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Ep. V Intermission: Autumn

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Wednesday 28th August

School was proving a trial, to say the least.

It wasn’t all bad.  The attention she was getting from her peer group was at least of the semi-respectful variety - jokes from her gym class friends about secret kung fu lessons aside, being the Junior girl who made two Senior guys cry ‘uncle’ in a fight carried a certain cachet in high school.  There were some snickering remarks about why she’d rescued Bannon from the usual chuckleheads, but overall that wasn’t the problem.

No, the problem was Ms Kyleson, aka ‘Call me Felicity’, aka the school counsellor, who currently sat across from Autumn wearing the same expression of empathetic patience and kindness which she’d worn since Autumn had, at the direction of her home room teacher, walked into her office.

“Autumn.” She’d said in a tone approaching pleased surprise – as though she hadn’t expected an old friend to drop in for coffee rather than addressing a student whom she’d had on her docket since probably yesterday afternoon.  “Sit down, get comfy.  The principal and I thought it might be good for us to talk, about yesterday?”  As the redheaded girl had settled into the comfortable chair, a certain wariness in her blue eyes, the counsellor smiled reassuringly.  “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.  Quite the contrary.  You’ve had a rough year, outside of school.  And given the incident yesterday, I was wondering if you needed someone to talk to?  It’s not exactly like you to get involved in a fight, is what I’m trying to say.  Let alone injure a boy.  You’ve always been one of our more exemplarily behaved students.”  Ms Kyleson placed her hands together and leaned forward on the desk, concern in her expression.

“Are you aware of feeling more angry than usual, of wanting to lash out?  It’s okay if you are – It's normal to feel angry at times like these.  I want to help you with that is all.”

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Autumn’s first instinct was to protest that no, she wasn’t feeling any angrier or more agitated than usual, that she didn’t especially want to lash out at people, and that Curtis had hurt her first, and she was defending her friend from a couple of oversized bullies, and what the hell did she mean by “times like these,” anyway? That would probably just come off as, well… angry and confirm Ms. Kyleson’s assumptions, though.

Her second inclination was to just smile and reply that, nope, she was good… but she was pretty sure that wouldn’t get her anywhere, either, even if it was essentially the truth. These were pointed questions, and a fight on school grounds was a serious issue; there was no way she’d get off that easy. Especially not after sending Curtis to the hospital- not that she felt guilty about dislocating the belligerent senior’s knee, anyway, just a little uncomfortable that she’d actually… for just a second… considered shattering it completely, and had instead opted to just make him believe that she had by amplifying the sensation. Nobody else knew that, though, and who would she even tell? It wasn’t the kind of thing you just slipped into casual conversation.

“Hey, did you watch Masked Singer last night? Oh, by the way, I’m apparently really good at knowing exactly how to cause someone the greatest amount of pain with the least actual physical injury.” Nope, that totally didn’t sound twisted at all. Definitely not the kind of thing that could get her a job someday with some alphabet agency, asking uncooperative people uncomfortable questions in tiny soundproof rooms. Ugh. She suppressed a shudder at that thought-

And then something else the solicitous counselor had said clicked in her head.

“You’ve had a rough year.”

Ahhhh, her inner voice sighed. So that’s what it was about. It hadn’t been that long since breakfast, but nevertheless the realization left an uncomfortable, hollowed-out feeling in the pit of the redhead’s stomach.

“Little over a year,” Autumn corrected quietly, nodding as she slid forward a little on the seat and sank deeper into the chair, her lithe frame moulding and realigning itself to fit within the confines of the upholstered back and sides. She breathed in the faint scent of lavender that lingered in the cozy office, studied the slightly worn finish, the sweeping lines of the grain on the front of Ms. Kyleson’s desk as the other woman waited patiently for her to continue. With everything that had happened recently, the last person she wanted to confide in was a stranger, but at least she seemed interested. Like maybe she actually cared, a little, even if it was just her job. “I miss him,” she said simply, finally, those three words heavy as a stone sealing a deep well as they settled into the quiet. There were no tears, Felicity noted with some surprise and a little apprehension- just a sudden, liquid brightening of those expressive blue eyes as the young woman blinked rapidly and stared at the patterns in the wood before her. The amiable blonde shifted in her chair, unobtrusively nudging a box of tissues toward the front of her desk, but Autumn shook her head, glancing up at the movement. “I’m good, thanks,” she murmured. "And I'm not angry. Well..." the girl amended, the toes of her sneakers tapping out a soft, staccato rhythm on the floor, "not really. And not like that."

"Okay," Ms. Kyleson conceded, her smile encouraging. "How, then?"

"I just-" Just what, huh? Wish he'd even bothered to fucking tell us he was sick, or, hey, maybe actually even tried to get treatment? Want to yell at him for being such a stubborn asshole and leaving us all here, but I can't? No, I just want him to fucking be here, and that's never gonna happen. Fuck. Her brows knitting in a sudden frown as she tugged at the end of the thick red-gold braid draped over her shoulder, Autumn sighed. "I just wanna focus on yesterday, if that's okay with you."

Edited by Autumn Keane
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"Autumn, echoes of pain we survive travel forward with us.  Without wanting to sound cheesy, they're like ripples in a pond: they keep going till they wash up against something."  Felicity Kyleson sighed, nodding acquiescence as she sat back.  "But... okay.  Let's focus on yesterday.  What happened?"

"It happened like..."  Autumn made an expressive gesture. "Whoosh, out of nowhere.  One moment, I was looking at Jase, kind of nodding 'hi', and the next, those two, uh, guys."  Kyleson didn't miss the hasty edit. "Bowled him into the lockers and just started pasting him.  Like really going for it, not just pushing and shoving like guys sometimes do, y'know?"  Autumn recalled the sudden whirl and rush, and above all the savage intent of the violence which had struck her at the time.  "It wasn't right - he didn't deserve that.  And nobody was doing anything.  Just watching like it was no big deal."

"So you wanted to help him."  Ms Kyleson stated rather than asked, nodding, making a note on the pad in front of her.  "That seems only natural.  And from what I heard - yes, it was indeed not like a normal school scuffle."

"I know what you're going to say, Ms Kyleson.  Why didn't I call a teacher, or something like that, right?"  Autumn said a trifle defensively, only to be startled when Felicity raised her hand, shaking her head.

"Sometimes things happen and we react, and we don't always have the time to think through the reaction."  The counsellor said with a warm smile.  "Some people run into a burning building to help others, other people don't.  I think you were brave - and acted on the right impulse - off the record of course."  She winked conspiratorially, giving the young redhead an approving nod, then went on.  "Is Mr Bannon a friend of yours?  I ask because you call him 'Jase', which I've only heard one or two other students do."  Autumn was struck by the way the counsellor, who seemed happy to be on first name terms with everyone, called Jason 'Mr Bannon'.  It was odd - and now she came to think of it a few other faculty did the same thing.  "And how is it exactly you fought off two seniors who, to put it bluntly, are a lot bigger than you?  I ask because, well, I help organise a women and girls self-defence initiative in Great Falls.  It's my personal interest, so you don't have to share, but if there's an instructor in these parts I'd love to know if they'd teach a local class."

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Autumn considered all of that for a moment as the residual emotional echoes of the fight- how unfair it had been, how helpless and frustrated she’d felt, how afraid- slipped away again, her fingertips tracing idle shapes on the arms of the chair; she could just feel the borders of the monochrome stripes patterned there, alternately elevated or depressed at regular intervals. Why did she call him Jase? She wondered. Even though most of the others in the Fellowship called him “Jason,” that seemed weirdly formal to her, at least without the obligatory “Goddamn” or “Fucking” bits attached, but “Mr. Bannon” was just… ugh, cringe-inducing, especially coming from an adult. Like, even his dad didn’t want to be called “Mr. Bannon,” although everything she’d learned about dealing with parents in her 16 years of life demanded she refer to him that way… But someone her age? Nah. Uh-uh. That was definitely weird- even if Jase was probably the least teenaged teenager she’d ever met.

