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Everything posted by Autumn Keane

  1. “Jacob,” the dark-eyed Shelly native corrected Marissa tersely as they watched the new couple greet each other, and the venomous beauty had the satisfaction of seeing her barbs finally strike home; at least something today was going the way she wanted. Not so for the young man next to her, whose robust frame seemed to waver on the cusp of intervention as the line of his jaw hardened visibly. A new boyfriend was one thing. That new boyfriend being Jason Bannon was another issue entirely. “A-Rae, what the hell are you doing?” he muttered, dragging a hand back through his hair. "Consider yourself caught," Autumn breathed, drawing back slightly with a giddy grin she could feel all the way down to her toes. Was this what it felt like to be iron near a magnet? Whether this, whatever this was, could be described as physics, chemistry, or pure biology, it was unquestionably real. Crazy, and a little unsettling, but real. As real as the sun on her face, and what felt like a hundred tiny suns in her chest all rising at once at the sight of him. Jason smiled a little in answer, or at least she thought he did, if the near-imperceptible crinkling at the corners of his eyes was any indication. It was too risky to hazard a glance down at his mouth, still so perilously close to hers, to really be sure. He was Jason Goddamn Bannon after all, and dangerous, especially in such close proximity. "I was caught a couple days ago," he murmured, his fingertips tracing a line of fire over the redhead’s freckled cheek as he tugged a rogue strand of hair back from her face, and all pretense of self-control fled in the wake of that simple, unaffected statement. Weaponized honesty, she recalled dizzily. She could feel the faintest whisper of his breath, her lips tingling in renewed anticipation, and there was a flicker of… something that surfaced in the deepening sea-blue pools of her eyes as she felt herself moving again, fingers sliding upward through his hair- -And then someone whistled, shrilly, and with a sudden start Autumn felt her higher brain functions re-engage, lungs expanding as they drew in air she hadn’t realized she’d needed. Oh. Oh, god. To her embarrassment and dismay, she realized abruptly that they had an audience, and that her chances of breaking the news to Jacob in any kind of normal, natural way were now pretty much zero. An incendiary flush of bright rose bloomed beneath her skin as the girl with flaming hair and cheeks to match sank back down onto her heels, feeling the solidity of the earth beneath her feet for the first time since she’d seen him there. Well, of fucking course there’s an audience. We’re at the carousel on Labor Day. My old best friend is standing over there with my new best friend, I’m pretty sure both of them want me dead, and here I am in the middle of everybody, climbing Jase like a fucking stepladder. Jesus fuck, Autumn. But, still... it could be way worse. Her parents could be watching.
  2. The two teens walked side by side with hands thrust into their pockets: he in trail-tested khakis, she in the cuffed cut-off shorts that were once her favorite jeans. They had done this a half-dozen times over the years, just the two of them, and it felt easy, somehow. Normal. Almost as if the last couple of weeks hadn’t happened, and they’d never argued, and she’d never lashed out and he hadn’t pulled away. Only ‘almost,’ though. There was a measure of synchronization in their steps despite the disparity in height, an unconscious kinesthetic familiarity developed over the course of a lifetime and woven inextricably into the malleable fibres of muscle and sinew and bone- something she could actually feel now if she concentrated, the countless miniscule adjustments being made as they moved through the growing crowds near the picnic area. Once upon a time, that had seemed a special kind of magic, the unconscious physiological manifestation of some deeper bond between them. Maybe it had been, back then. If so, what was it now? Habit? Muscle memory? “Guessing you went up to the Rez this weekend.” Part question and part statement, as icebreakers went it was more hammer than pick, blunt force rather than precision or finesse, but it served the purpose. Autumn blinked up at her childhood friend as she nodded, one hand rising to shield her eyes against the sun; gone were the halcyon days when she could look down at him, before he’d stretched like a rubber band pulled taut and then filled out again. Did all guys do that? She was pretty sure Cade Allister had never physically been a child, or at least she couldn’t remember him as one, Sean Cassidy had some… developmental issues, and Jason Bannon... well. He’d physically been a child, sure, but mentally? Yeah, I kind of doubt it, she reflected soberly, blinking away the memory. For most guys, Jay included, there didn’t seem to be much in-between- one day they were ten, and short, and skinny, and then practically overnight they were six feet tall… and also skinny. Until they weren’t anymore. “Mmm. Your dad?” Her tone wasn’t quite accusatory; despite everything that had happened they were practically family, after all. It made sense that if the warden had told Autumn about Jacob when he’d visited on Wednesday, he might also have talked to Jacob about her. The broad-shouldered young man shook his head and she frowned, a question in the clear, bright eyes that regarded him: If not Nathan, then…? “Mary,” he returned, avoiding her gaze. Ahh, right. Autumn nodded again, this time in recognition rather than confirmation. Joe’s granddaughter. The pretty one that Devin had shamelessly flirted with- not that she’d ever seen any evidence the elder Jauntsen twin could actually be ashamed of anything. “Didn’t realize you were close,” she murmured tonelessly, turning her attention from his expression to the carousel, the awnings, the distant trees. Why did it bother her? Was it just that she missed hanging out with him? Was it the feeling that she’d been replaced? Or maybe that now there was so much to say, it was almost impossible to say it? Frowning, the red-haired girl continued to poke at the thought as they moved. He shrugged in mute reply, dark eyes passively skimming over the faces of the other teens also milling around as they meandered through the few stalls that had been set up, heading aimlessly in the direction of the temporary stage where local musicians had already begun to play. It occurred to her that there were probably a lot of things she didn’t realize, or just didn’t know about him anymore. Recent events had proven that things could change drastically in just a few days, and they’d been apart for… too long, possibly. “She seems-” The restless young woman’s hand twitched upward in a wave at Marissa as they passed the twins and their parents, the greeting itself yet another indication that her life had veered dramatically from its previous course, like a river shaken from its bed by tectonic shifts far below the surface of the earth. “Nice, I guess,” she allowed, finally. Jacob was quiet for a few more steps, and his head dipped briefly in a nod, breeze ruffling his dark hair. “She is, yeah.” Autumn had no ready reply for that, although privately the redhead wondered what the older Blackfoot girl was to him, or he to her. Not that it was any of her business, of course, even if she was curious. It would be weird if he hadn’t dated anyone by now, or hooked up, or… whatever. For fuck’s sake, does it even matter? Seriously. Then, cautiously, he ventured another question of his own. “What’d they say?” It was her turn to shrug, to deny him the satisfaction of a straightforward answer, but even as she did so Autumn recognized how petty a gesture it was. Nathan had taken Jacob up to the reservation already, and so he knew at least something about what was going on, and this was way more important than their personal issues. Hurt feelings and resentment paled in comparison to the scope of what they were up against. Exhaling, she drifted a little closer, lowering her voice and glancing up at her unusually laconic companion to make sure she had his attention. “I got the history lesson,” she began slowly, tugging at an errant strand of bright copper that lay coiled over her shoulder and wishing she’d kept her hoodie on, despite the warmth of the day; at least she’d have had something to fidget with while she talked. “So-” Autumn hesitated, the toe of one sneaker scuffing gracelessly at the dry grass being trampled underfoot. She knew that Jay was a lot of things, and ‘stupid’ wasn’t one of them. It’s just that pragmatism was practically embedded in both families’ DNA. He’d been up to the Rez and heard the stories from the Elders way before she had, but that didn’t necessarily mean he took any of it seriously, did it? After all, she’d seen the effects of the Dark firsthand, and a part of her still wanted to rationalize it all away. “Do you believe any of it? The stories about the, ah…” Her gaze was fixed on his features as she leaned closer, one hand gesturing in a loose circle as if to encompass a range of ideas. “You know. The Enemy, or the Dawning Light, or the whole bit about gods walking the earth, and the cycle thing.” Jacob’s eyes narrowed slightly as he peered into hers, studying the reflection of cloudless skies in their depths for a long moment before swearing under his breath and turning away. He dragged a hand back through his hair and, with an exasperated sigh, nodded. Despite the awkwardness, the tension that lingered like a chasm between them, there was something like relief in his voice, his shoulders gradually relaxing when he spoke again. “Yeah. Not all of it, maybe, but my dad showed me the journals our family’s been keeping. Generations of us might have been crazy, sure, but that’s a very specific flavor of crazy to be. And since you know now, I guess that’ll make it easier for us all to keep an eye on things. That’s all we really have to-” “But it isn’t,” Autumn interrupted quietly, freckled fingers twining together in a knot of wordless anxiety. “Not for me, anyway.” He frowned, stopped there in the middle of the throng, and stared uncomprehending down at her face, at the earnest and uncertain expression gazing back up at him. “Your dad knows. I thought he might’ve told you, but…” She shrugged again, an almost imperceptible movement that seemed more apology than dismissal. “Look, Jay, I know things aren’t-” Swallowing past the sudden tightness in her throat, the vibrant redhead exhaled slowly, counting as she did so. Today might be her last chance to say anything, and this hurt, this twisting, tangled snarl of regret and anger and loneliness, would not stop her from saying it. “They’re not great, and they haven’t been, and I’m sorry. I really, really am,” she whispered tautly, blinking rapidly as his features rippled as though underwater. “I just wanted you to know, in case something hap-” The remainder of the sentence was cut off as the tall young man who’d been her friend once pulled her off the path and into a hug. "It's fine, A-Rae. Okay? It's fine," he murmured, watching their families laughing and drinking in the shade back the way they'd come.
  3. Around noon-thirty. (-ish.) "...haven't really thought all that much about it, I guess.” Autumn leaned back on her hands, enjoying the tickle of the warm grass between her fingers and against her bare legs as she reclined next to her father’s chair, half in the early afternoon sun and half in the shade cast by the trees nearby. As end-of-summer celebrations went, this one was going pretty well, so far. The weather was beautiful, there was plenty to do and to eat, and for the first time in forever, her extended family was all together- even if she still hadn’t managed to catch up with Jacob yet to apologize for going off on him on Tuesday. She needed to handle that soon. Glancing over at him, sprawled out and dozing on one of the blankets as the post-lunch food coma took over, she felt that little twinge of guilt again. Yeah. Today. Definitely. For now, though, focus, Autumn. You’re having a conversation. “Something with the EPA, maybe? I’ve got Environmental Science this year, and Miss Kyleson said they do a lot of internships. Not all of them are paid, obviously, but doing it for a summer or something after I graduate might help me decide. If I graduate,” she added on reflection, grinning a little as she considered her academic performance thus far and defiantly, resolutely, did not consider any other reasons she might not finish high school. Nope. Nuh-uh. There were plenty of things she needed to do today, that she wanted to do today, and dwelling on what might or might not happen later wasn’t one of them; she’d gotten all her crying done already. Nathan Crocker tilted his head to regard her curiously, idly turning the half-full bottle of Corona on the armrest of his folding chair. His boy had already made it clear he wanted to get involved in the administrative side of the agency, and everyone had assumed Autumn’s path was equally apparent, if not stated outright. “Not Fish and Wildlife?” he asked, brow furrowing slightly beneath the bill of his faded green baseball cap; her parents’ expressions mirrored his confusion. After all, she’d grown up hearing about the ins and outs of being a Warden on an almost daily basis, loved the outdoors like other girls loved Sephora or pumpkin spice, wasn’t afraid of getting dirty or bloody, and had idolized Owen and everything he did. “I mean, I thought about that, yeah. And it still might be what I end up doing, but between you and Grandpa I feel like I already know so much about it that I should try something else first.” Autumn’s nose crinkled slightly as she grinned up at him, stretching her legs out on the ground while the warmth of the sunlight soaked into her skin. “Maybe a few something elses. You know, expand my horizons a little bit. And, honestly, I haven’t even graduated yet, so I don’t wanna think about eight more years of college, or whatever, that I’d have to do if I wanted to be a vet. Plus, being in an office sounds boring, nurses and teachers get treated like shi- uh, like crap,” she hastily corrected, remembering who she was with as her mother frowned disapprovingly, “and I’d hate the military. So.” With a dismissive shrug, the earnest young woman glossed over her slip of the tongue and summed up her thoughts on her future career prospects. “So,” Dana countered, still scowling a little over her glass of iced tea, “you do realize you’re going to have to get a degree for a government job, right? Especially for an agency like the EPA. And with your grades-“ “I know, I know,” the younger redhead protested half-heartedly. “My grades really are getting better, though!” At her mother’s dubious expression, she added, sheepishly, “…a little. Chem isn’t that bad. It’s mostly just the math that sucks, but Jason’s helping, and I was thinking about asking Marissa to help me out with the English stuff. At least the literature part. She’s always quoting something or other.” “Jason, and… Marissa?” Nathan tipped back his beer, one prematurely silver eyebrow raised as the muffled sound of a tiny bell chimed from the pocket of Autumn’s faded cutoff shorts. “Yeah,” she nodded absently, pulling out her phone and swiping the lock screen away. “Bannon and Jauntsen. We’re friends now, I guess.” The sound was a generic tone with the standard vibration pattern, which meant the sender was someone she didn’t know. Huh. //My new number. For the Fellowship only, please. Jason// Wait, Jason actually has a phone now?! She blinked and re-read the text again one more time, just to make sure. Suddenly, the trip to Great Falls made sense, even if Laurie’s intent curiosity didn’t, exactly. A broad smile slowly spread from the generous curve of Autumn’s mouth to the corners of her eyes as- Nathan’s question forgotten entirely- she began swiftly tapping the screen with both thumbs, adding the new number to his contact info and only vaguely aware that the adults were talking around her. It seemed totally unreasonable that just the sight of his name, the knowledge that the succinct, perfunctory message was from him, inspired such a reaction: a sudden wave of warmth, not unlike the feeling of the sunlight washing over her through a break in the clouds. And yet, unreasonable or not, it did. It wasn’t the same sensation of fiery-faced embarrassment as when he teased her, or even the heat sparked by his gaze or, more searingly, his kisses. It just… Sort of, was. Like some weird, immutable law of the universe. Also weird was that she was one-hundred percent aware that it was weird, because barely more than a week ago she’d thought of him as some sort of slouchy, murder-stare-having cryptid to be avoided at all costs, but it was also simultaneously kind of… not weird? Maybe? At least, not capital-w Weird, anyway. Catching her lower lip between her teeth, she scrolled through the list of notification options, still smiling. What should I use for his ringtone, just in case? He might not call or text much, if at all, unless it was an emergency or something logistical, and it seemed like the sort of pragmatic reason he’d buy one in the first place, but… Maybe? Hmm. It chimed again. The eager redhead tapped the icon that appeared and instantly regretted it, feeling a rising wave of scarlet rushing up to her face as the reminder of peak Autumness stared back at her. She could almost, almost picture his exact expression, too: the gleam in his eyes, the little twitch at the corner of his mouth that hinted at laughter. Mother. Fucker. It was one of her favorite compound curse words, but in that moment it seemed somehow inadequate to describe the feeling of total embarrassment, indignant fury, and grudging amusement roiling in a tumultuous storm within her. Credit where it was due, it was an apt meme, and it was a funny reminder of how they’d actually met, but for fuck's sake, it wasn't fair! He couldn't even get flustered, and at least once a day since they'd become friends he'd made her feel like she was about to spontaneously combust. Couldn't she eventually gain some kind of immunity to that? Please? Obviously, he was deliberately screwing with her, and obviously there would have to be reprisals. [You suck! Just wait until I catch you, LOL.] If he wasn’t back in Shelly yet, that gave her some time to- “Autumn Rae.” She blinked at the pointed tone of her father’s voice, the inclusion of her middle name sending an alarm signal directly to her unconscious: almost immediately, the preoccupied teen glanced up from the messaging app and the list of sound files she’d been browsing. “Hmm?” Not exactly the most eloquent response. Ian glowered down at his distracted daughter, displeasure writ plain on his features, and she winced, her cheeks reddening even further. Shit. There was no point pretending she’d been paying attention when she very obviously hadn’t. “Sorry. Um. What was the question?” “Oh, for f-“ The glare Dana had given Autumn earlier was suddenly directed at her husband, who hesitated visibly under that withering stare, and then sighed. “Warden Crocker was asking about your new friends.” Something about the way he said that last word- friends- suggested that the initial question hadn’t been posed neutrally. Which… Yeah. That was fair. Jason did have a pretty sketchy reputation, and everyone present knew about her history with Shelly High’s unofficial princess (even if most of the adults in town considered the glamorous brunette an immaculate angel, beyond reproach). But things changed, right? People changed. Or at least, they could. Couldn’t they? “It’s only ‘Warden’ Crocker when I’m on duty, Ian.” Nathan smiled affably, tipping the near-empty bottle toward the real estate broker and receiving a similar salute in kind as Autumn’s father reluctantly conceded the point. “I’ve always been kind of partial to ‘Uncle Nathan,’ myself.” “Sorry,” she repeated contritely, resting the edge of her phone on her knee and wobbling it mindlessly back and forth. It wasn’t her favorite subject, but it was a welcome distraction from freaking eggplants. Ugh. “I mean, as far as Jase and Marissa go, stuff just happens, you know? Sometimes you learn things about people that can change how you think about them. Like, Jason’s not a serial killer, just kind of quiet, and Marissa’s not a terrible person, she’s just a bitch.” “Autumn!” Dana hissed sharply, lobbing a crumpled napkin at her offspring in frustration as the FWP warden stifled a laugh and her father groaned. With another grimace, the younger redhead instinctively batted the offending missile aside. “Okay, fine, but we already talked about this last week, and she totally is! I can’t help it, Mom. I didn’t make her that way. And, like…” Folding her legs, she glanced back at her former best friend and realized that at some point while she was tinkering with her settings and blushing furiously at the meme Jase had sent, he’d sat up and started paying attention to the conversation. Of course. Why not? she lamented inwardly. Why wouldn’t a day in the life of Autumn Keane be full of awkward? “It’s just, I can tell that she’s making an effort. And, yeah, she’s not really great at the whole friend thing right now, but if I don’t give her a chance to at least try, she might not ever be.” Inhaling, she tried to meet Jacob’s gaze, his dark hazel eyes shadowed beneath windblown hair and almost unreadable. “Maybe she was pretty awful to me, and maybe I hated her for it for a while. Maybe I still haven’t totally forgiven her yet.” Autumn watched his lips thin, his expression hardening slightly in a way she’d learned to recognize unconsciously in him over the years, and now consciously through making notes of Jason’s subtle facial cues. “But maybe I also want things to be better. I hope they can be, anyway.” “Yeah. Maybe.” Nathan glanced down at his son, who’d barely spoken a word until that moment as he’d lain in the shade after lunch, then questioningly at Autumn. “Gotta have hope, either way, right?” Cautiously, she nodded, and Jacob did likewise in some tentative, unspoken teenage accord. Exhaling as he stood and stretched, the tall athlete gave the adults a quick, polite smile. “I’m gonna go walk around, see who’s here.” There was a pause, and she plucked at the blanket she was sitting on, trying to decide whether they’d both actually been having the same conversation. “You wanna come with?” She couldn’t read his expression, silhouetted as he was against the afternoon sky; it took a moment for her brain to register that he was talking to her, because that basically never happened anymore, did it? “Yeah, sure.” In spite of herself, Autumn felt herself smiling, just a little, as she got to her feet and brushed the grass from her legs. “Sounds good.” Casual invitation, casual response. It was a start, at least.
  4. "Jack," Ian greeted the big man with an affable smile and a quick handshake, and extended the same friendly courtesy to his wife. "Carolyn. Laurelai. Good to see you. Nice day, isn't it?" He glanced around, taking in the scant crowd so early in the day and then back at his own girls, who smiled and waved at the group as Autumn leaned in the driver's side and popped open the hatch at the rear of the Jeep. "The help would be appreciated, thanks. You know, you guys are welcome to stop by this evening, grab a bite and a cold one. Warden Crocker's got the steaks, and we've got the ribs, and I don't think the five of us will be able to eat it all." "Are you kidding? Jacob can eat his own weight in ribeyes, and I'm pretty sure Autumn's not far behind him," Dana interjected with a laugh, brushing non-existent dirt from her hands onto the legs of her neat denim capris as she joined them. "Hey, Jack, hi, Carolyn," the pretty vet smiled warmly, then turned to Laurie and her caprine companion with a knowing, vaguely disapproving grin as she eyed the cotton candy in the young girl's hand: an actual pair of Rascals. "Morning, you two. Good to see you're keeping her out of trouble," she quipped, eyeing first the goat and then the red-haired teen. The young woman had the presence of mind to look at least a little sheepish as she brushed an errant wisp of spun sugar from the goat's furry cheek. "Seriously, though, if you don't have anything else planned, swing by. I think Nathan's already setting up, so we'll have all the food in the same place. And probably too much of it." She paused for a moment, considering something, then glanced at her husband. "Although if Jason hasn't eaten yet when he gets here, Autumn might bring him by, too." The Cassidys exchanged a look, eyebrows raised in wordless surprise: their Jason? Had the half-wild cub they'd adopted as one of their own- one rapidly growing into an adult with at least the seeming of civility- found a second family to help feed him? Unaware of the silent conversation between the other couple, Ian nodded, his smile broadening into a grin that didn't quite reach his eyes; he'd hoped to spend the day with his family, and even these essentially trivial, perfectly normal shifts in his daughter's social life like new crushes and fallings-out with friends were reminders of how tenuous their connection was lately. "True, yeah. Hey, maybe we won't have a week's worth of leftovers this year. We should probably ask-" He turned, but his impatient offspring was already out of earshot, carrying one of the large plastic storage containers off toward the shady spot where the Crockers were almost finished lighting the charcoal for the brats they'd brought for lunch later. Jacob was jogging up to greet her, and Dana followed the direction of her husband's gaze, then met it and offered a little shrug. "Well," he laughed, "I guess we ought to get started, or there's not going to be anything left to unload." As the three families hauled coolers and containers into the shade, the men bantered about hockey and the ladies discussed work and current events in town. The three teenagers, for their part, kept conversation light and casual- while skirting the subject of the Homecoming dance, they talked animatedly about the game itself and Laurie's excitement-slash-anxiety about actually getting to play. It didn't take long to get everything organized: neatly-stacked bags of charcoal, bins of ice for the drinks (alcoholic and otherwise) and uncooked food, and then the grills were lit, blankets spread, chairs unfolded, and tablecloths taped down onto folding tables. By the time all was said and done, the little tree-covered area the Crockers and Keanes had carved out was almost a self-contained Labor Day celebration on its own. "Hey, thanks." Laurie squinted slightly against the sun as the energetic young woman handed her a bottle of water from the depths of the cooler and rose, absent-mindedly nudging the lid shut with her knee. The youngest of the Cassidy clan still hadn't worked out how or why her brother and his best friend had managed to skip town so early, or what the group of teens were planning, and it was driving her crazy. ...But Autumn's parents had mentioned Jason, and she knew they all hung out at least once in a while, so maybe she could get some info from the Girl Scout? It was worth a shot, anyway. "Sooo." As openings went, it sounded casual enough, and the other girl smiled as she cracked open her own bottle. "Sooo?" "So," the sophomore repeated with slightly more conviction this time, sighing appreciatively as she took a sip of the cold water. "Great Falls, huh?" Autumn blinked at her, suddenly distracted from watching Rascal playing a boisterous game of tag with someone's black Lab and wondering if they should've brought the kids along after all. "Sean and Jason," she clarified, as comprehension dawned in the older redhead's eyes. Good. That meant she did know something. Now all she had to do was find out what, and the best way to do that was to pretend she already knew. Affecting an air of nonchalance as she screwed the cap back on the plastic bottle, she pressed a little further. "How come you didn't go?" Autumn's brows knit together in a brief, but expressive frown, her blue eyes narrowing, and Laurie cursed silently to herself. "Why would I go to Great Falls? My dad's home." Crap. She'd forgotten about that little detail- or, rather, it hadn't occurred to her, since she didn't really know the outdoorsy junior all that well. For that matter, she wasn't sure her brother did, either, but that was an issue for later. "Sorry, sorry," she conceded, grimacing in genuine apology; she really did feel kind of bad about carelessly drawing attention to Ian's absence. "I just wondered if they'd invited you, that's all." "Mmm." There was an uncomfortable pause, and then: "It's fine." Autumn nodded slowly, ponytail swaying as her expression gradually softened into a faint smile. It wasn't Laurie's fault her dad was away so much, even if being reminded of it stung a little. It would've come up at some point during the day, anyway, from Nathan if not someone else. I need to talk to him, she reminded herself, glancing back at the inquisitive girl and her goat, who had come bounding back over. "Yeah, no, they didn't. I mean," she shrugged, unscrewing the lid of her drink. "There's nothing I needed there anyway. I think they were just-" And then she remembered, abruptly, that Jason had mentioned one very specific thing he intended on getting while they were out, and- ohgod- she took a long, slow drink of the icy water in her hand as if it might somehow quench the sudden rush of warmth that surged beneath her skin. "Just shopping," she finished lamely, refusing to meet the other girl's eyes as the natural pink of her cheeks deepened to a vivid scarlet that rivalled the brilliance of her hair. "Shopping. Riiight." There was obviously something more there, but as badly as she wanted to press the issue, Laurie didn't think she'd get much further right then. Not with Autumn looking for all the world like she could light all the grills in Shelly just by proximity. Maybe she could try again later, or maybe one of the others would be able to tell her more, if she could track them down. "Well, anyway, good talk and, uh, I'll see ya later?" "Yeah, sure. See ya." The young vitakinetic smiled, despite the near-ignition of her fiery hair, and headed over to rejoin her parents as the sprightly pair of mischief-makers meandered off again.
