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WEIRDER STUFF
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Weirder Stuff - Session IV - CHASING RAINBOWS

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Charlie and Sophia

"Well, I'm the GM, I play them all. But if I were playing in a game I usually play a spellcaster, mostly sorcerers or warlocks, but some times other spell classes." She slips her phone out of her back pocket, "You want to grab a shake at Bunnee" or you got soem place to be?"

Her thumb flies across the phone screen then she hands the phone to Charlie, "That's me dressed up as Synirilla my Sorceress"

Spoiler

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"Nowhere else I'd rather be." Charlie assured her with a smile. "You look great in that costume." Sounds like she's up for roleplay, the Marissa-voice snickered. Clearly, the Jason-voice surmised, she is demonstrating interest that extends beyond merely securing the lead role. You can use that as a justification for taking advantage of the situation without making any commitments you will not fulfill.

Oh right, he'd used Jason as some kind of representation of an angel - or avatar of self-control. "How did you design it?"

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Sophia took the turn that would take them to Bunnee's. "I don't I don't have a lot of fashion sense, I like come-for-ta-bull, "she said drawing the word out syllable by syllable, "Darcy does my costumes. That's her talent, that and eating. When we go to a con or a larp I'll get with her and brainstorm. I tell her what i'm wanting and voila she whips it up."

She finishes just as they pull into Bunnee's and she parks at a carhop station, "This cool? I don't usually go in."

Charie looks inside for a second, "Yeah this is fine."

"Cool.

So you do you guys Larp or go to cons?"

 

 

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"Aww...lookit you, so small and cute," Cassandra cooed, with just a touch of smirk as she reached over to scritch the cat between her ears.

She nodded at Cade's denial and gave Beth a smile. "Trust me, if and when I start dating again, you'll be the second to know. Hell, maybe the first. But Cade IS helping me out with a bit of snoopery. Can I meet you at Bunnee's a little later? Like an hour?"

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Spoiler

This scene takes place roughly an hour after the meeting at the bleachers.
Produced in collaboration with Marissa / Dave ST.

The Jauntsen Home, Devin and Marissa's basement

Marissa fell back onto the soft, plush rug. Her breathing was erratic and she was short of breath, steadying her rhythm with every heavy inhale and exhale. Her body glistened in sweat and her hair lay spread behind her in a plume of sticky, damp strands. One of her hands lay across her chest as the back of her palm of her other hand rested gently upon her wet, sweat covered brow. “Worst, best idea I've had in a long time,” she panted. “One more time.”

Jason turned his head to look at her. Sweat covered him as well and his breathing was faring no better than hers. His hands both rest across his chest where his teeshirt was showing darker, damp discoloration. “Marissa, that's six times...”

“I know,” she cooed. “But you're getting better at it. I told you using your hips would make all the difference... and I wasn't wrong.” He tilted her head to face him and she smiled.

“I... just need to... rest.” He smiled back. “Ten minutes.”

She grunted in frustration and rolled her eyes. “You know, you're the first guy I've ever done this with? I don't just share myself on a personal level with just anyone, and now here you are, I invite you to get to know me more on an intimate level...” her voice grew bored and monotone. “And you want ten minutes to re-hydrate? Fucking men. I swear.”

Stop faking,” he said casually. “You're just as worn out as I am. Water break, and I promise, we'll get back to it.”

“Ugh, fine.” She rolled onto her left side and stood up. “Pick a song while you drink. No excuses. I want your A-game.” She slid the controller over to Jason with her sneakered foot and stepped off the Dance Dance Revolution mat. The Queen of Shelly was in her normal workout attire, sheer black leggings that were glossy around all the places where polite modesty was required and a sports bra that certainly made Jason thankful she wasn't shy about her body at all. She took a brief moment to tighten her pony-tail and went to the fridge, plucking out two waters, and under handing one to Jason who was standing up.

“I'm confused.” Jason said flatly. “You invited me here to talk. I know you're angry with me, so, why the games?”

“My brother suggested I not just skip straight to both barrels. You claim you're messed up,” she patted her neck and face with a towel. “We're all messed up.  So, instead of hiding your body in a shallow hole out back, freshly dug, so don't tempt me to use it, I'm trying to bond with you on some level. To share a secret, you could say. So, now you know, I love DDR and I'm not sorry. I'm trying to wear myself out before we get to the meat of why you're here and why I'm pissed at you.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you even know why I'm pissed at you?”

He studied her as he drank some water, feeling his body cool down from their shared exertions.  It had been a surprise, to say the least, when the phone in the farmhouse kitchen had rung and Marissa’s dulcet tones had said  "We need to talk.  My place, forty-five minutes.  Wear sneakers, not your Army surplus clodhoppers."

He'd never been to the Jauntsen place.  Not that he'd avoided it, per se, just that most of the hanging out he'd done with Devin and Mari over the summer had been at the farm, which seemed to have suited them just dandy as it gave them a reason to get away from their folks.  So the invite was unusual, as was the instruction to wear sneakers.  And then he'd arrived and seen Marissa in her workout gear which, whilst it didn't leave him a tongue-tied mess, certainly made him feel that it should have.  Also glad that his baggy combat pants hid any autonomic reactions that may, or may not have taken place (he'd never tell) watching her limber up.

"You're going down."  she'd said with a toss of her head and an air of challenge, and for a second he'd wondered with some real concern whether she was going to challenge him to a fight - before she rolled out the DDR pads with a smirk.  And thus began another first for Jason, who was thankfully deft and fit enough to at least not completely embarrass himself next to her, picking up the patterns and moves with his usual swiftness.  He should have looked ungainly, with his height and slenderness: a comedic puppet made of knees and elbows.  But he was balanced and coordinated, always possessed of a sense of what was around him and how he fit into that space.

It was a lot of fun.  Not just because he got to watch Marissa bounce, step and sway in a way that would distract a Buddhist monk, but the activity, hanging out and doing something frivolous but fun with someone he liked - okay, liked a lot - was a balm after the day  he’d had, especially that unmentionable abortion of a meeting with the Fellowship.  He'd missed this - missed her - though the sensation would probably seem a muted one next to those experienced by 'normal' people, that he felt it at all was testament to how keen it was.

"I never claimed to be messed up."  he stated mildly as he cycled through the songs.  "I just have a part-"

"Part of your brain missing, yeah.  I know."  Marissa said.  "That doesn't mean you're stupid.  So don't be stupid now."

He sighed and met her eyes with his own intense stare.  It wasn't menacing, not now she was used to it. She'd gotten good at reading Jason - it was all in his eyes.  Right now, he was watching her, studying how she was reacting and emoting.  A blind man learning to read Braille, was the comparison that came to mind.

"I think you're pissed because I broke the law and hurt someone, or because I made my friends complicit in my actions?"  he ventured, his tone that of a man figuring out a problem.  "And I think you're bothered by how easy I found it.  Perhaps you were afraid, when you first found out?  I doubt you are now, or I wouldn't be here."  He set the controller aside, his attitude one of concentration on the moment.  "Avalon felt I'd betrayed her trust.  Devin feels I'll eventually become an animal to put down, at least going by what they have said.  Clara says I need a form of cognitive behavioral therapy – someone to talk to.  Lilly tells me I’m just not trying hard enough.  None of the others have said boo.  The truth is, Marissa, that all I have is guesses as to why you're mad at me."  He shrugged, looking down at the water bottle in his hands. 

"I can tell you that it matters to me that you are upset, for what that is worth.  I regret that what I did caused you to not want to be my friend anymore."

"Mm," she raised a finger on the hand that gripped her water bottle, making a point to claim the moment in mid swig.  She finished her drink and her finger bobbed up and down in preparation for what she was about to say.  "Jason, I'm pissed at you.  Devin is pissed at you.  If we didn't want to be friends with you anymore, we would have had pulled that plug already."

"And you're half right," she leaned on the island of the kitchen that made up a portion of the Jauntsen twins' basement play space.  He wasn't sure if she was intending to tease him, but everything about her was a distraction.  Making eye contact was just as difficult as not making eye contact as every part of her was an oasis in the desert of a teenage boys mind.  "I don't give a one whit about what you did to Liam.  He'll live, and Lona can help to make sure nothing is permanent, I feel it's the least we can do."  She tilted her head and her hair fell 'just so' over her shoulder.  "Fact of the matter is Jason, I was thinking of Liam.  We're dealing with an entity that can ride people's bad thoughts and make them monsters.  Liam was already a prick, we both know that, but what we didn't know was whether it was him, or the Dark."

She straightened and walked about, scooping up the towel again and dabbing her abs with it, making an 'ick' face as she threw it back on the counter.  "You, Jason, displayed poor impulse control.  You were so wrapped in wanting to hurt someone that you stopped being a rational, reasonable being.  Does that make sense to you?"  She narrowed her eyes to witness his confirmation denial from his expression.  "Do you understand why, as a result of those actions, people would be fearful of you?  We have proof of what you're capable of, but all we have as proof of your control and nonviolent proclamation is your word... which flies in the face of reason, given the proof of what you're capable of."

"You saw me leave, Jason.  You knew I was going to try and save him from you, and you raced me to get to him first.  So, what was your priority Jason?  Lona?  Who asked you to just leave it be.  Me?  Whom you knew was trying to save the kid, who may or may not have had control over his actions.  Or your vengeful nature?  Which you delivered upon a boy with impunity without ever stopping to consider that maybe, just maybe... the guy was a shade."  She folded her arms and leaned to one side.  "My brother loves me.  He protects me.  Can you understand why he might be worried for his sister, now?  We had a long talk, which is why you and I are having a long talk."

"It was poor impulse control."  he admitted, standing and stretching so his muscles would not become stiff from sitting after the exertion.  "The act was ill-considered, and mostly due to my vengeful nature, as you put it."  He held out a hand, a fresh towel flying from the counter and dropping into his palm as he, too, daubed off the worst of the sweat from his face and neck before rummaging up under his tee-shirt with it.  "I told myself there were other considerations:  that Devin might do something dumb, or Lilly, or Cade.  And get hurt or, more likely, caught."  He sighed, draping the towel around his neck and meeting her eyes again.

"But all of that is rationalising what I wanted to do.  I pride myself on being honest, if not always open.  I wanted to hurt the cockroach that hurt my friend,  and it didn't occur to me he might be a shade."  He made a wry self-deprecating face.  "It should have.  It should have been my first thought, even if Liam is the kind of creep that would happily spike a girl’s drink just so he can fondle something other than a blow-up doll.  Instead, I was angry.  It was like the sabertooth, like the thing in the forest.  Something reached out to hurt what I care for and I flipped from cold to hot."

"Psshyeah.  We all barely knew each other when the sabertooth attacked."  Marissa snorted.  Jason smiled faintly, his eyes not leaving hers.

"Doesn't mean I didn't care for those I was with.  Some of them.  Maybe just one of them.  Perhaps more than was realised by that person."  he said into the suddenly pregnant silence with one of his boneless shrugs, pale green eyes warming a little as the smile reached them.  "I understand that Devin is worried for you.  Maybe for the others too.  And though I know that I would never seriously hurt a member of the fellowship... and least of all you...  I also know that I'm going to have to prove that through actions, not words.  It's a work in progress."

"I was hurt because you put your vengeance above friendship," her voice was smooth and calm, almost soothing.  It was obvious she cared for him on a personal level.  If she were mad at him, she didn't seem like now.  "You can't leave us bleeding in the woods to go hunt and kill the the thing that bit us.  Okay?  I know you don't think like other people and you're new to having a lot of friends, but we need you need to stand by us, not run off."

She stepped towards him and wrapped her arms around his lanky frame, resting her head softly on his chest.  "Me too."  She said softly.  "Friends are a new concept for me too.  So get better at it, because I'm to pretty to keep crying over you."

Hugs were not a regular feature in Jason's life.  In fact, before the summer, the person who mostly hugged him was Sean's mom, and even those had become less frequent as he'd gotten older and taller though, as the football game showed, when she needed someone to hug jubilantly Mrs Cassidy did not spare even her son's taciturn friend, which Jason put up with good-naturedly.  Avalon had hugged him once or twice, platonic tactile affection, as his chilly mind classified it.  Though he thought she was mostly sincere, he wondered if she'd hugged him at least in part to prove to herself she wasn't afraid of him.  To humanise the Other in her mind.

So he'd been surprised when Marissa had stepped close and wrapped her arms around him, resting her head against him.  She smelled of fresh sweat and deodorant, a hint of conditioner in her hair, and the gesture was so openly affectionate that it actually made his mind pause - but only for a moment - before his long arms wrapped around to cradle her against him, one hand coming up to stroke her sweat-damp hair.  And then her words registered.  She had cried over him?

"On that, I couldn't agree more." he murmured.  "I had no idea you would cry over me."  She felt him sigh against her, the sweat-damp cotton of his tee-shirt against her cheek something that seemed irrelevant right now.  He smelled faintly of tobacco, faintly of flowers and a faded dab of cologne under the sweat.  She peered up to find him looking down at her, his green eyes not seeming as remote as usual as they met her gaze, though he was as usual outwardly composed.  "That's another reason I would take it back if I could."

"Oh?"  she asked, reading something in his gaze and challenging it a little, though she didn't pull away from the hug.  "And here I thought you had ice-water for blood.  Big, bad, high-functioning psychopathic genius.  Nothing touches his cold, cold heart."  She was teasing, drawing out the second 'cold' and adding a theatrical shiver to the word, aware that his arm was still around her waist and his other hand was resting lightly on her shoulder.

His answer to that was a raised eyebrow and a faint curve to his lips as he studied her smirk, then a wry smile.  "When you took my hand in the trailer on the night of the party.  When you calmed me down and worked with me to sort those infernal red-herring files.  Your face when you saw my garden for the first time.  When you got me quoting Pulp Fiction in my kitchen."  he smiled more warmly now.  "When you called me an asshole after sneaking up on you-"  

"You mean you did that deliberately?  I knew it."  Marissa cut in, narrowing her gorgeous dark eyes at him even though part of her was loving this warm moment.  "Asshole."

"-when you turned up in those frankly ridiculous 'hiking heels'-"

"Okay, now you're going too far.  Hiking heels are totes a thing."  she poked his chest.  "You're on thin ice, buster."

"-all of those moments, and more, you touch my heart."  he finished, head tilting to one side as he smiled.  "I cannot cry or even experience sadness as more than a faint ache.  But if I could, the thought of you crying would make me utterly miserable."  He eyed her carefully, trying to gauge her reaction.

"If I'm being creepy or inappropriate, you can tell me.  I just wanted to tell you that, is all."

She tapped his chest and smiled, stepping away from the tall, lanky teen.  "Jason, you can't be inappropriate with me.  You're not creepy, hell, I find the honesty refreshing.  Besides, have you met my brother?  How are you going to creep me out or offend me when I live with a guy who locks himself in the bathroom and sings the 'helicoptering my dick' song while he showers."

Jason opened his mouth to speak, even raised his hand in a gesture to facilitate the flow of words... but there were none to be had.

"Yeah."  She smiled at him.  "So, the point Jason, is that you're safe with me.  I know you have a hard time with people, and dealing with certain things, so come to me if you help.  No judgement, no strings attached."  She turned and walked away from him and he never let his gaze leave her frame.

"I'm not an expert on everything," she continued, stopping at the fridge again where she popped it open and reached in and grabbed some string cheese.  One for her and one for Jase.  As the door closed she caught him eyeing her, or, at least parts of her.  She smiled and gave him a look that told him she wasn't offended at all.  "Well, at least that part of your brain works."  She offered him the snack while using her teeth to tear open her pack.

"But," she struggled with it then finally tore it open, cursing slightly at her luck of getting the difficult pack.  "You're broadening your horizons, so to speak.  There's going to be dances, social functions, girls are going to ask you out, trust me, I've got the skinny on two of them that are interested.  We women are a complicated lot, so if you need advice, you have a girl on the inside.  I'll spill all our juicy secrets."  She winked and mingled a smirk with her tongue as she wrangle up her string cheese, tipping her head back and dropping in a strand.

"So good,"  she shrugged.  "It's like, I know it's just mozzarella, but it's so much better because it is in string form.  How do they do that?"

"Limited contact with the taste buds forces the sensory area of your brain to concentrate more fully on the areas of contact.  If you shoved the whole thing in your mouth at once, it'd just taste like a lump of mozzarella.  It's the same principle that makes us focus on small movements or rustling noises."  Jason commented as he came over to take the snack from her hand, tearing open the packet and likewise extracting some stringy dairy goodness.  Marissa regarded him as he likewise dropped a strand between his lips, and he arched a brow as he noticed her scrutiny.  "What?  I realise your question was likely rhetorical, but it's interesting how the brain works."

"It's certainly interesting how your brain works."  she retorted, smiling.  "I just told you that two girls are interested in asking you out.  Asking you.  Even in the Current Year, that's bucking the trend."

"It's true I'm broadening my horizons."  he noted, his gaze studying her, committing every moment of this time to his memory.  "It's also true that 'that' part of my brain works."  His lips quirked in a smile.  "Quite well.  I'm not sure about dating, though."  He arched an eyebrow at her.  "There's reasons I don't date - and no, they have nothing to do with hayhooks or a cannibalism fetish."  He paused, studying her thoughtfully.  Jason usually had an air of intensity, but when he subjected someone to a thoughtful stare it was downright daunting, giving the impression of massive forces at work behind those green eyes.

"That said, with everything else that's changing around here, and in my life, maybe that should change too." he said, breaking off that stare and dropping another stringy length of cheese into his mouth.  "So, who are the two interested girls?  I know Lori Heath asked Lilly to convey her interest in being asked to the Homecoming Dance - which seems a roundabout way of doing things."  He smiled faintly.  "Who's the other?"

"What?  No!"  She laughed.  "You ruined string cheese for me.  Come on Jason, where the magic?  I look up at the sky and I see blue and I see clouds and I see stars.  They're so beautiful to me, and I don't one hundred percent understand how it all works... and that's why they stay so beautiful."

"Consider that for a moment, the next time you want to explain something away.  Your science, as interesting as it is to flex your brain, makes everything that's so enchanting about life seem... banal."

She reached over and picked into his with her polished nails and peeled herself off a strand.  "You owe me, for ruining mine."  She smiled at him.  "Oh, she told you?  Awesome, then I'm in the clear, and duh, she is the second one.  No worries, we'll have you all ready for Homecoming no matter who you go with.  Hence, the dancing.  I'm not going to tell you how to live your life, Jason, but seriously, you have to get out there, explore your options, open yourself up to every opportunity you can.  Dating might do you good."

"Do girls intimidate you?"  She asked suddenly while leaning against the island.  "Like, I know you're unsure of your sexuality, but is that because of a lack of experience or are just not sure what to do around us?  What's it like in your head?  Short version.  Don't put me sleep with twenty minutes of medical bullshit.  Because you seem uncomfortable around us sometimes."

"I'm not unsure of my sexuality." he protested mildly.  "I like girls.  What am I, a theatre geek?" he added deadpan, causing Mari to almost inhale a piece of mozzarella from laughing.

"A-as-asshole." she coughed, swatting his arm with the back of her hand.

"I am sorry if I ruined string cheese.  I feel that it makes things more interesting to know the whys... I also share your appreciation for the beauty my surroundings." his smile became a lopsided grin.  "But I'll bear your wishes in mind and leave you in blissful ignorance next time."

"Do that."  Marissa sniffed, then narrowed her eyes.  "Wait.  Did I just give you carte blanche to not tell me things?"

"Yes.  And no take-backs."  Jason asserted with calm aplomb, though his eyes danced with laughter.

"Nuh-uh!  No way.  Foul play."  Marissa shook her head, reaching out steal another string of cheese from Jason's hand.  He moved it back a tiny fraction as though he was planning to pull away - then relented, allowing the lovely girl to hum happily as she claimed her prize.  "Now spill."  she said, staring at him meaningfully.

"Girls don't intimidate me any more than boys do.  And if you'd noticed, I don't have many close guy friends either.  My closest friend was Sean, and he knew nothing about me other than I appeared to be some kind of aspie and was a little smarter than I let on."  Jason's manner sobered as he regarded Marissa.  "Guys are easier for me to associate with because they don't really want to know what's going on in my head, or what makes me tick.  They're happy with the surface layer."

"And girls always want to know what's going on inside."  Marissa finished, her gaze speculative.  "So... the dating thing."

"I have little direct experience of affection or love to base my behaviours on.  I can't get crushes on people."  he shrugged.  "I can feel physical desire and conscious mental admiration, respect and attraction, but no chemical bonding to make me irrational and distracted."  He smiled a little.  "That seems to be most of it, for teenagers.  And so I just decided to miss out."

"So you have no frame of reference, a lack of experience and you're not sure what to do around a girl you like?"  Marissa summed up.  Jason considered as he ate some string cheese, then nodded.

"I seem to make girls cry, or afraid, or angry at me."  he said with a faint smile.  "And those are the ones I'm not dating."

"Do you want to date?"   she asked curiously.

"I want to date you."  he said with simple honesty, his gaze direct.  "But you don't date either."  His expression was one of curiousity.  "Why is that?"

Marissa's jovial smile slipped away just a bit.  Just a bit, but Jason noticed it.  "Jason, that's..." she paused.  Marissa never paused in her words, she knew exactly what she was going to say and if there were to words to regret, she'd deal with it afterwards.  With Jason it was different, he was a good guy, but different than any guy she'd ever met.  He was exactly what every girl ended up with: perfect for her in every way except the way she needed.  Either they were married, or emotionally unavailable, or gay.  "...I've been in love, Jason.  You haven't.  You can't."

