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Bitter Roots [Ep. V Side Fiction]

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Not only is there an art in knowing a thing, but also a certain art to teaching it.
- Marcus Tullius Cicero

Knowledge has bitter roots, but the fruit is sweet.
- Aristotle

Wednesday 28th August, after school

Laurie was not in the best of spirits as she made her way along the dirt track that was the driveway leading up to the Bannon house.  Why is the sun shining?  Why is it a nice day?  It should be... stormy, with flashes of lightning back-lighting the ominous house on the hill, with a light in one window so it looks like it's staring sideways at me as I approach.  There needs to be some suspenseful music!  She cocked an ear, but heard only the buzz of grasshoppers and the sound of birds, devoid of menace or foreshadowing.  Fuck.

Sighing, she continued up the track towards the farmhouse, noting as she drew closer that there were two figures working to wrestle some equipment from the back of the flatbed of Gar Bannon's truck:  Gar himself and Hank Graskle.  She wasn't sure whether she felt relieved or not - she didn't really know either man, and both had reputations that, whilst not bad, weren't glowing either.  On the upside, at least she wouldn't be facing Jason Goddamn Bannon without someone in screaming distance.  The thought immediately made her feel guilty - she'd promised Sean she'd not call Jason a psycho, and as a girl of her word she tried hard not to even think it - and the thought that he might attack her for no reason at all was at least a first cousin to 'dude is a psycho'.

"Hey Mr Bannon.  Mr Graskle."  she gave the two men a waist-high wave as she approached them.  "Is Jason around?"

"Should be."  Gar puffed as he leaned on the side of his truck.  He focused an eye on the pretty young girl.  "You're Sean's little sister, right?  Laurelei?"

"That's me."  she said with a perkiness she didn't altogether feel.  He didn't look drunk, which by the rumor was his default state, so there was that, at least.  She ventured an explanation for her presence, as it seemed to intrigue both men.  "I'd normally tap Sean for this - but he's got a thing tonight and I need some help with schooling."  It was close enough to the truth, at least.  "He said Jason might help me?"

"You walk here?"  Hank Graskle spoke up, resting his folded arms on the other side of the flatbed.  Laurie smiled brightly.

"No sir.  Sean dropped me off at the bottom of the track there."  she hesitated, then her natural impatience and boldness asserted itself.  "So, is Jason here?"  The two men exchanged a look, then looked back at her, and Laurie realised what they might be thinking - pretty girl, come to see Jason...  GodDAMMIT and also 'EWW'.  She kept the reaction from her face.  Kissing Jason Bannon would probably be like kissing some kind of cold reptilian creature, like a lizardman from Sean's games.  He probably had stiff, immobile lips, a dry tongue and kissed like a Ken doll.  Ew-ew-ew-ew.  All the eww.  Not enough eww in existence.  If given a choice between kissing Devin Fucking Jauntsen and Jason Goddamn Bannon, I'd choose to shoot myself in the face!

"He's over at the barn, probably."  Gar told her, gesturing towards the building that, Laurie knew from Sean, contained 'the Garden', Jason's flowers which he seemed to have shown to everyone except her... the jerk.  "He's not in the house, that's for certain."

"Cool.  Thanks!"  Laurie said pleasantly, then turned and headed over to the barn.  Gar watched her go, then turned and exchanged another look with Hank before both men shrugged and got back to work.

Drawing nearer, Laurie could hear music coming from the second floor of the building, a haunting mixture of electronica and vocals.  Right she told herself.  We're just going to go in, talk to him.  This is the same Jason who used to help you with math in 7th grade.  You used to pester him when he was sitting cross-legged on Sean's couch bent over his shabby old Chromebook and he never so much as gave you a mean look.  He bakes brownies and brings them round, for crying out loud.  He's not different now, you just see him differently.  Nut up or shut up, Cassidy!  She reached out a hand and opened the door.

And was lost, spellbound for an instant as the riot of colours dazzled her and the combined scent of moist earth and growing things assailed her senses.  Letting the door swing shut behind her, she proceeded into the hothouse - a concealed paradise that she wandered through, heedless of the serpent that may be laying in wait.  Blooms and dark green leaves were in abundance, some dangling from overhead vines, others growing in neat beds on various levels that had been cunningly built so that, from the inside, it was hard to know one was standing inside a barn.  Sun lamps provided illumination and, crucially, UV rays, and as Laurie went deeper into the garden she pushed through the plastic curtain and emerged into a tropical version of the same.  Orchids swayed in the circulating air, periodically acquiring droplets of water from the hidden sprinklers that sent out fine mist at timed intervals.  Creepers and flowers she'd never heard of were mingled with ones she had, such as the Flytrap or the Pitcher Plant.  She leaned close to the Flytrap, observing with fascination the blush of the inner leaves and the way they opened and closed very slightly, reacting to changes in temperature and air pressure.