  5. The Keane Residence, 0830. -ish. It was the smell of coffee, rather than the sound of the dogs or the brilliant sunlight pouring through her window, that roused Autumn from her dreams. Blinking against the light, she groaned and dragged a pillow over her face. She’d just been sitting in front of a campfire with Jason, in a tiny ring of orange glowing amidst the deep blue-black nothingness of the woods at night, and he was smiling that little half-smile of his over the rim of his mug. What had he just said? She frowned, trying to remember the sound of the syllables, the shape of his mouth, the exact cadence of his speech, but it was already fading. Ugh. Why was it that when people talked to you in dreams, it made sense, but afterwards it just dissolved into gibberish? Or maybe it was nonsense to start with, and because you were dreaming you just got to decide what it meant. Or maybe… She sighed, flinging the pillow and the blankets off as she peered up at the sunlit ceiling overhead, the faint outline of pale green stars just visible here and there in the wash of brilliant white. Maybe she’d just dreamed in Russian, or something. Crazier things have happened, right? Like finding a radio that changes dimensions. Like seeing actual monsters. Like rescuing cats from a secret prison, or discovering that aliens are real, or that you and other people at your school have super-powers. Or, you know. Like dating someone who actually speaks Russian. She smiled sleepily at that, shifting around a little on the striped sheets. Or like… She blinked again as something else occurred to her. Going to sleep on the couch and waking up in your own room? As she sat upright, the redhead’s sleep-fogged brain struggled to piece together the series of events that had somehow led to this particular outcome. She swung her feet over the edge of the bed, letting them dangle there for a moment as she stared blankly at the haphazard arrangement of clothes on the chair nearby. They’d been watching Braveheart, she was pretty sure, and she didn’t remember coming upstairs, but… here she was. So, how…? Almost fully awake now, she could just make out the drone of conversation from downstairs. Voices. Her mom’s, and a deeper, more masculine one- Suddenly everything clicked into place. “Dad!” she yelled, bounding out of bed and down the stairs, accompanied by a chorus of excited canine voices as the dogs rushed to meet her. “Morning guys,” she greeted them in passing, idly reaching down to pet whichever happened to be closest on her way to the kitchen. “...definitely your daughter,” he was just saying as Autumn rounded the corner and, with an excited whoop, launched herself at the father she hadn’t seen in what seemed like months. “Ooofff, hey, careful. Coffee,” Ian chided her with a grin and a one-armed hug, absorbing the impact of her energetic embrace as he held the half-full mug up and away to avoid the fallout. With a bemused shrug, Dana took it adroitly from his hand and set it on the island, watching as her typically not-a-morning-person offspring squeezed the breath from him before she’d even said hello. “Hey, sweetheart,” he greeted her, returning the hug with both arms this time and planting a kiss atop the dishevelled red-gold curls she hadn’t yet bothered to comb. “How’s my little firecracker doing this morning, hmm?” “‘m good,” came the pleased reply as they swayed back and forth like that for a few moments. She didn’t even protest the childish nickname, cringey as it was, since he was the only one who’d ever used it anyway. ...Well, and even apart from that, it was a little reminder that even in Billings or Bozeman or Missoula or Helena, he was still her dad. He still remembered. Note to self: do not let him call me that in front of anyone today. The grin in her mind refused to remain hidden there, irrepressibly curving the corners of Autumn’s mouth upward as she squeezed him tightly. He was home. Finally. “Missed you.” “I know. I missed you, too.” “What time did you get in?” she asked, grabbing an oversized mug and glancing back in Ian’s direction as she poured herself a “cup” of coffee. “Eh, a little later than I intended,” her father admitted sheepishly, exchanging a look with Dana over Autumn’s head as he reclaimed his own mug from the counter. “You two were already out.” He smiled, reaching out to tousle her hair fondly as she grinned and ducked away with a grumble of half-hearted protest. “So I thought we’d head out a little early today, find a good spot to set up and just spend the day together. The three of us.” “Cool. Yeah, that sounds good.” The girl’s nose crinkled slightly as she smiled, stirring sugar and cream into her drink. “It does,” the older Keane woman agreed. “Maybe she’ll even introduce you to her boyfriend.” “Boyfriend?” Ian blinked, pale blue eyes wide as he looked from his daughter to his wife. “You mean, not…?” Dana shook her head: No. She didn’t mean Jacob. Not anymore, at least. Comprehension dawned, and he nodded, taking a quick sip from his mug. “That’s right. I remember now. Your mother did say something about a… camping trip, I think?” He glanced at his daughter for confirmation, and she rewarded him with a smile and a quick nod, her amber-speckled features going faintly pink. “Mhmm, and he came over for dinner after that.” she replied cautiously, checking from the corner of her eye to see if her mom planned to explain why, exactly, he’d been invited to stay. The auburn-haired vet caught the none-too-subtle glance, and smirked. ‘He did,” Dana added breezily. “And he was a great help, too. Very hands-on.” Warm hazel eyes danced with mischief as she arched an eyebrow at her daughter, whose rosy cheeks flushed to a deeper scarlet at the memory. Amused, she turned to check the breakfast quiche in the oven then, leaving her concerns about the swiftness of their developing relationship for another conversation. It was still early in the day, after all, and Ian ought to have the chance to meet Jason for himself before more serious parental discussions were had. “Oh? Good to hear,” he replied distractedly, glancing at his watch. It wasn’t quite nine yet, but Warden Crocker had already called to let them know what he and Jacob were bringing for the day-long picnic- he also suspected it was to find out if he’d actually made it back to Shelly this time. It was hard to fault him for that, the tall real estate broker reflected with a pang of guilt that rendered the mouthful of black brew he swallowed slightly bitter on his tongue. “So, is this new guy a junior, too, this year?” “Yeah, we have Chemistry together.” There was a moment of what definitely felt like an awkward silence in the kitchen, and Autumn’s eyes widened. “The class, I mean,” she clarified quickly, groaning inwardly at her father’s expression and wishing fervently that she could crawl inside her coffee mug. “Well, and, uh, Study Hall.” “Chemistry,” her father reiterated flatly, warily glancing from her to Dana as the latter stifled a laugh and resolutely switched off the oven, refusing to return the look she could feel being burned into her back. “Well that’s… That’s great, sweetie. Just great.” ------------- Later that morning. “They’ll be fine,” the pretty vet reassured her husband, smiling as she scratched under Zee’s chin. The Keanes had been loading up the Jeep for a little while now, packing it with enough coolers and bags to feed and entertain the trio for at least a week, but it wasn’t intended solely for them: sandwiches and cold salads for lunch, ribs and thick pork chops to grill later, sodas and iced tea and a couple of six packs of summery IPAs and traditional lagers. “They’ve got plenty of water out, and lots of shade if it does turn warm this afternoon. We’re not going to be gone all day,” she reminded him, watching as their energetic daughter hefted the last bag of ice into a plastic storage container and snapped the lid shut. “How do you think they manage when I’m at work and Autumn’s at school?” She paused for a moment and, tentatively, rested her hand on his. “It’ll be fine.” “Fine, or fine?” Autumn interjected with a grin, going up on her tiptoes to give both parents a kiss on the cheek. Dana rolled her eyes at that, smiling, and shook her head. “I’m gonna do one last door check and grab my phone. Anything you guys want me to get while I’m in there?” Her father patted his pockets, frowning a little, then shrugged and offered her an easy smile. “No, no, I think I’ve got everything.” His gaze moved over her shoulder, catching his wife’s eye as the paternal expression softened slightly. “Everything I need, anyway.” He didn’t miss Autumn’s requisite grimace of teenaged disgust at the thought of parental romance, or the softly-murmured “Gross,” under her breath as she turned and jogged back up to the house with the dogs at her heels. He shrugged again, a sort of uncomfortable one-shouldered gesture Dana immediately recognized as one her child had adopted. “Parents,” he opined laconically, opening the passenger door for his bride. “Totally,” she replied, deadpan, and climbed inside. “So, this new guy,” Ian began cautiously, leaning against the side of the SUV. “You’ve met him. Is he… I mean, what’s he like? Jacob’s a good kid. Good guy, I guess.” He corrected himself, realizing that a seventeen-year-old wasn’t much of a kid anymore. Not really. “I thought they got along really well. I mean, hell, they grew up together, and then-” With a sigh, he gestured vaguely, helplessly, toward the house. “‘And then’, yeah,” Dana replied thoughtfully, nodding as she followed his reflection in the side mirror. There was no need to elaborate further on that particular point; Owen’s passing had hit a few people pretty hard, his granddaughter especially. Until recently, seeing Autumn taking interest in other people and going out again, she hadn’t realized exactly how hard the girl had taken it- or even how hard she’d taken it herself. And then last night… Well, the air felt a little clearer, didn’t it? “I kind of half-expected them to get married right out of high school, to be honest. And I like Jacob, I really do, and maybe they’ll work things out and find each other again later. I’m just…” She sighed, thinking back on the weird charge in the atmosphere when her daughter and the Bannon boy had been in the kitchen, the pair so intent on each other that at times she’d almost wondered if she’d even really been present there in the room. It wasn’t exactly reassuring, but the very nature of that intensity, and their youth, all but dictated that it couldn’t last long. The brightest flames burned quickest, after all. “I’m just glad,” she finally allowed, “that I don’t have to worry about that for her anymore.” “Mmmm.” The reply was noncommittal, Ian watching the house as his wife watched him. “Jason Bannon, you said?” “I did. As for what he’s like?” She paused, her expression pensive; there really wasn’t a satisfying answer to that. “He’s… Well, it’s hard to say.” Dana smiled as her husband glanced at the mirror, meeting her eyes through the reflective glass. “I guess you’ll just have to see for yourself.” Oddly, it was easier talking about her daughter’s shiny new relationship than it was to discuss her own nearly twenty-year-old one, and the two fell quiet after a moment, listening to the small but beloved pack of fosters they’d taken in huffing and whining and yelping softly as they gamboled about in the front yard. Autumn’s father opened his mouth as a thought occurred to him, something he felt he ought to have said already, when the girl herself came bounding down the porch steps, pausing to distribute head scratches and belly rubs aplenty before heading over to the car. “‘Kay, all set.” Clambering into the crowded back seat, she checked her phone out of habit and tucked it in the pocket of her hoodie as Ian closed the door. She’d obviously fixed her hair a little, added a few hints of makeup, but otherwise hadn't fussed too much over her appearance; maybe this boyfriend thing wasn't such a big deal. Nothing to worry about, he reassured himself. “So,” he tried again, getting situated himself and glancing at his pink-cheeked offspring in the rearview mirror. “This Jason guy. How’d you guys meet? What’s he like?” Dana snorted softly under her breath and turned, watching the house disappear behind them. True to form, if Ian wanted something, he’d try all avenues available to get it. It made him a great realtor, but an annoying partner sometimes. Shrugging, the restless redhead peered conspicuously out the window, ignoring the warmth creeping up the sides of her face. How was she supposed to describe him to her dad, of all people, when Jason Effing Bannon was still a mystery to her? Maybe always would be. Huh. “I mean, he’s kind of-” She paused, pursing her lips as the trees whizzed past. “Different. But he should be there today. I hope. So, I guess you can meet him and see for yourself?” With an exasperated sigh, Ian returned his gaze briefly to his wife- who was also staring out the window- and turned out onto the highway. “What is this, a conspiracy?” “Nope. It’s a mutiny,” Dana quipped, cutting her eyes at him. “While the captain’s away, the crew will play, or something like that.” Muffled laughter from the back seat answered her, but her husband’s expression was less amused. Even if Autumn hadn’t caught the edge hidden in her mother’s joke, he had, and it stung. Moreso because it was true, and he had no right to deny it. “Ahh, that must be why the rum’s gone, then,” he replied with a taut smile, and a levity he didn’t quite feel. Labor Day, indeed: he was apparently going to have to work his ass off to get this right.
  6. The Keane home, sometime that evening. “Hey, Mom?” They were a little more than halfway through Jurassic Park, both Keane women in their most comfortable pajamas and curled up with dogs occupying every inch of couch-space their humans weren’t. During the commercials, they’d argued over which of the male protagonists was hotter, and Autumn had showed her mother a dozen or so of the better memes the movie had inspired in the nearly three decades since its release. “Hmm?” Dana popped another handful of buttery popcorn into her mouth, glancing absently at her daughter across Zee and Dakota’s heads. “Remember when I took that stuff back to the other house on Thursday?” “Mhmm. Yeah, the… oh, what was it? The fishing tackle and the jigsaw?” “Yeah, and a couple of other things Dad borrowed. So, I went inside, you know, just to make sure everything was still good. No leaks or weird smells or broken windows or anything.” “Right…” Something in the girl’s tone caught her ear, distracted her from the television- suddenly the rugged paleontologist wasn’t all that interesting anymore. Autumn took a breath, realizing that the box was open now and that shutting it again was not the easy option, and forged on. “Well, I checked the basement, and- did you know Grandpa had an office down there?” She asked, regarding her mom curiously for any sign of recognition. “An office,” Dana repeated carefully. “No, I didn’t. Why?” No going back now. The younger redhead absently petted one of the dogs using her as a pillow, drawing reassurance from their solidity. “I found a couple of letters, and one of them was to us. Me and you, I mean.” There was no response; Dana’s face was frozen in the flickering light of the TV. Hesitating only a moment, Autumn continued. “Do you want me to bring it down?” There was another pause, followed by a hasty confession born of guilt. “Sorry, I got curious, I already read them both…. But, um-“ “Go get them.” The older woman’s response was quiet, scarcely audible over the panicked cries of the children on screen. Her hazel eyes were fixed not on the television, but somewhere above it. Beyond it. Autumn nodded, unsure if her mother noticed the gesture of assent, and squirmed her way out from beneath Briggs and Lexi, who’d managed to arrange themselves simultaneously across her lap and against her side, imprisoning her against the arm of the couch. “Sorry, guys,” she murmured as they grumbled, roused from their drowsing by her movement. Was her mom angry? A furtive glance at Dana’s cameo-perfect profile in the dim light of the television didn’t reveal much, and she headed uncertainly up the stairs. By the time she returned to the living room, the light was on, the bowl of popcorn was on the coffee table, and her mother was sitting on the edge of the couch, her gaze one of too-calm expectation. “So, this is the one for us.” Autumn fought down the flutter of nervousness as she handed over the strangely heavy envelope with its folded stationery. The room was silent then, Autumn reclaiming her spot on the couch and watching as her mother slid the letter from its container, unfolded it and read it. It didn’t take long. Dana’s eyes closed momentarily as she folded the letter back up and returned it to the envelope. She bore the look of a woman struggling with some deep-seated emotion as she carefully set the letter aside and looked at Autumn questioningly. “And you read this?” Autumn nodded. “Give me the other one.” There was a sense of energy in the room now, something swirling and tense, and it was with the same growing unease she’d felt when she’d followed Jason Effing Bannon into the woods to an abandoned trailer a week and a lifetime ago that Autumn placed the other missive into her mom’s hands. Again, there was the rustle of paper being slid from an envelope, and the unfurling of the letter. Again, there was the silence as the older Keane woman read. This time, however, the reaction was different. Autumn watched as her mother’s face darkened, her eyes narrowing as she reached the end of her father’s last words. “Bullshit.” It was just two syllables, spoken quietly, intensely, but there was something behind them Autumn recognized, although then the voice had been her own. The word was jagged and tremulous with a raw edge unsmoothed by time or the careful, assiduous avoidance of unpleasant thoughts. “Mom, I don’t-“ she began tentatively. “Bullshit!” Dana all but shouted, crumpling the paper and throwing it violently at the floor, startling the dogs. “This is such ridiculous, insane, absolute fucking bullshit! He, what? Left these just… lying around in a magical locked office in his own fucking house expecting some random similarly magical fucking idiot from god knows where to just stumble across them? Fucking magically?! He knew he was goddamn dying and this is what he decided to do- leave a note for some meth-head looking for a DVD player to pawn? Jesus fucking Christ, Dad! What the fuck were you thinking?!” Autumn had expected her to be a little angry because even she’d gotten kind of pissed off herself at first. She’d also maybe thought her mom would just be totally dismissive of the whole thing, but this… This was waaaay beyond her experience or understanding. This was not parental behavior. Not at all. Especially not for her parents. Her parents were sane. Normal. They were usually pretty chill, and she never once questioned whether they loved her because they’d never given her reason to. Yeah, sure, there was maybe some weird or awkward stuff between them, grown-up stuff, but it had just never really seemed like that big a deal because they’d never made it one. For Dana to go from 0 to 100 this fast, though? Weren’t adults supposed to have their shit together? Oh. Oh, god. I don’t- I don’t even know what to do with this. There was nothing she could do but stare as her mother broke down, flinging the blanket aside while the dogs whined nervously, scattering, and Dana rose suddenly from the couch, furious tears streaming down her flushed cheeks. “It’s been over a year, Dad! A fucking year! And I’ve been doing the best I fucking can, trying to figure this shit out on my own, and I thought I was doing pretty fucking okay, you know? I thought I was doing a pretty fucking good job just not losing my shit completely and taking care of everything that had to be done, the hospice visits and the memorial and the fucking house and all the accounts and the stupid fucking legal bullshit because, hey, people can’t just fucking die and be dead and have that be the end of it, can they?” As Autumn watched with mounting horror the woman who had raised her storming aimlessly, erratically about the living room, a sudden realization struck, lightning in the midst of the tempest raging around her: just because Dana had been doing all the normal mom-things, the boring grown-up stuff, it didn’t mean she wasn’t having a hard time. “And this? This fucking bat-shit ignorant fairy tale nonsense is what I get? More of your fucking stories? Heartfelt letters to a goddamned stranger when you couldn’t even be bothered to tell your own fucking family you were sick until it was too late to do anything about it?! Magic fucking spells?! What the fuck, Dad?! What the actual-“ Whatever Dana was about to say was cut off as Autumn flung desperate arms around her, dragging her fiercely, bodily into a hug. It was like hearing that awful, broken laughter all over again, except instead of being a twisted mockery of self-deprecating mirth it was just raw, unvarnished grief and fury all roiling together into something unbearable. But, still, it was pain, so blatant in its expression the impulsive young woman could almost feel the ragged edges of it herself, her mother’s tearful exhortations dissolving into shuddering sobs as she squeezed her close. They clung to each other like the survivors of some terrible cataclysm, a living Mobius strip of pale arms and red hair and hot tears entwined together in the aftermath of the explosion that had detonated their quiet life a year and a half before, but whose shockwaves were only really reaching them now. A little later... “Autumn.” Her mom sounded better. Still raw, still hoarse from crying, but once more ‘Mom’ - the adult with their composure restored, not the hurting child torn with grief and anger. The two of them were cuddled together on the couch, Autumn holding Dana and letting her grieve until the older woman recovered, at least enough to talk. “Yeah?” “Why did you tell me about this now? Tonight?” “It just… I guess it just seemed like the right time. There’s been so much going on, and I wanted to wait and talk to this guy that was supposed to be Grandpa’s friend, you know? Laughing Joe. I didn’t wanna say anything to you until I’d been out there, because it really… I mean, it’s a lot.” “It is… ‘a lot,’ yeah.” Apart from Lexi’s tentative snuffling at Autumn’s hand, the room was almost silent. “So I’m guessing they had you go through the ritual, then? At the reservation.” Autumn just shook her head, rubbing the even-tempered Pit’s head in a wordless reassurance that, yes, things were okay now. Or, at least, that they seemed to be. “Mmmh.” Dana nodded, plucking at the hem of the blanket tucked around them. She was quiet for a moment, pensive and visibly exhausted from the emotional outpouring. “I knew about it, at your age, but I never would go. Dad tried to convince me. I just never understood why it was so important to him, all those old stories. I thought he should focus on the real evils in the world, the ones that you don’t need some medicine man to investigate. Maybe I should’ve humored him,” she mused bitterly, glancing down at the tousled head resting against her shoulder, the pale, red-rimmed eyes that peered up at her. “Maybe I would’ve understood him a little better.” How did you respond to something like that? Owen was her grandfather, sure, but he was her mom’s dad. That was a whole different thing, and again she felt that uncoiling of guilt, of shame for not recognizing what had been in front of her the whole time. “I mean, if you didn’t believe in it, though,” Autumn began, her voice trailing off as she realized she really had no idea what to say in this situation. Maybe she’d already used up all her ability to people for the day. “I didn’t. Don’t,” her mother amended. “But he did, and his believing formed the basis for a lot of the things he did, the…” The older woman sighed, a heavy, weary sound, absently resting her cheek against her daughter’s hair, breathing in the citrusy scent- sweet and bright, like ripe tangerine, but with a hint of grapefruit’s woody, underlying bitterness. “The choices he made, even if they didn’t make sense to anyone else but him.” Another pause. “What about you?” Autumn hesitated. “…Yeah? Probably. Not exactly the same way he did, maybe. I don’t know. We didn’t really talk about it, to be honest. Not the whole Kavanagh thing, anyway. I guess…” She frowned, wrinkling her nose as she burrowed close against her mother’s side. “I guess if I had to explain what I think about what he thought, which sounds kind of weird, I’d say that there’s maybe too much of the world, of everything, for us to really understand all of it. I mean, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try, just that it’s too big for us to see all of it at once, and we come up with stories. Like the elephant and the blind men. So maybe Grandpa was feeling the trunk, and you got the leg, and I’m touching the side of it, you know? It’s all the same thing, the same elephant. Just…” She gestured under the blanket, her hands spreading apart and lifting the patterned fabric slightly, and shrugged. “Like, I don’t think magic is a real thing, and I’m not sure if Grandpa did, or if it was just how he framed the stuff that was too big to see.” “Mhmm. When did you get so talkative?” Autumn shrugged a little, pressing her face against the reassuring solidity of her mother's shoulder as she felt the telltale flush creeping up the sides of her throat. "I dunno," she mumbled, her words only half-audible through the blanket. It wasn't entirely true, of course- she had an idea that it might've had something to do with spending the day around someone who actually listened, but you didn't say that to your mom, obviously. The tired young redhead nestled closer, seeking out that maternal warmth that had so often been a source of comfort. With a knowing smile, Dana kissed the top of her daughter's head. "Should I blame Jason Bannon, do you think?" Her initial answer was a muffled sound that might have been agreement, followed by a soft, "Maybe." As Autumn hugged her mother's waist, the older, wiser redhead pulled her close; how many more of these little-girl moments would she get before the adventurous teen went off on her own for good? Not enough, the pretty veterinarian decided, exhaling as her eyes drifted closed for a moment as behind her lids bittersweet memories of family played out, of chubby, sunburned toddler cheeks and the rare sound of Owen's laughter, the smell of grilling meat and sweet grass underfoot. "I'm sorry about the letters." The apology, softly-spoken, was scarcely more than a murmur against her mother's arm as Autumn stared at the images moving on the television screen. "I just thought you'd want to see them." "No, I'm sorry." Her mom's voice was soft, her tone reflective as she squeezed the girl's shoulder. "You were right to show them to me." She sighed then, feeling her daughter's hair under her fingers as she stroked her back. "So maybe you're right - about the elephant thing. Perhaps your grandpa was trying to put a shape or a name to something that was too big for him to fully understand. I mean, isn't that what religion is?" Dana asked rhetorically. "He had faith - even if it was in something crazy, it was also in us." A thought occurred to her then, as she looked down at the copper curls crowning her not-so-little-anymore girl's head. "You know, if he believed that only a special person could find the letters, and you found them - maybe it wasn't so crazy." she commented, smiling a little. "Someone special did find the letters." Another pause as a further thought occurred, ideas beginning to take shape of all the strangeness that had happened of late. A series of random incidences, perhaps - the medical center lockdown, the fight, Autumn changing in ways that were surprising, new friends like... Jason Bannon? Devin Jauntsen!? It wasn't a fully formed thought. More a zygote of a thought. A fleeting sense of potentiality that was lost in the background noise of her emotional exhaustion and the contentment of holding her daughter close, but one that would, perhaps, surface again later in quiet moments. "You know..." Dana said casually. "Dad's letter mentioned a talisman bundle. I don't suppose there was such a thing?" "Mmhmm," Autumn hummed in half-conscious confirmation, the combination of physical and emotional weariness with soft canine snoring and her mother's gentle touch having led her perilously close to the edge of slumber. "Brought it back with the letters. It's on my desk, 's got feathers and stuff on it." She stirred, blinking as the hand on her back stilled and the vague shapes of the furniture and photos on the wall slowly came back into focus. That had been the whole point of talking about the office, hadn't it? The hope that her mom might actually consider at least going through the motions of the ritual. The bracelets, the talisman- even if she didn't understand how they worked, particularly, she'd seen some of the evidence that they did with her own eyes in the soft, shimmering silver of the Light surrounding them, and