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Everything posted by Cassandra Allen

  1. Location: Parking lot of Blazers' Fresh Food Market Time: Thursday, Sept 5th There were quite a few markets around Shelley and the unincorporated areas, but for groceries there were two choices. Albertsons...and Blazers. One was a giant; unrivaled in size, price and availability for anyone that didn't want to make the long trip to the Walmart in Great Falls. The other was Blazers. Bless them, they tried. A smaller store, locally owned, it got by on a small slice of loyal customers that lived in the neighborhood. Barely. What that meant was that, particularly before working hours let out, the parking lot was oversized; built for a time before big out-of-state megamarts were a thing. A handful of cars clustered near the store, leaving vast swaths of relatively flat paved asphalt with fading paint outlining where parking was to be done. Unlike smaller strip-mall venues, there were no culverts or big dips or ridges, barely even intermittent traffic, and no curb or rails or other features to make it an interesting place for skaters to hang out. That's where Cassandra texted Autumn to meet her. She was there before Autumn, easily identified on her bike with her bushy blonde hair floofing in the afternoon breeze like some kind of lion's mane. On spotting her friend's approach, Cassie waved and quickly got a scrunchie out to scrunch said mane into a quick-n-dirty ponytail that wouldn't get whipped into her face at an embarrassing moment. She wasn't bad at skateboarding at all, but she wasn't so good at it that she willfully handed the universe ammunition to use against her. "Hey!" she called. "You made it! Here...I have some stuff for you." Cass delved into the backpack she had on; pressed into service away from school for the day. From within came curious plastic pieces that Autumn didn't place immediately. They were curved and dully shiny, set onto stretchy-looking fabric. Then she saw the straps and bands and realized...oh, you wear it. "You are going to want protective gear," explained Cassandra, grinning. "This is why Marissa will never stand where you are now standing. No such thing as designer elbow guards. So...these are for your elbows, these your knees...some people get shins and knees both together in like a kind of...boot, but I like it better separate so that's what you got. Uh, helmet. Make sure you get it on pretty snug, but not TIGHT, you know?" She watched as Autumn got the hang of fitting the pieces to herself and fumbled with the straps, loosening them and tightening the elastic straps as she got used to how they sat. When her friend was all gussied up like she was ready to play a post-apocalyptic deathsport, Cassie produced her skateboard, which had been under her backpack on a little hook that had been sewed onto it. She set it down and gestured Autumn over. "So...just so you know how this works, the first part of doing this is falling off. Like, a lot. Partly just because you won't be good at first, but also because the thing that fucks you up the most is being afraid of falling, right? So taking a few spills, and not getting hurt, helps you get over that. Here it's just you and me, and believe me I will not be judging you for falling off the board." "Just a general note to get you started...and you'll start figuring it out as you go too, because your body kind of figures it out...but you get on the board like this..." she stepped onto the board with her left foot leading even as her right foot was pushing her forward in a normal sort of walking motion. Her foot started out pointing forward, but as she lifted her right foot up onto the back of the board, she rotated it so that both feet were sideways across the width of the board, and she was standing on it sideways. This set the skateboard rolling forward at about a walking speed. Cass waggled her eyebrows as she hopped back off the board and quick as a snake snapped a foot out to catch the board before it squirted out from under her feet from the movement. "Any questions?"
  2. "Alright." Leila pressed her lips together in thought, staring at the drink in her hand for a moment as she organised her questions. "Let's start with the obvious: Charlie's death. The serial killer that you and your friends supposedly faced off against, who doesn't seem to have a name or a description that my contact in the State Police can find. Who killed Charlie and kidnapped Sophia and Tawny? Was it the same person?" Cassandra took a deep breath. This was going to happen. It was a big risk, not just to her and the Fellowship, but to Leila possibly. But...she had to know. She had to understand what would happen. What would the Project do? How far were they willing to go? Leila was not dangerous to them. Even if she believed Cass, no one would believe her. Hopefully being on good terms with Cassandra was more important to them from plugging a leak in a high school newsletter. If not, then she'd have to seriously consider her associations. "Okay. Yes. It was Cody...but the story's deeper and stranger than just that. Cody wasn't in his right mind when he did it. He was being manipulated by someone else." Here Cass glanced around, then leaned forward a little. "This whole thing gets seriously weird, and it has its roots in the history of the town. Trying to get the facts down in a way that seems even a little plausible has been driving me crazy." Leila stared off into space for a moment as she digested this, absently chewing on the corner of her bottom lip, a gesture Cassandra was familiar with as an indicator that her snarky editor was having Serious Thoughts. Despite their frenemy status, despite their clashing over bylines and presentation, Leila was as much a newshound for a good story as Cassie. It was probably the only thing that made her tolerable to work with. "Alright... Alright..." she mused aloud, then focused on Cassandra's face. "You said the word 'facts'. So I'm guessing you've got some. Sources? Research? Eye-witness accounts of this weirdness you're talking about? How weird does it get, exactly? We talking folk tales? Cults? Ancient aliens?" "I'll let you be the judge of that," Cassandra replies. "As for sources...eye witnesses, of which I am one. With some supporting documentation." She picks up her phone and wiggles it. "I went to the place that the victims were taken, got some shots of the 'psycho lair.' It was pretty fucking grim." "...and believe me, part of me wants to just leave it at that. Teenage psychopath, brought down, everything's fine now. It's a good story. And it's true, but it's not the whole truth. The rest of the truth is where it gets harder to show my work." "Cody was sort of...possessed. The place he took his victims had a door that led to another dimension." Cassie holds up a finger. "Yes, I have a picture. Inside, the ground was covered with skulls, and a giant tree was growing out of them. Near the tree was a throne, and that was where the thing controlling Cody was." "...and now it's gone. The throne, the monster...and Cody. They were destroyed. I know who did it, but I don't have their permission to reveal who they are...and yeah I know that kind of fucks me over." Cassandra sighed and rubbed her forehead. "The whole thing fucks me over." "Shit." Leila stared hard at Cassie now. "Shit, Cass." "Yeah." "Okay." The snarky brunette paced a few steps away, then back as she thought. "Let's assume I'm taking this at face value The fact that you care about these 'other people' enough to sit on a story like this is a pretty good indicator as to the 'who' was involved. Let's go back to what you said about the history of the town. 'Cause it sounds to me, putting the edges together, that Cody and this, uh, other dimension wasn't how it started. It was how it ended. Maybe we can... I dunno... tell the back-story? Work up to the unbelievable shit?" Leila sighed then. "Who am I kidding? This whole thing is going to sound like Crazy Earl's Bigfoot stories, isn't it?" Cassandra nods glumly. "Believe me, I've worked that angle. Stories about this kind of thing go back to the natives. And Shelly's had weird disappearances and a sky high record of violence for a town its size ever since they started keeping records. All of that plugs into this, but that data looks unrelated at first...and some Indian folklore isn't going to make any of this sound more like news." She sighs. "It's...a messy story. The start is simple, but by the time we get to the present day so many fingers are in so many pots that untangling what's going on is really hard. And explaining it in a way that makes sense is even harder. And even that's assuming that people are willing to believe the many things that aren't believable along the way." After a brief, pensive pause, Cassie adds, "I've written it all out...mapped each thing that happened, and it reads like the outline of a science fiction novel." "Huh." Leila chewed her lower lip again, scowling at the sculpture hanging on the wall nearby. "This sucks." she said at length. "I know." Cassie replied. "Really sucks, Cass." "I know." "So you're saying this isn't publishable as news?" Leila asked rhetorically. "Maaaaybe." Cassandra shrugged. "Perhaps there's a way to get the story out, but it's not school newspaper stuff." "Alright. Let's do this a step at a time. Pick a day when we're both free, and we can meet up and you can walk me through it. Even if it's not going in the paper, I want to see the bottom of this rabbit hole." Leila gave Cassie a searching look. "Deal?" Cassie eyed Leila, wondering if there was another shoe about to drop. Then again, Leila wasn't risking anything by doing this, was she? If it all turned out to be Cassie going crazy, all Leila was out was a little time. And if it was more than that, well then...she was in on something that would turn out to be huge. Something she had no other way to get in on than this. But Cassandra needed help as well. And the Fellowship...she trusted them, but none of them were normal. None of them could help her make this story work for normal people. They were too close to it all, too set apart. With a certain sinking feeling, Cass realized that was true of herself as well. That was the real reason she needed Leila. This was all going to spill out, sooner or later. The Project's efforts to contain it would just mean that they wouldn't be able to control it when it did. How this story was framed, how it was told, could make all the difference in what happened to the Fellowship and other people like them. She nodded. "Okay. I'm thinking...maybe Sunday, but I'll make sure there's nothing else going on first and text you." "Deal." Leila nodded, looking pleased with herself. Cassie couldn't help but wonder if she'd still be so happy once she knew everything. Well, the clairsentient amended to herself, everything that Cassie herself did. Then that started a line of thought - how much to withhold? What was going to be 'safe' information, what wasn't? Was it even safe to hold stuff back, knowing that if it came to light, she'd have immediately alienated her ally in spinning the tale? Urrrgh. Oblivious to the internal dilemma, Leila gave Cassandra a nod to affirm they had an accord. "I'll hang out and wait for your text, then. If it comes." she added, narrowing her eyes. "I said it would." Cassie retorted, noting how easily the two of them fell back into the editor/reporter dynamic and somewhat grateful for it. Chill, easy to work with Leila would be creepy. "Alright then." Leila nodded once more then looked around. "I'm gonna go before my mom comes looking for me. This whole kidnapping thing has gotten the local parents jumpy." She snorted. "Like I'm in danger of anything more than dying of bad taste in this place. Later, Allen." That was true, Cassie thought, though not for the reasons Leila probably thought it was. And once she knew the story, would it still be true? That was food for thought as well. "Later," she said.
  3. "Time's up." To her credit, Leila had at least waited until Cassandra had made it to the reception, gotten a drink of sparkling apple juice, and was considering the catered buffet before pouncing. Cassie half-turned, seeing her editor and arch-frenemy standing next to her, likewise considering the food on display but with one eye on the blonde reporter. "Today's the day, Allen. I want my answers." Her tone softened barely perceptibly. "I know Charlie was one of your in-club of whatever-the-fuck. Devin LaDouche standing up and speaking at his funeral announced that loud and clear. But here's the thing: I'm the editor, you're a reporter sitting on a humungo humdinger of a story." She took a sip of her Coke. "So let's talk." Cassandra let out a breath and nodded. She then looked around and got a Coke for herself. "Okay," she said. "Come on, lets get a little distance." Cassie started leading Leila away from the others at the reception then. Leila followed but couldn't resist a snipe, "They'll still find my body, Allen. Dogs are really good at that." "Yeah, but the tub of lye I set up in advance is a little farther over so..." Cass paused and looked around to verify that no one else was lingering around in earshot. At least not to the best of her ability to tell. "Okay. You want answers...and I want to give answers. So it's AMA time. Ask me anything. And trust me, don't ask me to just 'summarize it' because...it's a lot. I think I know you well enough to know there's something you're really interested in, out of all of this. Instead of me trying to guess, just ask what's on your mind. I'll tell you. Even if it's not the answer you expect or...probably want to hear."