The music was still going overhead, the track having changed to something faster but no less haunting or raw.  Glancing up, she moved onward through the garden and came at last to the door at the end, passing through it and ascending the stairs she found there.  She could hear other sounds now along with the music - the huffing of breath, the rapid shuffling of feet that sounded like... dancing?! She grinned as she imagined Jason Bannon, of all people, dancing wildly where no-one could see him, and carefully but quickly crept up the stairs to peek out into the top floor of the barn.  This, she had to see!  And maybe get a video of for blackmail purposes.  What she saw, though, was not exactly blackmail material.

Bannon was engaged in dance-like steps - sort of.  Dressed in sweats and a t-shirt, he was making rapid shuffles forward and back, swaying his torso and twisting from the waist as his right hand flashed out holding what looked like a plastic or rubber knife which emerged from behind the guard of his left hand in a series of short slashes and stabs at a large, body length punch-bag swaying as it hung from a rafter.  There was nothing particularly florid or showy about the moves - the knife darted out at throat, stomach and groin height as Jason closed with the bag, circled it clockwise or widdershins, then moved past and turned for another pass, swaying to avoid the bag as it swung back towards him before stepping in smartly to drive the tip of the fake knife in once or twice at close quarters, then once more separating from his stricken 'opponent'.  Laurie could imagine vividly someone stumbling away after such a pass, bleeding and groaning, or crumpling to the ground and laying still as crimson stained the floor.

In truth Jason was practicing what Hank had shown him, and his technique was, whilst fair, not so good as not to invite criticism and correction from Hank, or indeed anyone else that knew what they were doing.  Fast study though he was, Jason had a ways to go before being truly dangerous to a skilled opponent - at least if they took him at least semi-seriously.  But he was quick of eye and hand, and quick to spot and correct his mistakes, remembering with perfect clarity what Hank had shown him, how the instructor had stood and moved, then simply transposing those movements onto his own and practicing until they became muscle-memory.  The bag was not so much a sparring partner as it was a target dummy, loaned some verisimilitude by it's swaying movements.  But to the girl watching wide-eyed from the stairwell he seemed a terrifying spectre of death, an impression heightened by the fact he was wearing a blindfold - the psychokinetic taking the opportunity to practice using only his extended sense of touch to guide himself.

So when he paused and reached out with his left hand to still the swaying of the bag, then 'looked' right at where she was standing at the top of the stairs, Laurie nearly 'Nope'd the fuck outta there.  Was it impressive to her, what she'd seen?  Sure.  Leopards and tigers were impressive as well - it didn't mean she wanted to be in the same room as one.  Was it unnerving watching someone she'd thought of as a secondary backup big brother 'kill' a workout bag with - to her untrained eye - terrifying efficiency?  Oh hell yes.  She watched as his head tilted to one side, brow furrowing above the blindfold as though trying to work out who she was, then his hand came up and removed the cloth and his cold jade eyes regarded her with, she noted, a faint note of surprise.

"Laurelei."  He moved over to a table, setting the blindfold and practice knife down on it before grabbing a towel and patting his face dry of the sweat his workout had caused.  "What's up?" he asked with what was, for him, polite inquiry.  Lauri took a deep breath.  Right.  She'd come here for a reason, and to back out now was to risk Sean making chicken noises at her - forever.

"I want you to teach me how to use my brain."  she said, looking him square in the eye as he studied her.  That was another thing she wasn't used to - 'old' Jason never met your eye for long, he always shifted his gaze away, as though shy.  An act, she'd come to realise.  The real Jason wasn't shy at all.  "I mean, it's great being on the football team and stuff, but I feel I've got more going on than..." she motioned to herself.  "What's on the surface."  When he didn't immediately scoff or react in any other way, she pressed on.  "Sean's been helping me out, but you teach yourself languages for fun, and learn poetry and philosophy and stuff - not because it's immediately practical or necessary, but because you love doing it - at least, that's how it looks.  I want you to teach me that...  Love of learning, I guess?  To sharpen up my mind like it's a knife."  Fuck, why did I say knife?  Her eyes darted to the practice blade reflexively, and Jason followed her gaze, then glanced back at her with a sardonic amusement glinting in his gaze.