talking to Joe had helped lay a few of her concerns to rest. That, she considered, turning the morning's conversations over in her mind like a smooth river stone in her hand, had helped too, just hearing from someone who'd known her grandfather that he wasn't crazy. Or, at least, no crazier than anyone else in Shelly. Shifting, the drowsy young woman straightened, extricating herself with obvious reluctance from her mother's embrace. "I can show it to you, if you want?" "Please." Dana nodded, smiling a little at her sleepy-eyed girl. Smiling back, Autumn wormed off the couch again and went to retrieve the talisman, returning to the living room with it in hand and carefully passing it over before plopping back down on the couch. Her mom examined it, fingertips running over the mixture of long and short feathers, the polished stones, the occasional tooth or claw. the intricate braided leather thongs. "I should have listened more to him." the older redhead said quietly, her head bowing as she closed her eyes against threatened tears. "Maybe if I'd listened, tried to understand, he would have felt he could trust me with- With other things. I'm sorry, Dad." The last was said almost as a whisper as she drew in a steadying breath and raised her head again, smiling at Autumn through fresh tears which she wiped away with one hand, holding the talisman out on her palm. "Do... How do you feel about his instructions? I mean... It's silly, but I feel it would be right, somehow. Wouldn't it?" Dana asked, a trifle uncertainly as she regarded her daughter. She wanted to tell her mom it wouldn't be silly at all, that her grandfather had been right- mostly, anyway- and that it was okay. That it would be okay, because even after he was gone he was trying to protect his family, his daughter, and because she was going to help finish what Owen couldn't. But she couldn't say that, could she? There was no way to make that promise and be sure she could keep it. What if she couldn't? "I think," the expressive young woman replied slowly, earnest blue eyes narrowing slightly as she considered the question and the tumult of her thoughts tumbling over each other. "I think it feels like the right thing to do, yeah. It was obviously important enough to him that he left-" Autumn hesitated, her throat constricting around the sounds she wanted to shape, the words her lips couldn't quite form as she watched the tears drip silently down her mother's cheeks. Oh, god. Oh, fuck. I don't know if- "I mean," she managed haltingly, "I think it would. Um." Keep talking, Autumn. You're almost done. She swallowed hard, Dana's face rippling and wavering in her field of vision as if she were looking up through the surface of the creek, eyes stinging in the current. "It would help. Maybe." She nodded, lips compressed into a taut, pale line that suggested a smile. Her mom's answering smile was almost a mirror of Autumn's, tight-lipped with the urge not to sob as her own warm hazel eyes went liquid with hitherto unshed tears, but her nod of agreement was firm. "It will be like having another part of him still with us." Dana said, almost as much to herself as to Autumn. And then she smiled a little wider, carefully drawing Autumn into a one-armed hug, a hug which the warmly emotional young woman returned. The decision made, there was not much more to discuss. Mutual consent decided that over the front door would be the ideal spot for Grandpa's last bequest, the stepping-stool was fetched from the kitchen, the sewing box from the lounge. Exchanging glances, the two Kavanagh women - for such they were, by their blood and their roots in this land - each pricked their forefingers and dabbed a spot of blood on the strange talisman. There was an air of solemnity about the process, a sense that something sacred was being enacted, and then Autumn stood up on the stool, stretching upwards to hang the talisman on a small hook before stepping back down to stand alongside her mother. It was gradual, a faint whisper on the edge of her awareness, but it was enough to prompt the lithe young teen to focus her... sixth sense? Third eye? Shine-vision? And there it was, a tracery of silver so pale as to be almost translucent grey, a net of Radiance limning the doorframe, the walls, spreading from the talisman. And there was more, too. A sense that she'd only felt at her grandparent's house before now, and realized was the cessation of the spiritual smog that was omnipresent almost everywhere within Toole County. Here, the metaphysical air was clear for the first time, and Autumn could not help but smile slightly as she took a deep, steadying breath of it. Dana felt it too, at least on some level. Autumn could sense the tension flow out of her mom, could see the subtle lifting of her shoulders as though a weight was gone from them. "Yeah," she murmured, leaning against her mother's side as she peered up at the talisman with its claws, quills, and feathers where it hung above the door, just next to a frame that held one of her grandmother's embroidered blessings. "Yeah, I think that does help." Even without the faint web of intangible, invisible silver weaving itself protectively around the house, it really did just seem... right. It wasn't even about having the physical reminder of Owen, because until she'd found it in the secret room at the other house, Autumn hadn't known the odd little bundle even existed. The thing itself held no association with her grandfather in the energetic redhead's memory; it was the idea of the talisman, the notion that one of the last things he'd tried to do, in his own way, was to make sure they were protected from the Dark. The Enemy. And now, as her mom had suggested, some part of him was bound up in that ritual, that memory, to be kept safe and cherished as he'd wanted to keep them. This- Shelly- was her home. Their home, she reflected soberly. Not just that of her distant ancestors, but her family's. Her friends'. And paired with that thought was a curious possessiveness, a half-formed sense that the forces arrayed against them were wholly alien, antithetical to life, and therefore couldn’t be allowed to remain. As if, at least in part, she was entitled to make that decision. There were also people like her grandfather, like Nathan and Jacob and Laughing Joe who maybe knew what was going on, or had a vague idea of it, but who couldn't act directly- not like she, or the others in the Fellowship, could. Warden Crocker had called her the “Kavanagh in the hot seat,” and said they’d support her if she needed them. Rubbing her cheek idly against the soft flannel of her mom’s night shirt, Autumn didn’t bother blinking back the tears this time as something cold and tense suddenly twisted like a snake in her stomach. She might need them after all, because tomorrow, she was supposed to defend that home. It would be okay, right? She’d reassured herself of that earlier, but- Her arms tightened around Dana’s waist, eyes squeezed shut as she buried her face against her mother’s shoulder. For all the nightmarish horror, the undercurrent of raw and primal fear that gnawed at her belly and pounded against her ribs and shrieked and hissed inaudibly that she was six-fucking-teen, and there was a whole world she’d never get to see, and other people could handle it, and that it would totally destroy her family if she didn’t come home… There was also the quiet, undeniable truth that it wasn’t just her; the meeting with Laughing Joe, the journals, the training, and the talks had proved, definitively, that she wasn’t alone. She had seen, for just a moment with Marissa at the farm, the sheer enormity of what she was part of- of the ring, or spiral or whatever it was. Others had been where she was now. Others had taken risks. Others had asked these questions, wrestled with the same doubts, and still chosen to do what had to be done, even if they were afraid. Even if they didn’t want to. Everyone was fighting in their own way, she guessed, peering back up at the talisman. Even after they were gone. Autumn sucked in a shuddering breath and shook her head to dispel the uncommon existential bleakness of her thoughts for a moment, pulling away long enough for the two women to put everything back in order. They didn’t discuss the faint, dull ache of the matching pinpricks on their fingers, or how appropriate it was that Owen’s rough bundle of wild magic now hung next to his beloved Caroline’s more refined, domestic version. Nothing much was said at all, in fact, until they shared a brief, subdued exchange regarding what movie they should watch next. More popcorn (with a medically inadvisable amount of butter and salt) filled the big mixing bowl, blankets were straightened, and sleepy dogs rearranged themselves around the pair of redheads- a living barrier of soft snores and warm, furry bellies to ward off any lingering shadows as they all settled back in to cuddle for what the youngest of the Kavanaghs resignedly acknowledged might be the last time. “…Didn't I tell ya before? It's my island.” “Hamish, ride ahead to Edinburgh and assemble the council...” It was well after midnight when the front door opened and then closed again, but not yet so late- or so early- that the light of dawn had begun to steal across the sky. Dakota stirred and peered over the back of the couch, Zephyr grumbled, and Lexi yawned, while Briggs just whined softly without waking. “Hey, guys,” Ian murmured with a weary smile as he rubbed the big sable Shepherd’s head, glancing first at the flickering screen and then at the two women fast asleep on the couch in each other’s arms, with the pale light of the television sparking hints of gold in their hair. “I’m home.”
  7. Thursday, 29th August. 6th Period. Her head full of binomials and logarithms, Kat pensively walked out of the classroom, heading for what was going to be Study Hall. She wasn't really sure she needed Study Hall. What good would it do to her to mull over something she already had integrated and was already eager to apply to a thousand things, would she know more about its actual fields of application? She could see the use in practicing a newfound skill, like her powers, but then her powers didn't really compare with Maths. To her, there was a world of differences between theory and matter. Mainly the fact that if you do it right, theory is always right, when any given experiment might fail because of an uncontrolled parameter being either unknown or handled clumsily. Like what she experienced in the hospital. It clearly demonstrated that unlike theory, you must practice with a physical skill in order to successfully use it. Maths weren't a physical skill, but rather a mind tool requiring solid logics to be used. And boy, was her own logical tool solid. She had complete faith in her ability to complete the Maths class by the end of the semester. As to surviving till the end of the semester, well, that was another topic. She shuddered at the memory of the Spawns of the Dark. She was mulling over that, and a whole lot of other things, when an unruly mane of fiery curls caught her attention. Autumn. She said something about Study Hall, at the bleachers. Oh right, Homecoming! She increased her walking pace to catch up with the taller redhead. Study Hall, in theory, was an opportunity for students to review notes, catch up on reading and assignments, and make some headway on group projects. In practice, it was usually more like a social hour at the end of the day, where diligent academics dutifully blocked out the chatter with discreet earbuds and read Horace or polished their college entrance applications. As Autumn ducked under the arm of one of the football players leaning against the door frame to flirt with a grinning blonde, she muttered a quick "'Scuse me," and headed into the classroom. The last week had been a whirlwind of fear and excitement, a seemingly never-ending roller coaster of white-knuckle drops, exhilarating loops and twists, and madness-inducing inversions interspersed with too-brief interludes of seeming peace before they were all hurled headlong into the unknown again as the tracks fell away beneath them. It was, Autumn reflected as the mental image of a nightmarish theme park faded from her mind, kind of a lot. Things were happening so quickly, even in her own personal life, it was hard to keep up: in the last few days she had gained two new friends (?), she'd stayed over at Marissa-Fucking-Jauntsen's house, and The Impenetrable Jason Bannon had agreed to go camping with her tomorrow night... Plus there was the whole sort of vague plan of inviting the rest of the crew out there before Homecoming. What the fuck am I even doing? It wasn't like she'd never had any friends at all, or that she didn't know how to “people,” but she'd spent an unusual amount of time with the other teens in the group recently, and it felt a little odd, if she was honest. With the low groan of her chair seconding the redhead's unsettled state of mind as she melted bodily into it, Autumn watched from her seat near the window as the other students filtered in. For the Fellowship, this was their chance to fill each other in on things they'd discovered or plans they were making... But they'd already done that during lunch, sooo... Her toes tapped rhythmically on the floor as she hummed quietly, debating whether she should stop somewhere for actual food after class, or just wait until she got home. With the usual crowd intermittently making their appearances, her blue eyes skimmed over the faces of the other students as they entered. Her gaze stopped on a fragile figure that had somehow become familiar over the last few days. Sand-grey booties. Blue jeans. Grey T-shirt. Really pale skin. The French girl. Kat. She definitely could use a bit of sun. She watched as the petite redhead made her way through the flock of students picking their tables, to the one Autumn was sitting at. She looked... twitchy, with the arrhythmic pace of her steps, with her grey-blue eyes jumping to a million places at once, faithful image of her focus solely driven by stimuli. "Hey," the French girl dropped, once she finally reached her destination. The word held an underlying question the teen was not sure how to ask, but her eyes now firmly set on Autumn told she had some business with her. "Hey," the American redhead replied automatically, unthinking, abruptly distracted from her fantasy of a double order of garlic parmesan fries. She blinked, focusing on the delicate newcomer's features, and tried again. "Sorry, hi," Autumn amended with a grin that was at least partly in keeping with the casual apology, but partly not. French fries were serious business, after all. The young Shelly native took another look at Kat, at her uncertain expression, and tilted her head, eyebrows raised in inquiry. "What's up?" The petite redhead rubbed the back of her head and looked around, replying with a low voice: "Er... At lunch I understood you could explain to me, during Study Hall, what... Homecoming... is? Mind if I sit?" Autumn's lips rounded to an 'o' as she watched Kat's hand mechanically travel to the back of her head, a gesture of discomfort stressed by the pout she suddenly made while adding: "To be honest, since the day I came here I've kinda felt like I'm learning life all over again..." "You are not wrong," Autumn grinned, nodding in commiseration. "And I've lived here all my life, so..." The slight upward twitch of her shoulders served as physical punctuation, the implied termination of a thought not worth pursuing; it would be nice to have a conversation that only involved normal sources of awkwardness and social anxiety, for a change, rather than the nightmare levels of weird they'd all been exposed to recently. Gesturing toward an empty seat, the Shelly native straightened in her chair as the bell rang. She had suggested Kat save the Homecoming discussion until after their meeting at the bleachers, and although she herself planned on flying solo, filling the new girl in would give her a chance to decide if she wanted to do the same, or to find a decent date- or to just skip the whole thing altogether. "So. Homecoming," she began, keeping her voice low as she pulled out her Environmental Science textbook and opened it, flipping to the review section at the end of the first chapter. "Maybe you guys have something kind of like it in France? It's sort of like..." Peering up through her lashes at the fretful waif in front of her, Autumn pursed her lips. "Like a big school festival. It goes on for a week or so, and kind of gets the whole fall sports season started. It's kind of a big deal, more for the football team than anything else, but there's the game, and the parade, and all that. The dance is what a lot of people think about, though. I mean, it's not as big as, like, prom, but still kind of important. I'm pretty sure Marissa's had her dress planned since last Homecoming," the freckled redhead quipped, glancing surreptitiously toward the front of the room to catch a glimpse of her self-proclaimed bestie. Kat moved to the chair next to the one Autumn was sitting on and pulled it back while listening pensively. She pulled out a couple books from her backpack and sat down, flipping the pages of her English course at a fast but regular pace, her eyes scanning the words she read at their usual speed... lightning speed. English didn't feel as boring as Maths, but to be honest with herself, Kat realized that compared to her calculating skills, her English was far from perfect. Still, that book wouldn't last longer than any other book she had ever set her eyes upon. At Autumn's last comment, the petite redhead's eyebrows jumped sky high. "Woah, sounds like a big deal." She replied in a whisper, actually amazed. "I don't think we have anything like that in France, at least in high school. Maybe in college but, well, I've never been to college..." The pages of her book stopped flipping and Kat remained silent for a while. "I don't know if I'm gonna go... is it worth it going without a date?" She asked, turning to her new friend. "I mean, look at me, finding one is gonna be hard work, half the damn school thinks I'm twelve, and before I started putting some make-up on, they also thought I was a boy!" Autumn blinked at that last, a wave of bright pink flooding her cheeks as she averted her gaze. "Yeah... Sorry about that. Not that I actually said it out loud, or anything, but, um. I did kind of think it," she admitted with a slightly guilty grin, her nose crinkling. "I, uh... I also wondered if you might be related to Sean, at first, since you guys look sort of alike, and in a weird way, it fit, I guess? A boy who looks like a girl, and a girl who looks like a boy, I mean." The light bronze flecks sprinkled across the restive red-haired girl's face all but disappeared as her blush deepened at the admission. "Just a first-impression thing." Way to go, Autumn, just make the new girl feel even more awkward, why don't you? The toes of her sneakers scuffed at the floor as she swung her feet. "Anyway. If you want to go to the dance, you don't have to get a date date." The American pursed her lips, resting her chin on her fist as she really looked at the petite girl next to her, at her elfin features, almost translucent skin, and delicate frame; like Sean, Kat would probably get carded for everything, for the rest of her life. "You probably could- I mean, you're definitely cute enough- but there's only a couple of weeks, and chances are good they'd just be trying to get into your pants." There was a long pause, and Autumn grinned again, more mischief than apology this time. "Unless that's what you want," she teased. "If not, you could always go with a friend, or friends plural. I plan on flying solo, myself. I did the date thing last year, but we're-" Again, the freckles on Autumn's nose scrunched together. "It's complicated," she finally conceded after a moment, turning the page between her fingers idly back and forth. "Hm, hm," the French girl nodded, while silently glaring at her book. She couldn't decide yet. Too soon, and yet too late. She was indeed not intending to get anyone into her pants - yet, she thought - but dancing sounded nice. If she managed to somehow find a decent dress, then maybe she'd 'fly solo', as her friend just said. She leaned over the table, resting her forehead on her arms. "How complicated?" she asked, as the curious enough part of her brains managed to squeeze the question out. "Used to be my best friend, complicated," she replied, all mischief and levity vanishing from her features like a clear sky suddenly overshadowed by late summer storms. The sun outside was still shining, though, as the athletic young woman tugged at the string of her hoodie and glanced out the window, away from the new girl and the uncomfortable question she'd inadvertently asked. She couldn't even talk to Jacob about Jacob, so how was she supposed to explain it to anyone else? Autumn could hear Sean chatting with (probably) Jason somewhere nearby, the technophile's sweetly girlish voice easy to pick out even in a crowd, and someone listening to Ava Max a little too loudly behind her, but there was still an odd sort of silence in the wake of her admission. "So, yeah. Not really an option this time. It's fine." It's fine, she repeated mentally. Shrugging dismissively, the Shelly native flipped the page in her textbook, not even glancing at the text printed there. "The best part's the parties after, anyway." There was a brief pause as Autumn turned back to her 'study partner' and realized she knew basically nothing about Kat. At all. "Actually, do you party?" Whoops. Kat's hand mechanically travelled to the back of her head and rubbed it. Under her folded arms, her English book suddenly looked interesting as she considered her friend's - question mark? she thought - reaction. Nice one. Shouldn't have asked that. Bad Kat. Wait, did she ask me something? "Do I... party?" The French girl winced before adding: "Hmm... I don't go outside much..." She gestured at herself, from head to toes. The gesture in itself wasn't very lengthy, but spoke eloquently of the reason why. Autumn stared at her for a moment, her features a mask of uncertainty and confusion as she followed the movement, panning down the other girl’s slim frame where she sat perched uncomfortably in the chair. "Party," she repeated slowly, meeting Kat’s eyes for emphasis. "Like, do you drink? Smoke? Get a little faded? You, uh. Don't really have to do it outside." The petite redhead blinked, then chuckled at the thought. "Oh, that! Yeah, when the mood calls for it, I guess." She fiddled with the pages of her book, taking a look around at the other students. "Don't take it the wrong way, but I really don't like Study Hall." She paused for a moment before clarifying. "It's just... you know, it feels like watching a show a second time. Not as interesting to me because I know what's going to happen. Same thing for... this." She pointed at her book. "You ever get that feeling?" "About homework?" With a quick shake of her head, Autumn choked back a laugh. If this girl thought she was going to get anywhere on scholastic merit, poor Kat was going to be sadly disappointed. "No, I don't. I'm honestly just praying I graduate on time. The struggle's pretty real. I mean, in theory Chem'll be a little easier with Jase and Cassie at the table, but that still leaves English. You'd think being born here would make the language easier." Her grin broadened, and she flipped the end of the thick braid Marissa had woven back over her shoulder. "So, what else do you wanna know about Homecoming?" The French girl was starting to get hungry, her stomach producing a faint menacing growl, loud enough to raise a curious eyebrow from a couple faces around. A cute pout appeared on Kat's lips for a while, as she wondered if being ready to go to Homecoming - just in case - was a good idea. "Hmph... I don't know if I'm going," she replied, "but if I do, I need a dress. Any good shop you recommend in Great Falls?" Well, at least I'm not the only one thinking about food, the freckled girl laughed to herself. If she didn't already have plans for the afternoon, she'd probably invite the newest addition to Shelly's impressive array of redheads out for something delicious and possibly regrettable. "Honestly," she admitted, "no, I really don't. I’m not really all that into shopping, so I'm probably just gonna go with my mom at some point, or maybe... pick something up online? I don't know. I mean, I just want something comfortable, that fits, and doesn't cost a metric fuckton. But if you really want to go all out-" Autumn hesitated, a question implicit in her tone. Sure, Kat had met Marissa, but meeting Marissa was something altogether different. "Devin's sister, the really, like, crazy pretty girl with dark hair? That's kind of her thing." "Oh, yeah, sure... She seems... nice?" Kat checked the time on her phone before putting it away with a deft flick of her hand. "I didn't really talk to her yet. I mean, my Dad's girlfriend probably has some good advice too. We went shopping yesterday, it was fun.... until I accidentally activated something in my brains and it scared the shit out of me" She added in a low whisper. That got Autumn’s undivided attention in a way that talking about dresses hadn’t. With all thought of hunger and fries and similarly mouth-watering badness banished to whichever part of the brain happy dreams disappear on waking, she peered thoughtfully at the other girl, warm blue eyes narrowing in evident concern. She activated something in her brain that scared the shit out of her. Okay. So… What did that mean, exactly? Obviously some new aspect of Kat’s powers had surfaced, and of course that would be terrifying- especially if it happened by accident, and in public. The thought of being in that position herself sent a shiver rippling down her spine like icy fingertips, and she couldn’t help but shudder a little despite the warmth of the day, grimacing. That was kind of a nightmare scenario, wasn’t it? The French girl didn’t miss her friend’s glance. “I just… did some weird stuff with my Shine, and it kind of took me by surprise.” She whispered with a shrug. “Probably won’t happen again. At least not randomly. I mean, I know it’s there now.” She glanced back at Autumn with a poor grin. “I really hope Sunday’s training will help.” Weird stuff. Huh. Resisting the sudden instinctive urge to give the tiny redhead a hug, Autumn instead just nodded her agreement; not only were they in class, which would’ve made it super weird, she barely knew the girl… which would’ve taken it from “weird” straight to “outright fucking creepy.” Still, Kat’s attempt at a smile wasn’t exactly convincing, and a pang of sympathy twisted uncomfortably on itself in the pit of her stomach. There weren’t really any instructions on how to deal with hell-spawned nightmare beasts, or aliens, or alternate dimensions inhabited by things that wanted to destroy and consume and kill you- in roughly that order. There weren’t even any instructions on how to just get through junior year without totally losing your mind, or how to cope with losing someone you loved. Watching the porcelain-skinned pixie’s expression falter, her features wavering for a moment between the need to be strong and the desire to break down again at the memory of what had happened with Tess, Autumn nodded again, as if in confirmation. Everybody was dealing with something, weren’t they? Hmm. “Hey.” She smiled a little, her sea-colored gaze warmly encouraging as she reached out an amber-flecked hand. “Lemme see your phone. Just for a second.” Dubiously, the gamine French import complied, and her American counterpart deftly swiped the screen with her thumb as she hummed quietly to herself, shifting a little in her seat. As Kat watched, her new friend (?) snapped a quick selfie that was all white teeth, pink cheeks and cheerful blue eyes, and then rapidly entered her contact information. “There,” she declared finally, returning the smartphone to its rightful owner with an air of triumph. “Text me sometime. You can come smoke with me and we’ll go make poor life decisions involving salt, grease, and too much sugar.” “Sure.” The French girl replied with a genuine smile that was all dimples. At that moment she decided that she liked Autumn. Kat was nothing like an outdoors girl, but somehow she felt like she needed friends more than anything else in her new world. Besides, if the world were ever to turn into Darkspawn shit, at least she knew she could count on a few people here. And Autumn was really nice. There was something with her, that Kat couldn’t quite put into words, but it made her want to know her better. “Thanks,” she added with a wicked grin, “I think I need more sugar in my life…” Truth be told, Kat’s stomach couldn’t agree more. It did so, loudly. Fortunately for the ravenous teen and her stomach, the low rumble went unheard amidst the chaos of the final bell and the mass exodus of students to their lockers, the parking lot, and the field. The two girls smiled at each other, perhaps a little less awkwardly than they had at the beginning of class, and reflected as they headed their separate ways that maybe Study Hall had been good for learning something new, after all.
