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Into the Woods [Episode V Side Fiction]

Autumn Keane

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The Keane Household. Thursday Evening.

“So… I saw Nathan Crocker today, when I went to the bank.” 

Autumn, tucked comfortably into a corner of the sofa with two of their fosters- a two-year-old rust sable Shepherd named Dakota, and Lexi, an older female Pit with creamy white fur and tawny ears- glanced up from her phone at her mother’s non sequitur. Their two families had been friends for ages, since before either Autumn or Jacob were born… probably since before Dana herself was born. Just seeing the good-looking FWP Warden or his equally attractive son around town wasn’t unusual, in itself; Nathan himself had just paid her an unsettling visit the day before. No, what was strange was the way her mother had said it, as if she were leading up to something. 

“Oookaay?” the younger redhead replied, her tone a combination of acknowledgement and inquiry as she peered up at her mother. “That’s cool, I guess?”

With a sigh, Dana leaned bodily against the doorway to the kitchen, regarding the young woman strangers often mistook for her younger sister. She could see so much of herself in her daughter- more than just the physical resemblance- but comparing what she remembered of her own teen years to what she could see of Autumn’s… Where was the sulking? Where was the grumbling about being stuck in the house, the restless flouncing about and complaining that she wanted to hang out with her friends? When she herself had been grounded as a teenager, she’d never missed an opportunity to bemoan the injustice of her exile, which in hindsight had probably not done her any favors. Autumn, though, was handling it with a surprising level of maturity; she didn’t seem so much indifferent as resigned, even straightening the garage without complaint.  

“It was ‘cool,’ yeah,” she replied finally, just as her daughter was about to go back to watching videos on TikTok. “He asked how we were doing since the hospital, I told him we were fine… We talked about Jacob a little bit-” The teen’s expectant expression soured almost instantly, the corner of her mouth turning down on one side in a look her mother knew Autumn had inherited from her grandfather. “-and he said he didn’t think you guys had any classes together this semester, is that right?”

“Nah, we don’t,” came the flat, disinterested response. 

“Okaay. Well,” Dana hedged, “he also mentioned that Homecoming’s in a few weeks, and Jacob hadn’t said anything about having a date yet, so-”

“I’m going by myself, it’s fine,” Autumn interrupted matter-of-factly. It wasn’t exactly the end of the world as far as she was concerned, not being invited to a dance by her ex, especially when things between them were super awkward. “That way I can eat all the snacks I want, dance to the songs I like, leave when I get bored, and nobody can complain.” Leaning her head against the back of the couch, she grinned a little at the older version of herself to soften the edge of her words. “Priorities, right?”

The elder Keane blinked, a little taken aback by her daughter’s resolve, and her honesty. She was such a kid sometimes, and sometimes… With a twinge of regret, Dana smiled back. “Yeah. Priorities… Speaking of which!” She paused, marshalling her thoughts. "Autumn, I've been thinking about Tuesday - specifically about what I did and said on Tuesday. You understand that I was upset, right? And not really about the fight, so much, though it gives me the chills to think you might have been hurt: you were doing what you thought was right."

Nodding, Autumn glanced down at the phone resting on her thigh as her smile faded, tilting it from side to side without really paying attention to the images on the screen. "Yeah... I mean, you were right though. I did get lucky, and it was probably kind of a dumb thing to do."


"I was right in what I said with my Mom Hindsight at work, maybe." Dana smiled slightly at her daughter. "But... and this is not an endorsement as a mother, you understand... you were right in what you did. You helped a friend who was being assaulted with no thought to yourself. If I wasn't your mom, I'd have been cheering you on." She sighed. "I might have even done the same thing at your age. Maybe. So..." She took a breath. "Tonight is officially the last night you're grounded." She raised a hand forestallingly. "But you better not scare me like that again in the near future, Autumn Rae, or so help me..."


That got her attention- not only the invocation of her middle name, which meant that her mother was being Really Serious right now, but that she was letting her off the hook early. "Wait," the younger redhead straightened, leaning forward as inquisitive blue eyes studied Dana's face with undisguised curiosity. "Seriously? So I don't have to stay home this weekend?"


"No." Dana smiled at the sudden interest piqued in Autumn's gaze. "No, it's the last weekend of summer. I'm not such a monster I'd keep you indoors just because I got a scare."


"Ugghhhhh," Autumn was up and off the couch before her mother could react, arms flung tight around Dana's ribs as the suddenly animated girl all but tackled her in a hug. "You're the best. Seriously. Literally the best. I thought you were gonna be mad at me until I was 40."


"Ooof" Dana laughed, hugging her daughter tightly in turn. "My not-so-little girl. Ease up on my ribs, huh?" She kissed Autumn's forehead and rested her cheek against it. "You're growing up. I can't be mad at you for being you, or I'd never stop. Besides, who you are is pretty special to me, too." she said more soberly, stroking the red curls of her daughter's hair on the back of her head before withdrawing a little, smiling wryly. "So, what wild hijinks are you going to get up to, now that you're free?"


"Wild hijinks?" she repeated dubiously, grinning in spite of herself. Oh my god, that was such a... mom thing to say. "I don't know, I was thinking maybe 'shenanigans,' instead," Autumn teased, eyes laughing as she twisted out of the way to avoid her mother's indignant swat, flinging herself back down on the couch to the surprise and dismay of the dogs who were watching with avid interest. "Seriously, no plans for anything crazy. No wild parties, or anything like that."

"Well, good." Dana said with a fond smile. "Because your dad's coming back for Labor Day and I don't want to explain to him why you're in the sheriff's jail for some shenanigans gone awry." Assessing Autumn with a critical eye as she nodded her understanding, she paused for a moment. “Did you start doing something different to your hair?”  

“Oh, yeah,” came the somewhat distant reply; the mother-daughter bonding moment having passed, the younger of the two was back to scrolling through videos on her phone with one hand and idly petting a pair of drowsy dogs with the other as they settled back down. “Marissa showed me some stuff.”


 “Jauntsen. Remember, I spent the night there last Sunday?” 

“Wait, wait… That Marissa? The one who-” Dana spluttered incredulously.

“Yeah. It’s fine now. Well,” Autumn amended, “mostly. She’s still kind of a bitch.”

“Autumn Rae!”

“Well,” she shrugged, somewhat chastened. “She is.” Almost as an afterthought, and without looking up from what she was doing, the young redhead added, “Oh, and if it’s cool with you, I was gonna head up to the campsite this weekend and get it cleaned up. It’s been a while, and I wanted to show it to a friend, see if they could help me a little. That okay?”

“Autumn, you know I don’t care if you go up there, as long as I know where you are. You’ve been doing it since you were a little girl. I trust you.” She hesitated- It didn’t seem like she and Jacob were talking, but surely Marissa Jauntsen wasn’t the one going with her. That whole family was awful, and she doubted they’d do anything as unglamorous as camping. “But, you don’t normally take anyone with you. Who’s the friend?”

“Mmm?” Autumn blinked, distracted, then looked up at her mother with wide, guileless eyes. “Oh. Jason Bannon.”

There was a long, uncomfortable moment of silence in the living room, as Dr. Dana Keane reflected that perhaps she’d been a trifle hasty in lifting her daughter’s punishment early. 

“Oh,” was all she could say.



Friday Afternoon.

Autumn had checked the weather a dozen times over the past few days, and according to the forecast, Labor Day weekend was supposed to be gorgeous, with clear skies during both the daylight and evening hours. It was perfect for camping- warm enough to splash around in the creek during the day if she wanted, and cool enough in the evening to sit by the fire. She had everything she needed: hammock, tent, blanket, pillow, insect repellent and first-aid kit, firestarter, sandals, dice, cards, towel, clothes, toiletries, hatchet, camp shovel, pocketknife, and a large, padlocked cooler… plus gas for the ATV. Except for the four-wheeler- a concession for whatever gear her guest might bring- it was exactly the same list she checked off every other time she’d gone.

“Listen, just… Call me, okay? I’m just down the road.”

“Mom,” Autumn sighed in exasperation as she organized everything in the front yard, taking stock of what she needed to tie down and where. “I know what you’re thinking, and seriously, it’s not like that. Look, he’s just helping me get everything cleaned up. He’s literally just a friend, okay? Not the future father of your grandchildren.”

Autumn!”  The pretty vet’s face went as red as her daughter’s hair as she stormed down the steps from the porch. Laughing, Autumn ran to the other side of the four-wheeler to avoid the onslaught. 

“Mom, seriously, I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” she protested, still grinning as she fended off her mother’s swatting. “I’ll call you, I promise! If you wanna hang out for a little while, he’s probably getting his own stuff, and then he’s gotta come here first, y’know. Then you can yell at him, too.” Seeing the smile on her daughter’s lips, her enthusiasm for going back to a place that held so many memories of her grandfather, Dana relented, her embarrassed indignation fizzling away with the dim recollection of a child’s laughter.

“Maybe I will,” she countered, smacking Autumn’s hip playfully with the back of her hand. After a moment, she added, more soberly, “I just… worry, you know?” I am too young for grandchildren, her expression read as she peered at her daughter.

“Yeah,” the younger girl agreed quietly, sliding one arm around her mom’s waist for a quick hug. “I know.”

“Now, c’mon. I’ll help you get everything strapped on before he gets here.”


Dana Keane had a mental image of Jason Bannon that was based on the previous six years of the young recluse’s life, an impression shared by most adults in Shelly: shifty-eyed, perpetual boneless slouch, shady connections, spoke rarely and even then in a sullen murmur without meeting one’s eye - the sort of kid you worried about sending your child to the same school as.  Whilst the dramatic changes in Jase over the summer had been noticed around school, word spread a little slower to the wider community not directly connected to the Shelly education system.  So Dana was not really all that worried about Autumn potentially fooling around with such a boy - indeed, she was more worried that her daughter was hanging around ‘questionable’ persons: Marissa Jauntsen?  Jason Bannon?  And there had been that fight at school - also involving Jason Bannon - was her daughter falling in with a bad crowd?

So when the soft growl of a muscle car caused both Keane ladies to look up from adjusting the load on the ATV, it was with a mixture of trepidation (Autumn) and puzzlement (Dana).  To Autumn’s relief, Bannon didn’t bring the Charger roaring up the track, revving the engine in a cringey display of machismo - but then, she mused, she probably shouldn’t expect that sort of thing from him anyway.  The low grumble of the V8 ceased as it drew up to one side of the track and came to a stop, and Jase got out.  And Dana Keane felt a prickle of maternal unease.

He was dressed as per normal in clothes a size too large - Army surplus combat pants and boots, with a plain white t-shirt under a grey hoodie.  As the two women approached, he gave them a nod of acknowledgement and a faint smile as he hefted a large pack and a rolled up tent from the trunk of his car, then stepped forward to meet them.  He seemed taller than Autumn’s mother remembered - or was that due to the fact he was standing upright? -  and his previously hooded, shifty gaze was direct - unsettling in its calm appraisal of whatever or whoever it rested on. His dark hair was long enough to brush the lobes of his ears, and while it looked shaggy, it was a far cry from the ‘dragged through a hedge’ look he’d worn before, framing the brilliant pale green of his eyes in the outdoor-tan of his face.  It looked as though in the space of the summer he’d grown from ‘teenaged boy’ to ‘young man’.  Not that he didn’t wear it well - he wore it possibly too well for Dana’s comfort.

“Just a friend?” Dana murmured out of the corner of her mouth.  Autumn made a ‘shush’ noise out of the corner of her own as they came up to him.

“Hey.”  Jase said by way of greeting, giving Autumn a smile that reached his cold eyes, causing them to crinkle at the edges, then turning his attention to Dana.  “You didn’t tell me your sister would be here.” he said with a faint accusatory air as his eyes flickered back to Autumn.  Though his poker face was as good as ever, she could read the mischievous gleam of humor in his gaze as he continued, deadpan.  “I’d have dressed up more, got a haircut, y’know?”

Autumn groaned in disbelief, Dana blinked in surprise, and both women, almost in unison, turned the same shade of crimson. 

Ugh, the former sighed inwardly. Seriously?

“Yeah, yeah,” the younger of the two grumbled, shaking her head. “We try to keep her hidden here, but tales of her beauty still spread far and wide across the land, and so on, and so forth, Mom- Jase, Jase, Dr. Dana Keane.” She paused, glaring daggers at him even as the corners of her lips twitched in suppressed laughter. “My mother,” she reiterated unnecessarily, pointedly leaning forward as if to warn off a rapacious predator from an appealing target.

“Just Dana, will be fine,” the elder of the Keane ladies suggested, her hazel eyes simultaneously appraising and amused as she stepped forward. He was not at all what she’d expected, thus far, although it wasn’t entirely reassuring.  Autumn got into a fight protecting this boy.  “It’s nice to meet you. Autumn said you two were planning on heading up to the property to do a little clean-up and camp overnight.” She gave him a quick once-over, then smiled, extending her hand in greeting- a gesture the tall, strangely compelling young man was quick to reciprocate. As they shook hands, Dana took the opportunity (as all parents must) to embarrass her only child and get more information about the green-eyed interloper. “Do you do much camping, Jase? Or, do you prefer Jason? And, what about your girlfriend, mm? Does she mind that you’re going out into the woods alone with my daughter?”

While Autumn went several shades of red and resisted the urge to step on her mom’s foot - hard - Jason didn’t even blink, holding Dana’s gaze with his own through the brief handshake.  Even as she subjected him to a mixture of wary maternal and feminine scrutiny, the attractive veterinarian felt the weight of being studied in turn, a sensation her daughter was already uncomfortably familiar with when dealing with the Effing One.  His manner wasn’t one of ease such as Jacob might have displayed, born from a lifetime of familiarity.  It was utterly centered, composed, displaying no cues of either nervousness or eagerness to please, rather a distant watchful intensity that reminded the veterinarian of a half-wild creature deciding whether she was a friend or a threat.

“Jase is fine, amongst friends.”  he said with a touch of warmth, giving her a small nod as he let his fingers slide from hers.  “I try to go camping at least a couple times a year, so when Autumn told me she knew a pretty spot she’d like to show me I said okay.  And... I don’t have a girlfriend.”  His lips twitched in a slight smile as Dana’s speculative gaze turned briefly to Autumn, who was currently experiencing the fervent red-faced feeling of wishing the earth would open up and swallow either her, her mom or Jase.  Then he threw his blushing friend a lifeline.

“Will the car be okay where I parked it?” he asked Dana, indicating the Charger.  “I can move it if it’s in the way at all.”

“So long as your dad doesn’t mind you leaving his vintage machine out in the elements overnight.”  Dana replied, then indicated the two-car garage Autumn had just finished organizing the day before.  “But why don’t you park it up in there?”

“Mighty kind.”  Jason smiled at that, both in response to the kindness and out of mild amusement.  “The car is all mine, though.  Spent the summer rebuilding her.”  He added with a tiny note of pride in his tone as he set down his camping gear.  “I’ll get her parked up if you’ll give me a moment.”

Edited by Vivi OOC
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The moment he stepped away, the terse whispering began. 

“Okay, when you said ‘Jason Bannon’ that is not what I was picturing.” “What are you talking about?” “I’m talking about that.” “Mom! Gross!” “No, I’m just saying!” “No, you are not just saying, because I am not having this conversation with you.” “Just- did he start working out, or something?” “Okay, seriously? Are we doing this right now?” “Autumn, all I’m saying is he just looks different, and I was wondering what changed, that’s all.” “Fine. Fine. What’s different, hm? Haircut maybe? He got a little taller? Not as skinny?” “Yes, probably, but he’s just more-” “Mom, I swear, if you say my friend is hot, we aren’t speaking until I graduate from college.” “No, no! ...But does that mean you think he is?” 

“Oh, look, mom!” Autumn called out pointedly, meeting her mother’s gaze with all the mortified fury the teen could muster. “All parked. Guess we should probably get going now. Loveyoubye.” She gave Dana a quick, perfunctory kiss on the cheek and tried not to be too obvious in her haste to depart. As she double-checked the tie-downs on their gear for at least the third time, the young redhead felt, more than heard, her mother coming up behind her. 

“Hey,” Dana murmured, pulling her into a fierce hug and catching her sole progeny off-guard. “I do love you, you know. Just be careful, okay?”

“Mkay,” came the muffled reply, as her daughter returned the familial embrace in earnest. “Love you, too. Talk to you tomorrow.” 

“Talk to you tomorrow,” the older woman repeated with a faint smile as she headed back up the gravel path toward the house.

Exhaling slowly, Autumn fished the key out of her pocket. She couldn’t really blame her mom for worrying; it had been ages since she’d had a friend over, and she’d been dating the last guy she’d gone camping with. This was different, though. This was Jase, who was her friend, who also happened to have really, abysmally bad taste in women, and who also was only coming because she had asked him, rather than the other way around. She swung her leg over the seat as Jase returned, shifting forward over the gas tank to give him room to sit behind her.

“It’s gonna be awkward and maybe a little rough, but only for about 5 or 10 minutes, so just hold on tight and try not to fall off.” By the time the words had left her lips, and it registered what she’d just said, it was too late to take them back. Oh, for fuck’s sake… She did her best to ignore the warmth that flooded her face as Jase got comfortable, and felt fairly confident in her efforts to remain composed-

Until he leaned forward slightly and ‘reassured’ her, his voice just audible over the idle rumble of the engine: “I’ll be sure to get a good grip.” 

“Yes” she replied, grimacing as she put the ATV into gear and they started rolling toward the road at a modest pace. “Please do.” The redhead raised one hand, waving goodbye to her mother as they reached the asphalt, and then turned to head further away from Shelly proper. 

As the forecast had predicted, it was a gorgeous afternoon, sunny and clear, and warm enough that Autumn’s beloved red hoodie was only tied around her waist. About half a mile from the house, she opened up the engine a little, speeding up gradually at first out of consideration for her taller passenger, but eventually settling into fourth gear, grinning into the wind as the scenery zipped past. “The turn-off isn’t far,” she called back, nodding somewhere into the distance and then shaking her head to get the hair out of her eyes as it came loose from her ponytail. They passed a gravel drive, barred by a wide metal utility gate, and then, a moment later: “Hold on.”

Downshifting, she turned left and off the road, onto a path so overgrown and littered with leaves and the detritus of fallen limbs that it could hardly be considered more than a very sketchy trail. For several minutes, she slowly maneuvered them over buried roots, through copses of spindly evergreens, and around all-but-invisible washes and dry streambeds obscured by underbrush and dried pine needles. It would definitely have been easier to traverse the distance on foot- if they were backpacking. Maybe next time, she considered, wincing as the ATV jostled again. If there is one.

And then, they crossed the threshold from tall, shadowy pines to an open sunlit space, cleared of trees, right in the bend of a slow-moving creek. As she brought the four-wheeler to a stop, the freckled teen suddenly felt unaccountably nervous, as though she’d just invited Jase up to her room while her parents weren’t home. Which, she hadn’t, obviously but it felt more… personal, than she’d expected, and she realized she wanted him to like it here. That thought gave her a moment’s pause; was it because she’d enjoyed the garden so much, because he was proving to be weirdly good company, or because the place was important to her?

All three, maybe?

“Whew,” she sighed, cutting the engine and turning to check on him. “Oh, hey. You didn’t fall off.” Banishing awkward self-analysis with a playful grin, Autumn hopped off and tucked the key back into her pocket. “C’mon. I’m gonna walk around, see what needs doing, and then we can unpack. You can come with, if you want, or just poke around on your own.” Raking her hands back through her hair as she walked, the energetic redhead pulled the elastic band out and held it between her teeth, quickly plaiting the windblown curls into a haphazard braid and re-securing the ends. After she’d made it a few steps toward the middle of the sunny camp site, she paused to stretch and take a quick visual inventory. 

The roughly circular clearing was littered with a thick carpet of pine needles over packed earth, courtesy of the few stately trees that had been allowed to remain, with the occasional scrubby clump of grass peeking out from below. There was a decent-sized fire pit near the center, though the depression was filled with a couple seasons’ worth of leaf litter and rotten wood, and roughly half a cord of logs lay in disarray near the trees between which they’d been stacked. Beyond the edge of the camp, the hard earth underfoot gave way to smooth stones along the shoreline; piles of driftwood had accumulated all along the edge of the clear, cool water, and with it whatever man-made trash had drifted downstream to be snagged there. 

It’s nice to be back, she reflected, but, man, this is gonna be a lot of work. Still… Glancing back in Jase’s direction, she caught herself smiling again. Least I don’t have to do it by myself.

This is Autumn’s garden.

That was the thought that went through Jase’s head as he glanced around the clearing, swinging down off the ATV with his usual deliberate grace.  This site was special to the red-haired girl he’d decided to call ‘friend’, a place of importance.  His pale gaze swept the surroundings as he moved, at first following Autumn, then meandering from her walkabout and finding himself on the pebbled beach of the creek, staring at the littered bank.

He tilted his head up to feel the sunlight on his face, closing his eyes and reaching outwards.  A faint pressure, different from the breeze currently playing in the pines, went around the clearing as he allowed his sense of touch to experience everything here.  A few leaves curlicued up into the air from the detritus in the firepit, then dropped suddenly; a rustling touch brushed past Autumn’s hair; a light sprinkling of pine needles rained down from a couple of the trees.  Jase smiled, his eyes still closed, and breathed deeply.