“He’s my friend, yeah,” she affirmed with a nod, a little smile tugging at the corners of her mouth in response to Felicity’s encouraging demeanor. She almost pointed out that he was the second friend she’d made in less than a week, but even in her head that sounded suspiciously like bragging, and also (as her first new friend in recent years would have quickly pointed out) kind of sad. “I mean, it’s kind of a new thing, but.” The redhead shrugged, the kinetic equivalent of terminal punctuation. “And, as far as the fight goes?” Autumn hesitated, her gaze dropping from the compassionate warmth of Ms. Kyleson’s features back to the front of the counselor’s desk.

That was a whole other thing. On some level, despite the physicality of her hobbies and general good health, the energetic young woman knew that without the reflexive upwelling of power she’d used to defend herself, she wouldn’t have stood half a chance against either of the seniors separately- much less together. She’d only had the vaguest idea what she was doing, driven forward more by instinct than training. Her mother was right: if things had gone even a little differently, she could have gotten seriously hurt. But her friend was being hurt already, so wasn't it worth taking that chance? Besides, Cassie had been there, too, and talked Mark down, and ultimately that hadn't even been the worst part of the day for any of them.

“I got lucky,” she echoed Dana's admonition from the night before, her head falling back to rest on the thickly-cushioned upholstery. Ocean blue eyes skimmed the ceiling tiles, noting where bits of colored ribbon were still knotted around the slender metal framework- forgotten remnants of some kind of celebration. “I wasn’t really thinking, you know? I just sort of…” Her hands moved on their own, amber-flecked fingers spreading in an expansive gesture as she searched for the words. “I don’t know. Reacted, maybe?” Frowning, Autumn straightened, scooting back in the seat to sit more or less upright again. “I don’t think they expected anybody to get involved, honestly, and they were too busy beating the s- uh...too busy hitting Jase to notice at first. So, it’s not so much that I ‘fought them off,’ I guess, I just… Fought.” She paused mid-shrug, eyes widening as she glanced back up at Ms. Kyleson in alarm. “I mean, not just like ‘fought’ fought, you know, just because, but more that I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, so I just kind of did it because it felt like the right thing to do. ...If that makes sense,” the suddenly rosy-cheeked girl continued, a little sheepishly.

“And no, I don’t think there’s anybody teaching self-defense classes," Autumn hedged uncomfortably, the sensation of warmth intensifying as it bloomed beneath her freckles; although it was technically true, it wasn't exactly the whole truth. "But it sounds like a good idea. Maybe you could get someone up from Great Falls to do a class here some afternoon?" The red-haired girl brightened visibly, leaning forward in her chair. "Oh! I know we're supposed to be talking about me, but my GSL, Monica, lives down there, and she’s kind of a bada- um, she’s really good at her job,” Autumn corrected hastily, and on seeing Felicity’s curious expression added, “Girl Scout Leader, sorry. She's kind of in charge over our region. I can see if she’d be interested, maybe make it a whole thing and see if she can get some of the troops in the area involved. International Day of the Girl is in… October, I think? We usually try to schedule stuff around then.”

 

Edited by Autumn Keane
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"That's a good idea!"  Felicity Kyleson exclaimed.  "Monica, was it?"

"Yeah.  Monica Rivera."  Autumn smiled, think of the go-getting regional GSL.  "You can reach her through the GSA office in Great Falls and, if it'll help, tell her I sent you."  She watched Ms Kyleson jot down the name and a note next to it, then glance back up at her, smiling.

"I'll certainly do that."  she nodded, then set the pencil aside as she returned to the business at hand.  "Honestly, Autumn, I'm a lot less concerned now than I was when you came in.  It's pretty obvious to me that you were acting with good intentions, not out of some misplaced anger or aggression.  I am concerned that Jason Bannon might have somehow invited the attack - he's not got the best reputation, you know - and I don't want to see you sucked into trouble that you had no hand in starting."

All Autumn's restive energy stilled for a fleeting moment, her attentive gaze clear and direct as she smiled, just a little, across the desk. "Honestly, a week ago, yeah. I'd probably have agreed with you. He does have a pretty bad rep. But everybody deserves a chance, right? I don't think..." She glanced down at the scuffed toes of her sneakers, the smile growing wistful. "I don't think my grandfather would've been happy if I'd walked away, you know? It wouldn't be right. Not if I could've helped."  Felicity's expression softened as she regarded the redheaded girl, the counselors heart going out to her.

"You're right.  Everyone deserves a chance."  she said softly, as though turning the words over in her head and reminding herself, then smiling warmly at Autumn.  "You're a good friend.  I hope he is too."  The tableau held for a moment, woman and young woman regarding each other, then "Well, I have no problems telling the principal that, in my opinion, you're just fine."  Ms Kyleson sat up straighter, making another note on her pad.  "Indeed, you're doing better than many.  That said-"  she leaned forward slightly, closing the distance between them a little.  "-if you do need to talk to anyone, and for some reason no-one else is available or suitable... I'm always here."

"Sure."  Autumn said, sensing the meeting was over and getting to her feet, smiling back at the counselor.  "Thanks, Ms Kyleson."

"Thank you, Autumn."

= = = = = = = = = = =

Letting out a breath as she exited the counselor's office, Autumn turned into the main admin office and froze for a moment as she saw Ms Forster - Jase's mom - picking up some paperwork at the main desk.  The woman's pale blue eyes met hers in wordless acknowledgement that didn't show on the beautiful features as she turned, papers in hand, and made to leave the admin office.

"Hey, Autumn?"  Jacob had been sitting in one of the waiting chair to the side, and as Autumn watched Ms Forster leave the office, he stood and stepped over to her, his gaze wary.  "Hey, look.  I know you said what you had to say yesterday, and I totally get it.  I'm just delivering a message, 'kay?  So, uh, don't shoot me?"

"Message?"  Autumn asked, her attention piqued enough to look at her ex.

"Yeah.  My dad wants to talk to you."  He raised his hands a little defensively.  "And no, I don't know what about - he didn't tell me and I got the impression not to ask.  Just told me to ask you if it was cool for him to drop by later."

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Oh, for fuck's sake. Really?! I haven't even made it to Chemistry yet.

It had been a while since Jacob Crocker was on Autumn's "favorite people" list, and running into him twice in as many days was more frustrating than anything else, a subtle reminder that apparently the universe wasn't uncaring, because it obviously hated her; second day of classes had really set the tone at Shelly High. Just like in the hall the day before, there was that little twinge of something when she saw him, that friction between the part of her that missed talking to him every day and hanging out, and the part that never wanted to see his stupid face again. She and Jay weren't dating anymore, so, yeah, things being awkward was sort of expected- at least for a while- but that's not where it ended. He hadn't just been her boyfriend, he'd been her best friend since they were in diapers. Their families had cookouts together. Camping trips. Holiday dinners. They were practically family... Or, at least, they had been. Now it was all kinds of fucked up, and where normally she'd probably still be able to hang out with a guy she'd dated, this was different. Complicated.