  8. Watching everyone milling around- upstairs, downstairs, in the door and out and in again- without any particular plan or idea of what they were supposed to be doing, but instead just sort of doing it, was oddly relaxing. Sure, the kitchen was a little crowded, and a little noisy, but it wasn’t what Autumn would consider hectic, just… Active, with people chatting amongst themselves and cleaning up, relaxing, winding down after the excitement of discovering more about each other, and about what they could do. Where they fit. Where they belonged. It was certainly less chaotic than trying to cook bacon with four excited dogs all jockeying for position around her feet. Smiling, she pulled down a couple of mugs from the rack as the coffee maker beeped that it was finished, enjoying the warm tides of vital energy that ebbed and flowed around her. Even after the discoveries she’d made in her grandfather’s study and what they’d learned that afternoon from Laughing Joe, the lively, rose-cheeked young woman still had a thousand questions which might never be answered. In fact, most of the answers she’d gotten seemed only to inspire more questions. Still, knowing that generations of her forebears had stood against these same rising shadows, that they had laid out the path forward in the very marrow of her bones and the blood in her veins, made it all a little easier to bear. Forging the link with Marissa earlier had demonstrated beyond her wildest imaginings that she really was part of this, part of a greater design, an unfathomably complex tapestry- maybe not a part of the Fellowship, specifically, but a part of what was happening, at least. And some of them were her friends, and there were Rules. Which reminded her: she hadn’t actually seen Marissa in a while, and they still had a conversation to finish. She’d said they would, after all. Rule Number Three. Autumn set the pair of mugs on the counter as Cassie came prowling back in through the door where Devin had just departed. Leaving the coffee for a moment, the vibrant redhead peered out through the kitchen door, catching sight of the gymnast as he headed toward the insanely expensive motorcycle he drove like a lunatic down the backroads of Shelly. “Hey,” she called, stepping out onto the porch and jogging down the steps after him. “Hey, did your sister leave? We were talking, and then training, and pizza, and-“ Hesitating, she shrugged. “You know. She just didn’t say goodbye, so.” Left unspoken was the implicit, “…so I wanted to make sure nothing happened.” “Oh, yeah, she’s fine.” Pulling his shirt down over his head, Devin shot a quick smile in her direction, a glimpse of white teeth that flashed and disappeared. “She text me not long ago, said Mom called her home for an errand or something. Now that we have our licenses, we get to do all the running they don’t feel like doing. She did dart out in a hurry, so chances are Mom pissed her off, don’t take it personally.” “Cool, cool,” she nodded. “I’ll text her later, then. So, listen. DeeJay.” She smiled a little, fleetingly, at the use of the nickname. “You didn’t have to help out this morning, or go to the Rez. But you did. And…” Autumn drew in a deep breath, sighing as she dipped her head briefly in concession. “It was nice not to have to do it by myself. So, thanks.” Squinting slightly at him in the bright light, her blue eyes narrowed and the freckles across her nose crinkled together in another unique, utterly singular pattern of bronze specks. “I mean it. Having you guys there helped a lot.” “Anytime, Granola.” He shrugged dismissively, as though it was no big deal. “I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m trying to be as good of a friend as I can be, even if some don’t want me as one. I’m not saying I blame them, but, y’know, if you need me, for anything, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll be there in a…” He smirked. “A flash.” That earned him a roll of her eyes as the expressive redhead returned the smirk with one of her own, a crooked half-smile that tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Mhmm. I’ll… keep that in mind, yeah. Anyway. See you tomorrow.” It was a statement, not a question; whatever else she expected of Devin, if anything at all, it apparently didn’t involve him bailing on them last minute. “Yeah, see ya,” he replied with a quick wave, turning back to the sleek Ducati as Autumn headed back up the porch steps and into the crowded kitchen. Maneuvering around the table where Tawny was carefully inspecting the contents of Jason’s backpack, she made a bee-line back to the coffee maker. It wasn’t a terrible idea, she reflected as she filled both mugs, leaving one pristine and pitch-black and profaning the other with sugar, followed by a splash of cream she got from the fridge. It would be easy enough to put something together that would keep her going for a couple of days, at least; it would just take a little re-shuffling of the supplies she’d taken to the Old Town Hall the previous night. Mentally, she ticked off the list of changes she would need to make, picking up the pair of mugs and turning just as Jase descended the stairs. He moved, as always, with the economy of motion and accompanying stealth that had startled and unsettled her on so many occasions, and only the warning flash of movement she caught from the corner of her eye prevented a scalding hot, highly-caffeinated disaster. Mother fucker, she swore inwardly as her heart leapt into her throat, a rueful grin curving her lips. If they were going to be spending more time together, she’d have to put a bell on him, or something. Christ. But where, exactly, would you put it? The thought was enough to send a tingling rush of pink flooding up into her cheeks from somewhere farther south, and as the cool green of his eyes met her warmer blue ones, Autumn held up the coffee she’d poured for him. An offering. A gesture of… something. Of what, exactly, she wasn’t sure, but it seemed appropriate. “Thanks,” he murmured, his gaze intent on her face, which seemed to her more feverish by the moment. “Mhmm,” she managed, even as her internal voice screamed at her to just freaking kiss him already. Was one word supposed to sound so… so… hot? Ugh. He was just thanking her for the coffee, for crying out loud, but- But then his fingertips were warm on hers as he took the cup, even that incidental contact sparking a sudden flicker of something galvanic down her spine. Autumn could feel herself leaning up, drawn toward the inscrutable young man as if by some new form of gravity, and then- “Excuse me, Jason Bannon. According to my sources, you're offering something called 'airplanes.' Can you comment on that?" The cheerful blonde seer swept around the table with a triumphant grin, having finally tracked down her elusive prey. “I’ve decided to write a companion piece to my main story.”
  9. Pressing her heels into the floor, Autumn got to her feet with a quiet huff of effort and stretched, luxuriating in the elongation of idle limbs and arching up onto her toes as she reached skyward. Her fingertips lingered on the coarse fabric encasing the spine of the slim volume as she, relaxing, slid it carefully back into place; it would have to stay here with the others, for now, until she could figure out what to do with them. The contents of the remaining envelope, still unopened on the desk blotter, were to be read with her mother- “together,” the other letter had specified, along with something about instructions to be followed. Maybe it held the yellowed deed to the lost mine they’d imagined, or the combination to the secret shelter beneath the memorial, or something even stranger... Or maybe it was just a practical list of what Owen had wanted saved and sold, along with a mundane explanation for why he’d kept the Dark and the cancer a secret- something he’d never given them when he was alive. Maybe something he couldn’t have given them, then. Would she have believed him, though, if he’d tried? Before Friday, if someone had told her what she now knew about Shelly, about their family history and the Crockers’ as well, would it have mattered- even if that someone had been her grandfather? She mulled that over, making another circuit around the office. Hm. No, probably not; they wouldn’t have had proof. Before Jason Freaking Bannon and Clara Wright had cornered her in the girls’ bathroom, scared the hell out of her, and casually dismantled what she’d thought she’d known about reality, she would’ve probably laughed it off, wouldn’t she? Maybe assumed they were teasing her or had taken some of the local stories a little too seriously. According to what Nathan had suggested, that had more or less been her mom’s reaction at her age, and it was a perfectly rational response to irrational claims; after all, if something could be asserted without evidence, it could just as easily be dismissed in the same way. Now that she knew the truth, of course, there was no going back to the Autumn of an hour ago, or the day before, or last week. ...And the more she learned, the more she realized how very little she’d actually known. The better she could see the road that lay behind her, the less she recognized the one that now stretched under her feet, vanishing over the horizon as it wound toward… what? It was unsettling, in a way. Disorienting. Like the unexpected shift of a compass needle, the slow creep of fog across a well-worn path, the alien arrangement of stars in a once-familiar sky. Even if she hadn’t been totally sure where she was going, hadn’t even really made plans for what to do after graduation yet, life had always seemed reassuringly straightforward. Not easy, but at least generally comprehensible. Now she couldn’t even say with certainty that reality itself was real. But, honestly, so what? This was the universe she lived in, now. It was terrifying and it was strange, even exhilarating in some ways, but her grandfather and generations of Kavanaghs had lived in it, too, hadn’t they? And they’d done it without the benefit of nascent powers, or allies who shared them. It hadn’t been in her grandfather’s nature to turn away from the things that made him uncomfortable or afraid, and she’d like to believe it wasn’t in hers, either. Besides- She closed the cabinet doors, reminded of the brief conversation she’d had with Gar Bannon at the hospital. The only thing that had changed, really, was her understanding of the world. Not the world itself. Knowing that these monsters were out there didn’t change the fact that they’d been there before, that all of this had already happened, over and over again. Still, it had to mean something, right? That she, out of all her ancestors with all their stories chronicled on the bookshelf over there, had the ‘Dawning Light.’ The journals and the bracelets and the Blackfeet, the roots of a family tree grown so deep into Shelly’s soil that they were almost one and the same- even her mother, who was brilliant and beautiful and could’ve had a career and a life and a family anywhere else, ended up coming home, as if it couldn’t have happened any other way. Even if it was something the Man in Black had engineered or designed somehow, and even if she had no idea what she was doing or could do in all of this, it still felt… right, somehow, that it should be her? Appropriate? Hmmm. No, not exactly. More… Her gaze fell on a faded map, framed and hanging on the wall, pensive blue eyes tracing the flow of rivers which branched off into tributaries and smaller streams but always found their way to the ocean, in the end. More… Inevitable. Huh. At least as inevitable as the fact that she was going to read that second letter, the impetuous teen decided after a few moments of contemplation, not bothering to take a seat this time as deft fingers withdrew the crisp handwritten missive from its envelope. The first one hadn’t said that it needed to be read exclusively together with her mother, after all, and something in it might be useful, and she was already here anyway, and surely Grandpa wouldn’t mind. Right? Right. Of course. Why would he? “To my darling Dana and my dearest Autumn.” Even softly murmured in the quiet of the hidden study, even though it was the second she’d read and even in her own voice, the words stretched back across the days and months until she could almost hear him, warmth and love and a little humor resonating under the habitual gruffness. Suddenly the chair looked a lot more appealing, its smooth wooden arms welcoming as she sank back down into the comforting solidity of its embrace. “If everything has gone right, you have been brought this letter by the person who opened my den door. Dana, I know it’d likely have been you that went to clean out the house, and I’m sorry none of the keys worked. That was a little medicine from my friend Laughing Joe, whom you likely don’t remember too fondly. Suffice to say that no-one normal could have opened the door. Only someone blessed by the Dawning Light.” Hmm. Her eyes drifted upward unconsciously, unfocused. That was going to be tricky to explain, wasn’t it? Either she’d need to lie and say that someone else had given her the letters, and then keep lying to build up the rest of the story about who they were and where they’d gone- stupidly complicated and awkward and definitely not her preferred option- or admit that she’d been the one to get them. Which… On reflection, that might not be so bad, maybe? If her mom didn’t believe in any of this craziness, and it absolutely was craziness, then a rational explanation for the key just coincidentally working could be found. Perhaps something had settled or shifted, the change of temperature or humidity or something like that finally being just right. Her mom would find a way to make events fit her view of the world. If she did believe, though, what would that mean? After the fight on Tuesday, Dana had been freaked out enough to tell her dad, and the two of them had actually grounded her. Which was also craziness in that it was pretty much unprecedented, even if it hadn’t changed much in a practical sense (apart from, maybe, not being able to follow through on her plans to show Jason the campsite over the weekend). What would her reaction to finding out about the Dark and the Fellowship be, if she thought it was all true? She’d probably send me off to that convent in Eastern Europe she’s been threatening to call up for the last couple of years. “I know, I know. ‘That old tale again.’ I can hear your sharp tongue scolding me, daughter mine. Set aside my silly obsession with local legends and just accept this - I love you with all my heart, you and Autumn both.” Unexpectedly, her voice faltered, cracking at the sound of her own name. No. No, no. Not yet. Drawing in a lungful of the faintly fragrant air, she steadied herself, delaying the inevitable for a few moments longer. “And from that love, and from where I now watch over you, I’m asking you to do a thing for me.” “You are both Kavanagh women by blood. I want one or, better yet both of you to take the talisman bundle the person who delivers this letter brings you and, pricking your fingers, dab some of your blood on it.” Autumn blinked, grimacing a little as she glanced up at the odd assortment of beads, feathers, and claws. “Stop wrinkling your noses, girls.” The unerring prediction caught her by surprise, and she made a choked, startled sound that would, under any other circumstances, have been actual laughter. “This is my last request, penned by my hand, and I will be scowling at you if you refuse it. Once that’s done, hang the bundle high up in your home, out of the way over a door or a window on the inside. Any door, any window, doesn’t matter. And then you can forget about it until you move house, in which case do it again especially, and I mean this, if you still live within Toole County.” Sunday, she told herself. Sunday, after we go to the Reservation. I'll talk to her then. “Do this not because you believe as I believe, but out of love and respect for my wishes. For I love you both and want nothing more than to rest easy knowing my family are safe as I can make them.” The rest, she couldn’t bring herself to say aloud: With More Love Than My Heart Can Hold Pa / Grandpa Owen It was strange, the power those lines penned in blue ink held. The words themselves were oddly formal, proper, even in the one addressed to family, as if he were being very conscious of getting them exactly right. To anyone else who might’ve found them, they would’ve meant nothing- a set of requests and instructions from one stranger to another, with all the emotional content of a dictionary entry or shopping list. To the young girl who’d stepped through the doorway into that little room and simultaneously onto a road winding toward invisible horizons both ahead and behind, they were the sure stroke of a surgeon’s scalpel and the balm after. As she replaced the letter with trembling fingers, the dam against which her emotions had been building suddenly broke, washing away all thought of history, legend, and her place in the world in the swift and onrushing tide of bitter tears and great, wrenching sobs. Later that evening, with the room locked again, Autumn trudged back upstairs through the house that was and wasn't hers to put the borrowed tools away; the ride home was quiet as only time spent enveloped in noise could be, wind and engine and thoughts insulating her as she drove, feeling utterly drained. Later still, after the conversation with her mother about the fight on Tuesday, and after replacing the keys on the hook next to the phone downstairs and rummaging through her closet, her nightstands, and finally her desk, Autumn managed to unearth a blank notebook patterned with white and yellow flowers. It didn’t look at all like the ones on the shelf in the other house, of course, but that was fine; it was hers, after all, not theirs, although she, too, was writing for someone she might never meet. “It all started with a door,” she began, and then paused, thinking of the numerous literal and metaphorical thresholds crossed since the week before, and the multitude she’d not yet encountered. That they, she corrected herself mentally, hadn’t yet encountered. With a faint, slightly crooked smile, she lowered the pen once more to the page. “But, I guess it always does. Doesn’t it?”
  10. [[Devin.]] The redhead frowned and stretched out her hand toward him. The spot where her fingertips made contact with his bare skin throbbed briefly, a sharp, burning sensation as if he’d been stung by a wasp, or accidentally touched bare metal left in the summer sun too long. …But that was all. A momentary flash of discomfort that appeared from nowhere and vanished almost as suddenly. “Is that it?” He shook his head in disappointment, brows arrowing together in a disparaging frown. “Seriously? C’mon, Granola. You can do better than that. A bee sting’s not gonna stop whatever Cody’s turned into. Don’t half-ass it. Think of this as your chance to get back at me for three years of giving you shit.” He tapped his chest again, regarding her with an air of open challenge. “Let’s go. I’m right here.” Autumn exhaled and pressed her hand flat against his skin, her eyes darkening as the wide, deep pools of her pupils expanded. Devin’s impressive athletic ability was something he’d gained through countless hours of grueling effort, of trial and error. He knew what it felt like to fail spectacularly until he finally got something right, and he’d had his fair share of sprains and pulled muscles and bad falls; the pain he experienced at the instant she touched him a second time outstripped all of them. It forced the air from his lungs as his diaphragm collapsed, and then so did he, crumpling like wet paper, folding in on himself gracelessly, helplessly. He hit his knees, breathless as blinding, unrelenting torment spread like wildfire from his solar plexus through his chest, setting off alarms all throughout his brain that whatever this was, it was going to kill him. He was going to die, he felt sure- even as his rational, logical mind reassured him that he’d been here before and in just a few seconds the feeling would ease, that he’d just had the wind knocked out of him and it would be fine. Except, it wasn’t fine, not at all. The feeling didn’t subside. He could only suck in tiny breaths in hitches and spasms as his eyes watered and the world blurred around the edges with bright sparks dancing in his field of vision and his stomach kept heaving but nothing happened and the only sounds he could make were guttural animal moans because there was no air and maybe he was going to die right there on the grass at Jason Bannon’s farm twitching like a beetle on its back and had he ever made anyone else feel like this and there were so many girls he’d never gotten to see naked and Tee was gonna look terrible in black and why wasn’t it stopping? It should have stopped, or lessened, or at the very least he should’ve passed out by now, but no. Stubbornly, consciousness persisted. The feeling of being unable to breathe persisted. The pain persisted, without diminishing and without respite. Agony and horror intermingled in the chaotic tumble of his thoughts as the interminable moments passed: he really was going to die. Except he wasn’t. And that was, for just a moment, the worst possible thing he could imagine. “-ey, …evi… …re …ou okay? Devin!” And then he was aware of Autumn kneeling beside him on the grass, her hands on his shoulders, shaking him, and it was over. Just like that, it was done, as if it had never happened, except that he was lying on the ground with the bitter, acrid taste of bile on his tongue, and the eyes that had looked at him with such reproach only a few minutes before were rimmed in red. [[Autumn.]] Okay, so he wasn’t going to teleport away, so… What was she supposed to do? She didn’t really have to injure him or anything, obviously; he just needed to know what she was capable of, so he could give her advice. That was all. It was fine. No big deal. Like Jason had said, there was nothing inherently malicious in it, and Devin wasn’t a threat to anything but her sanity. It’s fine. Stretching out her hand toward him, Autumn concentrated on that faint sensation of something streaming beneath her skin that was like, and yet not like blood, too intangible to be seen but nevertheless hot and bright in her mind’s eye. She touched his chest, bare fingertips on bare skin, and through that tentative contact felt the physical totality of Devin, the strange impression of movement that she’d felt when she’d hugged him in the hospital, as if he were only partially- or, no, intermittently- occupying the space she could perceive. As her awareness of his essential energy, his vitality sharpened, a flicker of that luminous scarlet Shine reached through her fingers and into the currents of his life, uncoiling in slender filaments that rasped across his nerves. He flinched and she recoiled reflexively, breaking the connection. “Is that it?” Devin grimaced a little and shook his head scornfully, eyes narrowing as she withdrew. “Seriously? C’mon, Granola. You can do better than that. A bee sting’s not gonna stop whatever Cody’s turned into. Don’t half-ass it. Think of this as your chance to get back at me for three years of giving you shit.” Squaring his shoulders, the gymnast smacked an open palm against his chest. “Let’s go. I’m right here.” Autumn exhaled. He was right. He’d asked to see what she could do, and, yeah, she’d technically shown him, but… But not for real. She wouldn’t have the option to pull metaphorical punches with Cody, or any of the other creatures serving the Dark. Right. Okay. She reached out again, pressing her hand flat against his chest, just beneath the breastbone. Again she could sense the blood and bone and sinew that made up his form, the strengths and frailties of the flesh, but this time she let his invocation of the torment and harassment he’d inflicted shape the expression of her power. It was shockingly, almost shamefully easy, the redhead realized, to bring that unresolved anger to the surface; where emotion met essence the sanguine energy flared bright, surging in rich crimson streams through her veins and the physical/spiritual connection of skin on skin to crash furiously, gratifyingly into him like an invisible wave of resentment and pain- And then he folded, dark eyes wide with shock and already welling with tears as the brash young teleporter hit the ground. His body curled in on itself, convulsing with the conflicting need to retch violently and draw in air, neither of which were physically possible, and a growing sense of unease washed away the haze of red that had flooded Autumn’s vision. Any second, it would wear off- he’d suck in a deep breath, maybe laugh, and say something stupid. It would be fine. But as the moments passed, and the gasping turned not to laughter but to guttural, animal wheezing, like a deer with an arrow in its lung, she started to worry. Oh, fuck. What if I really hurt him? A sudden rush of panic lanced down her spine, pushing her forward as she knelt on the grass beside him. Was he messing with her? A quick look at his contorted, reddened features suggested otherwise. Almost frantic now, the fiery young woman rolled Devin onto his side, ran her hands over his back and- No. Nothing was broken, there was nothing actually wrong with him, so why wasn’t he- “Hey, Devin. Hey, stop screwing around, are you okay? Devin!” And then it hit her: There was nothing wrong with him. It was pure sensation, not an injury. There was no way for his brain to cope with that, to compensate for the fact that there was no point of origin, no wound- she had completely bypassed his body’s ability to produce neurochemicals to adjust to pain. What the actual fuck, Autumn? That’s totally- No, no, fuck it, nevermind. Worry about that later. Almost on instinct she reached out, mentally dashing away the connection her touch had forged, and Devin shuddered once, violently, before collapsing onto his back. Shit, shit shit! Oh, fuck, oh god, she swore silently. The world went suddenly liquid as she grabbed his shoulders and tried to pull him up, but her fingers kept slipping on the sheen of sweat that coated his now-flushed skin. Come on, come on, you annoying motherfu- “’m good,” he croaked suddenly, wearily lifting one arm in a shaky thumbs-up as his pupils contracted, focusing on her face. “S’all groovy. Gonna die now.” “Oh, thank fuck,” she breathed aloud, releasing him and sagging backward to sit on her heels as her heart finally slowed its hammering inside her ribs. “Okay, it’s fine, you’re fine. Just, uh. Just try to breathe.” The words could’ve been meant for either of them.