This was different from the garden as Autumn was different from himself, he perceived.  This was a natural place adapted by Man - Autumn’s family, possibly generations of them.  The garden was nature curated, cared for, controlled - as it would have to be to have such a rich variety of plants from varying climes in close proximity.  But the import of the place was the same - there was a fragment of Autumn’s identity in this clearing.  He turned and moved up the bank from the creek, back towards the central area.

“It’s beautiful.”  he said in a tone that was almost dispassionate, but contained a trace of warmth recognisable to Autumn.  “Peaceful, too.  It suits you.”  He tilted his head to one side, smiling at her.

“Where would you like me to start?  And are you averse to a little TK making the work lighter now and then?”  he inquired with a faint grin. 

She laughed then, unreservedly, more than a little surprise mingling with the delight in her eyes. “You know, you’re probably the first and only person in my entire life to use the word ‘peaceful’ when describing me, so, thanks for that, I think. And, no,” the bemused redhead grinned, shaking her head, “I don’t mind. Whatever gets the job done is fine, so if that’s easier for you, I say go for it.” As the giggles faded, a smile lingered in their wake, and she took another look around. “I’m going to start with the firepit, I think, so we can get the fire started and let it burn down enough to cook by the time we’re hungry…” Drumming her fingers thoughtfully against her legs, Autumn glanced down toward the creek. 

“Mind starting down there? If you’re in the mood to flex your mind-muscles, that would be a good place to do it. Some of that driftwood is just old trees, y’know? Besides, it’s better to go wading now, before it cools down later.” She grinned over at him, and added, holding up three fingers at chest-level in the classic Girl Scouts salute, “I promise not to push you in.” There was a long, quiet moment then, as her eyes traced the treeline on the opposite side of the creek. “ And… yeah.” Her expression softened slightly, and a part of her wondered what her grandfather would have thought of Jase, of her bringing him here. “It is beautiful. Thanks.” The afternoon sun was warm on her face, and all around were the sounds of birds, of the wind through the trees, of the water rushing over stones… It seemed unbelievable, somehow, that she’d stopped coming, when so many of the best, most wonderful memories she’d ever made were right here.

“Be right back.” She’d have plenty of time to think and talk when they were finished. For now, there was plenty to do in the last few hours of daylight. Autumn headed back toward the gear they’d stowed on the ATV and returned with a small collapsible shovel and a large canvas bag- the latter of which she tossed to Jase. “That’s for your basic trash, plastic and stuff, although I’m pretty sure you’re about 12 steps ahead of me there.” With a wry, self-deprecating grin, she unfolded the shovel and locked the pins into place. “Anyway… Thanks for helping. Let me know if you need anything, and I guess we can meet back up when we’re done and work on something else.”

Autumn didn’t have much to say after that, none of the typical chatter- it just wasn’t necessary. She did hum, though, mostly fragments of old songs that were only played on classic rock radio, as she shoveled sodden, compacted ash and leaves and dragged crumbling bits of ancient firewood out from the mess. Ugh. Grimacing, she tossed the rotten, lichen-encrusted plant matter into the underbrush at the edge of the clearing and kept going. She hadn’t thought it would get this bad so quickly- or, maybe she just hadn’t thought. Either way, this mess was her responsibility, and although she really was grateful for the help, and for the company, the increasingly grubby teen had to admit that she felt a little guilty for conscripting Jason… Something-Something Bannon to help her deal with it. But… Glancing in the direction of the stream as she crouched next to the re-emerging bowl of hardened earth, she smiled to herself- he didn’t really seem to mind too much, so maybe it was fine.

The visible trash had been first - sodden plastic wrappings, beer cans caught in the deadwood, waxed cartons used for juice or milk - they had all come whizzing obediently out of the water and into the refuse sack, crumpling, folding or otherwise compacting as they travelled.  Then Jase had set the canvas bag left open to one side and focused on the driftwood.  Smaller branches first, some still adorned with leaves, were tugged free of the tangle and laid in a neat pile at one end of the beach in the sunlight, then would come the larger bits- small pieces of dead timber from larger trees carried downriver, and more than a couple of broken-off trunks.  There was a steady meditative style to the way he worked: quick and yet with an air of unhurried thoroughness, and he smiled to himself as he heard Autumn humming as she tended to her own task.

This was a memory he would often revisit later: this simple little scene he would forever associate with companionship.  The music of the brook and the woman, even if some of her humming was charmingly off-key as she occasionally huffed, tossing moldy old firewood into the brush.  The birdsong distant beyond the babble of the creek.  The sunlight throwing glints from the water and fire from Autumn’s hair, and how her waist had felt under his hands as he held on against the pitching of the ATV.  He reflected with some amusement on the reactions of and the interplay between both Keane women.  He also wondered, without sorrow or bitterness, about how it would feel to have that maternal connection: someone who would worry about simple little things no matter how old or competent their child became.  His mind flashed back to the concern shown him by his mother; the way she had touched his face and studied it as though trying to find the boy she had run away from inside the man standing there.  He theorised that Dana explained a lot about Autumn - her undemanding warmth of personality, her restlessness and need to test herself which was very similar to his own, yet possessed of a different tone and texture.

She’d laughed when he’d called her ‘peaceful’, but she was.  Not passive, not static, but contained and self-sufficient.  A creek, always full of restless motion, yet restful to observe.  He imagined that the same rich emotional depth she had shown when speaking of her grandfather, or when cradling him, or when she flamed bright crimson at his teasing, or even when she had charged into a fight with two seniors twice her size were (like the blushes) traits she had inherited from her mother.  He compared that rich emotional texture to his own superficially binary state - remote, cold detachment or searing instinct - with little in the way of middle ground.

With a groaning creak, the first tree-trunk lifted clear of the creek, a rain of water pattering down on the pebbles as Jase caused it to float up and away from the bank, closely followed by a second, then a third solid piece of timber.  The tangle was more or less destroyed now, his TK grasping and bagging a couple of overlooked bits of trash, then conscientiously flipping some more small branches out of the moving water before they could be carried away.  He nodded, satisfied at the clear banks of the creek, then sat down and removed his boots and socks, rolling up the bottom of the legs of his combat pants, before wading into the water.  He probed around carefully on the stony creek-bed with both his feet and his Shine, now and then grabbing sharper rocks and tossing them to the far bank and occasionally locating and removing a broken piece of glass or metal which lay submerged.

The water was warm enough for wading, or even for swimming still, not that the cold bothered him anymore than heat did these days.  He wondered about that - the Shine and how it manifested so differently in so many people.  With him, it seemed to make human concerns even more remote - removing any physical insufficiency, making frailty against the elements irrelevant, granting the ability to seal himself from harm or to deliver it with but a flicker of will.  He paused his chain of thought, realising he’d used the term ‘human concerns’.  Perhaps ‘physical concerns’ would be better, if exactitude was what he sought.  He pulled a buried piece of planking with a couple of protruding nails up from the creek bed, floating it to the driftwood pile on the shore.  Musing to himself he took his time with the work, wading back and forth thigh-deep in the water until, finally satisfied that the creek bed was clear, he turned to see how Autumn was getting on.

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It had taken longer than she’d initially hoped, but- covered in gritty ash, sand, and tiny flecks of bark that she brushed from her jeans as she stood to survey her work- Autumn had finally completed the Great Firepit Excavation of 2019. “Yaayyy,” she cheered softly, shimmying in a little personal dance of celebration, “we have a hole in the ground! Yaaayyy!” Cleared of debris, the roughly circular depression in the ground was a little over a foot deep, and perhaps three feet wide, ringed by large stones claimed in previous years from the depths of the creek. She exhaled, still smiling and flushed from both exertion and a sense of personal accomplishment; it was such a small thing, a tiny, but necessary step toward getting the campsite back in order, but, still, it was progress. 

Now we just need to clear the ground, and figure out what to do with the snake when we sort through the wood, get the fire st-


It was like a song playing in the background, the kind of thing that went unnoticed because she was busy doing homework or helping in the kitchen, and before she realized it- she’d be singing along, and couldn’t remember when she’d started, which verse she’d picked up on. It just sort of happened, the sound gently insinuating itself into her mind until, finally, the rest of her brain caught up. 

There was a snake coiled watchfully among the well-seasoned firewood. Jase was a few feet from shore, standing in the creek. A pair of rabbits… birds overhead… mice, spiders- oh, god, so many spiders! Blinking, she glanced in the direction she felt her companion would be, and- although he wasn’t stationary- he was exactly where she’d expected.  In the week or so since she’d discovered that she was different, like some of the others at Shelly High, Autumn had more or less tried not to think about it too much- mostly because of all the awful things that had come along with it, like hellbeasts and getting punched in the face. 

This wasn’t frightening at all, though. A little hard to process, but not inherently creepy- just a different sort of kinesthetic sense, like being aware of her own body moving through space.

It wasn’t at all what she’d seen before, when everyone was practicing at the Farm. That was so specific, so unique to the person, to see the energy they radiated and how it moved through their bodies. This was so much… Bigger,  maybe? Almost overwhelming, until she found that by concentrating on one thing- Jason, for example- she could make the rest sort of fade out, while whatever she focused on became clearer, sharper and more alive in her mind’s eye. 

Holy shit, this is wild! Okay, okay... Um… Let’s see… How far out does this work? 

“So, hey,” she called, unable to wipe the smile off her face as she paced carefully around the clearing, hands out at her sides. “I think I’m banned from playing hide-and-seek. Like, forever.” Grinning like a child with a new favorite toy, she walked the perimeter of the campsite, trying to work out at exactly what point the odd feeling of life faded into an indistinct haze.

Maybe… 100 feet, or so? Autumn guessed, and then laughed to herself, a little excited and a little incredulous at the same time. As the sensation of the snake at the edge of her awareness disappeared, the redhead paused, and retraced her steps until it reappeared. Cool. Yeah, I think that’s right. And, hey. At least it’s useful. It occurred to her, then, that this was what she’d experienced in the hospital, when she and Cassie had gone downstairs and the worlds had flipped again, or overlapped, or… Whatever.

“Okay,” she murmured, kneeling a few feet from the pair of trees where the stack of firewood had toppled into a shadowy pile perfect for any number of insects and small animals to make their home. “So… who are you, exactly? Are you friendly, or are you bitey?” Autumn had been taught to demonstrate a healthy respect for all creatures, even those not normally considered dangerous, so she weighed her options carefully. Out of the 10 species of snake native to the region, only one was technically venomous, and most of the others were sufficiently shy or docile enough to be safely relocated, but a 1-in-10 chance was still a chance. The last thing- well, one of the last things- she wanted on this trip was to get bitten by a rattlesnake and have to endure Jase’s teasing about needing the venom sucked out.

And, as if on cue… 

He’d moved so quietly, somehow padding up behind her without disturbing any of the dried needles or foliage, that if she hadn’t felt him draw nearer she’d never have known he was there. The thought was a little disturbing, but equally impressive; it occurred to her that he might be a good hunting partner as well, when the elk and mule deer seasons opened in a few weeks, and she made a mental note to ask him about it. Maybe he was right, and just “doing activities” together would help banish the lingering uneasiness she still felt around him. 

“Hey.” She glanced up over her shoulder at his approach, giving the tall, wiry youth a quick smile. “We have a visitor. I’m trying to decide if they can hang out with us, or if they’re gonna be one of those annoying, grumpy neighbors. And I think…” Her voice trailed off, eyes losing focus with the shift from one type of vision to another. The shape of the head was the most important part, and since she had no idea if there was a way to work out more details, it was probably enough. “Yeah, I think we’re good. ...Probably. Just to be safe, though, would you mind doing the telekinesis-thing, and move those two logs right there? I know you’ve already used it a lot, so if not, I can just grab a stick or something to nudge them and get her to come out.”

"It’s no strain or problem."  he smiled slightly, nodding toward the two logs she'd indicated which obediently lifted, very slowly, away from the ground.

“No matter how many times I see that, it’s still hard to believe. Although, honestly, if I could touch things at a distance, feel them without having to actually disturb them, I dunno. It’s kinda cool,” she admitted, getting to her feet in case the snake was startled enough to be aggressive. “Ohhh, look at you,” the redhead all but whispered in admiration. She didn’t share Cade’s gift with animals, but that didn’t stop her from striking up a one-sided conversation anyway. “Aren’t you beautiful?” she breathed, smiling. “Hope you don’t mind, we’re just gonna do some renovations to your house, here, but you’re welcome to stay if you want. If not, that’s cool. We’re kind of on the big and noisy side, huh? Might make it hard to get dinner tonight.” Cautiously, carefully, the pair re-stacked the fallen logs, keeping a watchful eye on the pretty little garter snake that was also watching them. By the time they were done, she of the gilded stripes had retreated into a narrow gap between two of the largest logs on the bottom, where neither party was likely to annoy the other.

“Nice job,” Autumn smiled approvingly at Jase’s share of the work. “We can use those last few to get the fire started. I’m gonna go put this away and get cleaned up a little before we unpack the rest. Cool?” Scooping up the camp shovel she’d abandoned by the firepit earlier, she banged it a couple of times against the bottom of her boot before folding it up again and returning it to the ATV. She paused for a moment, debating the relative merits of rinsing her face and hands with some of the bottled water she’d brought, versus just going over to the creek… and it occurred to her, mid-consideration, that the only reason she was even thinking about it was because she wasn’t alone. 

Okay, no. That’s... It shouldn’t matter. Why should it be any different just because someone else is here? Don’t make it weird, Autumn.

Rolling her eyes at her own self-consciousness, the animated young woman rummaged around in her pack until she managed to extricate a towel and headed down toward the water’s edge. The Goddamn Bannon did good work, she had to admit. The bank was clear, and all the driftwood and branches that had blocked access to the water had been relocated into a relatively neat pile further down the rocky shore. It was beautiful: the sound of the stream, the heat of the afternoon, and the fresh, clean smell of sun-warmed pine on the breeze. Aaaaand, her, covered in ash, dirt, and sweat. Grinning as she untied the much-beloved hoodie from around her waist and draped it over a nearby branch, Autumn couldn’t help but laugh, imagining the picture that would make if some nature photographer happened by. 

Next, the hiking boots and socks came off, and were carefully set aside, farther from the water’s reach, followed- after a moment’s hesitation- by her t-shirt, and then her jeans. She’d worn the two-piece swimsuit underneath, purchased over the summer, for entirely practical reasons, and this was a very practical sort of situation. ...And yet, it was still a little odd taking off her clothes with someone who wasn’t a relative less than 100 feet away, but- hadn’t she also told Marissa that the reason she enjoyed coming out here so much was the freedom? Autumn considered that for a moment as she shook the loose dirt from her clothes and set them aside. Superficially, the purpose of the trip was to clean up the camp site, but the whole idea was to get to know her new friend better, and for him to become more familiar with her, as well. How was he going to do that if she did things differently just because he was there? 

Eh, she decided with a surreptitious glance back toward the clearing. He’s seen boobs before, and I’m not naked enough that Instagram would ban the photos, so fuck it, I guess. 

The water was satisfyingly cool as she entered, but not at all cold, and when she’d waded far enough that it eddied around her pale thighs, she bent down, quickly splashing the dirt from her face and scrubbing it off her forearms. It would have taken twice as long if she’d tried to be more careful, used water from one of the jugs or something. It would also have been a lot less fun. Once she was satisfied that all the freckles she could see were actually part of her skin, she took a long, deep breath, bent her knees, and let herself sink down to the bottom. 

He’d watched as she gently spoke to the garter snake, his eyes studying her profile intently as she restacked the logs, leaving space for the small reptile to find a safe, comfortable nook.  Then he’d given her some privacy as she went to clean up, turning instead to sort out his camping arrangements.  His low, sloping Backpacker was technically a two-man tent, but only if they were horizontal - perhaps a single person could sit upright in the thing.  It was minimalist: lightweight and waterproof, good for temperate weather during Spring, Summer or Fall, and packed up into a neat, small roll-bag that could be clipped onto the Army surplus pack he’d come with.

He unpacked it, eyeing the ground for a good spot and telekinetically ensuring it was free of rocks and sharp, pokey sticks, then set the tent up with an ease born of equal parts practice, perfect memory and having as many extra hands as he needed, noting with some satisfaction that the whole process had taken him maybe eight minutes, and when it was done he was a safe distance from the firepit with the flap of his tent facing towards it.  He stashed his pack in the tent, setting aside a flashlight and a roll of toilet paper just inside the flap, then his head tilted as he heard the sounds of splashing from the creek.  Smiling to himself, he grabbed a towel from his pack and, straightening, ambled in the direction of the creek and the sound of watery relaxation.

So it was that when Autumn surfaced from the sunlit water with a small whoop of enjoyment, the first thing she saw as she scooped her length of soaking red hair from her eyes was Jase, who regarded her with a small grin, then dropped his towel on the pebbles and began to peel off his t-shirt.

“You’d better be wearing trunks.”  Autumn said warningly as Jason’s lean torso came into view.  He was not muscular, but what muscle he had was defined, taut over bones that seemed too large for the sparse flesh currently adorning them.  As she had noted before, he was utterly unselfconscious, chuckling as he started to unfasten his belt, the sound of his amusement causing her to be grateful that the water was just cool enough to take the edge off her blush.

“If I wanted to heat the water to boiling point, I could do it more efficiently than by causing you to blush so hard your hair combusts.”  he retorted, dropping trou to reveal that yes, he was wearing trunks and no, they weren’t indecently tight Speedos, rather being a loose set of swimming shorts that came down to mid thigh.  Without further ado he waded out into the creek and performed a shallow dive, surfacing after a few moments with a wide grin of pleasure, then turning to Autumn, his green eyes shining.

“Thank you for this.” he said soberly, despite his smiling gaze.

He’s impossible, she realized suddenly, her infuriated denial of the possibility of her hair combusting because of something he said dying on her lips. Or perhaps she only remembered it suddenly, as if she’d somehow forgotten: there was no good way to “handle” Jason Bannon, because everything about him resisted being handled. ...And, if she was completely honest, confronted by the proximity of someone she'd almost kissed a week prior, when he was fully-clothed and not dripping wet… her hair spontaneously catching fire was the least of her worries.

“Honestly? You’re welcome,” she replied after a moment’s thought, the corners of her eyes crinkling slightly as she smiled, ignoring the sudden influx of warmth into her cheeks. “And, I don’t mean like... The courtesy thing, where somebody says ‘thanks,’ and you say ‘you’re welcome,’ because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and all that. I mean…” Hesitating, her clear, pale eyes flicked over Jase’s shoulder to the camp site up the shore, and then back to his face. “You’re welcome. Here, I mean. This has always kind of been my place, but I, um. I don’t mind sharing it. With a friend.”

The taste of the word was still unfamiliar, and she was pretty sure she couldn’t be more out of her depth with someone if she swallowed stones and sank to the bottom of the sea, but… Was there any better reason to try something, than that it was hard? In her eyes, every time Jase opened his mouth, or looked at someone, he shifted the goalpost a little bit, daring them to go after it, watching to see if they would. It was awkward, and sometimes intensely uncomfortable- case in point, she reflected, resisting the almost physical urge to duck underwater again beneath the weight of that burning green gaze- but also incredibly exciting… a game where people had to figure out the rules in the midst of playing. 

Maybe she would never really understand him. Maybe she couldn’t. Maybe there was no way to “win,” given how completely, impossibly, impossible Jase was, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still a lot of fun to try. She tipped her head back into the current with an indulgent sigh, letting the current tug at her hair as she watched a bird wheel slowly across the enormous, otherwise unbroken expanse of blue overhead. 

“So, friend, now that you’re out here, what do you feel like doing? I still want to get everything unpacked before it gets dark, and get a fire going, but I’m open to suggestions. Staying out here is a completely valid option, by the way. Or a nap. Or a long walk. Pretty much anything.”

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“Hmm.”  The musing sound was drawn out and thoughtful, which was one clue it could be dissembling.  From what Autumn had seen, Jase didn’t usually take long to figure out what he wanted to do next - most of his focus was on ‘how’ rather than ‘what’.  Her suspicions were further roused when he smiled at her before likewise laying back in the water.  Here it came.  Here came the one-liner laden with innuendo. “Pretty much anything, hmm?” or something similar.

But he said nothing, just lazily sculling with his arms to keep himself in place as he floated looking up at the sky, narrowed eyes slits of emerald fire as they caught the late afternoon sunlight.  Autumn tried to relax too, laying her head back in the water and feeling it flow past, but her mind kept poking at that ‘hmm’ like a tongue at a loose tooth.  Finally she raised her head and all-but glowered across at her silently floating companion.

“That’s it?  ‘Hmm’? ‘Hmm’ what?” she demanded, feeling her lips twitch in a smile as she saw his mouth curve in a slight grin.  Damn it.  Damn him.  Goddamn Jason Effing Bannon and his impossibleness.

“Just ‘hmm’.” he said casually, raising his head to peer at her, his expression composed but for the faint crooked smile and his gaze full of mirth.  “Why, was I supposed to say something else?”

“‘Hmm’ is not an answer to the question.”  Autumn returned somewhat indignantly, though she was pretty certain her own urge to laugh was showing as Jase straightened somewhat in the water, cocking his head to one side and regarding her with that faint smile that was smug and not at all charming.  Teasing jerk.  Reacting more than thinking, she brought one hand around in a sweep, splashing water at his face.

