gold against the inside of her skin, and for a brief, terrifying moment the delirious teen thought she might actually be dying, torn shrieking from the world on a surging wave of incandescent lust. One hand clutched blindly, wildly at Jason’s wrist as her body tensed, muscles flexing beneath the rose-flushed ivory of her skin, while the other seized a fistful of the blanket behind him. Her eyes were wide, unseeing, as her spine arched, driving her bucking hips harder against his fingers; as the world went black around the edges, a high, keening wail escaped her lips, carrying the echo of his name through the night. It was revelatory: every part of the experience was sounding depths in his soul that even the acutely self-aware young man had not previously fathomed. Autumn’s body rose and tautened, her voice rising high, carrying his name in a wild paean of ecstasy under his touch while her feverishly clutching left hand latched onto his wrist in a futile attempt to anchor herself against the tempest coursing through her nerves. Jason felt in that grip the bruising strength of her rapture, his refined sense of touch reading the spasms of her wetness seeking to draw his fingers deeper, and as he watched her lovely features transported with pleasure the detached genius felt something within him stir, something possessive yet gentle that responded to the bold young woman who had reached out to and, if he was honest, into him. His other arm encircled her shoulders, cradling Autumn gently as she cried out and trembled against him, surging through the riptide of her delight, and Jason absorbed the simple fact of her being inside his awareness with a shock that resonated in the halls of his mind. It was startling, and discomfiting to think that just a week ago, he’d thought in his innocence such a thing could only be within the reach of one girl. But this intimacy was far beyond anything he had pictured. Such was the tumult of his own desires that he had no ready answer to why that was, and so he set the question aside and focused on the delirium of the Now, slowly moving his fingers inside his flame-haired vision, feeling her slippery wetness on his hand and grazing the pad of his thumb around her clit in unconscious time with the quiver of her inner walls. Autumn’s hands released the blanket and his wrist, coming up to cling to his shoulders and back as she raised her face to his, her warm breath and insistent, greedy tongue seeming to carry her soul into the kiss before she broke off to whimper loudly, her voice rhythmically rising in pitch, taking on an almost panicked note. Her thoughts were as leaves in a gale, the astonished realisation that it was happening again all she could grasp from the fleeting shreds of consciousness before her body was set ablaze once more. Already sensitised nerves sang as she felt her lower abdomen become a molten pool from which ripples spread out through her form, growing in intensity and becoming a series of moving walls of searing flame, each more heated than the last, each tearing a more loudly piercing melodious cry from her breathless throat. The series of cataclysms lasted forever and a moment, and left her twitching, gasping, a sheen of perspiration coating the rose stain of desire that flooded her face, throat and bosom. Autumn’s nails clutched at the skin of Jase’s back and shoulder, scoring his skin with red despite their pragmatically short length, before she managed to find purchase on her consciousness and bring one hand down to still the motions of his fingers inside her joyously spasming folds. “No... more...” she managed, though part of her did want more, wanted to see if there was an end to this soaring pleasure, wanted to burn up into motes, molten fragments like a meteorite breaking up from entering the atmosphere so fast. That need to be so consumed was intense – to be burned up by the flame of her lover, to forever cease to exist as Autumn and exist solely as a collection of white-hot motes of pleasure, yearning for his touch. It was terrifying and exhilarating. He was terrifying and exhilarating, even now as he acquiesced, gently slipping his fingers from her heated, needy sex, glancing down at the way her honey made his fingers glisten before his green eyes travelled again along the length of her euphoria-saturated form to meet her gaze again. His eyes burned still with his own lust, and there was an uncompromisingly possessive quality to Jason’s stare as he examined her, from the tumbling halo of firelit red and gold that framed her flushed face, to the dilated centers of her blue eyes, to her panting lips. Though his smile was oddly tender, even as it was still quintessentially Jason Effing Bannon: an expression equal parts satisfaction and amusement. “Told you.” He said matter-of-factly as he brought his hand closer to his face, eyes considering the slickness coating it before he, with seeming great attention to the process and equal enjoyment, licked the sweet evidence of her delight from his fingers as though it were a fairground treat. She watched with lust-dazed fascination as his agile tongue cleaned the digits that had brought her such pleasure, then his gaze turned back to her and smiled slightly, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he repeated what he’d said earlier. “Sort of loud. Noisy, even.” Autumn blinked up at him, her brain still reeling as it worked to assemble scattered, fragmented impulses and impressions into language and the basic structure of coherent thought- a process complicated somewhat by the sight of Jason adroitly licking the taste of her from his fingers. Not only was the display an extremely provocative reminder of the meal they’d just shared earlier, it suggested a number of other shared activities at which he might be equally adept, vivid images of which came to mind far more readily than the words she needed to describe them. Tilting her head and shifting a little closer to him, the sated redhead admired, wonderingly, the way the low flames nearby cast his features into sharp relief, warm bronze highlights contrasted with the near-black contours, and lent their glow to the hungry, wicked sparks of mischief in his eyes. It was enough to make her breath catch in her throat, kindling an answering flush of residual heat in her own expression as she considered his. “Sorry, was it?” she finally managed, still a little breathless but not at all apologetic as she reached up with a slightly giddy smile, her fingertips delicately following that line of demarcation between light and shadow that made him seem somehow otherworldly, unknowable. “I’ll try to be quieter next time.” "No need." The fire in the depths of his eyes was undimmed as he turned his head fractionally, kissing her fingers, his gaze not leaving her face. "Not on my account, anyway."
  5. The second time he said her name, the words themselves barely managing to pierce the heady fog of desire clouding her thoughts, it finally registered that Jase was actually saying something of import. “Fuck,” she swore with quiet intensity, stiffening slightly in his arms as she struggled to focus on something, anything other than the heat of his body and the feel of his hands anchoring her to him. As much as Autumn wanted to rail against his appeal to sanity, to protest that she didn’t care and it was fine, she did and it wasn’t. That was the reality of the situation. Of fucking course he didn’t have condoms. Why would he? She’d invited him out to go camping, for crying out loud, which was exactly why she hadn’t brought any, either. Suddenly acutely aware of the fact that she’d maybe almost just had sex with Jason Bannon, that she had definitely wanted to, and that she actually had just totally been all over him- that she was still all over him- the redhead squeezed her eyes shut, burying her face against his shoulder. “Yeah,” she murmured, quiet resignation in the soft, slightly raspy reply as she caught her breath. “Me, either.” Where scorching need retreated, the cold, unfamiliar sting of self-consciousness crept in, and yet Autumn found herself clinging to him still, wrapping her arms tightly around his chest and selfishly committing every nuance of Jason’s physical presence to memory as best she could. Whatever happened next, this moment, this feeling at least, was hers. “C’mon,” she sighed when she couldn’t stand it any longer, lifting her head and gently tapping his side in a bid to be set down. “Dinner should be almost done. I’ll grab napkins.” She hadn’t actually died earlier; she sort of wished she could now. He caught her eye, easy enough as he was still holding her off the ground and their eyes were roughly level, and she realised he was studying her expression with a calm concern in his gaze, almost clinical if it weren’t for the residual warmth still there. “Hey.” he said softly. “This isn’t ‘not happening’, it’s just ‘to be continued’.” He examined her face a little more, eyes lingering on her kiss-reddened lips and flushed cheeks, then smiled slightly as he met her eyes again. “That is,” he said more quietly, “if you want it to.” Autumn blinked, startled at his suggestion, then licked her lips, nodding as the high color in her cheeks deepened further. "Yeah," she replied so quietly it was scarcely more than a whisper. "Yeah, I really do." His smile widened a little, and he gently kissed her lips as he lowered her to the ground, her legs reluctantly releasing his waist so her feet could touch down. The pretty redhead made a soft little sound, her arms tightening around his chest as though to hold herself up for a moment before she finally relaxed her grip and, smiling now, slowly stepped away on legs that felt more than a little shaky. Jason kept his hands on her waist for a moment longer, his gaze somewhere between warm and unreadable as he watched her take a couple of coltish steps towards the fire before her equilibrium returned. “Good.” Jase said as he moved to join her by the fire, calling a bottle of water to his hand and cooling it with a thought, condensation forming on the sides of the plastic before her eyes as he unscrewed the lid and went to take a sip, then paused, considering for a moment before offering it to her. She gratefully took a drink and passed the bottle back with a smile, took a moment to tie her hair back for safety, then crouched to check the foil packages. “Because,” the emerald-eyed monster said as he sat beside her, watching what she was doing keenly. He grinned, studying her profile and the curve of her hips in her jeans. “I think we’ll need to be further away from your house. Sound carries, especially at night. And though I’m no expert, I’m thinking it’ll be sort of loud. Noisy, even.” She should be immune to this stuff by now, Autumn reflected as she felt a heat in her face that had nothing to do with the fire. For heaven’s sakes, she wasn’t a virginal choirgirl. She’d just been climbing him like a stepladder, had felt his body reacting to hers as much as hers reacting to his. And yet with a line that from any other boy would have been met with an eye-roll and a ‘sure, buddy’ snort he could set fire to her skin. Hell, he could do that with a look. “Make yourself useful and fish these parcels out of the coals.” she said over her shoulder at him, trying to narrow her eyes sternly and having the effect ruined by the mirthful sparkle in their depths. “If you insist.” Jase smiled, then gestured in unnecessary theatricality, the two packages gliding from the coals and coming to rest on the ring of stones around the edge of the firepit. Shifting position to kneel beside Autumn as she turned to grab napkins, he deftly brushed errant embers from the parcels and then carefully opened them. Fragrant steam billowed forth, and both teens heard each other’s stomachs growl as the scent of herbs, butter and garlic mixed with the smell of cooked meat and vegetables. “Damn.” Jase nodded approval. “Smells good. Worth remembering this trick.” Taking another sniff appreciatively, he settled back and watched Autumn, taking another drink of water. “It is,” she agreed pleasantly. “I have a fork if you want it, by the way. If you let it cool a little, the pieces are also big enough to just eat with your fingers.” Glancing back at him again, Autumn grinned. “That’s how we did it at Girl Scout Camp. Bunch of eight-year-old girls sitting around a fire, singing songs and stuffing our faces like savages. Good times. Oh,” she added, as if an afterthought, then leaned over Jase’s shoulder where he sat near the fire. “And you did bring up a good point. About the sound, I mean.” When he turned to regard her with the arched brow that- in her mind- was rapidly becoming emblematic of the detached, analytical young genius, a very un-Girl-Scout-like smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “So I guess I’ll just have to think of a good way to keep you quiet,” the mischievous young redhead murmured as a fresh wave of crimson stained her cheeks, and then kissed him again- briefly, but in earnest. It was the same as before- from that single point of contact a spark flared into life, spreading liquid heat through her veins that had nothing whatsoever to do with the nearby fire. Having succumbed to the temptation to kiss him once already, the impulse to do it again was almost irresistible- but, then again, she hadn’t really tried to resist it in the first place, had she? ...And, truthfully, she wasn’t entirely sure she would be able to stop kissing him if she got started again, especially not when he was looking at her that way. Reluctantly, Autumn managed to tear herself away and headed to the cooler to grab something very, very cold to drink. Is this okay? she wondered, grimacing a little as she rummaged in the ice for another bottle of water. Unpleasant as the chill felt, the frigid water was bracing, clearing away some of the residual endorphins. She hadn’t just almost kissed Jason Bannon this time, the mere thought of which had kept her up most of the night a week prior. Autumn couldn’t help but feel a twinge of uncertainty over the lingering sensation of physical need: she didn’t exactly have a great number of friends, and this definitely complicated things. The last guy she’d been involved with had also started as a friend, and tacking “with benefits” on, and the sort of weird presumption that they were then dating, had kind of… ended badly, and she wasn’t interested in a repeat performance of that particular show. Jase was Jase, though, not Jacob, the blue-eyed young woman reminded herself. Pulling a full bottle from the cooler, she twisted the cap off and nudged the lid closed with her elbow, turning back to find him watching her again. In spite of herself, she smiled a little, swiping the fork she’d mentioned from a small collection of tools nearby and heading back to the blanket to wait for their dinner to cool. Whether it was actually a bad idea or not… it was nice having him there, she decided. Maybe not peaceful exactly, but interesting. Challenging. Fun. They ate in relative silence for awhile, Jase using the fork at first but then setting it aside and copying Autumn, plucking morsels from the parcel with his fingers and popping them into his mouth with relish. He ate with evident enjoyment, taking his time to enjoy the meal as he sat facing his… girlfriend? Was that right? Did the term fit? Or perhaps that was something formally acknowledged, rather than implied. How strange it felt, rolling the term around the crystalline halls of his mind. A friend who happened to be a girl was nothing new. Lilly, Avalon, even Clara and Marissa fell into that category. Of all of them Autumn was the one who’d most sought to comprehend him: though the others had certainly made efforts, ranging from sincere to token, to understand facets of him, or why he did a specific thing, Autumn was the one who’d sat down and wanted to try and understand as much as possible. The act of observation changes both the observer and the observed - a standard principle of physics, and perhaps it was no different here. Thermodynamics of trust and desire, he mused, chewing a tender piece of sirloin. In order to observe me, she had to let herself be observed in turn, and that act of observing her fear caused me to wish to lessen it… Why? Trust given by a friend should be treasured, that is the code. And how do we treasure trust? - we extend it in turn. “You’re staring at me.” Autumn said as she finished taking a drink, smiling warmly at him. “I’m watching you.” He replied calmly, the corners of his eyes crinkling a little. And he was - the entire time he’d been working on analysing his responses he’d been storing every little detail of her, and this moment. “Does it bother you?” “No. Yes.” she laughed a little, her cheeks rosing again. “I do wonder what you see, though.” "Something unexpected, but welcome. Alchemy of sorts. In just a week, suspicion and fear on your part and detachment on mine have transmuted into friendship, trust..." he smiled at her, his eyes taking on that faint hungry quality that warmed their coldness. "Desire." An answering warmth rose in her cheeks and she nodded, glancing down at the food in her hands with a grin of pleasure at the memory. "Unexpected, definitely. Not that I minded, I guess. I mean, obviously." The red-haired girl laughed at that, hazarding a look at her companion through the fringe of her lashes. "But, yeah. I have to admit, I'm having more fun than I thought I would." The firelight flickered across his lean, high cheek-boned face and reflected in his eyes as he nodded soberly, the faint smile still playing around the corners of his mouth as he regarded the rose tinting her freckled ivory features. "It is fun. You're fun - and not just to tease, but to talk with - and to kiss. And to think I was on the verge of swearing off physical relations altogether not long ago." he added with a wry quirk of one corner of his lips. "Swearing them off?" Autumn blinked incredulously at him as she leaned forward, eyes wide and faintly luminous in the warm glow of the nearby flames. "Without even knowing what it was like, without even experiencing..." She shook her head, her free hand gesturing expansively at the world outside the faint ring of firelight. "Any of it? Why?" "Pique, perhaps." His smile widened a little at her reaction, head tilting to one side as he considered. "Monday was a bad day before you showed up. Bear in mind I was also on the verge of leaving Shelly after scorching a big ‘fuck you’ into the sports field: my mood was... poor." He finished with a slight understatement. Sitting here, that state of mind, that cold anger and disdain and the sense of being just done with it all, seemed very far away. In fact, as he studied Autumn's shining blue eyes, he was aware of a flicker of warmth that was unusual, something he took at first to be the embers of the recent flare of desire - but possessed of a different quality. "Anyway, I’d find abstinence pretty tough now. Thanks to you, I get what all the shouting is about" "...before you showed up." The idea that she had helped- that despite being utterly terrified of the brooding and dangerous young man and totally out of her depth, she had somehow still made an awful day a little better- was every bit as warming, as gratifying as the glimmer of interest in his pale green eyes. Before Monday, if he had disappeared, she would've been more worried about reprisals or delayed vengeance than why he'd gone, or whether he was all right. Now, though, things were... different. She grinned around a mouthful of steak as he grew quiet again, meeting his gaze with an expression that was equal parts mischief and promise, and shook her head once more- slowly, deliberately. "No. Not yet, you don't. That was just a kiss." He didn’t blush, merely blinked once, then cocked his head slightly to one side and smiled at her, raising an eyebrow. The redhead pursed her lips, considering. “You don’t get flustered, do you? I am never going to see you blush, or be lost for words.” “Embarrassment isn’t something I feel. I do experience a pause as my train of thought gets derailed, but there’s no real flustering there. I blink, adapt, and that’s it.” Jase tilted the foil packet at one end, draining the juices from the meat and vegetables into his mouth, then licked his fingers clean. “You blinked just now. So… I derailed your train of thought.” Autumn smiled widely, trying not to focus on his tongue cleaning his fingers. “I’m claiming that as a win.” “I blinked earlier too, when you said my pheromones were fine and again when you called me amazing.” Jason corrected evenly. Autumn went red as she recalled, looking down at her meal abashedly. “Well… Yes. You are.” She said, glancing at him through her lashes. “And they are.” “So it seems.” he nodded, folding the foil into a square, then wiping his hands dry on a napkin, his eyes never leaving her features. “Soooo, that’s three blinks, which I am claiming as blushes, for me.” Autumn pronounced, lifting her chin in triumph. “Versus twenty-three for me.” The Effing One returned. “Including full blushes, times lost for words, and those delightful little blushes where just your cheeks go rosy.” “Doesn’t matter.” Autumn tossed her head, smiling even as another of the aforementioned little blushes stained her skin. “I’m a redhead, a girl, and with a normal brain. You are Bannon, Greatest and Chiefest of Calamities. A blink from you is worth… twenty blushes. At least.” He rubbed his chin as though considering that, his eyes narrowing, then nodded. “I suppose, seeing as it’s the price of being amazing.” he said with a faint sigh, as though conceding a defeat. Autumn giggled around a mouthful of food, nodding in agreement, and he smiled at her. A sudden notion struck him and, evaluating it in a split second, he saw no reason not to go with it. “So, assuming you haven’t gotten tired of my amazing self by then, would you go to the Homecoming Dance with me? As my girlfriend, I mean." he clarified. “That…” she began slowly, the expression on her freckled features a curious mixture of surprise and confusion. “Out of all the questions I would ever have expected you to ask me, that one wasn’t on the list.” “Really?” Jason seemed mildly curious about that, his head tilting slightly to one side as he regarded her. “I suppose it was presumptive of me. It came to me while we were eating - we get along well, we are different enough to be interesting to one another, I enjoy talking with you a surprising amount…” “Surprising, huh?” Autumn narrowed her eyes at him as she finished her own meal, wiping her hands on a napkin as she set the folded foil in the trash bag. “Surprising, how?” What, had he expected to be bored? “I don’t usually enjoy talking to most people this much.” he said with a small smile. “It’s something I do, because it’s necessary as part of the interaction. But with you it’s entertaining - and not just because you blush like a sunset. You’re lively, emotionally honest and open, enthusiastic about life. You have an active mind: you’re curious and not content with just banal explanations - in that we’re very alike. I think you’ve a lot of very attractive qualities.” His smile widened slightly, his gaze studying her features intently with a heat in its depths that caused Autumn’s stomach to tighten. “And our chemistry seems to be… compatible.” Autumn had been trying resolutely not to blush under that scrutiny and his words, though she’d felt the heat rising in her face regardless as her blue eyes studied his features in turn. When he mentioned their chemistry, the blush burst its dam and coloured her cheeks deep rose, though she didn’t look away. Yes, she wanted him. Her lips remembered that last kiss just before they ate - her body remembered that kiss, short and sweet as it had been. And judging by the way he looked at her, with an intent unveiled hunger in his eyes as they met hers that - her feminine intuition screamed - had nothing to do with his stomach, he felt that too. The look wasn’t affected, she realised. It was raw desire without conscience, shame or hesitation, and the force of it was making her breath catch. “Okay.” she managed. “But I thought you didn’t date.” She had to deflect his attention a little, deflect that gaze that heated her like he was setting her on fire - metaphorically and in the best way possible. “I didn’t.” Jase shrugged, his smoulder relenting a little as he took a drink of water. “I was wearing a mask, hiding myself and keeping everyone at arm's length. Dating would have been counterproductive.” “That’s one reason.” Autumn said with a faint air of triumph. “Hmm?” “Don’t ‘hmm’ me, Bannon the Impenetrable. Three reasons - don’t think I’ve not been paying attention. You always have three reasons.” Her gaze met his challengingly, and she was gratified to see a flash of white teeth as he grinned. “Very well - I also didn’t feel the need for physical connection before.” he allowed, smiling at her with a good-natured gleam in his eyes. “It just seemed… irrelevant before the summer. I didn’t like people touching me, and whilst I liked looking at pretty girls, it was more aesthetic than carnal.” “Late bloomer.” Autumn teased, smiling. Jase nodded, shrugging a shoulder as he smiled back. “Hopefully worth the wait.” he said slyly. “And the third reason was Marissa.” “Right.” Autumn blinked, feeling a dash of cold water to the brain at the mention of that name. “Don’t you love her, or something?” Jason sighed at that, a pensive look entering his eyes as he looked up, watching sparks from the fire rising into the air. “I do - I’ve been drawn to her for a long time. But I’m not going to hang around pining for her - I’m not even sure she’s a wise choice for me. She has made it plain she will never seek to understand me beyond the limits of her own fear. Perhaps that will change - but that is entirely up to her. Any further discussion will come from her initiation.” “So… You’ve moved on?” Autumn blinked. “Yes. I plan to live and enjoy the experience, like I said in my kitchen on Monday. While the matter of Marissa’s true feelings works itself out, one way or the other.” “One way or the other?” “Yes. Either she likes me in truth, but she’s playing a game or doesn’t know her own mind, in which case she’s going to need to grow up and elevate her thinking a little. Or it will come to light she has no special attraction to me or can never accept me - in which case I shall treat the whole matter as a learning experience.” “Wow. I mean, yeah that makes perfect logical sense, but still…” Autumn peered at her stoic friend. “And you don’t feel sad, or angry, or anything?” Jason said nothing, just shook his head with his eyes on hers. The redhead sat back slightly, considering him with slightly narrowed eyes. Bannon. Dating Bannon. Jase as a boyfriend - not just a friend with bennies, but a for-real, dating… “What does being a boyfriend or girlfriend mean to you?” she asked earnestly, leaning forward again. He looked thoughtful. “Someone who is a good friend, who you are also attracted to and want to make space in your life for.” he answered in a measured tone. “I see a lot of high school couples who don’t really seem to be friends at all - they just ‘date’ which, from overheard conversation, seems to be only hanging out together to fumble in each other’s clothes. Not that I don’t see the attraction, but what I picture is something less… casual? As I said, we seem to get along really well. I like you, and I trust you. And you’ve said similar to me.” He smiled faintly. “And I really, really like kissing you. I just want to see where all that goes, if it could lead anywhere, rather than assuming it means nothing.”