  11. Fondler's First-Aid and Molester's Massacre. Really? That’s fucking hilarious coming from a guy whose powers are all about running away or making himself the center of the world. After those little quips Autumn was roughly two seconds from telling Devin with one finger what she thought of him, but that would defeat the whole purpose of talking to him in the first place, wouldn’t it? God, that was fucking annoying. Exhaling sharply, she pressed the palms of her hands over her eyes, staring into the faint patterns and formless waves of color that overlaid the darkness; it occurred to her after several moments of slow, measured breathing that to him, it probably actually was hilarious. …And she had sort of set the standard herself with the leg-humping comment. So- Fine. Whatever. "Spooked?" She took one more deep breath and let her hands fall back to her sides, considering what she’d seen of the teleporter himself as much as the actual words he'd used. "No. Not 'spooked.' I don't have nightmares. I don't wake up in cold sweats. I'm not afraid that I’m going to lose control and accidentally turn everybody inside out, or anything like that. What's holding me back from using them is knowing how to use them.” Squinting a little, she tugged at the end of the fiery braid draped over her shoulder, looking out at the broad sweep of open fields behind Devin as the sun glared down. “Jase gave me some really good ideas on how to practice the actual powers themselves, which will definitely make learning how they actually work and what the limits are a lot easier. Plants don’t move, though, and they don’t fight back, and everything the Dark throws at us sure as hell does. That’s why I’m talking to you, and you can either help me with that, or you can’t.” “Look, I get that you have seen some shit, and you’re trying to be less of a monster than the things out there that want to eat our faces. Awesome. I am here for it, one hundred percent.” The ocean-hued eyes that had been dark and tempestuous in the loft were calmer now, her gaze clear and direct as she levelled it at the former bully. “But this whole Broda vibe you’ve got going on right now isn’t working for me. We’re not at the point in…” She gestured vaguely with one cinnamon-speckled hand, indicating the space between them. “Whatever this is… that I’m ready to talk to you about feels. Hell, your sister and I are supposed to be best friends, and I’m not even sure we’re there yet. So, if you really want to know what I can do, all right. I’ll show you. Well,” she amended with a one-shouldered shrug. “Part of it, anyway.”
  12. "Hey. Leg-humper." Brushing clumps of melting snow from her hair as she eyed the ravaged pizza boxes, Autumn nudged the back of Devin’s knee with her foot. As greetings went it wasn’t exactly the friendliest, but there was a measure of esprit de corps in its delivery that wouldn’t have been present a week earlier; a week earlier, she probably wouldn’t even have bothered greeting him at all. Funny how a few near-death experiences and waking nightmares could help put things in perspective. Fate, or chance, or whatever had conspired to throw them all together, headfirst, into uncharted waters to see if they could swim. And here she was, paddling alongside them as they fought to stay afloat, to survive the oncoming tide- whatever that was. Things were definitely changing, and not always for the best, but… That’s the nature of things, to change. They have to, don’t they? “’Sup, Granola?” The still-shirtless gymnast looked up from the somewhat thankless task of condensing the remains of the pizzas they’d maimed and mangled into one box, shooting a sidelong smirk in her direction. “And, uh, last I checked you’ve got two legs.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively, and Autumn wasn’t sure which Devin was more obnoxious: the one who’d snapped her bra and ruined her chances with Tom Winslow the year before, or the one who now flirted with every pair of XX chromosomes he met. “Both of which I will use to kick your ass,” she threatened without real conviction, cursing silently as she felt the warning signs of an angry flush warming her cheeks. Maybe his super-power wasn’t finding pizza places- maybe it was being annoying. Or both. Could it be both? The redhead snatched a slice of 5-Cheese from the box in his hands and tore off a bite with mock-ferocity. Devin’s grin only broadened as he slid up next to her, his free arm slipping easily, casually around her shoulders; with or without a boyfriend in the picture, the fast-talking teleporter was a menace to female-kind. “Ooooh.” He feigned a shiver and leaned closer, balancing the pizza in his other hand. “You know, that’s not usually my thing, but keep talkin’. Let’s see where this goes.” Fuck’s sake, Autumn. This is already a bad idea. And, obviously it was, which was part of the reason she felt compelled to do it in the first place. Shrugging the arm off as she glanced heavenward, the spirited teen finished her mouthful of cheesy, melty deliciousness and turned to face him directly. “I want you to help me with something. Have you got a minute?” There was visible tension between her eyebrows now, the residual playfulness following her ill-advised teasing of their resident phytophile fading fast. “Hey, look.” Devin slowly shook his head, spreading his hands in the iconic gesture that begged understanding. “If this is about you and Jason, I just wanna say that I totally get where you’re coming from, and I’d love to help, but my heart’s in kind of a vulnerable place right now.” He paused, biting his lip and affecting a pained expression as he gazed at her with soulful, liquid brown eyes. “I just don’t think I’m ready to be hurt again.” Just eat your pizza. Eat. Your fucking. Pizza. She did. Swallowing her pride along with her food, Autumn took two more bites as intangible flames crept up the sides of her face, painting her skin in scarlet. It was fine. Totally fine. “Devin. I’m being serious,” she finally managed. “Like, Dark-fighting serious.” He blinked at her then, owlishly, and shrugged. “You know, you could’ve just opened with that.” As she stared at him, uncomprehending, that sly, smarmy grin reappeared on the former bully’s lips, and she tossed her half-eaten crust at him in indignation. “Oh my fucking god, Devin, so help me-“ “Chill, chill,” he laughed, holding up his hands to ward off further pizza-related violence. “I’m just messin’ with you. Relax, girl. Damn. You make this way too easy, you know that?” “Uggggghhh.” The versatile subvocalization, one the red-haired vitakinetic frequently employed, was in this case a low, elongated groan of frustration at the back of her throat. Sure, there were other people who could help her, but that wasn’t the point here. “Fine. I want help learning how to do what you and Jase did.” It was Devin’s turn to frown, then, forgetting for the moment how satisfying it had always been to get a rise out of her. “I don’t know if I can teach you how to do what I do,” he hedged, “and you know if you want to hear about fire and ice and all that you should talk to Jaybee.” “No, not that!” She shook her head, bending to collect the empty pizza boxes as the wave of crimson surging beneath her skin began to gradually abate. The mindless gathering gave her something to do and, potentially, something to throw, so helping out seemed like a win-win situation. “I mean more like the actual fight. You seemed like you knew what you were doing.” “Ohhh, you mean the sparring? ‘Cause I’m not gonna lie, were were just kinda making all that up as we went.” She glanced back over her shoulder as she worked, lips pursed in obvious skepticism, but Devin just shrugged and grinned. “Hmm.” Picking up another demolished scrap of cardboard, Autumn tossed it into the growing pile. It definitely hadn’t seemed improvised at the time; at some points, she’d wondered if they were fighting for real, or for practice. For those two, it could’ve been both, maybe. “Okay, well, I mean, watching you guys… I just thought it was sorta cool. You both seem so comfortable with your powers, like they’re just a regular part of your lives, y’know? I thought you might be able to help me figure out what to do if- when something happens. Or like, when we go deal with Cody.” Guiding the last box onto the pile with the side of her foot, she peered across the jumble of grease and corrugation, watching Jason and Lilly for a moment before turning back to the pizza-bearer. “I don’t want to be in the way,” she admitted. “And I don’t want anybody else to get hurt because of me, so I need to be able to do more than just… I don’t know. Kick a football player in the knee and yell.” “So why are you asking me, instead of him?” Devin jerked his head in the direction she’d been looking, setting the one remaining box aside and bracing his hands on his hips. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really mind either way, but you aren’t exactly a founding member of my fan club.” He paused, then added, not-quite smirking, “And I’d know if you were, ‘cause Tee would’ve told me. She’s the president.” “Mmm.” She pulled the hair-tie from her wrist, gazing off into the distance as nimble fingers wove the chaotic tangle of red-gold curls into a thick braid and secured it in place. Things did have to change. “A bunch of different reasons, I guess. I don’t like the idea of depending one person for everything, and he has things he wants to do, too. Can’t be all over him all the time.” She grinned a little at that, a new wash of pale pink warming her cheeks as she shrugged one shoulder. “Plus, he makes it, um, hard to concentrate. Also plus, if I’m gonna be hanging out with your sister, you and I should probably get used to each other.“
  13. “Hmm.” Autumn’s eyebrows knit together as she turned the thought over in her head, absently reaching up with one hand to rest her bronze-flecked fingers on Jason’s. She’d really only thought of how her powers applied to ‘life’ in the context of animals and people; humans could obviously be kind of a grey area because they had things like higher logic and the free will to make decisions, but the idea of intentionally hurting a creature who couldn’t even understand why it was in pain made her stomach churn. The concept was antithetical to everything she’d ever been taught about hunting, and about being a good steward of the land and its resources. Or even, she believed, about just being a good person in general. Not everyone agreed, of course. She remembered the two very different, very traumatized cats they’d removed from Crossroads, and the girl’s thoughtful frown deepened. Plants, though? Unless by some weird twist of fate the old memes about screaming trees turned out to be true, she couldn’t think of a single argument against it. There were plenty of subjects in an impossible variety of configurations, each with unique characteristics but all following the same general pattern. They didn’t have any kind of nervous system to experience pain- or at least not beyond a really broad interpretation of the word. They were also readily available: all she had to do was walk outside. Okay, yeah. That actually does make sense. And if it turns out I really can affect them with my powers, what else could I do? “I hadn’t thought about using plants for practice. Huh. I guess it seems kind of obvious in retrospect, doesn’t it? At least for the parts that could actually hurt someone.” The contemplative furrow in her brow smoothed and she grinned broadly up at the oft-distant young man, stroking the back of his hand with her fingertips. “Thanks for that. I should probably revise my definition of living organisms in this context, then, all things considered. Expand it, even. If I can affect plants, who knows? Maybe bacteria, or microbes. Viruses. Oh!” Brightening suddenly, the energetic redhead beamed up at him , bouncing excitedly on the balls of her feet. “Oh, we should try that! At school, or something, in one of the labs. Not with a virus, or at least not until we know what we’re doing, ‘cause that could be a real fucking bad day for everybody, but other things! Just to see what happens. Like, holy shit,” she breathed, an undercurrent of mingled awe and laughter in her voice as an entire realm of possibilities opened up. “What if I could reprogram bacteria, or change what diseases plants are resistant to, or make a virus that eats cancer cells? And there’s no ethical issue with seeing if any of it works, is there? Fuck, you are a genius,” Autumn exclaimed, leaning up on her tiptoes and pressing her lips to Jason’s in a brief, but earnest kiss that sent a ripple of warmth humming through her veins. “You, Professor Bannon, are the literal best. Thank you. And thank you for suggesting the plant idea.” Taking a few steps backward, she tucked her hair behind her ears and smiled up at him, the light of fey mischief shining in her sun-bright eyes. “Speaking of… I’m gonna head back to the barn. Y’know. Maybe get some practice in. Catch up with you later?” With a wink the copper-crowned teen turned, and, laughing, fled for her life.
  14. Of all the members of the Fellowship, Jase was the one person she was least worried about telling. Not because they were dating, but because he was a friend. She was also sure- okay, mostly sure- that it wouldn’t change his opinion of her much, and completely sure that he wouldn’t freak out, because freaking out wasn’t a thing Jason Bannon did. That was more a reaction he inspired in other people. Cassie would probably be horrified, and Marissa would call her a serial killer in the making or something, and neither of those responses were particularly helpful. Honest, yeah, but not helpful. Right. Start with what you want, first. Then explain. “Okay,” she began, inhaling as she planted her feet solidly in the soft, grassy earth. “So, I need help figuring out how to train. The first time I ever used my powers to heal someone was you, in that conference room. And the first time I ever used them to make someone… better, I guess? Improve them? Was Devin, when we went to the prison afterward, because helping you kind of pushed me to keep trying other things. But neither of those was the actual first time. That happened earlier, when those two guys went after you in the hall.” She paused, lower lip once more between her teeth as she worked to formulate her thoughts, to arrange sensory impressions and adrenaline-clouded memories of that day into a coherent narrative. “It’s not that I was trying to do it. I didn’t even know I could. When- what’s-his-name, Mark or whatever- when I pushed him to get him off you, and he grabbed my arm, he was going to break it. I could actually feel it happening, y’know? I was scared, and it fucking hurt, and it just sort of-“ Her voice, which had risen slightly, broke off as she took another deep breath. “So, I hurt him back. Not like an injury, just… pain, until reflexes kicked in and he jerked away.” “Curtis, too, the one who ended up in the hospital. At the time he probably felt like he’d never walk again, because that’s honestly what I wanted him to feel. He hurt my friend, he hurt me, and I wanted him to know what that was like. I wanted to make him stop. So when I ended up kicking him and dislocating his knee, I made it a lot more painful than it should’ve been, hoping he’d just stay the hell down.” God, I sound like a fucking nutcase. Jesus. Autumn frowned and reached up to drag a hand back through the remains of what was once a ponytail of some kind, sighing. And it only gets better from here, the sarcastic retort surfaced, unbidden. “It’s not just that, though,” she admitted softly, the ocean-hued eyes that gazed up at him murky with uncertainty. “I could feel how to make it worse. How to splinter and tear and sever everything so that it would always just be a- a mess of meat and bone fragments, and it would’ve been easy. All I had to do was touch him. And that was just his knee.” For a moment, the restless young woman left it at that. She held one hand out, peering at the neat, short nails, the freckles and tiny scars, and the faint greenish-blue network of dorsal veins and arteries as if she might be able to see the energy moving there just beneath the skin. And then she caught sight of Jason between her widespread fingers and smiled a little, shoulders twitching up in a shrug as she met his eyes. “I still don’t know how I feel about that, to be honest, and I’ve thought about it a lot. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I have pretty much zero guilt where those two are concerned, because they would’ve done a lot worse. But I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t freak me out a little. Like, I know that there’s no such thing as life without pain, or death, and it would be stupid to think otherwise. And I know it’s not the only thing I can do. But even if it’s not the only thing, it’s still a thing, and I don't know what to do with it. Especially with everything that’s happened, and Cody, and the Dark. That’s why I haven’t told anybody yet. And, yeah,” she acknowledged with a tilt of her head, “maybe that’s unfair, but there’s a difference in having powers that could be used to hurt people and having powers that are meant to, and I can pretty much guess how they’re going to react.” “Fuck," she swore suddenly, pressing the heels of her hands to her forehead with a laugh. "Why do I always end up talking so much when I tell you stuff?”
  15. Grinning as she childishly stuck her tongue out at the pretty blonde, Autumn turned and reached up to push Jase's hair back from his forehead, running her fingers admiringly through the wet strands. She could feel the water seeping through her t-shirt and the denim on her thighs as she lingered there, but, really: So what? She still hadn’t completely dried off from the water fight with Cassie earlier, anyway. In lieu of a kiss, the lively young woman smiled back up into those luminous green eyes and mouthed a single word: Amazing, before sinking back down onto her heels. And it was. And he was, or so every atom of her being seemed to sing when he was nearby, like… ‘like billions of tiny stars in the dark.’ It wasn’t until she took a half-step back, reluctantly complying with Cass’s simultaneously totally reasonable and also completely stupid and unfair prohibition, that she really, truly realized that more than just Jase’s shirt was drenched. And water could be heavy. And… something, something science. Probably. “Um,” she managed eloquently, as every bit of the sun’s thermal output suddenly seemed focused on her face, heating her skin until she wondered if her fiery hair might literally ignite this time. It wasn’t just that he’d gotten wet during his unplanned trip to the pool- it was the way the water droplets clung to his lips, the way the sheen of it glistened on his skin and adhered the translucent white cotton of his shirt to the lean form beneath, the way tiny rivulets of it trailed down his exposed hipbones as the waistband of his sweatpants dipped perilously, thrillingly, distractingly low. It probably wouldn’t take much at all to- Focus, Autumn. Oh. Oh, I am. I really, really- Not on THAT! She blinked, inhaling suddenly as her lungs protested the lack of oxygen. Suddenly, Marissa’s insistence that he was going to kill her one day made sense, because Autumn was pretty sure he’d already done it half a dozen times in the last week alone. “So that’s, um,” she tried again, waving a hand in the general direction of Jason’s stomach as she struggled to look anywhere else but at him. “Really distracting. And we’re supposed to be focusing on Fellowship stuff. And I will definitely not be able to concentrate if you’re walking around like that for the rest of the afternoon. And neither will anyone else with a pulse. And… I swear there was something I needed to talk to you about, training-related, but I don’t think I can have a conversation with you right now. Like that.” Blushing furiously, the animated redhead tucked her hands into her pockets and wished that Devin would likewise drop her into a pool of cold water somewhere.
  16. Autumn had tensed a little when Lilly nonchalantly strolled up to the group- as if the Amazonian football player hadn't totally ghosted them for a week while everything went to Hell. As if she hadn't 'abandoned her friends' with some lame excuse like not having a phone, and hadn't just conveniently forgotten to tell people she was leaving for several days while the Dark was actively trying to kill people. To kill them. So when Cassie ran up and hugged the latecomer, the clear, candid blue eyes that watched the cheery reunion weren't exactly alight with the same enthusiasm. Instead, she returned Lilly's general verbal greeting with its casual kinetic equivalent- a brief upward jerk of her chin- and went back to finishing off her last (no, seriously this time) slice of pizza. In fact, she decided, stuffing the last bit of garlic-buttered crust into her mouth with a satisfied hum and licking the remnants from her fingers, finding good pizza places might be Devin's actual super-power. She was just about to tell him so when the elder Jauntsen got up and announced that he was going to loosen up for a- "Match?" she asked, glancing quizzically at the laconic youth lounging next to her on the warm grass. He nodded, watching for a moment as Devin and the two beautiful social mavens left the little circle, and then returning his gaze to the girl whose arm was still draped companionably around him. "Devin and I agreed that it would be wise to test some potential applications of our powers," Jason explained as comprehension dawned on her freckled features. "A friendly spar." "Yeah, that makes sense." Autumn nodded, pursing her lips as she peered off in the direction Devin and the others had gone, squinting against the light. "Well," she continued, turning back to him with a grin as she shifted a little onto one hip and fished a small cloth-wrapped bundle from her pocket. "If you're going into battle against the Evil Queen's knight, should I give you my favor to wear?" His answer was a slight smile and a nod, pale green eyes lambent in the golden glow of the afternoon, as he offered up his forearm; her whole face brightened at that, all sun-reddened cheeks and the suggestion of dimples at the corners of her mouth as she laughed. Unwrapping the lustrous coppery bracelet within, the redhead took Jason's outstretched hand in hers, slipping the etched band around his wrist with a reverence that was only partially in jest. "I'd give you a kiss for luck, too, but I don't think you need it," she teased softly, squeezing his fingers briefly before releasing them. "How about a kiss for reasons other than luck?" he asked quietly, his gaze warm with firefly glints. Autumn felt the blush rise with her smile. "So long as 'because I want to' is a valid reason..?" she said, leaning in and pressing her lips to his, feeling him respond as his hand gently caressed her cheek. "The best reason." he said softly as the kiss broke. Autumn felt like she'd never stop smiling, and shoved at his shoulder playfully. "Go kick his ass." she mostly-joked. Mostly.