Her guest took in a terse breath.  It was obvious her delivery stung.  "That's hardly fair."

"No," she raised her hands defensively.  She shook her head and tightened her eyes as she searched for the proper words.  "I didn't mean it like that, Jason.  I'm... I'm not trying to be cruel, I'm just... Jesus, what am I trying to say?"

"I've never seen you so off guard, Marissa."  He studied her as she had one hand on her hip the other massaging the bridge of her nose.  "All I ask is honestly."

"I envy you, Jason."  She said softly.  "Because I can love.  I can't help but love.  I'm a passionate, hopeless romantic whose read all the classics and has a private library of teenage romances, that you will never see, by the way," she held up a finger to punctuate that proclamation.  "And I want to be loved.  I want it so bad... but people are horrible.  I got my heart broken and I will not go through it again.  You?  You can meet people, laugh, cry, joke, even fuck, and when it's over it's just... over.  Just 'somebody that you used to know' tucked away in your mental Rolodex."

"That doesn't work for me," she placed her palm on her chest.  "You and me, it's science, Jason.  We're unsuitable for use together because of antagonistic chemical or physiological interactions."

"The text book definition for incompatible," he smirked.  "Nice."

She winked and smiled.  "Jason I will help you in anyway I can.  I'll do hook ups, break ups, I'll teach you everything you need to know.  I'll spill all our dirty female secrets and give you a competitive edge."  She approached him and leaned into him, her cheek gently grazing his.  "Let it be enough."

"You never answered 'why'."  He whispered softly.

Her lips gently pressed to his cheek.  He could smell her hair and feel her breath upon his earlobe.  "I know."

"Mari..."  He closed his eyes, fighting the sudden rush of anger that roiled deep within him.  Not at her.  Never at her.  At the universe.  For having this blindness threaten to snatch away what he wanted.  Words.  Think it through, explain it as best you can.  He gently reached out and brushed his palms down her forearms before taking her hands in his, opening his eyes to meet hers.

"I'm not completely dead inside.  For me, love is a conscious choice, an appreciation of a person, warts and all.   There's no chemical rush that fogs my perceptions, then leaves me with buyers remorse when the rush fades.  When I realised that I love you, it was like a final piece of a puzzle fitting into place, a 'eureka' moment."

Marissa remained silent, her eyes wide and dark.  He could feel a faint tremor in her hands, but she wasn't trying to pull away.

"I remember when you came to Shelly.  I was almost fourteen - it was not much past three years ago.  You were beautiful, but I was in my introvert act and trying to avoid notice.  But I watched you and Devin.  You were interesting.  Alive, a figure of colours in a world of fog.  You know I have a good memory.  Well, I've been taking it further, a for-real mind-palace.  And in it is the sum total of all my experiences.  Later, I could stop this moment and review it from across the room, noting every detail of your face and the look in your eyes."  He smiled gently.  "Maybe if Sara can arrange it, or I can learn her trick, I can show you.  I'd want to share that with you, if you want... I'm rambling."  He frowned a little, but Marissa smiled very tentatively and squeezed his hands in hers, saying nothing and waiting patiently.

"Every moment of you that I have seen is in here.  Every snarky comment, every short skirt, every insightful remark, every sigh, every wisecrack, every totally adorable toss of your hair and those hiking heels.  That summer two years ago when you had a band-aid on your knee outside Bunnee's.  And Marissa, it's not tucked away in some wing of my mind-palace that I visit when I feel like it."  His eyes were warm pools of green, summer leaves amongst which fireflies danced.  "You're in my throne room.  In the palace of my mind with all the knowledge and experiences that I have or will ever have, you are the queen.  Did you ever wonder why, of all my customers, I never made you use my dead-drop system? You, in all your beauty, snark, poise, insecurity, regality, occasional pettiness, warmth and romantic nature, are who I choose to love.  That's not a thing that will evaporate.  I am not ordinary, and neither is my love.  And neither is the woman I love."

"I'm telling you this without expectation.  Because you are my friend, and because you deserve the truth of my feelings.  What you choose to do with the information is up to you."

He smiled very faintly then, a faint mischievous expression.  "Say that she rail; why, then, I'll tell her plain: She sings as sweetly as a nightingale:  Say that she frown; I'll say she looks as clear as morning roses newly wash’d with dew: Say she be mute and will not speak a word; Then I'll commend her volubility, And say she uttereth piercing eloquence: If she do bid me pack, I'll give her thanks, As though she bid me stay by her a week.."

Marissa flushed.  It wasn't often one witnessed the event, after all she kept her real thoughts and feeeling closer to her chest than anyone in Shelly could imagine.  If she had a weakness, it was literature and again she was reminded of something she could not have in Jason.  He didn't, couldn't, love her the way she desired.

"My passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love, yet I pray you, do not fall in love with me, for I am falser than vows made in wine."  Her words were feather-light and carried on an accent so subtle and so perfectly spoken Jason knew she'd either practiced those two lines in the mirror a million times, or she was the one who wrote them.

"Jason, I," she smiled warmly but it found its purchase upon her lips amid troubled thoughts.  "I appreciate what you're trying to say, and impressed with the delivery.  Taming of the Shrew is one of my favorites.  To tell me that you love me, yet, if I reject you will simply thank me for my time and still going on loving me, it's a beautiful notion and certainly the sweetest any man has delivered to date."

"Tell me of the last time you cried."  She changed the topic suddenly, eyeing him now with curiosity mingled with a tinge of sadness.  "What tore you apart so much that you couldn't keep the flood of emotions and pain inward anymore."

"If you mean breaking down and sobbing... never. I cried when my mother abandoned me, when she told me she didn't want me because I am... as I am. But there weren't many tears. And when I saw my father break down and cry after I tried to help him by pouring away his liquor, I shed tears too. His pain was almost tangible to me." He regarded Marissa calmly. "Those were the two most emotionally painful moments of my life, and all they did was make my eyes wet and make me feel empty and useless for a time."

"That's love Jason.  Caring in it's simplest and truest state,"  she stepped close to him again and gazed into his still, ever-calm eyes.  "But being in love, Jason, it's... it's beyond science, it's beyond quantifying, it's math you simply can't solve for Jason."

She rested her palms on his chest and looked up at him.  "I," she smiled and her eyes were filled with caring and compassion, the moments when she was at her most beautiful.  "I love you too.  All of you little rejects,honestly," she recovered quickly, before burying herself in a hole on mixed signals.  "But you can't give me what I need from a relationship, and we've just made up after a big fight so 'I love you' is probably not the best thing for either of us to be dropping in each other's camps right now."

Once again her arms slid around his body and her face pressed into his chest.  "Now hold me, hug me, tell me I'm pretty and let's get past all this 'who loves who' business.  Besides," her tone changes to a playful coo.  "You need to level up for me, loser.  I am so far out of your Challenge Rating range.  You're like, still on rats in the cellar and I'm like campaign ending, final boss level."

He laughed, a warm chuckle that embraced her as surely as his arms did as they slid around her.  "I have much to learn, but I do have an excellent teacher.  As well as a ridiculously pretty one."

"How pretty am I?" Her voice was soft, almost tentative as she nuzzled her face against his chest, feeling the warmth of his hug and his hand stroking her hair.  Jason was surprised for a moment - surely she knew how beautiful she was - but he had been paying attention, too.  Neurotypicals doubted themselves, especially when they had suffered setbacks.  Marissa had had her heart broken - she had been rejected.

"So pretty I've considered cultivating a flower and naming it after you."  he admitted with that simple, direct honesty.  "So pretty that when I listen to music I think of you.  You shone in my eyes before shine took on a different meaning for us."

"Mmm."  Marissa smiled, her eyes closed against his tee-shirt.  "What kind of flower?"

"A variant of Hibiscus, perhaps?  I know you like them.  Something vibrant."  Her hair was soft under his fingers, her waist supple under the arm around it.  His body was keenly aware of the nearness of hers, but he neither pressed closer nor tried to move away.  "Which reminds me.  I brought a 'making up' present."

"Oh?"  she glanced up at him through long lashes, eyes narrowing.  "And what made you so sure you and I were going to make up?"

"I was confident that, seeing as you wanted to talk, it was at least a possibility."  he returned evenly, then smiled a little.

"You bought me a gift on a 'maybe'?"  

"Made you a gift.  A little while ago, but the time never seemed right to present it."  His satchel flipped open where it sat by the couch, a small wrapped package floating out and across to where the pair of them embraced.  "As for the 'maybe' - you're right, love is not a calculation.  Sometimes it's a leap."

Marissa turned in his embrace slightly as the present came to rest in her outstretched hand.  It was simply wrapped, in coloured tissue paper which tore off easily enough to reveal a small red blown-glass bottle with a stopper, with what seemed to be some kind of oil inside.  She cast a glance at Jason, who merely watched her expectantly with that faint Sphinx-like smile, his arms still lightly hugging her. 

She removed the glass stopper and sniffed at it, catching the scent of hibiscus, with some other notes she recognised.  Jasmine was in there too, just a touch, not too overpowering.  Her eyes widened a little - the scent was floral and subtly noticeable, but not strong or nose-wrinkling.  There was something gently lovely about the overall effect.

"It's an avocado oil base, 100 percent organic.  You can dab it on pulse points, or use drops in your bath."  Jason said softly, watching her expressions with the intent air of a man studying the sky to divine the weather.  "I was inspired to make better use for my lab than just producing knock-off Adderall or fireworks over the summer - I wanted to make something nice for you.  I call it 'De la Mer'."

There was silence.

"Is it okay?" he asked, a touch of concern in his voice.

"Of the sea," she said softy, more to herself than to her guest, as the vapors enchanted her, making her eyes heavy and skin warm.  "Jason it's-" she laughed for no reason other than she was happy.  "It's wonderful, thank you.  It smells amazing."

"I'm not hugging you again," she smiled at him while looking up through those deep brown eyes of hers.  "You've already gotten two.  If I keep doing it, you'll start expecting it."

"What's wrong with that?"  Jase chuckled.  "Doesn't seem like a bad way to spend my day."

"Because I could be teaching so much more."  Maybe she didn't mean it, but they way she said it was so inviting and practically daring him to cross any boundary he could to take her up on the offer.  It was Marissa, however and everything the girl said was laced heavily in either authority or seduction.  So much for not sending mixed signals.  "So, you need to get out there."

She traced just a bit over her pulse points, and offered Jason a devilish smirk.  "Let's try it out.  Ten minutes is up, lover boy.  Pick a song and by the end of it, you'd better have a date in mind for Homecoming."

"Unfair."  His tone was clinical, but the heated return glance that met Marissa's flirtatious smirk was- well, it was an open oven door that brought heat to her cheeks.  She'd been ogled, and catcalled (ugh) and looked at dreamily, and of course there'd been the puppyish, slavishly devoted 'I'll do anything for you' soulful look teenage boys, even bruisers like Chet, usually brought.  The only word for this was hungry.  "I already picked who I had in mind."

She opened her mouth to gently rebuke, and froze a moment in the face of that smoldering stare.  Jase was definitely a virgin.  He hadn't even dated, by his own admission.  Probably hadn't done more than maybe gotten a kiss once or twice, if that.  But there was nothing virginal or uncertain about the look he was giving her.  It was practically volcanic, but in a good way.  Very good, part of her noted even as it also noted that he was still really, really close to her.

"Jase..."  she murmured, bringing a hand up to rest on his chest.  She'd intended it to be a warding off gesture, really she had, but her palm flattened against his breastbone and she could feel his heart beating underneath it, feel the warmth of him.  And he was leaning down now, his eyes on hers, his hands sliding around her waist.  He didn't come right in like a steam train - this was a patient stalk, a series of slow, unhurriedly movements that reminded her of the smilodon.  He paused, his lips curving in a slight smile as thought he'd noticed something, and Marissa suddenly became aware that she was leaning her face up back towards him like a flower to the sun.  She could shove him away - he wasn't forcing himself against her.  She should step back, she told herself, even as his face and eyes, framed by shaggy brown hair (that badly needed a style, at least he combed it now), filled her sight.

"Mmhmm?"  His answer was a low, feline rumble, and she was aware that he was breathing her in appreciatively.  "I was testing the perfume.  It is perfect for you."

"Oh... the perfume.  Right."  Marissa murmured, not buying it in the slightest.  The devil with the green eyes before her always had more than one reason for everything he did, right?  Her own lips curved in a smile as she looked into the depths of his eyes, pupils dilated in the sea of green.  "I think it works, so you can-"

And his lips met hers, the kiss a soft, gentle pressure against her lips.  This was not a practiced kiss - he wasn't an experienced kisser in the slightest - but it had warmth and passion to it, and boldness - a total lack of hesitation.  It also wasn't loose-lipped or slobbery, which was always a plus for a first kiss.  It lasted a few seconds... long, warm seconds with his heartbeat under her palm, and then it ended a second or two after she'd felt her own lips begin to return the kiss, and Jason had stepped a half step back, though his hands still rested on her hips above the workout pants she wore.

"You said you wanted my A-game.  Now the ten minutes are up."  he said with a faint smile, his tongue lightly tracing where her lips had touched his in a reflexive fashion. He indicated towards the waiting gaming setup.  "Shall we?"

She took more than a half of a step back.  As he smiled and licked the ecstasy from his lips her eyes were alight with the fires of scorn.  She wiped her lips with her thumb and folded her arms.  "Sure, but first I think this is an excellent opportunity to interject a lesson."

"One," she raised her arm and counted off a digit.  "When a woman speaks, listen.  I believe I was quite clear when I told you that I don't date.  I didn't say 'except' or 'unless', I said I don't.  I don't date.  That means that I won't be going to Homecoming with anyone, hell I probably won't even go."

"Two," her second finger met the sky.  "Being physical with people sends the wrong messages, sometimes.  Yes, Jason we flirt, but when I told you no more hugs it's because things were getting a little too close in here.  That should have been it.  We move on, we play our game, we giggle like teens.  Done.  The perfume, I love it Jason, but that should have been it.  Done."  She spun around and lazily shrugged and let her arms fall to her sizes.  "What is it with guys?  Why do you think that because you get us something, or do something for us that we owe you something?  I loved the gift Jason, it was thoughtful and it was romantic and had you had some patience and understanding towards the fact that I'm not really into the whole relationship thing, who knows?  I might have come out of my shell.  I trust you, I would have felt safe with you, fuck... I don't know."

"But it's never enough, is it?  To just be appreciated?  I didn't want to kiss you Jason.  Nor did I want a kiss from you.  You had no right to take that from me."  Her eyes were starting to gloss with moisture but Marissa was one of the few women who could keep their emotions in check longer than most.  It was reaching a boiling point though and getting harder for her to keep her tears at bay.

"Congratulations.  Mystery solved.  You want to know why I don't date?  This is why."  She thrust her finger towards the floor.  "I don't owe you anything.  Just because you 'love me' and get me things doesn't mean you can just take from me whatever you want.  I was clear with you Jason, and you didn't hear a word I said, which I except no excuse for since you learn a language a week.  I don't date.  I'm not interested in dating you, and yet here you are... 'I love you'.  'I love you'.  'I wanna go to homecoming with you'."  She mocked his voice with a terrible impression of him.  This was probably the most honest and rawest Jason had ever seen Marissa.  There were no masks and it was like looking into a window into the real her.  Someone at some point had hurt her.  It was evident in her desire to never feel that sort of hurt again.  She would rather be alone than in pain.  "Why do you think I'm trying to move you towards other girls?  Because you following me around like a Tawny to my Devin is only going make you look as pathetic as it actually looks when she's doing it."

She inhaled and let out a deep sigh as she massaged her nose.  "Look, Jason, I flirted with you.  I thought you knew it was playful, so I can't blame just you for this.  It was just a kiss, so, it's not the end of the world.  We're all young and stupid, and we don't need more drama.  I," she shook her head, massaging her tears as to not make them visible as best she could.  "I just need to calm down.  I have Clara and Lilly coming over soon and I still need to shower... look, maybe we should just call it, okay?  Thanks for coming by and I'd say we'll can text but you don't have a phone... so, talk at school?"

He didn't move for a moment, seeming untouched by her mockery or her dismissal, head tilting as he studied her curiously.  Then he nodded calmly and turned to lope over to his satchel, scooping it up with one hand before turning to her once more, regarding her angry, disappointed features. 

"I didn't kiss you because I felt entitled to or because I felt my gift - a gift made to a friend - bought something from you.  I kissed you because I felt it would be fun for both of us."  He shrugged and gave her a lopsided smile.  "Plainly I should leave the mind reading to Sara.  Anyway, you're right.  I had no business kissing you and I'm sorry for ruining our time here.  I overstepped - I won't do it again."  he told Marissa with that same, calm tone he usually had, the last sentence having the feel of words carved in stone.  "I also have no intention to follow you around at heel like a dog, have no fear on that score.  It would be pathetic - and I can see why you'd find it annoying."  He gave her a slight smile. 

"Fine."  Marissa nodded, folded her arms across her stomach.  Jason hooked the strap of his satchel over one shoulder, then paused with one foot on the steps leading up and out, a hand on the rail.

"A final thing - more business than personal.  I don't know why Ms Forster wanted to speak to you after Biology, but be careful with her."  he said without looking at Marissa, his gaze fixed on the steps ahead of him.

"Well duh.  There's something off about her, no need for kewl mind powers to tell that."  she snorted, glad to have something else to talk about.  She narrowed her eyes at him.  "Though you and her definitely seemed to be crossing swords.  Want to tell me what that is about?"

"No.  But given that the Dark is probing us, I think I should.  The last time I saw Ms Forster, it was a long way from here and she was called Mrs Bannon."  Jason said so calmly he might have been discussing the weather.  'Oh, it's raining.  Oh, the mother who abandoned me just happened to show up and teach Biology at my school'.  "I'm trying to find out why she's here, but even before all the strangeness started, I didn't believe in coincidences."

"That's your idea of 'business not personal'?"  Marissa arched a brow at her unbelievable friend.  He shrugged, adjusting his bag at his side.  He considered mentioning the Man in Black on the road, the race against the Hell Cadillac...  But no.  Not now, not when he wasn’t even sure if it had been real.  Besides, he couldn’t shake the sense that there was something private between him and Mr Black, something that needed to be resolved, or discovered before he could talk about it with others.

"I have to treat it as business."  he said, very quietly, his eyes glacially pale in his outdoor-tanned face as they glanced her way.  "Because making it personal would be bad.  Maybe that's generally a good rule, for me.  Thanks for the hangout, Mari - DDR was surprisingly fun.  I'll see you at school."  He smiled faintly.  "Maybe I'll even get a phone."

And with that he was gone, taking the stairs up from the basement two at a time.  Marissa massaged the bridge of her nose and started to turn, then noticed a sparkle out of the corner of her eye.  There was a rime of frost on the handrail where Jason's hand had gripped it, slowly melting at room temperature.

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Cass and Cade

Beth's smile falter then came back "Sure I'll meet you there." 

As if to punctuate her sentence the cat suddenly twisted and pushed itself out of her embrace and darted away into the parking lot to disappear among the few cars still parked there. "Well damn. Okay I'll see you at Bunnee's later. Good to see you Cade. Bye Bye guys."

After saying good bye Cass and Cade waited until she was out of earshot the Cass turned to Cade, "Was that the same cat? It sure did look the same just mini."

"I don't know," said Cade shaking his head. "We better go  do whatever it is you need to get done."

The two made their way to Cade's jeep and got inside the vehicle, as Cass was shutting the door on her side the cat lept into her lap and meowed loudly. "This is getting weird. I guess she is coming with us."

Cade drove to the factory while Cass explained on the way. The cat curled up in Cass's lap and seemed to fall asleep purring.

The factory was closed when they arrived so they had to park outside the chain link fence. The teens and their feline companion walked around the fence looking for a likely place to climb over without being seen. As luck would have it thought hey found a large drainage pipe  which came through the fence and there was a cut in the chain links that they could push aside and slip through.

Cass led the way to the secret make out spot and they started looking. "Jesus there are like a million places to hide a phone here."

"Call him," suggested Cade.

"Of course the phone will ring." Cass pulled her phone and dialed. Sure enough they heard the sound of music coming from a spot to their right. It only took a moment to locate the phone

"Now to see what all the mystery is about." Cass easily located the marked video file and pressed play and watched the tiny screen with Cade standing close behind her watching over her shoulder.

The video was shaky and dark and looked like it had been taken from a good distance away with the zoom at max. To Cass it looked like she was watching some guys, mostly African American and Hispanic, about five or six of them, moving crates by hand. Cass was pretty sure the men were in prison uniforms. Try as she might she couldn't tell what was in the crates. Then two more men came into the frame both of these were white and dressed in normal clothing not prison uniforms.

Cass's eyes went wide and behind he she heard Cade's shocked whisper. "Is that your Dad?"

Cass fainted.

 

 

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 Cass's fainting was unexpected, but reflexes that were at the upper edge of human limits  allowed Cade to catch both Cass and her hand holding the phone, though if anyone saw the pose it would look almost like something Gomez and Morticia Addams would be in, as his arm wrapped around her upper body to keep her from falling and his hand closed around hers to keep the phone from falling out as she fainted.  Slowly he lowered them both to the ground and brought in her hand with the phone, still playing, as he worried about just why she fainted.

Once he had laid her down, he took the phone and paused the video.   They could finish watching once he had her awake again.  It took a few moments to rouse her and his concern showed in his slight frown.   "Are you alright Cass?" He said while having taken a knee next to her.