"Why?"  he asked simply.  "School will teach you everything you need to know.  If you don't already have the love of knowledge, what makes you think you can learn it like kicking a football?"  He moved towards her then stopped, lips quirking as she took an unthinking half-step back, then caught herself and flushed slightly in angry embarrassment as she realised he knew she was scared, and was amused by it.  He turned away and walked over to the small fridge under a worktable, leaning down and grabbing a bottle of water from within.  No longer the subject of that cold, inscrutable stare, Laurie found some measure of courage to give vent to her anger.

"You like that, don't you?  Scaring people."  she said to his back.  "Bet you get a good giggle over that when you're up here pretending to stab someone so you can skin them for underwear."  Somewhere, Sean was likely feeling a disturbance in the Force, a presentiment of disaster and catastrophe, but Laurie wasn't finished.  "So yeah, I'm scared of you.  WoooOOOoooo!"  She mimed a spooky ghostly form with her hands.  "Anyone with any sense who knows who and what you are is scared of you.  My brother isn't, which speaks volumes about his sense.  Now you can have some extra jack-off material when you-"  He turned around, slowly, his eyes fixing on hers as he slowly drank from the bottle.  "- go to bed at night."  Laurelei finished with less fire.  Jason took a few more swallows of water, then lowered the bottle and stared at her with unblinking intensity.

"Thank you for making my case for me."  he said softly.  "You are a Cassidy, but I really find it hard to imagine you and Sean share DNA.  You displayed a brain-numbing level of ignorance in just a few short sentences, in addition to being rude enough to come uninvited to my sanctum and then insult me.  Did it occur to you that my amusement might be at the irony that it was you, of all people, who was scared of me?"  His voice didn't raise, but it did harden a little.  "I have never threatened or harmed you, or any of your family, or any of your friends.  I tolerated, with good grace, all your childish teasing and little-sibling attention seeking even when Sean would get frustrated and drive you out of his room.  I baked you a cake for your twelfth birthday.  Sean is the closest thing I have to a brother, and you are the closest thing I have to a sister.  And then you hear a word, 'psychopath' and it is all so much dust of yesteryear."  He smiled coldly.  "I cannot really feel sad, Laurelei.  I can't feel hurt or emotional pain, not easily.  All I can feel at your unreasoning turning on me is a sense of ironic amusement.  But I don't expect you to understand that.  It must be difficult to see the big picture... when you have such a small screen."

"That's not fair!"  Laurie's face flamed, torn between wanting to refute his words and the knowledge that they were, at least in the large part, correct.  She looked from side to side, unwilling to meet that green laser stare.  "It's not like that."

"Oh.  It's not fair?  Well, I take it all back then."  Jason's tone was dryly mocking.  "Sorry, I didn't get the memo that everything was supposed to be fair."  A stool slid across the floor behind him and he sat down on it, still facing her with an attitude of patience.  "Do let me know when you're able to process me calling you on your bullshit, Laurelei.  I shall be right here, waiting to hear why I should even bother with someone who so readily forgets simple kindnesses."

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She caught her breath,  feeling a prickling in her eyes and wanting to scream at him - but that would have been pointless.  She wanted to storm off and tell Sean that his friend was a class-A douche and assbag - but that would only lead Sean to, rightly, sigh and ask what she had said.  She wanted to summon up every bit of visceral scorn she could and hurl it into his sharp eyes with that ancient, patient expression in their jade depths-


She remembered, a few days ago, standing out in the field not far from here and watching Sean and the others cut loose and show off their powers.  And standing near Sean, listening in on the conversation her brother was having with the newly-revealed psychopath and with Cassie, and something the school's ace reporter had said in passing...

"Y'know, I noticed that you always have more than one reason for doing things."  Cassandra had said.  

"I find it helps me control my impulse-driven nature.  If I cannot find three reasons to justify a course of action, it's probably not sound."  Jason had said, his eyes gleaming with some secret mirth.  "It's the difference between being high-functioning and merely a creature of whim."  

She almost caught her breath again with a sudden realisation.  Jason wasn't just being an ass to be an ass, or because his feelings - such as they were - were hurt.  He wasn't a creature of whim - or at least, he tried very hard not to be.  As she forced herself to study his expression, to meet the too-old eyes in the young face, she realised he wasn't radiating scornful dismissal.

He was studying her.  Testing her. 

Son of a BITCH.  The realisation was almost good for a renewed surge of anger, but at the same time, Laurie knew that she wouldn't achieve her goal that way.  She would fail the test, and whilst she might, in her current anger, not care what he thought of her, she didn't want to fail.  Especially as Sean would never let her live it down.  Ever.  And if she ran from him now - and yes, calling him a pig-molesting chuckle-fuck and storming out would be fleeing the field - she'd never let herself live it down, either.  And, she realised with a growing sense of reluctant shame, he kind of had a point.  Even if he did state it like an asshole.

