Piece of a Legend

 

 

Chapter One

 

"This place is so small, I could kick a rock and it'd roll all the way through town."

 

Aaren Johnson looked up from the book perched in his lap to see his sister frowning out the window from her place at the front passenger seat of the car. "Is that bad?"

 

Blair huffed, clearly frustrated, and flopped back into the beaten brown seat cushions, brown eyes shifting irritably to regard him in return. He could still hear the buzz of music from the headphones that were draped, forgotten, around her neck. "Well, what are we supposed to do for fun around here? Go on hayrides? This place is a freaking hick town."

 

Aaren straightened a bit in his seat, freeing one hand to rub at his neck as he felt the muscles protest, and glanced out the window. The town was - as Blair had pointed out - really small. The road they were parked on while they waited for their mother to come back with directions to the new house could probably be considered the main road, and the pavement was patched and worn but new-looking compared to the dusty, old-fashioned buildings. He couldn't see the layout of the rest of the town, but they'd seen it coming in - the spread of human occupation here was a lot smaller than the city they'd left. There was open countryside from the direction they'd come and a large patch of forest spreading out like a breaking wave of pine-green down into the slight valley created by the hills that flanked the place. He was sure he'd seen a ravine further out, too - probably with a stream at the bottom.

 

Maybe he could learn to catch fish. Or they could go camping or something. It was going to be great, having that sort of thing almost right in their back yard. "I think it's cool," he admitted, adjusting his glasses and offering his sister a sheepish grin.

 

"You would." Blair let out another frustrated breath and frowned, pushing aside a stray lock of black hair that had escaped the short ponytail at the back of her head as she stared petulantly out the window. "Shrimp," she added sulkily, for good measure. She still had an inch on him, as well as that extra year.

 

Aaren frowned back. "Wait until I get my growth spurt, Godzilla."

 

Blair took up the argument with a vicious smirk, twisting in her seat to face him completely. "You're not getting any growth spurt. Mom just says that to make you feel better about being shorter than your sister."

 

"I'm not short!" he protested, indignantly. "You're just unnaturally huge." Feeling cramped from the four-hour car ride and the complaining that started up in the front seat as soon as their mother left for any reason, he felt cranky enough to add, "Except in the chest area."

 

"Jerk!" The pillow hit him squarely in the face, knocking his glasses esque and the book out of his hands. "Fuck you!" Blair shot him a furious scowl and turned back around huffily. "I can't believe I'm stuck with my gay little brother for the summer until the inbred hicks around here get to know us!"

 

He threw the pillow back over the seat fiercely, glaring at the back of her head as he readjusted his glasses and picked up the book again. "Yeah, real mature - make me lose my place just because you didn't want to move."

 

"At least I'm old enough to drive." She slumped down, glowering out the window resentfully as if the occasional passerby were responsible for her bad mood. "What's that guy looking at, anyway?" she grumbled, after a minute.

 

"What guy?" Aaren leaned across the bags stored on the seat beside his to follow her gaze.

 

"That guy!" She waved an exasperated hand, letting it slap down onto her denim-covered thigh loudly as it finished. "He keeps looking over here - are cars an oddity in this dump or what?"

 

Aaren looked. Across the street was a tall, gangly boy with short, curly brown hair and large blue eyes, checking out store windows with apparent interest. He was shooting the occasional glance their way, and trying very hard to look like he wasn't, turning back around quickly whenever he caught their gaze.

 

"No idea," he admitted after a second, settling back down but still watching the boy with some bemusement.

 

"God, what a loser." Blair rolled her eyes upward and slunk down so her neck was lost in the oversized sweatshirt she'd worn for the trip. "This town sucks. Mom's company is the spawn of Satan for forcing us to move here."

 

Aaren wasn't sure he agreed with that, but he knew his mother wasn't happy with the move either - she'd been developing dark circles under her eyes since they'd given her the ultimatum of 'be relocated or be unemployed'. With her husband dead in a car accident, and two kids to look after, she couldn't afford to lose her job. So, just after Aaren finished off the nineth grade, she'd been forced to pack up two teenagers and all their belongings and cart everyone off from a decently-sized city to a little town in the middle of nowhere.

 

The moving van was probably already at their new house. The only reason they weren't there yet was because none of them knew where anyplace was in the area.

 

Not that it looked like there'd be a lot to remember.

