Piece of a Legend

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Laqueta was a girl who looked a lot like some kind of China doll - that was the first thing Aaren noticed. Her hair was brown and softly curled, reaching down her back in artfully arranged coils. Her face was pale-skinned and rosy-cheeked, the kind of face that rarely saw the sun - which explained her reaction to the burn the other day. She had large brown eyes with long lashes, a small nose, and high cheekbones. The top of her head only came up to Tucker's nose, and despite her loose, billowing dress and black cloak, her frame was obviously a tiny one.

 

Something about her expression, though, made Aaren think he shouldn't underestimate her in any way. She looked… certain. Knowing.

 

Like a psychic.

 

"You're new," she said to him pointedly, as if he didn't know.

 

"This is Aaren, L," Tucker introduced him, clapping a hand on his shoulder as he did. "And she's Laqueta," he added, waving a hand for Aaren's benefit. "Our resident psychic."

 

"You know that's not the right term for it," she accused him, and looked thoughtfully at Aaren, lips pursed a bit as if she were contemplating something that had to do with his appearance. In the dim light coming from the lamps at either end of the room, her eyes seemed to glitter eerily.

 

"Sorry."

 

"You are not - or you'd stop using it." Laqueta turned away from them abruptly, and Aaren let out a slow breath, finding it easier to take in his surroundings with that disconcerting attention directed away from him. The room they were in was what he would've pictured for a fortune-teller's room at a carnival. The walls were lined with thick, decorated cloth and the lamps that provided the light were the old-fashioned kind that cast weird shadows on the walls. The only thing missing was the crystal ball on the table at the middle.

 

Tucker nudged at his arm. "It's cool, huh?" he whispered, leaning in so he could get the words out in an undertone.

 

"Yeah…" That was true - but it was more than that, too. Aaren swallowed, not sure if the tension at the pit of his stomach was nerves or actual fear. Something about Laqueta made him uneasy - the way she looked at him, it was like she could strip away any lies and see right to the truth no matter how he tried to hide it.

 

And it was cool. But it was also pretty freaky.

 

"You want a reading today?" Laqueta turned around again, this time fixing her attention on Tucker rather than him - and making the redhead squirm a bit, a sheepish grin tugging at the corners of his mouth as if he'd done something he shouldn't have and got caught at it. Her eyes narrowed slightly in response. "I can guess what for."

 

"So you'll do it?" His expression was all eagerness and no repentance.

 

Laqueta frowned. "I suppose so," she agreed after a moment, and then abruptly reached up and placed her hands on either side of Tucker's face, directing his gaze toward hers.

 

What is she doing? Aaren pressed his hands together, oddly anxious as he watched the two of them. His friend made no move to break free, and he wasn't sure what he thought of that. It seemed like Laqueta knew what she was doing, but… Then again, he didn't know what she was doing.

 

But he trusts her, right? She wasn't going to hurt Tucker. After all, Tucker came here all the time and nothing ever happened to him - so it wasn't going to right then. Right?

 

Aaren felt his stomach clench, and tried to ignore it.

 

He didn't get a chance to pursue the thought, anyway - a few seconds later, Laqueta sighed and shut her eyes, lowering her face. "You idiot," she murmured, and let her hands fall away from his face.

 

Tucker straightened, looked over at Aaren with a bit of a shaky grin and an awkward shrug, and then turned his eyes toward the girl again. "What'd I do now?"

 

"I warned you," she told him with something of an ominous tone, and looked up again, eyes almost weary. "I get tired of warning you. It only strengthens the claim when you return there - one day soon, you will never come back out."

 

The uncluttered note of finality in her tone chilled Aaren right to the core. He swallowed again, and looked from her to Tucker, feeling the sweat on his palms grow cold. It wasn't too hard to figure out where 'there' was… and the way she said 'claim'… "What…?" he began, and had to try again when his voice cracked. "What does that mean?"

 

There was a moment of silence - the other two turned to look at him, as if they'd forgotten he was there during their exchange. Aaren felt as if something important was happening - he could feel something in the air, a heavy mood setting in… suffocating…

 

He swallowed hard - and then the moment abruptly passed.

 

"Ah, nothing, really!" Tucker's tone was deliberately light; he grinned, even through the heavy atmosphere that Aaren felt pressing in around them. "L says one of Them wants to drag me off, that's all." 

 

That's all?