  4. The funeral was weird for Cassandra. For one, it was only her...second? Third if you counted the one she'd been practically a baby for way back when. She didn't count it because she had no real memory of it. So second. Why did that make it weird? She wasn't sure, it just felt weird. Everything felt off, like a room where all the furniture had been shifted two inches to the left since the last time you were there. Nothing was quite right. She felt hyperaware of the feeling of her clothes on her, and snippets of whispered conversations kept leaping up out of the buzz at her, like crazy fish trying to escape a net. And yet, when service was about to start her mom had to nudge her elbow to get her attention. Cass was lost in the weeds. She hadn't even KNOWN him. Not really. Why did that make it feel worse, somehow? Maybe because now she never would? Okay, sure, but...were you supposed to grieve for people you hadn't bonded with? Could you grieve for the potential of a friendship? Was what she was feeling grief? Cassie had grieved before, not even that long ago. Her dad, back when she'd thought he was dead. This wasn't like that. That had been a howling abyss in her heart that had expanded like a black hole gobbling stars, threatening to hollow her out. There were still radioactive places in her memories that she couldn't walk for fear of feeling echoes of that time, right after his funeral. This wasn't like that. It was...tighter. More focused. Something in her skin, not deep inside. It made her feel prickly, embarrassed. It was a sour, sullen emotion, stern-faced. Reprimanding. So she knew this one after all. Hello, guilt, my old friend. The service went on, Cass barely hearing it. The moment she identified what the feeling was, it seemed to rear up and whip off its mask. Immediately Cassandra realized why this was happening. When we went to fight the Dark, he was already gone. When we made our plans, talked it through...when we pulled together and got ourselves through it, he was dead. The Dark just creeped in, grabbed him, and took him out. And we barely even noticed. She took a deep, shuddering breath. It got worse. It was my job to see things coming. I was supposed to be the 'eyes.' But I was all tunnel-visioned on the fight. I didn't even TRY using my abilities before it happened. We all just assumed the Dark would wait for us to come attack it. But it's worse for me, because I didn't have to assume. I could have checked us all, every day. It might not have been perfect...the future is kind of hard to work out sometimes...but I could have saved him. At least maybe I could have. And what could she do with this now? Shrug and call it a lesson learned? Is that what Jase would do? Was that what she wanted? What would Devin do? Sink deeper into misanthropy, playing victim and aggressor at the same time; trying to have his social cake and eat it too? Autumn? Cade? She felt her mother lean towards her a little and put an arm around her shoulders, and Cass realized she had tears coming down her eyes. After a moment of hesitation, she let herself slump against her mother's shoulder. It made her feel a little childish, but...she was a little childish, wasn't she? And that had cost one of her friends his life. And it had cost the Fellowship one of their friends. Then she realized her mom was humming something, some old song Cass barely remembered. She sat up a little, and Teresa moved her arm to give her some space. "You doing okay?" she asked softly. Cassandra nodded. "Yeah." She was surprised at how dry her mouth and throat were. "I'm...going to get some water. Then...then lets go. Okay? Ugh, is it too soon? I just don't..." Teresa leaned forward to give her daughter a hug. "It's totally all right. Plenty of people have already left. You've been here for a little while. I didn't want to interrupt you." So Cassie went to the little table at the back of the place, where a few pitchers had been set up with cups nearby. The questions she had were still there, but they didn't have to be answered right away, she thought. All she could do now was try to grow up, so it wouldn't happen again...and when she did, she could remember Charlie and what he meant to her. Just because he was dead didn't mean all of his light had to leave the world.
  5. "Okay, fine, joking aside, a bit of conversation might do us good. It's not something I'm good at, and I kind of owe you at least that much, considering the last couple of days, you know?" And all Cassandra could think for a second was...holy shit, is he actually playing nice? What was wrong with this picture? She knew damn well she was doing the conversational equivalent of standing balanced on a gangplank, windmilling her arms frantically to try to avoid falling off. Down in the water below was Beth, hungry for juicy gossip and ready to share it with...other sharks? Okay, the metaphor kind of broke down, but the point was clear. Devin would only have to reach out with a verbal fingertip and give her a tiny poke to send her down. But he wasn't doing it. And that was confusing and inconsistent! And maybe a little charming, goddamnit! She gave Beth a reproving look as if to say, 'see???' and then nodded at Devin. "We could probably both use the practice. So...yeah. I'll text you when me and Autumn are done and we can meet up. I will definitely have worked up an appetite by then. Because of the skateboarding."
  6. "Don't let him scare you," Cassandra was saying to Bethany, giving Jase a theatrical glare. "Ninety percent of this whole thing he does is an act." Beth glanced at her and asked, "And the other ten?" Cassie cleared her throat, not sure what to say to that. Then she was spared by a timely intervention. "Hey," Devin said to her. "So, uh, I didn't want to text you this, figured that be a bit lame. So, do you you have plans tomorrow night? I was thinking we could go out." Her eyes widened and she looked at Devin with an expression somewhere between 'what did you say' and 'why did you say it now?' Meanwhile Beth was giving Cass a knowing look. Cassandra shook a finger at her and said, "No!" Then she looked at Devin and said, "...plans? I...have an assignment, but...go out where?" Then Beth smiled smugly and turned in her seat to look at Devin and offer a hand. "Hi. I'm Beth. So you and Cassie are going out?" "Dude," reproved Cass, "we're friends, it's chill." "You said that about Dylan too." Cassandra nodded. "Right! Yes! And see how that went? So this time, I mean it." As Bethany rolled her eyes good-naturedly, Cass looked back at Devin and took a deep breath. "Anyway. There's the funeral and..." she trailed off for just a moment. "Actually, she already has a date," Autumn said cheerfully, with just a hint of veiled snark. "Right!" blurted Cassie quickly. "Me and Autumn are going to go skateboarding. Maybe after that? We'll be done before dark, so if you wanted to hang out then, as friends," she gave Beth another look, "that'd be cool. Where do you have in mind?"
  7. Cassandra scarfed a breakfast bar and a glass of OJ (the OJ first because it tasted hella gross if you ate it AFTER the OJ) on her way out the door the morning of September 4th. There was a very specific reason why. She made good time on her bike and chained it to the fence of the bike enclosure rather than walking it in and picking a loop of metal in the concrete. It saved a couple of minutes. A couple of minutes, along with some more from skipping breakfast at school, that she could use to get started on an article for the paper before Leila came in. The plan was foolproof. She even peeked in between the slats in the window to the 'newsroom,' while shading her eyes, and verified that Leila's bag wasn't on her desk. Cassie got her key out and let herself in and locked the door behind her and sat down and turned on her little Mac laptop, all ready and engaged and just bursting with news and stories to tell... ...and then had to delete her first paragraph. It sounded crazy her first try. How could it not?! It was talking about pretty crazy things. Cassandra tried another couple of drafts, but none got past midway through paragraph two. Okay, step back. What was the official story again? There'd been a murder at the old town hall, police were investigating? Right, well, a little boring but it was a solid starting spot. Cass started typing...and then stopped. Unease fluttered in her fingertips. They felt tingly. A little numb. It didn't take much introspection to figure out why, because the answer was echoing in her brain. If I do this..if I print this...then I'm spreading a false story to help cover up real events because some shadowy government agency wants me to. If she did this, she was one of Them. They were everywhere in conspiracy circles. Cassandra knew Them well, from when she'd been looking for something, anything, to explain what had happened to her dad. The government, both national and international. Globalist billionaire cohorts locking down world resources. Secret societies. If you went deep enough you could throw Satanists and aliens onto the pile. THEM. The ones pulling the wool over everyone's faces, to protect the status quo from the baleful eye of public scrutiny. Not caring who couldn't breathe because of it. And if she thought about it, why did she feel a need to protect Aeon? Branch 9? Obviously not Crossroads, but...were they that different? Did she KNOW Aeon didn't have labs full of human subjects? It wasn't like they'd ever been given a full tour. Crossroads and Enterich and Cook had spun off of Aeon after the fact, but how much of their agenda was set before the breakup? Shit. SHIT. Click. "Cool. That is going straight to the spank bank." Cassandra's agonizing was interrupted by the bored-sounding voice of Leila from off towards the little hallway that led to the bathrooms. She looked over, eyes wide. Leila waved her phone at Cassie and laconically explained, "I think I managed to capture the exact moment when you realized what a hack you are. It was majestic." And though Cassie had spent the entire semester coming up with internal excuses for Leila, she was way past her threshold right now. She spun in her seat and fixed the student editor with a stare that wouldn't have been completely out of place on Jase's face. "What is your problem with me, Leila?" she asked, and though she was angry she didn't ask angrily. There was force behind the question, but not any attempt to threaten or intimidate. "You've been giving me nothing but shit all year...and not just like, editor-shit either. That thing with the camera was fucking uncalled for, and it's not the first time." At this Leila rolled her eyes up to look at the ceiling and said, "Finally. Jesus. I thought you'd go the whole year." She went to her desk and sat atop it to return Cassandra's aggrieved stare. "Alright, first and foremost, it's because you're pissing me off. Second it's because I don't trust you. Third...because it's fun. And don't worry...I will elaborate." Leila reached over to turn her computer monitor towards Cassandra, and tapped her mouse button. Keynote popped up, with a slideshow on it. It was titled, 'X Things I Hate About Allen.' Leila shrugged. "It's a work in progress, but I'm not letting that stop me from doing this. So, slide one. How you're pissing me off." "You're a fraud," she explained, moving the cursor over that line on the bullet points. "Everyone else in school seems like they forgot, but your freshman year you skipped like half your classes. You didn't give a shit about school, about journalism, about anything but getting high and falling off skateboards with your slacker boyband harem. Then your dad dies, which is...okay that's legit tragic...and you fall off the planet for most of that year, and then you show up...Cassandra the go-getter. Going to class and getting into activities and all that, and everyone buys into your redemption arc." She tapped between her eyes. "Except the ones who pay attention. You show up to class but you don't pay attention and your grades are kind of shit. You join the paper, but I have to constantly ride your ass to get you moving, and you never, ever, FUCKING EVER, talk to me about what the fuck you're doing." She took a deep breath, visibly calming herself. "...which is fine. I don't have a horse in the trainwreck of your life, except for one thing. My grade for THIS is based on how well the WHOLE PAPER does. Which means you're in a position to fuck it up for me. That means I can't just ignore you, and that pisses me off." Cassandra, more than a little taken aback, opened her mouth to try to respond but Leila cut her off with a scowl and a neck chopping motion. "Not done yet. You asked, so I'm gonna answer." "Anyway, why I don't trust you is kind of...tangled up in there, but yeah. Whatever this big change you're marketing in yourself is, it's skin deep, Allen. You're still not taking any of this seriously. Which is, again, you know it's fine except now it's affecting me. Worst of all you're super deep in denial over it? Every time we talk you keep trying to talk like fucking Lois Lane or something and if you can't even be honest with yourself, what does that mean for everyone else? Uh...number...three? Yeah." She moved the pointer down. "Right. It's fun. So, here's the thing. About ninety percent of school I don't care about either. It's literally just smoke and mirrors. Everything we do here will get crumpled up and smushed down and result in exactly one important thing. Our senior year GPA. That's all universities, or employers, will look at. Literally all. Nothing else matters. All the drama, all the...bylines, all the gossip...it's completely meaningless. We're all trapped in Plato's fucking Cave, Allen. Watching the shadow puppets. We may as well make the show entertaining." Leila lifted her hands and made funny gestures, as if a light was shining past them onto a wall. "If you weren't in a place you could hit my GPA, I would still give you shit, because why not? Besides, maybe it'll do you some good. I mean, if you can't keep it together when a high school girl pretending to be an editor gets on your case, how the fuck do you think you'll do with an actual editor?" Cassie sat silently for a second, then asked the only question that still made sense. "...you actually put together a Keynote for that?" The final slide showed some clip art of a hand flipping the bird out of the screen. Leila looked at it and nodded. "Yeah, I'm super pro at this job. It's like your annual review or some shit. 'Needs Improvement.'" "That's oddly touching. Thanks, Leila. I mean, you know, eat shit? But also thanks." The student editor snorted and sat down at her desk, pushing her monitor back around to face her. Then she said, "One more day, by the way." Cassie nodded as she got back to work. For whatever weird reverse-psychological Jungian-Freudian archetype bullshit reason, Leila's tirade had not made her more angry. It had kind of...done the opposite? Somehow? "I know," she replied. "I'm on it."