  6. And they did. As they got the campsite fit for purpose, Jase laid out the current theory of quantum forces as the underpinnings of all creation, including the massive gap in the theory as it stood right now. He then went on to explain how the existence of a subquantum layer of reality filled in that gap, providing a unifying force tying everything together. Then, with a few short examples from his observations of various members of the Fellowship’s gifts, he demonstrated how the psionic level of reality and the subquantum layer had to be one and the same, and that it was a layer where the normal rules of time, space and physics were malleable and subject to the will of the psionically gifted. Indeed, it could be considered the level of reality that consciousness and willpower existed on. The realm of the soul, for want of a better word. By the time the exploration into the foundations of all reality was over, Jase was sitting by a crackling fire that had been laid in the pit Autumn had cleaned out as the flame-haired girl paced around the campsite. The contrast between them was notable - one a picture of stillness between one considered, purpose-laden movement and the next, the other constantly shifting in restless tandem with the activity of her mind as it took everything in. The afternoon had progressed into early evening, though there was still plenty of light from the sun as it dipped towards the horizon. “So.” Jase leaned back on his elbows, raising a brow at Autumn as the firelight danced on his composed features. “I won’t ask if you have any questions, because I know I still do and I’m pretty sure you’re not that easily satisfied either. But does the explanation help, at least?” Something about the act of just moving around made it easier for her to focus. While the rest of her had been arranging firewood to promote airflow, setting up her tent, and stretching the brand-new hammock she’d gotten at the start of school between the usual trees, her brain found itself free to concentrate on what Jase was- with an impressive degree of patience, and without crayons- trying to explain. He understood the subject matter well enough to be able to convey it simply, without condescension, and without seeming bored. If anything, assuming that her study of Jase Expressions for Noobs was accurate, he actually seemed pleased to be sharing information. He could also just be humoring her- she was still in the early days of her anthropological observations after all, so it was difficult to tell. “It does help,” Autumn agreed slowly, still processing Jase’s elementary unpacking of what was, essentially, a theory of everything. “It gives me a place to start, anyway. And, yeah,” she grinned, tossing a twig into the fire, “I have questions. There are always questions, every time we talk about something. Well,” she amended, the smile audible in her voice as she headed over to the cooler. “About something serious, anyway. And then you answer them, and then I have more. It’s like I’m in class, but actually paying attention.” A cold water bottle appeared in front of his eyes as the red-haired girl walked up behind him, nudging him gently with her knee. “Thought you might be thirsty after the lesson, Professor Bannon.” As he cracked open the seal on his drink, she carried hers over to the striped wool blanket spread near the fire and finally settled down. “‘Professor,’ is it now?” her companion inquired as he took a long drink of water, the bottle going slightly cloudy with the formation of tiny ice crystals within to adjust the temperature. “Mhmm. You can’t be a high school science teacher.” Cutting her eyes at him as she tilted her head just slightly, the redhead took a sip from her own bottle and added with a smirk, “You’re not old, bald, ugly, overweight, or divorced, and you haven’t given up on life yet. Sorry,” she shrugged, as if there was nothing she could do. “You don’t meet the job requirements. Go teach some hot college girls first, get involved in a couple of scandals, come back when you’ve had your midlife crisis.” “Well, I admit the thought of fooling around scandalously with college girls has its appeal.” Jase smiled slightly, causing Autumn to experience a pang of anxiety on behalf of her college-aged sisterhood. “Older women, and all. Experienced hands on my tiller.” Autumn turned bright red even as she snorted around a mouthful of water, thankful not to have another choking coughing episode like the one in his kitchen this time. It was the way he delivered the cheesy double-entendre utterly deadpan, with just a hint of a pause before the word ‘tiller’. She didn’t dare look at him, knowing that he’d be wearing an expression of mildly amused interest in her plight that would cause her to lose her shit entirely. Instead she took a deep breath, finished her drink, took another deep breath, then unable to help herself she glanced sideways. He was watching her with the exact expression she had expected, only as he noticed her look at him he raised a solitary eyebrow archly, then winked. “You-” she wagged a finger in a passable imitation of her mother scolding her. “-are totally…” “Utterly.” he said with an air of agreement, nodding as he scooched over to sit on her blanket. “Couldn’t agree more. Though I think I’ll pass on having a midlife crisis. They seem tedious.” “You don’t ever stop and re-evaluate everything in your life and who you are?” Autumn glanced at him again, smiling a little. “I constantly re-evaluate everything in my life, especially lately. As to who I am, that doesn’t change” Jason stated somewhat somberly as he stared into the fire. “That’s why having a friend who understands that is important.” he added with a sideways smile. “Mmmm,” she nodded, taking another drink as she weighed his words quietly, rolling them over in her mind as the fire crackled and snapped softly in the amber glow of the fading daylight. “I can see that. Sort of the idea that who a person is, at their core, can’t really be changed in any fundamental way. Especially so for you, maybe,” Autumn allowed, leaning over for a moment to bump his shoulder with her own. “I don’t know that I necessarily agree completely, but your boots are too big for me to walk very far in.” Smiling, she gave a small shrug. “I mean, I know that I’d like to think that what I feel as ‘Autumn,’ in my head, is a fixed point. That I could use that to navigate through life, knowing as long as I kept it in sight, I’d be fine.” She paused, wondering (not for the first time) if it was Jase’s presence, or something in the atmosphere that made her feel oddly pensive. “Other times, I think about whether that’s really true, or just what I want to think is true, you know? Honestly, I wonder if the ‘Autumn’ I think I am isn’t something I can chart a course by, but just a compass needle that points somewhere else.” She frowned at that, her eyebrows knitting together in consternation. “Physically, we’re different people all the time. New skin, new bones, new blood, all of it. And, I know that other things about me change, too. Have changed, even just in little ways.” With a quick sweep of her hand, she gestured toward Jase himself in acknowledgement of their nascent friendship. “Maybe even in ways I haven’t noticed yet, because I’m too busy actually doing it. Like, not knowing you’re getting taller until your clothes don’t fit anymore.” There was a moment of quiet as Autumn took another drink, and then offered him a slightly abashed smile. “So, not that you asked, but that’s what I think.” Then, a moment later, “Professor.” He smiled a little at the adornment, shaking his head, but his mood was reflective as he considered her words. It was certainly true that one adapted to changing situations. It was also true that the core of a person, at least himself, was not all that malleable. He wondered if that was due to the malleability being a function of intuitive socialisation - one adapted to fit the circumstances, up to and including the infamous Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages could experience something very like love towards their captors and vice versa. Did his knowledge that he was not human, that he was of a different species entirely, change who he was? Or merely how he perceived that who. “I think both are true.” he said eventually, after a comfortable silence in which both teens were considering. In response to Autumn’s glance his way, he half turned towards her, his gaze assessing. “You - Autumn - are the point of reference: the star if you will, that you steer by, and you are also the compass needle. For you, each acts on the other. Most of the time, the needle points to where you already know you should be as dictated by the position of your central star. And sometimes it points to a place you haven’t considered, and the solid point of reference shifts, but remains Autumn.” He smiled at her, the expression reaching his firelit eyes. “For me, perhaps it’s the same. I don’t know. I still feel the same as I did before the summer, the party, the powers. I have elected to drop my mask, so I appear changed to others, but I don’t know if I’ve changed inside. I fought a hellbeast, then went and ate pizza, cheered Lilly on at the game, brutalised Liam all in the same evening, and I feel no different as a result of those things. It’s like the central star that is me doesn’t shift, even as new facets of it come to light and everything I do is in relation to it.” He turned his gaze to the fire again, its light shining off his shaggy dark hair. “Right now I feel different, though. Less cold, more warm. Peaceful.” He glanced at her, meeting her eyes. “That’s your doing, I think. And thank you for that.” That gave her a moment’s pause, the conversation suddenly veering off in a direction she would never have expected… Which, to be fair, wasn’t unusual on its own, but both the openness of his admission and the fact that he was directing it at her left her momentarily at a total loss for words. “I mean, you’re welcome, but… I don’t think I’ve done anything you would need to thank me for. Seriously.” Sliding a couple inches closer, she nudged his shoulder again. “Apologize for, maybe, for being a dirty cheat-” Autumn caught herself, pursing her lips. “For… taking unfair advantage of the unwritten nature of a rule,” she corrected, unable to resist glowering up at him in mock fury, her eyes fairly aglow with humor. “But, not thank me. You’re right, though, you do seem a little different. It could just be this place, you know? It is peaceful, here, and it just kind of melts into you, every part of you, into your bones. Something in the air, or the water, I don’t know.” Smiling, she looked beyond the fire to the stream, where the encroaching twilight gazed down at its reflection in the slow-moving current. “It’s probably my favorite place in the world. I’m glad you like it- hopefully, everyone else will like it, too.” Taking another long sip of water, she thought about that for a moment, the idea of bringing so many people- people like her, who were also very unlike her- here. Would they appreciate it? Would they be respectful? She’d been to plenty of overnight parties where that wasn’t the case, and she knew she would be taking a risk, inviting the others… But, it was something new, something she hadn’t tried before, and- she didn’t have to look over at her companion to know he was there, a feeling of warmth and vitality suggesting his presence- thus far, she seemed to be having pretty good luck with new things. She’d been prepared for the sleepover at Marissa’s to blow up in her face, and fully expected to get the Cora treatment when she’d gone to pick up her hoodie, hadn’t she? Maybe this would be the same. With a crinkle of plastic, she drained the last swallow of water from her bottle and fished the cap out of her pocket before glancing over at him and smiling encouragingly. He didn’t seem to mind the quiet, not filling the silences with pointless conversation- which was a fortunate thing this far out from Shelly itself. “Are you hungry yet?” she asked, getting to her feet and screwing the bottle cap back on, eyeing the fire speculatively. “It’s almost burned down enough to cook, so whenever you’re ready it should be fine. If not, I brought cards and stuff, in case we got bored.” “I’m always hungry.” Jase looked up at her with a sharp grin that put Autumn in mind of a fox when someone said the word ‘chicken’. “I don’t think I’ve ever cooked on an open fire before - not counting marshmallows and Smores - but I’ve read about it. Dad and Hank usually set up a portable gas grill.” He watched with interest as Autumn, shooting him a smile, extracted two fair-sized foil parcels from the small cold-bag and brought them back to the fireside. “Cubed sirloin with veggies and red potatoes.” she said in answer to his curious glance. “We bury them like so...” Autumn knelt down, handing him one of the packets and picking up a stick, poking a depression in the glowing coals toward the edge of the fire before depositing her foil package carefully, then pulling the coals over. She turned to see Jase imitating her almost exactly… except that the lean youth was using his bare hands to scoop red-hot embers aside, then carefully pat them back into place over the parcel before dusting his hands off. Autumn's first, instinctive reaction was a momentary flicker of panic: bare skin, live coals. Oh, shit! She took a half step toward her friend, then hesitated. He was- fine? Startled, she watched Jase for several seconds, wide-eyed, and took a few deep breaths to slow the rapid surge in her heartbeat. It was strange, she marveled, to see how seamlessly he'd integrated his own powers into his life, as if they were simply part of who he was intrinsically, rather than just something he could do. He seemed perfectly at ease, like he'd done this a thousand times before. For all she knew, maybe he had. At the same time, it was a stark reminder of how inarguably strange Jason Bannon was, something she'd conveniently pushed to the back of her mind while they'd played in the stream and gotten the camp site in order. He was a person, sure, but also more than that. Different. Chewing her lower lip thoughtfully, she shook her head. It's fine, the redhead reminded herself, as something else occurred to her. "Cheater," she grumbled under her breath, viciously jabbing her newly-designated poking stick into the coals. “Oh, there are rules for that too?” Jase responded with a hint of a smile. Autumn stuck her tongue out at him, then smiled as she sat back, regarding him with a mixture of friendly good humor, curiousity, and a tinge of exasperation. “Just trying to figure out how you do that.” she said, squinting a little at him over her smile. “Thermokinetic diffusion?” “No. I mean - do it so easily. Like it’s not even a special effort. No big ‘ta-da’.” Autumn’s freckle-speckled nose screwed up slightly. “It still kind of freaks me out, this ‘Shine’ thing.” “I’m not unique there. Devin thinks nothing of teleporting to Athens for pizza or Bangkok for Thai food, or even teleporting his dresser to him to change clothes.” Jase shuffled around to face her as he spoke. “Charlie shifted his head into a reasonable copy of a female newsreader’s and scared the country girl glow out of Tawny’s cheeks.” He smirked as he remembered that. “I wonder if Devin got around to fully explaining to her what the hell is going on yet? Anyway, that was the first casual use of his powers I’ve ever seen Charlie make, so there’s hope there - though his timing and the company present could have been better.” He rolled his eyes, then pondered, his gaze on her features. “Most of the others seem to be getting more relaxed about it, but I don’t think they put a lot of thought into how their powers could be used. For instance you share Charlie’s gift to an extent, which means you might be able to physically adapt to extreme heat enough that you, too, could pick up a red hot coal.” He shrugged. “I’m pretty sure that Sean spends a lot of time reading people’s texts and emails as they go whizzing through the air. At least, I would if I were him. Same with Sara’s telepathy - I’d be constantly skimming people’s moods and surface thoughts, hoping to understand them better.” “Cheating.” Autumn grinned at him, poking his arm with a finger. “Working imaginatively to overcome a limitation.” Jase responded, grinning back at her. “If I had yours and Charlie’s gift, I’d grow gills and go swimming. Or experiment with altering my own pheromones. Or anything, really. The key is first, establish How my powers work. Then ask the question ‘what else can I do?’ Let the imagination soar, and don’t be afraid.” He paused, considering that. “Easy for me to say, perhaps. But doesn’t make it untrue.” Something in her eyes had lit up when he started talking about what he would do with other people’s powers; although she’d made a valiant and concerted effort to keep still and listen quietly, when he finally grew quiet, all the energy she’d been holding came out in a rush. “Okay, okay, but!” Hopping up to her feet suddenly, Autumn took a few steps to get her thoughts in order, then turned to face him again. “First, trust me. Your pheromones are fine. No problem there.” Her cheeks flushed slightly in the firelight as she gestured expansively in his general direction, but she grinned anyway. “Also, what if you don’t need to be able to grow gills to do that? Like, what if you just used one of your force-fields to make a bubble around yourself? I mean, you can breathe inside them, right? And then, if you can’t swim because you’re not touching the water, just… Airplane yourself.” She paused for a second, her expression suddenly serious. “Please tell me you’ve tried that, because if not, I don’t know that we can be friends. Not the underwater part, I mean, but flying.” "I have tried." Jase admitted with a small smile. "I can do it, but at the moment it causes the kind of headache I associate with psionic strain. Like lifting too much with your arms can cause them to hurt." “Seriously?!” the restive redhead all but crowed, bouncing on the balls of her feet as she laughed. “That’s so freakin’ cool, though! I mean, yeah, you could probably do all kinds of crazy stuff with Sean’s abilities, or Sara’s, or whatever, but you’re learning to fly. When you figure out how all this works together, how to do it without hurting yourself, you could go anywhere, see anything, and nothing could hurt you. Like…” Resting her hands on top of her head, she paused, reflecting long enough to breathe amid the torrent of words and thoughts. “Devin can go anywhere, which is awesome, but can he survive there? Under the ocean, or, or in a volcano, or… hell, in space. I can’t even imagine having that kind of freedom,” she breathed, though her expression of rapt fascination rather suggested otherwise. “What you can do, how natural it is for you, that’s- it’s amazing. You’re amazing, you know?”