"How much later?" the redhead sighed, wondering when she'd get to have just like... a day again, where nothing crazy happened, and she could maybe have a milkshake and a smoke and a nap out on the deck. Super powers and government conspiracies and nightmare hellbeasts and talking cats kept things interesting, sure- but in that 'May you live in interesting times' curse kind of way. Regular old interesting would be nice sometimes, too. Maybe whatever Nathan wanted was this second kind. Maybe he just wanted to talk to her about volunteer stuff, or her mom being worried about yesterday- something like that. Probably that, she decided, gnawing thoughtfully on her lower lip. He'd always been "Uncle Nathan," and sometimes he took that responsibility kind of seriously.

"This afternoon he said, maybe an hour or so after school's out?" The young man's handsome features scrunched slightly as he dropped his hands again, thrusting them into his pockets. "I don't think it's about your mom or anything, if that's what you're wondering."

Well, fuck, she swore inwardly.

"It kinda was, yeah." No, it's fine. It's fine. Maybe... Maybe it's about Labor Day, or hunting on his property this year, or something. It could be something good, right? "That's cool, I wanted to thank him for dropping my bike off yesterday, anyway."

"Yeah, um." Jacob looked a little uncomfortable at that, his broad shoulders twitching upward in a quick shrug.. "That was me. Dana called while she was waiting for them to let you out, so... Yeah."

Well. Fuck.

"Oh," was all she could muster for a long, awkward moment, eyes dropping to the toes of his brown leather boots. Then, "Well, um. Thanks, then, I guess." The redhead could feel him looking at her, as if Jason Frigging Bannon's laser-focused dissection had somehow sensitized her to the stares of other people, and finally she relented, glancing questioningly back up at her former friend. She didn't know what she'd expected to see, but it wasn't... that. He looked worried, Autumn realized with a start. But why? Something tightened uncomfortably in her chest, and she could hear the sound of her own voice telling the guidance counselor just a few minutes before: Everybody deserves a chance, right? "Hey, listen," she began tentatively. "Um... About yesterday-"

"It's cool," he shrugged again, more emphatically this time as his expression changed, took on the shape of the casual half-smile he wore when dealing with people he didn't know. "Like I said. I get it. I'll let my dad know it's cool to drop by your place after school." Shouldering the backpack that had been sitting on the chair beside him, he nodded toward the counter behind her. "See ya around."

"Autumn Keane?" a polite female voice interjected, and Autumn turned to see the smiling face of one of the administrative assistants at the desk. "I have your pass for being late to first period here, just give that to your teacher when you get there, all right?" She slid a small form over the counter- Felicity Kyleson's cheerfully looping signature clearly visible across the bottom- as one of the other ladies spoke up. "Jacob Crocker, if you'll come right over here, I'll get you signed in."

"Yeah. See ya around," the red-haired young woman echoed, nodding. She tucked the note in the front pocket of her hoodie, spared one last glance at Jacob's back, and headed out of the office. Maybe it's something good, Autumn repeated to herself on her way to Ms. Lafferty's class, trying to shake that pang of... whatever it was. It would be a nice change of pace.

Edited by Autumn Keane
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"Hey, Sean."

The resident cyberpath - hmm, he wasn't sure he liked that title.  Bit too close to 'psychopath'.  Perhaps 'cyber-empath'?  Technomancer..? Yes, he could live with technomancer - looked up as Autumn fetched up against the neighbouring locker to his, leaning a shoulder against it with her arms full of books, blue eyes earnestly regarding the intersexed young man from her freckled face.  He gave her a smile as he fished out his own set of textbooks for next period - the Fellowship had been largely leaving each other some space today, each of them digesting the harrowing events of yesterday.  They hadn't been avoiding each other so much as just nodding companionably in passing, or sitting quietly together in lessons.  The only one he'd really spoken with today was Kat, as he was still her local Sherpa, and Kat wasn't really a full member of the Fellowship yet... 

He paused that roll of thought.  What were the criteria, really?  Devin had welcomed Courtney into the fold, who yesterday had been revealed as not just a treacherous bitch whore from hell, but a telepathic treacherous bitch whore from hell, and the rest of those present had just shrugged and nodded.  Autumn had become a member of the Fellowship based on a single nightmarish afternoon in the woods near the trailer.  If a trial by fire and general acceptance of someone's presence was all it took, then yeah, Kat was in the gang.  She did need her powers quantifying, testing and training, though.

All of this had taken a split second of cogitation, his psionic overclocking of his brain's processing speed still running smoothly.  At first, he'd been concerned that it would take a toll or 'overheat' his brain somehow, but there was a curiously organic, natural quality to the enhancement that didn't seem to react poorly with his cells and synapses.  "Heya Autumn." he replied, closing his locker.  As usual, the hoodie-wearing Girl Scout's open expression was easy to read.  She looked like she had a question or something to say, so he prompted "What's up?"

"I was wondering if I could get Jase's number from you."  she asked, her cheeks taking on a faint warmth as it occurred how that must sound.  "I mean, I've got everyone else's from last Friday, but he doesn't have a cellphone, so..."

"Yeah.  Says he 'doesn't need one'."  Sean rolled his long-lashed eyes expressively.  "I mean, he's worked with me to build circuit boards and install overclocking, so I know he's not a Luddite, but damn..."

Autumn made a small amused sound, lips twitching in a smile.  It appeared even the Impenetrable Bannon's oldest friend in Shelly found him incomprehensible sometimes.  "So can you hook me up?  I mean, with his number?"

"Lemme check with him?"  Sean asked, semi-apologetically.  "I mean, I don't think he'd have a problem, but it's still-"  He let the sentence hang uncompleted, punctuating it with a wordless shrug.

"Oh yeah.  Gotta observe the proprieties."  Autumn nodded agreement.  Sean grinned at her.

"Yeah, Jase is a stickler for those.  He'd pout."  he answered with a wink.  Autumn snorted soft laughter, blue eyes dancing at the incongruous mental image of Jason sulking, freckled nose wrinkling good-humouredly.

"Oh my god.  What would him pouting even look like?"

"I dunno.  But I don't want to find out."  Sean's eyes widened in mock-alarm, then he relaxed and laughed along with her.  "I've got a couple minutes - if you're cool to wait I can call him now?"

"Sure.  That'd be awesome."  Autumn nodded, settling back in her comfortable lean against the locker as Sean took a step or two away, then dialed Jase's home phone.  It rang four times... five times... six-

"Hello."  No lilt of question at the end of the word - the verbal equivalent of a blank facial expression.  Vintage Jason.

"Jase.  Hi."  He gave Autumn a thumbs-up, to which she smiled.

"Sean."  The tone warmed, a barely perceptible change in tenor and temperature.  "Everything alright?"

"Uh, yeah.  Everything's fine.  Listen, Autumn asked me for your number - is that cool?"

"Of course."  Jason replied without hesitation.  "Makes sense for her to have it - I should have thought of that myself."

"Well, if you got a smartphone like the rest of the human race, it'd make things a lot easier."  Sean teased.

"It certainly would."  There was an odd quality to Jase's reply, but before Sean could put his finger on what, exactly, he asked "Anything else?"

"Uh, no."  Sean was still trying to work out what that discordant note in the flow of the conversation meant, but he was pretty sure asking wouldn't get him anywhere, at least not over the phone.  "I'll give Autumn your digits.  Are you okay otherwise?  How's your dad?"

"He's good, I think.  Gone to Great Falls to see about farming supplies."

"Oh cool." Sean nodded.  "Alright, I've gotta jet to class.  You back tomorrow?"

"Yes."  There was a pause, then a wryly humorous "I'm certain I'll have plenty of catching up to do in class."

"Shyeah."  Sean snarked.  "You'll have to stay behind a week to catch up.  Later, Jase."

"Bye."