That, at least, caught him by surprise.  His eyes widened for a moment as he registered the movement, and he managed to half-turn aside so he didn’t get the brunt of it in the face, but it was still sufficient to make him blink, then turn back to regard Autumn for a long moment.  Then, theatrically, he lifted a hand and slowly wiped his face, flicking the water aside before dipping his hand into the water and sweeping it towards her.

The retaliatory splash was an obvious response, and Autumn turned away, laughing - only to catch a second deluge right in the face from an invisible hand that made her sputter.

“Oh, now it’s on!” she announced, sweeping both arms forward and causing Jase to cover his face with his hands as sun-brightened sprays of water cast rainbows in the late afternoon light.  Grinning he responded in kind, long arms scooping wave after wave at the giggling redhead.  The naval warfare continued like that for some minutes, the two combatants wading back and forth in the creek as they hurled water and banter at each other in roughly equal volumes.

“TK is cheating!  Lame-ass!”  Autumn yelled as she ducked and weathered a veritable tsunami from all sides.

“Not my fault you didn’t know who you were messing with, scrub.”  Jason replied coolly, only to end up spitting water as a cunning underhand shot from his opponent caught him square in the face.

“Hah!”  Autumn crowed - right as she felt a pair of impossibly strong hands grab her around the waist and lift her into the air before tossing her with a shriek into the deeper part of the creek.  Surfacing with a roar of challenge that would do a tigress proud, she surged through the water and tackled the smirking jerkface who’d ducked her, hooking her arms around his shoulders and dragging him under even as she felt his arms loop around her to pull her with him.

It wasn’t at all a calculated risk, because there was no calculation involved. Even at play, Autumn was competitive by nature, and when his arms went around her- either as a reflex on his part, or as an intentional decision to pull her along- it signalled a response to the challenge. The moment she felt Jase’s arms tighten, felt the shift in energy and the torque of his waist, they hit the water, already rolling. 

All sound evaporated, save for the surging of the water and the rapid, joyous pounding of her heartbeat in her ears. Vision disappeared in an instantaneous explosion of frothy white, and there was no equilibrium, no sense of up or down- just the sensation of the current all around, and the texture of his skin, taut over sinew and bone, beneath her hands. He had height on her, and reach as well, but there was no distance to be had between them, which rendered it temporarily meaningless. 

As he turned, using Autumn’s own forward momentum to roll her toward the creek bed, she mirrored the movement, arcing her upper body and twisting to continue the spin and deny him positioning. To her surprise, Jase did the same, the adamant grip of his arms around her waist compelling her to keep turning or be “pinned,” and pushed down to the bottom. At some point, the elastic band in her braid finally worked loose, and for several moments she could see nothing but the bright, coppery mass of her own hair. 

 For what seemed like ages, the two young competitors feinted, rolled, and vied for any edge they could find: when Jase used the benefit of his greater height to simply stand up, Autumn hooked her foot behind his knee and pulled him off-balance. Pressing her advantage, she tried to use her body-weight to flip him, wrapping her legs around his midsection and throwing herself backwards; it wasn’t until he relaxed slightly, allowing her to pitch him forward that she realized she’d erred. Refusing to be caught so easily, the redhead unlocked her legs and kicked off the loose rock with one foot, her entire body contracting and uncoiling in a smooth, tight spiral as her fingertips slid from the hard expanse of her adversary’s back to his shoulders. With a measure of finality, she pressed him gently back against the rounded stones, just a few feet beneath the shimmering, sunlit surface of the stream. 

 Her moment of triumph was short-lived, however. She had just enough time to catch the telltale curve of Jase’s lips as the water around them began to clear, and then- the impossibly delicate, almost feathery sensation of fingertips gliding, dancing up over her ribs. To her credit, she managed to weather the decidedly unsportsmanlike assault for almost a full 10 seconds before pushing off his chest with both palms and kicking upwards, a column of white bubbles following her rapid ascent.

 Ugh, you suck so hard!” she laughed, choking and spluttering at no one in particular. Pulling her hair back over her shoulder as she tried to get her bearings, Autumn staggered back in the general direction of the shore.

He surfaced behind her already laughing as his head emerged, even though the combination of water and his normally-shaggy hair were obscuring his sight he didn’t seem to have many problems navigating shorewards as he wiped his face clear.

“Victory is mine.” he announced calmly, his eyes gleaming as brightly as the beads of water on his skin as he waded into the shallows.  Autumn, having already procured her towel, considered diving for Jase’s and tossing it in the creek, but settled for giving him a narrow stare as she wrapped her own around herself.

“You lost.”  she informed him with a smirk.

“You quit first.”  came the inexorably calm reply.

“You cheated!”

“Cheating implies the breaching of an agreed-upon set of rules.”  Jase held his hand out, his towel flying from the ground to his grasp.  He grinned at her as he began to towel himself off vigorously.  “There was no such agreement.”

Ugh.  You suck.”  Autumn reiterated, flicking water from her fingers at him.  “Everyone knows tickling is cheating.”

“You mean it is conventionally accepted that tickling is unfair.”  Jase shrugged his bony shoulders, flashing another grin at her, then began towelling his hair dry.  “Conventional is just another word for lacking in initiative.”  He paused mid-towelling, considering something, then smiled at her, tossing the towel back towards his clothing.  “For instance…”

There was a faint shimmer in the air around him, a heat-haze that rose from his skin in the sunlight, causing his damp hair to rise slightly in the thermal updraft.  Focused on Autumn, his eyes grew brighter still, the pale green shifting to a more amber hue as a cloud of steam rose from his skin moments before he appeared to burst into flame.  Autumn made a short sound of surprise and took a half-step back.

Wreathed in flickering gold, red and orange, Jase was untouched by the flame as, mercifully so, were his swim-shorts.  The heat of his fire was a tangible thing, even from a couple of meters away Autumn could feel it on her skin.

“This makes drying off easier.” he said conversationally, his eyes deep slivers of brightness as he smiled at Autumn through his aura of fire.  “For you, too.”

This was light-years away from the first time she'd seen his pyrokinetic abilities, when he'd burned away everything except the blood on his skin. The entire experience had been terrifying, and yet here she was: no monsters, no blood, no terror- just a sense of awe as she watched the fire lick unhurriedly over his skin, enfolding him like the arms of a jealous lover. He could see the brilliant flames reflected gold and scarlet against the sea in her eyes, and the half-step back became a tentative step forward, the heat reddening her cheeks as she approached. "Um, how far away, exactly, do I need to stand?"

“A few feet is likely best, though I won’t burn you unless I want to - the fire is very much under my control, so long as I am under control, I’ve found.”  Jason said from within the flickering dance of flames.  “The cryokinetic side of my abilities operates on the same principles.  The level of fine control possible takes some getting used to - I practice a lot.”  he admitted with a small grin.  “For instance, I can superheat areas of my aura to the point that it, theoretically, should vaporise incoming bullets, but I can also pick up a cold can of Coke without disturbing its temperature unduly.”

She took another step forward, lifting one hand and turning her palm toward the burning aura that surrounded him, a tangible illustration of the otherwise invisible barrier between Jase and the rest of the world. The closer she got, the more uncomfortable it became, a sensation just on the edge of pain but not quite crossing the threshold into injury. It slowly evaporated the droplets of water that lingered on her skin, and as individual strands of her hair dried, they drifted lazily in the waves of heat that rippled around his body.

“How do you practice something like that, out of curiosity?” she wondered aloud, not daring to approach further for fear her hair really would combust. “I haven’t had much luck, honestly, although the day everyone was at the Farm did help, and Tuesday was... let’s call it educational. Outside of that, though, it’s surprisingly difficult to convince people to let you experiment on them, when you’re not even sure what the result is supposed to be.” She grinned up at him through the shimmering wall of light and heat, trying (as ever) to gauge his expression; it was hard to see his eyes from where she was standing. “Although, I guess it’s probably easier when it’s something you can do by yourself.” Her fingers curled slightly, just at the limits of her tolerance, as if resting against a pane of glass behind which he was standing. I am Fire. The words sprang unbidden from memory, and she smiled, just a little, at the thought. Yeah. Yeah, you are. 

“I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, or if it goes both ways, but I get this odd feeling of….” she paused, eyes narrowing slightly as she searched for the right words. “Connection, maybe? Just by touching a person, I can almost feel them the same way I do my own body, like we’re sharing the same skin. I never realized how much you can tell about someone from just physical contact, and how they respond to it.” Shrugging, she traced the “surface” of his aura with her fingers, eyelids fluttering briefly at that knife-edge sensation as the nerves beneath her skin wavered on whether or not she was about to be burned.

“Maybe I’m like Lona,” Autumn mused, an uncharacteristically thoughtful expression on her freckled features, “but backwards.”  Remembering what had happened with the fight in the hallway gave her a moment’s pause as she considered what that might imply.

“Other than a general awareness of the Shine, everyone seems to experience the subquantum differently.  I can feel, as though touching it, every physical object around me out to about ninety feet.  I can detect their motion relative to my own, their temperature, and so on.  You possess similar sensory abilities to both Charlie and Avalon - you can sense living creatures as I sense objects, like with the snake, and you can read a person’s state of health, so it seems you have both of their gifts, perhaps not to the same extent and with personal differences, rather than sharing their focus.”  Jase slowly let his fiery aura die out, the last flickers of flame seeming to dance into his eyes as they returned to their normal pale icy green hue.  He pulled on his pants, hopping from one leg to the other in a reasonable display of balance before fastening them.   

“Huh.”  Autumn stared at him for a moment, feeling delightfully warm and dry now as she pulled on her jeans.  “You’ve thought about this a whole hell of a lot.”

“I study other people’s gifts, and study my own, and each area of study increases my knowledge of the other, even when the gifts of others are outside the psionic arena.  Like Cade or Marissa, who have a differing version of the Shine that makes them peak-human, or beyond, in their areas of focus.”  Jase grinned slightly at her as he pulled on his boots, leaving them unlaced for now as he got to his feet.  “The whole link to the theorised subquantum strata is fascinating.”

“Okay.”  Autumn narrowed her eyes.  “You and Sean were babbling excitedly about that - I remember that word coming up once or twice while I was trying not to freak out about being there at your farm.”  She smiled a little, remembering how geeky Jase had seemed in that moment, his normal reserve having been dropped in the excitement.  “And you’ve mentioned it a couple times since.  Care to give me the grade school version while we get everything set up?”

“It’s pretty straightforward stuff, at least on the surface ‘what you need to know level’.” Jase smiled back at her.  “I think you can even manage without crayon drawings.”

“Ass.”  Autumn snickered, flipping him the bird.  “C’mon, let’s get to work.”

Edited by GDP_ST
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And they did.  As they got the campsite fit for purpose, Jase laid out the current theory of quantum forces as the underpinnings of all creation, including the massive gap in the theory as it stood right now.  He then went on to explain how the existence of a subquantum layer of reality filled in that gap, providing a unifying force tying everything together.  Then, with a few short examples from his observations of various members of the Fellowship’s gifts, he demonstrated how the psionic level of reality and the subquantum layer had to be one and the same, and that it was a layer where the normal rules of time, space and physics were malleable and subject to the will of the psionically gifted.  Indeed, it could be considered the level of reality that consciousness and willpower existed on.  The realm of the soul, for want of a better word.

By the time the exploration into the foundations of all reality was over, Jase was sitting by a crackling fire that had been laid in the pit Autumn had cleaned out as the flame-haired girl paced around the campsite. The contrast between them was notable - one a picture of stillness between one considered, purpose-laden movement and the next, the other constantly shifting in restless tandem with the activity of her mind as it took everything in. The afternoon had progressed into early evening, though there was still plenty of light from the sun as it dipped towards the horizon.

“So.”  Jase leaned back on his elbows, raising a brow at Autumn as the firelight danced on his composed features.  “I won’t ask if you have any questions, because I know I still do and I’m pretty sure you’re not that easily satisfied either.  But does the explanation help, at least?”

Something about the act of just moving around made it easier for her to focus. While the rest of her had been arranging firewood to promote airflow, setting up her tent, and stretching the brand-new hammock she’d gotten at the start of school between the usual trees, her brain found itself free to concentrate on what Jase was- with an impressive degree of patience, and without crayons- trying to explain. He understood the subject matter well enough to be able to convey it simply, without condescension, and without seeming bored. If anything, assuming that her study of Jase Expressions for Noobs was accurate, he actually seemed pleased to be sharing information. He could also just be humoring her- she was still in the early days of her anthropological observations after all, so it was difficult to tell.

“It does help,” Autumn agreed slowly, still processing Jase’s elementary unpacking of what was, essentially, a theory of everything. “It gives me a place to start, anyway. And, yeah,” she grinned, tossing a twig into the fire, “I have questions. There are always questions, every time we talk about something. Well,” she amended, the smile audible in her voice as she headed over to the cooler. “About something serious, anyway. And then you answer them, and then I have more. It’s like I’m in class, but actually paying attention.” A cold water bottle appeared in front of his eyes as the red-haired girl walked up behind him, nudging him gently with her knee. “Thought you might be thirsty after the lesson, Professor Bannon.” As he cracked open the seal on his drink, she carried hers over to the striped wool blanket spread near the fire and finally settled down. 

“‘Professor,’ is it now?” her companion inquired as he took a long drink of water, the bottle going slightly cloudy with the formation of tiny ice crystals within to adjust the temperature.

“Mhmm. You can’t be a high school science teacher.” Cutting her eyes at him as she tilted her head just slightly, the redhead took a sip from her own bottle and added with a smirk, “You’re not old, bald, ugly, overweight, or divorced, and you haven’t given up on life yet. Sorry,” she shrugged, as if there was nothing she could do. “You don’t meet the job requirements. Go teach some hot college girls first, get involved in a couple of scandals, come back when you’ve had your midlife crisis.” 

“Well, I admit the thought of fooling around scandalously with college girls has its appeal.”  Jase smiled slightly, causing Autumn to experience a pang of anxiety on behalf of her college-aged sisterhood.  “Older women, and all.  Experienced hands on my tiller.”

Autumn turned bright red even as she snorted around a mouthful of water, thankful not to have another choking coughing episode like the one in his kitchen this time.  It was the way he delivered the cheesy double-entendre utterly deadpan, with just a hint of a pause before the word ‘tiller’.  She didn’t dare look at him, knowing that he’d be wearing an expression of mildly amused interest in her plight that would cause her to lose her shit entirely.  Instead she took a deep breath, finished her drink, took another deep breath, then unable to help herself she glanced sideways.

He was watching her with the exact expression she had expected, only as he noticed her look at him he raised a solitary eyebrow archly, then winked.

“You-” she wagged a finger in a passable imitation of her mother scolding her.  “-are totally…”

“Utterly.” he said with an air of agreement, nodding as he scooched over to sit on her blanket.  “Couldn’t agree more.  Though I think I’ll pass on having a midlife crisis.  They seem tedious.”

“You don’t ever stop and re-evaluate everything in your life and who you are?”  Autumn glanced at him again, smiling a little.

“I constantly re-evaluate everything in my life, especially lately.  As to who I am, that doesn’t change”  Jason stated somewhat somberly as he stared into the fire.  “That’s why having a friend who understands that is important.” he added with a sideways smile.

“Mmmm,” she nodded, taking another drink as she weighed his words quietly, rolling them over in her mind as the fire crackled and snapped softly in the amber glow of the fading daylight. “I can see that. Sort of the idea that who a person is, at their core, can’t really be changed in any fundamental way. Especially so for you, maybe,” Autumn allowed, leaning over for a moment to bump his shoulder with her own. “I don’t know that I necessarily agree completely, but your boots are too big for me to walk very far in.” Smiling, she gave a small shrug. “I mean, I know that I’d like to think that what I feel as ‘Autumn,’ in my head, is a fixed point. That I could use that to navigate through life, knowing as long as I kept it in sight, I’d be fine.” She paused, wondering (not for the first time) if it was Jase’s presence, or something in the atmosphere that made her feel oddly pensive. “Other times, I think about whether that’s really true, or just what I want to think is true, you know? Honestly, I wonder if the ‘Autumn’ I think I am isn’t something I can chart a course by, but just a compass needle that points somewhere else.” She frowned at that, her eyebrows knitting together in consternation.

“Physically, we’re different people all the time. New skin, new bones, new blood, all of it. And, I know that other things about me change, too. Have changed, even just in little ways.” With a quick sweep of her hand, she gestured toward Jase himself in acknowledgement of their nascent friendship. “Maybe even in ways I haven’t noticed yet, because I’m too busy actually doing it. Like, not knowing you’re getting taller until your clothes don’t fit anymore.” There was a moment of quiet as Autumn took another drink, and then offered him a slightly abashed smile. “So, not that you asked, but that’s what I think.” Then, a moment later, “Professor.”

He smiled a little at the adornment, shaking his head, but his mood was reflective as he considered her words.  It was certainly true that one adapted to changing situations.  It was also true that the core of a person, at least himself, was not all that malleable.  He wondered if that was due to the malleability being a function of intuitive socialisation - one adapted to fit the circumstances, up to and including the infamous Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages could experience something very like love towards their captors and vice versa.  Did his knowledge that he was not human, that he was of a different species entirely, change who he was?  Or merely how he perceived that who.

“I think both are true.” he said eventually, after a comfortable silence in which both teens were considering.  In response to Autumn’s glance his way, he half turned towards her, his gaze assessing.  “You - Autumn - are the point of reference: the star if you will, that you steer by, and you are also the compass needle.  For you, each acts on the other.  Most of the time, the needle points to where you already know you should be as dictated by the position of your central star.  And sometimes it points to a place you haven’t considered, and the solid point of reference shifts, but remains Autumn.”  He smiled at her, the expression reaching his firelit eyes.

“For me, perhaps it’s the same.  I don’t know.  I still feel the same as I did before the summer, the party, the powers.  I have elected to drop my mask, so I appear changed to others, but I don’t know if I’ve changed inside.  I fought a hellbeast, then went and ate pizza, cheered Lilly on at the game, brutalised Liam all in the same evening, and I feel no different as a result of those things.  It’s like the central star that is me doesn’t shift, even as new facets of it come to light and everything I do is in relation to it.”  He turned his gaze to the fire again, its light shining off his shaggy dark hair.  “Right now I feel different, though.  Less cold, more warm.  Peaceful.”  He glanced at her, meeting her eyes.  “That’s your doing, I think.  And thank you for that.”

That gave her a moment’s pause, the conversation suddenly veering off in a direction she would never have expected… Which, to be fair, wasn’t unusual on its own, but both the openness of his admission and the fact that he was directing it at her left her momentarily at a total loss for words.

“I mean, you’re welcome, but… I don’t think I’ve done anything you would need to thank me for. Seriously.” Sliding a couple inches closer, she nudged his shoulder again. “Apologize for, maybe, for being a dirty cheat-” Autumn caught herself, pursing her lips. “For… taking unfair advantage of the unwritten nature of a rule,” she corrected, unable to resist glowering up at him in mock fury, her eyes fairly aglow with humor. “But, not thank me. You’re right, though, you do seem a little different. It could just be this place, you know? It is peaceful, here, and it just kind of melts into you, every part of you, into your bones. Something in the air, or the water, I don’t know.” Smiling, she looked beyond the fire to the stream, where the encroaching twilight gazed down at its reflection in the slow-moving current. “It’s probably my favorite place in the world. I’m glad you like it- hopefully, everyone else will like it, too.” 

Taking another long sip of water, she thought about that for a moment, the idea of bringing so many people- people like her, who were also very unlike her- here. Would they appreciate it? Would they be respectful? She’d been to plenty of overnight parties where that wasn’t the case, and she knew she would be taking a risk, inviting the others… But, it was something new, something she hadn’t tried before, and- she didn’t have to look over at her companion to know he was there, a feeling of warmth and vitality suggesting his presence- thus far, she seemed to be having pretty good luck with new things. She’d been prepared for the sleepover at Marissa’s to blow up in her face, and fully expected to get the Cora treatment when she’d gone to pick up her hoodie, hadn’t she? Maybe this would be the same. 

With a crinkle of plastic, she drained the last swallow of water from her bottle and fished the cap out of her pocket before glancing over at him and smiling encouragingly. He didn’t seem to mind the quiet, not filling the silences with pointless conversation- which was a fortunate thing this far out from Shelly itself.

“Are you hungry yet?” she asked, getting to her feet and screwing the bottle cap back on, eyeing the fire speculatively. “It’s almost burned down enough to cook, so whenever you’re ready it should be fine. If not, I brought cards and stuff, in case we got bored.”

“I’m always hungry.”  Jase looked up at her with a sharp grin that put Autumn in mind of a fox when someone said the word ‘chicken’.  “I don’t think I’ve ever cooked on an open fire before - not counting marshmallows and Smores - but I’ve read about it.  Dad and Hank usually set up a portable gas grill.”  He watched with interest as Autumn, shooting him a smile, extracted two fair-sized foil parcels from the small cold-bag and brought them back to the fireside.

“Cubed sirloin with veggies and red potatoes.” she said in answer to his curious glance.  “We bury them like so...”  Autumn knelt down, handing him one of the packets and picking up a stick, poking a depression in the glowing coals toward the edge of the fire before depositing her foil package carefully, then pulling the coals over.  She turned to see Jase imitating her almost exactly… except that the lean youth was using his bare hands to scoop red-hot embers aside, then carefully pat them back into place over the parcel before dusting his hands off.