  8. "Things got heated earlier and I was a complete jerk. I just wanted you to know that I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I was wrong and I'm sorry." Cassandra was quiet as she let Devin lay out his confession and tried to decide how to handle it. On the one hand, despite a certain performative quality, it was rare to get any kind of mea culpa from Devin, so she didn't want to shove it back in his face. On the other hand...she wasn't exactly sure what he was apologizing for. Running back over the meeting in her head, there was only one time that Devin had specifically annoyed her, and that was when he been...well...himself after the first part of her telling the story. And it had been annoying, but not especially annoying. Not out of proportion to his normal interpersonal style, which he'd never thought merited an apology before. There was one thing though. One other thing that she was pretty sure he wasn't referring to, but maybe he should have been. "Look," Cassie said, "the only thing that really hurt my feelings was when Marissa decided you two weren't in the Fellowship, and that we are apparently all terrible human beings...and you just stood there and seemed to agree. Whatever else you did..." she shrugs, "next to that, it doesn't matter." "So, assuming you don't feel bad about that, then I guess we're cool." Cass hesitated, then added, "Sorry about the situation with your mom though. If you want to talk about it sometime, let me know. I know a thing or two about dragon moms..." Teresa swatted her on the shoulder with faux outrage. "Okay," she said, "I think that's enough of that." She looked at Devin then, and her expression was complex. There was sympathy for the boy yes, but also a bit of motherly wariness. She knew they were going to Homecoming, of course. She also knew Cassandra kept assuring her that they were just friends, but she also also knew that those sentiments could change in a hurry at this age. Beyond all that though was something else, something softer. The gratitude in her voice was genuine when she said, "Thank you for being there for Cassie when she needed you." There wasn't time to really talk though. The Jauntsens were on their way out, and Devin's stunt only bought him seconds at best.
  9. "So that's the ship," Cassandra said quietly. "The one they came on." At the quizzical looks from the table she added, "Coyote and the other one, the one who turned into the Dark. This whole thing, with the Darkness poking into our world...that ship is what made the 'crack' that let that happen. The world has some kind of protection, like a shell sort of." Cassie hesitated, then said, "Okay, protection is a little misleading. It's not there to protect us specifically, though it sort of does by accident. It's there to keep us in, more than keep other stuff out. In the end it does do both though. And by 'keep us in,' I don't mean on the planet. It's more like we're not supposed to get these powers, and definitely not supposed to go out into whatever's beyond. So this shell stops all that from happening." "Until it was cracked. That let the Darkness in, but it also meant people around here could grow in ways they don't in other places." She shrugged. "At least, that's what I think he meant when he explained it to me. There's room for interpretation when Coyote talks, you know?"
  10. "Okay, I wasn't sure how...or whether or not to...get into this stuff, because like Autumn said we only just started unpacking it ourselves...but I guess that ship's sailed," sighed Cassandra. Then she quickly added to Annette, "I actually met the cat before. He seemed nice. A little cryptic, but cool." Then she looked back at everyone else and took a deep breath. "First, just...everyone please try to calm down. I know it's...emotional and tense and it's just a LOT. All at once. Believe me, I know. Rule one though...no one here has, to the best of my ability, acted with actual malice towards anyone else in this room. We're all at least kind of on the same side. In particular because Lilly's right. The thing we fought in the Darkness wasn't the only one. It was probably the...the biggest. Maybe the most important. But it wasn't working alone." Cassandra closed her eyes for a moment and let the words roll down and off of her, like water droplets. "Which means the job isn't over yet." "I know it's hard to hear. I mean, hard enough we already took all these risks, but now we're going to have to keep doing it. At least a little longer. I don't think we'll have to go back across into the Darkness though. That was the other one's home turf. Enterich lives here now. We'll face him here. But you have to understand this isn't something we can push off onto the police, or the military. I don't know exactly what he is, but I have a feeling I know how it'd go. All he'd have to do is say a few words, and they'd be shooting each other instead of him." "So it's on us. And doing nothing isn't an option, because like the situation with Jase shows, Enterich knows we're a threat and he's already moving against us. That isn't going to stop."
  11. "Okay." Cassandra looked around the room, and felt a little tingle of nervousness and anticipation. This would be the first time all this was laid out for everyone. She was writing the Bible here, and hoped she didn't fuck it up too badly. Look what happened the last time. "Some of us have heard at least some of this before, but I don't know who's been told what...and we need to all be on the same page, so I'll ask everyone to just bear with me. I'll also start off by saying, yes we each have powers that most people don't have, and we very recently used those powers to protect Shelley from a threat no one knew was there. And...I'll circle back around to that, so don't worry." Feeling a little restless, she scooted backwards and stood up. "It all starts with a tale of two parties, back in July. Chet was having one, distributing flyers, and so..." she nodded at Jason, "...Bannon had to get in on the deal and threw together a shindig of his own out on the reservation. More discreet...invitation only. Just kind of, teenage angst playing itself out, normal day. That would have been the eighteenth." "The night of the party, things got wild though. Not in a good 'party-way' but in a...sort of reality is coming apart like wrapping on a Christmas present way. A bunch of us..." Here she indicated the Fellowship at the table, "...basically all of US, plus Clara and Lona and Charlie and...you know...we got separated from the main party. Went out on the paths into the woods nearby. Now, I don't know the details of what everyone else saw. But I bumped into Devin by accident, and he and I saw this crazy guy, naked, run out from the trees. And he had a gun." Cassandra took in a breath here, remembering that moment. "We were freaking out...this guy looked like it'd been weeks since he'd showered, if then, and he couldn't talk...just made noises. Before he could do anything though, there was this cloud behind him. And out from the cloud came...a creature. It looked kind of like a floating octopus, but I only say that because it had tentacles. It wasn't really that much like an octopus other than that." She shook her head. "It grabbed the man, hauled him back into the cloud. Then the cloud vanished again. At the time, we had no idea what was going on. Now we have a pretty good idea, but...that's not going to make sense yet." "Devin and me, we ran. Grabbed the gun he dropped and ran. We finally found the others near this...like trailer? Out in the woods? It was where the guy we'd seen had been living. Most of the rest of us were already there...we found Lona in the woods on the way there...but as I understand it, the ones at the cabin had been attacked by a sabertooth tiger. So...a whole LOT of crazy going around that night." Cassandra held up a hand. "And I know what the adults in the room are thinking. Not...I'm not actually reading your minds, it's just obvious. Drugs. But you have to understand most of us hadn't taken anything that night. Even if someone had, pot doesn't make you see alien monsters or sabertooth tigers. Believe me, we've all been all over that. In the weeks after the party, I know I tried every rational explanation I could think of to deal with it. There's nothing. We learned the truth much later." "Anyway, the trailer was full of maps and writing and...even though he'd seemed crazy when Devin and me saw him, he'd been working on something in that trailer." "That's what kept pulling us back." Cassie shrugged. "Most of us kept going back there over the next few weeks. Kept seeing each other over the summer, talking. Trying to make sense of it all. The trailer was full of files...Jase wound up moving most of it to his place in the end. Even so, it wasn't until after school started again that things started to fit together." "That's when we found out Cody was missing. It's when we started putting pieces together that there was some next-level spycraft going on in Shelly, and it was connected to the Medical Center. It's when I found out about the prison riot on the night of the party, and some coverups related to that." She took a deep breath. "And it's when we learned about what we call the Shine...and the Dark." "We call it the Shine, because that's what it looks like to us. There's this way of looking at the world that's just a little different, it's hard to explain. People have a glow to them, everyone has a little. But we...we have a lot. We're searchlights. I don't know if that was always the case, or if something happened that activated us or something. But when we met at lunch, we started putting all these pieces together in a kind of...random, chaotic way. So we decided to meet up at Jase's place and actually try to organize." With a nod, Cassandra concluded, "And that put us on a long road that led us to where we are now, really. Obviously there's a lot more, but...lets take a breather for a second. First of all," she looked around at the Fellowship, "Am I missing anything important? I know I kind of glossed over a few details, but I'm trying to keep it manageable here. Still, I didn't see or hear everything, so if anyone wants to add something, this is a decent time. Or if there's questions about what I've said so far, this is good too. Just don't leapfrog ahead of me. I know there's still a lot to go over, but we will get there, I promise."