 

"What are you reading anyway?" Blair's tone had lost a lot of its bite when she turned around again - probably because their mother had appeared at the front of the store again, still chatting over her shoulder with whoever was inside. As grouchy as she was about the move, Blair was at least considerate enough not to show that kind of attitude in front of her already-stressed parent. "The geek manual?"

 

"How to dump your body so no one finds it," Aaren shot back agreeably, and held up the books so she could see the cover for herself.

 

"'Anthology of Unusual Myths and Phenomenon'," Blair read, and raised an eyebrow - then, seeing the bottom half, added, "'Volume twelve'." She shook her head. "You freak."

 

"Takes one to know one."

 

"Oh, good one. Forget to pack your brain cells?" The car door opened before he had a chance to think of a good response for that. "Did you get directions?" Blair asked their mother as she slid back into the car.

 

"Yes, thank goodness." She gave them a tired smile, pulling the seat belt back on over a deceptively willowy-looking frame of a body, and started up the car. Samantha Johnson looked a great deal like her children - average height, thin figure and jet-black hair, with a slight curve of a charming smile on too-pale skin. The only difference was the eyes - Blair and Aaren had both inherited their father's brown rather than their mother's blue. "It shouldn't be too much longer." She paused a moment before turning to smile at them again, just a weak turning-up of her mouth at the corners. "Thank you both for being so good about this whole disaster. It's made things a lot easier for your poor old mother."

 

"Don't say old." Blair tossed her head a bit, a pleased answering smile building on her lips at the praise. "Thirty-nine isn't old."

 

Their mother laughed, looking over her shoulder - out of habit probably, since the street was pretty well deserted - to check for traffic. "It seems like it sometimes."

 

"Hrmph." Blair glanced out the window again, almost speculatively. "He's still there," she informed Aaren in an undertone, scrunching her nose at the curly-haired boy watching them pull away.

 

"Probably stalking you," he said in an offhand voice, looking back to catch another glimpse. The boy was openly watching now - as if he didn't think he was in danger of being caught now that they were leaving.

 

"Probably stalking you," she shot back, turning around with a superior sort of indifference to the wistful figure left behind on the sidewalk. Aaren watched for only a second or two longer before turning around himself to face the direction of their new house.

 

"Who's this?" Their mother sounded amused.

 

"Just some boy," Blair told her, in the same offhand tone Aaren had used.

 

"Oh?" That seemed to attract her interest; she smiled teasingly at her daughter. "Was he cute?"

 

"No!"

 

The vehemence of Blair's tone seemed to earn the opposite of its intention; Samantha gave her a quick, knowing look and glanced into the rear-view mirror to meet her son's eyes instead. "Aaren? Was this boy cute or not?"

 

"Huh?" Aaren thought back to the awkward, lanky limbs and close-cropped curls. "Sort of… I guess," he answered, a bit reluctantly. It felt stupid to be talking about cute guys with his mother and sister.

 

Blair shot him a glare that had 'traitor' written all over it. "He was all right," she admitted grudgingly, and slid her headphones back on as if to defy further conversation.

 

Their mother chuckled a bit but let the topic die, and in the silence following, Aaren took the opportunity to turn back down to his book for the rest of the ride.