Autumn's first, instinctive reaction was a momentary flicker of panic: bare skin, live coals. Oh, shit! She took a half step toward her friend, then hesitated. He was- fine? Startled, she watched Jase for several seconds, wide-eyed, and took a few deep breaths to slow the rapid surge in her heartbeat. It was strange, she marveled, to see how seamlessly he'd integrated his own powers into his life, as if they were simply part of who he was intrinsically, rather than just something he could do. He seemed perfectly at ease, like he'd done this a thousand times before. For all she knew, maybe he had. 

At the same time, it was a stark reminder of how inarguably strange Jason Bannon was, something she'd conveniently pushed to the back of her mind while they'd played in the stream and gotten the camp site in order.  He was a person, sure, but also more than that. Different. Chewing her lower lip thoughtfully, she shook her head. It's fine, the redhead reminded herself, as something else occurred to her.

"Cheater," she grumbled under her breath, viciously jabbing her newly-designated poking stick into the coals.

“Oh, there are rules for that too?”  Jase responded with a hint of a smile.  Autumn stuck her tongue out at him, then smiled as she sat back, regarding him with a mixture of friendly good humor, curiousity, and a tinge of exasperation.

“Just trying to figure out how you do that.” she said, squinting a little at him over her smile.

“Thermokinetic diffusion?”

“No.  I mean - do it so easily.  Like it’s not even a special effort. No big ‘ta-da’.”  Autumn’s freckle-speckled nose screwed up slightly.  “It still kind of freaks me out, this ‘Shine’ thing.”

“I’m not unique there.  Devin thinks nothing of teleporting to Athens for pizza or Bangkok for Thai food, or even teleporting his dresser to him to change clothes.”  Jase shuffled around to face her as he spoke.  “Charlie shifted his head into a reasonable copy of a female newsreader’s and scared the country girl glow out of Tawny’s cheeks.”  He smirked as he remembered that.  “I wonder if Devin got around to fully explaining to her what the hell is going on yet?  Anyway, that was the first casual use of his powers I’ve ever seen Charlie make, so there’s hope there - though his timing and the company present could have been better.”  He rolled his eyes, then pondered, his gaze on her features.

“Most of the others seem to be getting more relaxed about it, but I don’t think they put a lot of thought into how their powers could be used.  For instance you share Charlie’s gift to an extent, which means you might be able to physically adapt to extreme heat enough that you, too, could pick up a red hot coal.”  He shrugged.  “I’m pretty sure that Sean spends a lot of time reading people’s texts and emails as they go whizzing through the air.  At least, I would if I were him.  Same with Sara’s telepathy - I’d be constantly skimming people’s moods and surface thoughts, hoping to understand them better.”

“Cheating.”  Autumn grinned at him, poking his arm with a finger.

“Working imaginatively to overcome a limitation.”  Jase responded, grinning back at her.  “If I had yours and Charlie’s gift, I’d grow gills and go swimming.  Or experiment with altering my own pheromones.  Or anything, really.  The key is first, establish How my powers work.  Then ask the question ‘what else can I do?’  Let the imagination soar, and don’t be afraid.”  He paused, considering that.  “Easy for me to say, perhaps.  But doesn’t make it untrue.”

Something in her eyes had lit up when he started talking about what he would do with other people’s powers; although she’d made a valiant and concerted effort to keep still and listen quietly, when he finally grew quiet, all the energy she’d been holding came out in a rush.

“Okay, okay, but!” Hopping up to her feet suddenly, Autumn took a few steps to get her thoughts in order, then turned to face him again. “First, trust me. Your pheromones are fine. No problem there.” Her cheeks flushed slightly in the firelight as she gestured expansively in his general direction, but she grinned anyway. “Also, what if you don’t need to be able to grow gills to do that? Like, what if you just used one of your force-fields to make a bubble around yourself? I mean, you can breathe inside them, right? And then, if you can’t swim because you’re not touching the water, just… Airplane yourself.” She paused for a second, her expression suddenly serious. “Please tell me you’ve tried that, because if not, I don’t know that we can be friends. Not the underwater part, I mean, but flying.” 

"I have tried."  Jase admitted with a small smile.  "I can do it, but at the moment it causes the kind of headache I associate with psionic strain.  Like lifting too much with your arms can cause them to hurt."

Seriously?!” the restive redhead all but crowed, bouncing on the balls of her feet as she laughed. “That’s so freakin’ cool, though! I mean, yeah, you could probably do all kinds of crazy stuff with Sean’s abilities, or Sara’s, or whatever, but you’re learning to fly. When you figure out how all this works together, how to do it without hurting yourself, you could go anywhere, see anything, and nothing could hurt you. Like…” Resting her hands on top of her head, she paused, reflecting long enough to breathe amid the torrent of words and thoughts. “Devin can go anywhere, which is awesome, but can he survive there? Under the ocean, or, or in a volcano, or… hell, in space. I can’t even imagine having that kind of freedom,” she breathed, though her expression of rapt fascination rather suggested otherwise. “What you can do, how natural it is for you, that’s- it’s amazing. You’re amazing, you know?”

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He’d blinked as she announced his pheromones were ‘fine’, though a smile curved his lips as he watched her pace, gesture and speak, her exuberance as warming as the campfire.  She obviously felt the same way as he did about his gifts, and the display of enthusiastic and active imagination was… reassuring.  He wasn’t alone in how he felt about these things, he mused with a smile.  He got to his feet, stretching muscles still a little taut from the horseplay in the creek earlier, just as Autumn finished her passionate statement.  “What you can do, how natural it is for you, that’s- it’s amazing. You’re amazing, you know?”  

He blinked again, pausing mid-stretch to gaze at Autumn.  He’d never really heard such sentiment from others before.  There’d been implied praise, respect or admiration once or twice - more often had been the sensation that his nature daunted others, scared them.  But never such unreserved warm sentiment, boldly expressed.  He studied her as she stood, hands still resting on her loosely tied back red-gold tumble of hair, frozen for a moment as she realised he’d turned that laser-focused attention to her and replayed the last few moments in her head, her blue eyes widening as a faint blush spread across her pale features, suffusing the skin under the freckles with rose.

“Um… For a cheater, that is.” she managed without much conviction as he straightened up, still regarding her expressionlessly, a corner of his mouth quirking as she tried to look everywhere but at him and failed.

“So…  My pheromones are fine?” he asked, the smile growing a little as he remembered what Hank had said, only a few days ago:  I say she looked interested.  Not 'tongue-hanging out' interested, but probably wouldn't say no to a movie and burger.

“Oh god…  shut up!”  Autumn groaned, her hands coming down from her head and covering her face.  Of course he’d focus on that to tease her.  “I didn’t mean-  I meant- Ugh!

“It’s okay.”  Jason’s voice came from closer to her, and she lowered her hands hastily to see him standing nearby, within arm’s reach, studying her with an expression in his eyes that was equal parts warmth and interest, his gaze depthless.  He’d moved as always with that neat, silent grace that was as mildly disturbing as it was impressive.  “I like you too, you know.”

Which was true.  She wasn’t Marissa, but the comparison was as between a rose and an orchid - you couldn’t judge one by the merits of the other.  He’d loved Mari, but she was unavailable, by her own insistence and choice.  Marissa’s loyalty and feelings shifted like a leaf in the gale of her own volatile fears and insecurities, devoid of objective logic - she was perhaps only truly loyal to her brother.  Autumn might not have been as objectively beautiful, regal or captivating, but she had energetic vitality and warmth, a charisma of her own that was all her own.  And she was honest, brave and constant - weighing instinctive fear against reason and balancing the two.  As he considered her as a person, so too did he consider her physically.  She was healthy, attractive - with that fiery red hair and deep blue eyes, with pink lips the same shade as her blushing cheeks... and, he realised as he applied his rudimentary people skills to her manner, she was attracted to him.

He’d never admit it to Hank, but privately he marvelled that his friend had possibly been right.  Which was strange, since Autumn was one of the most well-adjusted of his circle of friends and associates.  She knew him like few others did, understood him like few others had bothered to try to do… and she still was attracted to him.

How interesting.

“When I do learn to fly properly, you are invited to be the first passenger.” he added with a smile, taking a step closer and reaching up to tug a stray strand of her hair back from her face, his fingers gentle and warm on her cheek as he took yet another step closer, looking down into her eyes.  There was no wicked mirth in his gaze now, no teasing crookedness to the warmth of his smile.  He seemed very intent on her, as though approaching a skittish young horse, his eyes studying her lips, her features, her eyes.  “I promise, I won’t let you fall.”

Oh, god, was all she could think. I’m dead, aren’t I?

Autumn was beginning to lose count of the number of times Jason Bannon had killed her, stopping her heart with embarrassment and shock, or stilling the breath in her lungs with fear and anxiety… But this was an altogether new kind of death, and had she possessed his clarity of remembrance, it was one she’d gladly have re-lived over and over again- sweet and sharp and hot as it spread through her veins, drowning her endlessly in the fathomless green of his eyes. 

It was fundamentally unfair, the effect just a look could inspire without any special effort on his part at all. First, they were friends, which meant that, all teasing and joking aside, there were rules that couldn’t be broken...There were rules, weren’t there? Boundaries that couldn’t be uncrossed? She felt sure that there were, which made the slow, inexorable progress of dying this time more agonizing than all the others.

Second, by his own admission, he had never dated. He had confessed, without reticence or rancor, that he loved Marissa- in the present-tense, not past. He’d spoken at some length about his difficulty understanding people, how they related to one another, how to read them, so there was no doubt in the mind of his new friend…

He didn’t know. He had absolutely no clue what he was doing to her right now; how could he, when he’d never experienced it?  He couldn’t possibly be aware how devastating those eyes were at close range, couldn’t have intentionally weaponized the curve of his lips when he smiled- couldn’t conceivably have calculated the precise angle at which to tilt his head, the timbre of his laugh, the exact pressure of his fingertips, or the faint scent of his shampoo, lingering even after the creek-

“I know,” she managed from beyond the grave, only dimly recognizing the voice as her own. It was hard to concentrate on forming words when the rest of her brain was distracted with thoughts of what else her mouth should be doing instead. “You didn’t before, remember? I trust you.” And… she did. For all his strangeness, his distance, his inability to relate, for all the unease he could generate in herself and others, all the wrongs he’d done and that had been done to him… Autumn realized that she actually believed it. Trust was a big part of friendship, right? The silence that followed couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but if time were measured instead by the rapid pounding of her heart against her ribs- loud enough in her ears to be heard from town- it would have taken roughly a year of her life. “See?” she asked finally, raking a hand back through her hair with a quiet, self-deprecating laugh. “No pheromone problem. They’re totally fine. So just, um- the flying thing. You promised, so, call me or something when it happens, okay?”

He was aware of the elevation of his own heartbeat, a slight variance brought about by proximity and the wide, deep pools of Autumn’s eyes as they met his own.  She was all warm shades - the faint tan of her freckles, the copper of her hair, the blood-tinged skin of her cheeks, all limned in flickering firelight, and Jason, with his new awareness of his nature, was conscious that within himself lay a deep hunger for that warmth, a want that was as aesthetic as it was biological, as carnal as it was cerebral.  It was a powerful instinct, on par with his violent ones and just as merciless.  He felt a faint ironic amusement that his mother hadn’t warned him about this one.

There was no reason not to, that was the trouble - or rather, the answer.  She obviously was attracted to him, didn’t have a boyfriend (that he knew or cared about).  However he viewed Marissa, she had made it plain repeatedly that she could not, at least currently, comfortably grant him the kind of open emotional honesty, devoid of game-playing, that the young woman currently blushing before him could.  And he did like Autumn personally - she was exuberant, curious, asked questions even when she was afraid of the answers.  And he remembered when she’d held him, the feel of her fingers in his hair, just to take away the pain he’d not even realised he was experiencing, driving back the cold.  He remembered how it had felt to realise that she had charged in to help defend him.

“I’ll do that.” he murmured, aware that he was likely once more risking rejection, risking a friendship, but nevertheless his fingers on her cheek became a warm palm-caress as he dipped his head towards hers.  He remembered Devin’s advice - or the essence of it: to let her choose, and so he moved his face slowly towards hers, giving Autumn plenty of time to halt the process-

He didn’t have to move very far as she leaned forward to meet him, the fingers of both hands tracing the sharp line of Jase’s jaw and threading through his dark hair. She’d been taught never to look away from dangerous creatures, but it didn’t really matter at this point, did it? She was already dead, and there was no need to think about trivial things like consequences. As her lower lip brushed against his, Autumn hmmmed quietly, a soft sound of pleasure in the back of her throat, and pulled him closer. It was as if the heat from the fire crackling nearby had been transferred into her skin, burning bright and hot but without pain, and when she pressed her lips to his- gently, but insistently- it was with every ounce of warmth she possessed. Again she kissed him, deeply and without haste, drinking in the feel and the scent of him in her arms- a leisurely, unhurried pursuit that nevertheless left her short of breath and trembling slightly with its intensity. 

Jason’s first ever kiss had been calculated, a deliberate measure to shock Clara into some kind of emotional reaction as much as curiousity about the sensation.  His second - Marissa - had been an act of impulse, pushing past what he saw as mixed signals to try and coax truth through action rather than words.  This, though, was utterly different.  Autumn’s warm passion was, in its way, equal to his own.  She had closed the distance between their lips, her own hunger forming the circuit that now lit up his nerve-endings.  It was unlike anything he had experienced before.  It was, in fact, his first true kiss, no purpose or motive other than the kiss itself.

His hands slid down and around Autumn’s waist as she leaned up and into him, her t-shirt riding up a little allowing his slender fingers to glide over warm skin as he returned her kisses, absorbing lessons in each tiny movement of her lips and the sparkler-flares of sensation it set off down his spine before responding in kind, moving his lips against hers in motions that were at first tentative, yet as she hmmed and pressed against him grew bolder.  His head span slowly, his normal sense of detachment, that separation from everyone dissipating like frost in sunlight as his mouth opened in response to hers and the overwhelming sense of connection, of feeling desire and of being desired, filled his veins with molten gold.

Autumn’s fingers tightened instinctively in his hair, all rational thought and reservation transmuted into so much ash. First the tip of her tongue, then the edge of her teeth caught at Jase’s bottom lip, savoring the taste of his mouth as though the kiss were merely a precursor, the aperitif before hunger consumed them both. With a quiet whimper against his lips- not of protest, but frustration- her fingers skimmed down his back, tracing the length of his spine before sliding under the hem of his shirt and up again. They explored the taut, warm texture of his skin, the feeling of lean muscle shifting underneath, and though her attempts to press the length of her body any closer to his were hindered by physical limitation and the laws of consensual reality, the ardent young woman’s earnest efforts persisted. 

The sound of their breath and his own heartbeat was deafening to him, his entire world narrowing to focus on the girl shifting in his arms.  Her touch on his skin made his breath catch as she pulled him against her, and on impulse he gave back the sensation, his hands sliding around to the curve of Autumn’s back and then upwards, feeling the strength there as the muscles of her waist and back tightened and relaxed in time with her movement and breathing.  There was a sincere hunger in her kiss and in her embrace that resounded within him, found an answering need, his tongue gently teasing against the tip of hers in response.  A response that might as well have been a spark to gunpowder, the kiss deepening so that they were practically breathing for each other now as Jason’s felt the roaring furnace of his core unfold, melting away the edges of his reason.

With a faint grunt of effort, he slipped his hands down, over and under the taut curve of her ass and hoisted Autumn up so that her face was level with his own, if not slightly higher.  On instinct, her strong legs went around his waist and she clung to him in turn as their lips and tongues danced, each lost in the taste of the other.  A thought occurred to him and he acted on it, supporting her weight with a touch of his telekinetic gift to allow his hands to roam up her back once more, one hand coming up to tug away the hair-tie and allow her Titian locks to fall around her flushed features.

A muffled squeak of surprise and delight escaped Autumn’s lips as Jase lifted her off the ground, and he felt, rather than saw, her smile against his mouth. It was so tantalizingly close to being enough, almost- but not quite. As the weight of her hair, all loose, tousled waves of red and gold fell around them, she leaned back slightly, and the eyes that regarded him with naked desire were dark as storms over the ocean. She swallowed hard, her fingertips moving, feather-light, down the sides of his face, over his well-kissed mouth, and across his shoulders. Exhaling, she dipped her head to his cheek, breath warm against his skin, as first her lips, then her teeth grazed his earlobe. More, some voiceless urge demanded, and she was only too willing to comply, trailing heated kisses down the side of his throat and gasping as her hips shifted against his abdomen, squeezing his waist with her thighs. Every inch of her, every atom, felt incandescent, aflame with a blazing need his touch seemed only to stoke; she wanted, needed him to know it, but the only word she could conjure in the chaotic surge of sensations was his name, murmured like a plea against his shoulder. 

The exertion of will, of self-control, was second nature to Jason.  As he had previously explained to the girl currently moving against him in a most distracting way, there was no conscience or natural hesitation to his thought process, so presence of mind was as necessary to his liberty and survival as it was to the general good of people around him.  He buried his face in the juncture of Autumn’s neck and shoulder, lips kissing the warm skin they found there as his hands gently yet urgently explored the athletic young woman’s back before going lower to her butt, clasping her tightly to him as he sought to anchor himself.  He took a deep breath, which hindered his efforts at self control more than helped since all he could breathe in was Autumn, warm desire rising from her skin along with her body heat and the faint perfume of her deodorant.  Her heart thudded against his past the thin barrier of their clothing and the warm softness of her breasts, and as she murmured his name the fire in his core roared up, flaring around the icy fastness of his thoughts.  He had never wanted anything or anyone like he wanted her right now, to shuck the annoying clothes, to feel her warmth as close as two people could get.  The blanket was right there, the fire was warm enough to take the faint chill from the air.  They could…  He could...

...Not fuck this up.  Autumn trusted him, a thought which his mind seized onto, an anchor-point.  He had no condoms - had not expected to need them and, in typical inexperienced fashion, didn’t carry an emergency couple in his wallet ‘just in case’.  And his friend (whom he was very attracted to and desperately wanted in the worst way) probably didn’t have any either.  She might not care now, judging by the whimpers of physical need and the way she was softly biting at his shoulder through the cloth of his t-shirt, but it was still not a good decision for her to take.  It would have been a poor decision even if he had been a human man - with his ‘aggressively dominant genes’ (to coin his mother’s phrase), there were unknown quantities at play, and he needed more information before making a mistake.

“Autumn.”  His voice was so hoarse from lust that her name came out as a sort of growl at first, then he coughed and tried again, his cheek nuzzling against her hair.  “Autumn.  I don’t have any protection with me.”  God she smelled good, and that rolling thing her hips were doing, her backside flexing under his hands…  He didn’t want to let her go, but didn’t want this to go beyond their control right now either.

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The second time he said her name, the words themselves barely managing to pierce the heady fog of desire clouding her thoughts, it finally registered that Jase was actually saying something of import. “Fuck,” she swore with quiet intensity, stiffening slightly in his arms as she struggled to focus on something, anything other than the heat of his body and the feel of his hands anchoring her to him. As much as Autumn wanted to rail against his appeal to sanity, to protest that she didn’t care and it was fine, she did and it wasn’t. That was the reality of the situation. Of fucking course he didn’t have condoms. Why would he? She’d invited him out to go camping, for crying out loud, which was exactly why she hadn’t brought any, either. Suddenly acutely aware of the fact that she’d maybe almost just had sex with Jason Bannon, that she had definitely wanted to, and that she actually had just totally been all over him- that she was still all over him- the redhead squeezed her eyes shut, burying her face against his shoulder. “Yeah,” she murmured, quiet resignation in the soft, slightly raspy reply as she caught her breath. “Me, either.” 

Where scorching need retreated, the cold, unfamiliar sting of self-consciousness crept in, and yet Autumn found herself clinging to him still, wrapping her arms tightly around his chest and selfishly committing every nuance of Jason’s physical presence to memory as best she could. Whatever happened next, this moment, this feeling at least, was hers. “C’mon,” she sighed when she couldn’t stand it any longer, lifting her head and gently tapping his side in a bid to be set down. “Dinner should be almost done. I’ll grab napkins.” She hadn’t actually died earlier; she sort of wished she could now.

He caught her eye, easy enough as he was still holding her off the ground and their eyes were roughly level, and she realised he was studying her expression with a calm concern in his gaze, almost clinical if it weren’t for the residual warmth still there.

“Hey.”  he said softly.  “This isn’t ‘not happening’, it’s just ‘to be continued’.”  He examined her face a little more, eyes lingering on her kiss-reddened lips and flushed cheeks, then smiled slightly as he met her eyes again.  “That is,” he said more quietly, “if you want it to.”

Autumn blinked, startled at his suggestion, then licked her lips, nodding as the high color in her cheeks deepened further. "Yeah," she replied so quietly it was scarcely more than a whisper. "Yeah, I really do."  His smile widened a little, and he gently kissed her lips as he lowered her to the ground, her legs reluctantly releasing his waist so her feet could touch down.  The pretty redhead made a soft little sound, her arms tightening around his chest as though to hold herself up for a moment before she finally relaxed her grip and, smiling now, slowly stepped away on legs that felt more than a little shaky.  Jason kept his hands on her waist for a moment longer, his gaze somewhere between warm and unreadable as he watched her take a couple of coltish steps towards the fire before her equilibrium returned.

“Good.”  Jase said as he moved to join her by the fire, calling a bottle of water to his hand and cooling it with a thought, condensation forming on the sides of the plastic before her eyes as he unscrewed the lid and went to take a sip, then paused, considering for a moment before offering it to her.  She gratefully took a drink and passed the bottle back with a smile, took a moment to tie her hair back for safety, then crouched to check the foil packages.