"Okay."  she nodded at length, after taking a few deep breaths to center herself.  "Okay.  Yeah, you made your point.  Perhaps I did turn my back on you - a little."  she admitted.  "And not to try and justify being a bitch, Jason, but it was a lot to take in, you know?" She stepped forward a little, motioning to him.  "You were always the odd-but-cute-and-shy friend of Sean's to me.  You'd let me pester you and you'd help me with homework and you'd put up with my teasing and trying to comb your hair - y'know, before you started doing it before the start of school, which was just another change in you since that night of the party that was baffling me a bit.  I mean, you were hanging out with Devin Jauntsen over the summer and his bitch of a sister, who live to make people miserable and are oh-so too good for Shelly, bee-tee-dubs, and suddenly they're hanging out with you as you restore a car and calling you 'Jaybee' and nobody has a fucking clue why except you supposedly saved her and some other peeps from a sabertooth cat."  She paused.  "Which I guess would explain why they liked you after that, but still!  Devin?!  Really?!!"

He was just sitting there, taking another swallow of water and watching her.  Laurie stepped forward again, gesticulating some more.  "And then the powers, and then you're a psychopath, which apparently is not the same as a serial killer, and then it turns out you're actually a huge genius, not just this autistic kid who struggles to maintain a C average, but an actual genius who deliberately scores no better than C's for... reasons?!  A joke?  I don't know."  Some composure fell from her, and she looked a little lost as she resorted to the raw truth.  "Part of me is scared and wants to stay the hell away from you, yes.  But a bigger part of me wants my other big brother back, Jase.  And is afraid he was never there."

He drew the towel from where it was draped around his shoulders, and extended it to her, the soft cloth floating across the space between them to hover before her, and Laurie realised then that she was crying.  "True introspection takes courage."  he said quietly as she dabbed at her eyes.  "And admitting such things does too."  He stood, fetching a bottle of water from the fridge and bringing it over to her, handing it to the slim redhead.  "I'm still Sean's friend.  I still regard your family fondly for all the kindness and acceptance that you've shown to me.  I always will."

There was something portentous in his words, some presentiment of as-yet unheralded changes, perhaps of a parting.  He spoke like someone considering departure or separation, and a strange fear filled Laurie - not for herself, but for him.  The moment passed swiftly, though, as he went on "I'll do what I can to teach you.  I've never done this before, so you'll have to be patient with me, and I with you."

Laurie smiled, then impulsively hugged him, forgetting her fear for that moment, feeling for a second that this was the Old Jase, at least somewhere in there.  She felt him hesitate, then gently pat her back, and grinned as she drew away once more, wiping away a couple more tears with the ends of the towel.  He returned her exuberant grin with a faint arch of his eyebrows and a nod - and perhaps a ghost of a smile.

"We'll start with the basics - memory, observation un-tinged by emotion.  Your senses are the windows through which you perceive the world, and your mind interprets the signals.  Emotion - specifically preconceived ideas with emotional attachments - can taint the signal and your interpretation of it.  That's how people, brilliant people, fall into logical fallacies all the time.  How you feel about an objective observable fact should be the last consideration when weighing it's validity."  He paused.  "We'll cover that.  It will be interesting for me to see if my methods will work for you, also.  So we shall start with Kim's Game."

"Who's Kim and why is her game so important?"  Laurie asked, following him as he moved over to the worktable.  He cast a faintly amused glance her way, then shook his head.

"We also have to expand your reading list.  Kim is a novel by Rudyard Kipling, featuring a boy who spies for the British against the Russians in Central Asia during the 19th Century, as part of the 'Great Game' of espionage.  The game in question is a memory training and observation game, and helps one focus on what is there and only what is there, to store as much of it as possible without context so that it can be analysed later."  He cleared a space on the worktable, then glanced at her.  "Turn around for a minute."  Intrigued, Laurie turned her back and focused her attention on the window across from her, seeing the fields out there where the Fellowship had hung out and practiced not long ago.  She heard Jason moving objects around, then felt him deftly tug the towel from her hands, and a moment later he said "Okay, turn back."  She turned around and saw the towel laying over the cleared section of the table, a number of lumps and bumps underneath it.  Jason stood aside, motioning for her to stand before the table, and she obeyed, feeling a sense of nervousness.

"When the towel lifts, you will have ten seconds to memorise what is beneath it.  Then I will drop the towel, and you will turn away, and then I will ask you what is there."  Jason told her calmly.  "You understand?"