  12. By the time Cassandra got in, her mom was already home for a change. She'd taken most of the afternoon off, since she'd have had to have left a bit early anyway. Thus, Cassie was greeted with a distracted, 'Hey kiddo,' from the living room, which startled her for a second. "Hey mom," she said back as she cruised past the living room on the way to her bedroom. Her tone was an excruciatingly well-practiced nonchalance, that formed an almost solid and concrete impression of a perfectly ordinary day, in which nothing particularly important happened and certainly nothing worthy of concern or discussion... And Teresa accepted it at face value largely out of habit. Bacon, however, wasn't having it. The dog was up off the floor in front of the couch like a shot, weaving expertly around the coffee table and interposing himself between Cassandra and the door to her room. His ears perked forward and he wagged his tail...but the whine escaping him was tense and anxious. Cass kneeled down and cooed, "Aww, what's the matter? Mom watching scary movies? Do you need a hug? Animal protective services?" She did reach out to give Bacon a hug; the german shepard being big enough to make such a gesture possible. The moment she touched him though, Cassandra froze. Worried. Bacon was worried about her, worried sick. She wasn't well, she wasn't right, and unbidden in her head she could see...well no, not see...but she could smell something rising up...a smell like sweat, only a little worse. Salty, sour, dank. Her brain instinctively tried to turn it into a picture, and what she came up with was a dark old basement that had been made into a locker room but then abandoned after murders had taken place there. The smell of fear, but not just any fear...the slow kind of fear. The rot that ate you from inside. The sudden realization that it was her smell brought her up short, and she yanked her hands away from the dog. Bacon whined again, his tail thumping the floor, and he pressed the top of his head against her neck and chin. For a second Cassandra was back in the Dark. Skulls crunched under her feet, and it wasn't a dog pressing against her. It was something else, fleshy and tumorous, biting at her with teeth that had no business being where they were... With a horrified yelp she scooted backwards away from Bacon, managing to catch herself on the heels of her hands so she didn't just flop over onto her back. Teresa looked up, and immediately felt a stab of not just unease, but fear...and for some reason, guilt? That made no sense though, so she stuffed that away and got up. "Are you okay? What happened? Did Bacon trip you? Even asking it though she could tell that wasn't it. The body language was wrong. Everything was wrong. "Cassandra?" she asked. "No," Cassie said as her breath returned. "I'm f..." she broke off, unable to say the word she'd intended. She wasn't fine. Bacon's big anxious eyes bored into her, and seeing herself in them she couldn't say the word. "I, uh...I just...had a second there... I felt scared even though there was no reason for it.It was just Bacon though." It was on instinct more than anything that Teresa leaned down to give Cassandra a hug. Instantly she knew it was the right thing to do, because her daughter immediately turned to return it, her arms unexpectedly tight. "Do you want to talk about it?" Teresa asked gently. "Can't right now," Cassie demurred. "Meeting. Maybe later?" "There's still plenty of time before the meeting," pointed out her mother. "No pressure or anything. Just...whenever you want to. Okay?" But when Cassandra decided to let go, she couldn't. So instead she said, "Actually...maybe now's good." Then Cass took a deep, shivery breath and went on, "I need tell you about what happened the other night. And...when I do, I just...just please keep remembering that we made it out okay. It's over, it's done..." A flash of Enterich's face popped into her mind, smirking. Over and done, are we? What a relief. We wouldn't want to have to go through that again. Even with as much time as they had, they were almost late to the meeting. =========== On getting to the conference room, Cassandra realized there wasn't really a place left to sit that wasn't near the Jauntsens. She went up to the seat by Dana, and her mother took the one between her and Misti. Cassie didn't say anything, or meet many eyes as she came in. A sharp eye might have seen a little bit of puffiness around them that implied some tears had been shed. Teresa, on the other hand, gave everyone a reserved smile as she went around to her seat and said, "Hello, I hope we didn't hold everyone up. We got off to a little bit of a later start than we'd hoped to...some last minute family business came up. Under the table she reached over to give Cassandra's hand a squeeze. She'd suggested just canceling, but Cass had been rock solid firm that they had to go to this. There wouldn't be a make-up day if they missed this exam. Cass returned the squeeze and then got up to get some water for herself and her mom just ahead of when the meeting started for real.
  13. "She needs friends," Devin said with no hesitation in his voice. "But, what do I know? I don't have a one-thousand I.Q., or an icy-jade stare, so obviously I'm not qualified to tell you how to set personal standards for yourself, so I could be wrong." "Stop coming to me for the answers guys." he sighed and shook his head. "Either step up to the plate and figure your shit out, or don't. Either way, stop wasting both hers, and your, time." Cassandra, who'd already started turning to go knock on Marissa's door, paused and looked back at him. "Jesus Christ, Devin, you're her brother," Cassandra retorted. "Who the fuck else should I ask for advice for how to relate to her from? I mean, I don't know if you were aware of this or not, but your sister has the temperament of a wounded wolverine sometimes. And yes, she has reasons, and yes I am sympathetic, but I am also," she ticked off one finger, "A, wanting to approach her in a way that will not make things worse, and B, hoping to avoid losing some fingers!" "But yeah. Sorry to waste your fucking time. And hers. You two clearly have it all fucking worked out. What a fucking shock she needs friends if this is how it goes." She grimaced and worked her hands as if trying to shake water off of them. It felt awful feeling awful...like there was an actual goop clinging to her. Moments like this brought back fond memories of just hazing out with the skater crowd, making inane jokes and not giving a shit about anything. "Anyway, enjoy the pizza. I am suddenly not in the mood. I'll talk to everyone later, I'm out." There was a needle of guilt that threaded under the frustration and displaced anxiety that drove the outburst...this wasn't going to help Marissa, and it wouldn't help the Fellowship. But then again, she was not really fit company right now. She'd just make things worse if she stuck around. A little time to cool off was all she needed.
  14. Cassandra listened to it all spiral downward, and when Devin addressed her directly she watched him, nodding as he spoke. None of it was a shock exactly; she'd heard enough dribs and drabs to put the pieces together in hindsight...and it did put things in a perspective that made a kind of sense. An awkward adolescent sort of sense. She shook her head as Jase left and said again, "All I'm saying is that I feel for her. I think she was wrong not to trust us, but I understand why she didn't. And I think turning our backs on her now is the worst thing we could do. If Enterich had dangled my dad in front of my face, and threatened to hurt him or kill him...and he easily could have...I don't know what I would have done. And it isn't really important, I guess, because it isn't about what I would have done anyway. It's about Marissa, who didn't feel like she had anyone to turn to." Cassie shrugged. "I don't know if she'll ever feel like she can turn to us, and it honestly kind of hurts that she doesn't now. I always thought we had her back when it counted, but again...not about what I think." She looked at Devin. "So...you know her. What does she need right now? Sympathetic ear? Space?"
  15. Cassandra took a deep breath, held it while imagining it was a sponge for all the frustration and fear and anger in her body...then expelled it with a bit more force than a simple exhalation. It was just a mind trick, but in that moment it did feel like she could think a little more clearly. She hoped. "Okay, so I may be in the minority here, but I actually think that mostly went pretty well," Cassie said. "Obviously Jase and Marissa are both incredibly, superhumanly stubborn and seem committed to pissing each other off simply by existing...but given that? Not bad. Not bad at all." She looked around the room and let out another cleansing breath. God, it had been tense for a second there. "As for what to do now, I think trying to push harder tonight isn't going to lead to anything good...though, Devin, you're the expert here so please correct me if I'm wrong. It feels to me like Marissa needs to deal with some feelings right now, and Jase probably isn't the one to help her do that. And Jase...she's not going to be able to deal with your whole...thing...until that happens. So she'll need some space." "For what it's worth, she's right though. We're going to need each other. It's going to be messy, and frustrating and we're going to have to really work at it...but it's still true. If one thing like Enterich got in while the Tree was stuck in the world, then more probably have as well." Cass closed her eyes for a moment. "I already know how this plays out for me. If I don't miss my guess, we're almost at the part where he uses my dad to try to rope me into something like he did with Marissa. And I have to say, even knowing what I know, I'm not super sure what I'm going to do about it. So if I seem sympathetic towards Marissa right now...it's because I am. He could have done that to me. He could have, but he picked her, and even God may not know why." Cassie looked back the way Marissa had gone and reached absently up to brush her bangs out of her eyes. "I should talk to her."
  16. Cassandra was late. Her eyes flicked from the road ahead to the glowing numbers of the digital clock in the dashboard, and she swore under her breath. How did you explain being late in a car like this? Of course, she'd much rather explain that than explain how she got so much as a single scratch on it because she'd been driving in a rush. The car was Marissa's, and it looked like the kind of thing that would balance a set of financial scales with a Malibu dream house. Intellectually Cass knew it couldn't be that expensive, but something about the smell of the upholstery, and the way the seat gently gripped you when you sat in it, and the gleaming technology set into every inch of the dash...and the incidental luxuries that were so offhanded as to be taken for granted... It just felt like the kind of car that a careless moment would either require corporate backing to cover, or a life's savings. One neither she nor her mom had at the moment. So she drove carefully. And she'd gotten off to a late start after school. One might expect someone who could see the past and future to be better at time management, but Cass had gotten into the zone doing some work for the paper. Evidently psychic alarm clocks were not among her powers. In hindsight she almost wished she'd begged off when Devin had texted her asking if she could pick it up. But lets face it, Marissa had an awesome car...driving it had seemed like it'd be fun! And when would she ever get another chance? The light ahead turned red, and Cassandra felt herself relax a little as she let the sporty, expensive plaything drift to halt. It gave her a second to consult the GPS and confirm, for probably the eightieth time, that she was on the correct heading...even though she pretty much knew the way to Devin and Marissa's place by heart now. And it gave her a few seconds of eased anxiety, until she realized someone could rear-end her. So then she looked backwards and nearly missed the green light. Ugh! This was supposed to be a good time! Finally, FINALLY, though she spotted the Jauntsen place after cruising through 'the good part' of town's winding avenues. She even signaled pulling into the driveway, even though no one was behind her. Then, seizing a moment to relax as she shut off the engine, Cass texted Devin, 'Hey, Im here, sorry 4 being late...b right in.' Then Cass just breathed for a minute. Then she unbuckled and got out of the car and closed the door...and then remembered to lock it with the little fob. It beeped at her, and Cass tried not to let it sound snide. When she knocked, the door to the house opened nearly immediately, revealing Devin standing there. Cass held the keys out and said, "Never again," quietly. Devin's smug grin actually faltered, and he leaned over to get a glimpse of the driveway. "Is...it all right?" he whispered. "Yeah. It was just...like riding a pogo stick made of diamonds down a flight of stairs, you know? Just really stressful." Palpable relief emanated from Marissa's brother and he took the keys. "Jesus, you can't scare me like that. Thanks for bringing it back. Pizza's on it's way, we got Coke in the kitchen." Cassie followed him in and gave a little wave of shame at the people visible in the kitchen and dining room. "Hey everyone. Sorry I'm late. We all here now?"
  17. Cassandra sat through the entire tirade, then said, "Wow, okay. From the top." She closed her eyes and started to recite: "I was feeling off, so I went to the doctor's office. It has nothing to do with any rumors. There's nothing to talk about yet. I don't know what you're hearing from your sources, maybe you should check with them? Mari's trying to set a new trend, she thinks the look'll be hot. Yes I am. No you can't. And...someone doesn't sound like a credible witness?" Leila folded her arms more and more tightly as Cassie went on, then said, "This is bullshit, Cassandra. You report to me. You can't keep secrets from your editor! What's the point of a reporter who doesn't report?!" "Yes!" Cass said abruptly, cutting her off. "It's bullshit! Ask bullshit questions, get bullshit answers! Jesus, Laila, are you actually paying people to follow me around or something?! Look! I've been through some shit lately, and I am still trying to work out what I can hand in, and what will get me arrested for handing in. Who's kissing who is nothing, Laila. It's nothing." She took a deep breath, trying to exhale the sudden tension in her neck and shoulder, and held her hands out in mock surrender. "Alright. Deadlines are good. Deadlines keep me focused. I need two days to untangle all this, and get something printable on your desk. Alright? Two days. That'll give you time to get it out this week if you get the copy in on time." Laila narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "So what, you just fuck off for two days, then put some piece of science fiction down? No, I want to know what this story IS, Allen. What are you working on, and why isn't it...any of those things I was asking about? I'm handing you grade A material here, but you're just...no, I need more time..." Her voice slid up into a mocking falsetto on the last phrase. Cassandra rubbed her temples and said, "Right, well, I can't say much yet because ongoing investigations and all that, but basically a tiny bit of what you said was kind of right in a very roundabout way. Remember when Cody disappeared?" Immediately Laila was sitting down across from Cassie, intently focused. "Yeah." "Well, then around Labor Day some other kids were taken too. A few kids realized something was going on, and pieced enough together to get in way over their heads...but then, against all odds, managed to pull it out at the end and save some lives. That is the story. What I'm going through now is working out how specific I'm allowed to be, who wants to be on record, and all that." Laila was quiet for a moment, studying Cassandra minutely. "Two days?" "Best I can do." Finally she nodded. "Okay. Two days. But it had better be exactly as awesome as you're making it sound." Then Laila stalked away. "Sure," Cassie grumped under her breath. "Because that's what I needed. More pressure."