“Because,” the emerald-eyed monster said as he sat beside her, watching what she was doing keenly.  He grinned, studying her profile and the curve of her hips in her jeans.  “I think we’ll need to be further away from your house.  Sound carries, especially at night.  And though I’m no expert, I’m thinking it’ll be sort of loud.  Noisy, even.”

She should be immune to this stuff by now, Autumn reflected as she felt a heat in her face that had nothing to do with the fire.  For heaven’s sakes, she wasn’t a virginal choirgirl.  She’d just been climbing him like a stepladder, had felt his body reacting to hers as much as hers reacting to his.  And yet with a line that from any other boy would have been met with an eye-roll and a ‘sure, buddy’ snort he could set fire to her skin.  Hell, he could do that with a look.

“Make yourself useful and fish these parcels out of the coals.” she said over her shoulder at him, trying to narrow her eyes sternly and having the effect ruined by the mirthful sparkle in their depths.

“If you insist.”  Jase smiled, then gestured in unnecessary theatricality, the two packages gliding from the coals and coming to rest on the ring of stones around the edge of the firepit.  Shifting position to kneel beside Autumn as she turned to grab napkins, he deftly brushed errant embers from the parcels and then carefully opened them.  Fragrant steam billowed forth, and both teens heard each other’s stomachs growl as the scent of herbs, butter and garlic mixed with the smell of cooked meat and vegetables.  

“Damn.”  Jase nodded approval.  “Smells good.  Worth remembering this trick.”  Taking another sniff appreciatively, he settled back and watched Autumn, taking another drink of water.

“It is,” she agreed pleasantly. “I have a fork if you want it, by the way. If you let it cool a little, the pieces are also big enough to just eat with your fingers.” Glancing back at him again, Autumn grinned. “That’s how we did it at Girl Scout Camp. Bunch of eight-year-old girls sitting around a fire, singing songs and stuffing our faces like savages. Good times. Oh,” she added, as if an afterthought, then leaned over Jase’s shoulder where he sat near the fire. “And you did bring up a good point. About the sound, I mean.” When he turned to regard her with the arched brow that- in her mind- was rapidly becoming emblematic of the detached, analytical young genius, a very un-Girl-Scout-like smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “So I guess I’ll just have to think of a good way to keep you quiet,” the mischievous young redhead murmured as a fresh wave of crimson stained her cheeks, and then kissed him again- briefly, but in earnest. 

It was the same as before- from that single point of contact a spark flared into life, spreading liquid heat through her veins that had nothing whatsoever to do with the nearby fire. Having succumbed to the temptation to kiss him once already, the impulse to do it again was almost irresistible- but, then again, she hadn’t really tried to resist it in the first place, had she? ...And, truthfully, she wasn’t entirely sure she would be able to stop kissing him if she got started again, especially not when he was looking at her that way. Reluctantly, Autumn managed to tear herself away and headed to the cooler to grab something very, very cold to drink.

Is this okay? she wondered, grimacing a little as she rummaged in the ice for another bottle of water. Unpleasant as the chill felt, the frigid water was bracing, clearing away some of the residual endorphins. She hadn’t just almost kissed Jason Bannon this time, the mere thought of which had kept her up most of the night a week prior. Autumn couldn’t help but feel a twinge of uncertainty over the lingering sensation of physical need: she didn’t exactly have a great number of friends, and this definitely complicated things. The last guy she’d been involved with had also started as a friend, and tacking “with benefits” on, and the sort of weird presumption that they were then dating, had kind of… ended badly, and she wasn’t interested in a repeat performance of that particular show. Jase was Jase, though, not Jacob, the blue-eyed young woman reminded herself. Pulling a full bottle from the cooler, she twisted the cap off and nudged the lid closed with her elbow, turning back to find him watching her again. In spite of herself, she smiled a little, swiping the fork she’d mentioned from a small collection of tools nearby and heading back to the blanket to wait for their dinner to cool. Whether it was actually a bad idea or not… it was nice having him there, she decided. Maybe not peaceful exactly, but interesting. Challenging. 


They ate in relative silence for awhile, Jase using the fork at first but then setting it aside and copying Autumn, plucking morsels from the parcel with his fingers and popping them into his mouth with relish.  He ate with evident enjoyment, taking his time to enjoy the meal as he sat facing his… girlfriend?  Was that right?  Did the term fit?  Or perhaps that was something formally acknowledged, rather than implied.  How strange it felt, rolling the term around the crystalline halls of his mind.  A friend who happened to be a girl was nothing new.  Lilly, Avalon, even Clara and Marissa fell into that category.  Of all of them Autumn was the one who’d most sought to comprehend him: though the others had certainly made efforts, ranging from sincere to token, to understand facets of him, or why he did a specific thing, Autumn was the one who’d sat down and wanted to try and understand as much as possible.  The act of observation changes both the observer and the observed - a standard principle of physics, and perhaps it was no different here.  Thermodynamics of trust and desire, he mused, chewing a tender piece of sirloin.  In order to observe me, she had to let herself be observed in turn, and that act of observing her fear caused me to wish to lessen it…  Why?  Trust given by a friend should be treasured, that is the code.  And how do we treasure trust? - we extend it in turn.

“You’re staring at me.”  Autumn said as she finished taking a drink, smiling warmly at him.

“I’m watching you.”  He replied calmly, the corners of his eyes crinkling a little.  And he was - the entire time he’d been working on analysing his responses he’d been storing every little detail of her, and this moment.  “Does it bother you?”

“No.  Yes.”  she laughed a little, her cheeks rosing again.  “I do wonder what you see, though.”

"Something unexpected, but welcome.  Alchemy of sorts.  In just a week, suspicion and fear on your part and detachment on mine have transmuted into friendship, trust..."  he smiled at her, his eyes taking on that faint hungry quality that warmed their coldness.  "Desire."

An answering warmth rose in her cheeks and she nodded, glancing down at the food in her hands with a grin of pleasure at the memory. "Unexpected, definitely. Not that I minded, I guess. I mean, obviously." The red-haired girl laughed at that, hazarding a look at her companion through the fringe of her lashes. "But, yeah. I have to admit, I'm having more fun than I thought I would."

The firelight flickered across his lean, high cheek-boned face and reflected in his eyes as he nodded soberly, the faint smile still playing around the corners of his mouth as he regarded the rose tinting her freckled ivory features.  "It is fun.  You're fun - and not just to tease, but to talk with - and to kiss.  And to think I was on the verge of swearing off physical relations altogether not long ago."  he added with a wry quirk of one corner of his lips.

"Swearing them off?" Autumn blinked incredulously at him as she leaned forward, eyes wide and faintly luminous in the warm glow of the nearby flames. "Without even knowing what it was like, without even experiencing..." She shook her head, her free hand gesturing expansively at the world outside the faint ring of firelight. "Any of it? Why?"

"Pique, perhaps."  His smile widened a little at her reaction, head tilting to one side as he considered.  "Monday was a bad day before you showed up.  Bear in mind I was also on the verge of leaving Shelly after scorching a big ‘fuck you’ into the sports field: my mood was... poor."  He finished with a slight understatement.  Sitting here, that state of mind, that cold anger and disdain and the sense of being just done with it all, seemed very far away.  In fact, as he studied Autumn's shining blue eyes, he was aware of a flicker of warmth that was unusual, something he took at first to be the embers of the recent flare of desire - but possessed of a different quality.  "Anyway, I’d find abstinence pretty tough now.  Thanks to you, I get what all the shouting is about"

"...before you showed up." The idea that she had helped- that despite being utterly terrified of the brooding and dangerous young man and totally out of her depth, she had somehow still made an awful day a little better- was every bit as warming, as gratifying as the glimmer of interest in his pale green eyes. Before Monday, if he had disappeared, she would've been more worried about reprisals or delayed vengeance than why he'd gone, or whether he was all right. Now, though, things were... different. She grinned around a mouthful of steak as he grew quiet again, meeting his gaze with an expression that was equal parts mischief and promise, and shook her head once more- slowly, deliberately. "No. Not yet, you don't. That was just a kiss."

He didn’t blush, merely blinked once, then cocked his head slightly to one side and smiled at her, raising an eyebrow.  The redhead pursed her lips, considering.  “You don’t get flustered, do you?  I am never going to see you blush, or be lost for words.”  

“Embarrassment isn’t something I feel.  I do experience a pause as my train of thought gets derailed, but there’s no real flustering there.  I blink, adapt, and that’s it.”  Jase tilted the foil packet at one end, draining the juices from the meat and vegetables into his mouth, then licked his fingers clean.

“You blinked just now.  So… I derailed your train of thought.”  Autumn smiled widely, trying not to focus on his tongue cleaning his fingers.  “I’m claiming that as a win.”

“I blinked earlier too, when you said my pheromones were fine and again when you called me amazing.”  Jason corrected evenly.  Autumn went red as she recalled, looking down at her meal abashedly.

“Well… Yes.  You are.”  She said, glancing at him through her lashes.  “And they are.”

“So it seems.” he nodded, folding the foil into a square, then wiping his hands dry on a napkin, his eyes never leaving her features.

“Soooo, that’s three blinks, which I am claiming as blushes, for me.”  Autumn pronounced, lifting her chin in triumph.

“Versus twenty-three for me.”  The Effing One returned.  “Including full blushes, times lost for words, and those delightful little blushes where just your cheeks go rosy.”

“Doesn’t matter.”  Autumn tossed her head, smiling even as another of the aforementioned little blushes stained her skin.  “I’m a redhead, a girl, and with a normal brain.  You are Bannon, Greatest and Chiefest of Calamities.  A blink from you is worth… twenty blushes.  At least.”

He rubbed his chin as though considering that, his eyes narrowing, then nodded.

“I suppose, seeing as it’s the price of being amazing.” he said with a faint sigh, as though conceding a defeat.  Autumn giggled around a mouthful of food, nodding in agreement, and he smiled at her.  A sudden notion struck him and, evaluating it in a split second, he saw no reason not to go with it.  “So, assuming you haven’t gotten tired of my amazing self by then, would you go to the Homecoming Dance with me? As my girlfriend, I mean." he clarified.

“That…” she began slowly, the expression on her freckled features a curious mixture of surprise and confusion. “Out of all the questions I would ever have expected you to ask me, that one wasn’t on the list.” 
“Really?” Jason seemed mildly curious about that, his head tilting slightly to one side as he regarded her.  “I suppose it was presumptive of me.  It came to me while we were eating - we get along well, we are different enough to be interesting to one another, I enjoy talking with you a surprising amount…”

“Surprising, huh?”  Autumn narrowed her eyes at him as she finished her own meal, wiping her hands on a napkin as she set the folded foil in the trash bag.  “Surprising, how?”  What, had he expected to be bored?  


“I don’t usually enjoy talking to most people this much.”  he said with a small smile.  “It’s something I do, because it’s necessary as part of the interaction.  But with you it’s entertaining - and not just because you blush like a sunset.  You’re lively, emotionally honest and open, enthusiastic about life.  You have an active mind: you’re curious and not content with just banal explanations - in that we’re very alike.  I think you’ve a lot of very attractive qualities.”  His smile widened slightly, his gaze studying her features intently with a heat in its depths that caused Autumn’s stomach to tighten.  “And our chemistry seems to be… compatible.”


Autumn had been trying resolutely not to blush under that scrutiny and his words, though she’d felt the heat rising in her face regardless as her blue eyes studied his features in turn.  When he mentioned their chemistry, the blush burst its dam and coloured her cheeks deep rose, though she didn’t look away.  Yes, she wanted him.  Her lips remembered that last kiss just before they ate - her body remembered that kiss, short and sweet as it had been.  And judging by the way he looked at her, with an intent unveiled hunger in his eyes as they met hers that - her feminine intuition screamed - had nothing to do with his stomach, he felt that too.  The look wasn’t affected, she realised.  It was raw desire without conscience, shame or hesitation, and the force of it was making her breath catch.


“Okay.” she managed.  “But I thought you didn’t date.”  She had to deflect his attention a little, deflect that gaze that heated her like he was setting her on fire - metaphorically and in the best way possible.


“I didn’t.”  Jase shrugged, his smoulder relenting a little as he took a drink of water.  “I was wearing a mask, hiding myself and keeping everyone at arm's length.  Dating would have been counterproductive.”


“That’s one reason.”  Autumn said with a faint air of triumph.




“Don’t ‘hmm’ me, Bannon the Impenetrable.  Three reasons - don’t think I’ve not been paying attention.  You always have three reasons.”  Her gaze met his challengingly, and she was gratified to see a flash of white teeth as he grinned.


“Very well - I also didn’t feel the need for physical connection before.”  he allowed, smiling at her with a good-natured gleam in his eyes.  “It just seemed… irrelevant before the summer.  I didn’t like people touching me, and whilst I liked looking at pretty girls, it was more aesthetic than carnal.”


“Late bloomer.”  Autumn teased, smiling.  Jase nodded, shrugging a shoulder as he smiled back.


“Hopefully worth the wait.”  he said slyly.  “And the third reason was Marissa.”


“Right.”  Autumn blinked, feeling a dash of cold water to the brain at the mention of that name.  “Don’t you love her, or something?”  Jason sighed at that, a pensive look entering his eyes as he looked up, watching sparks from the fire rising into the air.


“I do - I’ve been drawn to her for a long time.  But I’m not going to hang around pining for her - I’m not even sure she’s a wise choice for me.  She has made it plain she will never seek to understand me beyond the limits of her own fear.  Perhaps that will change - but that is entirely up to her.  Any further discussion will come from her initiation.”


“So…  You’ve moved on?”  Autumn blinked.


“Yes.  I plan to live and enjoy the experience, like I said in my kitchen on Monday.  While the matter of Marissa’s true feelings works itself out, one way or the other.”


“One way or the other?”


“Yes.  Either she likes me in truth, but she’s playing a game or doesn’t know her own mind, in which case she’s going to need to grow up and elevate her thinking a little.  Or it will come to light she has no special attraction to me or can never accept me - in which case I shall treat the whole matter as a learning experience.”


“Wow.  I mean, yeah that makes perfect logical sense, but still…”  Autumn peered at her stoic friend.  “And you don’t feel sad, or angry, or anything?”


Jason said nothing, just shook his head with his eyes on hers.  The redhead sat back slightly, considering him with slightly narrowed eyes.  Bannon.  Dating Bannon.  Jase as a boyfriend - not just a friend with bennies, but a for-real, dating…


“What does being a boyfriend or girlfriend mean to you?”  she asked earnestly, leaning forward again.  He looked thoughtful.


“Someone who is a good friend, who you are also attracted to and want to make space in your life for.”  he answered in a measured tone.  “I see a lot of high school couples who don’t really seem to be friends at all - they just ‘date’ which, from overheard conversation, seems to be only hanging out together to fumble in each other’s clothes.  Not that I don’t see the attraction, but what I picture is something less… casual?  As I said, we seem to get along really well.  I like you, and I trust you.  And you’ve said similar to me.”  He smiled faintly.  “And I really, really like kissing you.  I just want to see where all that goes, if it could lead anywhere, rather than assuming it means nothing.”

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Oh my god. He’s even weaponized honesty, Autumn realized with some incredulity, unable to keep her gaze from dropping to the slight curve of his mouth as he smiled, and reflexively catching her bottom lip between her teeth. “Yeah,” she agreed with a small, answering smile of her own, not yet daring to meet Jase’s eyes again. They were too green, too intense- how had she ever thought them cold, when they could smoulder like banked coals, or blaze as searingly bright as any bonfire? “I really… really like kissing you, too,” the redhead admitted… And I also really, really like the way you move when I touch you, and the way your skin tastes, and how your breath feels against my ear- 

It wasn’t like she’d never been attracted to someone before, never felt the giddy, heady rush of chemicals that signalled desire and the urge to act on it. It wasn’t the first time Autumn had ever wanted to spend hours kissing someone, to explore them with her eyes and hands and lips until she found all the places that made them gasp for air or twitch convulsively at her touch. She just didn’t remember feeling it with such a heightened sense of urgency, as if every glance or grin Jason Bannon aimed in her direction might end with her just pouncing on him in a less fatal version of a NatGeo mauling on the Serengeti. Even now, just sitting there with a water bottle in her hand, condensation dripping onto the blanket-

We’re having a conversation. Time, place. Behave, Autumn. He’s behaving, see? We’re both behaving, she admonished herself, taking a hasty swallow of cold water and wishing in vain it might take some of the heat from her cheeks, as well. ...And you don’t want him to think you’re some kind of… sex-crazed maniac, or something. Do you?

I mean-

NO, Autumn. The answer is NO. You do not. 

...Ugh. Okay, fine, I guess. 

Beyond the physical attraction, which was evident and undeniable, there was definitely… something, mixed in with all the teasing, the taunts, the uncertainty, the playful challenges and serious conversations. Maybe it was just that he had no expectations, no specific idea of what or who she was supposed to be and thus no inclination to try to fit her to that mold. Maybe it was that he’d done a good job so far of keeping her on her toes- she’d felt scared, frustrated, amazed, entertained and amused, delighted, desired- but not once had she felt anything close to bored. Or, she considered, aware suddenly of the strange, intangible pressure of Jase’s attention, maybe it was the implication that this might only last until Marissa got her shit straightened out, so there was no good reason not to just see what happened in the meantime. 

Fuck it. Why not?

“All right, Bannon the Magnificent. The Amazing,”  she added with a slow smile, acknowledging the exuberance of her earlier exclamation. “Let’s go to Homecoming, then.”   She had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes gleam, the edges crinkling in an understated smile even as he remained otherwise outwardly composed.

“Alright.  But we’re going to have to set some ground rules.”  he deadpanned, taking a drink of water.

“Ground rules?”  Autumn raised a brow, not missing the glitter of amusement in her [boyfriend’s] eyes and working to keep her own smile under control as she noted him shifting a little closer, turning so he was sat alongside rather than facing her.

“Very important ones.”  Jase nodded soberly.  “I have a reputation as an unpleasant acerbic dickhead to maintain so, and this is important, no PDA.”

“No PDA.”  Autumn nodded slowly, as if mulling it over as she shuffled on her backside a little closer, her right hip and his left hip almost touching.  She ran a hand up his back over the shirt, feeling the lean tautness underneath, and gently brushed her fingers through the ends of his shaggy hair at the nape of his neck, noting how he took a slightly deeper breath as she did so.  “Right.  Why?”

“Because it’s distracting.”  Jase was doing a good job of maintaining his impassive expression, though there was a twitch of humor at the corner of his lips as he turned his face towards hers.

“Mmhmm.  So I really shouldn’t be doing this, then.”  Autumn stated rather than asked as she brought her other hand up and wove her fingers into his hair over his ear.  Jason leaned closer to her, his arm sliding around her waist as his lips drew close to hers.

“Definitely not.  This is an excellent example of what not to do.”  he said with mock-sternness moments before his lips curved in a smile.  Autumn was flushed, and lovely, and right there inches away, her own mouth curving in an amused grin, the scent of her warm and enticing this close.

“Good, I’m glad I know what not to do.”  she said, slowly letting her hands slide from his hair and moving as though to disengage - only to be pulled gently back in and kissed, his lips sparking a rush of heat through her body that consumed the playfulness like jet fuel.

It wasn’t that he was a practiced kisser, though he learned fast, a corner of her brain mused as the rest dissolved into a pink and crimson haze.  It was that he kissed, and touched, with a hundred percent of himself in the gestures - the kiss was hungry, but  patient, as he savored each tiny movement of her body, each sigh of response.  He was mapping her, playfully experimenting to find just the right pressure of lips and tongue and teeth to make her gasp.

Jason felt hands lock into his hair again, the almost painful tug at his scalp serving as a delightful counterpoint to the warm, sweet softness of Autumn’s mouth.  His arm around her waist drew her closer yet, pressing her body to him as the two teens turned more towards each other.  His free hand found itself gliding over the outside of Autumn’s thigh, feeling her warmth through the jeans before coming to rest on her hip, his touch gently teasing above her waistband, sensitive fingers exploring the smooth skin under the edge of her t-shirt.  Finally the kiss broke, both of them breathing hard, both of their features at least somewhat flushed as they leaned their foreheads together, gazing into each other’s eyes.

“So…”  Autumn’s voice was husky as she studied the green pools of fire she wanted to plunge into and be consumed by.  “Any other rules?”

“There were some.”  Jase’s voice was likewise low and a little taut with contained desire, his lips twitching in a smile.  “But you distracted me before I could formulate them, and now I’ve forgotten.”

“Oh.”  The redhead was not at all contrite, smiling back at him.  “I made you forget something?  It couldn’t have been that important then.”

“Utterly trivial.”  Jase agreed, breathing deeply as he let his gaze play over her reddened lips, her adorable freckles and finally the blue waters of her gaze, deep and warm.  “First rule was pretty stupid too.”

“Hmm,” came the quiet, somewhat serious reply, as though Autumn were considering whether to agree with him. For someone who hadn’t liked the idea of being touched by other people, Jason’s responsiveness to simple physical contact was a little surprising, she mused, her smile softening a little at the almost imperceptible movement of his eyelids, his dark lashes fluttering slightly at the sensation of her hands moving through his hair. ...Then again, maybe it was the quality of the contact itself, the context, the nature of the connection it imparted. Fascinated by his reaction, she kept her eyes on his- relishing the warmth and heat there, the flash of citrine and emerald somewhere deep below the surface- and exhaled slowly, her breath trembling with the effort of remaining focused. 