  7. "A very little key will open a very heavy door." -Charles Dickens, 'The Strange Gentleman' "Never open a door that you can’t lock again." -Persian Proverb Thursday afternoon, 29th August. The keys to the other house- once her grandparents' house and one day hers, but always the "other" house- had been in the same place they always were, hanging on a little hook by the phone in the kitchen. There were at least a dozen of them, most made of old brass, all linked on a ring with a bright yellow tag that read "Oasis Bar & Casino" in worn red letters. (The Oasis was a little hole in the wall dive on Main Street near the hardware store, with a big sign that read "DANCING;" though Autumn had never been inside, she'd always wondered if anybody in Shelly actually went there for that purpose.) Some of the keys, she knew, went to the front and back doors, to the shed, to the gun safe and the liquor cabinet. One used to belong to her grandfather's pickup truck, and one fit the padlock on the heavy utility gate across the gravel driveway. The others, though, were mysteries, an assortment of keys in shapes and sizes that didn't seem to correspond to any of the doors or security locks in either home. She and her mother had talked about it after the memorial service, when they'd cleared out most of the miscellaneous clutter and bric-a-brac Owen and Caroline had amassed in all their years together; the furniture had stayed, of course, in part because most of it had been custom-built, but much of the home's contents had been either sold or donated. Sitting at the dining room table afterward in the oddly-silent house, Autumn and Dana had gone through the keys one by one for no other reason than that it gave them something mundane to focus on, something to take away the feeling of being gutted and hollow for just a few minutes more while they drank the coffee other people had made. One of them, they decided, was probably for a post office box. Another, smaller and well-worn, looked like it would fit a locker- maybe the one he'd used at work. There was no way of knowing, obviously, and as a result the keys that couldn't be accounted for acquired an appealingly mysterious provenance. In those few stolen moments of distraction from the reality of their loss, the two Keane women proposed increasingly fantastical origins and purposes for them: a safe deposit box containing the deed to a lost mine; a secret door at the Veterans' Memorial that led to a nuclear fallout shelter; a vault in the Highlander Self-Service Laundry that contained all the missing socks that had ever disappeared from Shelly dryers. Those keys, with all the stories attached to them- both remembered and imagined- now jingled in the pocket of her hoodie. Looking back on that afternoon as she strapped a couple of boxes onto the back of the four-wheeler, it occurred to Autumn that in sorting out the keyring, she didn't think her mother had ever mentioned the door in the basement. She couldn't remember whether she'd ever seen it herself growing up, couldn't picture where it might have been... but then, she'd never had much reason to go down there, either. The refrigerator and the television and the fireplace and her grandfather's big chair were all upstairs, and there was no tidy, fenced-in yard for a playground but all the hills and wild places all around the cabin to keep her occupied. Why would she have wanted to go poking around for secret libraries when there were trees to climb and fox dens to find and clouds to watch? Mom must've known about it though, she reflected, frowning as she went through the motions of closing the garage door before stepping back out into the warm, late-August sun. I mean, she lived there as a kid, and she was the one who went through the basement. If she'd cleaned it out, I'd have seen all the books and stuff, so... Did she not want to tell me, or was it just more than she felt like dealing with at the time, or what? If Autumn's thoughts were of a somewhat murkier cast than normal when she started up the road, muddied by the prospect of unearthing family secrets and prodding at wounds not yet entirely healed, the ride up to her grandparents' property proved restorative. She took her time, letting the low rumble of the motor drown out everything else and focusing instead on the road ahead, the wind lifting her hair, and the sharp scent of pine filling her lungs. It was the closest she could get to flight- at least, without demanding another airplane from Jason Goddamn Bannon. The memory of that feeling- of swooping and circling over everyone's heads just a few short days before, of the sound of laughter ringing out bright and free as if to spite the encroaching darkness- brought a smile to her lips and a pleasant warmth to her cheeks as the gate came into view up ahead. Into the driveway. Downshift. Brake. Out came the ring of keys, down went her feet onto the gravel. With a little fiddling, the padlock popped open, and the rusted metal gate followed suit; Autumn nudged the ATV forward again, then barred the way behind her. She'd done it countless times before, but never with this same sense of... nervousness? Anticipation? It felt a little like pedaling down the road to the farm on Monday, wondering the entire time if it was a good idea, knowing it probably wasn't, and still being unwilling to turn around. Maybe Nathan was screwing with her, but maybe he wasn't. Maybe her grandfather really did know about the Dark- Warden Crocker had, so it wasn't all that crazy an idea. Maybe... Autumn swallowed hard as she brought the four-wheeler to a stop in front of the two-story log house Owen Kavanagh had built decades ago for his freckled, flame-haired bride. Maybe he could still help. Leaving the boxes for now, his granddaughter hopped off the ATV and followed the stacked stone retaining wall up to the front of the house. The darkened windows that greeted her might, in any other context, have seemed sinister- here, though, they only suggested dormancy. Another key unlocked the front door and she crossed the threshold into the mud room without hesitation, nudging the door shut with her heel. It wasn't remotely the first time she'd been here in the year since Owen had passed, but every time she walked through that door Autumn could swear she smelled fresh coffee and the faint scent of pipe smoke. Today was no exception. Smiling despite the sudden liquid blurriness of her vision, the redhead pulled off her shoes and left them there, padding in her sock feet down the rug-covered hallway. "Hey, Grandpa," she called out quietly, her voice sounding taut even to her own ears as she passed the open kitchen. It was a silly habit, but one she couldn't seem to break just because he wasn't here to answer anymore; it would probably feel weirder if she did stop. Of course there was no coffee in the house, and no one to make it, but she couldn't help but glance over just the same. "Brought back that tackle box Dad got from you, and some other stuff we borrowed from the shop. Sorry it took so long." Exhaling in a long, shuddering breath, Autumn blinked, pausing at the broad entryway to the living area and dining room to switch on the lights. "So, um. Nathan Crocker came by yesterday," she continued, the keys jingling softly as she thrust her hands into the pockets of her hoodie. Moving past the big wood-framed sectional couch and the enormous stone fireplace mantel crowned by dusty pheasants, she headed toward the utility room and the stairs down to the basement. "We talked about you a little, and he, um. He said you knew about all of this, the stuff that's going on? Which, y'know. I was kind of surprised, because you never said anything, and Mom never said anything..." The house was silent in response, save for her breathing and the faint rhythm of her footsteps. "And, I mean, I guess I get it." She shrugged, flipping the toggle switch for the lights to the stairwell and opening the door that led to the lower level of the house. "It's crazy, right? Like, how do you even bring that up in conversation? 'Heard ya had problems with that Jauntsen kid again. Evil little bastard. Ya know, there's a chance he might be possessed by an ancient force of darkness that corrupts folks and makes 'em do some twisted shit. What do you think, m' girl? Seen anything like that?'" Sighing, Autumn headed down the stairs. "Yeah, Grandpa. Yeah, I have."
  8. It had taken longer than she’d initially hoped, but- covered in gritty ash, sand, and tiny flecks of bark that she brushed from her jeans as she stood to survey her work- Autumn had finally completed the Great Firepit Excavation of 2019. “Yaayyy,” she cheered softly, shimmying in a little personal dance of celebration, “we have a hole in the ground! Yaaayyy!” Cleared of debris, the roughly circular depression in the ground was a little over a foot deep, and perhaps three feet wide, ringed by large stones claimed in previous years from the depths of the creek. She exhaled, still smiling and flushed from both exertion and a sense of personal accomplishment; it was such a small thing, a tiny, but necessary step toward getting the campsite back in order, but, still, it was progress. Now we just need to clear the ground, and figure out what to do with the snake when we sort through the wood, get the fire st- Uh. It was like a song playing in the background, the kind of thing that went unnoticed because she was busy doing homework or helping in the kitchen, and before she realized it- she’d be singing along, and couldn’t remember when she’d started, which verse she’d picked up on. It just sort of happened, the sound gently insinuating itself into her mind until, finally, the rest of her brain caught up. There was a snake coiled watchfully among the well-seasoned firewood. Jase was a few feet from shore, standing in the creek. A pair of rabbits… birds overhead… mice, spiders- oh, god, so many spiders! Blinking, she glanced in the direction she felt her companion would be, and- although he wasn’t stationary- he was exactly where she’d expected. In the week or so since she’d discovered that she was different, like some of the others at Shelly High, Autumn had more or less tried not to think about it too much- mostly because of all the awful things that had come along with it, like hellbeasts and getting punched in the face. This wasn’t frightening at all, though. A little hard to process, but not inherently creepy- just a different sort of kinesthetic sense, like being aware of her own body moving through space. It wasn’t at all what she’d seen before, when everyone was practicing at the Farm. That was so specific, so unique to the person, to see the energy they radiated and how it moved through their bodies. This was so much… Bigger, maybe? Almost overwhelming, until she found that by concentrating on one thing- Jason, for example- she could make the rest sort of fade out, while whatever she focused on became clearer, sharper and more alive in her mind’s eye. Holy shit, this is wild! Okay, okay... Um… Let’s see… How far out does this work? “So, hey,” she called, unable to wipe the smile off her face as she paced carefully around the clearing, hands out at her sides. “I think I’m banned from playing hide-and-seek. Like, forever.” Grinning like a child with a new favorite toy, she walked the perimeter of the campsite, trying to work out at exactly what point the odd feeling of life faded into an indistinct haze. Maybe… 100 feet, or so? Autumn guessed, and then laughed to herself, a little excited and a little incredulous at the same time. As the sensation of the snake at the edge of her awareness disappeared, the redhead paused, and retraced her steps until it reappeared. Cool. Yeah, I think that’s right. And, hey. At least it’s useful. It occurred to her, then, that this was what she’d experienced in the hospital, when she and Cassie had gone downstairs and the worlds had flipped again, or overlapped, or… Whatever. “Okay,” she murmured, kneeling a few feet from the pair of trees where the stack of firewood had toppled into a shadowy pile perfect for any number of insects and small animals to make their home. “So… who are you, exactly? Are you friendly, or are you bitey?” Autumn had been taught to demonstrate a healthy respect for all creatures, even those not normally considered dangerous, so she weighed her options carefully. Out of the 10 species of snake native to the region, only one was technically venomous, and most of the others were sufficiently shy or docile enough to be safely relocated, but a 1-in-10 chance was still a chance. The last thing- well, one of the last things- she wanted on this trip was to get bitten by a rattlesnake and have to endure Jase’s teasing about needing the venom sucked out. And, as if on cue… He’d moved so quietly, somehow padding up behind her without disturbing any of the dried needles or foliage, that if she hadn’t felt him draw nearer she’d never have known he was there. The thought was a little disturbing, but equally impressive; it occurred to her that he might be a good hunting partner as well, when the elk and mule deer seasons opened in a few weeks, and she made a mental note to ask him about it. Maybe he was right, and just “doing activities” together would help banish the lingering uneasiness she still felt around him. “Hey.” She glanced up over her shoulder at his approach, giving the tall, wiry youth a quick smile. “We have a visitor. I’m trying to decide if they can hang out with us, or if they’re gonna be one of those annoying, grumpy neighbors. And I think…” Her voice trailed off, eyes losing focus with the shift from one type of vision to another. The shape of the head was the most important part, and since she had no idea if there was a way to work out more details, it was probably enough. “Yeah, I think we’re good. ...Probably. Just to be safe, though, would you mind doing the telekinesis-thing, and move those two logs right there? I know you’ve already used it a lot, so if not, I can just grab a stick or something to nudge them and get her to come out.” "It’s no strain or problem." he smiled slightly, nodding toward the two logs she'd indicated which obediently lifted, very slowly, away from the ground. “No matter how many times I see that, it’s still hard to believe. Although, honestly, if I could touch things at a distance, feel them without having to actually disturb them, I dunno. It’s kinda cool,” she admitted, getting to her feet in case the snake was startled enough to be aggressive. “Ohhh, look at you,” the redhead all but whispered in admiration. She didn’t share Cade’s gift with animals, but that didn’t stop her from striking up a one-sided conversation anyway. “Aren’t you beautiful?” she breathed, smiling. “Hope you don’t mind, we’re just gonna do some renovations to your house, here, but you’re welcome to stay if you want. If not, that’s cool. We’re kind of on the big and noisy side, huh? Might make it hard to get dinner tonight.” Cautiously, carefully, the pair re-stacked the fallen logs, keeping a watchful eye on the pretty little garter snake that was also watching them. By the time they were done, she of the gilded stripes had retreated into a narrow gap between two of the largest logs on the bottom, where neither party was likely to annoy the other. “Nice job,” Autumn smiled approvingly at Jase’s share of the work. “We can use those last few to get the fire started. I’m gonna go put this away and get cleaned up a little before we unpack the rest. Cool?” Scooping up the camp shovel she’d abandoned by the firepit earlier, she banged it a couple of times against the bottom of her boot before folding it up again and returning it to the ATV. She paused for a moment, debating the relative merits of rinsing her face and hands with some of the bottled water she’d brought, versus just going over to the creek… and it occurred to her, mid-consideration, that the only reason she was even thinking about it was because she wasn’t alone. Okay, no. That’s... It shouldn’t matter. Why should it be any different just because someone else is here? Don’t make it weird, Autumn. Rolling her eyes at her own self-consciousness, the animated young woman rummaged around in her pack until she managed to extricate a towel and headed down toward the water’s edge. The Goddamn Bannon did good work, she had to admit. The bank was clear, and all the driftwood and branches that had blocked access to the water had been relocated into a relatively neat pile further down the rocky shore. It was beautiful: the sound of the stream, the heat of the afternoon, and the fresh, clean smell of sun-warmed pine on the breeze. Aaaaand, her, covered in ash, dirt, and sweat. Grinning as she untied the much-beloved hoodie from around her waist and draped it over a nearby branch, Autumn couldn’t help but laugh, imagining the picture that would make if some nature photographer happened by. Next, the hiking boots and socks came off, and were carefully set aside, farther from the water’s reach, followed- after a moment’s hesitation- by her t-shirt, and then her jeans. She’d worn the two-piece swimsuit underneath, purchased over the summer, for entirely practical reasons, and this was a very practical sort of situation. ...And yet, it was still a little odd taking off her clothes with someone who wasn’t a relative less than 100 feet away, but- hadn’t she also told Marissa that the reason she enjoyed coming out here so much was the freedom? Autumn considered that for a moment as she shook the loose dirt from her clothes and set them aside. Superficially, the purpose of the trip was to clean up the camp site, but the whole idea was to get to know her new friend better, and for him to become more familiar with her, as well. How was he going to do that if she did things differently just because he was there? Eh, she decided with a surreptitious glance back toward the clearing. He’s seen boobs before, and I’m not naked enough that Instagram would ban the photos, so fuck it, I guess. The water was satisfyingly cool as she entered, but not at all cold, and when she’d waded far enough that it eddied around her pale thighs, she bent down, quickly splashing the dirt from her face and scrubbing it off her forearms. It would have taken twice as long if she’d tried to be more careful, used water from one of the jugs or something. It would also have been a lot less fun. Once she was satisfied that all the freckles she could see were actually part of her skin, she took a long, deep breath, bent her knees, and let herself sink down to the bottom. He’d watched as she gently spoke to the garter snake, his eyes studying her profile intently as she restacked the logs, leaving space for the small reptile to find a safe, comfortable nook. Then he’d given her some privacy as she went to clean up, turning instead to sort out his camping arrangements. His low, sloping Backpacker was technically a two-man tent, but only if they were horizontal - perhaps a single person could sit upright in the thing. It was minimalist: lightweight and waterproof, good for temperate weather during Spring, Summer or Fall, and packed up into a neat, small roll-bag that could be clipped onto the Army surplus pack he’d come with. He unpacked it, eyeing the ground for a good spot and telekinetically ensuring it was free of rocks and sharp, pokey sticks, then set the tent up with an ease born of equal parts practice, perfect memory and having as many extra hands as he needed, noting with some satisfaction that the whole process had taken him maybe eight minutes, and when it was done he was a safe distance from the firepit with the flap of his tent facing towards it. He stashed his pack in the tent, setting aside a flashlight and a roll of toilet paper just inside the flap, then his head tilted as he heard the sounds of splashing from the creek. Smiling to himself, he grabbed a towel from his pack and, straightening, ambled in the direction of the creek and the sound of watery relaxation. So it was that when Autumn surfaced from the sunlit water with a small whoop of enjoyment, the first thing she saw as she scooped her length of soaking red hair from her eyes was Jase, who regarded her with a small grin, then dropped his towel on the pebbles and began to peel off his t-shirt. “You’d better be wearing trunks.” Autumn said warningly as Jason’s lean torso came into view. He was not muscular, but what muscle he had was defined, taut over bones that seemed too large for the sparse flesh currently adorning them. As she had noted before, he was utterly unselfconscious, chuckling as he started to unfasten his belt, the sound of his amusement causing her to be grateful that the water was just cool enough to take the edge off her blush. “If I wanted to heat the water to boiling point, I could do it more efficiently than by causing you to blush so hard your hair combusts.” he retorted, dropping trou to reveal that yes, he was wearing trunks and no, they weren’t indecently tight Speedos, rather being a loose set of swimming shorts that came down to mid thigh. Without further ado he waded out into the creek and performed a shallow dive, surfacing after a few moments with a wide grin of pleasure, then turning to Autumn, his green eyes shining. “Thank you for this.” he said soberly, despite his smiling gaze. He’s impossible, she realized suddenly, her infuriated denial of the possibility of her hair combusting because of something he said dying on her lips. Or perhaps she only remembered it suddenly, as if she’d somehow forgotten: there was no good way to “handle” Jason Bannon, because everything about him resisted being handled. ...And, if she was completely honest, confronted by the proximity of someone she'd almost kissed a week prior, when he was fully-clothed and not dripping wet… her hair spontaneously catching fire was the least of her worries. “Honestly? You’re welcome,” she replied after a moment’s thought, the corners of her eyes crinkling slightly as she smiled, ignoring the sudden influx of warmth into her cheeks. “And, I don’t mean like... The courtesy thing, where somebody says ‘thanks,’ and you say ‘you’re welcome,’ because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and all that. I mean…” Hesitating, her clear, pale eyes flicked over Jase’s shoulder to the camp site up the shore, and then back to his face. “You’re welcome. Here, I mean. This has always kind of been my place, but I, um. I don’t mind sharing it. With a friend.” The taste of the word was still unfamiliar, and she was pretty sure she couldn’t be more out of her depth with someone if she swallowed stones and sank to the bottom of the sea, but… Was there any better reason to try something, than that it was hard? In her eyes, every time Jase opened his mouth, or looked at someone, he shifted the goalpost a little bit, daring them to go after it, watching to see if they would. It was awkward, and sometimes intensely uncomfortable- case in point, she reflected, resisting the almost physical urge to duck underwater again beneath the weight of that burning green gaze- but also incredibly exciting… a game where people had to figure out the rules in the midst of playing. Maybe she would never really understand him. Maybe she couldn’t. Maybe there was no way to “win,” given how completely, impossibly, impossible Jase was, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still a lot of fun to try. She tipped her head back into the current with an indulgent sigh, letting the current tug at her hair as she watched a bird wheel slowly across the enormous, otherwise unbroken expanse of blue overhead. “So, friend, now that you’re out here, what do you feel like doing? I still want to get everything unpacked before it gets dark, and get a fire going, but I’m open to suggestions. Staying out here is a completely valid option, by the way. Or a nap. Or a long walk. Pretty much anything.”