 

"Man, you look freaked." The redhead shook his head, shaking his friend's shoulder a bit in a good-natured teasing manner. "It's not such a big deal. I've been marked for months now, and haven't seen anything weird yet."

 

Aaren stared back for a moment, and suddenly caught the play of sunlight from the window that he hadn't noticed before, on the floor and on the other boy's clothing. There were bits of it flicking around the cloths that draped over the walls - which had been hung there with curtain-hangers, he noticed: the kind you could buy at the store in the furniture department. Laqueta's table was fairly new, too, and in a moment of unexpected clarity, he recognized the chairs as the same kind they had in their kitchen at home.

 

His reaction was starting to seem a little silly - Aaren found himself relaxing, and finally managed a bit of a sheepish smile in return. How'd I let myself get so worked up, anyway? I'm used to this sort of thing… right?

 

Obviously, he was just thinking about this way too seriously.

 

"You will," Laqueta said airily in response to Tucker's dismissal, and immediately turned her gaze away, as if to finish with the topic. Aaren noticed that her cloak was fading in places, and several of her curls were looser than the others - now that it seemed like the light was better, he could see her more clearly. There was a rip at the hem of her gown - from stepping on it, probably - and her expression was lofty. "It doesn't matter for now. I'll give you a reading - sit down."

 

Sitting by the table was sort of like being at a booth - his and Tucker's chairs were facing away from the front door, and Laqueta's was in the opposite direction, as if she were giving them a demonstration. There was a thin silk tablecloth draped over the surface too, dangling almost to the floor. Aaren felt more at ease - it really was like being at a fortune-teller's, and not as real or immediate as before.

 

"Here." A blue velvet drawstring bag was presented to him abruptly, held open by a pair of delicate, thin-fingered hands. Laqueta's expression was unreadable when Aaren looked up questioningly - he had a feeling she kept it that way for effect. "Take a stone," she instructed him.

 

He reached into the bag. The rocks inside felt more like gemstones than ordinary rocks - there was a smooth, opaque sort of feel to them. When he pulled one out, he noticed that it had not only been polished but also shaped into a perfect oval. The coloring of it was green - not unlike the boy's hair from that morning, and the similarity brought his mind back to the incident. Aaren fought to keep the flush from his face.

 

Not really a good time to be thinking about that…

 

"Blue again? L, you've got to mix those up more!" Tucker held up his stone, with a sideways sort of grin at Aaren, as if to say 'Isn't this great?' The gem in his hands was almost silver, but it held a faint blue shimmer to it. "This is the same one I got last time - I swear!"

 

"There is a reason for that, as I believe I have told you before." Laqueta gave him a sharp look, mouth set firmly. "This will be fine," she added in a softer tone, and bent to place the bag down beside her. "The answers I give you may seem vague," she addressed Aaren, eyes quite serious. "But think about them carefully, and they will help you." Her gaze shifted. "Let me see yours first, Tucker."

 

With a quick, reassuring grin for his friend, the redhead obligingly held out his hand, palm up, with his gemstone resting on it.

 

"Focus your energy on the stone." Laqueta's voice was low again, with the hypnotic tone that had been so unnerving before. She gazed at the object in question, her eyes almost far-away but somehow grounded at the same time - and reached out to take hold of his wrist.

 

Aaren felt his skin buzz - it was as if he were sitting on a vibrating chair, except that there was nothing physically effecting him. He felt that sense of wonder and anxiety building again at the pit of his stomach - like from earlier, or from when the boy had appeared at the end of his bed. It made him swallow hard and fight to stay sitting; all the steadiness he'd built around him vanished.

 

What… is this?

 

It was as freaky as it was fascinating - he could sense the mood growing heavy again, and shivered despite himself.

 

Why can I feel this? What happened?

 

Tucker's eyes were closed; his expression was one of concentration, like he was trying very hard to think. Across from him, Laqueta gazed at the stone on his palm as if enraptured by it, her eyes unwavering and cool. And then, after a moment more of stillness, she shut them, let out a long breath, and looked up.

 

"You can trust him," she said, abruptly - and pretty cryptically, as far as Aaren was concerned. Tucker, however, went a bit wide-eyed and stared back at her with a certain anticipation.

 

"Today will go well," the girl went on, still in that low-voiced tone that sent shivers through Aaren's bones. Her eyes were deep and glittery and mysterious again - psychic's eyes, like he'd thought at first. "But you have hard times in the not-distant future. If you don't stay away, the only thing you will have left is whatever trust you cultivate now - it would be good to form that quickly."