“Not stupid,” the young woman murmured, her voice low and soft as her fingertips threaded themselves delicately through Jase’s shaggy, fire-bronzed mane, tracing the near-perfect symmetry of the outer curve of his ears and the sides of his throat. “Maybe just… not my favorite.” She wanted to kiss him again; it would only require a token gesture, little more than a tilt of her head. Their lips were practically touching already, she realized abruptly, as her hands drifted down to his chest and she felt the sudden intake of his breath inches from her mouth. “I’m sure we can figure something out, keep you from ruining your reputation,” she continued, all but transfixed by the way his eyes changed even as she watched. 

“Stupid.”  he reaffirmed, feeling drunk off her breath on his lips.  This closeness was dizzying - not merely the proximity but the intimacy inseparable from this most simple and primal of wants.  He raised a hand to gently caress her cheek with the backs of his fingers as he drew in a breath that tremored, just a little. He was very aware of her hands on his chest, which in turn felt his heart thump like a bass drum against the taut skin and sinew of his frame.   It wasn’t nervousness - couldn’t be nervousness.  Rather he felt so alive that he would burst, as though his lean body was too narrow a channel to contain the surging passion that stirred and uncoiled.  In his eyes, the copper flecks became fireflies, catching the light of the fire as well as flaring with some inner furnace.  She kissed him then, leaning in against her hands on his chest and pressing her lips to his for a long, languorous moment, delighting in the way his breath caught yet again - that she was doing this to him, even as her own nerves sang and blazed with the sweetness of his return kisses and the feel of his warm palm on her cheek.  Eventually their lips parted once more, and she smiled up at his face close to hers.

“You sure you’ve not done this before?” she asked with a teasing arch of her brow, red-faced but smiling feeling his hand resting on her ass.  Jase shook his head, his gaze intent on her face.

“You are the first person I’ve made out with.”  Jase replied, and she studied the subtle not-quite vibration in his manner, tension such as a steel hawser might be under on a suspension bridge.

“Hey… Are you okay?” she asked, looking into his eyes, reassured somewhat by the way they regarded her that he wasn’t having second thoughts.  He seemed very serious, as though struggling with something.

“It’s… a lot.”  he allowed with a small smile.  “I feel like my whole Being is pulled as tight as a bowstring.  I feel a little out of control and crazy”  He breathed deeply, letting the breath out in a soft sigh.  “I hope that’s normal.”

Given his enthusiasm, the intensity with which he’d reciprocated every kiss, every touch and shared breath, it had been easy for her to forget how confusing and overwhelming it could be- even for someone with a more conventional way of interacting with the world. The warm pink of her cheeks deepened as she remembered exactly how strong those desires had felt earlier, and a part of her wondered what it was like for him. Did he actually analyze everything as it happened, or just sort of… go with it? He’d mentioned needing to keep everything carefully controlled, not to let his… what did he call them?- proto-emotions, his urges, override his reason, so how did that work in a situation like this? She couldn’t begin to even guess, although it might be interesting to ask later, when they weren’t so…


“Very normal,” she nodded, taking his hand in hers and pressing it gently against her chest, marveling inwardly at the length of his fingers curving over her collarbone. At the very least, if she couldn’t write a thesis on the subject of mutual desire and surging hormones, she could demonstrate the principle. “See?” He could feel the pounding of Autumn’s heart through her shirt, the staccato rhythm quickening just before she leaned forward and brushed her lips across his. It was more caress than kiss, and yet that fleeting whisper of contact was enough to send a shower of sparks flaring behind her eyes and a rush of warmth across the surface of her skin. “It is a lot, yeah. Even for me,” the blushing redhead admitted quietly, lowering her forehead to Jase’s shoulder, “like earlier. I just...” She shrugged a little, her free hand sliding down to his side, exhaling against the hollow of his throat. “I couldn’t think about anything else, you know? Or maybe I shouldn’t call it ‘thinking,’ exactly. It’s, um… Mmmm,” she hummed, a quiet little murmur of pleasure at the subtle, clean scent of his skin, his hair as she breathed. “Totally, completely normal.” 

Hey. Focus. Not a sex maniac, remember?

She grimaced a little in protest at the intrusive thought, leaning back in an attempt to extricate herself from the seductive combination of sensual impressions enveloping her- the slightly ticklish feel of Jase’s fingers on her waist, the faint smell of the soap he used mingled with something intrinsic to his own chemistry, the heat of his body pressed against hers. For a long moment, the only sounds were the occasional snap of the campfire and the distant drone of insects in the trees, and Autumn drew in a slow, deliberate breath, giving herself a count of four to steady the racing of her heartbeat against his palm… and then another. “If it’s too weird,” she managed throatily, glancing up at him through the pale red-gold of her lashes, “or too much, or too fast, or… too anything- now, or next time, or whenever- would you tell me?” Swallowing both the urge to go further and the attendant nervousness of naked honesty, she added, “Because… There are a lot of things I would really, really like to do with you, and none of them are less intense than this.”

“Same.”  he murmured, his voice low, almost throaty.  He blinked, then smiled a little self-deprecatingly.  “Let me try that with words: I feel the same.  The key word being ‘feel’.  It’s- no, you’re kind of… amazing?”  he finished with a tiny grin.  “Seriously.”

Autumn stared up at him for a moment, feeling like her face would never cool down.  Was this her fate, to go through... however long she dated Jason Effing Bannon... the shade of a tomato and with the urge to grin like an idiot?  And was it bad that she didn’t mind that at all?  She leaned forward and rested her forehead against his collarbone, nuzzling her face against him as her arms wrapped closely around him.  Turning her head to press against his chest, hearing the drum of his heart and acutely aware of his hand on her breastbone, seeming to sear her even through the cotton of her t-shirt.  He ran his other hand up her spine to the nape of her neck, softly running his fingers through her glory of red-gold waves, a touch that was as gentle as it was sensual.

“I will always tell you if something is too much.” he promised soberly.  “And count on you to do likewise.  Because this is an all-new type of hunger for me to explore, and I have an active imagination as well as a small library of works on sensuality stored in my mind.”  His lips curved in a mischievous smile as they dipped to brush against her ear, his voice keeping to a low murmur..  “I’m curious how far down you blush.  I want to hear you whimper my name more.  I want to taste your skin and spend whole days learning how best to drive you out of your mind through touch.  I want to devour you.”  His teeth gently nibbled at her earlobe as his voice dropped even lower to a whisper.  “Metaphorically speaking, of course.  It’s not too late to run.”

Fucking hell, where did he learn that? had been the initial, shocked reaction to the tickle of Jase’s breath against her ear, a line of white heat arcing down her spine in galvanic response; either he was dramatically understating the scope of the “small library” in his head, or he was a terrifyingly, devastatingly, thrillingly quick study. Never had anyone ever sent actual shivers racing through her body with words alone, but something about his tone combined with the inescapably direct way he gave voice to his desires…

He meant it, Autumn realized, breath catching in her throat even as she tilted her head, heightening the exquisite rasp of his teeth grazing her skin. It wasn’t flirting, or some kind of posturing in an attempt to sound sexy or daring. He genuinely wanted to do those things and- this was the part that melted her insides into so much molten, liquid flame- he wanted to do them to her. And, ohhhhh, did she want him to. Turning to face the one being she knew to be more dangerous than mundane wolves, or nightmarish hellbeasts, or even ageless dragons, Jason Bannon’s girlfriend had shifted her position slightly, settling one knee on either side of his hips as he murmured against her ear-

“It’s not too late to run.”

-and paused. Autumn didn’t so much stiffen in his arms as straighten intently, the muscles in her torso elongating slightly with the slow, deliberate change in her posture. She hadn’t pulled away; he could feel the soft press of her breasts against him, the tension in her thighs as they brought her upright to meet his gaze. The turbulent blue-grey of her eyes, alternately shadowed and illuminated by the flickering gold of the firelight, met Jason’s with a glimmer of recognition as she leaned back, the corners of her mouth describing a faint curve. The young woman pressed almost bodily against him wasn’t glancing coyly in his direction, deflecting the taunt with laughter, or trying to pin him with a half-hearted glare: her gaze was direct, open, and in that moment, wholly unafraid. 

“You’re absolutely right,” she agreed, watching his eyes on her face with a sense of growing anticipation that carried over into the phantom smile playing about her lips. “Did you want a head start?”

The pause was tiny, microbial in scale as lambent green eyes, dancing with firelight both reflected and internal, regarded her from a face that was almost statue-like in its immobility.  Beyond the playfulness and honesty, beyond his desire for Autumn and the pleasure he took in her company, there was a depth in Bannon’s soul which she’d brushed against before - hence his interest in the lively redhead - but now she had sounded most thoroughly.  A creature alien to fear, he did find it interesting to study in others, and those he approved of the most were those who had the strength of desire - be it for knowledge, or other things - to overcome it.  Autumn was steadfast in her efforts to confront her fear, boldly stepped into the dark to see what might be there and to learn of it.  How many teens- hell, how many adults did he know capable of that so consistently?  She didn’t care that it scared her, or made her uncomfortable - or more correctly she would never let that alone stop her.

“I get the impression I’d not make it very far.”  Autumn’s boyfriend replied, playfulness mingling with the hungry fire in his gaze, though his features were composed - save for the flush of his own arousal darkening his already-tan face.  That wasn’t the only clue to his arousal, either, a fact Autumn was pleasantly, nay searingly aware of in her current situation.

“Mmm, probably not.”  Autumn shifted a little and not with the aim of getting comfortable, thrilling at the sudden darkness of his gaze as his pupils dilated and the way he tried to hide the sucked-in breath. Her hands on his chest felt his pulse jump and she grinned, leaning forward and pressing against him.  “You’d just tire yourself out, and that would be a shame.”  She leaned closer and nipped at his chin.  “For both of us.”

“Unless I cheated.”  he agreed with an offhand air, leaning back on his hands to support her weight against him, even as he trailed invisible fingertips over her scalp and down her spine under the shirt before smoothly caressing around her waist and up over her ribs, grazing the material of the bathing top she still wore.  It was her turn to gasp now, the pressure teasingly brief and causing her to catch her bottom lip between her teeth as it ended, her gaze half-lidded on his.  “But that would be a shame too, when there are far more fun things I can direct my energies towards.”

He brought his hands up then, sliding them around Autumn’s waist as he rolled back to lay with her atop him as their lips came together once more.  He was acutely aware of her body, the mixture of strength of her arms as they hooked around his neck and the soft pressure of her breasts against him, the scent of her flaming fall of hair surrounding their faces, the taste of her tongue on his.  His hands glided up where his telekinetic ‘hands’ had gone before, warm fingertips grazing the bikini top, then slipping underneath the bottom edge, his touch exploratory yet unhesitating as he caressed the soft white skin he found there, delighting in the texture as well as in the soft sounds she made into their kiss.  Slowly, he ceded more control over his conscienceless, amoral Want for this girl, letting that core of fire out of its icy chains to spill over into every heated press of his lips that claimed Autumn’s before tracing the line of her jaw.

There was something to be said for the virtue of patience. ...Something. Probably. By someone else, at some other time- an old, dead Greek maybe- but not by Autumn Keane, and certainly not when the warm, deft fingers of someone she desperately wanted to be naked with in the firelight were moving over her skin. “It’s not cheating if I let you do it,” she murmured against Jase’s mouth with a grin, and then promptly shivered, her breath a sharp hiss drawn through even white teeth as the pads of his questing thumbs brushed across the points of her nipples. As a cascade of bright, hot sparks erupted within her at his touch, her hips rocked against him in an involuntary spasm, eliciting another quick breath at the feel of his body between her thighs.

The tip of her tongue sought his, and then, restlessly, the angle of his jaw, the base of his earlobe; reaching back with one hand, the impatient redhead tugged at the knots securing her bikini top, unceremoniously pulling it through the collar of her shirt and tossing it nearby. Beneath the relentless exploration of Jason’s hands, her pale skin was aflame, his fingertips leaving searing trails in their wake that melted through her veins to pool, molten and liquid, in the center of her being. Everything was warmth and need- heat coursing through her every nerve, light burning behind her eyelids, the hunger to consume and be consumed in turn almost all-encompassing in the forefront of Autumn’s mind. 

There was no way to touch him enough, to be satisfied with the slightly salty taste of his skin on her tongue, or the quiet rumble of his voice against her ear when her teeth followed the same line across his shoulder in a series of tiny nips and breathless kisses. She braced herself over him on one forearm, the thick tumble of her hair around them catching the light of the fire, and tugged the hem of his shirt upward with her free hand, her gaze drifting from his eyes to the play of firelight over his skin. There was nothing soft about Jason Bannon, no excess or superfluity in the lean, spare muscle and sinew of his form, and yet Autumn’s fingers practically twitched with the desire to trace the sculpted lines of his torso, roving from his chest downward in a slow, inexorable descent of light, feathery strokes and the teasing rasp of her nails across his stomach. 

Her touch felt cool to his fevered skin, even whilst trailing greater heat in its wake, awakening nerves across his taut skin and causing his body to tense and his breathing to become more laboured.  He felt her nipples against his palms, a sharp contrast to the softness of her high, firm breasts which his fingertips caressed with deliberation, learning which areas drew the deepest moans or loudest whimpers of passion from the living flame that undulated over him.  A caress over her ribs that would have tickled a less-heated Autumn into giggles drew forth a plea-like invocation of his name cut off and muffled as she buried her open mouth against his shoulder, teeth scraping the skin there as her hips rolled against him in an almost bruising jerk and her fingertips dug into his stomach for purchase.  She drew up and stared down at him, kiss-bruised lips slightly open and desire-drenched features suffuse with rose, and he smiled as he squirmed a little, lifting his shirt up and off over his head without much difficulty before returning his hands to her waist, caressing the skin there.

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Naked torso time seemed a great idea, and Autumn sat up astride him as she, too, started to peel off the t-shirt that was the only thing keeping her skin from touching his - an unbearable barrier that would not be tolerated any longer.  For a moment Jase watched as the pale skin of her stomach and ribs came into view, then an impulse seized him as Autumn’s arms raised, hands going behind her head to tug the shirt off - and he sat up with a smooth coiling of his stomach muscles and reached out, catching her hands behind her head as the t-shirt covered her eyes, just her nose and lips free beneath the edge of the material.  The girl made a small sound of protest, but she smiled then, her arms tensing a little as though in playful struggle against his grasp.  Jason let her feel his smile on her lips for a moment, then withdrew his kiss, eliciting another small sound of protest.  Even in his inexperience, it was not in his nature to be passive for longer than necessary, and the sweet torments of Autumn’s touches, nibbles and kisses needed repaying, so it seemed.


He drew back a little, studying her nakedness with a possessive, hungry gaze that the fair-skinned captive in his arms could practically feel like sunlight on her flesh.  One hand still pinning her wrists, long fingers encircling them, he brought his other hand down to trace a fingertip along her jaw, across her lower lip - teasingly moving it as she sought to catch it in her mouth - then down the line of her throat.  She had freckles down below her collarbone, a dusting of bronze in the firelight against the cream of her skin - currently flushed as her face was.  He let the tips of his fingers play over the markings, teasing touches that made her shift a little in his lap.


“What are you doing?” she murmured, smiling as she arched her body into his touch, trying to get more contact and catching her bottom lip between her teeth as her breath hitched, stifling a whimper.


“Admiring you.”  Jason replied matter-of-factly, sweeping his exploring hand down across her breastbone.  Dipping his head, he kissed the base of her throat, then her jawline, then her lips briefly - too briefly - before once more trailing flame down the line of her throat.  Another impulse seized him and he rolled slowly, chuckling as Autumn gave out a little yelp as she found herself laying back on the blanket now.  The firelight played over her body, deepening the colours and lending flickering shadows to her contours, and the aesthete in Bannon’s soul marvelled for a moment, pondering the nature of beauty and how very subjective it was, how very enslaved to circumstance and company such things could be.  “You’re beautiful.” he stated, smiling as he started to kiss her collarbone, lips finding each freckle and paying homage to it as they made their warm path down over her body, his tongue now and then flicking against her heated skin, his teeth gently nibbling, his whole attention focused on tasting her as she squirmed under his attention.


Whatever his lack of experience may have suggested, there was nothing clumsy or boyish in the way he touched her, nothing shy or furtive in the leisurely exploration he was making of her body. She wasn't exactly virginal, and in her curiosity had found a lot of things on the internet she’d either gamely tried or secretly wanted to- but this was as far beyond the scope of Autumn’s expectations as Jason himself. A tingle of warmth rippled through her at the unexpected compliment, manifesting in a delicate wash of pale pink spreading just beneath the surface of her exposed skin; his particular brand of unabashed, unaffected sincerity was every bit as seductive as the insistent pressure of his hand on her wrists overhead. 


It was the newness of the sensations- the thrill of trading the ability to see what Jase was doing for the exquisitely heightened experience of the feeling itself, of sacrificing awareness for anticipation- that kept Autumn’s natural impatience narrowly in check. Even so, the contrast of hot breath and cool night air as his mouth moved over her skin was enough to test the limits of her willpower in a way that drew her taut as a bowstring beneath him, the space beneath her ribs hollowing slightly as her spine curved in a wordless arc of delight. Oh. My FUCKing. GOD! the still-rational part of her mind all but shrieked at the combination of teeth and tongue on sensitive flesh, though the high, plaintive note that escaped her lips wasn’t nearly so coherent.


She couldn’t tell which was louder: the erratic, halting rush of her breathing, or the mad cadence of the blood pounding in her ears, but neither could drown out the voiceless, searing imperative of desire. More. The muscles along Autumn’s spine flexed as her hips rolled down against the blanket, pressing her chest upward in a half-conscious attempt to gain closer, more direct contact than the teasing kisses with which Jase was intently mapping the topography of her form in scorching lines. 


She wasn’t alone in her urgency.  Whatever volcanic fires roiled in Jason’s soul seethed and roared in their chains, his arousal causing them to leap and dash themselves clumsily against his glacial self control to get at the girl - this treasure in his arms - who had taught him with words, each breath, each brush of her own lips on him, each caress of her fingers on his skin what connection truly was, what it could be.  His own breath quickened at her cries, birdlike and pure despite the carnal demands they heralded, and his hot breath bathed her skin in rose as her blood too, so it seemed, surged upwards to meet him.  He removed the slender hand pinning her wrists, yet a stronger grasp maintained Autumn’s helpless posture as his mind, powerful beyond the constraints of his young body, kept her in gentle imprisonment.


Both hands were now free to touch her, to wreak havoc with her nerves as delicate fingertips tapped and traced a hidden pattern across her freckled shoulders and collarbone, a cipher for lovers punctuated by warm kisses as his touch moved lower, playing over the gentle swells of her breasts that the young woman’s body offered up with every rolling arc of her body.  And now he focused there, taking his time with each caress, his eyes moving from the soft mounds to Autumn’s half-hidden face with the intentness of a musician regarding the conductor.  Softly, very softly he trailed flame along her nerves: now with a warm brush of a palm, now with the pads of his fingertips as they traced the soft pink of her areolae.  As she made soft, but steadily louder sounds of need and protest, he smiled a little and lowered his head, capturing one stiff little bud tenderly between his lips, kissing at first, then lightly scraping with his teeth to draw music from her before ‘soothing’ the tormented flesh with a gentle laving of his tongue.


She tasted sweet, clean and female, a scent he was not unfamiliar with by itself but with richness added from the warm arousal that suffused the air from her pores.  As his mouth paid languorous homage to her breasts, the green-eyed devil lightly raked his nails down across Autumn’s ribs and stomach, feeling the taut ivory of her skin quiver and warm further under his touch.  Mischief seized him, along with a desire for further connection, and with a slight tug of his power the makeshift blindfold was lifted from the redhead’s eyes so she could look down and see the blazing emerald of his gaze on hers as he tormented her.  Smiling as his fingertips teased along and just within the waistline of her jeans, Jason nuzzled his lips against her softness then switched his attentions to her other breast, flicking the tip of his tongue across her nipple before drawing it into his warm mouth.


There was a moment’s disorientation as the collar of her t-shirt was tugged upward and away, and at first Autumn saw only a few orange sparks drifting like fireflies up into the vast expanse of dark sky above. Those trackless depths were scattered all throughout with the faint pinpricks of countless distant suns: glimmers of dying scarlet, coruscating points of sapphire, flecks of glittering, crystalline white, and- she glanced down, the scope of her vision shrinking- virescent gold, twin stars captured in corporeal form and rendered incandescent in the glow of the firelight. It was enough to make her breath catch as the alien, incomprehensible heat of Jase’s gaze slowly reduced any lingering reservations to ash.


Had anyone actually touched her before? Maybe it was some shared resonance, some echo of their nascent gifts, that this, this must be the quintessence of contact, every atom set aglow by the merest brush of his fingertips. Unable to look away, to escape the dizzying sensory feedback of both seeing and being seen, Autumn’s wrists flexed against the invisible restraint, fingernails biting into her palms as she shivered at the intensity of the hunger in those pale green eyes. The languid, worshipful caress of Jason’s tongue drew a ragged gasp from her lips; it seemed unfair, somehow, that he could be so careful, so composed, when she could feel herself burning like a torch, dissolving from the inside out until all that remained was need, raw and desperate.