 

~~~~~~

 

The movers were already well into their job by the time the Johnsons' worn red station wagon pulled into the driveway beside their truck. The house was a short distance outside the town itself - only about two minutes by car, really, but it put them that much closer to the forest that was the source of Aaren's fascination. Across a small field of untrimmed grass were the gnarled trees that marked the entrance into what looked like something from a legend, reducing the new house and its more modern design to only a distant point of interest in his mind.

 

"At least it's not falling apart like those other ones we saw," Blair muttered to him as she opened her door and slunk out. Their mother was already purposefully heading up the slightly sloping driveway - which seemed too neat and manufactured compared to the dusty gravel road that it sprouted out from.

 

Aaren put his book down, spilling crumbs off his shirt from the doughnut he'd been eating in the car earlier as he pushed the door open and stood. There were traces of the period of travel on the black jeans he'd worn, too. "It's not that bad," he reminded his sister, shutting the door and taking another look around.

 

In his mind, 'not that bad' was an understatement. This was exactly the sort of place where weird stuff happened - after all, hardly anyone read a myth where supernatural beings appeared in the middle of a busy city. But in the countryside… especially in really old forests, and lonely houses on the outskirts of a town…

 

Aaren grinned to himself. This was going to be sweet.

 

"I don't know why I talk to you," Blair huffed, and shoved both hands into the pockets of her jeans, shifting her sweatshirt around to accommodate them. "You're so dense." Without waiting for her brother's response, she marched across the grass that would be their lawn to take a look at the sides and back of the small, two-story building that they would be living in from then on.

 

"I'm the one who's happy here," Aaren muttered at her back. He didn't feel like arguing right at the moment anyway - making sure the car was locked up, he turned down the driveway in the opposite direction.

 

The dirt road from the town to their house was lined with the occasional orchard tree, and more expanse of waist-high grass in slight waves and dips across the uneven countryside. It forked out a short ways ahead, one section heading back the way they'd come and the other to the forest. He couldn't see much of either from his position at the moment, but the second fork hadn't gone far. There had been a fence closing it off, and the ground further along didn't look as if it had ever been driven on.

 

Or walked on, Aaren added to the thought a short moment later, leaning over the fence and looking over at the field. There weren't any paths or noticeably worn areas - at least, not any he could see.

 

People don't go in there? That was weird. Aaren frowned, absently wiping his sweaty hands on his pants. It was hot out - it hadn't seemed so bad when he'd come out of the air-conditioned car, but after walking around a bit, he was starting to think he'd overdressed.

 

He was also starting to think there was something creepy about that forest.

 

Excellent!

 

There was a lot he already had planned to do - go exploring, for sure, and see if he could find anyone in town to explain what the deal was with the place. Maybe he could even find someone to show him around. There had to be people his own age who'd been in there, right?

 

The footsteps on the dirt road behind him didn't immediately register - Aaren was caught up in wondering if there'd been any Bigfoot sightings or anything like that to pay much attention to what was going on around him.

 

So, the hand clamping on his shoulder came as a shock.

 

"Whoa! Take it easy!" The other boy jumped back a quick half-step as Aaren jerked, startled, to face him. He held up both hands, in a placating gesture. "I don't bite, I swear."

 

"Oh… hi." Aaren recovered a bit, adjusting his glasses again as he studied the newcomer. The new boy was definitely interesting to look at - everything about him seemed to be a combination of extremes. His hair was an intense, burnished red - most of it long enough to reach the top of his ears, but no further - and his eyes were almost bright green. He was about as tall as Aaren, give or take a centimeter, and his skin was well tanned. That much was obvious, since he was only wearing a loose tank top and knee-length shorts - which were probably a lot better in the heat than what Aaren had on.

 

"I'm Tucker," the boy said after a moment, and grinned, shifting from one foot to the other as if his muscles were too restless to remain in one position for more than a few seconds. He had a wiry sort of frame, thin and active-looking, and his teeth weren't exactly straight - but not crooked enough to earn him braces, probably.

 

Aaren liked the look of him. "Aaren," he introduced himself, and grinned back.

 

"You're new, right? In that house just down the road?" Tucker didn't wait for confirmation, plunging right into the next thought as if Aaren was too slow in answering. "Hey, mind if I call you 'A'?"

 

"Huh?" Aaren blinked.

 