As if to explain why he was concerned he went on "You fainted, I caught ya.   I didn't know what caused it, so I laid you down and paused the video.   If we need to stop and watch the rest back in my Jeep where we can both be seated, that might be best.   It will give us another layer of privacy too."   

 

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Jauntsen's - Marissa, Sara, Lilly, Clara and Etienne

"....so, I told him we wanted to talk. I left out the telepathic scanning part, just because if we can't trust him I don't want him to know what Sara can do." Clara had shown up shortly after Marissa had finished her shower and gotten clean clothes on; the others had filed in not long afterwards. Clara was agitated, pacing around as she spoke. The doorbell rang and she froze like a deer in headlights. 

"It's him," Sara said. 

Marissa rolled her eyes at Clara and stalked over to the door, opening and pointing Etienne into the family room towards the back of the house - no way in hell she was going to tell him where her room was, let alone let him inside. The rest of the group followed and found seats on the couch and loveseat there. Marissa had pulled out a cheap folding chair she'd found packed away in the garage; he didn't get to sit on the nice furniture, either. The group stared at him and he stared; finally he held out his hands and asked, "So, what do you want to know?"

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When Cassandra opened her eyes, Cade's face was hovering anxiously over her. For a second it didn't look like Cade though...it looked like...

Dad

"Phone," she said, shaking her head. "Fuck your Jeep, fuck privacy, where's the pho..." That's when she realized she was holding a cellphone in her hand. She gripped it tighter and sat up fast enough that Cade had to jerk back to avoid getting headbutted.

"Sorry," Cassie said. "About the Jeep and privacy thing. I'm just..." She held the cellphone up again and paused the playback. "That's my dad. He's...he was..."

She couldn't bring herself to say it.

"Cade...I have to go the prison. Tonight. I have to find this place." Cass looked over at him. "I can use my powers there, see and hear what's going on..."

Then it hit her. "Or no. I can...I can track him down the way I was going to try to track Cody down."

Cassandra got to her feet. "I need a ride back to my place!"

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Jauntsen's - Marissa, Sara, Lilly, Clara and Etienne

"Christ, get a grip, Clara."  Marissa chastised her new apprentice.  She finished the final touches on her makeup, penciling in her eyeliner as the door bell rang.  Her makeup station in her room was meticulously organized and nothing was out of place, organized by type, shade, and function.  Her room, although it looked like something a Disney Princess would sleep in was immaculately clean to the point of obsessive and her opened, walk-in closet door revealed more clothes and shoes than any one girl should ever need.  Clara's life was getting stranger and stranger as the people she thought she knew turned out to be nothing like what she thought they were.  "We are just asking a few questions.  No one is out to get him.  This is going to a be simple, civil meeting of the minds, so to speak."

"And remind me, we still need to address all of this," she zipped up her other boot and waved both of her hands all over Clara's general direction.

"All of what?"  Clara looked all around her general direction.  She slid her foot into her boot and zipped it up.  It didn't surprise Clara that Marissa treated everything like it was a fashion show, and even now, despite her dislike for Etienne, she insisted on looking her best for her company.

"Exactly."  She stood and took one last look at herself in the mirror and they were off to greet her guest.

Quote

"So, what do you want to know?"

"Let's start with an easy one," Marissa glared at him like he was prey as she crossed her legs and rested her hands comfortable on her denim skirt .  No one's out to get him indeed.  "How old are you, really, and when did you develop your perverse appetite for nubile high school girls?"

Clara flushed and glared at Marissa like 'really' with an innumerable amount of question marks and mingled exclamations.

With a look of pure innocence The Black Queen widened her eyes at Clara and simply aksed, "What?"

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"I'll go with you,when you go tonight. "Nobody goes alone" right?" he said, happy that she at least seemed alright.  "We should probably let the others know too, though since it's your dad and mine involved, I'll leave the "when" up to you.   I want to know more about all of this."

He stood up, and offered her a hand up.  "I'm tired of being in the dark, or the last to know about things.  Now, you've got what you came for, so if you want to go home, i suggest you call Beth and let her know you won't be meeting her, unless you want to put this off a little while, and we can meet up later tonight to head out."   

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On 11/21/2019 at 5:52 PM, WS ST said:

Sophia took the turn that would take them to Bunnee's. "I don't I don't have a lot of fashion sense, I like come-for-ta-bull, "she said drawing the word out syllable by syllable, "Darcy does my costumes. That's her talent, that and eating. When we go to a con or a larp I'll get with her and brainstorm. I tell her what i'm wanting and voila she whips it up."

She finishes just as they pull into Bunnee's and she parks at a carhop station, "This cool? I don't usually go in."

Charie looks inside for a second, "Yeah this is fine."

"Cool.

So you do you guys Larp or go to cons?"

"Neither, to my knowledge." Charlie replied. "We're satisfied with our group games. Have you done either of those?" What he was really tempted to do was outright ask what was going on here, but considering jumping the gun had left Tawny a bewildered wreck, Charlie felt prudence might be a wiser choice.

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Nubile? Clara mouthed to Marissa with a cringe and a blush from her seat. 

"It's fine," Etienne said softly to Clara, never taking his eyes off of Marissa's face. "I turned twenty-three last month. Clara's the only high school girl I've ever dated. The few other women I've dated were usually a few years older than me."

He kept his hands on his knees, refusing to show defensiveness to the Queen of Shelly High; he shifted only to place an ankle on his opposite knee. He could hear his trainer's voice in his mind: Give no ground. Keep things simple. Don't ever let them see if they've gotten to you. This wasn't quite the kind of interrogation she'd been training him for.

Sara nodded very slightly from her chair, one of the ones off to the side and mostly outside of his field of vision. Truth, at least this time. 

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Spoiler

What follows is a story in five parts, written in collaboration with the player/author of the Goddamn Bannon. It takes place at Bannon Farm after Jase's departure from the Jauntsen house.

The Damsel and the Dragon, Pt. 1.

The road to the Bannon farm was long, and even longer by bicycle. Longer still, when you weren’t entirely sure it was a good idea to be going there. Even the unrelenting flatness of Shelly and its immediate vicinity couldn’t alleviate the feeling of foreboding creeping lazily up Autumn’s spine; if anything, being able to see her destination long before actually reaching it only made the situation worse. It felt different, somehow- 24 hours ago, she’d made this same trip, down the same dirt road, headed to exactly the same place, and it had been... basically fine.

 

24 hours ago, though, she wasn’t alone. Now, under the vastness of the fading afternoon sky, Autumn was more keenly aware of her isolation than at any other time in all her wide and varied wanderings. It was a feeling she only rarely experienced, and so she’d never bothered to fit a name to it. The one people usually used, though, was “dread.” 

 

Most average people avoided trouble whenever possible, and the redhead with her weathered bike and faded jeans considered herself a pretty average kind of person, generally. ...Ignoring the powers things, obviously, because that probably was not something most average people had to consider.

 

Right now, though, Autumn wasn’t avoiding trouble. She was resolutely pedaling into its lair, armed only with her wits and protected solely by bravado, just like the heroes in the storybooks. Naturally, not being a hero in a storybook, this meant she was doomed. That much she knew, of course. Jason Bannon- sans epithets- was dangerous. Nothing that had transpired over the weekend had changed, in any meaningful way, the opinion consolidated over the last several years. What was bothering her, though, nudging her forward even as her thighs and calf muscles burned in protest, was the suggestion that he might not be the kind of “dangerous” she’d come to expect. He was a criminal, definitely- he’d also taken on nightmare beasts in a hellish otherworld, fighting alongside Devin Jauntsen, of all people. He’d risked his life, without hesitation, when he could easily have bailed and left them to the mercy of fate. Devin, too, and Marissa- had she been wrong about all of them all this time, or had something changed?

 

Besides, she reflected, steering with one hand as she fidgeted with the fraying denim at her knee- it was hard to reconcile brooding, slouchy, murder-stare Bannon with the guy who’d whooshed her around like an airplane. Like… maybe both existed, but he switched between them, or one was a cover for the other one, or-

 

Ugh! Why did it have to be so damned complicated?! He’d always intimidated her, frightened her even, but if the last couple of days had confirmed that he was dangerous, they’d also hinted at something else.

 

Bravery. Loyalty. Self-sacrifice. Honesty.

 

Okay. Several “somethings.”

 

Whether any of that was real or not, though, or whether she was just choosing to view it a certain way… She needed to find out for herself.

 

It was with that in mind that Autumn Keane, resigned to fiery death or verbal excoriation, coasted to a stop in front of the weathered farmhouse. She licked her lips, planted her kickstand in the gravel that crunched underfoot, and walked with no small degree of trepidation up to the front door. The floorboards creaking softly and the chickens gossipping nearby overlaid the eerie stillness of the late afternoon with comforting reminders of life, and, squaring her shoulders, she knocked on the front door. 

 

Footsteps then, inside, heavy and sure as they approached the door where she waited like a prisoner awaiting a verdict.

 

The door swung inward, and, startled, Autumn reflexively stepped back. Staring at her from the doorway, his features furrowed into a wary frown, was- 

 

-not Jason Bannon, but a much older, wearier approximation of him. As she fumbled for words, the older man’s expression relaxed by degrees.

 

“Oh,” he said, by way of greeting. Then, speculatively: “You’re a friend of Jase’s?”

 

“Yeah,” she replied automatically, then paused. “Sort of,” the redhead admitted. “I guess… I’m not really sure?” It wasn’t a question, but it was framed as such, although there was no good answer. Her shrug, and the slightly abashed smile that followed, elicited a flicker of a smile in response, one very like his son’s. He nodded, then glanced surreptitiously at the driveway over her shoulder.

 

“Um. He’s not here right now.” Another awkward pause. “You can wait, if you want?”

 

“Oh.” Was that okay? Just to… wait? To sit on the Effing One’s front porch, waiting for him to get home? Normally, she’d just text someone if she needed to meet up with them- y’know, like a normal person existing in the 21st century- but that didn’t really apply here. “I mean, if you don’t mind.”

 

He shook his head, and the bickering of the hens intruded once more into the uncomfortable silence. Hands shoved firmly in her jeans pockets, Autumn rocked onto her heels and flailed internally for words, for anything to say to alleviate the weirdness. Hell, she could probably just ask his dad for the damned hoodie, but… Somehow, that seemed like cheating. No, if she was going to do this, she was going to deal with Jason Goddamn Bannon directly.

 

“...Want some coffee?”

 

“Sure. I’d love some,” replied the relieved young woman, anxiety melting into gratitude. “I’m Autumn, by the way, sir. Autumn Keane. Nice to meet you.”

 

“Nice to meet you too, Autumn.  Call me Gar.” Bannon Senior - Gar - was a touch taller than his boy, and definitely broader, his dark hair cropped short almost military fashion, though not so short the faint speckling of grey could not be made out.  The most marked difference, though, was the warmth of the man’s manner - at least now that the ice had been broken. His hazel eyes were as expressive as they were intelligent, his smile readily reaching them as he offered Autumn a handshake, then gestured for her to take a seat on the bench to the left of the door.

 

“Seat yourself there, Autumn.  I’ll fetch you out a cup.” he narrowed his eyes consideringly, then said “You look like a cream and sugar girl, am I right?”

 

“Guilty.”  Autumn smiled as she took a seat.  She’d been expecting- well, she wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but this friendly, faintly sad-eyed man with a gentle handshake had not been it.  Shelly was a small town, and Gar Bannon was gossiped about as a drunk loser who worked as a janitor at the prison because he was an ex-jailbird himself and no-one else would hire him.  And hung out with militia crazies like Hank Graskle. Once more Autumn found herself between two contradictions - what she thought she knew warring with what she had directly experienced.

 

Mr Bannon disappeared inside and she was alone, gazing out over the fallow fields of the farm.  Hard to believe she’d been here just yesterday, watching other kids her age dent steel with their fists, heal bruises with a touch, incinerate logs with a thought…  And she’d touched the Shine, too. Felt it under her hands as they’d rested on Jason’s, felt the shape of his… what? Spirit?  Soul? What had he seen or felt of her?  And why did that matter?  Ugh.  It was so much easier before he’d walked into the girls bathroom, checked her for a concussion, then calmly demonstrated the impossible.  Before then he’d just been the solitary kid everyone watched to see if he was keeping something lethal in his locker for later in the day when he finally snapped.

 

A creak of a door announced the return of Bannon Senior holding two mugs.  He offered one to Autumn, then sat down further down the bench seat and, without particular ceremony, added a generous slosh of the contents of a hip flask to his own coffee before taking a sip.  They sat in silence for a long moment or two, looking out at transition of afternoon to evening. Autumn tried the coffee and was pleasantly surprised, sea-hued eyes widening.

 

“Yeah.  Jase picks the coffee.”  Gar said, cradling his own mug between his hands as he smiled, glancing at her for a moment before looking back over the fields.  “Me, I just care that it’s hot and caffeinated, but he won’t have that. Not that I’m complaining, mind.”

 

Autumn just nodded, taking another sip.  Gar seemed to have the air of a man with something on his mind - she could feel it the way she could feel the air change before a storm.

 

“You and Jase been friends long?”  Gar asked, still looking off over the fields.  Autumn shook her head, then felt she should speak.

 

“No.  Not long.” she answered truthfully, then further honesty compelling more from her.  “I don’t really know him all that well.” She saw Gar nod slowly.

 

“Yeah.”  the older man said, nodding a little more.  “Yeah. Not sure anyone does.” he added, more to himself than her.  He blinked then, and looked at Autumn. “You’re the first friend of his I’ve talked to, you know that?  I mean, I met the Cassidy kid once briefly. Those Jauntsens once or twice. But never got a chance to speak with ‘em.”

 

Autumn wasn’t sure what to say to that, so stared down at her coffee, pondering for a moment or two before looking up at him again.  “He seems a very private sort of guy.” she ventured, and saw Gar nod agreement.

 

“Yeah.  Sometimes I worry.  But he seems alright, right?  I mean, he’s got some friends.”  Gar gave her a hopeful smile. “I’m not going to ask you to snitch or anything, but he seems alright?”

 

What was anyone supposed to say to that?  “Your son is a psychopath with telekinetic powers and criminal tendencies who’s so smart it’s scary all by itself.  He’s currently part of an effort to fight demons from a place kinda like hell, and there’s a rogue government conspiracy we know nothing about running around too.”

 

“Yeah.”  Autumn said, feeling a little coil of shame inside her.  “He seems fine.”

 

“Good.”  Gar seemed relieved, then looked around and down the driveway.  Following his gaze, Autumn saw a low black car making it’s way towards the farmhouse, raising a little dust on the track.  “That’s him now.” Gar stood, moving to the porch rail and giving a lazy wave as the gleaming Charger growled past, heading for the vehicle shed.  “I’ll head inside - got to get ready for work anyways.” The elder Bannon said, smiling once more at her. “Nice to meet you, Autumn.”

 

“You too, Gar.” she smiled back, relieved that the initial awkwardness was past, even as the earlier dread came back as soon as Jason’s dad disappeared inside.  She waited as the crunch of footsteps on gravel came closer and gave way to footsteps on wood, then glanced over to see Jason Bannon’s tall, lean shape come up the steps and stop dead as he saw her.

 

“Of course.”  Jase said in a tone that was not quite a sigh.  He looked weary, his hair lank with sweat which had also soaked through his t-shirt.  There was no fatigue in the sharp pale green ice of his gaze, though, which studied Autumn with that calm, intense scrutiny as though she were a puzzle to figure out.  “Here for your hoodie?”

 

“You said during study hall-”

 

“Yes, yes I did.”  Jason didn’t unclench, because he hadn’t been clenched to begin with, but there was a definite sense of tension dissipating.  He had sat with Autumn during study hall, ostensibly helping her with Chem but actually filling her in on the weirdness of Devin’s morning and warning her about the ‘Shades’, as people were calling them.

 

“So, let’s try again.  Here on Earth we say ‘Hey, Autumn.  Nice evening. What’s up?’” Her mouth formed the words before her brain could interfere, because most of her brain would in no way countenance tweaking the nose of Effing Jason Goddamn Bannon.  She didn’t look away - you don’t look away from dangerous creatures. She didn’t quite meet his eyes either. Rather she focused her gaze on his mouth and tried not to curl up or flee.

 

Jase’s expression didn’t change for a long, looooong moment.  Then his lips twitched into a slow smile, lopsided and wryly good-humoured.  

 

“Hey Autumn, nice evening.  What’s up?” he asked. With a cool sense of relief, Autumn realised she’d not been incinerated and smiled back, meeting his eyes.

 

“Oh, y’know.  Came to visit, pick up my hoodie, have a cup of coffee.”  she bantered. The flat, unwelcoming stare he’d initially worn had given way to something with a glint of humor in it, at least.

 

“Indeed.”  Jase ran a hand through his hair and made a face.  “Give me a few minutes? Your hoodie is upstairs, but I stink.”

 

“Sure.”  Autumn leaned back and sipped her coffee as Jason disappeared inside.  She heard him and his father greeting each other, low male voices that then stopped.  A little more than five minutes later, Jase stepped back outside, hair wet from the shower but with a fresh t-shirt and a pair of faded green combat pants on.  He also had a mug of coffee in one hand and Autumn’s beloved red hoodie in the other, which he offered to her as he sat down on the bench.

 

“Thanks for the loan.”  he said, his expression politely neutral but with a gleam in his eye that was mischievous.  “It’s been well-washed.”

 

Ugh.” 

 

That little subvocalization, one not uncommon in the limited chronicle of their interactions, carried with it a world of potential meaning and implication. Sometimes, it was an exclamation of agreement or commiseration, a non-verbal version of, “Yes. Same. I feel that. Elongated, it was, “I’m so embarrassed, I could literally die.” Further back in her throat, toward the bottom of her vocal range, it suggested disgust or strong disapproval: “Gross.” If carried on a sharp exhalation, closer to a huff, it signified frustration, but with the inclusion of a dramatic eye-roll, it implied a lighter, more humorous context, as in, “Fine. Whatever. I guess.” This one required a long, preceding inhalation, and was drawn out, and got the obvious heavenward glance. 

 

She had carefully avoided thinking about the reason she’d let him borrow the faded red jacket in the first place, so of course he would have to bring it up. ...Without actually bringing it up, because that was Fucking Bannon’s fucking style: he let you feel awkward and uncomfortable all on your own, rather than gracelessly thrusting awkwardness upon you. To distract herself from the feeling of tingling warmth rising up the sides of her face, Autumn spent a few moments working out how to get the hoodie on, one arm at a time, without having to put the coffee down. The whole process took a good couple of minutes, during which the warm mug switched hands more than once in an unnecessarily complicated bit of interpretive dance. With a final undulation of her shoulders, she triumphed over the completely pointless task she’d set for herself, allowing a quick shimmy of celebration as she wrapped both hands around the mug and took another long sip. ...Well, mostly it was a triumph. Getting the hoodie back on was just something to fill the time, an impulse, a “let’s see if I can do this.” The actual task was focusing on something long enough to forget about the fact that she had seen the guy next to her stark naked, bloody, and wreathed in fucking fire, and that loaning him her jacket had been more for the benefit of onlookers than for him. 

 

“Thanks for that,” she said finally, glancing over at him as the toes of her sneakers skimmed the wooden floor. “Washing it, I mean.” It smelled different, she realized as she breathed- primarily because they used a different brand of detergent, sure, but also not, as if its handling by a guy had fundamentally altered it in some unquantifiable way. “I’m not sure what eau de hellbeast smells like, but I definitely did not wanna wear it around.” Beat. Then, smirking at her coffee rather than looking at him directly: “Not that I’m calling you a hellbeast.” Leaning against the back of the bench, Autumn looked out over the uncultivated fields again. She wondered what they’d look like in another six years when the saplings and wild grass had matured, obscuring the fence line and, possibly, the view of the house itself. It was a sad, sobering vision, and a strangely lonely one. She swung her feet, shoes scuffing again at the floorboards; was it the place that was making her feel so weirdly pensive, or the company? 

 

“Hey, listen,” she began again, shifting one knee up onto the bench as she turned to face the devil directly. Her expression was uncharacteristically serious, resolve in the clear, wide eyes that seemed more grey as the daylight began to wane. “I know this is a weird thing for me to say, and I’m sorry about that, and if you’re not cool with it, I totally get it… So, I’m just gonna say it.” He was either going to laugh her off the farm, turn her into charcoal and then sweep up the dust, or dissect her with his eyes again and say something cryptic. “I want to hang out. Chill. Not, like, Netflix and chill! Just, y’know, get to know you better.”

 

His eyes did do the dissecting thing again.  That was uncomfortable, to say the least. But a faint awareness came to Autumn that he was trying to read her, rather than make her squirm.  After a moment he sat back, resting the back of his head against the wall of the farmhouse as he turned his gaze into the gathering twilight. He was silent for a moment, his face and eyes as hard to read as ever.

 

“Why?”  he asked with simple directness, the question coming from a place of such isolation that it matched the remote desolate nature of the farm perfectly.  “I don’t want to seem mean or callous, but what possible benefit to you could there be?”

 

“Why does anyone hang out with anyone?”  Autumn asked, still turned towards him and watching his profile.  “Why do you hang out with people?”

 

“At first, I was trying to blend in.  To be normal, or at least not too abnormal.”  He smiled wryly at that. “And then, when I started coming out from behind my mask, it took the nature of an experiment.”  He took a sip of his coffee before continuing. “I’m not sure the experiment has been a success.”