More, it demanded again, and God, I want you, and she had no way of knowing if the sounds she made were words at all, or just formless, tortured cries in response to the all-encompassing warmth of his lips, his tongue encircling the aching bud of her nipple. As her fists knotted restlessly in the cotton fabric of her t-shirt, Autumn shifted beneath him, rearranging the tangle of their legs until she managed to get one of Jason’s knees between her thighs. Unable to touch him any other way, the captive redhead arched against him, twisting her hips in an urgent bid for friction, pressure- anything to get her body closer to his.


What is the opposite of a sadist? Jase wondered with that always-present, wry analytical corner of his mind not currently occupied with sensual appetite for Autumn’s flesh under his touch, under his kiss.  He was being pitiless, merciless in the sensation he was inflicting, but it was pleasure not pain, and to see Autumn’s flushed features transported in ecstacy, to know that it was he that was causing the alternately throaty and birdlike cries of wanton need was deeply, profoundly satisfying as well as arousing, the sensation burning like fine liquor in his belly and spreading through his body.  He pressed his knee back against the arching pressure of her lithe body, fancying he could feel the heat there as the athletic girl ground against him, her moans lengthening and deepening as she rocked her hips back and forth.


He trailed his lips in swift, light kisses back up her body from her breasts, arranging himself as he moved so that his knee remained in place for the hungry need of his lover whilst he caressed her flushed features with one hand before freeing her tumble of hair from the t-shirt that still shrouded it, red-gold waves spilling out across the blanket like the ransom of kings.  The other remained lower down, fingertips dipping inside the waistline of her jeans and drawing small designs on the soft, tender skin of her abdomen.  Her eyes were dark pools, wide as they looked up at him with raw emotion, portals to her depths which he studied, head tilting slightly as he regarded her, trailing his long fingers through her hair.  Autumn flexed her hands against his telekinetic grasp again, wanting to reach out to him, grab his head and pull him to her.  She moaned, a low keening sound of protest, as he dropped a delicate kiss on her lips and pulled back with a smile before she could respond.


However cool and focused he seemed the detachment was skin deep, the near-delirious girl could tell with a feminine instinct that was as unerring as it was primal.  Jason’s eyes blazed, his own features were darkened with the stain of desire.  Almost intuitively, Autumn knew that if she could but touch him, she could scratch through that veneer of control and set loose what was inside.  She arched her body, pressing her breasts to the warm smoothness of his torso and letting out a moan, a wordless command / plea that was emotion given form.  Jason felt that demand and responded to it, pressing his lips to hers more firmly than before as, with a wordless relaxation of his will, he released Autumn’s bound wrists.


The kiss Jase gave her, deep and sure, was a gift- one she returned fiercely and without hesitation the moment she was freed. All the energy that had been bound up with the restriction of Autumn’s movements uncoiled in a rush, her body rising up to meet him in a wave of hunger and warm flesh as she reached up with one hand, pale fingers tangling in his thick, dark hair to pull him close. There was no plea in the crush of her lips on his, no mute supplication in the claim her tongue laid to his own, and precious little consideration given to the need for air. There was only want, pure and unfettered, and the feverish pursuit of its fulfillment. 


Whoever she’d been moments before, who she might be in the moments that followed, if a future beyond this could even be conceived of- these were trivial, transient concerns that her mundane Self would have to address later. The burning brilliance surging through her- crimson as her own blood, golden as living flame- demanded tribute. It stretched through Autumn’s fingertips, through the fervent press of her mouth against his, through the friction of bare skin and the contrast of soft curves against taut muscle and bone, until she could feel the rush of Jason’s breath in her lungs, the hot pulse of his life in her veins… And, still, it wasn’t enough. Not by half. 


The near-mathematical symmetry of the lean muscle along Jase’s spine as her free hand snaked downward and around his side, nails grazing his hip beneath the swim trunks he wore. The tightening of his fingers in her hair, triggering an answering tension in the smooth skin he’d traced with arcane symbols of desire. The faint taste of salt on his shoulder as Autumn dipped her head, white teeth marking the tanned flesh there without playfulness or trepidation. The sound of her own voice, hoarse and hungry as her hips moved against him, breathing his name against his throat. It was almost overwhelming, the rush of awareness, and the needy redhead drank the heady mix of impressions in, exulting in the echoes of sensation she could feel returned to her. It was more than simply erotic or pleasurable; it was power, to savor the resonance of that vital spark in him thrumming in her own body.    


Could he sense it, too? some distant part of her mind wondered. Could he feel the heat beneath her skin, the faint tremor of anticipation in her fingertips as they plucked at the button keeping the too-loose combat pants around his waist? Maybe not, what remained of Autumn decided, leaning up to capture Jase’s lips in another bruising kiss. But she was going to make sure he felt something.


All was Her, his focus narrowing as he felt his self-possession evaporate, his sense of Self a guttering defiant flame in a hurricane, now and then nearly being blown out altogether in the tumult of sensation, of connection.  The scent of Autumn’s skin and hair, the taste of her tongue pushing insistently against his own and the feel - oh the feel! - of her body pressed to his as her fingers explored his skin.  The wry observer was silent now, sheltering somewhere inside that guttering flame as everything became fire and hunger, caution and prudence drawn forth from his lean body as if with his breath from one of Autumn’s yearning kisses, to be scattered like the embers of the fire that whirled overhead as the two teens lay tangled in each others arms.  Jase was hyper-aware of her fingers toying with the fastening of his pants, of the hungry heat of her body, of the so very perfect way in which their bodies seemed to flow together.  Autumn’s murmur of his name against his neck seared his blood, set it to boiling as he ran his thumb over the embossed top button of her jeans before, with a nimble flick, he unfastened it.


Autumn drew in a breath, feeling it, practically hearing the soft fabric sound as deceptively slender fingers dipped inside her jeans to stroke over the soft cloth of her bikini.  She whined deep in her throat as a garment which, not long ago, she’d been concerned might be provocative now seemed to be a blighted impedance.  His fingertips swirled down over her covered mound, and Jason could feel the warmth and humidity there, turning his hand to press it to her aching body, pressing against her through the cloth as his fingers stroked.  His frustration mirrored hers, though.  He wanted more than this, more of her and so, true to his essential nature he took it, slipping his touch back up, then down inside the swimsuit bottoms.


He felt Autumn go still, one hand tightening in his hair, the other resting against his taut stomach, and he gazed into her eyes as she lifted them to regard him, her lips - rouged from kissing - opening in an ‘oh’ of soft anticipation.  His fingers caressed her mound, gently tugging at the soft down he felt before straying lower still, seeking out her warmth.  Even as his mind supplied the theory, his fingers and palm carried out the practical experiment, cupping the heated wetness, stroking the sensitive tips of his fingers over the folds he discovered.  He softly kissed her panting mouth, nuzzled his cheek along her jawline, trailed his lips to her earlobe and, once there, whispered her name as an invocation while his hand learned, slowly, to play the oldest notes of pleasure on his lover’s body.


The convergence of sensations had been almost dizzying, an exhilarating confluence of the real- the tactile experience of Jason’s skin, the steady drum of his heartbeat and the scent of something vaguely herbal in his tousled hair- with other, less tangible impressions of his essential vitality, bright as a bonfire in her arms and just as dangerous. With so much to delight in, the dull, sweet ache winding through her belly and the soft whimpers he coaxed from her lips were almost secondary considerations; until she felt deft fingers slipping with startling ease between the slick folds of her sex, Autumn had no concrete notion of exactly how eagerly her body had anticipated his touch. Her eyes widened up at him as the realization struck, desire and disbelief vying for supremacy in their depths, and she was dimly aware that if it were physically possible, she’d be blushing down to her toes beneath the wave of renewed heat washing over her. Instead, her shoulders pressed into the ground, hips arching up to demand yet more of his questing fingertips. 


Not enough. She trembled, panting, heedless of anything but how much she wanted him in that moment and how little of him she could actually have. There was no slow, measured climb toward some transcendent peak, despite the curious, exploratory quality of his caresses, but rather a rapid ascent only hastened by the invocation of her name: two syllables without any supernatural quality of their own, transmuted into a fey charm by the urgent whisper of a lover. The comely redhead shivered bodily at the warmth of Jase’s breath on her ear, her head dropping back onto the blanket as everything within her stretched toward the feeling of liquid tension building between her thighs, reaching feverishly toward the threshold of its release. Autumn’s fingers slid from his hair, wandering aimlessly across angular shoulder blades as the totality of her existence focused on the exquisite tease of his thumb brushing, almost incidentally, against the tender bud of her clit.


With a near-frantic moan, she slid her free hand down over his, no longer satisfied with simply letting him dictate the pace of his own discovery. “Lesson can wait,” Autumn gasped, guiding him into the patterns she desperately craved. “I ca- han’t!”  Her voice broke in a sharp, tremulous cry as one of those dextrous, sensitive fingers probed at her entrance before slipping inside, triggering the sudden contraction of her abdomen and a torrent of incoherent pleas to unnamed gods. All rational thought vanished, dissolving like hot ashes on the wind as her hips rolled faster, a frenetic rhythm that matched the insistent pressure of her palm on the back of his hand. She was already so close, breath coming in ragged gasps underscored by a soft, pleading whine, when she felt Jase shift slightly, followed by the brush of his cheek against the high curve of her breast. 


“Oh-” Autumn began breathlessly, heavy lids opening slightly in confusion. Then- “Ohhhh, FUCK!” as the tip of his tongue circled her nipple and he captured it between his lips. The ache, the heat inside her swelled, searing crimson and gold against the inside of her skin, and for a brief, terrifying moment the delirious teen thought she might actually be dying, torn shrieking from the world on a surging wave of incandescent lust. One hand clutched blindly, wildly at Jason’s wrist as her body tensed, muscles flexing beneath the rose-flushed ivory of her skin, while the other seized a fistful of the blanket behind him. Her eyes were wide, unseeing, as her spine arched, driving her bucking hips harder against his fingers; as the world went black around the edges, a high, keening wail escaped her lips, carrying the echo of his name through the night.

It was revelatory:  every part of the experience was sounding depths in his soul that even the acutely self-aware young man had not previously fathomed.  Autumn’s body rose and tautened, her voice rising high, carrying his name in a wild paean of ecstasy under his touch while her feverishly clutching left hand latched onto his wrist in a futile attempt to anchor herself against the tempest coursing through her nerves.  Jason felt in that grip the bruising strength of her rapture, his refined sense of touch reading the spasms of her wetness seeking to draw his fingers deeper, and as he watched her lovely features transported with pleasure the detached genius felt something within him stir, something possessive yet gentle that responded to the bold young woman who had reached out to and, if he was honest, into him.

His other arm encircled her shoulders, cradling Autumn gently as she cried out and trembled against him, surging through the riptide of her delight, and Jason absorbed the simple fact of her being inside his awareness with a shock that resonated in the halls of his mind.  It was startling, and discomfiting to think that just a week ago, he’d thought in his innocence such a thing could only be within the reach of one girl.  But this intimacy was far beyond anything he had pictured.  Such was the tumult of his own desires that he had no ready answer to why that was, and so he set the question aside and focused on the delirium of the Now, slowly moving his fingers inside his flame-haired vision, feeling her slippery wetness on his hand and grazing the pad of his thumb around her clit in unconscious time with the quiver of her inner walls.

Autumn’s hands released the blanket and his wrist, coming up to cling to his shoulders and back as she raised her face to his, her warm breath and insistent, greedy tongue seeming to carry her soul into the kiss before she broke off to whimper loudly, her voice rhythmically rising in pitch, taking on an almost panicked note.  Her thoughts were as leaves in a gale, the astonished realisation that it was happening again all she could grasp from the fleeting shreds of consciousness before her body was set ablaze once more.  Already sensitised nerves sang as she felt her lower abdomen become a molten pool from which ripples spread out through her form, growing in intensity and becoming a series of moving walls of searing flame, each more heated than the last, each tearing a more loudly piercing melodious cry from her breathless throat.  The series of cataclysms lasted forever and a moment, and left her twitching, gasping, a sheen of perspiration coating the rose stain of desire that flooded her face, throat and bosom.  Autumn’s nails clutched at the skin of Jase’s back and shoulder, scoring his skin with red despite their pragmatically short length, before she managed to find purchase on her consciousness and bring one hand down to still the motions of his fingers inside her joyously spasming folds.

“No... more...” she managed, though part of her did want more, wanted to see if there was an end to this soaring pleasure, wanted to burn up into motes, molten fragments like a meteorite breaking up from entering the atmosphere so fast.  That need to be so consumed was intense – to be burned up by the flame of her lover, to forever cease to exist as Autumn and exist solely as a collection of white-hot motes of pleasure, yearning for his touch.  It was terrifying and exhilarating.  He was terrifying and exhilarating, even now as he acquiesced, gently slipping his fingers from her heated, needy sex, glancing down at the way her honey made his fingers glisten before his green eyes travelled again along the length of her euphoria-saturated form to meet her gaze again.  His eyes burned still with his own lust, and there was an uncompromisingly possessive quality to Jason’s stare as he examined her, from the tumbling halo of firelit red and gold that framed her flushed face, to the dilated centers of her blue eyes, to her panting lips.  Though his smile was oddly tender, even as it was still quintessentially Jason Effing Bannon: an expression equal parts satisfaction and amusement.

“Told you.” He said matter-of-factly as he brought his hand closer to his face, eyes considering the slickness coating it before he, with seeming great attention to the process and equal enjoyment, licked the sweet evidence of her delight from his fingers as though it were a fairground treat.  She watched with lust-dazed fascination as his agile tongue cleaned the digits that had brought her such pleasure, then his gaze turned back to her and smiled slightly, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he repeated what he’d said earlier.  “Sort of loud.  Noisy, even.”

Autumn blinked up at him, her brain still reeling as it worked to assemble scattered, fragmented impulses and impressions into language and the basic structure of coherent thought- a process complicated somewhat by the sight of Jason adroitly licking the taste of her from his fingers. Not only was the display an extremely provocative reminder of the meal they’d just shared earlier, it suggested a number of other shared activities at which he might be equally adept, vivid images of which came to mind far more readily than the words she needed to describe them. Tilting her head and shifting a little closer to him, the sated redhead admired, wonderingly, the way the low flames nearby cast his features into sharp relief, warm bronze highlights contrasted with the near-black contours, and lent their glow to the hungry, wicked sparks of mischief in his eyes. It was enough to make her breath catch in her throat, kindling an answering flush of residual heat in her own expression as she considered his. “Sorry, was it?” she finally managed, still a little breathless but not at all apologetic as she reached up with a slightly giddy smile, her fingertips delicately following that line of demarcation between light and shadow that made him seem somehow otherworldly, unknowable. “I’ll try to be quieter next time.”

"No need." The fire in the depths of his eyes was undimmed as he turned his head fractionally, kissing her fingers, his gaze not leaving her face. "Not on my account, anyway."

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And, just like that, with no more than a look and the brush of his lips against her hand, Autumn forgot how to breathe all over again, her lower abdomen tightening with the force of her reaction in an aftershock, an echo of the cataclysmic pleasure she’d just endured. It lasted only for a moment, but she had a vague sense that it wouldn’t be the last time he would evoke such a reaction from her with such seemingly inconsequential acts. ...God, I am so, so not surviving until Homecoming, she mused, uncertain in that moment whether she would even be lucky enough to survive the night. As his doomed companion watched the tiny, fractional changes at the corners of Jase’s eyes, the near-imperceptible movement of his lashes, the subtle curve of his mouth, she was again struck by the need to break through that composed veneer, to see beneath the surface, to find out if he felt- or could feel- that same sense of connection that had made the whole experience feel so much more real, more intense, more… everything, really, than just a make-out session in the woods. What did this mean to him, though?  Was it just an intellectual exercise for him, or maybe just carnal sensation, the sating of physical appetite? She was keenly aware of her need for this to be meaningful to him, too, to reach within the armor of the impenetrable, impossible boy, to touch his essential Self as he had touched hers.

Her natural curiosity once more winning out over trepidation, the clear blue of Autumn’s gaze swept slowly over his face in a phantom caress as the backs of her fingers trailed from her lover’s cheek to follow the curve of his throat. It was an unhurried, languorous pursuit, tracing meandering arcs- now with her fingertips, now the blunt edge of her nails- that swirled down over his collarbone and along his ribs, the broad spirals drifting gradually lower and her smile widening incrementally with each sharp inhalation or flutter of his eyelids. Not so impervious after all, she realized, with a growing sense of triumph and her own power - she was doing this, coaxing reactions from his body that, for all Jason’s icy control, he could not suppress. The undisguised delight she felt at every reaction, however miniscule, was evident in the rapt intensity of her expression, the suffusion of warm color beneath her skin; whatever hint of pleasure she perceived in his responses was reflected in her features as she gazed up at him. She could practically feel the heat radiating from his bare torso, could almost chart the currents of his desire in the rise and fall of his chest as the shallow, rapid pace of his breathing mirrored her own, but it was the undeniable proof of Jase’s arousal, insistent and unyielding against her hip, that caused a tremor deep in her core which vibrated, ever so slightly, in the caress of her hand on the smooth skin of his stomach. 

Resisting the urge to glance down was an exercise in resolve, one she overcame only by the narrowest of margins, and only then by reminding herself that she had definitely already seen him naked, and this was totally no big deal. ...Okay, she admitted as her focus wavered momentarily to the feeling of his body pressed against her, maybe not entirely accurate, but still! Inhaling to steady her nerves and realign her thoughts, Autumn concentrated instead on the play of the firelight over his face, the warm texture of his skin, the faint vibration beneath the curious brush of her fingertips- more teasing than tentative as they roved inexorably toward the fly of his trousers. Intent on her features as she watched him, Jason could see himself reflected in the wide, ocean-dark pools of her eyes, could almost have tracked the movement of her hand by the changes in her expression alone. The rich color of her cheeks deepened by degrees, and he felt the gentle tug as she gingerly unfastened the button her questing fingers encountered, heard clearly the hitch in her breath and the soft sigh of her exhalation over the sound of each individual metal tooth parting as she drew the zipper downward.

Jason’s heart had sped up a little throughout their intimacy thus far, maintaining a pulse that felt like a steady drum in his chest even as the delicious drawn-out tension of her slowly-moving fingers caused his breath to quicken and catch very slightly.  Their eyes locked on one another, Jason felt a thrill he’d rarely experienced, a sensation he classified as a reaction to… not danger, exactly, but vulnerability.  To Autumn, in this moment, he was vulnerable - not in the sense of physical harm, but in the sense that she could sway his reactions, dictate the pace of his heart and the quickness of his breath, strum his nerves as he had played on her own mere moments ago.  And yet at the same time, looking into the depths of her naked soul - or so it seemed - she was utterly vulnerable to him as well.  The sigh that contained a hint of expectant need, the way her teeth indented her lower lip and the red suffusing her features deepened even as she was the actor, rather than the acted-upon…

Or was she?  Was it that clear-cut?  Jason doubted it.  This was all so new to him that he wasn’t precisely sure where his sense of himself ended and his sense of Autumn began.  Still lingering was the unfamiliar sense of savage possessive tenderness that had surged as she had tensed, arched and cried out in his arms.  He had been acting upon her, for certain, and yet in her vulnerable surrender to his touch she had also acted upon him.  This then, he realised with a flash of insight, was what it meant to connect, to be connected to another person, at least as closely as he could approximate the condition, and the realisation caused his eyes to widen and his breathing to stop altogether for a moment as he gazed down into the wells of emotional warmth that were Autumn’s eyes.

“Are you okay?” she murmured softly, her hand stilling its tugging on his zipper as she caught the sudden change in the texture of his reactions.  She could feel him there past the fabric and the metal of the fly, a tantalising solidity, and yet she paused, her other hand gently stroking the hair over his ears, her touch gentle and warm in a way that was not merely physical.  That warmth- her warmth.  The vibrancy that had drawn him to her.  It entered him through that connection, radiant as the campfire that illuminated both the entwined lovers, and it warmed him in places that were habitually cold.  Her touch, whether as a function of her Shine or simply the more mundane but no less wondrous alchemical properties of tender female contact, carried the same warm properties as her gaze.  The moment of shock passed, but the warmth did not, and he smiled in answer to the question, the hungry flame coming back into his eyes redoubled.  

“I was just thinking… no, feeling that I am very okay.”  he told the pretty redhead as he lowered his lips to hers.  The kiss was a brush, at first, then a slightly firmer press as he let his own fire well up from inside, his mouth opening against hers, feeling hers open against his, their tongues gently teasing each other as he set aside the last of his tightly-held reserve, allowed the vulnerability of his own need and desire to manifest, his breath catching as he felt that utterly amoral and primitive urge set his mind ablaze.  The last vestiges of his icy analysis melting away, Jason was left aware only of the feel of her in his arms, her skin on his skin, the contrast of soft breast and hard nipple pressed to his chest, Autumn’s hand pressing insistently against him through the material of trousers that were an irritating barrier.  A faint growl in the back of his throat carried into the kiss as the hand that had been stroking the glorious tumble of Autumn’s hair slid around to the nape of her neck, slender fingers weaving into the base of her hair there and tightening into a gentle fist, anchoring her so he could possessively, even roughly claim her mouth with his, his heartbeat rising to a thunder in his ears.