"And that is how we do."  Sean turned to Autumn, fingers tapping as he sent Jason's number from his phone to hers.  "He doesn't have an answering machine or anything, so it'll ring till someone picks up or whoever's calling gets sick of it."  he advised, knowledgeable of some of the various peculiarities of the Bannon household.  "There's an extension in the barn though, so if he's there he'll still get it."

"Cool, thanks."  she nodded, storing the number in her own contacts with a few practiced thumb flicks.

"No problem."  he said breezily, giving her a jaunty salute as they went their separate ways.

= = = = = = = = = = =

Autumn sighed as she flopped onto the couch and dropped her book bag to the side, letting Dakota rest her chin on her denim-clad knees as Lexi clambered up with her paws on Autumn's shoulder, demanding attention and ear-scritches.  A master of juggling the dogs and her phone, she checked the time and noted a message from Cassie, asking everyone to meet up tomorrow at lunch to 'talk about stuff she'd found out'.  And to think, today had been almost able to pass for normal in a dim light - no-one talking about conspiracies, or Shine, or monsters.  It was actually kind of restful.  She had an hour or so before Warden Crocker was due to come round - time enough to scrounge up something to eat, relax, and...  She flicked open the contacts on her phone and stared at the entry labelled 'Jason', teeth worrying at her lower lip as her left hand pulled on the drawstring cord of her hoodie.  Call him now?  Call him later?  Put it off till tomorrow and ask him in person?  None of the above seemed comfortable choices.

Relax.  He's your friend.  You gave him your number in the middle of a room full of people.  You cycled up to his house and somehow came away unscathed and with his friendship - plus your hoodie.  But he was also a reminder of 'the Weird', perhaps more so than the other members of the Fellowship.  Today had had a scant supply of 'Weird', and she had enjoyed it.  In her minds-eye, within Jason's cold jade eyes flickered images of monsters, and figures on fire yet unburned, and shadowy conspiracies and evil experiments.  The Weird had entered her life when he'd stepped into the girls bathrooms without any fucks given, checked her for a concussion, then calmly and with wry amusement shattered reality and the laws of physics as she understood them.

"Ugh!"  It was not fair to blame him, or make him the... Harbinger of the Weird, or whatever the term was.  Still, she hesitated as she stared at the sequence of numbers on the phone screen, absently ruffling Dakota's ears as she mulled over her course of action.

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"What do you think, hmm?" Autumn asked, peering down into the luminous amber eyes of the shepherd who, likewise, peered back up at her with a soulful expression that- while completely insta-worthy- did nothing to answer the question. "Thanks," the redhead grinned ruefully, her fingers playfully tousling the thick sable fur around Dakota's neck as she turned to the confidant at her shoulder. "What about- gah!" she spluttered, laughing and shoving Lexi's big square head away and swiping at her now decidedly more slobbery cheek with the back of her sleeve. "Yes, very helpful, thanks. I love you too, Lex, but I'm trying to think." Shaking her head, still smiling as she pulled the sweet-natured Pit bodily down beside her on the couch, Autumn considered the dimmed screen and tapped it again to bring it back to life.

Jason Bannon, the contact information stated clearly, properly; the generic photo, however, had been replaced by the cropped image of a certain fire-breathing wyrm. This shouldn’t be difficult. Sure, texts would be easier, but it was just a phone call. They were friends- they'd been through a secret prison together. Hell, they'd smoked out together. She'd already asked him, anyway, right? This was just, like... a follow-up. Yeah. Exhaling, the red-haired young woman nodded sharply and shifted a little on the couch, nudging her shoes and socks off with her toes as the dogs rearranged themselves fitfully around her. She tapped the little green icon, brought the phone up to her ear, and waited.

The phone rang several times, Autumn remembering Sean's advice and waiting patiently as the number of rings reached five... then seven... then nine... and then the phone was picked up. "Hello." said an unmistakable voice - or rather, an unmistakable timbre and inflection. No upward lilt of curiosity at the end of the greeting - it gave the impression he was looking across the room at someone who'd just walked in rather than trying to include a question within the one-word salutation.

Autumn was struck suddenly by the total consistency in Jase's manner- even his phone greeting was perfectly neutral and composed- and wondered briefly what else she would have expected from him. "Um, hey, Jase. It's Autumn. Do you have a minute?"

"Autumn." Goddamn if she couldn't hear a faint warming in his tone as he spoke her name, as though his lips were curved upwards slightly and the skin at the corners of his eyes had almost imperceptibly crinkled. "I was just showering. One moment - I don't want to drip all over the floor." The handset was not set down, but Autumn could hear rustling noises of cloth on skin before Jason's voice once more came back. "What can I help you with?"

She'd heard a record scratch before, although not a real one- you had to do that on purpose and vinyl was a collector's thing that could get super expensive- but the synthesized version they used in comedies. That was sort of the sound her brain made, as if all rational thought had come screeching abruptly to a halt, and all the heat in the room had suddenly whooshed up into her face at the mere suggestion that he had just stepped out of the shower... that she was talking to a guy- to Jason Fucking Bannon- in a towel. Maybe a towel. Oh, god.  It occurred to her, in a distant, fuzzy sort of way, that he'd taken a shower when she'd ridden up to the farm on Monday, and that she knew what his hair looked like still tousled and damp. The remembrance did not help, but stuck there in her mind’s eye. As Dakota nosed at her arm, the redhead blinked, inhaling convulsively as greedy lungs demanded air. "Yeah, hi," she replied, a little hoarsely, as she wondered where her courage had fled. "So, uh. Listen. Just a couple things. I wanted to say thanks for going along with the change in plan yesterday. With the cats, I mean."

"You're welcome." For a moment, she thought that was all he had to say on the matter, but then: "It was aesthetically correct, what you wanted to do. Those creatures did not deserve that treatment. It was offensive."

Aesthetically correct. Huh. She considered that for a moment, poking at the thought like a tongue at a loose tooth, and nodded, as if the listener on the other end of the signal could see it. "It was… offensive, yeah. So, new question, then." Drawing her legs up onto the couch, Autumn absently renegotiated positions with the dogs, running her hand briskly over Lexi's warm, velvety side as she settled down again with a soft huff, her chin on the young woman's hip. "If you thought so, why didn't you say so?"

There was a pause. And the odd thing about the pause was this: it didn't feel like he was there for that moment. There was no soft exhalation of breath, no sound of fidgeting. It was as if he went completely still - not just 'still' but Still - so motionless he faded from the world. She fought the urge to ask if he was still there. And then he spoke again. "Because I was attempting to see if there were actually any purpose to the cruelty I was witnessing. I was trying to understand what I was perceiving. I would have reached the conclusion that it was pointless and careless cruelty in a few more moments. I..." he hesitated. Actual hesitation, as though he was reluctant to admit something. "I have no instinctive aversion to the suffering of creatures outside the circle I choose to care about. It does not repel me like it does the rest of you. It doesn't excite me either, mind - it just does not touch me. But when you spoke up, it became a moot point whether there was any purpose to their torture - I set that aside and helped my friend do what she wanted to do."

"No instinctive aversion," Autumn repeated slowly, weighing the words as she spoke them. She couldn't imagine that- not feeling that desire to help someone who was hurting, the same pull that had inspired her to hug Devin despite their differences. It was hard to wrap her head around, that oddly clinical way he had of looking at the world, but... "That... makes sense, I think? I mean, if you have to process everything in a cognitive way, like you said, it would be weird if just a couple of things were different. I can't really empathize with you there, but... I guess that's probably the same for you, huh?" She smiled a little, in spite of the subject. "And there was a... a purpose, yeah," the redhead continued, the brush of pale fingers over the dog's paler fur growing gentler as she remembered what she'd sensed in those cells. "Just... not a good one. It was, um." Now it was her turn to hesitate, unsure how to put into words the horrific extent of the scientists' explorations. "It was worse than it looked from the outside," she finally managed, and left it at that. There was no point going into the details, not when they'd already gotten both the feline prisoners out of that awful place- although, privately, she hoped the ones who'd done it had been in Etienne's room. Fucking sadists."So, anyway. Regardless of why you did it, you helped, even though it could've caused problems, and I appreciate it."