 

“Why?”  The red-haired girl pressed.  “I mean, you seem to hang out with a lot of people.”

 

“People who probably wouldn’t associate with me if it wasn’t for the circumstances.” he asserted with a calm glance her way, his face turning towards her with his head still resting against the wall.  “I am useful, right now. After this is all done? So will be their need to associate with me.”

 

“Wow.”  Autumn blinked.  “You really think that, don’t you?”  Jason’s lips twitched into a thin smile for a moment, his eyes on hers.

 

“It fits the pattern.  I’m not sure I’m meant to have real friends.  My caring about people is not working out so great for me - or them.”  His voice was calm, contemplative even as his eyes studied her face. “I distress them and they disappoint or confuse me.”  He smiled his quirky, lopsided smile, his gaze meeting hers once more. “So why do you want to know me better?”

 

That was the big question, wasn’t it? It was the same one she’d been asking herself over the past couple of days, the one she’d been considering on the long bike ride to the farm. It would be easy to crack a joke, try to lighten the uncomfortably heavy mood and make the whole experience a little more bearable for herself. It would also, she knew, be incredibly disrespectful. He had been unflinchingly honest with her. No matter how awkward the atmosphere, or how terrifyingly vulnerable that intense, glacier-green gaze made her feel, her conscience wouldn’t let her repay his candor by blowing it off as a joke. Even if she didn’t like the Fucking Bannon- and, honestly, she wasn’t sure exactly how she felt about anything at the moment, given the weekend they’d all had- he was sitting there, having a conversation with her. That had to count for something, right?

 

She didn’t answer immediately, not sure how to even begin explaining something she, herself, was still trying to figure out. Thankfully, he didn’t press the issue, although she was acutely aware of the persistence of his attention; it wasn’t hostile, she knew, but the feeling of being intently observed, as if every microexpression and movement were being patiently analyzed and catalogued, made it difficult to concentrate. She rolled the coffee cup back and forth between her hands, glancing down at the creamy whorls of beige and brown that surfaced in the half-full mug; there really wasn’t any way out of this, except to admit defeat and just go back home. Again, though, that would be cheating. It should be easier, after saying basically the same thing to Marissa the previous day, but it wasn’t. Mari was a whole lot, but she was also basically normal. Jase, though...

 

“Well,” she began slowly, then paused to take a breath before daring to look up again, steeling herself to meet the pale, implacable eyes of the lanky young man sitting next to her. “I guess it’s probably because I’m afraid of you.” And then… Nothing. Autumn waited a few moments for him to laugh, or scoff at the admission, but Jason’s expression remained enigmatically neutral. He did nod, almost imperceptibly, acknowledging that he’d heard her, but that was all. She wondered if he’d expected it, then, and if he was waiting for her to continue. I’ve already come this far, the nervous teen reminded herself. And, honestly, he can only kill me once.

 

“So, my grandfather-” She hadn’t expected to feel anything, just saying it out loud. The redhead swallowed hard as her voice broke, quickly shaking her head and finishing off the rest of the lukewarm coffee. It’s fine, Autumn. Just keep talking. You’re fine. It’s fine. Breathe in, breathe out. In… Out. With pale, cinnamon-speckled fingers wrapped tight around the mug, she began again, a little steadier this time. “My, um… My grandfather taught me a lot of stuff, growing up.” Her eyes burned, and her face felt not just warm, but hot as she continued, resolutely staring at the residue in the bottom of the cup. This was not the time to get emotional, not now, and not in front of someone she didn’t even qualify as ‘barely knowing.’ “And, um… One of the big things was the difference between fear, and respect. He said it was normal to be afraid. Fear can keep us alive in survival situations, like the fight or flight instinct. It can also shut down your ability to reason, which can be dangerous, too. But that, also, once you really understand why an animal, or maybe even a person, does the things they do, and acts the way they act, you could eventually stop being afraid of them. And that’s important, because as long as you’re afraid, you wouldn’t ever be able to deal with them rationally. So, if you’re afraid of something, you need to try to understand it. When you understand it, whatever it is, you can respect its abilities and its place in the world without fear getting in the way. More like equals.” 

 

“And what if,” he asked quietly, “the more you learn and understand, the more frightened you become? Just out of curiosity.”

 

Blinking, she looked up in surprise. “Then, I don’t know. Maybe that’s not really what you’re afraid of?” It was the first thought that came to mind, and thus went straight to her lips. She and her grandfather hadn’t talked about anything like that, although, in fairness, the wild creatures he’d been teaching her about were nothing like the one sitting in front of her at that moment. This one was far, far more dangerous.

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Jauntsen's - Marissa, Sara, Lilly, Clara and Etienne

"Right, yes."  Marissa locked eyes with him.  As far as she was concerned, he was a pervert.  "Obviously rejected by the older women due to quirks in your freakishly odd molester-like behavior so you took a job in a state that would allow you to 'legally', she air quoted the word legally.  "Prey upon high school girls under the pretense of the 'I've never felt this way about anyone' Disney motive.  Well played.  I mean, 'legally', there's nothing we can do about you molesting our sixteen year old friend here, but imagine the public outcry nonetheless when the church group hear about it.  We have more churches than we have police and city officials.  Sean can't even walk down the street without being sexually harassed, I can't imagine what these deviants will do when hear you're trying to bed a child."

"Oh," she raised a finger to add an addendum.  "And that a twenty-two year old man stalked, introduced a relationship and willfully molested a sixteen year-old, seducing her under the pretenses of committing fraud, and medical espionage?"  She smiled ear to ear.  "Hide behind, 'it's legal in Montana', all you like."

There was a sudden shift in the air, a stillness or was it thunder just beyond edge of hearing.  Whatever it was, for just a moment, gorgeous Marissa seemed... more.  More intimidating, more beautiful, more, everything that made her, her.  She was so imperious and regal that she could have stolen the pretty Etienne right away from Clara, if she wanted him... but she didn't.  He was Canadian.  "Frankly, I think you're trash.  Clara thinks you're just ducky, and I don't control her, or her decisions so here's what's going to happen.  You're going to tell us everything.  Everything. Cook, the job you do for him, Clara's involvement, who you really are and I swear if you mention anything about being 'really in love' or 'never felt like this about anyone' or any other After School Special class bullshit, then I'm going to hand your ass over to the Sheriff and your face and your little story over to the internet, and we'll see how far 'it's legal in Montana' flies for you.  Because if you're going to hide behind the law, you're going to do it with the truth.  The whole truth."

"Again, an easy one," she relaxed in her chair and the strange, hypnotic pull of her regal beauty subsided as her ire for Etienne was pushed aside by the need for the business at hand.  "How long have you and Cook been spying on us and our families."

Spoiler

Persuasion/Intimidation - 11 successes.  Ball is in his court.  He's either going to do what she asks, and she better like the answers, or it's bye-bye Eddy.  He's welcome to resist, of course.

 

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Jauntsen's - Marissa, Sara, Lilly, Clara, Etienne, and now featuring Lona

Lona chose that moment to walk in, freshly showered but not looking like she spent the afternoon in Devin’s bed. She opened her mouth in greeting only to have Marissa said, “I see you found your way from my brother’s bed, do join the party.”

The words hit her as she was halfway to sitting in the chair and Lona’s face immediately turned red. Caught off guard for a moment, she finished a graceless collapse into her seat and said, “Hi.” 

Own it, own him and what you did together or she’s never going to stop this. The words popped into her head in Devin’s voice and Lona added, “Yes, I did find my way, thanks. What’d I miss?”

“Just the confirmation that Etienne couldn’t make it with older women so he’s preying on children,” Marissa said acerbically. “We’re on to how long he and Cook have been spying on us.”

“Oh, yes, good question.” Lona turned her cold gaze to Etienne; while her force of personality wasn’t as great as Marissa’s, it was still there. “Please do continue.”

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The Damsel and the Dragon, Pt 2

“Hah!” The utterance was almost harsh, but Jason was smiling as his eyes stopped looking through her and seemed to look past her, his gaze growing distant for a moment.  “‘Maybe that’s not really what you’re afraid of’, indeed.”  The distant stare continued for another moment longer, then he refocused on her, still smiling a little.  

“Thank you.” he said more softly.  “For taking the question seriously.  Your grandfather sounds like a smart man.”

Autumn’s reaction was so well practiced that by now it was virtually autonomic.  Inhale for a count of four, exhale for the same.  Don’t meet the other’s eyes; she turned her head to look out over the neglected farm as she got the heavy stone lid back on the well of pain.

“Yeah.” she said in a quiet voice.  “He was.”

There was no response, and she wondered what she would see if she looked back at Jason.  What would be in those cold eyes?  She wasn’t sure she wanted to know - but it surely couldn’t be worse than warm sympathy that tugged at the lid over the well.  Scorn, perhaps.  Or maybe nothing at all - grief being as foreign to him as fear, he would be taking the opportunity to study this alien (to him) sensation up close…

Eventually the wait got too long, and she swallowed the last of the now-cool coffee and turned back towards him.  He was regarding her, but it wasn’t quite the ‘under the microscope’ detached expression she’d been imagining.  There was no pity in the cool depths, but there was… comprehension.  Understanding.

He reached forward and gently took the mug from her hand, his fingertips warm as they brushed hers before he stood, setting both their mugs on the bench.

“Come on.” he said with a small smile, gesturing for her to get up and follow him as he moved to the steps leading down from the porch.  Autumn found herself rising and moving to follow, even as she wondered what he was up to.

“Come on where?”  she asked as he began to walk across to the large barn, his long legged stride slow enough for her to easily keep pace with.

“You wanted to hang out, chill, get to know me.”  he stated rather than inquired, lips twitching in another smile.  “I have a few things to tend to, so I thought we could hang out while I do them.”

“In your barn?”  Autumn’s doubts were tangible, causing Jase to turn his head to face her as they walked, his teeth flashing in a grin.

“Yup.”

“This isn’t going to be creepy, is it?”  She asked as they reached the padlocked double doors, Jason removing a set of keys from his pocket and shrugging in answer to her question.

“Creepy is such a very subjective term.” he smiled over his shoulder at her.  “I will ask that you be careful what you touch.”  He opened one of the doors, a faint hum of machinery coming from inside as the motion of the air brought the scent of earth and growing things to Autumn.  With a sly smile, he stepped inside past a hanging plastic curtain beaded with moisture.

With a sensation akin to Alice following a white rabbit, Autumn stepped in after him.

The first thing that struck her was the humidity, somewhat higher than the Montana fall outside.  There was light in here which she saw was the result of carefully tuned sunlamps, providing a  sunlit atmosphere in which a riot of colour met her eyes.

Roses of a variety of hues were the first to greet them, along with hanging baskets of brightly variegated smaller blooms overhead filling the air with their scent.  Jase stepped to one side and watched Autumn as she took in the sight of lilies, chrysanthemums, small flowering shrubs, honeysuckle and jasmine, and further along - a second curtained partition.  The redhead moved down the paths that twisted and curved through this indoor garden, almost in a daze as she pushed past the second curtain, only dimly aware of the Effing One following her.

In the second partition the heat and humidity were higher, occasional sprays of mist from overheard creating rainbows as they left shimmers of dew on the tangle of colorful orchids and other tropical plants, and looking up one could see flowering creepers - Bougainvillea, Passion Flowers, and Morning Glory - criss-crossing overhead.  There was danger here as well as beauty - several of the plants Autumn recognised as being the type you washed your hands after touching and kept away from pets and children.  A beautiful array of pale trumpet-like blooms filled the air with their scent from high out of reach, and in the temperate area some delicate purple flowers set well back from casual touch range also had a small sign hanging above them reading ‘Do Not Touch’.  The same sign could be spotted in other parts of the hothouse, marking clearly some plants as being the sort one might not get a chance to wash their hands after handling. Somewhere there was a trickle of water into a small pond lined with water hyacinths, off amidst the rows of plants.

Jase busied himself with the climate controls, scrutinising the readouts and then examining one or two shelves of potted plants.  He kept one eye on Autumn with a faint smile, but said nothing, letting his guest enjoy the experience undisturbed even as he studied her reactions.

It wasn’t magic, she knew- just science, which tended to be far more reliable, as a rule. And yet, the effect was the same. In passing through the barn doors, Autumn had entered another world entirely, one that would never feel the sting of winter’s kiss. Never in her wildest dreams would she have ever imagined that the most glacial person she’d ever met could have created somewhere so…

Warm. 

And not just from the temperature adjustments and monitoring systems, assiduously maintained. The complex tapestry of scent and color tugged her through the garden, like a child being led by the hand- a Titian-haired Alice blithely following the rabbit through Wonderland. She swept, awestruck and delighted, past rare native species she’d never seen in person, bromeliads she couldn’t possibly have named, gloriously fragrant golden jasmine blossoms scattered like bright stars amid glossy green leaves. In spite of everything else, Autumn found herself laughing with incredulous wonder under the artificial sunlight, almost-but-not-quite touching the velvet petals of the impossibly indigo delphinium and narrowly resisting the urge to bury her entire face in the lush, creamy rose blooms as she passed. It was incredible, unbelievable- and although she’d seen a few truly impressive sights in all her roaming, and one or two of them might have been more beautiful, she couldn’t immediately call to mind what they might’ve been. 

Her guide forgotten for the moment, she wandered the winding paths in a state of solitary enchantment. Sometimes she gasped in surprise as she rounded a corner, sometimes paused to smile softly as some familiar flora conjured up a memory, and sometimes crinkled her nose, puzzled at the unfamiliar conformation of some apparently alien greenery. There was no deep consideration or reflection, just spontaneous reaction without the heavy burden of the conversation they’d left on the porch a thousand miles away. 

“Thank you,” she murmured finally, to no one in particular. Kneeling at the edge of the walkway, she smiled, studying the delicately ruffled petals of a lady’s slipper. Rising, she wiped her palms on her well-worn jeans and exhaled, turning away to find the creator of this miraculous other world.

She did not have to look far.  As she’d wandered, he’d moved with her unobtrusively, keeping her in sight without intruding on her reverie.  For the naturally-stoic, walled-off Jason, the expressiveness of others was something to be studied and appreciated, a pursuit both practical and aesthetic.  

As Autumn scanned the foliage-laden paths, she readily spotted the tall, spare shape of the garden’s creator as he carefully tended a jasmine plant, checking for and removing loose flowers with practiced, precise movements of his slender hands before depositing them in a small pot.  He smiled as her eyes found him, his head tilting to one side very slightly in consideration as she wandered over.

“About four years, this has taken.” he said in answer to the unasked question.  “I find it…”  he considered a moment, then smiled briefly.  “Affirming.  A positive thing, a place that I could come and find peace, doing something beautiful.”  His pale eyes did not seem so frigid here, taking on the deeper greens of the surroundings as they flicked once more over the bush he was tending to before he closed the lid of the pot and set it aside.  Dusting off his hands, he turned to her, studying her freckled features.

“I’m glad you seem to like it too.” he said with a slight smile.

“Mmmm,” she nodded in agreement, her own answering smile widening into a laugh as she looked up at him. “I do, and it really is beautiful. I mean, it’s your garden, but I’m the one who feels like I’ve been given a present.” There was a sparkle in her eyes as they met his, bright and clear, as if the hothouse air had somehow banished the shadow of grief he'd seen earlier. “I’m not gonna lie, this was not at all what I expected when you talked about getting to know you better. Well played, Jase Bannon."  Nodding again, her expression softened slightly, more thoughtful than it had been a moment before. “I’m glad to be surprised, though. And, seriously. Thank you.” She was quiet for a long moment, thinking, as she peered up at him. What could you say, apart from that ‘thank you,’ in a situation like this? Wasn’t a gift supposed to be returned with something of equal value? But, Autumn worried, brows knitting together as she considered Jase, eyes skimming over his features… she didn’t really have anything that merited such an exchange. 

He could track the exact second when Autumn remembered herself, reorienting her position in the here and now, standing as she was in front of Goddamn Jason Fucking Bannon: her hands went into her pockets, lower lip caught between even, white teeth, and her gaze dropped by inches, settling on the quirk of his mouth rather than his eyes. The internal, "...fuck," was almost audible over the soft hum of machinery.

Then-

“Hey,” she asked suddenly, an anticipatory note in her voice as her eyes darted up again. “I don’t have a garden to show you, or anything, but, um… Do you like camping? I know a pretty good spot, and I was thinking of inviting some people out there before it got too cold. If you want, I could show you sometime? ”

Body language was something he had to make a lot of conscious effort to interpret, in fact he’d studied textbooks on the subject both to help him appear less alien and to help when dealing with others.  It was not altogether a success a hundred percent of the time, especially when mixed signals were being received from certain Princesses who shall remain nameless.

Autumn was relatively straightforward, or at least seemed to be.  She’d been relaxed, happy, elated even at the experience of the garden… and then his presence had caused a bump in that.  Her eyes had studied his face, she had frowned as though considering something - or recalling something - and her hands had gone into her pockets and her gaze had dropped.  That, plus the lip-bite, indicated nervousness, or possibly shyness.  One of those ‘ness’es at any rate.  He’d mentally sighed…

And then she’d perked up, animating once more as she invited him to go camping, as though whatever had troubled her was remedied by the prospect of… doing something for/with him.  Despite himself the remote teen genius smiled back at her, a hint of dimple in his cheeks making him look his age for once, rather than a young-seeming creature with ageless eyes.

“I very much like camping.” he replied softly, his eyes studying her face in a way that brought colour to her freckle-dusted features.  “I’ve never been with anyone except my dad and Hank - so yeah, I think I’d enjoy that.”

He actually smiled, she realized, instead of just making the shape of one. It was a good look for him. It’s a start. That’s what she told herself, at any rate. Nothing was combusting. She was still alive, she felt pretty sure. He wasn’t threatening, hadn’t done anything intentionally intimidating, and didn’t seem on the verge of committing criminal acts. They’d even found something they had in common, apart from the powers stuff, which made it easier for her to… relate, maybe? To consider him as a whole person, rather than a one-dimensional boogeyman, which was kind of the whole point of coming out here in the first place? Confronting fears, finding some kind of understanding, all that. It was weird. The part of her brain that was a 16-year old girl was very aware of the fact that she was talking to a scary-smart, really good-looking guy, who apparently really enjoyed making beautiful things- since junior high, she guessed?- and that it would be easy for someone to mistake the way he watched people with interest as... interest. The rest of her, though, the bit of common sense and pragmatism that worked valiantly to maintain equilibrium and sanity in her life, couldn’t ignore that he wasn’t just a guy. He was a drug-dealer, an admitted psychopath, and maybe worse, if what happened with Liam was as bad as she’d heard. He was also, somehow, associated with the local anti-government militia, so that was a whole other thing. How did all of that fit together in one person? 

“Cool,” she replied, her smile returning. And, she was glad. As awkward and weird and uncomfortable as the whole situation was, and as alien and aloof as he seemed, maybe there was a way to find common ground. Respect, instead of fear. Maybe. As Jase continued to work, tending his carefully cultivated bit of paradise, Autumn tagged along, occasionally asking questions about where he’d gotten a particular varietal, or which ones were his favorites and why. It wasn’t anything serious, just casual chatting, but she was curious enough to keep up a fairly steady flow of conversation. Eventually, having built up a measure of confidence, she ventured to ask something else. 

“Hey. When you got home… Were you okay? I mean, no judgment, but you looked kind of wrecked.”

There was a pause, Jason’s brow furrowing slightly for a moment, and Autumn wondered if she’d just stepped on a land mine as he glanced her way.  When his eyes didn’t narrow in the ‘please kill yourself to save me the trouble’ stare she’d been dreading, she relaxed a little.

Jason was not usually the type to unburden.  Quite the opposite - he kept everything inside to a degree that would be unhealthy in a neurotypical mind, never volunteering any glimpses behind his Iron Curtain without being asked the right questions in the right way.  But he’d had what might best be described as ‘a hell of a day’, and Autumn was pleasant company, her undemanding warmth of personality seeming to extend outwards from her like a campfire on a cold night.

“It’s been a long day-” he started to say, then was interrupted by a knock on the barn door.

“Jase?”  Gareth Bannon called before stepping through the plastic curtain.  He was dressed for work, his blue-grey custodial services overalls adorned with the laminated plastic ID badge.  He paused as he saw the two teens and smiled a little.  “He’s got you helping him, huh?” he said with a grin at Autumn.

“More like tagging along, asking questions and holding stuff.”  she smiled back.  Gar nodded, lips quirking in a warmer version of Jason’s ‘wryly amused’ expression.

“Sounds about right.” he replied, glancing at Jase.  “Off to work now, kiddo.  You guys have fun.”

“You get your lunch out of the fridge?”  Jason asked, regarding his father intently with a surprising amount of warm concern in his eyes, even as they also measured to see how together and sober his father seemed.  The elder Bannon held up a large Tupperware container and shook it a little.

“Got it right here.”  he said with a smile.  “Looks good, whatever it is.  I’ll be off.”

Oh! Shit, I almost forgot. With a quick glance in Jase’s direction, more a checking-in than anything, Autumn set the cracked pot she’d been carrying next to a low retaining wall. “Hey, Mr. Ban-” she began, years of social conditioning prompting her to use the more respectful form of address, then caught herself. “Gar?” As she called out to him, the younger Bannon’s erstwhile assistant jogged over to meet the elder. “Listen, um. I was thinking about what we talked about earlier, and I wondered if…” Oh, just ask! her brain prompted in exasperation. Good grief, it’s not like you’ve never done this before, FFS. The difference, of course, in then and now, was that then had been junior high, and she was talking to the parents of a girl, who was 100% not Jason Whatever-His-Middle-Name-Is Bannon. “...I was wondering if it would be cool with you if I came by again sometime? Once in a while, maybe.” There were equal parts hope and anxiety in her expression, her voice, and the twining of her knotted jacket ties around her fingers.