For the briefest of moments- the fleeting instant in which a match-head, being struck, might not yet be consumed by the flame- she was acutely aware of the specific word Jase had chosen, “feeling,” the way the odd gravity of his tone warped the other words around it by proximity alone. Aware that he’d said it earlier, as well. Aware that even if it wasn’t a singular, unprecedented expression, it clearly wasn’t one he’d used often. Aware that he… was about to kiss her, that she was already tilting her head to meet the hungry press of his lips with her own as the flame caught, and awareness of anything beyond him vanished in a dizzying swirl of sparks that shimmered behind her eyelids and over the surface of her skin. The soft rumble in his throat that sent a tremor through the core of her being, the surprising strength of his fingers woven tightly through her hair, the taste of his mouth on hers, the faint roar of her blood- or was it his?- that drowned out the crackle of the campfire and the murmur of the river: all of her attention was focused on what he was doing and how it made her feel, on how he responded, and the sense of near-tangible energy, the power inherent in that exchange. Still… Not enough.

Impatiently, the redhead in his arms fumbled with the suddenly complicated workings of his pants, her fingers uncharacteristically clumsy with haste and want; with a low moan of frustration against his lips, she managed to slide her free hand between the press of their bodies to pull the fly taut while the other finally succeeded in getting the zipper down. There was no hesitation, no real consideration save the desire to touch him, and so she did, her fingertips gliding over him through the thin fabric of the trunks he wore. The muscles of his abdomen tightened as Autumn reveled in the heat, the thickness of him beneath her palm before sliding upward, under the waistband of the swim shorts, and inside. Leaning over her, Jason exhaled sharply at the sensation of cool, slender fingers encircling heated flesh, his rough kiss deepening to a bruising crush that ignited her blood into searing, liquid gold even as she arched against him in a wordless, desperate plea for more. 

“Off,” she gasped, drawing a ragged breath against his jaw and pulling ineffectually at his belt loops. With a muffled curse pressed against her throat, he shifted his weight onto one forearm above her, shucking both trousers and trunks and kicking the irksome garments aside, not at all concerned about whether they ended up in the fire, the lake, or a few feet away- only that they were gone. Her pale arms linked around the wiry youth’s neck as she rose to meet him, then rolled toward the fire, pressing his back firmly into the blanket; arranging herself over him, the flame-haired young woman paused to catch her breath, drawing back for a moment to take in the tall, spare form of her lover limned in flickering golden light. It was an arresting sight, and she leaned in to brush her lips fleetingly over his before shifting downward, her hair and the warm softness of her breasts skimming over his torso as she devoured with lips and tongue the course her eyes had set moments before.   

Autumn shifted to one side as the curve of her jaw grazed the hollow beneath his hip bone, her breath hot and slightly uneven as her mouth moved hungrily against his body, palms sliding down the lean expanse of his stomach to the tops of his thighs. The heat radiating from Jase’s skin felt almost cool against the flaming scarlet of her cheek, warmed not by any external source but by the dizzying, near-euphoric effect of his proximity alone; she marveled at that for a moment, nipping gently at the subtle demarcation between sun-bronzed flesh and the slightly fairer hue of his natural complexion before smiling and pressing an apologetic kiss to the faint mark she’d left. Without the relentless assault his earlier explorations had made on her senses, the ardent young woman focused anew on the sensory impressions conveyed through the sudden tension of muscle under her fingertips, the clean, appealingly male scent of his skin, and the oh-so faint taste of salt it left on her lips. It was a far cry from the nigh-incomprehensible chaos of before, rendered inchoate by raw need and the scorching delights of his touch- rather than a crashing wave of sensation, it was the slow rush of an incoming tide, waves of shared pleasure surging against the shore of her consciousness.

As she tucked her hair behind one ear, Autumn rested her cheek against his hip, considering the tangible proof of his arousal with a combination of uncertainty and unvarnished desire. It wasn’t an issue of interest or even motivation, but of mathematics, a complex subject that had always daunted her in school but which now presented- in the form of her new boyfriend- both a frustrating dilemma and an irresistible challenge. Tilting her chin to glance up at Jason’s face, she caught a glimpse of his eyes, dark and intent on her features, and felt her stomach tighten deliciously in response. I’ll make it work, she decided quickly, catching her lower lip between her teeth as a frisson of excitement rippled through her at his expression. The feathery caress of her fingertips along the heated length of his manhood, inquisitive and exploratory as his own movements had been before, yielded a sudden, involuntary twitch that elicited a gasp of surprise and delight from the animated young woman; impishly, she repeated the gesture, stifling a grin as the novelty of his reaction briefly outweighed all other concerns. 

Relenting as she felt him begin to stir beneath her, his Titian-haired lover raised her head, rising as the playful delicacy of her touch resolved into a yielding grasp that almost encircled him completely. She inhaled, lowering her head to trail a series of soft, slow kisses along the underside of his shaft in what felt like microscopic increments, keeping her gaze fixed on his as her lips moved slowly upward. With a quiet hum of appreciation, the lively redhead swiped the flat of her tongue over the head, parting kiss-reddened lips to breathe a whisper of cool air across his sensitized skin. “You know… It’s not too late to run,” she murmured, regarding him with a glimmer of devilry in her lust-darkened eyes and pausing as if to offer him the opportunity. His eyelids fluttered half-closed at the contact of her warm wet tongue on his aching flesh, a sharp intake of breath followed by a drawn-out exhalation as his mischievous lover teased his nerves. At her words, his own heated gaze focused on hers and he smiled.  

"I prefer chasing to fleeing." His smile became a faint crooked grin. "Like you." Autumn hmmed again in satisfaction, the corners of her mouth curving upward as she pushed her hair back from her face and over her bare, cinnamon-flecked shoulders. Pale fingers once again encircled the base of his shaft, more firmly this time, giving him a gentle squeeze as she dipped her head and anointed him almost reverently with slow, deliberate strokes of her tongue. Eager as his companion was to return some fraction of the white-hot pleasure Jase had seared into her body, she reminded herself that after the torment he’d put her through, it was worth taking her time to see how far his mask of composure could slip; potentially making him squirm a little in exchange for the ruthless teasing he’d given her was just a bonus. The sudden thought of his voice, hoarse and breathless and desperate as it formed the word “please” sent a shiver of tiny sparks racing down her spine, rekindling the liquid heat in her belly. He could feel the shape of her smile for a brief moment as the warm, soft circle of her lips descended with excruciating slowness, drawing him carefully into the slick heat of her mouth.

He’d propped himself on his elbows as Autumn had sunk lower, watching her raptly, and now his breath hissed at her teasing exploratory touches, and as her hand wrapped around him he felt his head fall back as though all of his tension, all of his capacity for tension, were concentrated in the pale fingers of the lover he’d not expected to discover.  The touch of her lips followed, causing the warm rigidity in Autumn’s hand to jump slightly as a low murmur of surprised pleasure issued from Jason’s throat.  With an effort of will, he kept his head raised, his fingers balling into fists as he watched her lovingly run her tongue along him, over and over, tasting every inch of him as though he were the finest of treats.  His heart was a drum in his ears again as he watched her, noting how she never took her eyes from his, holding him mesmerised with her own hunger.  

She had given him the option to run again, teasingly, but both of them knew he would not - perhaps could not - any more that she would or could.  Just like Autumn, it was not in Jason’s nature to run from danger… and the connection of mutual desire, of evoked emotions and the sheer hunger each awoke in the other was indeed a danger: fogging the mind, reducing judgement to ashes.  The loss of Self, the inability to tell where he ended and she began - this, then, was the most delightful and thrilling of dangers.  What would he do, to protect one who inspired such feelings and sensations?  What would he not do, to keep her by him and prolong this firelit moment for as long as the stars burned?  He saw himself reflected in her eyes, in her expression as she looked upon him, and for once he did not feel like an outsider - beyond the pane of glass that separated him from others.  She did not perceive him as the necessary evil, the useful monster that, when all was over and settled, others would distance themselves from.  She desired him, she felt for him, she wanted him... and she was unafraid.  She saw the fire in his eyes, and wanted to dance in it.

As her mouth slid over him he took a hissing breath, eyes fluttering shut and then opening almost as swiftly, keeping his gaze on hers as she slowly, so slowly slipped her tongue around the head of his cock inside the warm wetness of her mouth.  Humming softly, Autumn bobbed her head a little, pulling back off him with a soft ‘pop’ of suction and kissed the side of his shaft once more, her eyes never leaving his, a lioness over her kill.  His breath was coming harder now as he watched her smile, then take him between her lips once more, hmming in delight as he filled her mouth, tongue flickering around the girth of the welcome invader.  She saw his jaw clench, heard the soft gasps her mouth was coaxing from him, his lean frame tensing as his pleasure climbed… and with another soft ‘pop’ she withdrew, stroking him gently with her hand.

“Shit.”  Jason swore, the word emerging as more of a groan that caused the red-head to smile wickedly at him, the amber of her freckles offsetting the pale rose of her face as she placed another delicate kiss on the prize in her hand.

“Sorry, should I stop?” she asked, a hint of throaty chuckle in her voice as she watched his pale green gaze flash with a mixture of frustration and amusement.  She nuzzled her lips against the tender skin of his manhood, peering around it at the expression on Jason’s face with a wide-eyed, ingenuous look in her eyes.  Not giving him a chance to speak, she slowly licked up along the full length of him, flicking the tip of her wet tongue at the head and feeling a delicious tight zinging of pleasure in her core as he groaned, a deep, urgent sound of his need.  It occurred to her that she had been his first making-out, the first girl he had pleasured, the first who had pleasured him…  He’d never before experienced what she was doing to his nerve-endings, and with the realisation came a warm uncoiling rush of fresh arousal mixed with tenderness.  She watched him war between maintaining his aloof control and declaring what he wanted, putting himself in her hands.

“I’d… prefer you continue.”  he husked, evidently deciding on the latter.  Autumn smiled, kissing the swollen head once more as she tried, more from fascination than for any other reason, to get her fingers to meet around the base of his shaft once more, causing another soft groan to emit from her lover at the gentle pressure.  He sucked in a breath as he discerned her playful intent, and faced with a choice of either withdrawing or pursuing the delightful pleasure to its end, he decided.  “Autumn…  please.” he murmured in a voice hoarse with need from a throat as taut as the lean lines of his body and the tremoring solidity of him in her palm, his eyes on hers.

There were entire sections of libraries and bookstores devoted to the language of romance, to printed exaltations of love dating back to the advent of the written word itself, prose and poetry alike articulating in line after line, page after page, humanity’s most ardent erotic expressions. And yet two words, just two, from the young man she so desperately desired managed to convey more sincere urgency and impassioned need than any she could imagine being put to paper. She’d meant to tease him a little in playful retribution, to test the limits of his composure and his capacity to feel something; now, having achieved all that, Autumn realized with a sudden shock the gravity of what he had just done. He hadn’t simply abandoned his control, casting it aside in a moment of euphoric madness- she doubted whether he was even capable of such a thing. 

He’d handed it to her, to her, earnestly and in full trust, in two words.

There was a startling purity in the raw need manifest in his gaze, a longing for something as-yet unquantifiable to him that she would have considered desperate were he anyone but himself. Show me, it demanded, a silent appeal for an answer to the question of what all of this meant, what it could mean; her smile widened slightly in response, the mischief in her eyes softening into something even she couldn’t readily define as she glanced up at him through the bright copper fringe of her lashes. 

“Well,” the lithe redhead replied carefully, weighing his request before adding, “you did say please,” punctuating each word with a soft press of her lips to the rigid length fairly vibrating within her encircling fingers. It didn’t matter that none of this had been planned or even considered before, the span of an hour or a week being equally meaningless when time was measured solely by the exultant percussion of her heart- it was happening now, and whatever came after would be… whatever it was. In this moment, there was only the faint taste of salt, the irregular rasp of his breath, and the flickering radiance spreading through her veins as that voiceless urge once more whispered through the haze of her thoughts: More. Power and control, lust and affection: these weren’t merely abstract concepts, but the currency exchanged between lovers, given freely and returned with interest. ...And, oh, Autumn had interest aplenty. With a quiet hum of pleasure she lavished a slow, hungry kiss over the head of his cock, ardent lips and adoring tongue caressing the swollen flesh with unreserved delight. 

Her attentiveness was almost worshipful in its intensity, as if through soft sighs and the heat of her needy mouth this sensual rite of connection and desire could somehow convey what she lacked the words to say otherwise. The unfiltered immediacy of his reactions- the gasps, the shivers, the tensing of his lean frame beneath her- only encouraged reciprocity, sending delicate frissons of pleasure racing along her own nerves even as she strove to heighten his. She was doing this to him. He wanted her to do this to him. He wanted her. Like called to like, his hunger provoking her own in slow, sultry waves that rippled across the glowing, molten pool rising inside her, carrying its heat outward in a rush of bright rose beneath the ivory of her skin. Her lips and hands worked in tandem, rising and falling over him in smooth, fluid motions and alternating between slow, gently twisting strokes that engulfed him in warmth and gentle friction and shorter, quicker ones that allowed her to focus on the delicate, hypersensitive nerve endings and drive him closer to the limits of sensation. The intent young woman could sense, rather than hear the change in Jase’s breathing as her fingers undulated in waves, a rhythmic counterpoint to the languid sweep of her tongue around the dense, heated length of him filling her mouth; squeezing her thighs together to assuage the dull ache building there, Autumn glanced up to meet his gaze once more.

It briefly occurred to him that something fundamental had shifted in Autumn in the moments following his implicit placing of himself - for want of a better phrase - in her hands.  His rudimentary understanding of her, which the sense of connection deepened and strengthened, perceived rather than sensed the softening of her mischievousness into something unquantifiable and outside of his experience.  Even in his urgent need, his nerves electrified by the caress of the girl kneeling between his legs, his mind started to chase this new observed phenomenon, to decipher its meaning - and then her lips slid down over the head of his cock once more and he was left with a choice - to shut out all sensation and focus entirely on the abstraction of analysing the look in his lover’s eyes, or to live in the moment, to experience that which he had placed himself in her hands to experience.  He chose the latter, and thought whirled away from him as the world became raw sensory stimuli, hotwiring his mind and body without the intercession of higher cognitive processes.

Abstraction, always his companion, was gone now.  That wry observer-mind who catalogued, analysed and filed every experience was nowhere to be found.  Everything was white-hot sensation that entered Jason’s mind unfiltered, pulses of pleasure building within his body in tightening waves that moved in time with the stroke of her hands, the bobbing of her head - slow at first, the tingling brush of her hair on his thighs and hips a counterpoint as she swirled her tongue around the tip of him within her mouth, but then quickening gradually as Autumn’s own desire to bring him pleasure loaned urgency to her movements, coaxing gasps from his mouth and causing his belly to tighten and hips to twitch under her caress.  Now and then she would take him as deep as she could into her mouth and hold him there, testing herself against him, the sensation of her throat working around the tip of his manhood causing him to groan - a deep guttural sound devoid of anything but yearning - before slowly sliding the tight suction of her lips back up to the head of his cock and resuming once more the steadily increasing rhythm of mouth, tongue and hands that could have only one design, one purpose. One culmination.  His breath began coming in pants now, shortening perceptibly as a warm tightness began to grow in his loins, and though his eyelids fluttered shut now and then he always opened them again as though fascinated at the sight of the hungry-eyed redhead pleasuring him.

As she glanced up towards him with his swollen head between her lips and their eyes met once more it seemed as though a spark jumped - from her blue eyes to his green and thence to his groin and then back up his spine in a series of lightning-strikes, exploding in his brain.  It was so different from his past solitary pleasuring of himself - so mechanical and matter-of-fact by comparison - that he could not even process that his climax was on him at first.  Jase’s teeth clenched, his body tensing almost painfully as his head fell back and a weak thought occurred to him, some dimly-remembered reading of advice on such matters that he should warn her, that it was polite to warn her, and he opened his mouth to do so but all he could do was call out her name with such a deep reverberating groan that she felt it as much as heard it and then his cock twitched powerfully in her hands and in her mouth as he came.

There was a sense that some spring had been over-tightened and had now snapped and released its energy, propelled him over the precipice of the senses Autumn had lifted him to, and now he was moving through space, weightless, formless, a heated cloud of glowing vapor where once he had been a cold, distant star.  Jase shuddered through the crest of his pleasure, every sinew on his body standing out as his shaft pulsed, over and over so it seemed to him, the sensations blurring together with the rhythmic feel of Autumn’s swallowing, his tortured gasps mingling with her delighted humming as she drank him down, her eyes on his pleasure-slackened features as he groaned again, looking unseeing up at the stars and the sparks from the campfire, momentarily mindless and aware only of the white-hot, drawn out jangling of his nerves, the gentle suction of her mouth, and the tender brush of her hands as they left his cock and lightly grasped his hips as much to embrace him as hold him steady.  Eventually the pleasure subsided, the magnesium-flare of raw sensation cooling down somewhat, and as consciousness returned Jason blinked, realisation of Self coming back to him.  He raised his head once more and looked down along his body at Autumn.

“Holy shit.” he said, not with particular heat or emphasis but in a more hushed, faintly reverent tone such as one might use when looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling for the first time, or watching a particularly beautiful sunrise.  The latter being an apt descriptor, in his mind, for the girl who had in a short space of time engaged his interest, kindled his friendship, earned his trust, sparked his desire, and quite literally blown his mind.  His composure was largely returned, though his breath was still a little labored and his eyes still dark with desire as he regarded her, his cock still possessing some rigidity but quiescent now as she let it slip from her lips with a smile.  “In case you missed it last time I said it - you’re beautiful.”  he told her soberly.

Impossibly, she felt her cheeks grow warmer at the unanticipated compliment, as if all the heat in her abdomen had suddenly rushed upwards, the deepening hue of her complexion visible even in the amber glow of the firelight. She was reasonably sure that wasn’t supposed to happen when you were already blushing, but some rules just didn’t seem to apply when Jason Whatever-His-Middle-Name-Was Bannon was involved. He had this knack for casually setting her on fire with some off-hand comment or pointed glance and just sort of observing the ensuing level of conflagration, and even worse, she couldn’t even be sure if it was intentional or not- sometimes it seemed deliberate, and sometimes incidental. Either way, she should have started building up an immunity or tolerance of some kind by now, but oh, no. While her body could theoretically ignore drugs and booze completely, things that could actually kill her, of course there was no superpower to resist being red-faced and just feeling like she was going to die. It was infuriating and impossible, and so was he, and the absolute worst part was that she kind of enjoyed it. 

Maybe. A little. 

...Okay, okay. More than a little. Damn it, Autumn swore silently, trying unsuccessfully to ignore what felt like clouds of tiny golden stars zinging pleasantly along her nerves as she peered up at him, her face aflame. At Bannon the Impenetrable, with all the potential challenges and surprises that entailed. At her boyfriend. Shifting her knees to the outside of his thighs, the spirited redhead slid up the length of Jason's lean frame, smiling down into his eyes as the heavy curtain of her tousled red-gold hair spilled all around them. “I’m glad you think so,” she replied quietly, resting her forehead against his as she tried to match his breathing, savoring the warmth and solidity of his chest rising and falling against her own. “So, can I assume you’re okay, then?” she murmured, the fingers of one hand carefully threading through the dark hair over his ear. His pale eyes, warmed by the firelight catching their wide, dark centers, met her gaze. There was in that stare a pensive searching, questioning quality as he studied both her and the sensations she had sparked- and continued to spark- in his psyche. He brought a hand up, brushing his fingertips over her face - feather-lightly, as though tracing her features through glass - before gently cupping her cheek in his palm, feeling her warmth as he lifted his head and pressed his lips to hers in mute answer. 

As her eyelids drifted shut, Autumn’s awareness of the world shrank, leaving only the gentle pressure of his kiss and the slow, rhythmic tide of their breathing. Of the fact that her hand slid from Jase’s hair to cradle the back of his head, or that as she melted almost bodily against him she made a tiny sound of surprised delight in the back of her throat, the warm-hued young woman was completely unaware. Instead, she could pinpoint the incandescent awakening of every nerve ending he touched, a sensation she prolonged with the delicate brush of her mouth against his, with the tiny, fleeting movements of her reddened lips wherein a thousand flickering sparks of pleasure flared to life and scattered again as his kiss ignited them anew. It was indulgence, not urgency that whetted her appetite; even as his analytic mind worked to process and categorize the experience, her brilliant lover got the sense that she would happily continue in this leisurely vein until the sun rose over them. And yet… Without any notion of how much time had passed, she did finally withdraw with a soft sigh, nuzzling her cheek against his jaw as she opened her eyes. 

“To be continued,” she reminded herself aloud before smiling and pressing a kiss into the hollow just beneath his ear, her voice dropping to a near-whisper. “Hopefully soon, hm?” Autumn rose, then, gently releasing his head and- slightly unsteadily- getting to her feet. It felt like she’d spent the day hiking through the backcountry, her legs still a little shaky as the muscles protested the sudden shift back to verticality, and as she stretched to restore circulation and equilibrium the red-haired teen quickly scanned the campsite: her shirt and bikini top were almost on opposite sides, with Jase’s pants and shirt similarly scattered and in disarray. The sound of her quiet laugh drifted across the clearing as she shook her head, grinning, and set about retrieving their clothes, pausing to grab his towel and one of the open bottles of water on her way back to the blanket. “Here,” she smiled, handing over the bottle as she sank down next to him, sitting cross-legged and sorting through the clothes in her lap. “Thought you might be thirsty.”

Edited by Vivi OOC
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