  17. As the initial round of exercises drew to a close, Autumn glanced down at the head of the sleeping princess still resting against shoulder. It would almost have been endearing, except for the fact that she was thirsty and it felt like if she didn’t get up and do something she was going to start putting down roots. “C’mon. No falling asleep,” she admonished, shrugging the exhausted brunette off and ignoring the sullen glower directed her way. Despite her grumbled protestations, Marissa managed to sit up with the help of a steadying hand, scowling like a petulant child as the redhead brushed the grass from her dark hair. It was a surprisingly familiar gesture, one that carried a faint sensation of warmth as the Girl Scout’s freckled fingers smoothed the disheveled sable tresses. “Finish that water up, and if you feel all right after that, we can go over what happened. With the attunement, I mean” she added after a moment’s pause, considering everything that had been said, and how angry she’d felt, and how nice it was to just be for a minute. No point revisiting that just yet. “The rest… That can wait. I’m gonna go grab something else to drink. Don’t try to get up too fast, okay?” Stretching as she stood, Autumn sighed and briskly dusted bits of grass and dirt from her jeans and hoodie before tightening the knotted arms around her waist. She’d have to go back to the barn for another bottle, since she was pretty sure sharing anything wasn’t part of Marissa’s “Girl Code”… at least, if her reaction to Tawny borrowing a shirt was any indication. On the other hand… Autumn found herself turning, blue eyes unconsciously following the long, easy strides that carried Jason into the center of the rough clearing. …there was a long, cool drink of water not too far away, and it was hot out in the field. Yep. The thirst is definitely real. It must have been the sun. Obviously. In fact, she was feeling a little feverish just thinking about it, she realized, taking a step forward as she licked suddenly dry lips. And… It was probably okay to actually think about it a little more seriously now, right? They were dating, regardless of the reason, and regardless of whether Cassie or Marissa or anyone else liked it. Mari had also been adamant about her lack of interest in him, so there was no good reason not to take her at her word. Probably. Which also meant that she didn’t really have to think about it anymore; if, as the diva herself had said, Jase was now her “problem,” that made however other people felt about it their problem. Right? Autumn could feel the unbidden smile on her lips as she crossed the open ground toward the others, and the slow suffusion of crimson in her sun-warmed cheeks, just as she always did where he was concerned, but there was something else, too. Something new. She’d told him, and she’d told her mom, and she’d told Cass and now Mari as well, but she hadn’t really made it clear to anyone else, had she? She liked Jason Bannon, whether he was a high-functioning psychopath, or secretly a dragon, or an interdimensional alien, or… whatever. As crazy as it was, as completely foreign as he seemed at times, and as likely as it seemed that at some point this whole mad experiment- or whatever it was- would blow up in her face, this was A Thing. They were A Thing. And instead of just making some awkward announcement, or trying to convince people he wasn’t some kind of leashed wolf just waiting for the chance to bite, well… Actions spoke louder than words. “Hey,” she interjected a greeting as she approached, her Thalassic gaze lingering curiously on the seemingly-new plow and the gamine young woman who’d just turned away, red-faced, a moment before. Had Jason said something that embarrassed her? Admittedly, he did have that effect on people, herself included; there didn’t seem to be much room for middle ground. “Nice ink,” the taller redhead added with an appreciative smile, noting for the first time the swirling tattoo covering Kat’s bare limbs. What she could see was a sort of neo-Celtic design, and clearly part of a much larger work- which was, in itself, an impressive feat for a teenager. Someone paid a lot for that. And then, with a slight tilt of her head as she turned to peer up into those fathomless green pools, Autumn smiled again, all mischief and promise. “I’m thirsty,” she stated matter-of-factly. “Mind if I have some of that?” The tall, imperturbable youth nodded, the pale jade of his eyes warming slightly as he called the water bottle back to hand, and the impish smile became a grin. With a slow shake of her head, Autumn leaned up on tiptoe as her fingers slid along the line of Jason’s jaw, threading through the dark hair at the nape of his neck. “Not that,” she murmured, savoring the sight of the long, slow blink he gave as his brain shifted focus, quickly catching on to her intent. “This.” Her lips brushed against his, gently at first and then more deeply as she felt his hands slip around her waist- and, simultaneously, over her cheeks and through the tousled mass of copper curls that defied the best efforts of the little elastic hair band to contain them. She could just make out a soft feminine gasp- Courtney, maybe? she wondered- but then Jase was kissing her back, was pulling her closer, and everything else seemed mundane and unimportant by comparison. It wasn’t a particularly prolonged kiss; in reality, it lasted only a few moments. It was, however, visibly intense, each focused on the other to the exclusion of all else: the faint scents of smoke and green, growing things that she associated with him; the way her skin warmed under his fingertips; the sound of blood pounding in both their ears like some ancient drum. “Not that I’m complaining, but what was that for?” he asked quietly, eyes intent on hers as they parted, both a little breathless. There were tiny golden fireflies in his gaze, banked embers that smouldered lazily in their depths, and Autumn smiled in response, pressing her forehead to his. She hmm’ed softly, thoughtfully, meeting Jason’s eyes as her fingers slipped from his hair to rest on his shoulders. “I’d say I had probably at least three reasons.” That earned her another blink, and a slow, faintly crooked smile. “Have I mentioned yet today that you’re amazing?” His voice was low, lips tantalizingly close, and it was only by sheer force of will that she managed to engage her boring, normal, thoroughly human brain enough to draw back from the precipice of scorching emerald madness his eyes promised as they remained fixed on hers. “I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be my line,” the blushing girl teased, settling back onto her heels as the quiet thrill of what she’d just done danced, exultant, through her mind. “And now that I’m not quite as thirsty anymore, I need a drink.”
  18. (Written in collaboration with Marissa's Player.) Her cheeks flush with a warmth not entirely related to the weather, Autumn fished around in the pocket of her jeans for one of the (probably) hundreds of elastic hair ties she owned. Between Jason being Jason, and Marissa being, well, Marissa, she was only too happy to trade the tense, stifling atmosphere of the loft for fresh air and sunshine. Out here, at least, she could breathe. Out here, it was just the grass, the sky, the breeze, the occasional bickering of chickens somewhere nearby, and… the occasional bickering of teenagers. Eh. Kind of the same thing, really. With the deft, half-conscious movements of one long accustomed to dealing with the unruly mane she’d inherited, the redhead twisted her hair up and off the back of her neck, considering her options. Kat, Cade, and Marissa had little to no experience with any of this, and without Sean or Charlie present, it made sense to pair up with one of them herself. Cade was the safe choice, of course, and barring his popularity with the jocks and seemingly even temperament, she didn’t really know all that much about him. Kat was the interesting choice, partially because she still had that fresh New Student smell and partially because she seemed honest- if a little on the timid side. Shelly High’s Queen B, though… Marissa was the difficult choice, for a whole host of reasons. Autumn wrinkled her nose a little in annoyance, idly plucking at the front of her t-shirt as the effortlessly gorgeous brunette sashayed out in her high-end, painted on workout gear in glorious bombshell red. It was definitely attention-grabbing, she had to admit, but also sort of like waving a crimson flag in front of a bull who kind of wants to smack you in the face a little bit. “Hey, Marissa,” her official ‘bestie’ called out as she approached, snapping the elastic band in place to keep her hair from just doing whatever it wanted. Whatever had changed between the texts last night and now, they could talk about it after. Right? Right. They were friends. It was fine. “Wanna pair up?” Marissa's head spun about, enlightening Autumn to the fact that dramatic hair whips were, in fact, still a thing. "Um, sure." She said, skeptically. "I don't really know why. I don't have magical mind bendy powers, so yeah. But! We need to talk anyway, so, yes. I think 'pairing up' is a great idea." She looped her arm in with Autumn's and led her away from the other groups. They were well within shouting distance, but not so close that their 'conversation' could be heard. "Okay, so, where do you want to start? The part where you stole my crush out from under me, the reasons you need to break up with him, or," she waved her hand dismissively at the part that obviously didn't interest her. "Or, whatever this whole magic nerd crap it is you guys do out here at the Bannon Compound?" Wait, what? "Wait, what?" No sooner had Marissa's words registered than Autumn stopped short, pulling back on the arm looped through her own so that the dark-haired beauty leading her away from the others was likewise obliged to pause. Uncomprehending, she frowned and shook her head, blue eyes narrowing in confusion. That… It didn’t make sense. Marissa not being interested in Jason was one of the reasons they’d decided to try dating in the first place, so… “How did I-“ she began, then shook her head again. “You’re going out with Cade,” she finally managed, as if that simple fact was a refutation of all the prettier Jauntsen had said. "Um, maybe, but I was still crushing on Jase, a bit," she shrugged, then waved her hands as if shooing away a fog in her mind. "Look, I'm not mad at you about the whole Jase thing. It's not your fault and you are new to this whole little group dynamic, but everyone knew there was like a 'thing' between him and me. You should have checked first, total Girl Code faux pas, but I forgive." No one knew anything about anyone liking anyone. Well, maybe Devin and Lona, but that was rather obvious. When it came to Marissa, the Fellowship knew less about who she was crushing on than they actually cared about who she was crushing on. "It was just, totally not cool, you know? You don't just walk in and take other people's ice cream, Autumn." She smiled pure forgiveness that resembled something akin to a thousand pounds of sarcastic bitchiness being dropped from a very high place, the limits of her ego, perhaps. "But now? You totally should break up with him." Autumn's head tilted slightly, blinking as if she had just stumbled upon some newly-discovered species and was busy trying to work out exactly what this particular social display was meant to communicate, and also whether she should've kept that bear mace at hand. “I don’t really think everyone knew, Marissa,” she replied dubiously, only to have the Queen of Mean cut her off. “Look, I get that he’s sort of charismatic, in his own special way, and that you aren’t used to having anyone show interest in…” A perfectly manicured hand gestured vaguely up and down, indicating Autumn herself as Marissa continued with a withering note of disdain, “…whatever it is you have going on there, but trust me, this is not going to work out.” A sudden, angry rush of bright pink flooded the redhead’s cheeks as her whole body went rigid beneath the scathing glare of Marissa’s dark eyes; the intent of that particular remark had gotten through perfectly clearly, it seemed. “What, because I’m not as pretty as you are, I’m not date-worthy or something? What the actual fuck, Marissa?” Autumn fought to keep her voice low even as she stared at her alleged friend in utter disbelief. “And what the hell are you talking about with ‘ice cream’? Nobody’s taken anything that belongs to you.” "Well, no, not now, anyway," Marissa admitted. "I've already let it go. Look, I was grooming Jason to be less of a Crystal Lake murder hobo, and more of something that resembled a human being, namely, my human being. I'll skip the ice cream analogy for now, you have enough coming at you without worrying about food." She gave her another judgmental once over, like Autumn didn't need to be worrying about ice cream. "Long and short of it, Autumn, Jason is dangerous," all the cattiness bled away and she looked at her bestie with a concerned, hardened glare. "We were at my house and he... well he made me feel very uncomfortable. You didn't see what he did to Liam. I know I'm mean, but I would never harm another human being like he did with Liam. It was barbaric and psychotic and frankly I'm concerned for you. He held weapons to people's throats, threatened to kill Dr. Cook, in a room of witnesses, and Liam's bones were practically dust." She held up her hands like she had something on them, looking at them then her. "I mean, he didn't enter the house, Autumn. He stood outside the kids' window and just threw him around until his body shattered. That's not anger, that's not impulsive behavior. He tortured another human being and then went on with his day like it never happened. I would almost say he was proud! And that's your boyfriend, Autumn. The guy who, a week ago, told me he loved me, but is now dating you. Red flags? Anywhere?" Autumn really did have a lot coming at her, that much was true, and most of it from the topsy-turvy world of Marissa What-The-Hell-Was-Her-Middle-Name-Anyway Jauntsen. Between the insults and the complaints about stealing her crush and the casual dehumanization of people and the list of Jason’s sins and the expression of concern for her well-being, it was almost impossible to keep up, to pin down exactly what the whole point of the conversation even was at that point. “Marissa, I… I swear, I literally can’t even with you. Jason’s not your property, and if you wanted him then you should’ve just-“ No. Inhaling sharply, she shook her head and tried again. “He and I already talked about it, about a lot of things, that he told you he loved you, that he kissed you and shouldn’t have, and you got angry, and-“ Autumn closed her eyes, squeezing them shut as she counted silently and willed herself to just get through this and get on with the day. “Jase admitted, when we went camping, that he fucked that up with you. That he pushed too far, and you told him he needed relationship practice, or whatever, because he’d never had a girlfriend before. So that’s me. I’m the trial run,” she added tersely, her face reddening further with the admission until the freckles patterning her skin disappeared. “Because you weren’t happy with him as he is. I guess you needed to ‘groom him,’ huh? And you know what?” The redhead took a step forward, eyes stinging with angry, unshed tears as she advanced, erasing the space between them. “That is so fundamentally fucked, Marissa, and it’s even worse that he’s still going along with it anyway and you don’t even-“ With an audible groan of frustration, Autumn pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes. “Forget it. Jesus, fuck. Look.” She dropped her hands to her sides, scowling, then just as quickly raised them again, resting them atop her head. “I’m not gonna lie. I was terrified of Jason a week ago, so, if you’re scared, okay. Fine. I get it. I’ve been afraid of him since we were fucking ten, Marissa, and I’m trying not to be. I’m trying to understand. And if you’re actually worried about me, and not just saying that to get me to break up with him, great. I appreciate the concern, and I promise, if he murders the shit out of me one day and then eats my still-beating heart, my last thought will be that you were right and I should’ve listened. Scout’s fucking honor, if that happens I will dedicate my last breath to you. But I’m choosing to trust him. I’m choosing to believe that people fuck up, but they can learn from that. He’s my friend. You are my friend," she insisted. Marissa's eyes widened at the barrage. She took a stance that was ready for anything, but still casual enough to be impressed. With folded arms she chewed at the inside of her lip while Autumn let her have it. "Wow," she smirked. "You really want him, don't you? Fine. Your problem, your funeral. If after hearing all of that, he is the sort of person you want to hold hands with, he's all yours sister." She swiped her palms together like she was washing them clean. "And what's 'fundamentally fucked up' is grinding a human being’s bones into powder while standing outside their window like a fucking coward. But hey, I have standards and told a guy I wasn't interested in dating him, right around the same time he forced himself on me. I guess I'm the bad guy no matter what, huh? And no need to worry, you're not the trial run anymore." There was way more attitude in her voice than she intended but neither her nor Autumn were calm, rational, debating types. "There will never be a me and Jason. Ever. I'm washing my hands of him. So you two can just have at it all you like, I'm done. He might be wonderful to you. To me, he's the guy who told me he loved me and is now fucking my best friend. That's not love, Autumn. He doesn't know what love is, but, injured animals are your department, I'm more into fashion and he's so last week." She swept her arms out wide. "So, you won the guy. Congratulations. Now, how do we do this nerd stuff?" “Yeah. You clearly have standards, Marissa, when all you want in a guy is ‘fashion.’ Congratu-fucking-lations on your new accessory,” she shot back acidly, one hand swinging expansively in Cade’s direction. “He’ll go with everything.” In the few seconds that followed Autumn’s outburst, the serpent-in-a-sports-bra watched the high, vivid color drain from her BFF’s cheeks as the mortifying awareness of what she’d said sunk in. Oh, god. What the fuck, Autumn? Where the hell did that come from? What would have been a scream of frustration- were it not imprisoned behind clenched teeth- escaped the thin, taut line of the redhead’s lips as she pivoted on one heel and took two steps away to just… breathe, for a second, staring out across the field. The fact that Marissa was acting like a kid who’d just lost a toy she’d never played with and didn’t care about until she didn’t have it anymore was infuriating. The admission that she thought Jason was a coward was bizarre, and that she could own a person was horrifying. The casual assumption they’d had sex already was almost insulting, except that they actually probably would’ve if either of them had thought in advance that might be on the table. But all those opinions and assertions aside, that was still just kind of Marissa being a bitch- it had nothing to do with her boyfriend. I can’t believe I said that. Oh my god. It wasn’t even Cade’s fault at all. There was no reason to drag him into it, no reason to say anything mean about someone who, she was pretty sure, had never intentionally done anything offensive or controversial in his life. Well, except for dating Marissa Jauntsen- which wasn’t so much offensive, maybe, as it was masochistic. And yet, she and Marissa were supposed to be ‘besties,’ and that seemed to be working out just fine, so was she really in any position to judge? “Okay,” Autumn sighed, rubbing her palms across her eyes. “Okay. Look. I’m sorry. That was… totally uncalled-for. Cade seems like a nice guy. …Which, admittedly, makes him dating you pretty crazy, but whatever. None of this makes sense. So, fine. I’m not gonna waste my breath trying to change your mind about Jason and-“ She lifted a hand, her pale fingers tracing a broad, seemingly all-inclusive circle in the air. “Sit. We’ll try to figure this other stuff out, at least.” Folding her legs, the redhead sank down as she took a seat on the grass and fidgeted with one of her shoelaces as she waited for her Marissa to follow suit. Autumn rolled her eyes as Marissa unrolled her yoga mat to sit on. She didn't expect Shelly's glam Queen to sit on the ground where there was dirt and bugs, right? Ew. "Okay," she looked at her 'bestie' and spoke like she was annoyed. "Sitting. And, for the record, Cade knows he's an accessory," she added. "I was honest with him. I asked him to pretend to date me so Jason would back off and be less inclined to come back around me for a while, but if he did, Cade could shoo him away. It's easy, I know," the dark-eyed beauty looked at her best friend and it seemed like she was melting a hole in through her head. "To just think I'm a shallow, vapid, empty soul of a human being considering how opposite we think, but I'm still a person. I was honest with him about being afraid. I was honest with him about what made me afraid and he was still willing to go along with it to see that I felt more safe and secure from a guy who likes to loom outside people's houses and fold them into lawn chairs. Cade has turned out to be a great guy." "Maybe that's your type, I don't know. What I know is that you've yet to ask me my side of things or show any concern whatsoever as to why I was afraid, or how my fear of him has impacted me, at all. It's obvious who is actually important to you around here, because it certainly isn't your bestie. Jason is a genius, he knows I'm not going to be quiet about it and he manipulates his every behavior to be the stark opposite of everything I'm telling you. That's what he does. He's spent his whole life faking it, emulating emotions and expressions in order to fit in better. Reading people and exploiting their opinions of him with false emotions and fake faces. I would think you, of all people, would appreciate your best friend telling you that game notices game, but you don't. If you want to defend him so bad and he is so perfect, then I've done what I can. I can't force you to break up with him, well, I mean, I could, but," her eye's shimmered like someone behind them tossed up a handful of purple glitter. "That's not my way." “Do I have a best friend, Marissa?” Autumn asked with quiet intensity, blue eyes thoughtful as she considered the other girl’s invective. Everything, invariably, circled back around to Marissa Jauntsen. Her feelings. Her opinions. What she wanted. Was that a friendship, or was she just so eager to actually have a friend she was willing to take whatever she could get? The thought stung. How pathetic was that? “I never said you weren’t a person, even though you barely treat me like one. I never said you lied to Cade, but I do think he’s too nice for you. I never said you weren’t afraid, or didn’t have the right to be, and I even admitted that I was, too, and I didn’t ask why because-“ Pausing, the redhead shrugged a little, her nose crinkling unhappily. “Honestly, I just can’t make myself put everything aside to focus on your feelings when you don’t seem worried at all about mine. I don’t have to ask your side of things because you literally just told me.” She sighed, tugging at a blade of grass and twisting it in her fingers. “…Not to mention that you’re insulting me to my face and painting the guy I like as some kind of mass-murderer, so, yeah. Not super-thrilled to hear all about the World According to Marissa right now” she muttered. “As far as what’s important to me? What’s actually important to me is the people that I care about, who also care about me. Who show me that they care about me, so I can do the same for them.” The expressive young woman, who’d probably exhausted nearly every conceivable emotion on the checklist for today, braced her elbow on her thigh and lowered her forehead into her hand. Surely, Mari wanted the same things she did, but why did it seem so much more complicated with her? Why was it so freaking difficult to like someone who should have been impossible not to like? “I don’t know how to be your friend, Marissa,” she admitted despairingly. “I’m obviously not good at it, so… maybe we should just focus on the training for now.” "Hold up," Marissa raised a finger to pause the proceedings. "Autumn, real talk, this is not about me. I'm telling you these things because I'm worried about you. Read between the lines. Look, if I'm wrong, then great, I'm wrong, but if I'm not... if there is even the slightest bit of a chance that you could be in danger because of that psychopath, then you will not go forward only to find out that I knew something and didn't tell you." "I'm not good at this either, okay," her tone slowed and she sighed as admitting her failings wasn't something she was used to. "I'm used to people worshipping me, fawning over me and catering to my every whim because they love the notion of possibly being seen with me or making it into my little inner circle. Actual interpersonal peopling with no manipulation or personal gain for myself isn't exactly on my resume under 'additional skills'. I know I'm a bit... intense-" "Pain in the ass." "Intense," she glared at her best friend. "But I'm trying to warn you of possible side effects of that bitter horse pill you're so eager to swallow." She smirked, leaving Autumn to decide if that was innuendo or not. "I'm not trying to hurt you Autumn, I'm trying to help you." Her face scrunched into an expression that warned she was chewing back bile. "Oh. Oh, god. I just quoted Gandalf, in an actual conversation... oh, I'm going to be sick." “Riiight,” the young vitakinetic replied slowly as Marissa recovered her composure, brows knitting together as she rested her chin on her hand. “’Kay. We’ll just… revisit the Gandalf thing later. For now, if you say you’re trying to help, you’re trying to help.” Friend rules. Even if Marissa didn’t exactly fit Autumn’s ideal concept of friendship, the wicked queen in training had sort of conceded, and she ought to do the same. Friends were supposed to listen to each other and that much, at least, she should be able to manage. Just… later, maybe. With a sigh, she lifted her head, running a hand back through her already-disheveled hair. “Okay. So.” Autumn shifted her weight a little, straightening as she scooted closer to every high school boy’s dream. “It’s probably going to be harder now, to be honest. You’re supposed to be relaxed and focused. Kind of a Zen thing. So, you’re gonna have to trust me on this. Give me your hands.” The redhead extended her own, palms up, and flexed her fingers. "Oh, I can totally relax. You should come by and do yoga with me sometime," and just like that the young sociopath was back to being herself. She tried, and spoke her piece on the matter. If Autumn went on ahead and got herself eaten by Jason, well, that was just Autumn's fault at this point. Better Autumn than Marissa, after all, the Queen of Shelly did have a Homecoming to plan after all. Being dead would certainly get in the way of that and it's not like Autumn was really doing anything with her life anyway. "See?" With a smile and whip of her hair to put it over her shoulder, Marissa beamed an all-is-forgiven smile and presented Autumn with her hands. No sooner did the freckled redhead accept them did she find Marissa spinning her hands over to look at her nails. "No. No, that won't do. He might be a psycho, but I can't allow my bestie to have a boyfriend while she has bad nails. What did you even do here?" She presented one of Autumn's own hands up for viewing. "Do you just claw on random things like a cat? What even is this? Okay, we're getting you an emery board, like, pronto." “Yes,” Autumn replied, closing her eyes. “Exactly like a cat.” …and then immediately went pink again as the potential subject of said clawing appeared in her mind’s eye, a surge of warmth creeping up into her cheeks that she prayed would be attributed to the sun, her heated exchange with Marissa, or a combination thereof. Glancing at her partner through half-opened lids, she tugged lightly on the perfectly manicured hands clasping hers. “Shut your eyes.” With a perfect little moue of displeasure, her self-proclaimed bestie complied, and the two girls sat there for a moment in silence. “Okay, what exactly am I supposed to be doing right now? Is there a chant? Do we light some candles? What is this?” the more cynical young woman asked somewhat tartly, already beginning the process of mentally getting on with her day. “This is sort of a different version of how I do it. I don’t know if it’ll help you, but we’ll give it a shot.” Autumn’s voice was notably softer as she squeezed Marissa’s hands gently, just a light pressure to draw her attention. “So, for just a second, just focus on our hands, where we’re touching. The temperature. The tension. The texture of the skin. …And as you concentrate on that, just sort of noticing all those little details, you’ll start to feel the blood moving through your fingers. Maybe even in mine. Just this slight, constant pulse.” Even after her experience with Cade, the concept of ‘intimacy’ was an unfamiliar one to the younger Jauntsen, and holding hands for any length of time with Shelly’s very own wilderness girl was not exactly an item on her bucket list. But… it also wasn’t awful, either, as long as she didn’t think too much about it. Unlike some of the guys she’d known, Autumn’s hands weren’t hard, or clammy, or sweaty, and they weren’t trembling at the mere prospect of touching her skin- certainly a plus. As the red-haired teen continued to speak, to quietly coach her through the process, some of the initial awkwardness of actual human contact passed, and Marissa realized she could feel it. Where her fingers rested against Autumn’s wrists, there was a subtle rhythm: the faint beat of her own heart, and an answering pulse in the freckled hands grasping hers, a tiny, almost intangible sensation amid the waves of other stimuli. It felt… “It’s kind of… warm, isn’t it?” Autumn murmured, a little smile audible in her voice. “And once you can isolate that feeling from all the noise around you, from the wind tickling your neck, from all the colors and patterns behind your eyelids, from the weight of your own body in space, you’ll notice it everywhere. Running up through your arms, your legs, your stomach, your chest, your face- everything, carrying all that warmth and energy and life to every cell, every atom, waking up every nerve like billions of tiny stars in the dark…” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat as Autumn's vitakinetic energy surged through her. Then, Marissa wasn't sure if it was her, or Autumn, but there was a sudden electric jolt that seemed to spark from the center of her chest and beam outward. Every muscle suddenly contracted as every neuron exploded to life with a sudden awakening or raw power. It seemed as if the attunement had jump started something within her and things just made a bit more sense. She could feel her (the) world open up all around her and suddenly she was akin to an ant as her heart and mind expanded with the feeling of all living things around her. She felt life, ever-so-briefly, as Autumn did and it simultaneously made her want to break down in tears at the beauty of it all and run and hide as everything she'd come to know of the world suddenly seemed false and wrong as she bore witness to simple, beautiful truth. The dark-haired beauty's shoulders spasmed as a ticklish shiver jolted down her neck and spine. She reflexively gripped Autumn's hands as the rush and fear seemed to be nothing she wanted to be rid of anytime soon. It had been a matter of tacit agreement amongst most of the teens that a person’s unique energy, their Shine, was somehow intrinsically related to their personality or character. Although Marissa’s revelatory experience overwhelmed her awareness of Autumn in that regard, the reverse was not also true. The affluent brunette was a seething, swirling core of shimmering radiance contained within an aesthetically flawless frame, a seemingly boundless font of energy that- having been tapped- rushed forth in a great torrent through the link forged by their clasped hands. What Autumn “saw” through that connection was not at all like the others: a luminescence simultaneously less brilliant and more intensely focused than theirs, and somehow different in both tone and texture. Nevertheless, it was Shine, was potential and possibility and- “Holy shit,” Autumn breathed as her awareness of all the manifold lives around her swelled and sharpened. She could feel, even at this distance, the soreness in Kat’s slender limbs, the fatigue in Devin’s muscles, the bruising and inflammation in Marissa’s- oh. Well, that did explain a few things, at least, she noted distractedly as the ever-widening circle of her consciousness stretched further, reached beyond the boundaries of the farm and the fields nearby. There was so much, a dizzying array of humans and animals, insects, plants, the numbers and varieties multiplying exponentially as her capacity to sense them expanded with the influx of energy: breeding and breathing and being born, being devoured, bursting into new growth. It was impossible to concentrate on any one thing because just as quickly as she could acknowledge it a thousand more tiny flickering sparks took its place. Within her veins, beneath the surface of her skin, heat and blood and light inscribed the pattern of life’s beginning, its flowering and ending, an endless ring of humming sanguine threads edged in gold. That was hers. The acorn and the oak and the axe all belonged to her, and she knew- for that brief and blinding moment that spanned an age in her mind- what that meant. She could feel the energy thrumming in her body, but it didn't feel right. Wherever Autumn's mind had gone to, Marissa's didn't follow. As Autumn's perceptions grew wider and wider Marissa felt her own grow dimmer and dimmer as the vibrant redhead took more and more of her. "Autumn." She said calmly. Muscles fatigued and her head grew light as she struggled to stay awake and alert. A lethargy slowly crept through her bones and muscles, imploring her to simply relax and let herself drift off... "Autumn!" She managed to yank her hands away, severing Autumn's connection to whatever power she was tapping deep within her. They both fell back, their breathing heavy. Marissa's eyes felt heavy and she felt tired and fatigued. She took several deep breaths. "Damn. Oh, shit..." she panted like she was out of breath. "The hell was that? I feel like I'm sixty and just tried to run a marathon..." She rolled about to allow herself a view of Autumn. "Hey... you okay?" “Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.” Squinting up at the sky, Autumn just lay back on the grass for a long moment. It tickled, brushing the sides of her face as the breeze swirled around them and lifted the strands of fiery copper that had worked loose, but any secrets it had harbored were already swiftly fading in her mind. She had touched… something, with Marissa’s help. For just an instant things made sense in ways they never had before: where she fit, what she was supposed to do. What she could do, if she really wanted to- maybe not right now, sure, but one day. Even if she couldn’t remember it now, she’d known right? Even if it was crazy, and just for a second. And… It made sense that if she could know, and had known, she could do it again. Couldn’t she? The muscles of her abdomen tightened as the redhead leaned up, pressing her palms into the warm earth. “That,” she added, regarding Marissa with laughing eyes and a slow, awestruck grin, “was totally wicked. How’re you feeling?” "Yeah," Marissa sat up, leaning on one arm. "It was, uh, different." She wasn't much for sharing. Whatever that jolt was she felt and whatever that energy was that now loudly banged on that door deep within her, she wasn't about to tell Autumn and end up in the 'crazy as Jason' social tax bracket. Also, she wasn't sure what Autumn was so stoked about. The girl seemed like she was a five year-old who got her hands on ice cream drizzled in chocolate and sprinkled in gummy bears then dipped in pure cane sugar. She attempted to stand and her world began to spin. What was ground twisted and swirled and became sky, only to become ground again. She dropped back down to one knee. "Woah. I... I think I need to sit for a bit. Is it like this all the time, or just on the first try?" She rolled onto her back, heedless of the grass and dirt (which was a major red flag that something was off). She sprawled out and just lay there, eyes closed looking up at the sky. "I feel like I need a nap..." Leaning forward, Autumn scooped up the unopened water bottle she’d grabbed on the way out and rubbed it idly against the frayed denim at her knee. “Here.” She shifted over, offering Marissa her shoulder and carefully helping the other girl achieve a slightly more vertical position. “Try sitting up. I’m not sure what just happened, but, uh… No,” she admitted thoughtfully. “I don’t think it was ever like that.” As the scarlet-clad socialite took the bottle with a mumbled ‘thanks’ and drank quietly, the blue eyes that had regarded her with enthusiasm a moment before narrowed slightly in concern. “Definitely not for me, anyway. That was…” She paused, wondering if there were actually any words to adequately describe the sensation. “Wild. Maybe just sit here for a minute, ‘til everyone else gets finished playing.” She groaned as she sat up, nodding. She didn't bother brushing out the dead grass clinging to her hair. "Yeah. Probably not a bad idea. It's like... I don't feel bad, or sick... just, tired. Like dealing with my brother when he's one of his unusually annoying moods..." She drank the water and then relaxed, resting her head on her bestie's shoulder. "Well, was it good for you?" She fluttered her beautiful lashes at the redhead as she snuck in a grin. “Hm… I’ll give it three stars. You’re new at this, so there’s still plenty of room for improvement.” As Marissa turned, staring up at her in incredulous wonder, Autumn tried her very best to maintain a straight face. Not being made of the same stoic stuff as Jason or Cade, however, she felt her cheeks going red with suppressed laughter, and the corners of her mouth twitching. Maybe it was the mind-altering experience and that faint, lingering sensation of the physical link they’d shared, or maybe just mental exhaustion, but for just a moment she was reminded of sitting with Jase outside his house- when she’d hugged him- and the way that simple, mundane human gesture had subtly shifted the trajectory of their interactions afterward. “I have notes,” she added, affecting an air of dramatic sobriety as she looped one arm around her first new friend’s back and the two of them sat and watched the others. “We’ll talk later.”