Gareth Bannon blinked in response, some of the world-weariness etched into his face replaced briefly with something like mild surprise. His eyes slid past the earnest, expectant features of the young woman in front of him, over her shoulder and further down the path, alighting quizzically on those of his brilliant, complicated son. In that brief moment, Autumn felt her face go from pleasantly warm to uncomfortably hot, and she tried not to think about whether Jase was rolling his eyes behind her back. Almost as quickly as he’d looked away, Gar’s attention was back on her, and he smiled- maybe a little warmer than he had earlier that afternoon. “You're welcome here whenever you like, Autumn.  Anyone who can get Jase to talk while he's gardening - or at all - has a gift."

“Oh.” It was her turn to be surprised, and she couldn’t resist returning the smile with one of her own. “Awesome. Thanks a lot. Um, have a good evening.” With another nod and a quick wave, he headed back out of the barn and off to another night of work. Releasing the strings of her hoodie, Autumn jogged back to the abandoned terra cotta pot and scooped it up with a soft huff before catching up with Jase again. “Sorry about that, honestly, I just wanted to catch him before he left. You were saying it was a long day?”

Jason stared at her for a long moment.  Autumn was getting a little better at Bannon Expressions For Noobs, but this was a new one.  This stare was a number 14, better known as “you just did a thing I have never seen and did not expect, but I think I like it.”  The problem with that stare is that it could easily be confused with a 12.  That was the sort of stare Coraline received before the infamous ‘Bunnees Sandblasting Incident’, a stare more precisely labelled as ‘I can’t believe anything sapient could have something so abysmally foolish exit their mouths, and I know Devin.’

“That made him happy.”  Jase said quietly, his eyes on hers causing faint heat to rise to the redheaded girl’s cheeks.  The tall youth stepped closer, hands lifting and gently resting on Autumn’s shoulders as he looked down at her, his eyes depthless green oceans in that moment, free of their glacial rime.  “Thank you.” he said simply.

There was a flicker of confusion, pupils almost disappearing into the clear, sea-coloured pools of her eyes as she registered the physical contact and his proximity. It was an autonomic response he'd seen earlier, when taking the mug from her hands. This time, though, it lasted only a moment, the actual span of an eyeblink, before she smiled again. Without looking away, Autumn reached up with her free hand to the one resting on her opposite shoulder, soil-stained fingers resting lightly on his. "No problem," she replied with a little shrug, meeting his gaze despite the growing flush in her cheeks. "I'm glad I could help?"

‘Look into a person’s pupils.  They cannot hide themselves.’ A maxim attributed to Confucious, and repeated endlessly in texts on body language.  Autumn’s pupils had contracted massively, a strong fear spike to his proximity and touch… and yet it had only lasted a moment before her rational brain caught up to the small, furry squeaky part of her hindbrain and stopped it from running.

Jase was mildly impressed - both by the intensity of her apparent fear and by her stoic refusal to give into it.  He didn’t consider himself fearsome… But then, he didn’t really understand what frightened Autumn about him either.  She might be frightened of men, or tall people, or anything, really.  It could be something rational, like fear he would hurt her as he had Liam.  Or irrational.  Or both.  Hell if he knew, but he did intend to find out.  He let his hands slip from her shoulders with a smile, taking the pot from her hand and setting it to one side as he stepped almost considerately away.

“You really want to know about my day?” he asked her with a small smile, his gaze taking on some, but not all of it’s previous coolness.  On receiving a nod, he gestured her to follow and headed towards the door.  “In that case, I’m going to need some herbal remedy.”

As Autumn stepped out first, Jase turned down the lights to a twilight setting, effectively setting the sun over his little garden before ducking past the plastic sheet and joining her outside.  Closing and padlocking the door, he headed over to the farmhouse once more, climbing the porch steps and sitting back down on the bench there with a motion for Autumn to do likewise.

The lanky youth relaxed on the bench, taking a rolled up ‘cigarette’ from one pocket of his combat pants and putting it between his lips.  With a sideways smile at her, Jase clicked his thumb and forefinger, causing a flame to dance on the end of the thumb as he brought it to the end of his joint, puffing a little to get the rollup burning before theatrically blowing on his thumb, extinguishing the flickering flame there.

He took a deep draw with the ease of much practice, holding the smoke in his lungs for a few beats before slowly blowing it out.

“So.  My day.  Where to begin…?  Well, I told you about Devin’s ‘very bad, no good’ morning, and the bracelet… More on that in a moment - couldn’t tell you everything in study hall whispers.  My morning, on the other hand, started with a face from my past becoming my new Biology teacher.”  He offered Autumn the joint after taking another draw - the redhead took it with a wary glance.

“Relax.  It’s Lucifer’s Reserve.  All natural weed.  I should know - I developed and grew it.”  Jase said as a lazy twin streamer of smoke rose from his nostrils, waving a hand towards Autumn, who blinked as she recognised the name of a much-talked about brand of devil’s lettuce… and the Effing Bannon claimed to have grown it?  That explained a lot.

“You grow it?” she asked anyway, staring at him.  He nodded, smiling a little as he blew little smoke rings.

“Bred it, grow it, sell it.  Frankly I’m undervaluing it - do you know there’s strains of weed that can fetch eight hundred bucks an ounce?  I’m willing to bet mine’s at least close to being as good, but even charging a hundred an ounce makes small town kids squeak.  So I sell them regular, albeit decent weed I also grow, and save the Lucy for richer customers and friends.”

“Right.”  Autumn took a tentative draw…  And was surprised to find a mellow, almost golden taste to the smoke, a lot of the cough-inducing pungency having been smoothed out.  “Huh, feels kinda-  Whoa.”

The buzz was fast, a warm tingling in her extremities, including her nose and ears, and relaxing.  Very, very relaxing.  She slouched in imitation of Bannon as the world slowed down a little bit, including her pounding heart.

“So…” she said, focusing on the word and the conversation as some of the sense of dread that had hung over her since embarking on this quest into the lair of the creature she feared was eased.  “Face from the past?”

“Mmhmm.  Calls herself Ms Forster.  Last time we met I called her ‘mommy’.  But that was half my life ago.”  Jase said with almost too-calm coldness in his voice.  “So that was a shock for us both, I imagine.  Oddly, she didn’t seem to be at all flustered or ashamed of having abandoned her son only to be confronted with him again, which indicates that in some ways I seem to take after her, rather than my father.”  There was a faint icy bitterness to his voice, very faint, but there.

“Ohhhh, fuuuck,” Autumn breathed, smoke spilling past her lips as she turned to face him. With her elbow resting on the window ledge, cheek braced on her hand, she tried to formulate a response that wouldn’t sound like too much of a cliche- the kind of pointless shit grown-ups put in greeting cards. Sorry for your loss. You’re in our thoughts and prayers. Time heals all wounds. Well, no. No it didn’t. For the first time, staring at Jase -just Jase for the moment- across the enormous gulf that separated them, she wondered how much of that distance only existed in her head. How would she have felt if, instead of merely dying, leaving all of them behind, her grandfather had left only her?

Her eyes were burning again; probably the smoke, or something. Blinking against the sudden sting, the red-haired teen took another quick hit and passed the joint back. She let the taste of it roll across her tongue, warmth uncoiling languidly, pleasantly through her limbs, as she followed the outline of the introspective young man’s profile with her gaze. 

“That’s- I mean, Jesus, Jase,” she murmured, exhaling slowly. “So, your mom just showed up at your school... with a new name… and no apologies, no explanations for being a shit human being? Just… nothing?” Yeah. That definitely qualified as a ‘long day’ on its own. “Well, first of all,” she continued, regarding him levelly, “Fuck. Her. Second, fuck her.” With a sandpaper dildo, she added mentally, not quite ready to risk even a mildly-baked sandblasting. Enmity or not, blood ties could run deep, and this was already unfamiliar territory for the heroine who’d actually followed the dragon into the heart of his lair. “Third…” Autumn sighed, not-quite-smiling at him in acknowledgement of both his admission and the tenuous connection it forged through shared misery. “Thanks for telling me. I know I can’t do anything about it, but, still.” On impulse, she stretched her leg, nudging his calf gently with her foot. “How did that turn out?”

“Oh, fuck her indeed.”  Jase shrugged.  “And as to how it turned out…  We fenced a little in class.  Like two cats staring at each other down a long alley, with some daggers hidden behind the verbals.”  He drew on the joint, once more letting the smoke trickle from his mouth and nose, gazing out at the night-time fields.  “My primary concerns are twofold - one, that her being here is not a coincidence, what with Cook’s secret project and the other strangeness in this area.  And two, that she could hurt my father again.  Just being reminded of her could do that - what would happen to him if he bumped into her?”  He contemplated for a moment, a chilling look in his eyes as his face became a mask.

“If her purpose for being here is to hurt him or make him miserable - then that would be unfortunate for her.” he said, each word precise as a scalpel limned in frost.  Then he relaxed slightly, glancing at Autumn with a faint smile.  “But perhaps that is not her purpose, hmm?  Let us focus on the positive.”

“So after that…  There was the equipment storage meeting, where I suggested Cassandra attempt to use her gift on Devin’s bracelet he brought back with him from Elsewhere, so we could perhaps learn more about it.  Reasonable, so I thought, and she thought so too, eager to try it.  Except it did something to her, attacked her somehow - stopping her heart.”

“Shit.”  Autumn said quietly.

“Quite.”  Jase nodded, taking another toke and passing the joint back over.  “I got her breathing and heart rate going again quickly, and she seemed fine - she thought she’d just passed out.  But that was a tense few moments.”

“So… You weren’t kidding about it being a hell of a day.”  Autumn said with obvious sympathy in her voice.

“Oh, it gets better.”  Jase folded his hands behind his head, looking out at the first glimmering pinpricks of the stars.  “Someone I thought was one of my best friends accused me of not trying hard enough to overcome my condition, and of using it as an excuse for being less than nice.  Personally, I think if I wasn’t a psychopath I’d probably be even less ‘nice’ than I am - but then perhaps that’s my own bias.  Then there was the meeting you missed after school - which I didn’t stick around for because by that point in the day I was in no mood to have my time wasted.  I asked a question twice, got ignored twice, made to leave explaining why, and then got told that I had not earned the right to ask questions.”

He gave a dry laugh at that.  “It’s amusingly pathetic petty ingratitude, in retrospect, but at the time it nearly sent me over the edge of rage.  I got out of there before anyone else said anything fucking retarded and came home.”

“And then Marissa gave me a call to come over.  We played some DDR and talked, she explained why she was mad, I expressed my regret that I had upset her, and we were friends again.”

Autumn was a good listener, and the Lucifer’s Reserve was good weed.  Jason was feeling unguarded, which perhaps explains why he said what he said next.

“And then I told her how I feel about her, and I got the impression she felt the same way despite her saying she doesn’t date.  She was very tactile - hugged me a lot and not in the ‘lean in from an arm’s length away’ sort of hug.  I gave her a gift, which she loved.”  Jason sighed slightly.  “And then I fucked up and kissed her.  She didn’t take it well and kicked me out, saying I was just like any other guy with my expectations and sense of entitlement.”  He smiled faintly, his eyes on a distant twinkle of light.  

“Like I said when I first got here this evening: I don’t think I’m meant to have close friends, let alone love.  People I give a damn about either get upset with me, or end up disappointing me, or things fall apart in other ways.”  He glanced at Autumn now.  “Other than hugging Marissa, your visit is probably the high point of my day.”  He laughed then, a short, choppy sound of amusement that, Autumn realised with faint heartsick horror, was directed at himself.  

“And you’re terrified of me.”  he managed to say before that strange mirth took him again, his laughter an eerie whispering mockery of joy that, the silent girl realised with a flash of insight, was perhaps the closest her strange companion could come to an expression of pain.

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Etienne was scared, this woman child had done something to him, he knew Marissa Jauntson's reputation of course, but he hadn't know she was a witch. For the first time he really took a good look at all of them, the girls here questioning him...were they all empowered?

"I will tell you everything you want to know, that I know, but I am afraid it will not satisfy you, Miss Jauntson, or you Clara, or the rest of you.

Dr. Cook has been spying on you, all of you, all of this town, for many years long before I was hired."

He pointedly made no mention of his feelings for Clara, and he did not volunteer any thing the questions did not ask for.

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Charlie and Sophia

"Yeah, down in Great Falls about once ever three months, there's a game store that hosts a Vampire Larp. Not my favorite game but it's fun. As for cons, I been to a few. Dads a big comic book and sci fi nerd and he loves collecting stuff so we go to one or two a year."

She looks over at Charlie as her window rolls down, "What you want?"

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The Damsel and the Dragon, Pt. 3

 

With that realization, that galvanizing strike of lightning that illuminated a momentary truth, came action. When Jason had, earlier, commented on her grandfather’s wisdom- likely unaware of his passing- Autumn’s immediate response had not been one of careful consideration and analysis. Likewise, when he’d put his hands on her shoulders in the verdant paradise he considered a hobby, the initial reaction hadn’t been one she had specifically chosen out of a series of potential options. In this case, too, conscious thought lagged somewhat behind instinct, and even as she carefully set the joint on the back of the bench to smoulder and die out, the young redhead slid forward on the bench. 

By the time she registered how deathly cold his spare, wiry frame felt under her hands, she was already sliding them around him: one arm curving across his chest, applying gentle but insistent pressure to his side, just between the seventh and eighth ribs; the other around his back, across the top of his shoulders and, tentatively, just brushing the hair at the nape of his neck. It was movement without thought, without the fear or bias which otherwise muddied the purity of impulse and intention, of actual human connection, and it left the embittered young man insufficient time to muster more than a cursory resistance. 

He was being hugged. Short of aggressive refusal, his only other reasonable defense was to be stiffly uncooperative, and that was the tactic Jase chose. Autumn was stronger than she looked, but if she pulled harder, it would only awkwardly devolve into a struggle; all he had to do was tense, and so he did, resisting with sufficient effort that she paused, but didn’t let go. His skin was like ice under her fingertips, but there was no telltale shivering to suggest that he felt it, or was even aware. 

When he realized she wasn’t immediately going to release him, the broken, awful laughter gradually subsided, fading into silence in the early twilight. “You don’t have to do that,” he said finally, enunciating each syllable with excruciating care. There was something in his voice that tugged, wrenchingly, at her heart- more so than even the hollow sound of the laughter-that-wasn’t. It held curiosity, even surprise, yes... but with the aching, unmistakable undercurrent of pain that had prompted her to act in the first place. 

Not trusting herself to say anything else, the redhead simply replied quietly, “Yeah… I know.” It might have been the (really superlative) weed, or the certainty that came from doing what felt, in her bones, like the right thing, or maybe even simple emotional fatigue, but Autumn realized that the racing of her thoughts and the compulsive need to be doing something had settled, and grown as still as the deepening evening shadows around the farmhouse. He hadn’t recoiled or pushed her away yet, but since she could move him no further, she instead leaned toward him. Slowly, cautiously, the unguarded and unarmed heroine shifted closer to the creature she feared because she could not understand, and, despite the chill, rested her chin atop his head, and simply sat.

She smelled like the woods in early spring, warm juniper from her skin mingled with citrus from her hair, and it was the manner of her nearness rather than the nearness itself which had the greatest impact.  His ear was pressed just below her collarbone, her chin atop his head a gentle pressure.  He could feel her heartbeat as she cradled him - him - to her, and the most staggering part of the embrace was the motive as he perceived it: not because she needed the contact, but because she felt he did.

Autumn felt rather than heard him sigh from his boots, and relax against her as the icy chill, not-quite freezing, dissipated in the early Fall twilight leaving his skin warm to the touch.  He turned into the hug, his arms going around her carefully, shifting his head to rest it on her shoulder, breathing in the warm scent of her hair.

“I don’t need pity.” he said quietly.  Autumn, her fingers still teasing the hair at the nape of his neck, made a gentle ‘shush’ing noise.

“It’s not pity.” she murmured back, and felt him nestle his cheek against her ear.

“Okay then.”  Came the answering murmur.  There was a long moment of comfortable silence as the sounds of the Montana evening rose around them, then:  “Speaking as a friend, I think next time I tell you I’ve had a bad day you should probably run.” Jase said with a touch of his usual dry humor.

Though he was talking, he showed no inclination to end the hug, resting against her as much as she was resting against him.

“Probably,” Autumn replied agreeably, the smile audible in her voice. This was a thing that was really happening. Her- Autumn Keane- hugging Jason Bannon on his front porch, was A Thing, and it didn’t bother her as much as she thought it should’ve. He felt warm against her, not hewn from unfeeling ice or fashioned from inorganic alien tech, and as she breathed him in, a thought occurred to her. He feels like the garden. Even the faint scent of him, clean and not-unpleasantly male, reminded her of the fragrance of verdure and growing things. Huh. She didn’t remember stumbling into an alternate universe, but… Here we are, she thought, unsure if she should laugh at the bizarre turn the day had taken for both of them, and in wildly different ways. “But,” she added with a soft sigh, fingertips dreamily, rhythmically combing through the tousled strands of dark hair over his ear, “if you’re my friend, it doesn’t work that way. It’s against the rules.”

Life was weird. Autumn knew kind of a lot of people, and didn’t have a problem getting along with most of them, most of the time. She got invited to bonfires, she’d been on dates, and sometimes went running or hiking or whatever with anyone who seemed interested. Friends, though? One, maybe two people now, had used that word in connection with her in the last couple of weeks, and before that… Not since, maybe, 6th or 7th grade? What was the deal? Did she have, like, magic friendship pheromones or something with all this Shine stuff?

Weird.

Sort of like how, somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew that she was still afraid, or unnerved, or intimidated, or whatever by the guy she was holding perfectly comfortably. Just- for whatever reason, the garden, or the smoke, or the way he smelled, or the oddly reassuring pressure of his arms, or the entire array of massively fucked-up things in Shelly that left even normal people struggling to find equilibrium in their lives… For now, even though she knew it was still there, it didn’t bother her in the least. 

Definitely weird.

“So, basically,” she began, looking into the distance over his shoulder as she continued to stroke his hair, “it works like this. If you’re my friend, and you say you’ve had a bad day, I’m supposed to listen. I mean,” the redhead quipped, “I’m allowed to run after, but The Rules require that I hear you out. If I’m busy, and can’t get out of whatever stupid thing I’m doing, I have to get back to you ASAFP. That’s… Rule Number Two, I think.”

The answer was a chuckle, low and quiet - and a vast contrast to the weird self-mockery of earlier, though inwardly Jase was a little surprised at himself.  He was standoffish, distrustful and aloof for many reasons, and for him to call Autumn a friend so quickly seemed odd to him.

Except, perhaps it wasn’t.  She’d impressed him more or less from the start, even as he’d also enjoyed bedevilling her a little.  She was frightened of him, for sure, and her earlier reactions indicated a deep level of fear, but there was not much in the way of ‘roll over’ in her attitude.  What do you call a woman who is terrified of a man, but hugs him when she sees him in rare pain but ‘brave’? He mused to himself as he enjoyed the simple human contact for a few moments longer.

“Same goes for you, then.  If you have a bad day, or even if you just want to talk about stuff - I’m right here.” he told her with a smile, giving the girl a slight squeeze before drawing back gently.  Now that his emotional pain was assuaged, he was physically aware that there was a nice-smelling, healthy and not-unattractive girl in close proximity, and even his limited social cue reading ability was enough to point out that her kindness was not an indication of any other sort of interest - hell, after Marissa he wasn’t sure that indications of interest were indications of interest.

Which was a pity, because her fingers felt good playing with the ends of his hair, and he wondered what kissing her would be like.  But he’d already made enough awkward errors for one day, and so he drew back until they were face to face, resting his forehead against hers softly as he looked into her eyes.  It didn’t occur to him how intimate the gesture might seem - he just was aware, through the haze of weed and teen male hormones, that he was drawn to the warm-hued girl. Not like Marissa, different in feel and texture, not as intense.  But Marissa had told him to move on and not to be pathetic…

Not like this.

He breathed out and slowly straightened up, moving his own lips away from temptation as he let his hands slide from around Autumn to rest on her waist as he turned, settling back against the wall of the house that served as a backrest for the bench seat.  He gave her a smile, firefly embers lazily gleaming in the pale green of his eyes.

“So… What else would you like to know?” he asked Autumn, a mixture of friendly warmth and slightly more heated devilment in his expression.

The question caught her off-guard, enough so that she jerked slightly, inhaling suddenly as her higher brain functions re-engaged; somewhere between Jase offering to listen if she needed to bitch and asking what else she wanted to know, she’d stopped breathing. No, she admonished herself. It was a little more specific than that. At first, she’d been confused when he’d pressed his forehead to hers- was it a bonding thing? Like cats, when they say, “Hey, you’re cool. I’m gonna mark you as part of my stuff now, so I can find you again later.”  She had almost, almost returned the gesture, until something had compelled her to look up, to meet his gaze, and then it was impossible not to be acutely aware of how dangerously close he was. 