  9. "So." Autumn took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as she twisted on the bench, shifting to get a view of everyone present. She nodded at Jason, flashing him a quick, uncertain smile; she had, indeed, mentioned to Cassandra during Chem that she wanted to steal a few minutes after the main part of the meeting, but in retrospect it seemed... Not unimportant, maybe, but not as relevant? The seer's revelations were of immediate concern to all of them, whereas her own might not be. Hers was definitely more personal, and suddenly she wasn't sure at all what to tell them since most of these people were basically strangers to her, anyway. For the most part, the only thing they all had in common was their Light, or Shine, or whatever they wanted to call it. How much did that entitle them to? With a couple of exceptions, they were people she barely knew a week ago- hell, they were people she barely knew now. Her lips compressed briefly into a thin, pale line, and the Titian-haired teen hesitated, sea-colored eyes scanning the faces of those assembled before alighting briefly on Sophia. Ah, fuck. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, after all. "Okay. So," she repeated quietly, squaring both her shoulders and her jaw as she made a decision. "Sunday, I need to make a trip over to the reservation. If anybody else wants to go, catch me in study hall or send me a text or something before then. If not, and something that affects you guys comes up, I'll let you know." Holding up one freckled hand, the uncharacteristically somber young woman slowly shook her head, forestalling questions. "And before you ask, no, I'm not saying why right now, or who I'm looking for. I just... I have business out there, so I'm going." Turning to regard Charlie and the busty brunette at his side, Autumn's eyes softened slightly as she offered them what felt like an apologetic smile. "No offense, but I didn't expect mixed company when I told Cass this morning that I wanted to talk."
  10. The Keane Household. Thursday Evening. “So… I saw Nathan Crocker today, when I went to the bank.” Autumn, tucked comfortably into a corner of the sofa with two of their fosters- a two-year-old rust sable Shepherd named Dakota, and Lexi, an older female Pit with creamy white fur and tawny ears- glanced up from her phone at her mother’s non sequitur. Their two families had been friends for ages, since before either Autumn or Jacob were born… probably since before Dana herself was born. Just seeing the good-looking FWP Warden or his equally attractive son around town wasn’t unusual, in itself; Nathan himself had just paid her an unsettling visit the day before. No, what was strange was the way her mother had said it, as if she were leading up to something. “Oookaay?” the younger redhead replied, her tone a combination of acknowledgement and inquiry as she peered up at her mother. “That’s cool, I guess?” With a sigh, Dana leaned bodily against the doorway to the kitchen, regarding the young woman strangers often mistook for her younger sister. She could see so much of herself in her daughter- more than just the physical resemblance- but comparing what she remembered of her own teen years to what she could see of Autumn’s… Where was the sulking? Where was the grumbling about being stuck in the house, the restless flouncing about and complaining that she wanted to hang out with her friends? When she herself had been grounded as a teenager, she’d never missed an opportunity to bemoan the injustice of her exile, which in hindsight had probably not done her any favors. Autumn, though, was handling it with a surprising level of maturity; she didn’t seem so much indifferent as resigned, even straightening the garage without complaint. “It was ‘cool,’ yeah,” she replied finally, just as her daughter was about to go back to watching videos on TikTok. “He asked how we were doing since the hospital, I told him we were fine… We talked about Jacob a little bit-” The teen’s expectant expression soured almost instantly, the corner of her mouth turning down on one side in a look her mother knew Autumn had inherited from her grandfather. “-and he said he didn’t think you guys had any classes together this semester, is that right?” “Nah, we don’t,” came the flat, disinterested response. “Okaay. Well,” Dana hedged, “he also mentioned that Homecoming’s in a few weeks, and Jacob hadn’t said anything about having a date yet, so-” “I’m going by myself, it’s fine,” Autumn interrupted matter-of-factly. It wasn’t exactly the end of the world as far as she was concerned, not being invited to a dance by her ex, especially when things between them were super awkward. “That way I can eat all the snacks I want, dance to the songs I like, leave when I get bored, and nobody can complain.” Leaning her head against the back of the couch, she grinned a little at the older version of herself to soften the edge of her words. “Priorities, right?” The elder Keane blinked, a little taken aback by her daughter’s resolve, and her honesty. She was such a kid sometimes, and sometimes… With a twinge of regret, Dana smiled back. “Yeah. Priorities… Speaking of which!” She paused, marshalling her thoughts. "Autumn, I've been thinking about Tuesday - specifically about what I did and said on Tuesday. You understand that I was upset, right? And not really about the fight, so much, though it gives me the chills to think you might have been hurt: you were doing what you thought was right." Nodding, Autumn glanced down at the phone resting on her thigh as her smile faded, tilting it from side to side without really paying attention to the images on the screen. "Yeah... I mean, you were right though. I did get lucky, and it was probably kind of a dumb thing to do." "I was right in what I said with my Mom Hindsight at work, maybe." Dana smiled slightly at her daughter. "But... and this is not an endorsement as a mother, you understand... you were right in what you did. You helped a friend who was being assaulted with no thought to yourself. If I wasn't your mom, I'd have been cheering you on." She sighed. "I might have even done the same thing at your age. Maybe. So..." She took a breath. "Tonight is officially the last night you're grounded." She raised a hand forestallingly. "But you better not scare me like that again in the near future, Autumn Rae, or so help me..." That got her attention- not only the invocation of her middle name, which meant that her mother was being Really Serious right now, but that she was letting her off the hook early. "Wait," the younger redhead straightened, leaning forward as inquisitive blue eyes studied Dana's face with undisguised curiosity. "Seriously? So I don't have to stay home this weekend?" "No." Dana smiled at the sudden interest piqued in Autumn's gaze. "No, it's the last weekend of summer. I'm not such a monster I'd keep you indoors just because I got a scare." "Ugghhhhh," Autumn was up and off the couch before her mother could react, arms flung tight around Dana's ribs as the suddenly animated girl all but tackled her in a hug. "You're the best. Seriously. Literally the best. I thought you were gonna be mad at me until I was 40." "Ooof" Dana laughed, hugging her daughter tightly in turn. "My not-so-little girl. Ease up on my ribs, huh?" She kissed Autumn's forehead and rested her cheek against it. "You're growing up. I can't be mad at you for being you, or I'd never stop. Besides, who you are is pretty special to me, too." she said more soberly, stroking the red curls of her daughter's hair on the back of her head before withdrawing a little, smiling wryly. "So, what wild hijinks are you going to get up to, now that you're free?" "Wild hijinks?" she repeated dubiously, grinning in spite of herself. Oh my god, that was such a... mom thing to say. "I don't know, I was thinking maybe 'shenanigans,' instead," Autumn teased, eyes laughing as she twisted out of the way to avoid her mother's indignant swat, flinging herself back down on the couch to the surprise and dismay of the dogs who were watching with avid interest. "Seriously, no plans for anything crazy. No wild parties, or anything like that." "Well, good." Dana said with a fond smile. "Because your dad's coming back for Labor Day and I don't want to explain to him why you're in the sheriff's jail for some shenanigans gone awry." Assessing Autumn with a critical eye as she nodded her understanding, she paused for a moment. “Did you start doing something different to your hair?” “Oh, yeah,” came the somewhat distant reply; the mother-daughter bonding moment having passed, the younger of the two was back to scrolling through videos on her phone with one hand and idly petting a pair of drowsy dogs with the other as they settled back down. “Marissa showed me some stuff.” “Marissa…?” “Jauntsen. Remember, I spent the night there last Sunday?” “Wait, wait… That Marissa? The one who-” Dana spluttered incredulously. “Yeah. It’s fine now. Well,” Autumn amended, “mostly. She’s still kind of a bitch.” “Autumn Rae!” “Well,” she shrugged, somewhat chastened. “She is.” Almost as an afterthought, and without looking up from what she was doing, the young redhead added, “Oh, and if it’s cool with you, I was gonna head up to the campsite this weekend and get it cleaned up. It’s been a while, and I wanted to show it to a friend, see if they could help me a little. That okay?” “Autumn, you know I don’t care if you go up there, as long as I know where you are. You’ve been doing it since you were a little girl. I trust you.” She hesitated- It didn’t seem like she and Jacob were talking, but surely Marissa Jauntsen wasn’t the one going with her. That whole family was awful, and she doubted they’d do anything as unglamorous as camping. “But, you don’t normally take anyone with you. Who’s the friend?” “Mmm?” Autumn blinked, distracted, then looked up at her mother with wide, guileless eyes. “Oh. Jason Bannon.” There was a long, uncomfortable moment of silence in the living room, as Dr. Dana Keane reflected that perhaps she’d been a trifle hasty in lifting her daughter’s punishment early. “Oh,” was all she could say. ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Friday Afternoon. Autumn had checked the weather a dozen times over the past few days, and according to the forecast, Labor Day weekend was supposed to be gorgeous, with clear skies during both the daylight and evening hours. It was perfect for camping- warm enough to splash around in the creek during the day if she wanted, and cool enough in the evening to sit by the fire. She had everything she needed: hammock, tent, blanket, pillow, insect repellent and first-aid kit, firestarter, sandals, dice, cards, towel, clothes, toiletries, hatchet, camp shovel, pocketknife, and a large, padlocked cooler… plus gas for the ATV. Except for the four-wheeler- a concession for whatever gear her guest might bring- it was exactly the same list she checked off every other time she’d gone. “Listen, just… Call me, okay? I’m just down the road.” “Mom,” Autumn sighed in exasperation as she organized everything in the front yard, taking stock of what she needed to tie down and where. “I know what you’re thinking, and seriously, it’s not like that. Look, he’s just helping me get everything cleaned up. He’s literally just a friend, okay? Not the future father of your grandchildren.” “Autumn!” The pretty vet’s face went as red as her daughter’s hair as she stormed down the steps from the porch. Laughing, Autumn ran to the other side of the four-wheeler to avoid the onslaught. “Mom, seriously, I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” she protested, still grinning as she fended off her mother’s swatting. “I’ll call you, I promise! If you wanna hang out for a little while, he’s probably getting his own stuff, and then he’s gotta come here first, y’know. Then you can yell at him, too.” Seeing the smile on her daughter’s lips, her enthusiasm for going back to a place that held so many memories of her grandfather, Dana relented, her embarrassed indignation fizzling away with the dim recollection of a child’s laughter. “Maybe I will,” she countered, smacking Autumn’s hip playfully with the back of her hand. After a moment, she added, more soberly, “I just… worry, you know?” I am too young for grandchildren, her expression read as she peered at her daughter. “Yeah,” the younger girl agreed quietly, sliding one arm around her mom’s waist for a quick hug. “I know.” “Now, c’mon. I’ll help you get everything strapped on before he gets here.” ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Dana Keane had a mental image of Jason Bannon that was based on the previous six years of the young recluse’s life, an impression shared by most adults in Shelly: shifty-eyed, perpetual boneless slouch, shady connections, spoke rarely and even then in a sullen murmur without meeting one’s eye - the sort of kid you worried about sending your child to the same school as. Whilst the dramatic changes in Jase over the summer had been noticed around school, word spread a little slower to the wider community not directly connected to the Shelly education system. So Dana was not really all that worried about Autumn potentially fooling around with such a boy - indeed, she was more worried that her daughter was hanging around ‘questionable’ persons: Marissa Jauntsen? Jason Bannon? And there had been that fight at school - also involving Jason Bannon - was her daughter falling in with a bad crowd? So when the soft growl of a muscle car caused both Keane ladies to look up from adjusting the load on the ATV, it was with a mixture of trepidation (Autumn) and puzzlement (Dana). To Autumn’s relief, Bannon didn’t bring the Charger roaring up the track, revving the engine in a cringey display of machismo - but then, she mused, she probably shouldn’t expect that sort of thing from him anyway. The low grumble of the V8 ceased as it drew up to one side of the track and came to a stop, and Jase got out. And Dana Keane felt a prickle of maternal unease. He was dressed as per normal in clothes a size too large - Army surplus combat pants and boots, with a plain white t-shirt under a grey hoodie. As the two women approached, he gave them a nod of acknowledgement and a faint smile as he hefted a large pack and a rolled up tent from the trunk of his car, then stepped forward to meet them. He seemed taller than Autumn’s mother remembered - or was that due to the fact he was standing upright? - and his previously hooded, shifty gaze was direct - unsettling in its calm appraisal of whatever or whoever it rested on. His dark hair was long enough to brush the lobes of his ears, and while it looked shaggy, it was a far cry from the ‘dragged through a hedge’ look he’d worn before, framing the brilliant pale green of his eyes in the outdoor-tan of his face. It looked as though in the space of the summer he’d grown from ‘teenaged boy’ to ‘young man’. Not that he didn’t wear it well - he wore it possibly too well for Dana’s comfort. “Just a friend?” Dana murmured out of the corner of her mouth. Autumn made a ‘shush’ noise out of the corner of her own as they came up to him. “Hey.” Jase said by way of greeting, giving Autumn a smile that reached his cold eyes, causing them to crinkle at the edges, then turning his attention to Dana. “You didn’t tell me your sister would be here.” he said with a faint accusatory air as his eyes flickered back to Autumn. Though his poker face was as good as ever, she could read the mischievous gleam of humor in his gaze as he continued, deadpan. “I’d have dressed up more, got a haircut, y’know?” Autumn groaned in disbelief, Dana blinked in surprise, and both women, almost in unison, turned the same shade of crimson. Ugh, the former sighed inwardly. Seriously? “Yeah, yeah,” the younger of the two grumbled, shaking her head. “We try to keep her hidden here, but tales of her beauty still spread far and wide across the land, and so on, and so forth, Mom- Jase, Jase, Dr. Dana Keane.” She paused, glaring daggers at him even as the corners of her lips twitched in suppressed laughter. “My mother,” she reiterated unnecessarily, pointedly leaning forward as if to warn off a rapacious predator from an appealing target. “Just Dana, will be fine,” the elder of the Keane ladies suggested, her hazel eyes simultaneously appraising and amused as she stepped forward. He was not at all what she’d expected, thus far, although it wasn’t entirely reassuring. Autumn got into a fight protecting this boy. “It’s nice to meet you. Autumn said you two were planning on heading up to the property to do a little clean-up and camp overnight.” She gave him a quick once-over, then smiled, extending her hand in greeting- a gesture the tall, strangely compelling young man was quick to reciprocate. As they shook hands, Dana took the opportunity (as all parents must) to embarrass her only child and get more information about the green-eyed interloper. “Do you do much camping, Jase? Or, do you prefer Jason? And, what about your girlfriend, mm? Does she mind that you’re going out into the woods alone with my daughter?” While Autumn went several shades of red and resisted the urge to step on her mom’s foot - hard - Jason didn’t even blink, holding Dana’s gaze with his own through the brief handshake. Even as she subjected him to a mixture of wary maternal and feminine scrutiny, the attractive veterinarian felt the weight of being studied in turn, a sensation her daughter was already uncomfortably familiar with when dealing with the Effing One. His manner wasn’t one of ease such as Jacob might have displayed, born from a lifetime of familiarity. It was utterly centered, composed, displaying no cues of either nervousness or eagerness to please, rather a distant watchful intensity that reminded the veterinarian of a half-wild creature deciding whether she was a friend or a threat. “Jase is fine, amongst friends.” he said with a touch of warmth, giving her a small nod as he let his fingers slide from hers. “I try to go camping at least a couple times a year, so when Autumn told me she knew a pretty spot she’d like to show me I said okay. And... I don’t have a girlfriend.” His lips twitched in a slight smile as Dana’s speculative gaze turned briefly to Autumn, who was currently experiencing the fervent red-faced feeling of wishing the earth would open up and swallow either her, her mom or Jase. Then he threw his blushing friend a lifeline. “Will the car be okay where I parked it?” he asked Dana, indicating the Charger. “I can move it if it’s in the way at all.” “So long as your dad doesn’t mind you leaving his vintage machine out in the elements overnight.” Dana replied, then indicated the two-car garage Autumn had just finished organizing the day before. “But why don’t you park it up in there?” “Mighty kind.” Jason smiled at that, both in response to the kindness and out of mild amusement. “The car is all mine, though. Spent the summer rebuilding her.” He added with a tiny note of pride in his tone as he set down his camping gear. “I’ll get her parked up if you’ll give me a moment.”