  18. Cassandra shook her head and worked her shoulders, trying to clear away the heebie jeebies. As always, Devin was mixing creepy and hot together and it was just super weird. "That's not hard," she observed sardonically. "We're teenagers. We're attracted to practically everyone. Puberty is a cruel mistress. Devin is just...Devin. Lets talk about..." here Cassie hesitated, because she wanted to talk about Ellie, but that wasn't why she was here. Not this time. "...Jase." That brought her back with a shock to her friend, momentarily startled out of her head by a stranger in the room. Cassie went to Jason's side and gave him a look up and down, then smiled a wobbly smile. "That text scared the shit out of me," said Cass reprovingly, "You look...better than I was afraid you'd be." Here she looked up and over at Autumn, giving her friend a respectful nod, then hunkered down near Jase. "What the hell happened though? Who would want you dead? I know you're not exactly Mr Popular around school, but I don't think Chet's hiring assassins." "They flagged me down just a couple miles down the road from my house." Jase replied calmly, jade eyes narrowing slightly as he considered her. "Cop lights on the dash. Pleasant, clean-cut looking man. I thought he'd most likely be a Fed, given the kidnapping report yesterday. Perhaps someone a little curious about the cover story, doing some digging." He paused, taking a sip of water, then went on. "Outside chance, I thought he'd be ATF, doing the whole 'we're watching your dad and his friends' schtick." Cassie frowns at that. "What the... And then what? Did they say anything?" The lean young man shook his head, his hair brushing against the new pale scar line on his cheek. "Not a word. He approached, smiling and waving. Then reached into his jacket like he was going for ID. Then I noticed he was wearing gloves on a warm morning." He paused another moment. "I had my forcefield just forming when the first shot was fired. I was jerking my head away on reflex, and the field slowed the bullet enough that it hit me hard, but then deflected down across my cheek. Second shot was right on the heels of the first, and I felt that go into my ribs." Sitting up in bed, and bare chested, it was plain to see the puckered, pale mark when the impact had taken place. "I managed to stay conscious, and the field stopped the third bullet. I played dead and tried not to pass out, hoping he wouldn't check me. Then I heard another car pull up and the woman speak to him, asking if he'd made sure, and I knew I wasn't going to get away with playing dead." "Jesus Christ, Jase," Cassandra breathed, wide-eyed. "Yes." Jason nodded, his expression composed. "So I went on the offensive. Obviously the male wasn't used to such work - he sounded distraught. While he was looking away, she reached in to check my pulse, and I attacked." "So...we don't know anything about them or why they attacked you?" "The man had a U.S Marshal ID. Not sure if it's genuine or not. The woman's jacket got burned... So perhaps she was also a marshal, or posing as one." He thought for a moment, replaying the scene. "They seemed to handle their firearms professionally. Like cops. The man who shot me put one in my head and two in my chest as fast as three finger snaps." That set Cassie back on her heels. "I mean...maybe someone from the prison? Enterich is still a thing, but I didn't think he wanted anyone dead. But he doesn't have authority over US Marshals. And Marshals wouldn't just assassinate a kid either. There has to be something else going on." Jase tilted his head slightly, regarding her. "Wasn't Enterich responsible for the Air Force captain feeding a child to the Tree? It's plain he's able to influence people." "Yeah..." she looks down, the memory looming large again. "But that Air Force guy was a wreck by that time." Cassie took a deep breath. "I can do the same thing with them that I did for that house though. I can follow them back in time, see what they did, where they went, who they talked to. We don't need them to say a word." "We don't know that Enterich didn't make the captain a wreck, push him down the path until he was capable of human sacrifice." Jason said reasonably, his eyes narrowing a little as he assessed Cassie's proposal. "But... yes. If you think it likely you can 'see' what happened, have a go." He considered. "It's interesting, the way your powers interact with space-time, diving down into this theorised subquantum universe where all space is one point and time is just another direction to glance in. Makes me wonder if perhaps Devin, who can physically move through that singular point, could perhaps also move in time." "Anyway." he shrugged, getting comfortable, pale eyes watching her. "I would appreciate knowing whatever you find out, of course." "So, I'd have to follow you back to where you met them," Cassandra says. "Then I can jump over to them. Otherwise I have to over to them, and I don't know if the hospital would let me in to see them unless we explain everything to Annette..." She shrugs at that. "Under the circumstances, I feel like we shouldn't count on them until we know for sure who sent these guys and why." "That seems prudent." Jason considered. "Though if Annette or the Project were behind the attack on me-" "They are not." Ellie said firmly from where she'd been listening at the end of the bed. "At least, Annette and the one called Taggart are not. They were furious and shocked, and their men guard this room and the male assassin, down below. I do not know where the female is - I overheard Taggart say she was in something called an I See You." "Damn, Jase. You must have fucked them up pretty good," Cassandra said, impressed despite herself. She glanced at Ellie. "It means Intensive Care Unit. It's like...emergency life support, kind of. Anyway, are you okay with me tracking back your timeline up to that point?" "Of course." Jase nodded, faint curiousity in his eyes. "Whenever you are ready." Cassandra closed her eyes for a second...then sucked in a deep breath, like the first half of a jumpscared scream. Her eyelids drifted open and the eyes beneath were rolled back so far that only whites showed. She looked blindly off to one side, seeing things only she could see. Her hands tightened on the armrest of Jase's chair as she wobbled, her balance shifting unconsciously as she moved around in the past... Then she flinched, at the gunshots, her face crumpling up to see her friend hurt...and she looked away from his vengeance, quickly pushing the vision backwards...leaping from Jase to the man, Marshall... She calmed down a bit then and said, "They were staking out your farm...watching everyone. Joking around, but they were tense. They kept talking about how they didn't want to do it, but then just went back to planning it all out, step by step." A pause and she added, "Enterich. It was him. I'm going to see if I can see..." Cassandra swayed again, time and space swirling in her eyes... Then, genuinely startled. "What the fuck?" "What is it?" she couldn't see Jase, but his calm voice reached her anyway. "Oh my god," Cassie whispers, and tears start rolling down from the corners of her blank eyes. "That's not fucking possible." She turns her head then to 'stare' at Jason, and even though she's clearly not seeing him, the feeling of being looked at was sudden and intense. "It's Marissa. She was there. Sunday, just before Enterich told Marshall and Dale to kill you, she met with him. Marshall wasn't in there with them so I can't tell what they said, but Enterich gave him a big, heavy bag and told him to give it to her..." The words came tumbling out, faster and faster, a terrible litany as inevitable as gravity pulling more tears down her face. "Marshall started to say no, but Enterich...threatened him, kind of...and Marshall backed right down. He has something on them. They're afraid of him." Jason was still. Utterly, completely still. Not a flicker of an eyelid, not a twitch of a jaw muscle betrayed anything as he listened to Cassandra. But somehow, there was a terrible coldness accompanying that stillness, gathering in the jade ice of his eyes. Cassandra's face reddened, and she pushed it forward slightly, straining against something. She fought, then...shook her head. With a gasp, her eyes rolled back down, and she managed to relax, though was breathing hard. "Shit. I lost it. I tried to switch over to Enterich, but it was stretched too thin." "Jase...we have to talk to her before we do anything," Cassandra said. "It looks bad but I didn't see very much about her. We don't have all the facts." "She tried to steer us away from going after Enterich." Was it the imagination, or was the air in the hospital room actually getting colder as Jason spoke, each word sliding into place like frozen crystal. "Sunday afternoon, at the meeting in the barn." "So we put this in front of her," Cassandra insisted shakily. "We hear what she has to say. I can make sure it's true." She put a hand on Jase's forearm. The psychokinetic was icy cold to the touch. "Please don't do anything until then. Don't make me telling you into something dangerous, okay?" "Hey, guys?" Autumn's voice carried into the room as she rounded the corner, her phone in hand. There was a note of uncertainty there, echoed in the furrow between her brows. "Did you guys see this text from Marissa, earlier? She mentioned that guy, Enterich, from the ritual thing. Apparently the guys who wanted to, um..." Hesitating briefly, she glanced at Jase and forged ahead. "...to kill you, were working for him." Cassandra looked up, her eyes still teary and red. "Autumn...you should probably sit down. I'm guessing Marissa didn't text the whole story." "I mean," she replied, blinking at the seer. "It's in the group chat, but I was here, and not on my phone, so..." Cass shook her head. "I did a reading of one of the assassins. She was working for Enterich too. Marissa. I don't know what she was doing exactly, but...it paid pretty well, from how heavy the bag was." Cassie got up and sat down on the bed. Spying a box of tissues on the end table, she reached out and snagged it, then immediately grabbed three or four tissues out at once. "Go ahead and talk to her, if you want." Jason's voice was cold, clinical, as condensation started to form a coating of frost on the water jug nearby. "She will lie, and dance around the truth, and know we know better, and dare anyone to do anything about it. And even if he was not part of her scheme, Devin will back her, protect her. Just. Like. Always." There was a crack from the jug as the water in it froze solid on the last word, and the breath of the teens present fogged in the air. "She can't lie to me, Jase! Just...we have to give her a chance! She was with us at the Tree! This can't be what she wanted. I can't believe that." The redhead took a deep breath, counting slowly to four, and then exhaled, raking a hand back over the unruly curls framing her face. "And she just left. Right." There was a moment's pause, then- "Hi, Sean," she stated quietly, and walked over to the side of the bed with an air of resignation. "Cassie, would you mind explaining the highlights for me?" Cassandra took a deep breath and nodded. "Thanks," Autumn smiled faintly, idly rubbing her arms against the chill.(edited) Jason remained silent, staring at nothing in particular, eyes narrowed as his minds eye replayed past events. Ellie, too, remained silent, watching the lean youth in the bed intently, more than curiosity in her grey eyes.(edited) "They were US Marshals. Real ones. The woman's last name was Dale, and the guy was...actually Marshall." She took another tissue, then put the box out on the bed. "Last Sunday, Enterich had a meeting with Marissa that he finished out by having Marshall give her a big bag of almost-definitely money. Not five minutes after she left, Enterich called Marshals Dale and Marshall into his office and told them to kill Jase. Marshall resisted, and Enterich put him in his place with like...a sentence." "Then they staked out the farm, planned out what they'd do...and then they did it." Cassandra wiped her nose. "Mhmm." Autumn nodded, wide blue eyes clear and attentive as Cassie explained what she'd seen, one hand snaking over to rest on the cool flesh of Jason's arm. She flinched at the sensation, glancing at his profile, then back to the blonde clairvoyant.