Funny, how before, she’d always thought of him as dangerous at a distance. It had never occurred to her, until that moment, that he was infinitely more deadly in close proximity, and all it took was eye contact. Those same eyes, the ones she’d always thought were “pretty,” for a guy, were deep enough up close to drown in, to stop her heart and swallow her whole, and she could feel his goddamn breath on her lips. That was it. She was dead. She was dead, and Jase had killed her. Her heart may actually have stopped at that precise moment, but self-preservation prevented her from making the fatal mistake of glancing down at his mouth, and then…

And then, he’d moved away, and Autumn had a good idea of how she would feel if she were suddenly lit aflame. She’d never been more grateful for darkness in her life, as embarrassment, guilt, and something altogether more selfish blazed scarlet across every inch of her skin. 

“Um,” she managed finally, licking her lips and conjuring a quick, awkward laugh in response, staring down at her hands as she rubbed them across her thighs. Yeah, maybe it had been a hot minute since Jacob, but Autumn was not going to make a move on a friend- especially a friend who liked her other friend. Fear and anxiety aside, that was most definitely against The Rules. “Actually, could I get a glass of water, or something? It’s, uh, been a minute since lunch.”

“Sure.” The porch lights weren’t on - it had still been mostly light when his father had left for work, but it wasn’t so dark Jason couldn’t read the difference between Autumn’s naturally pale skin and it’s current darker rosier hue.  It also wasn’t so dark she couldn’t see his faint smile as he stood, motioning her to follow him. So, she did have a reaction to him other than fear, his ever-operating mind assessed. Something to bear in mind, though not to her detriment.  After all, it wouldn’t be… graceful to harm someone who had been kind to him. Aesthetically displeasing, to say the least. Besides, he liked her.

The pair of them walked around the outside of the house on the porch, Jase flicking on the lights with a whisper of his power as they went.  Reaching the kitchen door, he clicked on the lights inside, then gestured Autumn to step in, following her and crossing to the refrigerator as she took the kitchen in.

It wasn’t fancy, but it was orderly - somewhat of a surprise for a kitchen in a house with two bachelors.  A fair-sized farm kitchen with pots, pans, implements all hanging neatly or stacked away, and a large bookshelf full of recipe books.  A four-seater table sat in the center of the open space, a few domestic bits and bobs on it, and Jase waved Autumn to take a chair as he brought two glasses of water over from the fridge.

“There’s some food if you have the munchies.” he offered, handing her a glass as he sat himself at right-angles to her.  “Provencal-style country mutton stew.”

“Sounds fancy.”  Autumn commented, glad for the cool water and resisting the urge to splash it on her face.  Besides, the cloud of steam would probably be a giveaway.

“Just braised mutton, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, a few herbs… oh, and eggplant.”  Jase said conversationally, though his eyes were laughing green pools with motes of copper fire in their depths.

She was doing fine, ‘til then, gamely admiring the collection of books that seemed to be everywhere and the neatly-stacked and well-organized crockery and tableware, and nodding along with his explanation of what the leftovers entailed. At the precise moment Autumn took a long drink of water, the green-eyed devil sitting next to her casually dropped the punchline to a joke begun the day they’d met, and as she choked and spluttered, she wasn’t sure if she was dead (again), or if she was going to murder him in his own kitchen. Incapable of doing more than cough/laugh furiously for several seconds, the girl with flaming red hair and cheeks to match covered her mouth with one arm and used the other hand to suggest with one finger what she thought of him.

“‘m good, thanks,” she gasped hoarsely, shaking her head and trying to catch her breath as she grinned, in spite of herself. “...Fucker. I’ll remember that.” Bumping his shin with her foot in a companionable promise of vengeance, Autumn went for another sip. Paused. Glanced at him warily over the rim of the glass, and then childishly turned away to drink so he couldn’t get the same perfect timing twice in a row. It didn’t take genius-level intellect to know he was laughing silently behind her back, but… That was kind of okay. It relieved the awkward feeling of tension that had coiled up in the pit of her stomach, and he hadn’t seemed to notice, so that was okay, too. “That’s the last thing I need people at school to hear… Autumn Keane swall- ate eggplant at Jason Bannon’s. Ugh,” she smirked, turning back around again and rolling her eyes. He had asked her a question, though, hadn’t he?

“Honestly…” Her voice trailed off as she rested her cheek on her hand, slowly swinging one foot under the table. “I don’t know what else to ask. I don’t really know a lot about you, which is kind of why I thought I’d wait for you to get home.” Pursing her lips, the rosy-cheeked redhead tilted her head, peering at him from 45° and twisting the glass in circles on the tabletop. “What about you? Anything special you want to know?”.

He smiled slightly, leaning his chin on his fist as he rested an elbow on the table, his eyes on her.  “There’s plenty of things to know, to be sure. You’re fun, brave, warm and kind. You also think well on your feet and I’ve not yet seen you lose your mind to panic, which is impressive.”  He pondered her for a long moment, hmming very softly.  “I think a lot of what I need to know I will learn by sharing activities with you, like your excellent camping idea.”

“I think the thing I’m most curious about is why you are frightened of me.  I’ve noticed at times it seems almost visceral.”  He didn’t seem offended or bitter, merely curious as he took a sip of water before continuing.  “I’ve never been threatening or hostile towards you that I remember - and for the record I remember everything - so that leaves the root cause as what you’ve learned about me just these last couple of days, plus whatever ideas you had about me before we even really spoke.”

“So… Is it my condition - ugh, I dislike that word.  I know technically it’s correct, and a prettier word than ‘deformity’.  Anyway, is it that? Or what I did to Liam? Or what you’ve seen me do?”  He gave her a gentle smile, though his scrutiny was as intense as always. “Because I’d like to help you understand, but to do that I need to know what it is about me that petrifies you.”

Autumn exhaled slowly. “There’s no halfway with you, is there?” The slow shake of her head and rueful smile were far from a condemnation; even so, her attention dropped to the table for a long moment before she leaned further forward, chin resting on the backs of both clasped hands. She’d done a lot of laughing over the course of the afternoon, and a faint trace of that warmth still lingered around the corners of his companion’s eyes as she regarded him soberly. The whole situation was more than a little surreal, but it seemed like maybe he was trying, too, and for that much she was grateful. “I think, probably, it’s a combination of things. It’s been on my mind, since all this… stuff started, and I’ve been trying to pick it apart, like a bad knot. Maybe it started a long time ago. I mean…” She paused, catching her lip between her teeth as she weighed her options unhappily. “Look, until recently, I don’t- I don’t think I ever heard anyone say anything nice about you. If they did, it was that you were hot, or that your product was high-quality, but even then it wasn’t exactly a compliment. So,” with the air of a confession, the earnest, red-haired young woman continued, “I guess part of that is my fault. I just sort of believed what I heard, and since you looked the part, and no one ever contradicted the story, I assumed it was true.”

“Like, people you didn’t like, or who interfered in your business, disappeared. Or you were gonna overthrow the government, or shoot up the school, or that you were working for one of the cartels to push stuff through this part of the country.” There was no special training required, no social sciences degree necessary to interpret the uncomfortable tension in Autumn’s shoulders as she spoke, or the way her eyes occasionally darted away from the direct, intense laser beam quality of his regard when something proved especially difficult to say. In some ways, this was a more intimate exchange than the hug, which was merely physical; this conversation required a different kind of honesty, and an altogether different sort of vulnerability, the willingness to let one’s flaws or failings be known. “That you ended up here because you got in too many fights. That-” She stopped short, unable to meet his gaze. “Just… stuff about your family.”

“And then the bathroom, which was the first time I ever talked to you, was legitimately the scariest thing I had ever experienced in my life. I kind of thought you guys were in a cult, and they were gonna find my body in one of the stalls.” Autumn looked back up at that, remembering the trick with the ice, and- simultaneously- how trapped she’d felt with an apologetic shrug, and a tiny smile. “So, we’re cool there, I guess.”

“I think…” She started, then sighed again, another long exhale. Even if it wasn’t intentional- wasn’t, as she’d started to grasp, hostile- the feeling of just being intently observed was nerve wracking for a girl generally quite happy to exist utterly outside anyone’s center of attention. “I think I’m maybe not, um. I’m not as, I don’t know… bothered? By the Liam thing. I mean, you airplaned me, using the same power,  and it was awesome, and I’m still here to talk about it, so clearly it’s not like you’re a, a raging murder-wolf or anything.” Straightening, she rubbed her hands together thoughtfully, fingers interlacing and entwining in a formless pattern of freckles and ivory skin. She’d already given this part a lot of thought; the threat of a "Liam" was something her mother had always (uncomfortably) tried to warn her of, which is why Dr. Dana Keane probably be freaking right the hell out if she knew where her only daughter was right now. “I should probably be careful how I say this. If... I had been in Lona’s position, and my, uh. And my grandfather was alive.” Swallowing hard, Autumn managed to regain her composure, but only narrowly. Just keep talking, Autumn. It’s fine, she told herself. “I don’t think Liam would have made it out of the woods at all. So.” The words hung in the air for several moments of unbroken silence, until eventually she couldn’t deal with the quiet anymore, not when Jase was still looking at her like that. 

“So, yeah. It does freak me out, but it’s maybe more that you didn’t even have to touch him, you know? Like, what happened to Lona was probably one of the worst things that could ever happen to somebody, but it’s also really…” Her hands opened up, eyes narrowing slightly, fingers splayed as if reaching for the right words. “Really, intensely personal. Intimate. In an awful way, but, still. Different from what you did, if that makes sense.” Another pause. “And, no, I’m not suggesting there’s an actual difference in beating someone almost to death with your fists or with your brain, except that one is easier. Like… stabbing someone or shooting them, or ohhhh god, I can’t believe I’m talking about this. Fuck me.” The last few words came out in a rush as Autumn buried her face in her hands, groaning into her palms, and stayed that way for the span of a few breaths. What the fuck was she even doing? She’d maybe almost tried to kiss her new friend, who liked her still-new-but-not-as-new friend, with whom he was also friends, and now she was on the verge of a conversation about fucking ethics? Jesus Christ, she was not prepared for this when she got on her bike earlier that afternoon.

Lifting her head again, she took a long drink of water in the hope that it might somehow extinguish some of her discomfort, giving him another surreptitious glance- no jokes, it warned- before swallowing and carefully replacing the glass on the tabletop.

“The biggest thing, is that I don’t understand you.” Although she knew it was an obvious conclusion, especially since they’d talked about it a bit earlier, the context here was a little different. Now, yes, it was a statement of truth, but there was something of a plea, or request in her tone, as well, her wide eyes earnest and unguarded as they watched him, watching her. “I know you don’t feel fear, or guilt, and things like that, and I know you kind of explained it with everyone else here, but I just… It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it. I don’t know how to read you. Where, I guess most people are like picture books, or books in English, you’re in Egyptian hieroglyphs or something. It’s hard to tell what you’re thinking, and you’re smart enough that I’m not even sure I want to know sometimes, and you’re so different from other people in so many ways that I don’t even know where to start asking questions. I don’t know why you do things. I don’t know why you wouldn’t do something, or how you decide. You’re…” Autumn’s feet, crossed at the ankle, bounced against the chair leg as she considered her next words. “Confusing. Complicated.

“I don’t know how to make all the different versions of you that I’ve seen into one person, so, yeah. If you can help me understand that, it’d be pretty fucking fantastic."

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"I'll go with you,when you go tonight. "Nobody goes alone" right?" he said, happy that she at least seemed alright.  "We should probably let the others know too, though since it's your dad and mine involved, I'll leave the "when" up to you.   I want to know more about all of this."

He stood up, and offered her a hand up.  "I'm tired of being in the dark, or the last to know about things.  Now, you've got what you came for, so if you want to go home, i suggest you call Beth and let her know you won't be meeting her, unless you want to put this off a little while, and we can meet up later tonight to head out."   

"Shit, Beth yeah..." Cassandra grumbled as she let Cade help haul her back up onto her feet. "Okay...okay... No, lets go to Bunnee's. I'll explain the situation, what I can. Maybe show her the video. Then she'll understand why I have to go, and it won't feel like I'm just blowing her off."

She looked at Cade apologetically. "Do you mind giving me rides all over the place? You can just take me home and I can get my bike. You've already helped a ton."

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Cade shook his head.  "I don't mind Cassandra, it's not like Shelly's a big town or anything, so the drives aren't long.  I don't really have anything I need to be doing otherwise, so I'm good to go."  he smiled at her, and nodded.  "Besides, I'm a bit hungry and a burger sounds good right about now.  As for showing Beth the video I'd say not to do that.  Remember, the more people we involve, the harder it's going to get to keep things under wraps.  I don't like keeping secrets from my family, but this has definitely been one of them."

As they head back to his jeep, he sighed.  "There's no reason to blow her off, we can sit and enjoy a meal together with her, it's important to spend time with your friends, We've got plenty of time before tonight really, so I'd say not to blow her off.  After that I can bring you home if you like, or depending on how late it is, we can head out."

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Jauntsen's - Marissa, Sara, Lilly, Clara, Etienne, and Lona

On 11/26/2019 at 8:21 AM, WS ST said:

"I will tell you everything you want to know, that I know, but I am afraid it will not satisfy you, Miss Jauntson, or you Clara, or the rest of you.

Dr. Cook has been spying on you, all of you, all of this town, for many years long before I was hired."

 

Lona shook her head. "Don't deflect. We want to know what you've done as far as spying on us. Fine, Cook's been doing it for years. What about you?"

"Cook hired me to go to school with the Wrights' eldest child, a daughter," Etienne said. "I was to get close to her and use her to gain access to their labs. I presumed she was in college because of my age. So I have been spying on the Wrights' since I arrived in Shelly. The rest of you and your families were not part of my assignment." 

Sara gave a slight nod.

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Cassandra nodded at Cade's word, but she was having trouble sitting still in her seat in the Jeep. Her feet and hands kept moving. She checked the phone, then again, and again. Her dad was out there. How was that possible?

Could it be old footage? But how would he get his hands on... Wait a second.

Was she seriously believing that her ex-boyfriend, the semi-pothead skater who would barely lift his ass to go to the bathroom, had somehow gotten footage from the prison without getting spotted? And now she couldn't even TEXT him because this was his PHONE. Why had he sent her out here without coming with her? Why hadn't he just TOLD her and shown her the video once they were off campus?

"Dude...this is messing with my head," she told Cade as they started the trip back into town, towards Bunnee's. "Something is off about this. Goddamnit!" Cass leaned forward and hit the back of her head against the headrest. "I can't THINK about this! How am I supposed to really... You're supposed to have distance, you know? To a story? Not get personally invested? I can't DO that for this!"

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Jauntsen's - Marissa, Sara, Lilly, Clara and Etienne

"Presumed," Marissa repeated his phrasing.  "Yet when you discovered she was sixteen, you just powered through, right?"

She looked down at her phone and looked up to Etienne.  "You turned up with some high end paramilitary hardware the woods the other day.  Where does Cook keep his grunt squad and their gear?  What about a nerve center, all the cameras and snooper bugs must be run from somewhere.  Have you ever been there Etienne?  Where is it?"

She leaned forward in here chair, eyes narrowing and her fellow ladies could almost see the venom dripping from her fangs.  "Please, Etienne.  Please, at some point, lie to me.  I'm eager to make your life a living hell and watch you 'an hero' by the end of the week."  She was getting a grasp on her talent.  Slowly but surely she was coming to understand the power in her suggestions, beauty, and words.  People's minds were malleable things, prone to believe just about any puddle lies it was splashed with by the assured consensus that drove by at high speeds, but what was worse... is when someone heard it enough, was force fed it enough, while their will was broken, they'd not just believe it, they'd accept it as a truth that had been there the whole time.

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The Damsel and the Dragon, pt 4

Jason was silent for a moment as she finished, then nodded slowly.  “I’m going to put some fresh coffee on while I start to explain.” he said, rising and moving over to the counter as a cupboard door opened and an airtight jar floated across to him while he dumped out the filter, his hands both visible and invisible going through the motions with the ease of much practice.

“Can you feel things when you do that?”  Autumn asked, gesturing at the various items bobbing handily near to Jason or else zipping over to the sink to be rinsed.  He didn’t seem to look at them at all, or gesture like those guys in Star Wars.   “I mean, is it like a sense of touch?”

“As deft as my own.”  Jase said with a small smile over at her.  “I can feel fine details - could read Braille or pick a lock.  Even-”  He sent a spoon, a measuring cup and a bowl from the counter up with his physical hands, juggling them for a moment, then doing it one-handed… only the objects were still being passed from his actual hand to another, not-visible hand before flying up into the air. “-juggle.”  He caught the objects and set them back down as Autumn laughed, giving her a half-turn and a bow, his eyes gleaming with pleasure at her laughter.  He finished setting the coffee maker up and came back over as it started to drip.

“I think the last thing needs to be explored first, so you have context for everything else.  Because my psychopathy cannot help but define aspects of my life.”  He paused, taking a sip of water as he organised his thoughts.

“Psychopath is a loaded word.  Meaning has been dumped onto the word since its first use, not at all helped by movies such as Hitchcock’s.  ‘Criminal’, ‘murderer’, ‘crazy’ and ‘deviant’.  What’s done even more harm is the psychiatric medical establishment, especially a gentleman by the name of Dr. Hare, whose widely used test for psychopathic traits starts from the position that a psychopath is inherently malignant, narcissistic, irrational and naturally inclined to manipulate and cause harm.  And guess what?  The test results bore that out.  In real science, we call that confirmation bias.”  Jase smirked a little, then shrugged.  “That’s why I advised anyone seeking to study it to look at the newer studies and steer away from anything that uses Hare’s test as a basis.  Honestly, I think of the man as a modern-day Witchfinder General.”

“So onto me.  I was an odd child, as you can imagine.  Didn’t cry much once I got past the infant stage.  If I fell down and grazed my knee, I’d cry out and maybe shed tears, but I wouldn’t wail for comfort and attention.  My mother - and I use the term for convenience since saying ‘female genetic donor’ is spending too many words on labelling her - wanted to get me tested, but my father resisted that, saying that I was fine.  I think he liked the fact I was reading almost as soon as I was talking.”  Jase’s lips quirked in a fond smile.  “I didn’t have extensive behavioral problems - no tormenting animals or bullying other kids.  I wasn’t cruel unless reacting to perceived infraction: heaven help the child - or adult - who without preamble tried to take a toy or a book from me when I wasn’t done with it.  Conversely, if the adult simply explained that I needed to put the toy down and could come back to it, I’d be more than reasonable.  Overall, I was a well-behaved, if quiet, child.”  He glanced over at the coffee maker, measuring it’s progress, then smiled at Autumn. 

“And then my father was arrested.  Not for drug smuggling, or for murdering my mother - yes, I’ve heard that rumor too.  He was a micro-biologist working for a big pharma company with government contracts.  I don’t know the details, but there were some ethical violations being committed, and he decided to blow the whistle to the FBI.  Only somehow, those responsible wriggled out of it, the company got fined, and my father was left with a two year jail sentence in a Federal penitentiary and an unofficial blacklisting - no company will hire him now.”

“I was upset when he went away.  But I wasn’t obviously upset, tearful or disturbed.  And that, plus my father’s absence, was all my mother needed to get me tested.  I believe she knew exactly what she was looking for, as she insisted on a neurological brain scan over the protestations of the psychologist.”  Jase spread his hands in a ‘and there it is’ gesture.  “And lo and behold - the deformity in my pre-frontal cortex.  Primary psychopathy: the inability to feel fear, remorse, or to intuitively empathise.  And the bitch was outta there  - probably only had room in her life for one psychopath at a time.”  He smirked.

“Honestly, I don’t pretend to understand her motives - if I had a child, it would be considered ‘mine’: I’d look after it, protect it, teach it, try to prepare it for life.  So maybe if she is, as I suspect, like me - she’s just a shitty human being even for a psychopath.  Or maybe I’m just ‘moral’ for one.  Who knows?”  Jason shrugged expressively.  “So she dumped me on my dad’s parents, who were old and not really ready, but did the best they could until my dad got out of prison, reclaimed me and we moved here.”

“In the meantime, I’d been reading.  I read everything I could find about psychopathy, and quickly realised that things didn’t add up.  All or most of the literature then indicated that I should be disruptively anti-social, sadistic, the sort of kid who lies and manipulates, and likes vandalism and torturing puppies. None of that particularly described me - but I was concerned that perhaps it might, if the right stimulus was applied.  For instance, I have no moral compunction about causing pain if there’s cause, but I don’t get my rocks off doing it either.  I wondered if perhaps I could, if not careful, slide into being a ‘monster’.”  He smiled at Autumn, a little wry tilt of his mouth.  “After all, as you noted I am intelligent.  I have perfect recall of every event I have ever experienced.  I can calculate numbers in the blink of an eye and absorb, parse and analyse information at what I like to imagine is an incredibly fast rate.  I have taught myself graduate level biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics, along with five languages and counting.  I have no remorse or guilt or self-doubt-”  he smiled wider  “-or much need for modesty, either.  Most people, at least superficially, seem slow or weak to me.  It would be easy to see you all as pawns at best, obstacles to be removed at worst, or else irrelevant.”

Autumn suppressed a shiver as Jase rattled off his mental resume.  From anyone else it would seem like sheer overblown bragging, but from him, from what she’d seen of him…  it was the confirmation of the fear she’d expressed to him - someone who didn’t just think so differently he might as well be from another planet, but also thought on a level that would be daunting even if he was a normal person.