"You're welcome." he repeated simply.

Tipping her head back against the cushions at the characteristically laconic reply, she stared up at the rafters high above, the vaulted ceiling soaring up to the second floor. Right. This is Jason Bannon. If he had regular conversations with people, it would probably be a sign of the end times. It occurred to Autumn that she hadn't heard him moving around since he'd mentioned getting out of the shower, and she had to stifle a laugh at the weirdly incongruous image of stoic, composed Jase standing statue-like in a towel, talking on the phone as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do. "There was something else I wanted to ask you, though." Taking a deep breath, she focused on just shaping the words. Boring words. Plain words. Not at all difficult or complicated words. Just words. Just a question. "I was wondering... are you doing anything Friday night?"

There was another of those pauses, this one lasting maybe a little longer than a couple heartbeats, and the be-freckled redhead wished at that moment for two contrasting things. Firstly, that she could see Jason's face, his eyes, try to gain a measure of his expression and compare it to the notes she'd taken on Bannon Facial Expressions for Dummies - a Work In Progress. The second thing she wished for was for, oh, a flaming meteor to hit her, for example. Just a sudden, painless and above all non-embarrassing death. Was that too much to ask? "I have nothing planned." Jason replied, and there was now a note of intrigue in his voice. Possibly. Probably. He sounded intrigued. "Why?"

"I mean," she added quickly, "more like Friday afternoon. But also Friday night! And-" At that point, it was wholly unnecessary that the meteor should already have to be flaming when it struck, because it would probably be set ablaze the moment it touched her. Grimacing, she forged ahead. "And Saturday. Or part of it. ...I am totally fucking this up," she muttered under her breath with a quiet groan, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment. "What I mean is, do you want to spend the night?" No! No, that is not at all what you mean, Autumn! "Camping! Do you want to go camping Friday night?" She was going to die. Or, no, she wasn't going to die, or at least not quickly and right now, and that was the problem. Fuck. Dakota’s ears twitched at the note of tension winding through her voice, and the big shepherd made an unhappy not-quite-growl in the back of his throat as he pressed closer to her side.

"Camping?" Jason's voice was calm, but a suspicious part of the mortified girl's mind readily imagined that glint of wry, reptilian amusement he sometimes - okay, often wore when she was blushing. Not touched by the suffering of others, my ass. she grumped silently. "That sounds like it could be fun. Where did you have in mind?"

"The place I mentioned on Monday." There was a note of caution in her tone, as if she were waiting for the sound of the smirk in his voice to pour gasoline on the flames currently scorching her face. "It's on my family's property, a few miles up from my house."

"Any particular special equipment I need to bring to camp there?" he asked, apparently all business, his mind focusing on the proposal at hand rather than bedevilling her. Thank any gods that might be paying attention for that small mercy.

"Hmm. Well," she considered what the actual necessities might be, and realized she didn't really know what Jase actually did most of the time, apart from tending the miniature Eden he was cultivating in the barn. He'd suggested at the farm that it would be easier to get to know each other by 'sharing activities,' but that also made it hard to guess what kinds of activities her new (and extraordinarily challenging) friend might enjoy. "Special equipment? No, not really. We've-" Autumn caught herself, exhaling quietly for a few beats. "I've been camping there my whole life, so even if I need to do some cleanup, the site's pretty well-established. There's no plumbing or electricity, though, so if there's anything in particular you want to do, it probably shouldn't rely on either of those things. Books, or cards, or something. Basically just... a tent, sleeping bag or blanket, any snacks or drinks or whatever that you want, clothes…” She thought about that last for a moment- normally this was where she’d recommend bringing something durable and easy to clean, sturdy shoes or boots- but Jase’s typical attire already met the criteria. “For you, probably just what you normally wear. Soap and stuff. Um. Towel. Something to swim in, maybe? There's a creek alongside it," she explained. "Normal camping stuff," she finished off-handedly, shrugging as she leaned over onto the drowsing pair of warm-furred bodies next to her. "I mean, you'd be my guest, so I can take care of most of the rest like meals and basic things, or whatever you don't have."

"I've got some camping gear." Jase confirmed. "I should turn up - when? Just after lunch, Friday?"

"Is that a yes?" the red-haired girl countered curiously, the reassuring press of the two lazing dogs helping restore some semblance of her emotional equilibrium.

"Yes." Amazing, that a boy who redefined the term 'inscrutable' could pack so much dry humor into a single three letter word.

In spite of herself, Autumn grinned up at the ceiling- a poor substitute for the friend on the other end of the line, to be sure, but there was a certain degree of safety in a phone conversation, too... mostly, that there were no pale green laser beam eyes laughing at her. "Then, also yes," she replied.

"Excellent. I'll call to let you know I'm on my way, on the day." He paused then, a brief but noticeable one, then asked, as though remembering to do so. "How are you? School okay today?"

"Oh." There was likewise a pause on Autumn's end of the line, in which she blinked up at the rafters overhead, clear blue eyes wide. She hadn't expected him to actually ask any questions. If anything, she was kind of impressed he'd stayed on the phone this long- it wasn't the kind of thing she'd imagined him doing, but... actually being around him recently, and spending most of Monday afternoon at his house, was giving her reasons to reconsider some of what she'd thought she knew about the Impenetrable One. Should she just say 'yeah,' and leave it at that? ...No, Jase didn't ask questions to be polite. "It was interesting. Got called to the guidance counselor's office, and now I'm waiting on Warden Crocker to come by, for some reason. What about you? Enjoy your day off?"

There was a moment's silence, as he actually considered her question and his answer with due gravity. When he spoke there was a subtle guardedness to his voice. "My mother visited me. We spoke. I think I understand her better." He paused, then, "And I spent the afternoon working to get the farm straightened up." he concluded in a more normal tone - well, normal for Jason.

The dogs protested, grumbling aloud as Autumn sat suddenly upright, but she reached back and patted them absently, focused on what he'd just said. His mother? They'd just talked about her two days before, and that was a whole thing, and he had definitely not been okay at the time. "Okay, well... That, um. Sounds like a good thing. Or at least, a better thing, I hope," she added tentatively, the concern in the redhead's amber-speckled features bleeding through into her voice.

"It is complicated." Jason admitted. "I am still processing the encounter. I haven't been able to tell anyone about it yet."

Autumn wasn't sure how to respond to that. She couldn't imagine anything so complex or intellectually demanding that even Jase would have trouble processing it. He was the smartest person she knew- maybe the smartest person she would ever know, she realized. Smart enough that she probably really had only the vaguest idea how intelligent he actually was. "Mmm." She hummed softly in response, the sort of subvocalization common in Autumn-speak that he recognized as an indication of commiseration or agreement of some kind. "If you're working on it, I know you'll figure it out. And when you do, you know... If you wanna tell somebody... You have friends," she finished quietly.

"And I value them." came the sober reply with a pensive note to it, as though he were thinking about the words and the concept they contained as they were uttered. A pause, then "My father just got back. I should probably go." Another pause. "Thank you. For calling. For your friendship."

"Oh, yeah. You, too.” That was a little disorienting, being thanked for being his friend- enough so that she completely lost the natural flow of the conversation. “...So, I guess I'll see you Friday? Or at school, 'cause... yeah. Classes."