  11. Autumn half-turned from Cade and the others at the sound of the seemingly-delicate newcomer's accent, bringing one knee up onto the seat as her other foot swung idly in the open space below the step. There was a suggestion of sympathy in the freckled girl's smile, warming slightly as she considered the fact that, less than a week ago, she too had been thrown in at the deep end and told to swim; the fact that Kat was still here after everything that had happened on Tuesday, even reluctantly, spoke volumes in the young vitakinetic's estimation of her. "Several of us have been pulled from here to there," she explained, letting the rest of the conversations filter into so much background noise, "or been around when there came here. Like at the hospital. I don't think anyone knows exactly how yet, though... And..." Her fingertips drummed quietly on the aluminum of the bleachers, wide eyes speculative as they darted fleetingly in Devin's direction. "He didn't always have the bracelet. I somehow managed to miss the drama that day, but I heard about it after. You're better off asking him, or Jase, or Cassie, honestly. I mean, it's Devin's story. When we get done here, maybe he could tell you about being trapped..." She shook her head, reaching up to tug at the end of the braid Marissa had just finished moments before as she remembered how he'd broken down in the conference room. It had seemed like just a momentary lapse, but... Maybe not? That wasn't something she was equipped to deal with, not right now, and Cass had already tried the hug tactic so Autumn was fresh out of ideas. "...wherever it was, alone. Fair warning, he's a prick and a fuckboy, so basically just ignore the game he'll probably try to run, but he seems to be..." With a long-suffering sigh, the tallest of the trio of redheads rolled her eyes skyward. "I dunno. Trying, or something. Anyway, we can catch you up on the Homecoming thing in study hall. Right now we need to plan." Glancing over at Cade, she shrugged, leaning back on her hands. "We go to the Town Hall, see what's actually there. I was planning to ask Cass to go with me Saturday night, if she's not busy, since we had so much fun on Tuesday." Cutting her eyes at the pretty blonde, Autumn grinned again, a little crookedly, as if to suggest that it had not been a good time at all. "Once we know what we're dealing with on this side, we can worry about what's over there. I'm... not really sure about the whole distraction thing, to be honest, but..." Her smile faded by degrees, and she drew in a long, tremulous breath before slowly letting it out again. She could feel her power humming, very faintly, just beneath the surface of her skin, skimming along her veins in restless, sanguine streams. "I think I probably need to help deal with Cody. Maybe what Sean suggested is an option, maybe it's not. If I can get my hands on him, we'll find out one way or another." "As far as 'when?'" She glanced over at Jason, then at Marissa, and set her jaw. "As soon as fucking possible. There is literally zero point in waiting. We find out what we need to know and we go after it, before it can come after us. Like he said, if we don't, we're dead anyway. Fuck that."
  12. "Okay," the athletic redhead conceded as the journalist shared the final results of her interview, swinging her legs over the bench as she spun around to face Cassandra and the Jauntsens. "So, yeah. That's... a lot to process, and you're right, it's probably important. ...But let's maybe worry about the whole thing with aliens and Mr. Black after we settle this situation with Cody, or we're gonna just keep going in circles. You said Cody was 'gone.' What do you mean, exactly?" Leaning forward, she braced her hands on the metal on either side of her hips. They only had their lunch hour for the meeting, and she was reluctant to spend too much time on information that wasn't immediately relevant- Jason and Sean had plenty of brainpower to process the details of motivations and connections anyway. Besides- she had mysteries enough on her mind that she wasn't eager to take on another. "Like, he's not in the building anymore? Disappeared? Dead? A lost cause?" "Also, you are 'the Eyes,'" Autumn continued, her expression thoughtful as she remembered how Cassie had traced the source of the wrongness at the medical center. "You're the one who could see the Dark on Tuesday, where it was hiding in the Old Town Hall, and where it had spread over Shelly. You're the one who could see what happened to Etienne in Cook's office, and how many of those... whatever-the-hell-they-weres were in the hospital. I don't know if it's supposed to mean more than that," she added, crumpling up the empty cashew packet and shoving it in her pocket, "but that's kind of what you're good at- seeing things the rest of us can't. Makes sense to me," the redhead smiled up at the resident authority on pluck, blue eyes bright in the afternoon sun. Priorities, she reminded herself. Focus on what you can actually do. "So. Cody," she repeated, getting herself back on track and trying not to sound too impatient in the face of the reality that they were under threat. "Where is he, how do we get to him, what do we do when we find him?"
  13. As Autumn slid over to sit in front of her first new friend in recent memory, she took stock of who else was present, offering the petite French newcomer a quick smile and the busty girl clinging to Charlie a slightly more reserved nod. As usual when the group was all in the same place, there seemed to be a lot of yelling and finger-pointing, neither of which justified the effort she'd put in to get there quickly. Jesus fuck, she sighed mentally, cracking the seal on her drink and munching on a handful of cashews as the Devin-drama died down. I should have just walked. With surprising gentleness, Marissa combed through the heavy mass of Autumn's still-wet hair, the weight of the water stretching the normally riotous curls into obedient waves. Even as she tsked the girl's casual disregard for blow-dryers, flat irons, and styling products, a subtle difference in the texture of the strands proved she was, at least, heeding the fashionista's advice about proper conditioning since the sleepover. For her part, the redhead sat quietly throughout the process, drinking her well-shaken chocolate milk and watching the others through heavy-lidded eyes as Mari plaited her copper hair- uncomplaining as it dripped down between her shoulder blades, or even when the more stylish Jauntsen twin tugged firmly enough in securing a section of the neat French braid that it pulled her head back slightly. There was something unaccountably relaxing about the whole thing- whether it was the familiarity of the ritual or the repetitive nature of the movement or something else entirely- that, under other circumstances, would probably have put the Girl Scout right to sleep. Unfortunately, that wasn't an option as Cassie's revelations about Site B and Mr. Tall, Dark, and Sinister inspired plenty of conversation, but very little in the way of actual decision-making. Jase's asking about the specific type of alien the Man in Black was earned him a curious look- how many kinds were there, and exactly how well-versed was he on the subject that it was relevant?- and Marissa's suggestion got a nod from her less-affluent friend/victim. "Honestly," she chimed in when Cade finished speaking, "I'm kind of over this whole 'not being ready' thing. I mean, I get wanting to make plans, but if you wait until you're comfortable to do something, it's probably never gonna get done. Just fucking do it. Waiting around to feel good about ourselves is giving time to the Dark. We were supposed to find Cody anyway... That was the whole reason we skipped on Friday in the first place. So, we find him." She shrugged, replacing the cap on the now-empty plastic bottle and leaning forward as Marissa finished weaving the ends of her hair together. "Either, like you said, Devin and Cass track him down, or whoever, but we find him. I'm not doing some movie montage where we train while whatever it is that wants to kill us gets more chances to do that."
  14. Shit, shit, shit, Autumn swore silently, her sneakers pounding on the shockingly pristine tile of the hallway that had been the scene of such brutal violence just two days before. Thankfully, it was mostly devoid of traffic, although the sight of the energetic redhead flying through the halls as if it were a matter of life and death did raise a few eyebrows, and a fair number of the students who caught a glimpse of her quickly took to social media to see if some fresh drama was unfolding. With her gym clothes bunched up in one fist and still-wet hair twisted up into an increasingly precarious knot, the girl was clearly in a hurry to get somewhere. Of course we had our fucking fitness test today. Obviously. And, obviously, the meeting was during lunch. And obviously down at the bleachers. And obviously she was going to be late. Again. “No running in the halls!” a male voice shouted behind her as she passed an open doorway- one of the custodians, maybe? A teacher? There was no way to know for certain, and she sure as hell wasn’t stopping to check; whoever it was could follow her to her locker if they were that worried about it. “Sorry!” she called back breathlessly, the soles of her shoes chirping on the freshly-waxed floor as she rounded a corner. Darting around a pair of students slowly meandering in the direction of the cafeteria, Autumn made apologetic noises in response to their cries of startled indignation and kept moving. She wasn’t sure how long it would take everyone to gather, but in the time it had taken her to shower, change, and get back up to the main building… Uggghhhh. Apparently, the universe still had it out for her. Nobody else in the group had P.E. for third period, which meant they could just grab lunch and go straight down to the field. Couple of minutes through the line, tops, even if it was busy- and some of them, she knew, brought their own. By the time she broke stride and came to a skittering stop in front of her locker, the red-haired teen was pretty much over “Thursday” as a concept. With mounting frustration, she fumbled unsuccessfully with the lock, cursing between breaths as she tried the combination again- more slowly this time- and finally threw open the door. Mother fucker, why was everything harder when you were in a hurry? Heart hammering against the inside of her ribs, Autumn shoved her gym clothes into her bag and paused, pressing her forehead briefly to the door frame. She sagged there against the locker for the span of several ragged breaths, savoring the feel of the cool metal on her brow before fishing her phone out to text Cassandra; at least she could let everyone know she was actually coming. [Sorry! Running late. Literally. BRT. ] It wasn’t exactly the height of wit, but she grinned, nevertheless, and tapped the screen to send the message zipping off to its intended recipient faster than she could get there herself. “Okay,” the redhead sighed a moment later, reaching into her lunch bag to grab a pack of cashews and a bottle of chocolate milk. “Round two. ...Fuck me,” she groaned softly. It took a couple of minutes to get back down to the field, dodging students and faculty and making more sounds of apology that weren't, exactly. Most of the gathered teens could hear her before they saw her, the sound of rapid footfalls and breathless cries growing louder and clearer with her approach: “I‘m here! … I’m here! … Sorry! … I’m here!” And then, just as Sean booped, Autumn bounded up the bleachers, thigh muscles shrieking in furious protest as she ran up to meet the assembled group. “...here! Oh, god,” she gasped with the intensity of one dying, collapsing bodily onto one of the bench seats and lying there outstretched, heedless of emotional circumstance or physical proximity. The warm solidity of the metal beneath her was reassuring in its immobility as her chest heaved, lungs and legs burning; she could feel that same heat in her face, freckled cheeks flushed scarlet with exertion. "Hey," she managed as the deafening thrum of blood in her ears slowly faded into the background, grinning weakly as the dramatic tension of the moment she'd interrupted finally registered. "Did I miss anything?"
  15. By the time Dana got off work, Autumn had both of the big garage doors open, letting the last of the afternoon sun flood inside in a hazy wash of gold. She’d changed into old clothes meant for getting dirty: shorts that used to be her favorite jeans, a snug green t-shirt that read “Courage - Character - Confidence,” and an ancient Yankees cap left over from the days when her dad used to wear such things once in a while. George Harrison’s bright tenor serenaded her from a little Bluetooth speaker on a nearby milk crate, hailing the return of spring- an irony not entirely lost on the teenager humming along as she labored in the waning summer warmth. There was a lot to think about- some of it mundane, some less so- and thinking always worked better when doing. The talk with Ms. Kyleson had been… not bad, exactly, but uncomfortable; it was the second time in almost as many days the subject of her grandfather had come up after months of not talking about him at all. It wasn’t quite the same as poking at a raw wound, but more like inadvertently bumping a half-healed one- the pain wasn’t at the forefront of her mind anymore, but sometimes that just made the shock worse when it caught her by surprise, as it had at the Bannon farm. Glimmering motes of dust swirled through the air as the industrious redhead carried a box of miscellaneous soccer equipment out of the garage and set it aside before heading back in. She’d also survived the experience of calling the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities- which had, weirdly, been more nerve-wracking in the planning than the execution. He’d been polite, even friendly on the phone, and a tiny part of her felt guilty for expecting something else, something more frosty and… psychopath-y. That wasn’t a word, was it? Probably not, she decided, lips pursed as she tossed a cracked canoe oar onto the growing discard pile. Either way, she’d actually invited him to go camping, and he’d actually agreed to do it. Overnight. Alone. ...Fuck. She was genuinely excited to go: it was a good chance to get to know her new friend better, maybe enjoy a little peace and quiet after a week of craziness, repay the kindness- or at least consideration- he’d shown. ...Or a good chance for him to say something sly, silently laughing at her with eyes too ancient to belong to a sixteen-year-old, while she spontaneously combusted from embarrassment. Sighing as she put premonitions of impending doom out of her mind, Autumn rifled through a dusty cardboard box- a hopeless tangle of electrical cords and cables- and shook her head. Why did people even keep this stuff, anyway? There was no way to tell where it had come from, or where it belonged, so she just heaved it alongside the other junk and kept going. Wiping her forehead with the back of her arm, she surveyed the work that still needed to be done in the garage, and considered what remained to be done elsewhere. She still had to figure out a way to get around the whole grounding situation or the camping trip was a no-go, and work out how she was going to get into the basement up at the other house. Nathan’s visit had, to use one of the warden’s words, “spooked” her, raising more questions than it had supplied answers. It just didn’t make sense that their families were involved, somehow, that their ancestors- no, her grandfather- had known about the Dark, about Shelly. More precisely, that he’d known, and not told her. Maybe Owen Kavanagh had never been the talkative type, but she’d never doubted what he did say for a second. He’d shown her the whole world- well, the whole world within a hundred miles or so of Shelly, which, for a kid, was pretty close to the same thing- and taught her how to move through it. Until today, she’d never imagined there were things he wasn’t telling her. Not anything that mattered, anyway. Now, alongside that dull ache of grief was a tiny splinter of doubt, pricking at both her conscience and her memory. It stung- something else she hadn’t expected from today. With a quiet grunt of effort as she hauled a dingy storage container off the bottom of a shelving unit, the red-haired teen peered cautiously inside- mouldering fabric, patterned with orange foxes amid pink flowers and triangular green trees. It looked like the same kind of thing she’d seen in baby pictures, like the curtains and bedding from her nursery. With a shrug, she dropped it unceremoniously alongside the rest that could be trashed; it smelled musty, and they weren’t doing anything with it anyway. A glint of light caught her eye and she turned, squinting at the glare on a windshield farther up the road. A few moments later, Dr. Dana Keane’s dusty Trailhawk rolled into the driveway, and as the woman herself got out she was immediately mobbed by four excited dogs leaping up from the sunny lawn and clamoring for attention. “Hey,” Autumn called over the sound of happy barks and her mother’s bemused protests. “Coffee’s on already, if you want some.” They all need baths, the younger girl thought, glancing briefly in that direction. Fortunately, that was something she could take care of when she finished with this side of the garage; she’d need one herself. Dana nodded, half-kneeling next to the Jeep and watching her daughter work for a moment as practiced fingers ruffled fur and scratched behind ears. “Sounds good,” the pretty vet replied, glancing past her dusty, grease-smudged child to the garage beyond. “Making any headway?” “Some, yeah. I should be able to finish up tomorrow.” As Autumn gestured vaguely at the two distinct piles, a thought occurred to her, and even as she felt a twinge of guilt for telling her mother what was indeed the truth (but not the whole truth), the determined young woman forged ahead. “Part of this belongs up at the other house, but there’s probably more that needs to go, so I’ll wait to take it up there. Maybe after school? It’ll give me a chance to grab some stuff from the shop, too, so maybe I can get the other wall up on the tree house, and shutters or something over the window openings before the weather starts turning bad.” And to take a quick peek in the basement. Dana considered that for a moment, hazel eyes narrowing slightly as she glanced in the direction of the half-finished structure. Maybe it would do Autumn some good. It would certainly keep her busy, and, more importantly, keep her close. Was that wrong? she wondered, straightening and brushing grass and dog hair from her clothes. She’d gotten used to her daughter’s independent streak early on, and when other kids had barely managed a bicycle without training wheels, Autumn had been allowed to ride down to Bunnee’s or the movie theater on her own. Sure, she’d had her fair share of scrapes and bruises and close calls, but that was normal for an active child. ...A really active child, the slender veterinarian amended, smiling a little at the memory. “Responsible risk-taking,” the pediatrician had called it, encouraging both parents to let her decide for herself if she felt safe trying something. “Being a kid,” Dad had retorted when she’d told him. And, sure, maybe things had changed a little since he was a boy, or even since she herself had been the one running around the yard- people were a lot more safety-conscious now. She guessed that was still basically true, though. What had happened with the hospital, though, that was different. Chaos. It could’ve been a catastrophe, and there was nothing Dana could do to protect her child from that, no way to shield her or help her make good choices when it came to the fact that sometimes bad things just happened. ...And sometimes they happened to people you loved. That her daughter could be one of those people- No. She wasn’t ready for that harsh reality yet, even if Autumn was. Or thought she was. “Mom?” The younger redhead was looking at her expectantly, eyebrows raised and head tilted slightly. “Is that okay with you?” she repeated. “Yeah," she replied absently, then blinked, focusing on the present again, and smiled. "That sounds fine. I’m going to go wash up and have some of that coffee.” Turning, Dana started up the path to the porch, then paused. “Don’t be out here too much longer, all right? It’ll be dark soon.” “I won’t, mom.” In spite of the lingering warmth in the air, Autumn barely suppressed a shiver at the new connotation of the once-innocent word. “I know.”