(edited) "Enterich told them what to expect from Jase too. Not in a lot of detail, but they knew he was telekinetic, and dangerous. They hated it. Marshall especially. It was giving him nightmares...but he didn't hesitate when the time came. I don't know what the fuck this Enterich had on them, but..." she shakes her head. "All right. Well, then they deserved what they got," the red-haired girl nodded. "At minimum. And they're here, somewhere, so it's not like the information's getting out. That's a plus." Cassie nods numbly. "I can try again," she said softly. "Maybe go back farther, or jump onto Enterich's timeline..." "Do you think that would help?" Autumn asked curiously. "I mean, I don't know how all that works for you. But if the problem is Enterich, then he's the one we need to deal with. If he pushed these marshals, he might've done the same for Marissa." "She wasn't acting afraid of him. But maybe that's just because she wasn't telling him 'no,'" Cassandra shrugged. "Pushed her with money." Jason said too softly. "And considering the evidence, I can see Marissa perhaps wanting to be rid of me." He turned his cold eyes on Autumn. "She thinks I would hurt you - she said as much to me yesterday at the Carousel. Said I have a history of violence and abuse, and I am sick." "I could have sworn she had a thing for you though. Am I insane? Was that just in my...fanfic of us?" Cassie looks at Autumn. "Why would she-?" Autumn frowned at Jase's comment, and shook her head. "Wait, no... She did say on Sunday that she was worried, because you scared her. So maybe..." Glancing up at Cassie, she shrugged. "She said she used to be interested, but wasn't anymore because I stole her ice cream, or something. Anyway, it was a whole thing, and not really relevant. Listen," she added, regarding Jase levelly. "I don't think you would. None of that is true, so ignore it." "Of course it is not true," replied Jason. "But that isn't relevant - what matters is that she believes it's true. And then two people try to kill me after she meets with their boss." "Does she believe it, though? She kissed you earlier. She said in the text that those two were with Enterich." "We can't just jump to conclusions," Cassandra stresses. "We HAVE to hear her side of this." "Holy fuck," Autumn sighed, sitting back down on the edge of the mattress. "Perhaps she is simply insane." Jason suggested with a shrug. "Her actions haven't made sense to me since last week." "I mean, maybe," the red-haired vitakinetic breathed, catching her lower lip pensively between her teeth. "Is this a teenage girl versus teenage boy thing though? Because that's a whole different level of crazy than we'd be talking about." "What do you mean?" "I mean...just, a lot of Mari's issues seem to me to be just...an insecure, antisocial teenager being insecure and antisocial, you know? But this thing with Enterich is way past that. And now the situation with Jase...that's not just schoolyard bullshit anymore. I just think we have to be sure." "You're right." Autumn nodded, slowly. "So we talk to her. We find out what happened, and exactly why and how she's involved in someone trying to kill Jase." She paused for a moment, taking another deep breath and letting it out in a rush. "And, worst case scenario, there's about 3 and a half million acres of open wilderness in Montana." "Jesus," Cassandra sighed and covered her eyes. The chill permeating the room began to slowly lift, warmth gradually seeping back into the lean young man's skin as he re-established some manner of equilibrium. "If we act against Marissa, we must consider that we will have to act against Devin. I want to avoid that. I was starting to consider him a friend." he said softly. Cass nodded at that. "I still can't believe it. I saw it with my own eyes and I still can't. Even if she didn't have anything to do with him trying to kill Jase, this is Enterich. It's not like we didn't know what kind of guy he was." "I said worst. Look, I'm tired and freaked out," she scowled, raking a hand back through her hair. "She's supposed to be my best friend. I want to trust that she's not working with somebody who's trying to kill us." "We didn't know about Enterich before the meeting on Sunday afternoon." Jason's tone was thoughtful. "Maybe, just maybe, she was involved with something else. I want to allow for that possibility." "Yeah. Me too. I mean, I don't think I'd call her my best friend, but...I thought we understood each other." Autumn shrugged at that and glanced out the window. "So." Jase looked at Cassie. "Go ahead, talk with her. Get her side, verify she's telling the truth. Until then, I'll be keeping my distance from her. For everybody's good." "Shit," Cassie muttered, but she nodded. "Okay. I'll talk to her. Autumn, do you want to be there too?" "Yes, but no," she sighed. "I do want to know what she has to say, because I think you're right about being fair. There could be a lot going on, and none of this makes sense right now. But on the other hand I also know if she starts talking shit, I'm gonna lose mine. ...So, tentatively yes?" Cassandra nodded. "Okay. Full disclosure, I'd feel better having some backup. Marissa can be scary to deal with one on one. Strict confidence on that." "Fair," the redhead conceded. Jase reached over and gently took Autumn's hand, letting his fingers twine in hers. "All right." With a quick glance at Jase and a brief squeeze of his hand, Autumn nodded at Cassie. "So, you talk to her, figure out what you need to know. I'll back you up." "I'll call you or text you when I have the details," Cassie agrees. Then, reading the room, she gets to her feet and says, "I'll...we'll leave you guys alone. Jase, I'm glad you're okay." "I mean, she told us who they were working for," Autumn added, "She had to know we'd ask, right?" "Yeah. And it follows I'd be the one to push her on it." Autumn nodded again, chewing at her lower lip. "Yeah. Yeah, it does." As an afterthought, she added, "Oh, don't forget. Meeting tonight." Cassie can't help but utter a short, sharp laugh at that. "Shit, that's going to be an awkward one." "Right?" The redhead grinned crookedly, shaking her head. "See you at school?" Ellie pushed off from where she was leaning and nodded to the teens present. "I will keep my own counsel about what has been discussed here." she said softly. "But you should know that Taggart has listening devices here." "Seeya." Cassandra goes over to where Sean is busying himself and says, "C'mon man. We should go." Then she pauses and grimaces. "Maybe next time lead with that." "I thought you understood where you were." The taller blonde shrugged. "Yeah, well, I didn't come in here thinking I'd be...fuck, whatever. It's done now." "Honestly, I don't even care at this point," Autumn laughed quietly. "Voyeurism is way down on the list of my worries this week." Ellie gave the redhead a slight smile, then nodded to Jason. "It is a terrible thing for a Pride to be riven. I hope the resolution is swift." "No, I just...I didn't want to tip off anyone about any of this. This is Fellowship business, you know? But yeah. Alright, c'mon Sean." She gives Sean a chance to say his well wishes and goodbyes, then hauls him out to give Jase and Autumn some time. Nodding agreement, Sean rose and followed Cassandra from the room, Ellie leaving on their heels before turning and walking away down a side corridor. "Hey, Ellie? Do you work for Taggert? What's your deal, anyway?" She stopped, half-turning with that same predatory grace and regarding the journalist. "I am a visitor." she said simply. "Visitor. Like, from what, the Aeon Project? Government?" Cassandra presses. "You know a lot about what's going on here." "I am currently living below." Ellie replied. "Since yesterday, as a guest of Annette, who is doing so as a favor to Devin. I keep my eyes and ears open." "You remind me a lot of Jase. Are you related?" There was a pause as the grey eyes focused on her, then the girl shrugged. "Perhaps closer related to him than yourself. But he is not my family." "Right," Cassie said, then shook her head. "And now I nod like I understand what you mean and walk off, making a mental note to follow up about it later, except no. I'm not playing riddles with you. All of this..." she waved a hand at Jase's door, "...is very personal, and very painful, and you saw and heard some deeply messed up shit and you're acting like you've heard it all before. So I'm being a hundred and ten percent serious now, because I am fully overloaded on bullshit today. Who are you, and why are you here?" "I have not heard it all before." Ellie responded, turning more fully now to face Cassandra. "How you perceive my behaviour is therefore in error. However... I am called Ellie. I am here because I am stuck here, and Devin has agreed to help me get home. I am stuck here because I saved Devin's life in the Void, and in so doing lost my means to navigate home. I blundered out, was captured by some men, escaped from where they were holding me, made my way here, and so here I am, answering rude questions with far more patience than they warrant." "You know, I don't have to ask," Cassandra retorted. "I can just go look. So I'm sorry if this sounds rude to you, but as far as I know you're this complete and total stranger, wedging your way in out of nowhere in the middle of a really really stressful moment, and every time, up until now, I even tried to ask you anything you just wiggled away without saying anything. So thank you for at least trying to actually say something this time. Even if I don't completely understand your answer...it is at least an answer." She thought, then said, "You rescued Devin, wait. Wait, wait, no he did say something about meeting someone in the Dark world... The bracelet, right?" "Yes." Ellie nodded, holding up her wrist. "He has returned it to me now." She let out a breath. "Wow...okay. I'm sorry then. Thanks for helping him. How did you wind up in there anyway? And how did you get out? Devin just about blew up his brain getting us in there." "There are holes that lead to the Void. I entered one at my home, and exited at the place you call Site B." Ellie explained. "For those that know how, navigation is possible between such places. Without my bracelet, I was lucky to find an exit." She glanced down the corridor in the direction she'd been headed, then looked back at Cassie. "You likely have more questions. You seem like one with endless questions." she commented with a faint quirk of her lips. "For now, though, I have to go." Cassandra hesitated, then nodded. "Okay. Yeah, thanks. Maybe we can pick this up again later." She watched Ellie turn and start to leave, then asked Sean, "So...can I bum another ride off of you?" "Hmm, huh? What?" Sean muttered, wrenching his eyes off the taller blonde to look at Cassandra. He'd taken a step or three back when she'd been grilling Ellie and Sean really hoped Cassie hadn't noticed the expression on his face when she'd asked Ellie if she and Jase were related. "Yeah, sure, of course. Wherever you need to go, Cassie," Sean assured her, "Just, gimme a sec? Ellie!" He took two quick steps after Ellie before she had completely turned around. She spun back with a smooth economy of motion to eye the buxom figure with cool appraisal. Sean dropped his raised hand, fingers curling into a contrite fist behind his back. "Can I ask one quick question of my own before we part ways?" Barely waiting for a minute nod, Sean continued, "These holes in the Void, can you teach us how to find them and pass through them?" She studied him for a long minute, considering his question - he hoped at least, given what he knew of the species. She might have been thinking anything, and the intersexed young man realised just how much he'd gotten used to subconsciously reading Jase's little cues and tiny expressions, how very 'human' Jason was by comparison, at least as far as his friends were concerned. Socialisation? Cultural difference? Or did his oldest friend simply make an effort where Sean was concerned, whereas Ellie didn't care to put him at ease. "I cannot." Ellie said finally. "My equipment has instruments which can detect them, but that is in the possession of the men at Site B. The scientists of my home know of ways to find them, but I am no scientist. Just a scout." Sean's pretty face scrunched up in disappointment, but he nodded his acceptance of Ellie's answer. Considering what the fallout could be with Marissa, or even other circumstances, he would have liked knowing he - they - had another way of escaping the Void - if they ever ended up there - that didn't solely rely on Devin. It also might have been another way to infiltrate Site B. "Fair 'nough," Sean replied with no acrimony. "If we liberate your equipment from Site B, would you consider that a fair trade to shown how it works?" He grinned ruefully. "Sorry, that's two questions, now." "Devin has already offered his aid, so I was not aware a trade was required." Ellie said, her eyes narrowing a little. "However... I will consider it." Fucking Devin! But there wasn't any real anger in the thought, only exasperation at the non-furry Nightcrawler messing things up without even trying or being there. "Fair 'nough," Sean repeated. "I guess we'll see you 'round. Later." Minimal expression he couldn't read nearly as well as he could Jase's, Sean assumed a mutual dismissal, nodded a farewell, and stepped back to join Cassie. "Where do you need an Uber to, Cass? School, or somewhere else?" Cassandra thought, then said, "My place. If I need to go anywhere from there today, I can bike it.Thanks, man." They set off then; that night's meeting suddenly looming large and uncomfortable in the new light it was cast in.