"Of course." Jason replied. "See you at breakfast tomorrow, Autumn."

"See you tomorrow, Jase."

As the call ended, timer flashing on screen, Autumn pressed the edge of her phone case to the underside of her lower lip, thinking. That had been, honestly, shockingly easy. ...Way more so than she’d expected, even if a little glimmer of worry flickered at the back of her mind about the fact that his mom had paid him a visit. If he was still processing whatever they’d talked about, there was a basically no chance it was something trivial. But… Nothing she could do about that. Better to focus on what she could do, and that was make plans for Friday.

She was technically grounded, yeah, but being at the campsite was basically the same thing as being at home, right? And she wasn’t in trouble at school, or anything. Maybe she’d just bring it up casually that night, over dinner or something. Mom won’t care. Probably, she decided. Anyway, Jase had already agreed, so she’d have to figure out a way to make it happen, wouldn’t she? Glancing back down at her phone to check the time again, the energetic redhead sighed and rolled up to her feet and off the couch, accompanied by the sounds of canine huffing and whining as the freckled heater next to them suddenly disappeared.

Padding barefoot into the next room, she tapped at her screen a couple of times, setting the phone down on the counter as Spotify’s algorithms busied themselves sorting through her preferences. She hadn’t really eaten lunch, instead heading down to walk a few laps around the track- even if there was no way to eliminate all the Weird that had suddenly intruded on her life, the simple pleasure to be found in the mechanics of motion usually worked to settle unsettled thoughts. Now, of course, she wished she’d at least grabbed an apple or something before she’d gone back to class. The fridge mostly held disappointment in the form of her mom’s nutritionally-optimized lunch containers, pre-packed for efficiency in an unpredictable workplace. Ugh. Hard pass. Autumn’s nose crinkled as she surveyed her options: there was a bowl of leftover potato soup she could throw in the microwave...

Eh. It would do.

Bumping the refrigerator door shut with her elbow, Autumn hummed quietly along with the music filling the sunlit kitchen, half-consciously matching her movements to the deliberate, percussive rhythm. She didn’t immediately recognize the song, but it did sound like some of the other stuff she’d liked, and her toes tapped on the cool tile as she peered out the window and waited for the soup to reheat. Whatever Nathan Crocker wanted to talk about, the idly swaying redhead had a sense that it was best addressed on a full stomach.

Edited by Autumn Keane
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Nathan Crocker was a solid, dependable example of Montana manhood.  A Warden Captain in the Fish, Wildlife and Parks department, colloquially known as 'fish and game cops', he carried a badge and a gun like Sheriff Allister, albeit with a larger and, in many ways, more dangerous jurisdiction.  Rather than traffic citations and domestic disturbances, the FWP dealt with illegal hunting, fishing and various non-compliance with laws governing wilderness recreation.  Given that, in Montana, there was a large sub-section of independent-minded wilderness types, many ex-military, who saw it as their God-given right to live off the land however they pleased, being a Warden was not always a safe or pleasant job.  It was not unheard of for them to be killed by poachers or angry mountain men who resented the 'Gub'mint telling them how to live', and out there in the 1,800 square miles of wilderness it was not always guaranteed that a body would be found, let alone its murderer.  Being a warden required steady nerve, a certain level of diplomatic prowess, and not a small amount of personal courage.

He smiled at Autumn as she opened the door, removing his hat and wiping his feet as she smiled back and waved him in.  No matter how tense things got between her and Jacob, Nathan was practically family, raised by her grandfather as a son.  "How're you doing, Autumn?" he asked as he followed her into the kitchen, nodding slightly to the photo of her grandpa in the hall as he passed it, just like he always did.  "Your mom told me you had a day yesterday."

"I'm grounded, which sort of sucks."  The feisty red-haired girl replied over her shoulder, smiling a little sheepishly.  When he wasn't acting in an official capacity, Nathan was more of a friend than an authority figure.

"Well, guess your mom didn't like you fighting."  he grinned back, reassuring her he wasn't personally bothered.  "She'll calm down, though.  You just gave her a fright is all.  Tell the truth, I think she was more spooked by the bruhaha at the hospital than you stepping in to help a friend.  Wants to keep her baby close for a bit."  He winked, and Autumn laughed at the thought of her mom acting like a mama cat keeping a kitten from straying.

"You want a drink of anything?"  she offered, tapping the coffee maker.

"Sure.  Water's fine."  He set his hat on the table and sat down as Autumn fetched a glass.  "So... Guess you're wonderin' what I'm here for."

"Did cross my mind, yeah."  Autumn replied, curiousity in her blue eyes as she brought back the water and set it down before pulling out a chair for herself.  Dakota came in and greeted Nathan with his usual 'nose under the hand' prompt for attention, causing him to smile and scritch his ears before turning serious again, glancing at Autumn.

"Well, there's no easy trail to take." he sighed.  "So I might as well start straight with it.  I'm here on behalf of your grandpa.  Normally, he'd be having this conversation with you - same as he did with me, and your great-grandpa did with him.  He tried to have it with your mom, when she was younger.  But she... well, Dana went and got a big city education, and wasn't in a state to listen.  And your daddy... Well, he's a fine man, but he's not rooted here like the Kavanaghs and Crockers are.  This soil isn't where he grew - but you did."  He sipped the water and sighed again.  "So it's down to me to have the - well, guess you'd call it the traditional talk.  Only there's no birds or bees involved.  It's a Kavanagh/Crocker traditional talk."

"Right."  Autumn frowned a little, curiousity warring with the sense of standing on a precipice above a dark ravine.

"Right." he echoed.  "So, it starts a little something like this:  Autumn, on your oath, have you seen or experienced anything strange in Shelly lately?  Not gonna specify, because if you have, girl, you know exactly what I mean."

Edited by GDP_ST
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Despite the typical rose-bloom flush of her cheeks, Autumn blanched at the question, the ivory skin beneath her freckles growing slightly paler as her eyes widened. She trusted Nathan, implicitly, but this was not at all what she'd expected, and that evident surprise- born of recognition rather than confusion- confirmed the answer for him before she'd even opened her mouth. Her brain couldn't process information with the alacrity of Sean's, but the sheer volume of thoughts racing through her mind suggested, for just a moment, a pretty passable imitation. Wait, what? Aren't adults supposed to just sort of... ignore the Dark? How does he know? Or, maybe he doesn't, and he was just asking because, y'know, Warden, and there has been some weirdness... no, Weirdness, lately. Especially with the disappearances, plus there was the whole story about some kind of leak at the hospital, and he's probably heard a lot of rumors, too. Hazard of the job, I guess. But if that's true, and he's just seeing if I know anything... what does this have to do with family? What kind of "traditional talk" was this? She wished, fervently, she'd gotten a drink for herself; it would've given her something to do, a couple of extra seconds to avoid answering what was superficially a very simple, direct question. Her fingers interlaced restlessly, weaving and unweaving in unconscious patterns where her hands lay in her lap.

Nathan Crocker waited.

After several moments of watching the turbulent play of emotions across Autumn's features, he'd almost been prepared to accept that as a 'yes' and move on- but then she nodded, slowly and deliberately, trepidation graven into tiny lines of worry between her brows. "Mhmm," she managed, and then,  as if correcting herself to observe some unspoken protocol, "Yes, sir." The warden sighed- whether out of relief or resignation she couldn't tell- and leaned back in the chair, regarding her soberly from across the table.