  16. Despite the typical rose-bloom flush of her cheeks, Autumn blanched at the question, the ivory skin beneath her freckles growing slightly paler as her eyes widened. She trusted Nathan, implicitly, but this was not at all what she'd expected, and that evident surprise- born of recognition rather than confusion- confirmed the answer for him before she'd even opened her mouth. Her brain couldn't process information with the alacrity of Sean's, but the sheer volume of thoughts racing through her mind suggested, for just a moment, a pretty passable imitation. Wait, what? Aren't adults supposed to just sort of... ignore the Dark? How does he know? Or, maybe he doesn't, and he was just asking because, y'know, Warden, and there has been some weirdness... no, Weirdness, lately. Especially with the disappearances, plus there was the whole story about some kind of leak at the hospital, and he's probably heard a lot of rumors, too. Hazard of the job, I guess. But if that's true, and he's just seeing if I know anything... what does this have to do with family? What kind of "traditional talk" was this? She wished, fervently, she'd gotten a drink for herself; it would've given her something to do, a couple of extra seconds to avoid answering what was superficially a very simple, direct question. Her fingers interlaced restlessly, weaving and unweaving in unconscious patterns where her hands lay in her lap. Nathan Crocker waited. After several moments of watching the turbulent play of emotions across Autumn's features, he'd almost been prepared to accept that as a 'yes' and move on- but then she nodded, slowly and deliberately, trepidation graven into tiny lines of worry between her brows. "Mhmm," she managed, and then, as if correcting herself to observe some unspoken protocol, "Yes, sir." The warden sighed- whether out of relief or resignation she couldn't tell- and leaned back in the chair, regarding her soberly from across the table. "All right." There was a pause, then, an uncomfortable silence between the two, as dark and vast in the unsettled teen's mind as the unknowable gulf that yawned before her. There was the feeling of a threshold just beneath her feet, waiting to be crossed- but, no, she'd done that already, hadn't she? When she'd walked out of the girls' bathroom with Jase and Clara on Friday, then gotten into the Goddamn Bannon's car and ridden out to the trailer, and- "What was it?" She blinked. "What was-" "Yes," was all he said, and for all that he was still the man she'd known her whole life, who'd taught her how to nock an arrow and climb a tree alongside his own son, there was something in his expression Autumn didn't recognize at all. Exhaling, the animated young woman propped her elbows on the table, her hands sliding up to cover her face. He knew something, obviously, but how much? There was no way to find out for sure, unless she answered the question. ...Even then, a tiny part of her wondered, what if we're not on the same side? Her knees bounced under the table, a physical manifestation of the jostling, tumbling conflict of her thoughts; Nathan was family. Had always been family. He'd invoked that connection already, citing tradition and a responsibility that supposedly would've been her grandfather's, were he here to undertake it. Was that enough, though? The others in the Fellowship were bound together by, if not affection or even respect in some cases, at least a common goal, and a common understanding: if one of them was fucked, they all were. She drew in another shaky breath, and folded her hands on the wooden tabletop, straightening in her chair. She'd braved the mantis's lair and the dragon's den and emerged unscathed, and now she was in her own home. This, by comparison, was nothing. "Nightmares," Autumn replied as evenly as she could, meeting the older man's gaze. "Nightmares, and the place they came from."
  17. "What do you think, hmm?" Autumn asked, peering down into the luminous amber eyes of the shepherd who, likewise, peered back up at her with a soulful expression that- while completely insta-worthy- did nothing to answer the question. "Thanks," the redhead grinned ruefully, her fingers playfully tousling the thick sable fur around Dakota's neck as she turned to the confidant at her shoulder. "What about- gah!" she spluttered, laughing and shoving Lexi's big square head away and swiping at her now decidedly more slobbery cheek with the back of her sleeve. "Yes, very helpful, thanks. I love you too, Lex, but I'm trying to think." Shaking her head, still smiling as she pulled the sweet-natured Pit bodily down beside her on the couch, Autumn considered the dimmed screen and tapped it again to bring it back to life. Jason Bannon, the contact information stated clearly, properly; the generic photo, however, had been replaced by the cropped image of a certain fire-breathing wyrm. This shouldn’t be difficult. Sure, texts would be easier, but it was just a phone call. They were friends- they'd been through a secret prison together. Hell, they'd smoked out together. She'd already asked him, anyway, right? This was just, like... a follow-up. Yeah. Exhaling, the red-haired young woman nodded sharply and shifted a little on the couch, nudging her shoes and socks off with her toes as the dogs rearranged themselves fitfully around her. She tapped the little green icon, brought the phone up to her ear, and waited. The phone rang several times, Autumn remembering Sean's advice and waiting patiently as the number of rings reached five... then seven... then nine... and then the phone was picked up. "Hello." said an unmistakable voice - or rather, an unmistakable timbre and inflection. No upward lilt of curiosity at the end of the greeting - it gave the impression he was looking across the room at someone who'd just walked in rather than trying to include a question within the one-word salutation. Autumn was struck suddenly by the total consistency in Jase's manner- even his phone greeting was perfectly neutral and composed- and wondered briefly what else she would have expected from him. "Um, hey, Jase. It's Autumn. Do you have a minute?" "Autumn." Goddamn if she couldn't hear a faint warming in his tone as he spoke her name, as though his lips were curved upwards slightly and the skin at the corners of his eyes had almost imperceptibly crinkled. "I was just showering. One moment - I don't want to drip all over the floor." The handset was not set down, but Autumn could hear rustling noises of cloth on skin before Jason's voice once more came back. "What can I help you with?" She'd heard a record scratch before, although not a real one- you had to do that on purpose and vinyl was a collector's thing that could get super expensive- but the synthesized version they used in comedies. That was sort of the sound her brain made, as if all rational thought had come screeching abruptly to a halt, and all the heat in the room had suddenly whooshed up into her face at the mere suggestion that he had just stepped out of the shower... that she was talking to a guy- to Jason Fucking Bannon- in a towel. Maybe a towel. Oh, god. It occurred to her, in a distant, fuzzy sort of way, that he'd taken a shower when she'd ridden up to the farm on Monday, and that she knew what his hair looked like still tousled and damp. The remembrance did not help, but stuck there in her mind’s eye. As Dakota nosed at her arm, the redhead blinked, inhaling convulsively as greedy lungs demanded air. "Yeah, hi," she replied, a little hoarsely, as she wondered where her courage had fled. "So, uh. Listen. Just a couple things. I wanted to say thanks for going along with the change in plan yesterday. With the cats, I mean." "You're welcome." For a moment, she thought that was all he had to say on the matter, but then: "It was aesthetically correct, what you wanted to do. Those creatures did not deserve that treatment. It was offensive." Aesthetically correct. Huh. She considered that for a moment, poking at the thought like a tongue at a loose tooth, and nodded, as if the listener on the other end of the signal could see it. "It was… offensive, yeah. So, new question, then." Drawing her legs up onto the couch, Autumn absently renegotiated positions with the dogs, running her hand briskly over Lexi's warm, velvety side as she settled down again with a soft huff, her chin on the young woman's hip. "If you thought so, why didn't you say so?" There was a pause. And the odd thing about the pause was this: it didn't feel like he was there for that moment. There was no soft exhalation of breath, no sound of fidgeting. It was as if he went completely still - not just 'still' but Still - so motionless he faded from the world. She fought the urge to ask if he was still there. And then he spoke again. "Because I was attempting to see if there were actually any purpose to the cruelty I was witnessing. I was trying to understand what I was perceiving. I would have reached the conclusion that it was pointless and careless cruelty in a few more moments. I..." he hesitated. Actual hesitation, as though he was reluctant to admit something. "I have no instinctive aversion to the suffering of creatures outside the circle I choose to care about. It does not repel me like it does the rest of you. It doesn't excite me either, mind - it just does not touch me. But when you spoke up, it became a moot point whether there was any purpose to their torture - I set that aside and helped my friend do what she wanted to do." "No instinctive aversion," Autumn repeated slowly, weighing the words as she spoke them. She couldn't imagine that- not feeling that desire to help someone who was hurting, the same pull that had inspired her to hug Devin despite their differences. It was hard to wrap her head around, that oddly clinical way he had of looking at the world, but... "That... makes sense, I think? I mean, if you have to process everything in a cognitive way, like you said, it would be weird if just a couple of things were different. I can't really empathize with you there, but... I guess that's probably the same for you, huh?" She smiled a little, in spite of the subject. "And there was a... a purpose, yeah," the redhead continued, the brush of pale fingers over the dog's paler fur growing gentler as she remembered what she'd sensed in those cells. "Just... not a good one. It was, um." Now it was her turn to hesitate, unsure how to put into words the horrific extent of the scientists' explorations. "It was worse than it looked from the outside," she finally managed, and left it at that. There was no point going into the details, not when they'd already gotten both the feline prisoners out of that awful place- although, privately, she hoped the ones who'd done it had been in Etienne's room. Fucking sadists."So, anyway. Regardless of why you did it, you helped, even though it could've caused problems, and I appreciate it." "You're welcome." he repeated simply. Tipping her head back against the cushions at the characteristically laconic reply, she stared up at the rafters high above, the vaulted ceiling soaring up to the second floor. Right. This is Jason Bannon. If he had regular conversations with people, it would probably be a sign of the end times. It occurred to Autumn that she hadn't heard him moving around since he'd mentioned getting out of the shower, and she had to stifle a laugh at the weirdly incongruous image of stoic, composed Jase standing statue-like in a towel, talking on the phone as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do. "There was something else I wanted to ask you, though." Taking a deep breath, she focused on just shaping the words. Boring words. Plain words. Not at all difficult or complicated words. Just words. Just a question. "I was wondering... are you doing anything Friday night?" There was another of those pauses, this one lasting maybe a little longer than a couple heartbeats, and the be-freckled redhead wished at that moment for two contrasting things. Firstly, that she could see Jason's face, his eyes, try to gain a measure of his expression and compare it to the notes she'd taken on Bannon Facial Expressions for Dummies - a Work In Progress. The second thing she wished for was for, oh, a flaming meteor to hit her, for example. Just a sudden, painless and above all non-embarrassing death. Was that too much to ask? "I have nothing planned." Jason replied, and there was now a note of intrigue in his voice. Possibly. Probably. He sounded intrigued. "Why?" "I mean," she added quickly, "more like Friday afternoon. But also Friday night! And-" At that point, it was wholly unnecessary that the meteor should already have to be flaming when it struck, because it would probably be set ablaze the moment it touched her. Grimacing, she forged ahead. "And Saturday. Or part of it. ...I am totally fucking this up," she muttered under her breath with a quiet groan, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment. "What I mean is, do you want to spend the night?" No! No, that is not at all what you mean, Autumn! "Camping! Do you want to go camping Friday night?" She was going to die. Or, no, she wasn't going to die, or at least not quickly and right now, and that was the problem. Fuck. Dakota’s ears twitched at the note of tension winding through her voice, and the big shepherd made an unhappy not-quite-growl in the back of his throat as he pressed closer to her side. "Camping?" Jason's voice was calm, but a suspicious part of the mortified girl's mind readily imagined that glint of wry, reptilian amusement he sometimes - okay, often wore when she was blushing. Not touched by the suffering of others, my ass. she grumped silently. "That sounds like it could be fun. Where did you have in mind?" "The place I mentioned on Monday." There was a note of caution in her tone, as if she were waiting for the sound of the smirk in his voice to pour gasoline on the flames currently scorching her face. "It's on my family's property, a few miles up from my house." "Any particular special equipment I need to bring to camp there?" he asked, apparently all business, his mind focusing on the proposal at hand rather than bedevilling her. Thank any gods that might be paying attention for that small mercy. "Hmm. Well," she considered what the actual necessities might be, and realized she didn't really know what Jase actually did most of the time, apart from tending the miniature Eden he was cultivating in the barn. He'd suggested at the farm that it would be easier to get to know each other by 'sharing activities,' but that also made it hard to guess what kinds of activities her new (and extraordinarily challenging) friend might enjoy. "Special equipment? No, not really. We've-" Autumn caught herself, exhaling quietly for a few beats. "I've been camping there my whole life, so even if I need to do some cleanup, the site's pretty well-established. There's no plumbing or electricity, though, so if there's anything in particular you want to do, it probably shouldn't rely on either of those things. Books, or cards, or something. Basically just... a tent, sleeping bag or blanket, any snacks or drinks or whatever that you want, clothes…” She thought about that last for a moment- normally this was where she’d recommend bringing something durable and easy to clean, sturdy shoes or boots- but Jase’s typical attire already met the criteria. “For you, probably just what you normally wear. Soap and stuff. Um. Towel. Something to swim in, maybe? There's a creek alongside it," she explained. "Normal camping stuff," she finished off-handedly, shrugging as she leaned over onto the drowsing pair of warm-furred bodies next to her. "I mean, you'd be my guest, so I can take care of most of the rest like meals and basic things, or whatever you don't have." "I've got some camping gear." Jase confirmed. "I should turn up - when? Just after lunch, Friday?" "Is that a yes?" the red-haired girl countered curiously, the reassuring press of the two lazing dogs helping restore some semblance of her emotional equilibrium. "Yes." Amazing, that a boy who redefined the term 'inscrutable' could pack so much dry humor into a single three letter word. In spite of herself, Autumn grinned up at the ceiling- a poor substitute for the friend on the other end of the line, to be sure, but there was a certain degree of safety in a phone conversation, too... mostly, that there were no pale green laser beam eyes laughing at her. "Then, also yes," she replied. "Excellent. I'll call to let you know I'm on my way, on the day." He paused then, a brief but noticeable one, then asked, as though remembering to do so. "How are you? School okay today?" "Oh." There was likewise a pause on Autumn's end of the line, in which she blinked up at the rafters overhead, clear blue eyes wide. She hadn't expected him to actually ask any questions. If anything, she was kind of impressed he'd stayed on the phone this long- it wasn't the kind of thing she'd imagined him doing, but... actually being around him recently, and spending most of Monday afternoon at his house, was giving her reasons to reconsider some of what she'd thought she knew about the Impenetrable One. Should she just say 'yeah,' and leave it at that? ...No, Jase didn't ask questions to be polite. "It was interesting. Got called to the guidance counselor's office, and now I'm waiting on Warden Crocker to come by, for some reason. What about you? Enjoy your day off?" There was a moment's silence, as he actually considered her question and his answer with due gravity. When he spoke there was a subtle guardedness to his voice. "My mother visited me. We spoke. I think I understand her better." He paused, then, "And I spent the afternoon working to get the farm straightened up." he concluded in a more normal tone - well, normal for Jason. The dogs protested, grumbling aloud as Autumn sat suddenly upright, but she reached back and patted them absently, focused on what he'd just said. His mother? They'd just talked about her two days before, and that was a whole thing, and he had definitely not been okay at the time. "Okay, well... That, um. Sounds like a good thing. Or at least, a better thing, I hope," she added tentatively, the concern in the redhead's amber-speckled features bleeding through into her voice. "It is complicated." Jason admitted. "I am still processing the encounter. I haven't been able to tell anyone about it yet." Autumn wasn't sure how to respond to that. She couldn't imagine anything so complex or intellectually demanding that even Jase would have trouble processing it. He was the smartest person she knew- maybe the smartest person she would ever know, she realized. Smart enough that she probably really had only the vaguest idea how intelligent he actually was. "Mmm." She hummed softly in response, the sort of subvocalization common in Autumn-speak that he recognized as an indication of commiseration or agreement of some kind. "If you're working on it, I know you'll figure it out. And when you do, you know... If you wanna tell somebody... You have friends," she finished quietly. "And I value them." came the sober reply with a pensive note to it, as though he were thinking about the words and the concept they contained as they were uttered. A pause, then "My father just got back. I should probably go." Another pause. "Thank you. For calling. For your friendship." "Oh, yeah. You, too.” That was a little disorienting, being thanked for being his friend- enough so that she completely lost the natural flow of the conversation. “...So, I guess I'll see you Friday? Or at school, 'cause... yeah. Classes." "Of course." Jason replied. "See you at breakfast tomorrow, Autumn." "See you tomorrow, Jase." As the call ended, timer flashing on screen, Autumn pressed the edge of her phone case to the underside of her lower lip, thinking. That had been, honestly, shockingly easy. ...Way more so than she’d expected, even if a little glimmer of worry flickered at the back of her mind about the fact that his mom had paid him a visit. If he was still processing whatever they’d talked about, there was a basically no chance it was something trivial. But… Nothing she could do about that. Better to focus on what she could do, and that was make plans for Friday. She was technically grounded, yeah, but being at the campsite was basically the same thing as being at home, right? And she wasn’t in trouble at school, or anything. Maybe she’d just bring it up casually that night, over dinner or something. Mom won’t care. Probably, she decided. Anyway, Jase had already agreed, so she’d have to figure out a way to make it happen, wouldn’t she? Glancing back down at her phone to check the time again, the energetic redhead sighed and rolled up to her feet and off the couch, accompanied by the sounds of canine huffing and whining as the freckled heater next to them suddenly disappeared. Padding barefoot into the next room, she tapped at her screen a couple of times, setting the phone down on the counter as Spotify’s algorithms busied themselves sorting through her preferences. She hadn’t really eaten lunch, instead heading down to walk a few laps around the track- even if there was no way to eliminate all the Weird that had suddenly intruded on her life, the simple pleasure to be found in the mechanics of motion usually worked to settle unsettled thoughts. Now, of course, she wished she’d at least grabbed an apple or something before she’d gone back to class. The fridge mostly held disappointment in the form of her mom’s nutritionally-optimized lunch containers, pre-packed for efficiency in an unpredictable workplace. Ugh. Hard pass. Autumn’s nose crinkled as she surveyed her options: there was a bowl of leftover potato soup she could throw in the microwave... Eh. It would do. Bumping the refrigerator door shut with her elbow, Autumn hummed quietly along with the music filling the sunlit kitchen, half-consciously matching her movements to the deliberate, percussive rhythm. She didn’t immediately recognize the song, but it did sound like some of the other stuff she’d liked, and her toes tapped on the cool tile as she peered out the window and waited for the soup to reheat. Whatever Nathan Crocker wanted to talk about, the idly swaying redhead had a sense that it was best addressed on a full stomach.