  19. Not all of us might come back, he'd said. Jesus, fuck. That was true, wasn’t it? Cassie. Jason. Marissa. Her first friends since… Well, in a long time, anyway. Devin. Cade. Sean. Charlie. Kat. Tawny. Even, she guessed, Courtney. They were all in this, now, when barely a week ago she'd been completely oblivious. At this point, almost anything could happen, regardless of how ready they were, or thought they were. They didn’t really know what Not-Cody was capable of, so any of them, most of them- Hell, all of them might just… not come home. Something twisted in her stomach as she thought of her mom waiting, checking her phone, calling Nathan and Sheriff Allister and her dad, probably in that order. Probably, too, Dana would never know what happened. It would be like that little boy in the basement, but maybe instead of her shoe it’d be a cell phone, a set of keys. Something trivial. Distracted from the grim consideration of her own mortality by the heated exchange between Marissa and Cassandra and their ensuing dramatic exits, Autumn sighed, dragging her fingers down her face in frustration. This was why they couldn't have nice things. This right here. Ugggghhhhh. A part of her wished she'd been late to this meeting, too. “Okay, look," she began as the sound of expensive heels faded downstairs. "Just to make it clear, none of what happened in the basement was recent. It’s fucking terrible, and Cassie is probably the only one of us who knows exactly how terrible, but it didn’t happen while we were,” she glanced sharply at the stairs, where Marissa had just disappeared in pursuit of the distraught clairvoyant, “screwing around." Her gaze shifted to the rest of the group then, clear and direct and unflinching despite the high color in her cheeks. "So if any of you are feeling guilty that Cody murdered a little boy and a bunch of animals in the last week, don’t, because he didn’t. The shoe, at least, has been down there since before Cody even disappeared, because Air Force Guy’s the reason it’s fucking down there, and he got eaten by the starfish-thing, or whatever.” A quick, dismissive shake of her head suggested that the specific taxonomy of the cephalogina didn't seem pertinent, and anyway, she hadn't been there, so fuck it. “We went to the Old Town Hall last night specifically to find out what we’re physically walking into. We went to the Rez this morning to find out what we could about the history of this stupid, bullshit cycle and see if there was anything we could learn that would be useful in dealing with Cody and the Dark and all of it," she continued, warming to the subject as she paced the length of the room, her hands moving seemingly of their own accord. "And you know, yeah. Sure. Some of it’s not immediately relevant, but we wouldn’t know if we hadn’t gone, in either case, and it still might be helpful anyway later on.” “Also. Cody isn’t the Dark, just helping it. So, sure, we deal with him first, because we know there’s a clock ticking down that we can’t see. That doesn’t mean the rest of it is irrelevant or unnecessary. This Enterich, whoever he is, is the one who sent the captain down to that basement with a little boy and some kind of crazy fucked up ritual. If he’s working for the Dark, he’s part of it, and he needs to be dealt with.” Pausing, the animated redhead turned her attention to Devin, spreading her fingers expansively as she lifted her hands. “So, yeah, you’re sort of right. The Dark is our priority, and if this Enterich guy is involved, he’s the next logical link in the chain. Then we just keep going until there's no more links, or, you know.” Autumn shrugged, a little twitch of her shoulders, as her hands dropped to her sides. “Anyway. I think that’s pretty much it from me. Unless…” …somebody else wants to blow up on someone who doesn’t deserve it, and complain about things not getting done while simultaneously not doing anything… “…anybody else has stuff to add, or questions. If not, yeah. I agree that maybe burning all this off outside is a fan-fucking-tastic idea.”
  20. "Sure," the redhead replied without much enthusiasm, abandoning her half-empty water bottle as she slid off the edge of the table where she'd sat perched. She wasn't thrilled about Courtney's involvement, especially after her snarky commentary at the medical center, but Tawny, at least, seemed nice. And they did have the Shine, or the Dawning Light, or whatever it was to be called, so she had to concede that it made made sense for them to be here. "So, just to make sure everybody's on the same page," Autumn began, taking a few steps to put a little distance between herself and the rest of the group, "Cassie and I went to the Old Town Hall last night to do a little scouting ahead, see what we might be getting into. I'm just going to tell you what I actually saw, and let her describe her side of it, and then we can do questions or discussion or interpretation or whatever afterward. Cool? Cool." Just like the hospital. Be clear, be credible, be concise. Don't make assumptions. "First, it was definitely capital d Dark inside, even though we couldn't feel it before we went in." Despite the sultriness of the day, tiny goosebumps prickled the backs of her arms at the memory and she frowned, sweeping her hair forward over one shoulder as she slowly began to walk the length of the room. "We got inside through one of the ground floor windows, and the place was deserted. Totally stripped. No furniture, no fixtures, nothing. It looked like it was falling apart, and definitely smelled like a hundred generations of mice had lived there, but the building itself seemed like it was holding up pretty well. Structurally, I mean." "In some of the rooms on the first floor there were these... drawings, I guess, on some of the walls. Like cave paintings. Really primitive, more like stick figures than anything. Cass got pictures," she added, half-turning and glancing at the blonde. "Basically, they were all similar: a big man with antlers coming out of his skull, a bunch of smaller people figures, and a huge, dead-looking tree. In a couple of them, the horned man was chasing the people, and in some of them it looked like they were kneeling or praying in front of him. Some were really faded, some a lot darker." "Upstairs was pretty much just the one big office. There was a drawing up there, too, a really big one." Autumn's hands rose, fingers lacing together at the crown of her head as she exhaled, some of the residual blush fading from her cheeks. "Pretty recent. Painted with blood from..." Oh god. Okay. Just... Just say it, and it'll be done, and you won't have to say it again. She hesitated briefly, grimacing as if the taste of the words themselves was awful on her tongue, then sucked in a quick breath and continued. "...from a bunch of cats. We know, because the bodies were all still, um. Still there." The red-haired vitakinetic licked suddenly dry lips and cleared her throat, and then turned and resumed her slow circuit of the loft. "After that, we went down to the basement." "It was basically just like Cassie described before. The room was dark, dusty, and more or less empty, with definite signs of activity, like footprints. Lots of small animals hanging from the ceiling, none of them fresh, and it smelled pretty much like you might expect, but not terrible. Another really big drawing on one of the walls, black, done with charcoal or something. This one was just the horned man. There were marks on the floor, where something was dragged, and streaks of old blood, all leading up to that wall. And-" Fuck. Autumn paused, blue eyes going wide and liquid in the sunlight pouring in from the windows as she inhaled, mentally counting to four in her head and visibly working to maintain some kind of composure in front of the group. With everything that had been going on that morning she'd almost forgotten it, hadn't she? Almost let the memory slip free, as if it might've magically disappeared out the window somewhere along Highway 2. But of course, it hadn't, and so here she was. "And a shoe," she managed finally, quietly, repressing a shiver. "A small one. A kid's shoe, with blood in the Velcro and the lining. It was there for a while... Several weeks, as far as I could tell from the dust and the color of the blood. And that's all."
  21. Mother. Fucker. Obviously, someone had to come upstairs, and obviously it had to be Devin. "Then they're waiting in the wrong place," Autumn retorted over Jason's shoulder as she lifted her head, bright scarlet cheeks and tousled red-gold hair a vivid contrast to the deep blue eyes that regarded the more annoying, less devious Jauntsen. There were storms there, dark clouds hanging low over restless, churning waves on the open sea- -and then she sighed, the sound ending on a quiet groan of frustration, and pressed her lips against the faint red mark her teeth had made at the base of the apparent psychopath's throat. Even now she could feel the heat surging beneath her skin, the hardness of every part of his lean, spare form in her arms and between the sure grip of her thighs around his waist, the mad rush of blood burning through her veins and his; if Devin had meant to embarrass her, he would just have to be satisfied with the fact that her face couldn't possibly be more flushed than it was at that moment. Reluctantly, she disentangled her fingers from her boyfriend's hair, mortification and anger writ plain in her expression as she glared daggers at the teleporter. "Also," she added, "you're an asshole."
  22. Autumn, Week of Labor Day/Ep. VI: Off-Camera: Autumn will be working on the tree house, trying to get it finished before the weather turns. She will also be reviewing the journals from her grandfather’s study, and buying a few books (le gasp!)- possibly on an afternoon trip to the mall with her mom, but online if that’s not feasible. If possible, a return visit to Browning to actually go through the museum and have a long, non-plot-related talk with Joe about her grandfather will also be on the agenda. School and After-School Vignettes: Open to almost anything! At some point during the week, Autumn will want to hit Cassie up for that skateboarding lesson, and likely consult with Marissa about Homecoming, as well as talk to Devin about art-making. There’s also the potential for an awkward run-in with Ms. Forster later in the week, or during the following week- dun dun dunnn. Sunday: After the Talk with her mom on Sunday evening, Autumn will ask Devin for help transporting Owen’s journals and documents, with the OOC objective of giving him an opportunity to make good on his conversation with Dana, and her to reach out a little and possibly clear the air a bit. 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 would be a good opportunity for an uncomfortable (for ¾ of those involved) meeting between Autumn, Dana, Jason, and her dad, as well as a prime chance for her to meet/interact with her friends’/acquaintances’ families. I would like for Autumn to have a chance to corner her parents, when time and circumstance allows, and actually ask WTF is going on with them. Maybe she doesn't get an answer, but it puts the subject on the table for later. Specifically: Attempt to normalize things with Jacob- or at least start things moving in that direction. Talk to her parents about the weird tension with them over the last year or so. Chat with Nathan Crocker about his role (could theoretically happen later in the week). Introduce her parents to Gar. Tuesday: Back to school. Probably. Allegedly. ???: She will want to push to speak with Annette, as well, regarding clearance to discuss Site B and the welfare of the cats they rescued from Crossroads. ???: As discussed in Discord, a story or scene involving Cass and Autumn talking to Sean about the physiological and sociological realities of his unique circumstance would be awesome. ???: Autumn can basically, at present, flail wildly in an actual fight. Some specific efforts at improvement in this area would be advisable, with the threat of Cody and shady cults and organizations looming large. ???: Autumn will attempt, repeatedly and with increasing levels of frustration, to actually get laid. With her boyfriend. This should not, under any circumstances, occur without interruption. · After that… who knows? Specifics will be determined by the events of Monday, as well as player input and interaction, and all of this is subject to change!
  23. "It's pretty amazing, huh?" the taller, freckled redhead asked- mostly rhetorically- as she approached Kat and nudged the petite girl companionably with her hip, the oceanic hue of her eyes tinged with reflected hints of green. "I've only been here once, but he's really not kidding about not touching things," she admitted, pulling her hair back with one hand and leaning down to breathe in the heady scent of the creamy white freesias nearby. "Some of these are really toxic and ohhh, holy fuck, that's sex in a flowerpot." She inhaled again, deeply, and sighed as her unspoken frustrations with the trip to Browning, Marissa's inexplicable 'tude, and the looming Serious Talk she was going to need to have with her mom all just sort of... dissipated like so much water vapor in the dense, humid air. It was easy for Autumn to forget, surrounded by the verdant glory of this miniature Eden, that she was still in Shelly, still firmly grounded in reality and not some primeval wonderland of warmth and botanical beauty. Yeah, she decided, smiling despite the deeply personal and existential concerns still lingering in the back of her mind. Definitely one of my favorite places. The sensory kaleidoscope of color, fragrance, and texture was no less captivating for having seen it once before; if anything, the growing awareness of life all around her only served to heighten the experience, layering a scintillating, intangible vibrancy over that which the redhead could experience with her more mundane senses. ...And yet, for all its seeming wildness, she knew that there was an underlying order in the chaos, each specimen meticulously arranged and cultivated according to the desires and aesthetic sensibilities of its creator. Here, the curious elemental polarities of his nature intersected perfectly- an idea which broadened the smile on her lips as it occurred to her, watching Jason disappear up the stairs to what she guessed was the second floor loft and "The Fortress of Jaseitude" (Working Title). "I'm gonna see if he needs any help," Autumn added thoughtfully. The garden would still be here after, and she could always sneak down if things got too crazy, or if she got bored. She'd also been late for the last big meeting here, so what lay upstairs was still a total mystery. Besides, she reasoned, it was only polite to offer, right? Right. Totally. It had nothing to do with stealing a couple more minutes of alone-time at all. She was just being a good guest, and he'd helped out at breakfast, anyway, so it was only fair. Breaking away from the others filtering in, she headed toward the door through which Jason had vanished, humming quietly as she did so. "Hey, Jase?" she called as she mounted the wooden stairs leading upward. She could hear him moving around up there, the sound of something scraping on the floor, then silence- that eerie stillness she remembered from the phone call earlier in the week. It sent a tiny shiver down her spine, that unearthly quiet, and the intrepid redhead fought against the instinctive urge to hold her breath for those last few steps. She knew he was up there, so it was fine. No big deal. "Do you need any-" "Sure," he replied, so calmly and from such close proximity Autumn was pretty sure she was dead. "Jesus fu-hmmm!" she just managed to clap a hand over her mouth, stifling the shriek of surprise as she whirled, leveling an accusatory stare at The Effing Boyfriend. "Ohmygod!" Heart pounding furiously somewhere just south of her larynx, the startled young woman blinked incredulously, wide blue eyes meeting cool green ones that sparkled faintly with amusement. "No, just me," Jase quipped dryly, moving to pick up another chair. "Ugh!" Simultaneously scowling miserably and trying desperately not to laugh, Autumn took in the 'war room' as she waited for her heart rate to drop again, and for her breathing to return to something resembling normal human respiration. It definitely looked more like a place Jason would just... hang out, than his room had, she decided, noting the workbenches and exercise area. Functional. Practical. Utterly apart from the lush world of the garden downstairs. When she'd recovered sufficiently, she grabbed a chair, unfolding it and positioning it in an empty space around the large table in the center of the room. It only took a couple of minutes, at most, the two of them working in relative silence as she glanced, now and then, at his shoulders, or the outline of his profile silhouetted against one of the open windows. Maybe Devin could teach her to draw... Hmm. As her eyes sketched the contours of Jason's back, movement followed, her outstretched fingers running lightly down his spine. "All done?"