"All right." There was a pause, then, an uncomfortable silence between the two, as dark and vast in the unsettled teen's mind as the unknowable gulf that yawned before her. There was the feeling of a threshold just beneath her feet, waiting to be crossed- but, no, she'd done that already, hadn't she? When she'd walked out of the girls' bathroom with Jase and Clara on Friday, then gotten into the Goddamn Bannon's car and ridden out to the trailer, and- "What was it?"

She blinked. "What was-"

"Yes," was all he said, and for all that he was still the man she'd known her whole life, who'd taught her how to nock an arrow and climb a tree alongside his own son, there was something in his expression Autumn didn't recognize at all.

Exhaling, the animated young woman propped her elbows on the table, her hands sliding up to cover her face. He knew something, obviously, but how much? There was no way to find out for sure, unless she answered the question. ...Even then, a tiny part of her wondered, what if we're not on the same side? Her knees bounced under the table, a physical manifestation of the jostling, tumbling conflict of her thoughts; Nathan was family. Had always been family. He'd invoked that connection already, citing tradition and a responsibility that supposedly would've been her grandfather's, were he here to undertake it. Was that enough, though? The others in the Fellowship were bound together by, if not affection or even respect in some cases, at least a common goal, and a common understanding: if one of them was fucked, they all were. She drew in another shaky breath, and folded her hands on the wooden tabletop, straightening in her chair.

She'd braved the mantis's lair and the dragon's den and emerged unscathed, and now she was in her own home. This, by comparison, was nothing.

"Nightmares," Autumn replied as evenly as she could, meeting the older man's gaze. "Nightmares, and the place they came from."

 

 

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Sitting there, in the kitchen of her family home, Autumn quietly and with very little ceremony recounted the events of the previous Friday and what she'd learned.  She cut around a lot - the Project, Crossroads, strange government organisations and the like.  She also cut around the names of the Fellowship, openly declaring that no, she hadn't been alone in what she'd experienced, and no, the names of the others was not her secret to share.  Nathan seemed to accept that, his tanned and weathered face grave as he listened to what she did choose to share.

The woods.  The burned and twisted reflection of the woods, with the air filled by the sickly sweet scent of burned flesh.  The giant abhorrent creature that came after them in the Land of Upside-Down Thunder...

"Where did you hear that name?" he asked intently, his eyes widening in surprise.

"One of the others."  she had replied, a pair of green eyes coming to mind, fixed on the road ahead of the Charger as he drove and told her of the research he'd done.  "They found some stuff out."

"I'm not asking for names, Autumn.  But... any of these others youngsters like you?  And are any of them from the Rez? And do any of you have strange... knacks or a way of doing things that isn't readily explainable?"

She hesitated, briefly considering whether it might be revealing too much... But Nathan was well-connected and well-liked, and chances were good if he really wanted to know, he could dig up some of the details she was omitting on his own. "They are, yeah. We're all close to the same age, I think. But none of them are from the Rez, no." Frowning a little, she chewed thoughtfully at the inside of her lower lip; that wasn't the first time someone had mentioned the place with regard to all the sweeping strangeness rolling through Shelly. "And, as far as the last part..." Autumn ran her fingers back through the thick tumble of copper curls that glinted in the sunlight pouring through the windows, and prayed she wasn't making a mistake. "Yeah. Yeah, we do."

He nodded.  Though there was an intrigued air about him it was tempered with patience - he wasn't here to satisfy his own curiousity so much as he was to fulfill a solemn duty.  "Okay.  Go on with the story, girl." he said reassuringly.

So she did.  The Dark, the monstrous shapeless force that seemed able to push residents of Shelly to horrible actions.  How it seemed tied to the 'Shine' the teens had, and hungered for it.  And as she went on, carefully excising those details she didn't want to share, she realised he wasn't scoffing, or looking shocked.  He was quietly amazed, but it was the wonder of a man who had heard of the Grand Canyon and finally got to see it, rather than the confusion of one with no frame of understanding.  As she finished, she sat back in her chain idly and absently tugging on the left cord of her hoodie's drawstring, blue eyes grave on Nathan Crocker's face.

"You know something."  she stated rather than asked.

"I do." he nodded.  "I'd heard of some of this stuff.  But never spoken with anyone who's seen what you have."  He sipped his water and leaned forwards.  "The Crockers and Kavanaghs have been aware of this Darkness since way back.  We've always been sort of guardians here - sheriffs, wardens, and so on.  Your great-great-great grandpappy was the one who first noticed the pattern round the turn of the last century.  He'd been the sheriff, then retired, and it'd always bugged him how there'd been a rash of lynching and murders during his time wearing the badge that he'd never been able to properly feel comfortable about closing.  The motives were all wrong and made no sense.  Anyway, he noticed it start up again in 1911 and come to a head, then as people picked up the bodies the madness faded away again.  He was a retired man with a lot of time on his hands, so he started digging."  Nathan Crocker looked at Autumn evenly.  "Like your friend did, I guess.  Seems he found out the same thing.  Every twenty seven years..."

"The Dark comes."  Autumn murmured through dry lips, nodding.  They had known.  Her family knew about this.

"The land here is special.  We don't know why: the Blackfeet say it's because gods walked on it long ago."  Crocker shrugged.  "People sometimes get strange ways about them, like being able to sense when something's amiss or knowing who's at the door when there's a knock.  The Blackfeet call it 'Dawning Light', they told your ancestor.  And because he was a savvy man, and because he was respectful and listened, they said that the Kavanaghs and, later, the Crockers, were to take their kids when they were at a certain age out to the Rez to meet with the Elders.  Sort of an informal meet and greet, on the surface, but the Elders always had one in their number who could see the Light in a person.  And they would do a ceremony, to stop the Dark coming for the Light and taking it."  Nathan laced his fingers together, and looked down at them.  "Now I don't rightly know about magic, but I know that no Crocker or Kavanagh has ever fallen victim to the Dark since this tradition started.  None of us have been pushed, like you described, and none of us have been murdered by someone who has - at least so far as we can tell."  He knocked on the table to ward off bad luck.  "Knock on wood."

He looked at his watch, appearing to calculate something, then back at Autumn.  "Your grandfather's house.  In the basement is his study - your mom has the keys somewhere to the place.  You'll find his journals in there, and his fathers, and copies of Crocker journals too.  I don't know how much help they'll be, but one thing I do know..."  He shifted in his seat.  "I've never read or heard of anyone actually going over to the Upside-Down-Thunder - leastways then coming  back to say so.  Never heard of monsters, except in some tales told by the indians to your folks.  Things seem different now, and I don't know why.  Wildlife is acting odd, like they can sense a forest fire or a storm coming.  You need to get out to the Rez, Autumn.  You and your friends, perhaps.  I don't know.  I think the Elders there can help you."

"Does Jacob know about this?"  Autumn asked, her eyes intent on the Warden's face.  Nathan smiled wanly.

"He knows a bit.  I took him out there last year - he doesn't have the Light, they say.  But he's not a dumb boy, even if he did let you get away."  Nathan grinned slightly as Autumn rolled her eyes.  "He might know more than he lets on.  I wouldn't discount it."  He glanced at his watch again.  "Your mom will be home soon.  I should get going.  If she hears I've been touting your grandpa's crazy stories she'll give me a peeling with her tongue."

"Wait." Autumn protested as he started to rise.  He shook his head and picked up his hat.

"You want answers, girl, they're in the study at your grandparent's place.  And on the Rez.  I don't know any more myself."  He hesitated.  "If you want, I can tell the Elders you might be coming.  Save some time."

Autumn, lips pressed together in frustration, just nodded.  "Sure."  she muttered.  This was great. Just great.  'Uncle' Nathan shows up, drops a bomb, and then bails...  But then, what did she expect?  He wasn't like her, or Devin, or Charlie, or Jase, or any of the teens.  The Fellowship spooked and impressed black ops units and secret societies.