A quick snicker drew his attention - Aaren realized with a bit of a jolt that he'd been focussing so much on Tucker that he hadn't noticed he wasn't alone.

 

Hey… it's that guy. Blair's unofficial stalker was standing just a bit off to the side, a slight smile on his face. Somehow, beside Tucker, he seemed almost like a non-entity - despite having at least an inch or two on the other boy in height. His appearance was oddly muted, like he was done in half shades rather than full colors.

 

"He always calls people by their first initial," the new boy explained, shrugging a bit as if to apologize for the idiosyncrasy. "It's like his thing."

 

"Oh yeah - this is Seymour." Tucker hooked a thumb at the other boy, and his grin turned vicious. "He's the reason we came - he wants to meet that girl from the car."

 

Seymour dipped his head awkwardly, flushing a bit. "Shut up," he muttered under his breath, but didn't seem very sure about it.

 

"I'm not telling her - A won't give you away, right, A?" Tucker gave Aaren a quick, almost conspiratorial look. "Anyway, she's probably your sister or something, right? Can we meet her? C said she looked kind of pissed off."

 

"Yeah, kind of." So it was Blair, after all. Aaren felt almost sorry for Seymour - he didn't look very sure of himself as it was, and she probably wouldn't help much. Still… he had a good chance of making friends with both of them - on his first afternoon there - and that thought elated him. If all it took was an introduction, he was up for it. "She's not too happy about moving here. You guys can meet her if you want, though."

 

"Awesome." Tucker spun slowly on his heel, still with that unflagging grin, and started off ahead of them. "C thinks she's hot," he added brightly, over his shoulder.

 

Seymour let out a frustrated breath. "I'm going to kill him," he muttered, and jogged after his friend, leaving Aaren to catch up a moment later.

 

"Why do you call him 'C'?" he asked, falling in on Tucker's right side. "Seymour starts with an 'S'."

 

"I know that! I don't look that stupid, do I?" Tucker's tone was careless, despite his words; from his reaction, he could've been called an idiot every day of his life. "It's the sound - 'Sey', 'C'… you know? I already called him that before I decided I liked first initials, so it made sense not to change it. Hey," he added, seemingly struck with a sudden thought, "maybe I should call you 'R' - like 'Aar', 'R'… it's close, huh?"

 

Tucker, Aaren decided, shaking his head a bit and grinning again, was weird.

 

And he wasn't sure what to make of that, but he was sure that making a good first impression was pretty high on his list of things that it would be a very, very good idea to pay attention to at the moment.

 

"Nah, 'A' sounds better." Tucker waved a hand, as if to brush the idea aside - and then abruptly changed the subject. "You're going to school here, right? What grade?"

 

"Ten," Aaren admitted. "Blair's a year older."

 

"Cool, same with us. And C doesn’t mind older women, so that's no biggie." The redhead either ignored or just was blissfully unaware of the glare his friend was shooting him, diving right along into the next subject as if his thoughts were tripping over each other in their haste to escape him. "You want to hang out with us today? We'll show you around - it should take about five minutes, tops. And that's stopping for ice cream."

 

The invitation he'd been hoping for… Aaren couldn't help but beam in return - at least, once the words registered. "Yeah!" He rushed immediately into his next sentence, not giving the other boy the chance to cut him off. "That forest isn't off-limits, is it? I wouldn't mind taking a look - "

 

Seymour coughed uncomfortably, shoulders shifting as he walked as if the subject had made him nervous. He didn't meet Aaren's gaze when the shorter boy broke off and looked over questioningly.

 

What did I say? He couldn't have offended them already… could he?

 

"Word of advice, A." Tucker put a hand over his mouth and leaned sideways, delivering the lines in a whisper that probably could've been heard from four or five feet away. "Don’t bring up the forest in casual conversation. Best way I know of to make an awkward silence."

 

"Shut up, Tucker," Seymour said unexpectedly, and shook his head, glancing over the top of his friend's head to address the newcomer. "People don't go in there," he said, smiling a bit uncomfortably. "It's dangerous, that's all."

 

He couldn't have said anything that could've made Aaren more interested. "How come?"

 

Tucker slid his hands up behind his neck. "Because it's haunted - that's how come."

 

"Really?" Aaren could feel what was probably a really dippy-looking grin starting to paste itself onto his face, and didn't try to stop it. "What kind of haunting? Poltergeists? Banshee?" A thought occurred to him, and he added eagerly, "Has anyone seen whatever it is?"

 

Tucker blinked. Seymour gaped at him. For what seemed like an impossibly long moment, complete silence fell.

 

Aaren shifted, suddenly uncomfortable under those stares. "What?" he asked defensively.

 

"You can tell you're new around here!" Tucker shook his head, letting his hands flop back down to his sides and laughing a bit sheepishly. "Everyone else is scared shitless about that sort of thing."

 