“But I don’t.  Mostly.” he allowed after a moment’s pause.  “It’s hard, sometimes.  But I decided early on that I was not going to be defined by what some book said I had to be.”  He got up and moved over to the coffee maker as it beeped ‘ready’, two mugs floating down from a rack.  Filling both, the lanky youth brought them back over to the table, setting Autumn’s down in front of her as a small jug of cream made its way from the fridge to set down beside it.  He let the girl dress her own beverage as he sat back, sipping on the black brew in his own mug.

“So I put together a code.  Or the Code, as I call it.  Rules that I set for myself, that I will not break.  Like outright lying, for instance.  Word games, obfuscation, misdirection are all fine, because they rely on the other person jumping to a conclusion or not asking the right questions.  Lying is cheap and tawdry, and so I avoid it.”  He settled a little in his chair, stretching his legs out before him.  “That’s one rule.  Another is about not taking kindness towards me for granted, as another example.”  He sipped his coffee, sighing contentedly.. 

“Regular morality doesn’t work for me, because it’s grounded in the principles of social shame and fear of punishment.  So I have to choose how to govern myself - which is a long, involved and ongoing philosophical process that I’m not going to bore you to death with.”  He smiled at her teasingly.

“So now you have an idea of my foundations - where I am coming from.  So let’s address some of the other things…  I have never made anyone disappear.”  He smirked and rolled his eyes.  “I do not work for a cartel.  I don’t even buy my weed or Adderall from others.  I make it myself, along with my own tobacco strain, somewhere away from here.  I did the social equivalent of digging a ditch and lining it with spikes because I find most people tedious, and keeping them away from me was also a way to stop them seeing past the mask I was trying on.  I had a few friends, but no close friends, which probably contributes to the ‘nothing good said about me’ thing.”  He paused, pondering.  “What else… Ah.  Liam.  Or more specifically, what I consider a rationale for violence, which is probably what you’re more concerned with.”

Autumn nodded, her eyes on his face and her hands cupping her mug of coffee.  It was remarkably good coffee, the smell rich and comforting - a contrast to the almost surreal conversation.

“Simply put, none may offer harm to me or mine with impunity.”  Jase shrugged.  “It’s been suggested that Liam might have been influenced by the Dark, but honestly he’s always been the sort of creep to spike drinks, so it wouldn’t have taken a great push to make him attempt outright rape.  Still, I should have paused to consider, rather than merely react.  Violence is very easy, psychologically, for me, and I don’t have a need to prove I’m tougher or dominant to others, so I usually take pains not to resort to it.  Easy mode is for noobs.” he said with a flash of a grin.  “And besides, it’s often not the smartest way to act.”

“Mmhmmm,” Autumn agreed quietly, turning the mug in her hands; even at rest, she was never quite still. It was a lot to take in, and while she normally preferred the all-in, rip-off-the band-aid approach, this was a hell of a big band-aid. In some ways, its removal was a relief- just knowing more about the inscrutable young man in whose kitchen she now sat helped, as did finding out that most of the rumors she’d heard over the last few years were basically bullshit. As tendrils of steam curled lazily upward from the coffee she’d desecrated with cream and sugar, she blew softly across the top, allowing it to cool for another few moments before hazarding another tentative sip. She hmm’ed again, though this time from pleasure, a slow smile spreading over her lips, and leaned forward to rest her elbows on the table again.

“So, okay. I admit I’m not the sharpest marble in the crayon shed sometimes,” the redhead conceded, her nose crinkling slightly with the self-deprecating grin aimed in Jase’s direction. “Which, you already know, since the Chem lab struggle is real. So I want to make sure I’m tracking here, and if I’m not, you can let me know. Cool?”

“Cool,” her counterpart affirmed, taking another sip of coffee and regarding her with what she felt pretty confident was a Number 3, the fairly common “I am mildly amused by this thing,” rather than a Number 7- “This is tiresome.”

“Okay. So, basically, the biological, actual physical difference between your brain and everyone else’s means you don’t process emotions or social interactions like we do. Like, it’s not an automatic thing for you like it is for the rest of us, you have to actually think about it and constantly put effort into figuring out why someone is doing that thing with their face, or that other thing with their body.” Blinking, Autumn took another sip of coffee. “Which… probably gets confusing, when the stuff they’re doing, and the stuff they’re telling you, don’t match. You speak five, almost six languages, but this isn’t one of them, is it?”

“It’s a language I’m still learning.” he acknowledged with a nod and a slight salute of his mug towards her.  “I try to rely on people’s actions and physical language rather than their words.  But even that doesn’t translate well into navigating social riptides with some individuals.”

“You are not wrong,” she agreed wholeheartedly, her quiet laughter sending ripples through the coffee that swirled in the mug she held. Being at Marissa’s the day before had demonstrated pretty clearly the weird, crazy complicated nuances of interpersonal relationships, so it was hard to blame him for not quite getting it. “Even I don’t get all of it, all the time. That’s usually when I just ditch people for a while, get outside or head up to the treehouse or something. There’s just something, I dunno.” Shrugging, Autumn smiled again, more to herself than for his benefit. “Pure. Uncomplicated about it. I think we, as humans, make things a lot harder sometimes than they have to be. Myself included, honestly. Hmh,” she mused, ending the thought on a soft almost-giggle at her own expense. 

"Anyway, you're still learning to translate. At the same time, you're also building the framework of an...ethos?" she hazarded. Like the "good china" from her grandparents' house, certain parts of Autumn's vocabulary were only brought out on special occasions. "...that will let you function in society without compromising what you think is important." Holy shit, she realized, more than a little in awe. There's no way I could do all that, picking everything apart, looking at all the pieces, and consciously figuring out where to put them, 24/7. "Holy shit." The chair creaked softly as she leaned back and rested the coffee mug against her thigh. "You're playing life on Nightmare, aren't you?"

“Isn’t everyone?  At least, that’s what the self-help experts say.  ‘Everyone has their own burdens’, and so on.”  Jase snorted quietly.  “I’m better off than many.  I need to be stoned and have a very empathetic listener to draw any sort of pain reaction out of me.”  He gave her a small, warm smile.  “Thank you, by the way.  I can’t really measure the result emotional pain has on me, since I don’t really feel it at the time unless my attention is drawn to it.  It’s like looking down and realising a thorn is in your leg, then feeling the pain.  But I’m pretty sure it goes somewhere, whether I choose to feel it or not.”

“And you don’t feel lonely?”  Autumn asked softly, watching him watching her.  Jason pondered that for a long moment.

“No.  But that isn’t the same as not enjoying the company of others. There are people whose presence I like who I am happy to see when I see them, and happy to know they are around and well and doing okay.  I don’t need company and I rarely seek it out - I choose to accept it when offered.”  He tapped his head.  “It’s all a conscious exercise though.  There’s no chemical group-bond neurotransmitter dependency, just a realisation of “Hey, this person is interesting for X reason, let’s get close and observe.””  He paused, smirking.

“I just realised that makes me sound like a wildlife expert: Diane Fossey studying gorillas.”  He lifted an imaginary dictaphone to his mouth.  “‘Day three: they have seemingly accepted me into the periphery of their troop, though both males and females are wary of me.  Watching them, I am learning about how they form bonds and find myself envious of the primitive beauty and simplicity of it all’.”  He grinned at Autumn then, teasing mirth in his gaze.

"All right, then," she countered with an answering glint in her eye, her tone part curiosity, part good-natured challenge. "What do you feel? You don't have what we would call pain, or loneliness, or regret, or guilt, or fear, or shame, or emotional bonds… Not this, not that, not that… That's a lot of 'nots.' So," she smiled, shifting forward again in her seat.

"What do you actually feel, and how do you experience it? Is it a physical sensation,  a… 'conscious exercise,' or something else? And, how do you identify or quantify what that feeling or experience or whatever actually is?"

She wondered if he felt things the way other people did, although there was no good way to compare notes- well, not without powers she didn't have, anyway, and that would be an awkward thing to suggest even on a good day. He had said he'd told Marissa earlier that day how he'd felt, and how he'd kissed her after- which, maybe, didn't go so well for him, but it certainly didn't suggest a purely cerebral, academic interest. Well, yeah. This is Marissa we're talking about. I'm pretty sure every sentient life form in the universe thinks she's hot. She couldn't imagine Jase dating, but he wasn't exactly… unattractive, so it had to be a possibility. Right? 

"I, ah, actually have more questions, too, but I'm throwing a lot of those around, so I can give you a minute to catch up." 

“Really good questions, though.”  Jason regarded her with a smile that was more pleased than indulgent.  “Same ones I ask myself, mostly.  Okay…”  He took a drink of coffee, his eyes on her over the rim of his mug, then set it to one side and leaned forward in his seat in conscious mirroring of her posture.

“Firstly, what I naturally feel and emotionally experience most strongly are best described as ‘drives’.  Anger / aggression, survival instinct without the fear element, hunger / ambition and desire / lust.  Those are all very strong, instinctual responses.  The oldest part of the brain governs them and produces the necessary impulses, only with me there’s no pre-limbic social conditioning or empathy to soften or slow them down.”  He tilted his head to one side. 

 “With most people, or so I’ve read, there’s a safety catch:  you feel the impulse to strangle or punch someone for angering you, but social conditioning tells you it’s wrong and empathy tells you that you will share some of their suffering.  It will stay with you, and you will feel guilt for it at some point.  Hell, Avalon feels remorse about what I did to Liam, because she told me about what he did but didn’t try to head me off from what she feared would happen.”  He gestured with one hand to emphasise the point, and Autumn nodded.

“I don’t have that safety catch.  When I get those impulses, the only thing standing between them and the world is my conscious will and my constructed ethos.  I don’t fear consequences - my brainpower is sufficient that, should I really want to do something, I could carry it out without being caught.  I don’t fear remorse or guilt, or shame for what I might do.  There is only Will, and self-sufficient Pride: I am more than my impulses, and they will not solely define me.”

“So, when my anger surges and I want to strangle Sara with my gift for her insults, I consciously exert my will not to.  She wasn’t attacking me physically, so I won’t respond that way.  When I desire to kiss a pretty girl… Sometimes I do, like with Mari - though I certainly would not have forced anything else on her - and sometimes I don’t, as with you earlier.”  he added with a slight smile.  “One angry girl a night is enough for me.”

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Charlie and Sophia

"Just a chocolate shake." Charlie decided. Frankly, he was more focused on waiting for the other shoe to drop. Was this some kind of inscrutable female seduction strategy, swinging from boob flaunting to wholesome talking about common interests and shakes? Finally he set a mental timer in his head. If this went on for five more minutes without a clear answer, Charlie was going to ask.

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" So don't think, simply decide your course of action, and know that your friends will support you.  It could well be a trap set by the Dark, Cass.   That's one reason I said I'd go with you.  That way there's a better chance of getting back home, even if we have to both ride our bikes out there."   He knew it might call for stealth, and his jeep wasn't really that, not nearly as much as a bike.  

He gave her a sidelong look.  "Everything as of late has seemed off. As far as maintaining distance, when you can't, bring someone who can.  This isn't just a story to any of us, it's our lives, our town, our families everything.   Sometimes the world needs to know things, and sometimes it doesn't.   Sometimes it's just enough for us to know them, and know why it has to be that way."
 

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At the end of the Day 

 

Sean and Laurie

The drive home had been quiet with neither sibling saying much of anything. Sean drove and fiddled with the music system while Laurie sat, her arm resting on the door head propped in her hand looking outside at the passing town.

When they arrived home, Sean got out of the jeep and headed for his converted barn/apartment. Laurie stood at the front of the jeep her gaze shifting back and forth from the house to the barn. Sean paused and looked back when he realized his sister hadn’t moved, “Is something wrong Laurie,” he asked from where he stood?

She slowly, almost as if in a daze, looked over at him, and shook her head. “Have you ever wondered why dad and mom let you move out here?”

Sean furrowed his brow at the question a sudden feeling of uncomfortableness coming over him, “No, I just needed someplace for my computers and stuff and for gaming it was just easier to have a place to crash when I was up late, instead of waking up all of you when I finally came in to go to bed.”

Laurie walked over to him, “You don’t really believe that. You’re different. You made us feel weird. Not in a creeped-out way but like Teagan, she never understood how to treat you after you started developing girls’ parts. To me, you were always like this, I guess I always thought of you more as a sister than a brother, until I hit my puberty.

And mom and dad, they’ll never admit it, but they feel guilty. Blame themselves for whatever caused it and each other. I mean genetics right it had to come from one of them.”

Sean’s face had gone stony and he was getting angry at what his sister was implying. “Why are you saying this shit?”

 She shook her head at him. “Oh come on Sean, you know you have thought this and probably still do. You’re different, now so am I. But I don’t think I was part of the experiment. But I don’t know and that is my problem. Suddenly over the last month I have gotten smarter, more observant I can see logic connections where I never noticed them before. But I don’t know anything.

You know me I was never much of a student you were the brain I just wanted to have fun.

I need to learn Sean.”

Sean felt some of his anger, but not all fade, he knew deep down that some of what she had said was true, had to be true, after all his family were only human. “So, what are you asking, to move in with me,” he asked as he turned and unlocked the door?

“Oh god no, I have my own room thank you,” she said, following him inside, “but like I said I need to learn, and …” She stopped when she saw the way her brother was looking around, the look on his face, "What’s wrong?”

Sean had walked into the barn and as had become his habit immediately opened his electro magnetic senses up to connect himself to his computers and other devices and froze.

Something or someone had been in his apartment, he could feel the electromagnetic signature, every one had one, jut this was different. Everyone else’s signature was passive, generated by their brain and body it was confined to their person, his wasn’t.

“Someone’s been in here Laurie,” he whispered.

And their like me!

 

The Interrogation

Etienne’s full attention was on Marissa, his heart rate s began to rise, he licked his lips which were incredibly dry, she was captivating.

<What are you doing?> Sara’s thought sounded in Mari’s mind alone, it wasn’t like a voice even though she ‘heard’ the words in the buff girls ‘voice’.

“What?” Marissa said out loud, sharply, glaring at Sara momentarily before focusing back on her victim.

<He is becoming completely focused on you Mari, His answers are going to be affected by that, he wants to please you. The rest of us aren’t even registering anymore. Even Clara.>

“I don’t know, I was a college student when I was recruited, I wasn’t really trained to interact. I really wasn’t the right person for the job. And to my shame I did just think of it as a job for too long.” Etienne spoke not taking his eyes off Mari. “The gear I brought to the woods, the van, I don’t know where they came from. When Cook told me to go the van was already out front of the hospital. I have seen the guards before usually when I reported after hours, but I never interacted with them. Truthfully I think Cook is a little intimidated by them.” He looks down as he thinks for something to give Mari. “There is more to the hospital. I’ve never been there but there is an underground level at least one, maybe more than one. I have seen the private elevator in Cooks office, it’s hidden and accessible only by a bio-scanner.”

Mari cut’s her eyes toward Sara questioningly.

Sara nods <He’s telling the truth; I can find it.> this thought goes out to all the girls.

 

Charlie and Sophia

Sophia placed the order then turned halfway in her seat giving Charlie a contemplating look as well as a fuller view of her chest wrapped in her tight t-shirt. She pursed her lips and said, “Charlie, are you gay?”

Charlies eyes looked up and locked on hers, “What? No! Why on earth would you ask that?”

“Don’t throw a fit, I just don’t want to waste my time. “ She said then opened her purse and taking a credit card out as the waitress brought her shakes. After they received their shakes and the waitress went back inside Sophia said, “I know it’s a personal question but given the circumstances I sorta need the information. I’ve known you all my life and to be honest I kinda like you. But you have never really seemed to be interested in me you know, so I thought theater,” she does the palms up ‘you know’ gesture, “I just figured you were gay.” She puts her straw in her mouth and sucks some shake up, “Then last year you and Emily hooked up and well, kind of confused the issue for me.”

“Wait how do you know about Emily and me.” Charlie didn’t deny it.

“Oh please, Charlie, Emily has been one of my best friends since kindergarten, did you really thin k she was going to keep that a secret.

Anyway, when you guys didn’t, you know, keep at it, I started thinking maybe you know you and me. Look I know I have a reputation but really that mostly because of the way I’m built which is not anything I can do about. And I’ve always had a crush on you crazy as that may be and well I just figured that you should know in case… you know.”

 

Cass and Cade

The cat which had been curled up in the back seat looking like it was asleep except for it’s twitchy ears raised its head the leaped into the front of the jeep with the two teens and looked around at the two humans. It pawed at the phone in Cass’s hand, who moved it away as she looked at the picture of her dad.

“Stop that cat.”

The cat slithered into Cass’s lap and got between the phone and Cass. Then it coughed, “Rude,” said Cass as she tried to move the phone and the cat kept getting between it and her.

The cat coughed again. In the drivers seat Cade narrowed his eyes that cough sounded funny, “Cass…,” he began as the Cat coughed again. “Ke…” and again “Ke...ke…Kek”

It stood tall in Cass’s lap and looked at her “Kek.” Then it looked at Cade, “Kek.”

It wasn’t a cough; it was a word.

 

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Cassandra stared at the cat, dumbfounded. She'd already sort of communicated with the feline, but to have it actually pronounce a word was startlingly surreal.

"Cade?" she said slowly, "Tell me you heard that."

When he nodded, almost as wide-eyed as she was, Cassie gently pulled her phone around to where she could see it and tapped away from the video to Google.

"If the next thing that comes out of your mouth is a hairball," she admonished the cat, "you are walking from here."

Cade leaned over a little, trying to see what she was doing. "What's it mean?" he asked.

"Well...he's either laughing at us in Korean...or he's with the alt-right..." she trailed off, her eyebrows shooting up. "Or...he's saying the name of the Egyptian god of darkness."

Cass locked eyes with the strange supercat and said tentatively, "...Kauket?"

"Kek" said the cat and butted the phone with her nose.

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"This is somehow exactly as frustrating as I always imagined trying to talk to a cat would be," Cassandra grumped. She tuned the phone around so the cat could see the wikipage she'd found showing the various Egyptian gods and goddesses, then put her finger tip on Kek's image.

"Kek?" she asked, then took her finger away. "Or...no kek?"

Without looking away from the cat she then said, "Cade if you laugh even once, I will tell Marissa you have a pair of her underwear that you stole. I have no scruples."

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The Damsel and The Dragon, Pt. 5

Initially, there was very little in the way of an immediate visible response to those last few words, except that Autumn suddenly went very, very still, where moments before she'd been animated and engaged, keenly interested in how his mind actually worked. She didn't freeze as much as just… stop. Which, to Autumn herself, was an odd experience, because she didn't feel especially panicked or worried, but she could find no way to slow the racing of her thoughts. 

Oh, god, did he just say he wanted to kiss me? Him? Me? Kiss... me? Like me me, or just the me who happened to be sitting there at the time? He didn't, though. Didn't kiss me. So, okay, that can’t be what he said. I'm wrong. I am soooo wrong. Or was it just that he noticed that I wanted to? It was dark, right? Did I make him feel weird? Maybe not, yeah, he said he doesn't feel stuff like that. But he definitely noticed, or he wouldn't have mentioned it, and oh, fuck I'm going to die, just let me die right now, because I thought about kissing Fucking Jason Goddamn Bannon and that's crazy. I'm crazy, and I want to die. Ohhh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I can't believe I almost kissed him, and he fucking knows. Doesn't he? Maybe he's just screwing with me. I almost kissed the guy who is my friend now, who likes someone who I guess is also my friend, and, okay yeah, he smelled really fucking good, and the way he was looking at me was pretty intense, and even if I wanted to for a second I didn't actually do it and-

Breathe. 

It was an imperative, not a request, and after several moments of that odd stillness, the first visible response was a slow flood of bright scarlet into Autumn's face, followed by a slow, shallow breath.

"...Oh," she replied as conversationally as she could manage, suddenly cognizant of each individual freckle across the entirety of her body as a scorching pinprick. "Yeah, that would suck." With an emphatic nod, she brought the coffee mug back to her lips, taking a long drink. Focus. Talk. You're still here, so now you have to wait to die until you get home. Nice. Good fucking job, Autumn. "So, um, because the things, feelings or whatever, that you do experience are so basic, it's easier to know what they are? Like, being hungry. You don't have to think about it, you're just hungry, and the normal impulse is to get food. If you want, you can choose not to eat, but you have to make that decision consciously. Something like that?" 

“Something like that.”  Jason nodded slowly, savoring the blood suffusing her skin in much the same way as a shark might savor blood in the water, only with perhaps less of a desire to go into a frenzy and more of a desire to see where else she blushed.  Focus, please.  She’s a friend, not a target for wildly surging teenage hormones.  Though she could be both- No. At least, not now. She wants to understand me.

“Those drives have no conscience - they are older than conscience, so whereas your brain applies the safety, mine gets the unfiltered signal.  This is why a lot of psychopaths who are not high-functioning are habitual criminals. They lack the intellect to seek alternate paths and the will to practice restraint, and no fear of punishment or ostracization stops them.  So they rob a place, and if someone tries to stop them, they hurt or kill them, because they cannot see beyond their drives. They go to prison, and if they are released will almost certainly reoffend as soon as they see something they want.”  Jase flicked a hand as though dismissing those sad creatures, then cocked his head and regarded Autumn with wry interest.

“You seem warm.  Want some cold water?” he asked her with a faint smile, his eyes on her rose-tinted cheeks.  Autumn forced herself to meet that knowing gaze, even as part of her gibbered that it was a mistake to look back into those deep, not-at-all-cold when you got to know them green pools of-

“Water would be fine.” she managed.  A tall drink of cool water is something I could really go for- OH MY GOD what am I thinking!  She thought cold thoughts as he called the filter jug over from the fridge, refilling her glass.  Plucking up her courage, she gave him a glare. “And I’m pretty sure you’re doing that deliberately.”