  19. It felt weird leaving school so quickly after arriving. Not bad, just weird. No, the bad feelings were reserved for why she was leaving school. She was quiet in the car with Sean, lost in her own thoughts. What kind of maniac would be shooting Jase in broad daylight at his own house? After all this with the Dark, with powers, dealing with the mysterious alien Coyote, to think it could still just end. Out of nowhere, for what must surely be some kind of idiot reason that only made sense to the mentally infirm. Someone Jase had cut off from their weed maybe? Or a new dealer/supplier looking to take out some competition? This was Shelley though, Cassie thought with a snort. Breaking Bad it wasn't. Fortunately it was a short drive to the medical center. A steadily growing pressure inside her head pushed Cassandra to jog ahead of Sean once there, and burst in the door to the room Jase was in. "Hey guys, I came as soon as I could. Is Jase okay?? I mean, I know the text said he was, but..." She trailed off on seeing the tall woman standing in the room with everyone else in there. There was something about her that tugged her recognition; a kind of 'Jaseness' in how she turned to look the instant the door opened and the 'ready' posture she kept. Not much resemblance otherwise though. Cousin maybe? "Ah, hey...I do not know you," Cassie said. "Um, I'm Cassandra. Hi." She offered her hand to Ellie.
  20. Core Values Knowledge: More than anything, the drive that animates Cassandra is the drive to know. This is less about scientific pursuits, though those are of interest as well...it's much more about knowing what is happening here and now, and why. She wants to know about people, what they're doing, what effect it's having. What is being hidden, and who from. It is fueled by a bottomless curiosity, and a childhood in which she was surrounded by secrets that she could only intuit the existence of, without understanding what to ask or how to find out. Pro: This motivates Cassandra, and she is at her best when motivated. She can be clever, resourceful and courageous in the pursuit of information, and she is genuinely earnest in her desire to share what she learns. Con: While Cassie isn't blind to the fact that making things public can have negative consequences, she is prone to downplaying those risks. Similarly, though she tries to respect privacy and act ethically, there are times the drive to know and learn overrides other concerns. Integrity: Secrets sit poorly with Cassie. While she acknowledges that there can be legitimate reasons not to share private information with the public, she tends to draw a thick line between 'private' info...information of a personal nature about a specific individual...and other kinds of information. Knowledge means nothing if it's hoarded. She sees a strong connection between a variety of social ills and the lack of good, accurate and relevant information...be it willful or otherwise. Cassie also believes that most basic human right start with the right to know things, even if it's just what one's rights are. It all starts with that. Pro: She understands on a gut level how conflicts of interest, motivated reasoning and confirmation bias can taint conclusions and make it worse than useless. While recognizing she has her own biases and opinions, Cassandra wants to at least start from an impartial place, and then build off of that...and to do so in a transparent way that doesn't substitute her opinions for facts. Con: For all her good intentions, Cassandra doesn't really know how the sausage is made, so to speak... The tension between having a truth to be told and needing a sufficiently loud voice to tell it is still lost on her. She has a lot of hard lessons to learn, and holding onto her values won't be nearly as easy as she thinks. Excitement: What she does NOT want is to sit behind a computer, Googling things. Or to be in a lab, endlessly iterating experimental trials. The truth is out there! There in the world! You find it schmoozing with lowlifes and high society, or riffling through files in locked cabinets, or stealing photographs of restricted areas. Cassie doesn't want to read about things other people discover; she wants to be the one doing the discovering! Pro: This does mean she is less prone to succumb to intellectual laziness, substituting the work and thoughts of others for her own work and thoughts. It encourages fostering a wide base of skills and competence that will serve in a range of situations. Con: It is based on the simplistic, naive understanding of the world that only a teenager can have. Not just an implicit assumption that this kind of high-risk activity won't lead to problems, but that self-reliance won't close doors to her, or force her to make hard choices between leads to follow up on, since she can only be one place at a time. Pleasure: ...and she wants to have fun doing it! Cassie has come to understand the value of work, and realizes that sometimes it's going to grind or hurt...but she still wants it to be entertaining on the balance. Even if that means working some side activities in along the way. A party here, a bit of bar hopping there, Cassandra will always find SOME way to enjoy what she's doing. The last thing she wants to be is some joyless husk, going through the motions because the only alternative is to dry up and die. Pro: Without even meaning to, Cassandra already is pursuing a functional work/life balance. This could mean she avoids burning out, or neglecting her own mental and emotional well-being in pursuit of her goals. Con: There's no other value more likely to put her in conflict with her other values...this was in fact something she overcame in herself to gain the motivation and drive to take action in the first place. Indulging this value will always run the danger of enticing her to be complacent, or sacrifice other goals. Family happiness: On a purely personal level, Cassandra wants her family back. When her dad was taken both she and her mother were devastated, and still haven't recovered. Rather than pull them together, it broke them apart...and the pain of that is a constant ache that she's had to learn to live with, but can't be rid of. This is the personal tragedy that underlies so much of what she has become now, and resolving it is something she would willingly sacrifice a great deal to accomplish. Pro: With the victory over the Dark over, this is now her immediate goal and passion. This challenge will be where she learns to truly spread her wings and discover her own potential. Moving forward from there, her devotion to her family is the result of, and creates, a strong support network that she will be needing throughout her career. Con: More than anything in her life, this runs the risk of becoming an obsession. It is intensely emotional and confirms some of her worst impulses of conspiracy-mindedness and paranoia. She will follow this no matter how deep, or how dirty, the rabbit hole gets...and what she discovers could influence her beliefs and actions for her whole life. Other Values Achievement: Cassandra wants to have an impact. What this means she's still pretty nebulous on, but she wants it to be big. Something that affects the whole country, or maybe even the whole world! The kind of thing you read about in school, back when things were still being discovered. That doesn't mean she won't 'waste time' on smaller stories, but she'll always be chasing that elusive bombshell that will change how people see the world forever. Recognition: And she wants people to know it was her that found it. That's ego; she knows it is...but can you ever really separate truth from the teller? If she's the one that breaks the story, then she's part of the story right? It's not even about fame, or money or any of that...she just wants to know that people know that she's the one that did it, and what that means. Help others: The truth can heal, it can set people free. That's what Cassandra hopes to harness. Not just 'gossiping' or using salacious bits of true stories as weapons or to bring people down. If she must hurt with her words, let it be for the sake of justice...and let it help more than it hurts. And there's power in sharing knowing...people who's tragic story is told might find help in unexpected quarters, or a family might find closure for a loss they never understood. Help society: More than just helping individuals or communities, Cassandra believes that sharing some kinds of information has the potential to transform nations or even the world. Say, when the research showing links between smoking and lung cancer went public. Documenting the moon landings. 'The Jungle' from Sinclair, or the Watergate tapes. Stories that turned the world upside down, and made everyone re-examine what they believed, for the better. Friendship: But the real truth is the friends she made along the way... No, but really, Cassie is social creature. She knows that she'll be making enemies, but she really wants to make friends. People she knows she can rely on, people who can give her a social bedrock to stand on. Friends she can count on to tell her the truth about herself, that she might otherwise be blind to. Friends who can tell her when she's got it wrong, and give her support to get it right. She knows she can't do it alone, and would never want to try to.
  21. Cassandra awoke to the sound of silence. Not dragging herself up and out of dreams full of disturbing images, clawing her way to wakefulness. No, she was simply awake, with all the abruptness of being dunked in cold water. For a minute she lay still, trying to chase the fleeing shadows that she'd been immersed in. Trying to...climb a mountain under a funnel cloud, avoiding the sight of some terrible presence above? She jumpscared when her alarm suddenly went off, blaring that it was time to WAKE UP NOW PLEASE THANK YOU. She had to get up and cross her room to the dresser to turn it off...an arrangement Cassie had set up by choice so she couldn't just slap snooze. By the time peace was restored, whatever fragments of dream that had clung to her consciousness were well and truly gone. And then Bacon, having heard the alarm, was tapping his paws on her door and making that weird little huffy growly noise he did...not quite barking, but letting her know that HE knew it was time to get up. So Cass let it go and stalked out to grab a quick shower, giving her dog a quick cuddle along the way. A knock on the bathroom door came as Cassie was still playing with the temperature mix of the water though. Her mom called in, "Cass? How're you feeling today?" "I'm okay," she called back, grimacing as the water turned a little cold. Better a little hot than a little cold...oh ow, but not that hot, Jesus... Teresa replied a second later, "I'm just... If you need a day off or something, to rest...you can do that is all I'm saying. It'd be okay." That brought Cassandra up short, and she looked at the door, legitimately wondering if her mother had been replaced by some kind of simulacra. What the... "It's...I'm really okay, mom," she called again over the sound of the water hitting the shower floor. "I'm actually looking forward to things going back to normal, you know?" Another pause, then, "Okay, hon. I have to head in a little early today, but I left some breakfast out for you. Eat it. I'm serious. And if anything happens, if you change your mind and need to come home, you can call me up and I'll fix things with the office. All right?" Good enough. The water wasn't perfect, but it would be good enough. Cassie stepped under the spray and gasped as it felt like it was going to burn her for a second...then seemed to cool off a little as her body got used to it. "Mom," she laughed, "I said back to normal. Shouldn't you be asking if I got my homework done?" "Maybe there's a new normal," Teresa said. "Be good, hon, I love you." "Love you too," Cass answered automatically. She fished the dwindling bar of soap out of its little divot and wrapped a washcloth around it. Her mom's concern was touching, and even welcome, but it felt weird too. Like a tug of war when the other team all just let go right as you were about to give a big yank...and instead just went flying back onto your butt. A few minutes later and she was hurrying out to the kitchen, a little behind schedule. Her hair was still wet and lank against her head because there wasn't time to properly dry it. Breakfast was...well shit. Eggs, and a couple of strips of bacon? Bacon himself was sitting just at the kitchen's island where the plate was, looking very tense and alert. Cassie tossed him a strip, and he snapped it out of the air and happily munched on it, wagging his tail fiercely. The eggs she more or less just swallowed whole since they were fried and soft and she had no time for niceties. Probably no time to bike either...the bus again today, it seemed... It wasn't until Cassandra was on the bus that she realized she'd forgotten to stuff her little binder of folders into her backpack. Hopefully she wouldn't need those notes today. Looking out the bus window it felt plausible that she wouldn't. It was sunny, and comfortable, and for the first time in a long time she felt like...nothing was hanging over her head. No huge disaster, no looming shadow. Ding dong, the witch was dead, and now Oz and its population of little teenage people could just get on with whatever the hell they did all day. The presence or lack of notes was a tiny thing next to that. She closed her eyes contentedly and just let the freedom to not worry sink in...then stuck her earbuds in and queued up a playlist for the rest of the trip to school.