"Because it's not just a legend!" Seymour blurted out. He was still starting at Aaren as if a third eye had sprouted on the new boy's forehead. "People have died, Tucker! Remember that? Walking into the place and never coming out again? Ring a bell?"

 

"Whatever, okay?" For a moment, Tucker actually looked annoyed - then he shrugged, and the grin was back. "Your house, right?" he asked, pointing to the building that was steadily getting closer. "Come on, show us the girl and then we'll get to the tour. She can even come with - if she's up for it."

 

Aaren stared at him in perplexity. He wasn't about to forget that his question had just been completely avoided, no matter how distracting his new friend was managing to be. "That doesn't tell me - hey!" Tucker abruptly took off ahead of them, covering the rest of the distance to their new driveway at a quick jog - and then turned to wait, grinning madly.

 

"Less talking, more speed, huh? I can feel my vacation passing me by as we speak!"

 

"It's July," Seymour said dryly.

 

"So what's your point? A gets what I'm saying, right, A?" Tucker slung a friendly arm around a still-baffled Aaren's neck as the other boy caught up. He was that much more restless up close - muscles tense, breathing quick, and heartbeat rapid. Aaren experienced a moment of dizzying confusion - he was fifteen and he wasn't stupid, but he hadn't been this close to another boy before either, and the sensation was… not what he'd expected.

 

Of course, now that he'd had it, he wasn't sure what he'd been expecting in the first place.

 

So… "Sure," he ended up mumbling, a second too late for it to be a believable reply.

 

"I'll tell you about it later," Tucker muttered out of the corner of his mouth, and then let him go. "Two against one, C - take that!"

 

It took Aaren a minute or two to figure out that he'd probably been talking about the question from earlier. Okay… yeah… that's good. That's a good thing. It sounded like a good thing.

 

"Yeah, right." Seymour looked a little distracted too, glancing around with a certain painfully obvious hope in his eyes.

 

Right. Blair. Aaren pushed the incident aside - Tucker was probably straight anyway, and it was just a stupid thing. Nothing to get excited about. He fiddled with his glasses a bit, then cleared his throat. "I'll go find her - stay here, okay?"

 

"I'll keep an eye on him," Tucker promised, without a trace of insincerity.

 

Not so reassuring.

 

The movers were still busy with the house - more in listening to his mother's directions than in actually carrying furniture around, but Aaren could at least be fairly sure that Blair wasn't inside. He ducked around the side of the house, and took a moment to lean back against it in a patch of shade. The cooler air was a relief.

 

I should probably find a pair of shorts to put on.

 

So far, so good - Aaren congratulated himself on his success in meeting new people. The hardest thing about moving had been leaving behind those few close friends - he'd promised he'd write and everything, but that hardly ever worked out for long. Which meant he was really anxious about impressing Seymour and Tucker. Especially Tucker.

 

And that meant he should probably avoid acting… well… gay. At least until he knew what they'd think about it.

 

Not too hard to do…

 

"All right," he muttered, pushing himself off the wall. "Now… Blair."

 

His sister was at the far side of the house - and ahead of him as far as dressing for the weather; at some point while he was gone, she'd put on cut-offs and a tank top instead of the bulky sweatshirt and jeans. At the moment, she had her discman and a magazine and was stubbornly ignoring the world as much as possible.

 

Aaren walked up behind her, snatched up a long stalk of grass, and twirled it at the base of her neck.

 

Blair jerked upright with a startled yell, slapping a hand to the offending spot and glaring over her shoulder. "What was that for!?" she demanded, hooking a finger under her headphones to pull them down.

 

He shrugged. Sometimes it was just fun to get a reaction from Blair; that was what sisters were for, as far as he knew. "That guy from before came out here to meet us. Him and a friend are out front and said they'd show us around. Want to go?"

 

She frowned. Aaren could see her struggling with the question - probably something between being forced to try and have fun or staying behind and being bored out of her mind while her little brother had fun.

 

Pride lost out in the end. "Whatever," Blair muttered, and slid the headphones all the way off, tucking both magazine and discman under her arm as she got up. "Let me put this stuff in the house."

 

"I have to put some shorts on anyway." It probably wasn't a good idea to comment and possibly put her off… This way she'd meet Seymour, so he'd done his job as a loyal friend. It meant he'd have to spend the afternoon with his sister, but that was a small price to pay. "Wait for me, okay?"

 

"You're the one who knows the guy - why would I go out there without you?" She let out a long, overdone sigh, yanking the back door open so they could step inside. "I don't know why I'm doing this - if he becomes a friend of yours, he's probably a geek anyway."

 