  18. Autumn in the days following Episode V: Off-Camera: For reasons, Autumn has to clean out the garage. (Gross.) On Wednesday and Thursday she goes directly home after classes. Her dad calls to check in. She works a little on the treehouse (initially just cutting the wood and getting more of the walls up) once the garage is cleared and she can get find the freaking tools. School Vignettes: Open to almost anything on Wednesday and Thursday; per GDB, there's no school on Friday. Wednesday: Intermission. Warden Crocker is penciled in for at least part of the afternoon. Thursday Morning: ? Thursday Lunchtime: The pluck beckons. The beacons are lit. Cassandra calls for aid. Thursday Evening: Autumn does a little digging into family history. Friday Afternoon - Early Saturday Evening: Autumn and Jase go camping. After the events of "The Damsel and The Dragon," she wants to reciprocate the gift of seeing the Impenetrable One's garden with something equally personal to her. Saturday Night: Potential pluck levels are dangerously high- anyone in the vicinity of the Old Town Hall in Shelly is advised to seek shelter. Sunday: Field trip! Exact time TBA. Monday (Labor Day): Family time! Autumn gets to spend the Labor Day holiday with both her parents and extended family at the Carousel, commemorating the end of summer. This is "open" in the sense that other people and their families may have similar ideas or be doing something related on the day, so anyone is welcome to drop in. Future: Weekend following Labor Day: Camping trip! Autumn wants to try getting to know the rest of the Fellowship better, help them get to know her, and give everyone a chance to relax and have a good time in spite of all the madness. She's never hosted any kind of group get-together before, and she's excited/anxious to find out who the others are, outside of all the craziness that's been going on. The actual proposal for this will be separate, in order to give all the players a chance to decide if they're interested. Anyone who is interested will be assumed to be invited. Shenanigans are expected, and indeed preferred. Pre-Homecoming: Autumn asks Marissa for a favor... If you have ideas for something you want to do with your character that might require Autumning, or if you want to help fill in some of those "?" spaces, feel free to hit me up in Discord!
  19. Oh, for fuck's sake. Really?! I haven't even made it to Chemistry yet. It had been a while since Jacob Crocker was on Autumn's "favorite people" list, and running into him twice in as many days was more frustrating than anything else, a subtle reminder that apparently the universe wasn't uncaring, because it obviously hated her; second day of classes had really set the tone at Shelly High. Just like in the hall the day before, there was that little twinge of something when she saw him, that friction between the part of her that missed talking to him every day and hanging out, and the part that never wanted to see his stupid face again. She and Jay weren't dating anymore, so, yeah, things being awkward was sort of expected- at least for a while- but that's not where it ended. He hadn't just been her boyfriend, he'd been her best friend since they were in diapers. Their families had cookouts together. Camping trips. Holiday dinners. They were practically family... Or, at least, they had been. Now it was all kinds of fucked up, and where normally she'd probably still be able to hang out with a guy she'd dated, this was different. Complicated. "How much later?" the redhead sighed, wondering when she'd get to have just like... a day again, where nothing crazy happened, and she could maybe have a milkshake and a smoke and a nap out on the deck. Super powers and government conspiracies and nightmare hellbeasts and talking cats kept things interesting, sure- but in that 'May you live in interesting times' curse kind of way. Regular old interesting would be nice sometimes, too. Maybe whatever Nathan wanted was this second kind. Maybe he just wanted to talk to her about volunteer stuff, or her mom being worried about yesterday- something like that. Probably that, she decided, gnawing thoughtfully on her lower lip. He'd always been "Uncle Nathan," and sometimes he took that responsibility kind of seriously. "This afternoon he said, maybe an hour or so after school's out?" The young man's handsome features scrunched slightly as he dropped his hands again, thrusting them into his pockets. "I don't think it's about your mom or anything, if that's what you're wondering." Well, fuck, she swore inwardly. "It kinda was, yeah." No, it's fine. It's fine. Maybe... Maybe it's about Labor Day, or hunting on his property this year, or something. It could be something good, right? "That's cool, I wanted to thank him for dropping my bike off yesterday, anyway." "Yeah, um." Jacob looked a little uncomfortable at that, his broad shoulders twitching upward in a quick shrug.. "That was me. Dana called while she was waiting for them to let you out, so... Yeah." Well. Fuck. "Oh," was all she could muster for a long, awkward moment, eyes dropping to the toes of his brown leather boots. Then, "Well, um. Thanks, then, I guess." The redhead could feel him looking at her, as if Jason Frigging Bannon's laser-focused dissection had somehow sensitized her to the stares of other people, and finally she relented, glancing questioningly back up at her former friend. She didn't know what she'd expected to see, but it wasn't... that. He looked worried, Autumn realized with a start. But why? Something tightened uncomfortably in her chest, and she could hear the sound of her own voice telling the guidance counselor just a few minutes before: Everybody deserves a chance, right? "Hey, listen," she began tentatively. "Um... About yesterday-" "It's cool," he shrugged again, more emphatically this time as his expression changed, took on the shape of the casual half-smile he wore when dealing with people he didn't know. "Like I said. I get it. I'll let my dad know it's cool to drop by your place after school." Shouldering the backpack that had been sitting on the chair beside him, he nodded toward the counter behind her. "See ya around." "Autumn Keane?" a polite female voice interjected, and Autumn turned to see the smiling face of one of the administrative assistants at the desk. "I have your pass for being late to first period here, just give that to your teacher when you get there, all right?" She slid a small form over the counter- Felicity Kyleson's cheerfully looping signature clearly visible across the bottom- as one of the other ladies spoke up. "Jacob Crocker, if you'll come right over here, I'll get you signed in." "Yeah. See ya around," the red-haired young woman echoed, nodding. She tucked the note in the front pocket of her hoodie, spared one last glance at Jacob's back, and headed out of the office. Maybe it's something good, Autumn repeated to herself on her way to Ms. Lafferty's class, trying to shake that pang of... whatever it was. It would be a nice change of pace.
  20. Autumn considered all of that for a moment as the residual emotional echoes of the fight- how unfair it had been, how helpless and frustrated she’d felt, how afraid- slipped away again, her fingertips tracing idle shapes on the arms of the chair; she could just feel the borders of the monochrome stripes patterned there, alternately elevated or depressed at regular intervals. Why did she call him Jase? She wondered. Even though most of the others in the Fellowship called him “Jason,” that seemed weirdly formal to her, at least without the obligatory “Goddamn” or “Fucking” bits attached, but “Mr. Bannon” was just… ugh, cringe-inducing, especially coming from an adult. Like, even his dad didn’t want to be called “Mr. Bannon,” although everything she’d learned about dealing with parents in her 16 years of life demanded she refer to him that way… But someone her age? Nah. Uh-uh. That was definitely weird- even if Jase was probably the least teenaged teenager she’d ever met. “He’s my friend, yeah,” she affirmed with a nod, a little smile tugging at the corners of her mouth in response to Felicity’s encouraging demeanor. She almost pointed out that he was the second friend she’d made in less than a week, but even in her head that sounded suspiciously like bragging, and also (as her first new friend in recent years would have quickly pointed out) kind of sad. “I mean, it’s kind of a new thing, but.” The redhead shrugged, the kinetic equivalent of terminal punctuation. “And, as far as the fight goes?” Autumn hesitated, her gaze dropping from the compassionate warmth of Ms. Kyleson’s features back to the front of the counselor’s desk. That was a whole other thing. On some level, despite the physicality of her hobbies and general good health, the energetic young woman knew that without the reflexive upwelling of power she’d used to defend herself, she wouldn’t have stood half a chance against either of the seniors separately- much less together. She’d only had the vaguest idea what she was doing, driven forward more by instinct than training. Her mother was right: if things had gone even a little differently, she could have gotten seriously hurt. But her friend was being hurt already, so wasn't it worth taking that chance? Besides, Cassie had been there, too, and talked Mark down, and ultimately that hadn't even been the worst part of the day for any of them. “I got lucky,” she echoed Dana's admonition from the night before, her head falling back to rest on the thickly-cushioned upholstery. Ocean blue eyes skimmed the ceiling tiles, noting where bits of colored ribbon were still knotted around the slender metal framework- forgotten remnants of some kind of celebration. “I wasn’t really thinking, you know? I just sort of…” Her hands moved on their own, amber-flecked fingers spreading in an expansive gesture as she searched for the words. “I don’t know. Reacted, maybe?” Frowning, Autumn straightened, scooting back in the seat to sit more or less upright again. “I don’t think they expected anybody to get involved, honestly, and they were too busy beating the s- uh...too busy hitting Jase to notice at first. So, it’s not so much that I ‘fought them off,’ I guess, I just… Fought.” She paused mid-shrug, eyes widening as she glanced back up at Ms. Kyleson in alarm. “I mean, not just like ‘fought’ fought, you know, just because, but more that I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, so I just kind of did it because it felt like the right thing to do. ...If that makes sense,” the suddenly rosy-cheeked girl continued, a little sheepishly. “And no, I don’t think there’s anybody teaching self-defense classes," Autumn hedged uncomfortably, the sensation of warmth intensifying as it bloomed beneath her freckles; although it was technically true, it wasn't exactly the whole truth. "But it sounds like a good idea. Maybe you could get someone up from Great Falls to do a class here some afternoon?" The red-haired girl brightened visibly, leaning forward in her chair. "Oh! I know we're supposed to be talking about me, but my GSL, Monica, lives down there, and she’s kind of a bada- um, she’s really good at her job,” Autumn corrected hastily, and on seeing Felicity’s curious expression added, “Girl Scout Leader, sorry. She's kind of in charge over our region. I can see if she’d be interested, maybe make it a whole thing and see if she can get some of the troops in the area involved. International Day of the Girl is in… October, I think? We usually try to schedule stuff around then.”
  21. Autumn’s first instinct was to protest that no, she wasn’t feeling any angrier or more agitated than usual, that she didn’t especially want to lash out at people, and that Curtis had hurt her first, and she was defending her friend from a couple of oversized bullies, and what the hell did she mean by “times like these,” anyway? That would probably just come off as, well… angry and confirm Ms. Kyleson’s assumptions, though. Her second inclination was to just smile and reply that, nope, she was good… but she was pretty sure that wouldn’t get her anywhere, either, even if it was essentially the truth. These were pointed questions, and a fight on school grounds was a serious issue; there was no way she’d get off that easy. Especially not after sending Curtis to the hospital- not that she felt guilty about dislocating the belligerent senior’s knee, anyway, just a little uncomfortable that she’d actually… for just a second… considered shattering it completely, and had instead opted to just make him believe that she had by amplifying the sensation. Nobody else knew that, though, and who would she even tell? It wasn’t the kind of thing you just slipped into casual conversation. “Hey, did you watch Masked Singer last night? Oh, by the way, I’m apparently really good at knowing exactly how to cause someone the greatest amount of pain with the least actual physical injury.” Nope, that totally didn’t sound twisted at all. Definitely not the kind of thing that could get her a job someday with some alphabet agency, asking uncooperative people uncomfortable questions in tiny soundproof rooms. Ugh. She suppressed a shudder at that thought- And then something else the solicitous counselor had said clicked in her head. “You’ve had a rough year.” Ahhhh, her inner voice sighed. So that’s what it was about. It hadn’t been that long since breakfast, but nevertheless the realization left an uncomfortable, hollowed-out feeling in the pit of the redhead’s stomach. “Little over a year,” Autumn corrected quietly, nodding as she slid forward a little on the seat and sank deeper into the chair, her lithe frame moulding and realigning itself to fit within the confines of the upholstered back and sides. She breathed in the faint scent of lavender that lingered in the cozy office, studied the slightly worn finish, the sweeping lines of the grain on the front of Ms. Kyleson’s desk as the other woman waited patiently for her to continue. With everything that had happened recently, the last person she wanted to confide in was a stranger, but at least she seemed interested. Like maybe she actually cared, a little, even if it was just her job. “I miss him,” she said simply, finally, those three words heavy as a stone sealing a deep well as they settled into the quiet. There were no tears, Felicity noted with some surprise and a little apprehension- just a sudden, liquid brightening of those expressive blue eyes as the young woman blinked rapidly and stared at the patterns in the wood before her. The amiable blonde shifted in her chair, unobtrusively nudging a box of tissues toward the front of her desk, but Autumn shook her head, glancing up at the movement. “I’m good, thanks,” she murmured. "And I'm not angry. Well..." the girl amended, the toes of her sneakers tapping out a soft, staccato rhythm on the floor, "not really. And not like that." "Okay," Ms. Kyleson conceded, her smile encouraging. "How, then?" "I just-" Just what, huh? Wish he'd even bothered to fucking tell us he was sick, or, hey, maybe actually even tried to get treatment? Want to yell at him for being such a stubborn asshole and leaving us all here, but I can't? No, I just want him to fucking be here, and that's never gonna happen. Fuck. Her brows knitting in a sudden frown as she tugged at the end of the thick red-gold braid draped over her shoulder, Autumn sighed. "I just wanna focus on yesterday, if that's okay with you."