  22. Cassie and her mother spent the drive home in a silence that couldn't decide if it was tense or relaxed. There was little, if any, rancor between between mother and daughter for once, but Teresa's unasked questions were pressing out against the air. Of those questions, one loomed over the others, casting a long, deep shadow. In the Allen's driveway, before they got out of the car, she couldn't hold it in any longer. "Cass?" Teresa said softly. Her daughter paused, the passenger side door unlatched but not quite open yet, and looked back. "You..." For a second she couldn't put it into words. "When you were telling me about...about all this stuff before, at the park...you mentioned something other than monsters and dark universes and...all that." Teresa took a deep breath. "Your dad." And Cassandra nodded slowly. She didn't say anything yet, feeling that her mom wasn't done just yet. "He's alive." After waiting a moment, Cass nodded again. Teresa closed her eyes, and her fingers tightened around the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. It felt as if a storm was back...something she thought she'd lived through, but had only ever found the eye of. And now it was back, hurricane winds in her mind, tearing her apart. Cassandra reached over to squeeze her mother's shoulder. "We're going to get him, mom. We're going to find him, pull him out of there, and undo whatever they did to him. After what we just did, that's...they don't stand a chance. We know what we're doing now. Really know." With a choked sob, Teresa took hold of Cassie's hand and squeezed it hard. "Promise me, only if you can keep yourselves safe...and only if you can keep him safe," she managed. "Don't rush into it. Be smart. I won't...I can't trade you for him. Okay?" Frantically nodding, Cass said, "Yeah, of course. We're not going to be stupid about it. I promise. I'll use my power to find him, then Devin can bring Jason and Ch..." She cut off, realizing belatedly that Charlie wouldn't be going to back Jase up. Never again. "...Autumn," she corrected herself, feeling a stab open up again. "Or whoever. We'll work out the details. It'll be fine. We'll get him back." Teresa nodded and wiped at her eyes, then opened her own door and went with Cassandra into the garage as the big door whirred and clanged shut behind them. They were maybe three steps into the house before the other questions started to spill out. "...so, I'm really unclear about this tree thing? What kind of tree WAS it?" Unseen to her mother, Cassie rolled her eyes and smiled. It was going to be a long night.
  23. Cassandra's mom was a bit late to the party, and her manner of entry showed it. Almost running, checking each room number frantically. Even passing the spot that Marissa and Autumn were seated, she barely seemed to register them there...then stopped looked back. Recognition lit up, from the picnic. The redhead Cassie had been talking to. "You're..." Teresa paused in mid-phrase and shook her head, skipping to the important part. "Is she all right?" Autumn nodded, but before she had even started trying to put an answer to words, Marissa stepped in smoothly. "She's fine, Mrs Allen. We all are." Teresa nodded at that distractedly, then sagged a little and put a hand to her forehead. "She said that on the phone, I just...it would be just like her to play it down. I...thanks. Both of you. Not just for now but, you know. Then. Keeping her safe." This time it was Autumn that spoke first. "She kept us safe," she corrected. Her voice wasn't as loud and clear as Marissa's, but she said it firmly. "She was the one who knew what to do, and told us how to do it." Cassie's mom absorbed that, and had to blink away tears that weren't quite shed. There were so many words to say that she couldn't say anything. In the end Teresa just gestured at the door and said, "That's...I'm glad you were there for each other. I just have to..." The two girls said their goodbyes and Teresa continued down the hall until finding and letting herself into the room. Immediately there was tension in the air. Too many people, too little space. For a second Teresa just froze, unsure how to fit into this...then Cassandra leaned out and waved at her. Here was something she could understand instinctively! They stood off to one side a bit, as much as the room allowed, just hugging. When her mother started fussing at the bandage around her arm, Cassie sighed and explained it was just some kind of rash or irritation. She spared Teresa the detailed recounting, for the time being. One nightmare at a time. After a few minutes of that, Cassandra's mom turned to look at the other parents and said, "Hi everyone. I'm Teresa Allen, Cassandra's mother. I'm a librarian at the main branch. This is all...I still don't know what to make of any of it, but I think we have a lot to be proud of right now." Her arm rested around Cassandra's shoulder, and squeezed her.
  24. Cassandra flopped onto her ass, her legs suddenly feeling too weak to carry her as the adrenaline ebbed from her system. She felt dizzy, chilled, scattered...and her arm hurt a lot where that thing had nailed her with its tongue? Tentacle? It'd looked more like a tongue, but it stung like a jellyfish. Wouldn't it be a shit custard if she turned out to be allergic? She started laughing at that, though it was a laugh that was skating on very thin ice over a dark lake of tears. Not sorrow, just...reaction. It was too much to take in, too much to handle. And there was a sick kind of humor to it too. When Autumn came over, looking very concerned, Cassie explained through sniffles and giggles, "It's just...the biggest fucking deal any of us had, bigger than anyone in the whole town's had...and if I try to write about it, it'll look like a stupid sci-fi story. All that, and no one'll ever know what happened, or how or why. Not because anyone's covering it up, but just because it's too big to believe." With a bit of help from her friend, Cassandra got back to her feet and rejoined everyone as they gathered their wits. When Marissa called home, Cass almost jumped with her haste to grab her phone and do likewise. "Hey mom it's me..." she broke off for a second, smiling and wincing at the same time. "No, I'm ok. We all are. We did it." After a pause, Cassandra just said, "What we had to do. Look, it's...a lot. Some of us are going to the Medical Cent..." another wince. "No...we're ok. We just found Sophia, and she was kind of bad shape. I want to make sure she gets there all right. She'll be okay too, mom." Then Cass had a longer moment of silence, of listening. She sniffled and wiped a hand across her eyes and nodded. "I love you too. See you soon."
  25. All Cassandra could think on seeing Sophia was no. It was bad enough the Dark had taken Cody. Bad enough that they'd had to learn their abilities, understand what was happening. They hadn't been able to help Cody. They couldn't let Sophia suffer the same fate. Not this time. She opened her inner eyes, and immediately regretted it. This was the seat of the Dark's power, and it was beating down on her like...no, not a drum. More like a heartbeat, as experienced by someone currently inside the heart. Muscular contractions, compression from all sides. Constantly trying to snuff them out, crush them, consume them... It was held back by waves of Radiance that pulsed out from the Fellowship, creating a sort of bulwark against it. Cass could clearly see then how the bracelets took that Radiance in and seemed to refract it, or reflect it, amplifying it and using it to connect one to another. Unlike the normal world, there was no 'ambient' Radiance here. No sparks of life in the earth or air. Sophia did have Radiance in her...the same dim light that most things had. Hers was further muted by a patchwork web of cloying Darkness though, knotting unnaturally through her body. Even as Cassandra watched, it quivered and extended a gelatinous pseudopod, extending a little further into Sophia. This process would continue, she realized. It was an infection. Cassie experimented, mentally concentrating on her Radiance. It shaped itself to her will, rising up and flaring outwards in armlike structures. Yes. This could work...but there was a problem. The Dark was already entwined with the light of Sophia, clinging tightly. If she blasted it out, ripped it from Sophia...even if she had the strength to do that, what would happen to her? Cassandra's Sight could perceive the many layers of Sophia's person, but she didn't understand it or how not to hurt it. She needed help. "Autumn," Cassandra said, and reached out a hand. Wordlessly, the redhead took it in her own, and their perceptions shivered together. With unthinking coordination, Cassie marshaled her Radiance and hurled it at Sophia. The streams of energy split and split again, becoming a billion fractal arms that could reach between molecules by the time they reached the other girl. To the naked eye, the effect was palpable. The world itself seemed to recoil from Cassandra. A sudden wind stirred, blowing away from her...sending cinders and ash up in plumes from the dry bones at her feet. The roiling black clouds in the sky bent up as if a glass dome had just been pressed into them, and flowed outward. From the center of that dish, a beam of Light speared out. It was impossible to say if it came up from the ground, or down from on high...but it was centered not on Cassandra, but on Sophia. Sophia screamed. Not the inhuman howl she'd let out before, but something far worse. It was two voices, overlaid...a warbling, almost electronic shriek with a teenage girl's agonized scream under it. She writhed in place, and seemed to try to double over, bunch her legs...perhaps spring away. Cassandra said "No!" aloud, and reached out her hand. The wind intensified, and Sophia halted in place, bent unnaturally as if pierced by an invisible stake. She clutched at herself and wailed, thrashing but unable to escape. And she was burning...a thick black smoke starting to curl off of her. "Cass what are you DOING?!" shouted Devin. "I can FIX her, Devin!" she replied in kind. A halo of visible Radiance encompassed her now, and spread down her arm to race up and around Autumn as well. Her face was focused, concentrating entirely on Sophia and the dread battle that raged within her. Devin shook his head, sickened at the tortured cries. "You're killing her!" Cassie shook her head. "It's working," she replied. "Look." A second glance told a new story. The 'smoke' wasn't smoke. Sophia wasn't on fire. The Dark was leaching out of her like a thick black dust or ash...wrenched from her body and cast back into the fetid air. Tears started trailing from the corners of Cassandra's eyes. "Just a little bit more, Sophie...just hang in there for a second longer." Radiance speared her, touching every particle of her body with fingers of fire. The pollution that had been forcibly injected...a torture of hours and hours...was now being ripped from her, all the pain compressed into a tiny fraction of the time. Only Autumn's mind, guiding Cassandra's power, saved Sophia from being physically ruptured...caught between the opposing forces that raged throughout her. Sophia's screaming turned hoarse...turned to anguished sobbing. The 'smoke' trailing from her thinned finally, and guttered out. The spear of Light, and the wind died away...the bowl in the clouds started to smooth out. And Sophia, with a final shuddering gasp, opened her eyes. For that moment the Fellowship could see that they were clear. Her teeth and fingers normal. Then Sophia collapsed onto the bones, mercifully unconscious. "Oh my god," Cassie whispered. "Oh my god, Sophie, I didn't know...I'm so sorry..." Autumn squeezed her hand and shook her head. She had some tears leaking from her eyes as well, but her face had a harder edge. "You had to do it," she told Cassandra softly. "It hurt now, but...it would have been worse." Autumn nodded at Cody then, mutely making the point. Cassie looked that way and shook her head at what she saw. "There's almost nothing of Cody left now," she said. "I...I can't do that to him. It's had him too long. It would kill him, even with your help." Autumn frowned at that, and her chin set in a subtly defiant expression. She wasn't quite as ready to give up on Cody, it seemed.
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