"What's wrong with that?" Aaren shot back over his shoulder as he went about looking for his luggage in the general chaos that was their new home.

 

A geek and a troll - perfect match in his mind, anyway.

 

It ended up taking him about five minutes to find the luggage, get changed, find their mother, tell her where they were going, and then meet back up with Blair and head out to give the introduction he'd promised. Tucker was leaning against the hood of their car when they came out - even in such a still pose, though, he was moving around, hands waving expressively as he talked to a patient Seymour. The taller boy stood a short ways ahead, hands in his pockets, nodding occasionally at whatever was being said but not appearing to say much himself.

 

"Looks like a great conversationalist," Blair muttered sarcastically, before they even came into earshot.

 

"Just because Tucker talks so much," Aaren said defensively, and moved ahead before she could reply, raising his voice so his new friends could hear him. "Hey guys! Blair sad she'd come with us."

 

"Great!" Tucker pushed himself up enthusiastically, and sidled over to Seymour, jabbing him with his elbow as he did before turning to offer Blair a typical grin. "So, I'm Tucker, and this big silent guy is Seymour."

 

"Yeah, okay." Blair did not look impressed, but instead of commenting, she sighed a bit and grudgingly introduced herself as well. "I'm Blair."

 

Seymour looked more than a little nervous, offering a downright bashful smile and hunching his shoulders, fists curling a bit in his pockets. "Um. Hi," he stammered out, and made a valiant effort to meet her eyes.

 

"Cute." Blair rolled hers upward, shot her brother a look that spoke volumes, and then took pity on the poor guy. "If you're showing us around, let's go," she said, and strode decisively up to walk past him.

 

Seymour flushed a little, but took the invitation, falling in beside her with a small, hesitant smile. He gave Tucker an uncertain look, craning his neck around and trying to keep up with the object of his interest at the same time.

 

"Go ahead." The redhead waved a dismissive hand, grinning from ear to ear. "I need to talk to Aaren for a while, so we'll leave you two to walk alone." His use of emphasis was not very subtle.

 

"Oh brother," Aaren heard his sister say, loudly, and she picked up the pace abruptly, straightening her shoulders as if to announce that she was above all that. Seymour had to jog a bit to keep up.

 

"Match made in heaven," Tucker said pleasantly, and grinned at Aaren. "Okay, let's go - we'll just stay this far behind them, cool?"

 

"Sure." Aaren was privately amused - obviously, his new friend thought he was being really clever, and the reaction was kind of funny. "I don't know if Blair will go for this," he admitted, as they started walking again. "She gets weird when people try to set her up - like it's insulting or something."

 

Tucker shrugged. "Hey, that's her business - I did what I could. She doesn't like him, then that just sucks, I guess." He did another abrupt subject change, glancing at Aaren with another conspiratorial grin. "So, you want to know about the forest, right?"

 

That was enough to drive Blair completely out of his mind. Aaren nodded eagerly. "Yeah! You said it was haunted?"

 

"Sort of, yeah." Tucker made a face, scratching the back of his head for an unusual moment of silence. "It's like… well, they don't really know what. People just disappear when they go in there lots, that's all."

 

'That's all'? Aaren felt the familiar stirring at the pit of his stomach that came with a really good ghost story or myth. "What do you mean, disappear? They vanish?"

 

"I mean no one ever sees them again." Tucker directed his grin forward, looking almost far away for a moment. "It's like our own private legend - everyone in town knows you're not supposed to go in there, because whenever people start scoffing and going in anyway, there's always some who just… don't come back out again."

 

He could feel his heart beating against his chest - it was like being in a book or a movie, or even a comic. Aaren glanced over at the forest again, finding more depth and mystery in the dark shadows lingering between the trees than ever. It was a great discovery, that he wasn't even a mile away from the source of an honest to god legend. Sent shivers down his spine in a deliciously creepy way. "How long has it been like that?"

 

"Oh, man - probably forever." Tucker shook his head, but his expression was bright. "I looked it up. Nobody remembers when it wasn't like that - not even in the records or anything." He met Aaren's gaze, matching him for enthusiasm. "Ancient and authentic - I swear it. No one ever goes in there."

 

This was looking better and better… Confident enough by then to return to his original question, Aaren boldly went right into, "Do you go in there?"

 

Tucker looked surprised. "Well… yeah," he said, as if that much should've been obvious. "Of course. It's a legend - think I could stay away?" He grinned again. "Drives C nuts - he thinks I'm really asking for it. He's probably right, but hell, I can't just stay back - where's the fun in that?"

 