  22. By the time they’d emerged into the loading area again, Autumn had mostly calmed down, the girl’s righteous anger at the cats’ mistreatment diminished in large part by the warm, soft body of the quiescent feline in her arms. She was nearly twice the size of the house cats at Dana Keane’s clinic, but felt heavier even than that as the redhead carefully cradled the traumatized creature to her chest, fingers idly smoothing the golden fur just as someone might stroke the hair of a sick child or a suffering friend- a physical expression of comfort and reassurance transmitted through touch. “Listen, I’ll catch up with you guys,” she promised the three young men who’d followed her through the doorway, one side of her generous mouth curving in a slight half-smile. “Also… That could’ve gone a lot worse, so, um… Good job over there.” Trailing after Cade and the massive smilodon, she followed a member of the facility staff out of the loading dock and through a maze of corridors, now well-lit and only hovering at the normal level of sterile creepiness unique to hospital hallways. “We’ve been apprised of the situation,” the older woman stated crisply as they walked at a brisk pace toward the treatment rooms, glancing over her shoulder at the teen and her semi-conscious charge. The red-haired girl’s expression- grave and pensive- seemed ill-suited for her freckled features, lines of worry deepening across her brow every time the cat’s head shifted, or the slender filaments protruding from the bandages around its skull flexed or moved. She looked young, in her sneakers and hooded sweatshirt; probably too young for all of this, the technician mused, her brusque, professional manner softening slightly. “The biomedical labs down here are normally meant for Project patients, so they’re well equipped, and we’ve already been informed that your friend there is special, with an... unusual brain.” They turned a corner and were greeted quietly by two more members of the medical staff, who directed them into a brightly-lit exam room nearby. “We have everything we need to get those probes out safely, make sure it’s treated well, and do what we can to help it recover. We’ll take very good care of it. You have my word on that.” “...Okay,” Autumn answered dubiously, peering up at the taller woman before gently arranging the exhausted feline on the padded table as carefully as she could manage. “And she’s a ‘she,’” the redhead added, her palm resting momentarily on the cat’s side, feeling the reassuring regularity of her breathing despite the trauma the animal- was she just an animal?- had endured. A part of her was reluctant to leave, to trust that these people would be any better than the ones they’d left on the floor on the other side of Devin’s portal, but... “We’ll take very good care of her,” Autumn’s guide reaffirmed, acknowledging the correction. “And,” she added, with a faintly maternal smile, “if possible, we’ll try to contact you when she’s feeling better. No promises, but I’ll see what I can do, as a gesture of good faith.” The young vitakinetic blinked up at her at that, wide blue eyes meeting coffee-brown ones; something about the other woman seemed familiar in that instant, but only vaguely, the dim flicker of an old memory fading almost as quickly as it had surfaced. “That would actually be really cool,” Autumn admitted gratefully, as something more akin to a genuine smile flitted briefly across the worried girl’s lips. “Thank you.” As the activity in the exam room increased, she was led by yet another uniformed staff member back through the gleaming labyrinth with its vaguely antiseptic smell to rejoin the others in the conference room. Everyone was milling about, and from the few snatches of conversation she caught, it seemed they were finally being released. ...Which was good news. Probably… question mark? She wanted to go home, but anxious as she was to see her mom there was also so much she still wanted to know, questions she hadn’t been able to ask yet. Catching sight of Ms. Giles and the major, the redhead started to approach them through the crowd, but stopped suddenly, distracted by the odd exchange between another redhead- the new girl… Kat? she thought, whose delicate, androgynous features reminded her a little of a younger Sean Cassidy before all his changes- and Jason Freaking Bannon. The waifish newcomer was staring fixedly at something, and as Autumn watched Kat’s face go first pink, then scarlet, she followed the direction of the girl’s gaze. At first, she’d thought maybe he’d gotten hurt again and she hadn’t noticed, or that the gamine French import had spilled something, but no. The gray sweatpants he’d been wearing were clean, and Jase himself seemed fine- amused, even. It took a few moments of watching them, uncomprehending, before all the pieces finally clicked into place, and Autumn’s curiosity was “rewarded” with the sudden realization that it wasn’t his pants that had Kat so transfixed, but what they suggested. Oh. Oh, god. It was almost as bad as realizing she and Cade Allister had practically gotten to second base in the storage room, and she felt her own cheeks flooding with sudden warmth as she tried desperately to look anywhere else. What was seen, however, could not be unseen; somehow, it seemed unfair that with all the awful strangeness that had been going on there never seemed to be a convenient pit to some hellish but arguably less embarrassing dimension that might swallow her up. She just prayed silently to whatever gods were listening that her hyper-aware friend had, by some miracle, not noticed, because even if it was an accident she was pretty sure that getting caught staring at him a second time would qualify as creeper material. He didn’t give the impression of having noticed, at least, but she couldn’t be totally sure that meant he actually hadn’t. She wondered, briefly, how much those pale green eyes actually observed… Fortunately, introductions to Kat’s father derailed that train of thought, and Autumn smiled at the sudden flicker of recognition in his eyes. “Nice to see you again, Mr. Williams,” the athletic teen greeted the captain politely, remembering his face from the group she and Cass had run into earlier. “I’m glad you made it back okay. I wasn’t sure-” “Hey, Granola!” Devin interrupted unapologetically, then glanced at the uniformed man and his tiny daughter and added as an afterthought, “Oh, hey.” Turning back to Autumn, who was peering at him with the closest approximation of disdain she could manage after observing Marissa over the last few days, the teleporter grinned. “About to go see Lona, just wanted to give you one last chance to beg me not to go, maybe drag me off to wreck another storage room. Y’know, since you couldn’t resist getting your hands on me earlier.” His eyebrows twitched suggestively, and it was impossible to tell whether he was just drawing out the joke, or genuinely acting the playboy he was reputed to be. She shouldn’t have been surprised by anything that came out of a Jauntsen twin’s mouth, and yet… Here they were. Startled laughter spilled from her lips as she shook her head and replied, “Nah, I’m good,” and he shrugged, still grinning as he took a couple of steps backward. “You don’t know what you’re missing. I am all kinds of impressive, and you still owe me that make out sesh.” Before she could deny it, Jaunt smirked and spread his hands as if to say, ‘Not saying, just saying’ and blinked out of the room in a rippling haze of purple. “Motherfucker,” Autumn breathed, raking a hand back through her hair with a bemused sigh. She couldn’t say that she actively liked Devin, and definitely didn’t particularly trust him after years of his being a dick to everyone, but she had to admit that he had his moments. ...Few and far between though they might be. Turning back to apologize to the captain, she just managed to glimpse his back- and the top of Kat’s brightly-colored head- on their way out. “Motherfucker,” she muttered again, more intensely. She’d try to remember to say something to the slight androgyne next time she saw her… Oh! That reminded her of something else that she’d forgotten she was supposed to remember. Standing on her tiptoes to scan the room, the fresh-faced redhead chewed at her lower lip. She’d meant to find a moment to talk to Jason’s dad about all the craziness, but then the whole ordeal with Cook had happened, and then Etienne (whom she wasn’t worried about in the slightest, sleazeball that he was), and the cats, and- aha! Gar Bannon was busy talking quietly with Hank Graskle, not too far from where Jase stood quietly at the periphery of the room. Summoning up what Cassandra had authoritatively described as “pluck” earlier that morning, she ran her fingers quickly through the hopelessly dishevelled mass of her copper curls and straightened the front of her hoodie. “Excuse me, Mr. Ban- Sorry, um, Gar?” Autumn interjected as she approached the pair, glancing furtively up at the imposing figure of the former Marine and unconsciously squaring her shoulders. What she knew about Hank Graskle would fit on a Post-It note with room to spare, and none of it was complimentary, but less than a day ago she could’ve said the same about Jase. It was worth considering, maybe. “I apologize for interrupting, and I know you’re probably still trying to take all this in. I just thought…” She hesitated, her freckled nose crinkling slightly in consternation as she shifted her weight from her heels to the balls of her feet and back again. He’d been so nice yesterday, but she was keenly aware of how it felt to have all this sprung on her at once, and as she was rapidly finding, adults didn’t always have all the answers. “Now that you know about all of us, is it still okay if I come by to hang out once in a while? I don’t wanna make you uncomfortable,” the redhead added quickly. “And if you aren’t okay with it, I totally understand, because this is a whole lot. I just had a really good time yesterday, so...” Her shoulders hitched upward in an expressive shrug, a familiar mixture of hope and anxiety in her clear, guileless eyes. Both men looked at the young redhead with varying expressions. Hank's was surprise and curiosity, his dark eyes flicking from Autumn's face to his friend's, trying to discern the dynamic at work. Gar, by contrast, blinked then smiled very faintly, an expression that put Autumn in mind of Jase, only with more warmth. "You knew all this weird stuff... and about my boy there-" he indicated the silently watching young man a handful of feet apart from them "-and you still want to come around and hang out?" He smiled wider and put a hand on her shoulder, patting it once. "Anytime you want, Autumn. Yeah, it is a lot to take in, no doubt about it. But Jase likes you - at least I think he does." Gar's tone was light, though it was plain he was still coming to grips with more than just the strange powers and conspiracies. "You're welcome at our home." Relief flooded through the animated young woman in an almost visible wave, the uncertainty clouding her expressive features replaced by warm enthusiasm as the tension drained from her face. “Thank you,” she replied with an answering smile as she echoed the older man’s words. “And, I guess I kinda like him, too. Or at least, I think I do.” Jason and Marissa were both friends, apparently (although the latter still had several years of tormenting Autumn to account for, and Jase had pretty much admitted to being in love with the maybe-reformed villainess, which made the whole thing kind of awkward) so it was reassuring that all of the awfulness of the last several hours hadn’t spoiled one of the few arguably positive things to happen to her in recent memory. She paused, considering the conflicting emotions on Gar’s careworn face and wondering if her mother would wear the same expression if she knew the truth about everything. Would she see her daughter differently? Would she feel something had changed about Autumn herself, even though it was just a change in what she knew about Autumn? “Look, um,” the redhead continued tentatively, hoping she wasn’t pushing too deeply into other people’s personal affairs, “I haven’t really known him very long, so it may not be my place to say so, but he’s still Jase, you know? He hasn’t changed.” There was a moment of relative quiet as she kicked herself mentally for once again probably saying more than she should have. Maybe that was her real superpower, and the other stuff was just extra. “Anyway,” she added with a quick smile, ignoring the sensation of heat suffusing her skin and the uncomfortable weight of the men’s gazes. “I’ll, um, let you guys get back to your conversation. Sorry, and thanks again.” Thrusting her hands awkwardly into the well-worn pockets of her hoodie, Autumn turned to find the friend in question watching from a few feet away. “Hey.” The rosy-cheeked young woman could sense the two men behind her withdrawing diplomatically as she greeted the Effing One, his expression as frustratingly inscrutable as ever. It remained so as she closed most of the distance between them, those jade-hued eyes impassively observing her approach. “Hey,” he repeated calmly, without a hint of irony. “I just wanted to say thanks. For earlier, I mean, backing me up on the change of plans to get the cats out of there. It meant a lot.” “You’re welcome,” Jason replied simply, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “And also, thanks for keeping your word with Cassie and Devin, even if they were stupid promises in the first place, and nobody else had to make them. I mean, seriously, you saw what Charlie did to those guys, and Devin could put somebody in a mountain,” the individualistic young woman grumbled, remembering what the teleporter had suggested might happen if they’d gotten separated, and then brightened suddenly as another thought occurred to her. “Oh! And, listen, I think everyone else has my number in their phones already if they need me, but you just have a landline or something, right? Here, hang on.” Turning back to the conference table, Autumn unceremoniously swept up the pen Devin had abandoned and jotted down her phone number on one of the napkins left over from what passed for lunch, presenting it to Jase before shoving her hands back in her pockets. “In case of emergency, or if you get bored, or whatever,” she explained with an easy grin, though the color remained high in her cheeks. “I need to go grab Major Taggart and Ms. Giles before they kick us all out, or my mom decides to start digging and come find me, so… see you later?” In typical Jase fashion, the laconic young man's response was a quiet, "Yes," followed by another slight curve of his lips. Flashing a quick smile in his direction, the redhead was off and moving through the dwindling crowd, making her way over to the two agency representatives. She didn’t really expect them to answer her question, and so she wasn’t too disappointed when they exchanged pointed glances at the mention of the park. “Miss… Keane,” the major frowned, his sharp eyes considering the earnest features of the teenage girl in front of him- the same girl who’d initially warned his men about the otherworldly beasts in the hallway, and one of the pair that had volunteered to help defend the hospital. She looked normal enough, but he knew all too well how little appearances mattered. “I would like to help you. Unfortunately, there are strict protocols to observe, and I’m not at liberty to discuss Glacier National Park, Site B, or anything else about our operations until I receive authorization to do so.” “Right. Got it.” Autumn nodded. “Hopefully we’ll hear back from you guys about that authorization pretty soon, since there’s a chance Cassandra’s dad is still there.” She wasn’t like Marissa or the other, more socially adept members of their extended group- she didn’t have any special talent for getting people to do things, and probably couldn’t lie effectively if her life depended on it. There was also no implicit threat or suggestion of bluster in her expression or her tone, which gave her concise assessment of the situation a certain measure of gravity it might otherwise not have carried. Teenagers were nothing, after all, if not impulsive, headstrong creatures, as they’d already demonstrated vividly with the impromptu rescue mission, and the two adults knew it. “Thanks for your help, and it was nice to meet you, Ms. Giles, Major Taggart.” “Likewise, Autumn,” the attractive older woman replied, returning the redhead’s polite smile with one of her own. “And, I promise, we’ll be in touch.” Her Branch Nine counterpart nodded his agreement, watching the spirited teen’s departure for a moment before returning his attention- and his ire- to the files Cook had left behind. And then, there was nothing left to do but go out and find her mom, a reunion she might have subconsciously been delaying; most of her other classmates were either busy with their own affairs or, in at least one notable case, not really people Autumn wanted to interact with, anyway. There was no point putting it off any longer, though, and even though she wasn’t really afraid that Dana would yell at her or anything, now that it was all over the feeling of exhaustion she’d been ignoring was starting to settle in, and she didn’t really feel up to a long conversation. She made a mental note to catch up with Cassie tomorrow- right now, she just wanted to be home, and in her own bed. She’d barely made it ten feet from the building when her mother- still wearing her work uniform- swept her into a tight hug with an exclamation of relief that twisted Autumn’s stomach uncomfortably: the pretty veterinarian had been waiting for who knew how long, probably worried out of her mind, and would likely never know the real reason why. “Hey, mom,” she exhaled with a faint smile, returning the embrace. They stood like that on the sidewalk for several moments, until Autumn realized her mother was shaking. Not just shaking… Crying. Startled, the blue-eyed teen pulled her closer, resting her chin on the other woman’s shoulder. “Mom, mom, I’m okay, all right? I’m okay,” she mumbled into Dana’s hair, her throat tightening as tears welled up in her own eyes. What had they told her? “I promise, I’m okay. I’m sorry. I love you.” That much, at least, was true. The older redhead pulled back, finally, framing her daughter’s face in her hands and searching her eyes with an expression that contained a confusing array of emotions Autumn couldn’t isolate or interpret. “I know,” she whispered intensely, a fresh wave of tears threatening to spill down her cheeks as she kissed Autumn’s forehead in a fiercely maternal gesture, pulling her into another quick hug. “I love you too. Come on. Let’s get out of here. Are you hungry? Did they feed you?” she asked, one arm sliding around her child’s waist as the younger girl turned with her to cross the parking lot, leaving the hospital and all its secrets behind.
  23. Pain. Rage. Fear. Autumn didn’t share Cade’s gift for communicating with animals, but in this case, it wasn’t necessary. What was meant to be an exploratory use of her gift, an assessment of the felines’ general well-being to see if it even worked on animals at all, had erupted into an explosive maelstrom of helpless anguish and impotent fury that threatened to drag her, clawing and screaming, into the tortured abyss they shared. Everything was jagged and raw, her own abject horror all but drowning out the admonitions of her comrades- there was so much that was wrong, so much damage, so much pointless cruelty, it was utterly overwhelming. Grimacing at the bitter, acrid taste of bile as her Shine brushed against the ragged edges of their pain and instinctively recoiled, she grit her teeth and tried to focus on seeing, not feeling, but it was so. fucking. hard. Hot tears spilled silently down her pale cheeks even as she trembled, struggling to orient herself in the torrent of sensory impressions, to process exactly what had been done to them. The smaller cat, though motionless, was still perfectly, horrifyingly conscious; it was obvious that the sedative they’d given her served only to keep her from thrashing around, not to blunt the pain. Just to make it more convenient for them. She’d been cut open, probed, ruthlessly explored, numerous tiny intrusions made into her unusually well-developed brain where they’d implanted whatever those awful wire things were. The surgery was incredibly recent… Probably the ones who’d just left the room had done it, and her stomach twisted at the thought that if Devin hadn’t been quick enough to stop the door from closing, they might never have known this was even happening. Swallowing hard, Autumn tore her eyes away from the traumatized, terrified animal and turned instead to her more volatile companion. The larger one, the silent, half-mad terror, would always be so, she realized- they’d removed his vocal cords, altered his throat to prevent him ever again giving so much as a growl of warning. Probably to stop him from roaring while they carved him up. Fucking sadists, she raged internally, fists clenching at her sides. The oldest of his scars- and there were many- were roughly a month old, and the internal damage pointed to physical manipulation of his organs, as if he’d been taken apart numerous times and put back together again. Vivisected. ...Judging by the state of the smaller one, probably also without anesthesia. Worse still, there was something embedded in his skull, some kind of device whose purpose she couldn’t identify, but whose unnatural presence was abhorrent to the red-haired vitakinetic. The suffering they’d inflicted was deliberate. Intentional. A completely unjustifiable and unacceptable violation. Tiny flickers of scarlet danced behind her eyes, at the edges of her vision. Never in her life had she wanted so much to hurt someone, to find those responsible and- “...Much as I want to put a stop to all this, one mission at a time. We've got to get to Etienne, and get the hell out." Cade said, relaying the information Sean was feeding him. "They're aware something's going on, evidently Something's there, and knows about us. We've got to keep moving.” “No.” Autumn replied with uncharacteristic intensity as she stared fixedly at the pair of cells, a faint tremor in her voice that, coupled with the subtle vibration of her frame- the tension of a bowstring drawn to its limit- could easily have been mistaken for nerves, or fright. “There is no ‘coming back.’ There is no ‘breaking in again.’ By the time we do, all of this will be gone.” “Autumn,” Cade shook his head, his tone as even and reasonable as ever as he regarded her from his position by the door. “I understand, and I don’t like it either, but Etienne is-” Of course. Leave it to the sheriff’s kid to play good soldier. “Fuck. Etienne,” she replied, turning abruptly and taking a step toward the tall young athlete. Her response was sharp, succinct, a blade whose edge had been honed by fury. “You really want to put an end to this, we do it while we’re here.” “Devin can’t take all of us, plus Etienne, plus the cats, we barely got through that jump as it is!” Charlie protested. The mercurial teleporter looked affronted at Charlie's implication that anything he'd done was somehow less than amazing, though how much of that outrage was sincere, and how much pretense, was anyone’s guess. “Hey, I got you here in one piece, didn’t I!?” “And he doesn’t have to take everybody. Jesus fuck,” she breathed, an undercurrent of exasperation in her voice. “Who said we all have to go at once? We go find Etienne. Devin takes him- and whoever wants to leave- back with him. Mission accomplished,” the angry redhead added, with slightly more vehemence than was strictly necessary. “He can come back for the rest. Fewer people and a better connection means he can go back and forth faster, without wasting as much energy." Autumn gazed intently at each of her three still-human companions in turn. "Satisfied?"
  24. Team Ow - Autumn Initiative: 4 Autumn will be trying to "improve" Devin a little, since he's their ride home, and she's pretty sure it's possible after helping Jason. Reinforce: 3 successes + 2 Enhancements (Favored Aptitude +1, Mode dots exceed Power Rating +1) = 5 Devin gains +1 Armor, +1 Enhancement to avoid illness/take damage from illnesses (Woo!), +2 additional points of soft Armor (sacrificing 4 successes). Duration = 2 minutes. Should be enough time.
  25. As Devin turned for the door, ready to go be a big damn hero, Autumn's hand shot out, grabbing instinctively at his arm to pull him back. "What, Cade not enough for you?" the quick-witted teleporter teased, but she just shook her head in silent warning, looking not at him but at a point roughly six inches in front of the threshold, just above the floor. Was that...? The ensuing silence was deafening, muting even the rapid pounding of her heart as the alert redhead focused intently. Her eyes narrowed slightly in concentration as she turned, angling an ear toward the doorway; she knew she'd just heard someone outside, speaking unintelligibly in a low, masculine voice. "Guys, I think we have company," she murmured unsteadily, her mouth suddenly dry.
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