"Listen, Autumn.  If you need help, you know you can call on me."  Nathan told her soberly.  "Jacob too.  Because we're close as family, and you're the Kavanagh in the hot seat right now.  So we'll support you.  But..."

"Journals, study, Reservation."  Autumn nodded, her flaming red curls danging a lock over her face which she tugged aside.  Ugh.  Why couldn't her teenage life be a little - okay, a LOT less Weird!?

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By the time Dana got off work, Autumn had both of the big garage doors open, letting the last of the afternoon sun flood inside in a hazy wash of gold. She’d changed into old clothes meant for getting dirty: shorts that used to be her favorite jeans, a snug green t-shirt that read “Courage - Character - Confidence,” and an ancient Yankees cap left over from the days when her dad used to wear such things once in a while. George Harrison’s bright tenor serenaded her from a little Bluetooth speaker on a nearby milk crate, hailing the return of spring- an irony not entirely lost on the teenager humming along as she labored in the waning summer warmth.

There was a lot to think about- some of it mundane, some less so- and thinking always worked better when doing. The talk with Ms. Kyleson had been… not bad, exactly, but uncomfortable; it was the second time in almost as many days the subject of her grandfather had come up after months of not talking about him at all. It wasn’t quite the same as poking at a raw wound, but more like inadvertently bumping a half-healed one- the pain wasn’t at the forefront of her mind anymore, but sometimes that just made the shock worse when it caught her by surprise, as it had at the Bannon farm. Glimmering motes of dust swirled through the air as the industrious redhead carried a box of miscellaneous soccer equipment out of the garage and set it aside before heading back in.

She’d also survived the experience of calling the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities- which had, weirdly, been more nerve-wracking in the planning than the execution. He’d been polite, even friendly on the phone, and a tiny part of her felt guilty for expecting something else, something more frosty and… psychopath-y. That wasn’t a word, was it? Probably not, she decided, lips pursed as she tossed a cracked canoe oar onto the growing discard pile. Either way, she’d actually invited him to go camping, and he’d actually agreed to do it.

Overnight.

Alone.

...Fuck.

She was genuinely excited to go: it was a good chance to get to know her new friend better, maybe enjoy a little peace and quiet after a week of craziness, repay the kindness- or at least consideration- he’d shown. ...Or a good chance for him to say something sly, silently laughing at her with eyes too ancient to belong to a sixteen-year-old, while she spontaneously combusted from embarrassment. Sighing as she put premonitions of impending doom out of her mind, Autumn rifled through a dusty cardboard box- a hopeless tangle of electrical cords and cables- and shook her head. Why did people even keep this stuff, anyway? There was no way to tell where it had come from, or where it belonged, so she just heaved it alongside the other junk and kept going. Wiping her forehead with the back of her arm, she surveyed the work that still needed to be done in the garage, and considered what remained to be done elsewhere. She still had to figure out a way to get around the whole grounding situation or the camping trip was a no-go, and work out how she was going to get into the basement up at the other house. Nathan’s visit had, to use one of the warden’s words, “spooked” her, raising more questions than it had supplied answers. It just didn’t make sense that their families were involved, somehow, that their ancestors- no, her grandfather- had known about the Dark, about Shelly.

More precisely, that he’d known, and not told her.

Maybe Owen Kavanagh had never been the talkative type, but she’d never doubted what he did say for a second. He’d shown her the whole world- well, the whole world within a hundred miles or so of Shelly, which, for a kid, was pretty close to the same thing- and taught her how to move through it. Until today, she’d never imagined there were things he wasn’t telling her. Not anything that mattered, anyway. Now, alongside that dull ache of grief was a tiny splinter of doubt, pricking at both her conscience and her memory.

It stung- something else she hadn’t expected from today.

With a quiet grunt of effort as she hauled a dingy storage container off the bottom of a shelving unit, the red-haired teen peered cautiously inside- mouldering fabric, patterned with orange foxes amid pink flowers and triangular green trees. It looked like the same kind of thing she’d seen in baby pictures, like the curtains and bedding from her nursery. With a shrug, she dropped it unceremoniously alongside the rest that could be trashed; it smelled musty, and they weren’t doing anything with it anyway. A glint of light caught her eye and she turned, squinting at the glare on a windshield farther up the road. A few moments later, Dr. Dana Keane’s dusty Trailhawk rolled into the driveway, and as the woman herself got out she was immediately mobbed by four excited dogs leaping up from the sunny lawn and clamoring for attention.

“Hey,” Autumn called over the sound of happy barks and her mother’s bemused protests. “Coffee’s on already, if you want some.” They all need baths, the younger girl thought, glancing briefly in that direction. Fortunately, that was something she could take care of when she finished with this side of the garage; she’d need one herself. Dana nodded, half-kneeling next to the Jeep and watching her daughter work for a moment as practiced fingers ruffled fur and scratched behind ears.

“Sounds good,” the pretty vet replied, glancing past her dusty, grease-smudged child to the garage beyond. “Making any headway?”

“Some, yeah. I should be able to finish up tomorrow.” As Autumn gestured vaguely at the two distinct piles, a thought occurred to her, and even as she felt a twinge of guilt for telling her mother what was indeed the truth (but not the whole truth), the determined young woman forged ahead. “Part of this belongs up at the other house, but there’s probably more that needs to go, so I’ll wait to take it up there. Maybe after school? It’ll give me a chance to grab some stuff from the shop, too, so maybe I can get the other wall up on the tree house, and shutters or something over the window openings before the weather starts turning bad.” And to take a quick peek in the basement.

Dana considered that for a moment, hazel eyes narrowing slightly as she glanced in the direction of the half-finished structure. Maybe it would do Autumn some good. It would certainly keep her busy, and, more importantly, keep her close. Was that wrong? she wondered, straightening and brushing grass and dog hair from her clothes. She’d gotten used to her daughter’s independent streak early on, and when other kids had barely managed a bicycle without training wheels, Autumn had been allowed to ride down to Bunnee’s or the movie theater on her own. Sure, she’d had her fair share of scrapes and bruises and close calls, but that was normal for an active child. ...A really active child, the slender veterinarian amended, smiling a little at the memory. “Responsible risk-taking,” the pediatrician had called it, encouraging both parents to let her decide for herself if she felt safe trying something. “Being a kid,” Dad had retorted when she’d told him. And, sure, maybe things had changed a little since he was a boy, or even since she herself had been the one running around the yard- people were a lot more safety-conscious now. She guessed that was still basically true, though.

What had happened with the hospital, though, that was different. Chaos. It could’ve been a catastrophe, and there was nothing Dana could do to protect her child from that, no way to shield her or help her make good choices when it came to the fact that sometimes bad things just happened. ...And sometimes they happened to people you loved. That her daughter could be one of those people- No. She wasn’t ready for that harsh reality yet, even if Autumn was. Or thought she was.

“Mom?” The younger redhead was looking at her expectantly, eyebrows raised and head tilted slightly. “Is that okay with you?” she repeated.

“Yeah," she replied absently, then blinked, focusing on the present again, and smiled. "That sounds fine. I’m going to go wash up and have some of that coffee.” Turning, Dana started up the path to the porch, then paused. “Don’t be out here too much longer, all right? It’ll be dark soon.”

“I won’t, mom.” In spite of the lingering warmth in the air, Autumn barely suppressed a shiver at the new connotation of the once-innocent word. “I know.”

Edited by Autumn Keane

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Intermission wrapped.  +3 XP (Good writing, good characterisation and collaboration.  Entertaining read, too.)

 

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