There was a voice at the back of Aaren's head that was trying to insist that getting killed was not fun in any way - but the part that was already thoroughly sucked in by the legend clubbed it into submission before it could get very far. "Makes sense to me."

 

Tucker let the silence hang after that - for a brief second - and then sucked in a breath and gave Aaren a bit of a cautious look. "I'd go with you if you still want to," he offered slowly, as if he wasn't sure what kind of reaction he was going to get.

 

Aaren's heart skipped a beat. "That'd be awesome!" he blurted, not bothering to hold back the elated smile he felt spreading on his face. "When?"

 

"Really?" Tucker's answering smile had a lot of relief in it. "How about soon? Maybe today… Oh yeah, but we should see L first," he added, with a bit of a sheepish look.

 

"L?"

 

"Oh - Laqueta. She's psychic - sort of, anyway." Tucker shrugged, and grinned again. "You can meet her, and we'll get a reading or something. Then we can go in."

 

Aaren nodded, not totally understanding, but willing to go along with whatever would get him into the forest. "Sure," he agreed, and snuck another glance to the side as they came up to the split in the road.

 

And then stopped in his tracks.

 

There was a boy standing at the edge of the forest - just inside it, actually, not quite in the shadows but behind the line of trees. He was tall and somehow… looked graceful. Just in the way he was put together - it looked as if the methods were beyond the construction of an average human form. It was strangely appealing… hypnotic, almost. His hair was a dark shade, almost looking green for some reason, and his eyes - very dark eyes - were fixed on Aaren. As he continued to be stared at, he smiled slowly - almost knowingly.

 

Something about that smile got the hairs on the back of Aaren's neck rising - all he could do was stare back, fascinated.

 

Who…?

 

"What are you doing?" Tucker came up beside him, darting confused glances between Aaren and the direction of his gaze. "Looking at something?"

 

"Yeah - that guy over there." Aaren pointed. The boy didn't do anything as he did - just kept staring, smiling... It was weird, and it made his stomach flutter oddly. There was something about that look… "Who is that?"

 

"Huh?" Tucker squinted at the forest, frowning. "What guy?"

 

"The guy standing in the forest!" There was no way he couldn’t see… the boy was right there, in plain sight. "What's he doing? I thought you said no one goes in there."

 

The look Tucker gave him was thoroughly bemused. "I don't see anyone…"

 

Aaren frowned at him, taking his eyes off the boy for a moment. "Hey, I'm the one with glasses here - how can you not see him? He's standing right there!" He waved a hand at the smiling figure.

 

Just looking that way was enough to get the fluttering sensation back, too. Aaren felt almost breathless for some reason. It was just… exciting. To look at him.

 

"I seriously don't see anything." Tucker gave him a bit of an apprehensive look. "My vision's really good, too. Maybe… it's your glasses? A smudge or something? Or a shadow?" He let out a breath, partly impatient and partly just baffled-sounding, and ran a hand through his hair. "Man, I don't know - look, there's no one there, all right?"

 

I'm looking right at him! Aaren sucked in a breath, and let it out slowly, fighting the urge to argue. More than ever, he could feel that shiver lingering at the base of his spine, just waiting to be sent up when he met the boy's eyes.

 

No one can see him… except me?

 

That was exciting enough to keep him from feeling frustrated over Tucker's inability to share in the new discovery. Of course, if Tucker shared it, it wouldn't have been a discovery at all.

 

There was a lot of irony there.

 

"Hey, I told you the place was haunted!" Tucker shrugged almost helplessly. Apparently he was out of explanations or attempts to convince Aaren that there wasn't anyone standing there. "It's a ghost - it’s… one of Them." He tossed the suggestion out as if he didn't really believe it but wanted to reassure the other boy that he wasn't going crazy or seeing things. "All right?"

 

"Them?" Aaren repeated, tearing his eyes away to look at Tucker again.

 

"The things that live in there. You know, the ones that made all those people disappear?" The redhead grinned sheepishly, watching Aaren's face as he turned back to the boy in the trees, feeling as if he were being drawn in physically. "We can ask Laqueta later, huh? She'll know for sure."

 

"I guess…" Somehow, he was oddly reluctant to leave. The boy was still looking at him… still had the smile… He hardly moved at all; for all Aaren knew, he was just an apparition or a statue.

 

Or a thing. That was what Tucker had said… The things that live in there…

 

"Hey! We're falling behind!" Tucker grabbed his arm, jerking him away from his spot with the usual good-natured enthusiasm. "Come on, or we're going to lose those two before we even get back to civilization!"

 

"Yeah, I'm coming!" Aaren freed his arm but obligingly jogged after his friend - shooting one last glance over his shoulder at the forest and the silently smiling figure standing just inside.

 

That image was not going to leave his head for a long, long time - he could tell that already.

 

 

~~~~~~

 

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