"Ten seconds is a lot of time."  Laurie noted.  Jason smiled a little.

"You think so?  Well then, you should have no trouble.  Hmm.  Let's make it five seconds."  Laurelei swallowed.  Me and my big mouth.  Jason nodded at her.  "Ready?"

Laurie nodded- and before the gesture was complete the towel flashed upwards, borne by Jason's telekinesis.  Her eyes scanned the objects hastily Plant pot / trowel / pencil / some kind of small bottle / bottle cap-  and then the towel descended, and Jason's voice calmly said "Turn around, sit, and tell me what you saw."

"Uh-  A plant pot, a pencil..."  Laurie's brow furrowed.  "A bottle cap..."

"What type of pencil?  What brand of bottle cap?"  Jason immediately asked.  Laurie blinked, her concentration broken by the sudden tangent, and glared at him.

"I don't know!"  she said in frustration as she tried to remember.  Jason's expression was patient as he nodded, and Laurie's irritation subsided.  "I get it." she nodded in turn.  "Seeing what's there - all of what's there.  And that will help me?"

"It's a valuable skill.  Don't just look: see.  Seeing dispassionately, taking in the data, then being able to properly analyse it.  That is the first and best skill."  He motioned to himself.  "I fail at some aspects of it - those to do with human interaction, because I do not have the knowledge or experience to properly interpret the data I receive.  And I cannot do it intuitively as you can.  When someone says to me 'I'll kill you', or makes as if to attack me, I take it very literally unless they are incredibly obvious about not meaning it."  He seemed to be pondering something as he spoke.  "So you see I also am still learning."

She nodded, and he smiled a little at her.  "Now, let's try again.  Seven seconds, this time.  I will shift and change the objects around."  Even as he spoke, she heard things rearranging behind her on the table and composed herself.  "Turn around, then.  And ready?  Now."  

The towel whipped away once more, and Laurie focused on the task at hand...

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Cassidy Farm, Later that evening

Sean was still up, idly surfing the internet from the comfort of the bench swing on his parent's porch, scrolling through various geek meme threads to distract himself as he listened to music on his earphones.  Lights from the road caught his notice, and the feral growl of a V8 announced whose car was turning into the Cassidy drive before the gleaming black paintwork of the Charger resolved from the gloom of the night.  The passenger-side door opened, Laurie clambering out with several hard-bound books tucked under one arm before retrieving her schoolbag from the back seat.  She said something to Jason, who just nodded in reply as she closed the door and stepped back, letting him reverse back out of the drive without ceremony as she turned and walked towards the house, a pensive expression on her face.

"How'd it go?"  Sean startled his sister as he spoke suddenly from the gloom around the bench swing.  She scowled slightly, then sighed and came to sit beside him.

"I'm still in one piece."  she replied as she leaned against her brother's blanket-wrapped form.  "At least physically.  Anyone ever tell you your best friend is an assbag?"  He snorted.

"That's why he's a perfect teacher for you."  Sean retorted with a grin, then narrowed his eyes warningly as she made to hit his arm.  "Watch it.  I can taze you with a touch, sis."

Laurie huffed, then chuckled and settled back down, and the two siblings stared out as the last lining of daylight faded from the horizon, narrowing to a thin silver-blue line.  "He agreed to teach me, at least."  she said at length.

"I figured, given you weren't phoning for a pickup or he wasn't telling me to come get you off his property."  Sean nodded.  "Did it go smoothly?"

"No."  Laurie snorted.  "I got annoyed and opened my mouth, then he dissected me like a biology lab frog."

"Ouch."  Sean winced in sympathy, even as he smiled a little.  "Was it bad?"

"Not as bad as Cora got it.  But I shriveled up a little.  Almost quit."

"But you didn't."  It was as much a question as a statement.

"Nope.  I remembered something about how he's always got several reasons for anything he does.  Then I realised he was testing me - the assbag."  Laurie sighed, leaning back into the bench seat.

"He does that." Sean noted sympathetically.  Then he nudged her encouragingly.  "You came through okay though.  Learn anything?"

"That I have a lot to learn."  Laurelei said, patting a couple of the books next to her.  "Reading material, which I better get started on."  She stood, gathering the books and ruffling his hair.  "It go okay with mom and dad?"

"It went okay.  They're clued in now, at least."  Sean replied, swiping at her hand.  "I hope that keeps them safer, rather than makes it worse."  Laurie nodded, looking out at the gathering dark and feeling a shiver.

"Yeah."  she said as she smiled at him and turned to go to bed.  "Me too."

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