“Doing what?” he asked without even a flicker of an eyelid.  Never play poker with him.  What, even stri-? No! No no no!

“You’re-  You- Ugh!

“Eloquently put.” Jase’s eyebrow raised slightly at the outburst, though his handsome mouth also curled in a smile at the fresh wave of crimson staining Autumn’s skin.  “But I was talking about what the emotional landscape is like for me, and you keep distracting me, so if you don’t mind…”

Autumn didn’t trust herself to speak.  He was utterly, completely impossible to deal with.  A simple conversation with him had innuendo layered with deeper meaning layered with profound truth layered with wit and humor, and behind it all was this mind like- like- like a diamond, all gleaming facets and edges that danced and shifted without losing their lustre.  It was like tap-dancing in a minefield where a misstep meant feeling her breath catch and her heart jump against her ribcage as her pale skin went red.  It was…

A lot of fun, really.

As much as she hated to admit it, Autumn really was kind of enjoying this. Dealing with Jase presented a constant challenge, and not in the sense of control or domination, or a conquest to be, well, conquered- it felt more like a finish line that kept moving just as she got close enough to reach it, in such a way that it wasn’t always straight ahead and easily found. It was an ever-shifting mark that compelled her to keep going, to keep up or be left behind, and whatever spark it was that drove her- whether it was her spirit or soul, or her Shine, or simple headstrong obstinacy- it refused to accept that level of failure. 

Fine. 

“So talk,” she shot back before common sense could interfere- because, yeah, it had been so helpful thus far, hadn’t it? Affecting an excessively dramatic tone, the grinning redhead raised the tall, cool glass of water in mock salute: “My apologies, Lord Bannon, O Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities. I wouldn’t have expected you to be distracted, so please… Emotional Landscape. What’s it like for you?” Leaning forward, chin resting on her hand, she smiled expectantly over at him, with all the laughter of her ancestors in her eyes.

With a slow, wicked grin dangerous enough to inspire revolt and the renunciation of faith, Jase leaned forward, his head inclining ever so slightly to meet her eyes as the distance between them shortened by inches. “Distracting,” he reiterated.

“That,” she replied quickly, one eyebrow creeping upward as she continued, the soft blue-grey of her eyes deepening to a storm of cerulean and silver, tiny hints of pale green reflected within. “Sounds like a Jase problem to me. Come on. Emotional landscape. We’re having a conversation here, so I’m gonna need you to focus, Your Magnificence.” 24 hours ago, when she’d come to the farm with everyone else, Autumn would never have guessed that she would- within a day’s time- be giving one of the great terrors of Shelly a hard time in his own kitchen. But, as with so many other things, here she was, legitimately having more fun with him, and all his maddening quirks, than her previous day’s self would have believed. “So? What is it like?” she pressed, all mischief. “No distractions.”    

“Well…” he murmured, showing no sign of drawing back from the current close proximity of their faces.  “It’s complicated. And I say that only because your emotional landscape is similarly opaque to me, so finding a frame of reference we can share is tough.”  Though the darkening of her eyes was promising, at least. Better than the pin-prick pupils that would have resulted an hour ago from his playful predation.

“Mmhmm.  How about caring about people?  You can do that, I’ve seen it.” Autumn likewise showed no inclination to pull away, smiling a little at him.

“I can, and do.”  he admitted. “In some cases, very deeply.  There’s a large element of conscious choice in it, though.  Also a very large element of possessiveness. My father.  My friends.  Their well-being trumps any moral considerations of wider society.  Harm them and it will be taken as an offense against me. I keep an eye out for those who have value - in my opinion - and then if we seem to get along then I tacitly add them to my hoard.”  He grinned a little as he riffed off her dragon reference.

“What about love?”  the redheaded girl asked softly before she could think twice on the matter.

“Functionally similar.  I don’t get crushes, which are purely hormonal and largely centered in that area of the brain I don’t have.  Romantic love for me is a combination of physical desire and a deep appreciation of a person’s qualities, even their vices and flaws.  The Greek and Roman philosophers I find helpful when quantifying how I love - they broke down love into seven types.”

“First there’s Eros - passion and sexual desire.  Not always a positive thing - the ancient thinkers regarded it as a fiery distraction-” Autumn smirked a little, and Jase winked “-and something that, if not carefully tempered, could lead men and women to disaster.”  His voice was soft as he explained. “I experience Eros. It burns hot, but by itself without fuel of other kinds, it will flare out.”

“Next is Philia, brotherly or comradely love.” he went on as Autumn felt her face heat a tiny bit.  “Love of a family member, or a close friend: loyalty, companionship, trust. I experience Philia, too, when the trust has been built up and the company is good.”  He smiled slightly at her. “Very few people have my Philia, indeed.”

“Storge is the love of a parent for a child.  Not relevant for me, but I believe I am capable of a form of it.  Agape, selfless universal love, altruism - that I do not feel. Charity, one could say.  It’s associated with spirituality, and I am not spiritual. Aristotle did write that one could experience Agape for the natural world - that, perhaps, I can see myself feeling.”  He gave her a grin. “Ludus is next. Playfulness. Flirtation, the enjoyment of the game of seduction and getting to know another. Also associated with casual sex for mutual fun and lightheartedness, and can pave the way to other types, of course.  No need to ask whether I experience Ludus.”

“But..”  Autumn said as Jase took a sip of his coffee, making a face at the cold temperature.  “Do you?”  He raised an eyebrow at her, noting the way the corners of her mouth twitched as she tried not to grin, and sighed, rolling his eyes.  He held his coffee mug between them, a firefly dancing in the center of each of his eyes as fresh steam suddenly rose from the newly-warmed liquid.

“Since you asked, yes.  Now shush. Pragma is the long-lasting love, built over time and trust.  It is what keeps married couples together, and it’s lack is what tears them apart.  It takes a deep appreciation of the other, warts and all, beyond Eros or Ludus, an acknowledgement that life will not always be sunshine, cake and rainbows, but you can rely on that other person.”  Jase’s gaze was contemplative. “I wonder about that as it applies to me. I think I am capable of it, but I do not know for sure.  I am, for all my intelligence and detachment, young, and haven’t even dated, never mind anything else.”  

“Finally is Philautia, the love of the self.  Pride and vanity are two sides of the same coin.  Assurance in one’s own worth and arrogance likewise.  True Philautia is not shallow narcissism, but a stronger alloy.  I’m pretty good at Philautia, though I say it myself. After all…”  he grinned, drawing back now and spreading his arms wide. “My teeth are swords, my claws are spears, and my wings are a hurricane!  To look upon me is to tremble!”

“Mmmhmm,” came the reply, and in spite of herself Autumn found herself laughing again. He was definitely trouble, and she marveled at how, in the span of a few hours, she was less inclined to avoid it. “You’re forgetting, though, how that works out for you.” Collecting her now-empty glass, she pushed back from the table and rose, crossing the scant distance between their chairs in a step. From this vantage, she could look down on him for a change, if only narrowly, and her grin widened. “There.” With one finger, she gently prodded a spot on the left side of his rib cage, exposed by his outspread arms, and whispered impishly, “Bannon the Impenetrable.” 

Instead of waiting for her host to clean up, she grabbed her mug, as well, and carried it over to the sink. Everything was well-organized and easy to find, so she didn’t have to rummage in cupboards to find soap and a sponge. If nothing else, the largely automatic activity gave her a moment to think about the actual content of the conversation, rather than all the teasing inspired by hormones and... a sudden urge to message her ex sometime really soon, because even if Jase hadn’t actually dated before, or “anything else,” she was pretty sure he’d probably be a quick study… and down that path lay madness. 

“So, question.” As she washed and rinsed the vessels she’d used, Autumn continued the conversation over the sound of the faucet. “You said you’ve never dated before, and… Marissa Jauntsen was your starting point?”

“Yes, she mentioned much the same thing.”  Jase said, watching her with his cup in hand, his attitude somewhere between intent study and lazy relaxation.  “I think her words were along the lines of I need to level up. Mind you, that was at the same time she was asking me to hold her, so methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

“Well, she is.. Her.  And you are…” Autumn turned, leaning back against the sink and regarding Jason, what she was going to say dying unsaid as she found her somewhat automatic comparison of the Queen of Shelly High and the Effing Bannon as being an unlikely match to be shifting, more than a little, on the basis of the evening.  It was still a hard thing to imagine, even in the face of Jase’s statement that Marissa had asked him to hold her.

“I am Fire.”  Jason said very quietly, meeting her gaze.  “I am Ice. I am Will, and Pride. I am dangerous and hard to understand without some digging, and most people do not bother.  I was these things before I got powers.  And I love Marissa, and have done for awhile.  And she does not date - or at least, does not date me.”  He shrugged, draining his cup of coffee and rising to move to the sink.  “There are other girls I have considered dating, girls I like. One or two…”  he grinned slyly sideways at her as he rinsed his mug. “Or three, perhaps. Or perhaps I am better off being impenetrable.  Right now, I do not know, and I have no experience to draw on. ‘Wait and see’ seems to be the best choice.”

Autumn was quiet as she listened, studying the scuffs in the floorboards while Jase considered his options. “It probably is,” she conceded, resting her elbows on the edge of the counter as she leaned back against it and glancing briefly up at the tall, lean youth beside her before returning her attention to something a few inches in front of her toes. “If you were interested in the safe bet, though, you wouldn’t be in love with Marissa Jauntsen.” There was an uncomfortable (for her) moment of relative quiet, as she turned the words over in her head until they felt right, her fingertips tapping lightly on the sink. 

“You. Are Warmth. You are Clarity. You are Honesty, and you are Courage. You were those things before you got powers, even if none of us could, or can, see it. But... I have, now, a little. And, if it’s cool with you, I would like to add that you are also my friend, with all those other things. You said as much. ...I honestly don’t know what the answer is, to this or… I mean, to most things in general, as demonstrated by both my grades and my life choices,” she added with a little self-deprecating grin, but soon sobered. “Maybe the answer, the best choice, is Marissa. I can definitely see why it might be, and if I were talking to myself, I’d advise me not to give up on something I really wanted, something that was important to me. So.” Her shoulders twitched upward in a quick shrug, and she wondered at exactly which point the world had become so unrecognizably strange.

He seemed a little startled at her re-parsing of his statement, blinking once as he glanced down at the red haired girl currently examining her feet.  But then he smiled slowly, nodding a little. “I wasn’t planning on giving up. Merely waiting. Perhaps time will change her perspective. She’s young as well, after all.”  He sighed, leaning against the counter next to her, shoving his hands into his pockets.  

“And maybe I should learn to be young, too.  I miss out on a lot of the hormonal chaos the rest of you experience - the emotional storms, the moping over a girl one week and then forgetting about her in pursuit of the next crush…I don’t get that.  You people are crazy, by the way. But maybe I can just date and have fun, ‘level up’, but not with the destination in mind. Just enjoy the journey while I wait.” He snorted, then nudged Autumn with his elbow gently.  “And yeah, you are my friend. And because you are I’m going to drive you home, because while the night may be dark and full of terrors, very few of them are going to want to meet me.” He grinned a little.

“That is, unless you’re staying over?” he added with a faintly wicked edge to his grin.

I should have seen that coming, she sighed, feeling the corners of her mouth turn upward despite the rising color in her cheeks. Well, fine. 

“If I stayed over, there’s no way I’d be able to sleep in the same house with you,” she quipped. “So maybe just the ride, this time.”

“That was the idea… but it is a school night and your grades need all the help they can get.”  The green-eyed devil smiled back, one long arm extending in a conspicuously courteous gesture towards the door.  “Your chariot awaits.”

“What, no noble steed?”  Autumn grinned, stepping back but still facing him.

“He’ll be driving the chariot.” came the deadpan reply.

“I said ‘noble’.”

“Touché.  You’ll just have to slum it.”

Ugh,” she sighed dramatically, rolling her eyes toward the heavens. “Fine. I guess. ...Although I brought my bike. You could just let me borrow a flashlight, you know.”

“No.”

“I promise to wash it and give it back!”

No.”

With a little work, and not a little light humor at the other’s expense, the two teens managed to get Autumn’s bicycle into the trunk of the Charger. Conversation stalled somewhat once they were on the road, and as Jase drove, she checked her phone for what she realized was the first time since she’d gotten there a few hours earlier. It wasn’t late enough that her mom would be worried, and, anyway, Dana had apparently sent a text about half an hour ago letting her know she’d be late for dinner, that they had a couple of unplanned surgeries at the animal clinic. 

[Kk. Let me know if you want food, I’ll forage. Love you!]

As she tapped the screen to send the message on its way, Autumn glanced curiously over at a very different Jase from the one who’d been teasing her just a few minutes before. He had that focused look, the one that always made her feel like she was being pricked by a thousand tiny needles whenever it swung in her direction, but he was only watching the road. Not angry, or even displeased, just… Intent. 

Weird.

The scenery slipped by, headlights tracing the asphalt to almost the opposite side of Shelly, where the flat, open land gradually transitioned into rolling hills and rustling trees; for the life of her, Autumn couldn’t think of much to say that didn’t involve giving directions, and since she never had to repeat herself, even that eventually became unnecessary. It got harder to break the silence as the minutes passed, and, tugging on the zipper of her hoodie, she just let it be. Atop a small, natural rise stood the modest, cabin-style home where she’d grown up, and at the sound of the muscle car’s tires on the gravel, the redhead shifted in her seat, unfastening her seat belt before they’d stopped completely. The porch light was on, the driveway empty, save for the Charger, and, in the distance, the glow of Shelly Stadium gleamed softly.

Jase killed the engine and slipped out of his seat as Autumn opened her door, his tall spare shape silhouetted against the porch light as he glanced around, taking in their surroundings with the air of a predator looking for prey, though as he turned back towards Autumn he seemed to relax a little, smiling as he headed to pop the trunk.

“There’s not much around,” she said, misinterpreting the motive for Jase’s attentiveness and nodding toward the dark country road that continued on into the hills. “A little further up is my grandparents’ house, and then it’s maybe two miles or so to the camp site I told you about earlier. I’ll take you up there sometime, before I invite a bunch of other people out… Y’know, since you showed me your garden.” The flash of her smile gleamed in the reflected lights, and she headed around the side of the car to wrestle her bike from the depths of the black beast. With Jase’s help, they got both tires on the ground and she smiled again, holding the frame upright. “See you tomorrow?”

"Definitely." he said with that hint of a smile that could mean anything, unless one looked at his eyes. 

“Cool,” she agreed, almost as if she hadn’t expected him to say yes. “‘Night, Jase. Thanks for the ride,” the sixteen year old redhead called over her shoulder as she jogged a few steps with the bike, then hopped on and pedalled lazily up to the porch. Down went the kickstand, and up the stairs to the front door she went. She paused at the threshold and turned back, offered a quick wave, and headed inside to a chorus of canine voices whose excited barks echoed across the fall landscape before she closed the door. 

The porch light stayed on.

Later, after her mom had come home and they’d chatted about the trivialities of their respective days, Autumn lay awake upstairs and studied, for the thousandth time, the phosphorescent constellations sprawled across her bedroom ceiling. The faded red hoodie hung on the back of a chair next to the closet; she had returned alive from the dragon’s lair, and that was the prize she’d won, the treasure reclaimed. 

She’d spent half a day with Jason Fucking Bannon and survived, she realized with faint surprise. He’d been a terror the entire time- but only in the way that a particularly mischievous child could be when exploring something new. Much like the sleepover with Marissa, it hadn't gone at all as she'd expected. He had even gone to the trouble of trying to address the reasons she’d given for being afraid of him… Well, the ones that could be handled with simple, factual explanations, anyway.  And, by then, she’d been having such a good time that she’d stopped really thinking about being terrified. 

 

There was the matter of the almost-kiss, of course, and Autumn’s face grew warm in the darkened room as she remembered the emerald smoulder of his eyes so close to her own. Pulling the quilt over her head as if to banish the memory, the young redhead groaned in frustration and embarrassment. She still kind of felt like dying, despite the fact that he hadn’t been weird or freaked out about it- probably couldn’t have been. She’d gone over there to get her jacket and maybe get to know Jase a little, but not like that! It was small comfort that at least nothing had actually happened, even if some greedy, selfish part of her was a little resentful of that fact. 

 

“He said he was my friend,” she murmured after a few moments of aimless, milling thoughts in the quiet, half-disbelieving the sound of it. “I have friends.” ...Even if she was afraid of them, on some level she couldn’t yet quite describe.

 

And what if the more you learn and understand, the more frightened you become? Just out of curiosity, came the soft query, unbidden, from her memory. The question hadn’t been meant for her.

Then, I don’t know. Maybe that’s not really what you’re afraid of, she heard her own voice reply, and a sudden wave of mingled horror and despair- of dread- washed over her as she realized the awful implication of her own words. Trembling, her body curled into the blankets and the tears that had threatened to escape at the farm came spilling out all at once as she shuddered with silent, wracking sobs and a feeling she couldn’t name.

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As he was driving, he'd wondered exactly how Cass expected him to stop the cat from doing anything, but soon that much at least resolved itself.

Then the cat stood in her lap and spoke.  "Okay, yeah I heard it."
 
As she did her research he nodded.  "Well that would fit what we've been dealing with well enough, but what would an ancient egyptian god of darkness be doing in the middle of nowhere Montana?"
  
He looked at her and at the cat with a glance.  "Next you're going to tell me our friend here is a real Sphinx or something."  Though said half in jest, if the cat nodded and said it was, it wasn't going to surprise him.  

"Pretty dire threat that, but I'd be safe.   Everyone knows that's not the kind of guy I am."  He did smile back, but he didn't laugh. 

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One thing Charlie absolutely, positively was sure of: women don't make sense. So Sophia had a longstanding crush on him but apparently assumed he was gay, because of theater stereotypes, and not say, busy, and now apparently did the sudden 'I want to cast on the couch' routine... to get close to him? "So what was the Jessica Rabbit act for? Were you actually interested in the play or just an excuse for this?" Charlie made a general gesture around the car.

One piece of information at a time, because Charlie wasn't used to the concept of people crushing on him. People crushed on Marissa - before they got to know her. They crushed on Cade. Not Charlie, the amiable drama nerd.

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Bunnee's Burgers

"Wow...," Sophia has a stunned look on her face at the response she was getting from Charlie. She closed her mouth not sure what to say and her cheeks burned red with embarrassment, she quickly looked around and to her surprise spotted Cade Alistair's jeep pulling into the parking lot.

Perfect for a change of subject

"Huh is that Cassandra Allen with Cade Alistair? Are they dating?"

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"No, they aren't." Charlie realized that it had been a really insulting way of asking, given the reputation Sophia was already dealing with. "I'm sorry Sophia, I shouldn't have said that." Charlie let out a sigh and looked away. "Things are going on, and I don't think right now is a good time for me to consider dating." Charlie admitted it felt evasive, but what could he say? My friends and I have psychic powers, the town is a government experiment and I was honestly wondering if an entity of evil was influencing you - since it's done so to several people at our school.

After Tawny? Nooooo sir.

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Sophia looked back at Charlie, he wasn't the handsomest boy in school, definitely not a jock, but damn if she didn't get the racing heart beat when she saw that stupid crooked grin. "Its alright Charlie, I could have done this better too.

Look," she reached over and put a hand on his arm, "I mean what I said about liking you, I always have. But if you don't like me that way its ok just tell me. But if you do have any feelings toward me, there is always going to be something else going on, but you can't let those things get in the way.

I did and here we are."

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Well, that was the six-million dollar question. Charlie didn't have feelings for Sophia per say, but he supposed it could happen. Similar interests - and from the teenage male side of things - very attractive. So was he prepared to give this a shot? Sophia was right, there was always going to be something else going on, but she had no idea just what. What did Shakespeare say about romance, Charlie tried to remember - Shakespeare made a great many memorable lines.

Never mind, he needed to decide for himself. Charlie hadn't dated before - maybe now was the time to try. Charlie took her hand. "I'm not sure, but I'm willing to give this a try."

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"I wouldn't be so sure," Cassie teased. "I can be pretty convincing...oh hey, Beth!"

She hurried across the restaurant to where her friend was seated, perking up. She gave Cade a curious look as he joined them. Meanwhile the cat strolled unconcernedly along towards the table as well.

"So," Beth said, scooting over a little to make room. "Anything I should know?" She nodded at Cade.

Cassie glanced at him, then at Beth. "Oh, no, nothing like that. We only hang out because we both have psychic powers."

Bethany rolled her eyes. "That would be a lot more convincing from me, you know. I never got you to believe in any of that."

With a smile, Cass shrugged. "People change?"

Beth snorted and sipped her drink through the straw.

Suddenly a thought occurred to Cassandra. She leaned forward and asked, "Hey, Beth? You know about history and...made up stuff, right? Know anything about Egyptian mythology?"

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Cade had just smiled, and noted that the Cat sat beside him, facing the two girls before laying down and purring as Cade reflexively dropped a hand to pet it.  He was surprised by a number of things, chief among them being that the Cat had followed them in, and been allowed to do so.  Still he already knew it was special, so who knew what that all meant.

Beth's reaction to the truth, that well at least one of them had psychic powers was fairly standard.   He just smiled. "Well she has psychic powers, I'm just good with animals."  he commented softly, and picked up a menu, though if he was honest, he always ordered the same thing.

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