  24. Autumn was struck, simultaneously, by two impressions: first, that she was glad that this man had been friends with her grandfather, with his gracious demeanor and forthright manner, and second, that this place was protected in the same way Owen's study had been. At least, it felt that way, which meant that she could relax a little about hanging the bundle from her grandparents' place in her own home. Smiling, she gestured toward each of the teens in turn. "This is Cassie, my partner in crime," the redhead grinned broadly, "and this is Devin... and I apologize for him in advance, for whatever he says, and this..." Glancing up at the laconic young man next to her, she inched a little closer to him. "Is Jason. I hope it's okay that they came with me, Warden Crocker suggested it." Cassandra gave the old man a thumbs up and a smile, and greeted him with a bright, "Hey." "It's nice to meet you Mr. uh, Joe." Devin offered the older man a nod. "So, uh," he jerked a thumb towards the door that would take them back out to the lobby, and to Mary. "Is she seeing anyone?" Cassie looked at Autumn and made a little 'elbow jab' gesture... suggesting that was her cue. With a quick heavenward glance, the redhead nudged Devin sharply with her elbow. "Like I said, apologies in advance." "Ow, what?" he exclaimed, scowling as he rubbed his side. Joe laughed, his grin infectious. "Mary? Oh, she's currently between boyfriends. But you can dally around another day, kiddo." Joe smiled broadly as he took in the four. "Seems to me to be downright provident, four of you being here." As Jason nodded in his own silent greeting and the teens grabbed chairs, Joe fixed Autumn with a friendly grin. "So. Warden Crocker sent you to me? Nate's a good man." The gaze took on a sharp, knowing air. "Anything else bring you here?" Devin looked to Autumn. It was obvious he wanted to say something- when didn't he?- but he gestured from her to Joe. "It's your show, Granola. Glare if you need us." He winked and smiled at her, his consideration earning a warm grin of approval from Cassie. "Mmm," she assented, tucking a rogue curl behind her ear before flashing a quick scrunched-nose scowl at the teleporter. "Nathan sent to me to ask about some kind of ritual, but I also got into Grandpa's study, and found his journals, and a couple of letters he left, and one of those..." Autumn glanced pointedly at one of the bundles above the entrances to the room. "...And," exhaling quietly, she pulled the little cloth-wrapped object from her pocket. "And a lockbox full of these." Unfolding the brightly-patterned bandana she'd carried it in, the redhead revealed a maybe-copper bracelet that looked oddly familiar. Cassandra frowned at the bracelet, then glanced at Devin. "Isn't that... Devin, lemme see your arm for a second." Devin held out his arm, positioning his wrist near the bracelet Autumn was presenting to the group. "I got this from The Land of Upside-Down Thunder. How did your Grandpa have a whole box of them?" The freckled girl’s response was a helpless shrug and a quick shake of her head. "You got it where, boy?" Joe was not laughing - or smiling - now. He stared at the bracelet on Devin's wrist, then at Devin as though the young man had claimed he found it on the moon. "It's not exactly the same...but yeah..." Cassandra murmured thoughtfully, studying the designs engraved on both bracelets- similar, yes, but not quite identical. "The Land of Upside-Down Thunder. The other side,” he explained, unsure if Joe’s question was from disbelief or ignorance. “It's a nightmare realm, darkness and corruption everywhere. It pulled me through, but I-" Devin stopped short as he suddenly remembered he didn't know this man from Adam and decided not to inadvertently spill any more of his friends’ secrets. "Aaaand, you probably think I'm crazy. Never mind." "So." The old man sat back in his chair, his manner thoughtful rather than disbelieving. "You've seen it. Just you?" "We all have." Jason spoke up quietly. Autumn nodded in silent agreement, her blue eyes uncharacteristically grave. "Most of us haven't been there, but...yeah..." Cassie remarked. "Actually," Autumn shook her head, glancing over at the clever blonde. "Most of us have. At least the ones of us here. At the trailer." Cassandra frowned, "I didn't think you were there for that... Wait, no, that was like where you first..." She winces. "Sorry. Never mind. Wrong time." Recognition dawned on the redhead's features that they were talking about two separate events, two separate slices of awful from the same evil pie. "Yeah, no. Different trailer, sorry. Not the party you guys went to." Cassie nodded, quietly working to piece together the fragments of things she’d seen, heard, and intuited so far. There were so many threads to weave together, and so many things that had happened it was hard to keep track of them all; once in a while, though, she was sure if she could just see a little more, she’d be able to make out a pattern… "Something is there,” Devin interjected, jarring the seer from her musings. “On the other side. Autumn brought us here as rocks to cling to. She has questions, we all do, now, I suppose. Help her and then we can go from there. I know her Granddad was important to her, so..." He half-smiled. "That's more important right now." "Okay." Joe had been rubbing his chin thoughtfully, listening to the various recountings of events. "Okay," he repeated and took a deep breath, seeming a little shaken. "Never thought this day would come, personally." He fixed Autumn with a look. "You wouldn't have been able to find these things if you didn't have the Light. So everything I've been told, all the secret stuff I've had passed to me... It's all true. And now I'm having to take a moment, here." He took a hip flask from his pocket and took a long pull from it, restoppering it with fingers that shook a little. "All of you got it. It's not my imagination, or wishful thinking, right?" he asked the teens. "The Dawning Light?" Autumn nodded. "Yeah. There are others, too, who didn't come with us." "We call it the Shine, though," Cassie elaborated a little. The hip flask in Joe's hand began to shimmer and blur with a purple aura before blinking out of his hand and appearing in Devin's with all the same fan-fare, save reversed as the object rematerialized. He held it up and showed Joe. "Yep. We’re just big balls of pure sunshine and bad assery." He leaned over and handed Joe back his flask. "But we're flying blind." With a smirk, Devin nudged Autumn and whispered, "Tell me that wasn't cool though." Incredulous and wide-eyed, she smacked his arm with the back of her hand, hissing under her breath. "Stop it! You can't just take people's stuff!" "I gave it back," the unrepentant Jauntsen protested even as she sighed. “I swear, we can't take you anywhere," Autumn grumbled, more to herself than anything. "Holy shit." The old-timer looked like he'd seen a ghost, then abruptly he laughed. "Holy shit!" he exclaimed, still laughing. "It's real." And the teens realised the old man was crying even as he laughed, tears working their way down the craggy leather of his cheeks. Jason leaned forward, offering a handkerchief, seemingly unmoved by the man's emotional display, then sat back and waited as Joe collected himself. "Alright then." The old Indian said eventually, nodding. "So, you've gotta understand, kids, this is all ancient stories and stuff handed down through medicine men since before we had bows and arrows - so it's said. So if there's gaps in the story, or things that don't make sense, treat it as one of them allygoryes." "Uh, one sec before you get started." Cassandra held up her phone. "Mind if I record this? So we don't have to keep pestering you if we forget something." "Not at all." Joe shook his head. "We're supposed to keep it secret until it's time, but now it's time. So... Record away, girl." "Thanks!" Cassie manipulated her phone, then nodded. "Okay, go for it." Devin looked to Jase and leaned towards him, silently whispering. "What's an allegory? We fought one of those yet?" "A story, or poem, or sometimes a picture that can have a hidden meaning." Jase murmured in response. "Like some of the Bible stories - not literally true, but true in a sense." "Oh! Okay," Devin nodded. "Got it." Joe had taken another hit from his flask while this exchange had been taking place, and now set it aside before handing Jason back his handkerchief with a nod of thanks. "Alright. I'm translating some stuff from the old tongue, so it might be odd, but here goes. Long time ago, this land was hit by a star that was a giant boat, ridden by two men who were not men, but gods. But they looked like men, and talked like men, and so the Blackfoot tribe met with them and talked with them, and found they were very wise, and had mighty medicine." Cassie brightened at that, a fiercely triumphant expression blooming on her face for a moment. It didn’t totally confirm her theory, and she’d definitely need more information to be one-hundred-percent sure, but it also didn’t not confirm it, either. Resting her elbow on her knee, chin on her palm, Autumn idly twisted the bracelet in her other hand, features rapt as a child's as she listened. Wedged between Cassie and Devin, she focused on the older man’s words, letting the sound of his voice paint pictures in her mind’s eye of the events he was describing. "Their star boat was broken, and its glow escaped into the land, causing strong shadows to rise. Because the stronger the light, the stronger the shadow it casts. And the two men-who-were-not saw this, and were angry - with themselves, and with the other gods who had caused them to crash their boat. One of the men wanted to bury the wrecked boat, to keep it from the hands of normal Man, who would not be able to use the magic inside safely. But the other was maddened at the thought of never sailing in his star boat again. And so the two men fought, with weapons and magic that shook the earth, and one of the men was the victor. But the other did not die." Autumn stiffened slightly, teeth catching at the inside of her lower lip as she frowned. They had never seen Devin so quiet. His attention was fully fixed on the old Laughing Joe, listening to his story like a five-year-old might sit and listen at story time. He leaned in, resting his elbows on knees and just listened, for once in his life. Jason was motionless, his face expressionless as he listened, but like the others, his gaze was fixed on the old storyteller. "The winner was the Trickster, who all the Indian peoples call Coyote, in one form or another. He won because he liked Man, and did not want him to be destroyed, which would have happened if the other god, the Huntsman, had his way and tried to sail the ship again. Coyote spent some time with us, as his wounds healed, and he warned us of the dark place to the east, where he and the Huntsman had fought. He said we did not have the Light to fight the Dark or heal the wound their fight had caused, but he could show us how to guard ourselves... and then he gave us those bracelets to keep, for one day warriors with the Light would come forward, and they would need protection from the Dark. And the Huntsman... He became a spirit thing. Angry, tied to the Darkness. He became the eater of hearts, the cannibal who turns brother against brother. The Wendigo." "Yeah, we've seen him. He's a dick." Devin said flatly. "Fuck," Autumn murmured under her breath, not bothering this time to apologize for her language. It made sense. The puzzle pieces that had shifted in the basement of the Old Town Hall were slowly beginning to fall into place. Laughing Joe nodded sombrely. "His power was limited to causing madness and violence before. But it seems to have grown, if he can now draw you into the wound that is his realm." "So, a god couldn't beat the Dark, and now us, warriors are supposed to do it?" He seemed all manner of skeptical. "No way. No flippin' way. How're we supposed to beat a god? I'm barely passing algebra!" The old man shrugged. "Hell if I know, son. I just know you're the first to develop the Light, like the gods themselves had. You can feel it, use it, and wield it. For all I know, you're the new gods." He winked gravely. "Don't let it go to your head though." "We met him too," Cassandra said. "Coyote. He told me a lot of stuff that sort of dovetails with what you're saying. ...left a few things out though. Please go on." Joe's eyes widened, then he nodded slowly. "He's been walking the earth since that time. Now and then he's returned to this place - to keep an eye on it, I'm guessing. Otherwise, he's been off doing whatever he does." The old man rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "The talisman your granddad left you? He left instructions, right?" he asked Autumn, who nodded. "Follow 'em. As for the bracelets... They're for you - anyone with the Light, really. All I know is they grant 'protection'. That's it." He squinted at Devin. "I'd sure like to know how you got one on your wrist though, boy." "And why it almost killed Cassie," Autumn half-asked, half-stated quietly. "Because I'm a god and she was still getting a grasp of her powers. My greatness was too much for her mortal frame to endure." Devin looked at her shaking his head. "Obviously." "Devin," Autumn groaned softly. "Please, shut up." "I think it might have been because it had already bonded with you." Cassandra looked at Joe. "They can only be used by one person, right? Once they link...that's it?" Joe shrugged. "I've never seen one worn by someone with the Light before. So your guess is as good as mine” Cassie nodded. "Imma go with that." Autumn frowned a little at Cass then, her lips compressing into a thin line, but she said nothing, instead rewrapping the bracelet in her hand and tucking it back into her pocket. "So, do your stories tell of a third?” Devin asked. “Someone who exists in the Land of Upside Down Thunder? Because mine was given to me by a woman there. I didn't get mine from this realm.” Joe looked thoughtful, his gaze distant as he plainly tried to dredge up some mention of a third mythic figure. "It's said that the Trickster and the Huntsman had followers - people they ruled over. Not men, but looking like men. There's one old, old tale of a war party of ours meeting a handful of warriors in strange, bright clothing with strange weapons. These warriors hunted our war party for sport, it is said, and only three men returned home, and none of them without scars. One of these men told that the shining warriors asked about a horned man - which the earlier tales tell was the description of the Huntsman. When a larger war party went out, to seek revenge, the trail of the strangers disappeared into thin air. As if they had simply gone." "I can definitely confirm the horns," Cassie muttered. Tilting her head, Autumn peered over at Devin thoughtfully. "Does that sound like the woman you met?" "No, she was," Devin looked to the floor trying to recall her features. "She was... normal it seemed. Her head was covered with a helmet, but, I didn't feel a Shine from her. Then again, I'd just blown up the school and torn my organs apart by rapidly jumping to avoid the explosion... so, she could've looked like Beebo for all I remember." Grimacing, the red-haired teen nodded. "Okay, yeah. I guess that's fair." "A mystery, then." Jason murmured, his manner somewhat preoccupied as he turned over the terminology in his head. Two gods... the Trickster... Strange warlike followers hunting for their god, perhaps? Autumn straightened in her chair, again chewing the inside of her lower lip as she considered what her grandfather's friend had said. "All right. So it's basically just as my grandfather wrote, then, and we need to figure the rest out on our own. One of the things I'm curious about, though... And, admittedly," she added with a little smile, "it's kind of trivial compared to everything else. How did the lock to his study end up... um, 'tuned,' I guess? To people with the Light." Cassandra checks her phone to make sure it's still recording, then starts drifting away from Devin, Jase and Autumn to check the room out more, looking at the books on the shelves, and just sort of poking around as she listens to Joe. "You noticed that, huh?" Joe's eyes crinkled at the edges, the old man seeming somewhat pleased. "That was my doing. I don't have the Light - but I can feel it a little. All medicine men have, since the old times. And like the talisman, we've got some tricks to sort of... bend strands of the Light, in little ways. Rituals that look hokey and stuff, but they work. Mostly." She nodded, her expression relaxing slightly into an easy smile. "Yeah, it was pretty cool, honestly. I guess Mom gave up trying to get past it, at some point." Swinging her legs back and forth, the toes of her shoes scuffing at the floor, Autumn exhaled, clear blue eyes meeting the old man's deep brown ones. "So. What can you tell me about the ritual I'm supposed to do?" "Oh, that?" Joe smiled a little. "That's little initiation for the Kavanagh and Crocker line, a bit of a ceremony to bring them under our umbrella, so to speak. They learn some of the tales about the dark spirit, with some examples of the sinister stuff in Shelly's past, and then they learn about the talisman bundle, and hopefully enough belief is scared into 'em that they do what they're supposed to and protect their homes and watch for the cycle to start up so they can keep their loved ones close. That's about it, really. You already know it all, and your Light is stronger than any medicine I can give you to ward off the spirit." Autumn hmm’ed at that and nodded. Nathan had said this was for both the families, that the elders checked to see if they had the Dawning Light… But if Joe was right, that meant none of the Kavanaghs had- at least, not in recent memory. It was a lot to take in. "You mentioned we could 'heal the land' where the fight happened," Cassandra said. She looked over at Joe. "Do any of your stories mention how to do that?" "Plant trees and dance in the rain would be my guess." Devin said sarcastically. "We've all seen The Tree. I think if we're going to heal the land, we need to start there." "Yeah, but how?" Cass said, turning to face Devin. "It's huge. I've seen it." Distracted from her thoughts as the freckles on her cheeks vanished beneath a wave of crimson, Autumn glared at Cassie and Devin in turn. "Do not finish that thought, Deej. I can see it all over your face." Devin pursed his lips together, as though he was fighting a pitched battle against some great force within his soul. "Okay," he finally exhaled. "Fine." "That's what she said." Jason said quietly, a faint gleam in his eyes as a grin tugged at one corner of his lips. Cassie threw her hands up. "Aww, I was going to try to keep it going too. I was just about to say how impressive I thought it was he could keep a grip on himself." "Even if it does lead to blindness." Jase commented, nodding sagely. "Oh, come on." Devin glared at Autumn while gesturing to the other two. Joe's presence became a momentary afterthought. "How come they get a pass?" "I swear," the blushing redhead sighed, raking a hand back through her hair. "I literally cannot even right now, with any of you." Autumn covered her face with her hands, taking a few steps away from the group as she pleaded with all the gods, any god to just... incinerate her on the spot, right there in front of everyone. ...to no avail. Cassandra looked back at Joe, still grinning. "Seriously though...anything about the cleaning thing?" Joe was chuckling, his eyes bright as he watched the by-play. Shaking his head, he said, "There's purifying dances and ceremonies, but somehow I think this will take more than rattles and sacred feathers." "Trickster - Coyote - said that we have to destroy the skull, and that will do it." Jason commented, all business again as he looked at Cassie. "Isn't that right?" "Makes sense." Joe nodded approvingly Cassie frowned. "I don't remember him mentioning destroying the skull...but there is a skull over there. On the throne. And yeah, that does make sense. The throne is what...does it, I think. So the skull must be sort of a center of power." "The throne Is what does what, exactly?" Autumn asked. Cassandra shakes her head. "I'm not sure. The guy, the Air Force guy...he threw it off. He didn't go in. But I remember he was like...drawn to it. You could see it in his face. He couldn't take his eyes off of it. It wanted him to come to it. I think that's what happened to Cody." "Okay," Devin said with all his usual assertive bravado. "Then let’s go break that sh-" he paused and collected himself. "Thing." Autumn folded her arms over her head, slowly pacing the length of the room. "Okay. So. We deal with Cody. We deal with this spirit. We clean whatever's festering in the wound this ship made out, help it heal. More or less in that order. Yeah?" "Seems so." Jason nodded, sitting motionless in his chair save for the turning of his head as he watched Autumn. "I'm not sure the wound was made by the ship anymore. At least not ALL of the wound. I always thought it was weird the Dark is so far away from it. I think it's because the 'wound' that the Dark got in through was made by this fight," said Cassie. "Maybe," Autumn shrugged, unfazed, her eyes moving around the room, skimming over the artifacts and the faint, luminous overlay of silver that limned them as she walked. "So we deal with Cody. We deal with this spirit. We clean whatever's festering in the wound between worlds out, help it heal. What else do we need to find out?" Cassie considered. "I think, if we follow the Man in Black's plan, that's when we head to the ship." "Site B." Jason murmured, and Cass nodded in agreement. Autumn pursed her lips, the image of snowy mountains vivid in her mind's eye. "In the short-term, what do we need, though? Aeon's not calling back, so we're on our own." "Well, some of these bracelets, for one,” Cassie remarked. “And then...we just need to be ready to fight. If Cody was possessed or something by this Huntsman, there's no telling what he'll be able to do." "I have a dozen. You can pick the one you like,” Autumn replied somewhat tautly. "OH! And Enterich,” Cass exclaimed. “We should find him. Find out what he knows." "Ente- oh! The one who told Air Force Guy to..." Autumn paled a little, going still as she remembered what had happened in the basement. "Yeah. him." Devin looked to Joe and shrugged. "You get used to this. Someone says, 'loan me a quarter' and they all pace about and discern the meaning of his cryptic words: why does he need the quarter? Who else knows about the bargain of the quarter and why just a quarter? Will two dimes and a nickel suffice? If not, why?" He rolled his eyes and shrugged. "I'm still on break the skull." "That is definitely the end goal." Cassie nodded again. "You're also still on, 'That's what she said,'" the third official member of the Jauntsen Inner Circle quipped, a little dryly. "We train. We pick our bracelets. Then we go to the Old Town Hall and we do what needs doing." Jase's voice was as calm as his features. “Everything after that... comes after that." "See?" Devin gestured to Jason. "That's my plan. I like that. Let's to the thing." "Sounds like you don't need anything more than what you've already got." Laughing Joe advised. "Oh, sure. Lay out a simple, straightforward list of how we can proceed, and we're talking too much. Jason says the same thing, though, and suddenly it's reasonable. Ugh," Autumn huffed quietly. This was not how she envisioned this meeting going. At all. "That's my superpower." Jase's smile was microscopic, but definite, eliciting a faint, answering smile from his girlfriend. Cassandra had half-turned away, a thoughtful concentration pinching her forehead. "I think I may know how to get a lead on Enterich...but... Hey Laughing Joe?" She looked up at him. "This is all getting all out of control here, and we're kind of wasting your time now, but I have one more question before we go." "Shoot." Joe leaned back in his chair, eyes on her. "Do any of your stories tell you where any of these things happened? Like...the ship crashing, or where your people and Coyote talked, or any of that? Like, are they places around here we could visit? Or those three warriors...anything like that." "The star boat came down in the mountains to the east, so it's said. Coyote hid it from the eyes of Men... But there's a lot of official looking business going into and out of Glacier National Park. If folks have found it, then it makes sense that's where to start looking." Joe said, frowning as he considered. "As for the other events? They took place hereabouts in what is now called Montana. I've no idea where my people first met the god-men, or where the shining warriors hunted the braves, or any of that." Cassandra nodded and let her breath out. "Okay, figured I'd ask. Thanks for all of this. It's been a huge help." "My pleasure." Joe got to his feet, looking around at the four of them, his gaze sober. "Y'all have got a long road ahead. Miles stretching out, not all of them easy ones. You and your friends are welcome back here, though." The angsty loudmouth of the group got up to excuse himself, assuming the meeting was over, and took up a pen to begin writing something on a post-it there on one of the shelves. He passed the yellow square to Joe, where Devin’s phone number had been hastily scrawled. "If you need to Joe, please, call us. You helped us out, we owe you, big time. We're here." He smiled and shrugged. "And, y'know, pass that to Mary if she’s into gods or whatnot." Autumn's hands slid from the crown of her head, finding their way into the back pockets of her jeans as she hung back, watching the others. It was an uncomfortable feeling, bringing other people into something that was hers, inviting them into her house and her life… But that was a good thing, right? Wasn’t change supposed to be uncomfortable? The older man snorted a chuckle, nodding as he tucked the post-it into a pocket. Jason rose from his chair, nodding to Joe, then looked at the others questioningly as if to ask if they were all done. He smiled slightly as his eyes moved to Autumn, studying her expression and posture with his customary intentness. "Are we ready to go?" he asked, both generally to the group at large and specifically to her. "Yeah," she nodded with a little smile, grateful for the distraction. "I think so. The kids are getting restless. Go ahead, I'll be right there." "This is a nice pen," Devin said on his way out. "Writes good, I'm totally keeping this." Cassie snatched it from his hand with a roll of her eyes and set it back on the desk, pushing Devin out of the room. "Hey! C'mon!" "Haven't we stolen enough from the Indians?" Cass asked him archly. "Come on." She took his arm and escorted him from the back room back into the building proper, where he immediately began hitting on Mary, much to Cassie’s chagrin. "Thank you." Jason said quietly to Joe as he stepped after the bickering pair. Casting a glance at Autumn, he added. "I'll be outside." before following Devin and Cass from the room. Joe turned to Autumn, his gaze inquisitive. "Something on your mind?" "So, listen, I know that was a lot," she began, smiling as she stepped forward. "And like they all said, thanks for this. Everything's kind of been dropped in our laps, and we really have no idea what we're doing. Which, I guess, is kind of obvious." The leathery face creased in another one of those beaming smiles. "You're handling it well. Think I was half as composed when I was tapped to be medicine man and told all this stuff?" He raised a hand and grasped Autumn's shoulder. "Your ancestors are watching you, and they're proud, girl. Take it from one who knows." Oh, god. I am not going to cry in front of this man. Nope. Not happening. "Thanks," she breathed, her eyes brightening with emotion. "And, you know. I'm, um. I'm glad you were his friend. He didn't have a lot of those. So. Yeah. I guess that's it. I'll talk to mom tonight, and..." Sighing, Autumn licked her lips. "And deal with the rest as it happens. But at least now we all know we're not totally crazy, right?" "Well, not for believing in Light and Darkness. We might still be crazy for standing against it - but then, someone's got to." Laughing Joe said, his gaze more serious. "You be sure to stop by and let me know how it all turns out, once you win, hey?" "Yeah." She nodded, pushing the hair back from her face. "Yeah, I'll be sure to do that. Listen, um. Would it be really weird if I gave you a hug?" "It'd be weird not to." Joe laughed, opening his arms. Relieved, Autumn embraced the old man who'd been a friend of her grandfather's, and who'd given them more information than she could've hoped. It was exactly the kind of hug she'd expected from someone with his name, and exactly the kind she needed- warm and restorative. They talked for a few minutes more, with the youngest Kavanagh asking Joe a few more personal questions- how her grandfather had come by the lockbox, how they’d become friends, and finally... how to pronounce his name, which she sheepishly admitted she’d avoided on purpose. By the time Autumn headed out to join her friends she was smiling again, and glanced down the sidewalk toward the fast food restaurants. "So," she asked. "Anybody hungry?"
  25. The last hour had flown by like the scenery, bathed as it was in the golden haze of late summer, with the feeling of the wind and the sun all around her- and, now and again, the tickle of Jason’s hair sliding through her fingers as she watched the highway disappear beneath them. There was something inexplicably satisfying about driving like this, seeing the miles devoured by the great black beast that carried them forward, relentlessly and tirelessly forward, and she’d had the brief, wild thought that they could just… keep going. The two of them. That the broad and beautiful swath of earth and sky she’d always known was such a tiny part of what was actually out there, and if they just kept driving- -but then they stopped, and as the low rumble of the engine quieted and stilled, she felt the weight of reality reasserting itself. The soles of her grey All-Stars hit the pavement, the passenger side door closed, and Autumn was up and moving on her own, ideas of slaking her wanderlust evaporating in the lazy air. Circling around the hood of the Charger, she peered down the sidewalk toward the bank and the faux-Mexican restaurant. “Well, liquor store’s out,” the redhead mused aloud, tucking her hair behind her ears for the nth time already that morning. “Although, knowing my grandfather, that probably wouldn’t be the absolute worst place to start. The museum, maybe?” She eyed the gallery speculatively, considering their options. “There might be someone at the heritage center that either recognizes the name of the guy I’m looking for, or could point us to somebody else who does.” Taking a few steps in that direction, her fingers brushed the arm of the tall, lanky youth who had likewise scrutinized the most official-looking of the buildings on offer. “I say we start there,” she called over her shoulder, already moving on. Forward.
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