 

Tucker looked about as caught up as Aaren felt - he was staring at Laqueta as if her every word was a step towards salvation. It didn't help the oddly unsettled feeling building in Aaren's gut at all.

 

She was still talking, though, either not noticing anything out of the ordinary or just not concerned with it at the moment. "I can see you continuing to hold back," she went on, "despite what your instincts will tell you." Then she sighed again, lowering her gaze. The last sentence came out very quietly - but with finality. "If nothing happens to release those restraints, there is no hope for you."

 

Aaren felt that chill again, but kept quiet rather than speaking out that time.

 

After a tense moment, Laqueta released Tucker's wrist and sat back, looking up again. "I suggest you think about much of that today," she told him, in a more normal tone - and that seemed to be the end of it.

 

The buzzing feeling had vanished when she'd let go - Aaren let out a breath, relieved with the way the mood had begun to lighten again. I hope my turn doesn’t get like that. The words still stuck in his head, though - "there is no hope for you," she'd said. It still sent shivers down his spine just to think of it.

 

Tucker…

 

"Give me your hand," Laqueta said, suddenly, and Aaren realized with a jolt that she was staring at him now rather than his friend. Forcing a shaky smile, he held out the requested appendage, palm up, with the stone resting on the top of it.

 

"Focus on the stone," he was instructed, and he followed Tucker's example, shutting his eyes - more to block odd the sight of that intimidating gaze than because it was really necessary for the sake of his concentration. Ignoring a moment's trepidation, Aaren did his best to direct all of his attention to the warmed gem on his palm.

 

He felt it when Laqueta grabbed his wrist - not just where she touched him, but as a jolt - like electricity running through his veins. The buzzing sensation was back, worse than ever, and he had a dizzying feeling - a sense of intrusion, as if she sucked all the energy he'd sent to that hand from it, leaving not even a trace behind.

 

And then, for some reason, he found the image of the boy in the forest swimming over his closed lids - a short series of images, really, like a picture show. There was the boy standing just at the edge of the trees… crouching at the end of his bed… hovering over him, about to bend down and -

 

Laqueta let out another long breath, and he felt himself released abruptly.

 

"What you see today will touch you profoundly," she announced, low-voiced once again. Aaren opened his eyes, feeling shaky and sweaty and tired, as if she'd put him on a treadmill for an hour rather than holding his wrist for thirty seconds. He stared at her mutely, caught between fear and fascination again - unable to run for the second and unable to smile for the first. His skin didn't buzz any more, but it was definitely prickling.

 

And she was still going on. "Think very carefully about your immediate reaction - it may not be the best one. Whether you recognize it or not, you'll see two directions to take." Her gaze seemed to burn into his, more thoughtful than with Tucker. Like she'd seen something interesting.

 

Aaren swallowed again, hard.

 

"Taking one does not eliminate the other," she told him, and frowned slightly, as if she wasn't sure about her own vision. "But… returning is hard." Another pause, still with that slight frown. "Be very careful," she added after that moment, and shut her eyes, drawing in a breath. "Of the one who watches you - of others of that kind."

 

'The one who watches you'. Aaren felt his eyes widen a bit. She knows?

 

Laqueta's gaze dropped suddenly, and she let go of his wrist. "You have less need to be cautious than him," she said, in a more normal voice, and gave Tucker a wry look. "But I think you should be more wary."

 

He couldn't think of a good reply to that - just stared back at her in silence. A million questions were swirling around in his head, but he couldn't seem to find the words to express them with.

 

And most of them, he shouldn't ask around Tucker, anyway.

 

"The one who watches you - isn't that cool?" The redhead had apparently been observing them with interest; his enthusiastic voice was enough to break the mood apart. "Better watch it or you'll end up with a claim on you, like me." He grinned when Aaren looked over at him, brightly and without any sense of discomfort.

 

How did he do it? Aaren dredged up another weak smile, bemused at this reaction. He couldn't imagine getting used to that unsettled buzzing feeling. Did Tucker just not feel it, or what?

 

"Well." Laqueta bent again to retrieve her velvet bag, voice at once brisk and imperious rather than mysterious. She rose up again, holding the case open in front of her. "I suppose we're done - put the stones away, please."

 

"Sure thing, L!" Tucker tossed his in carelessly, and pushed his chair away from the table as Aaren moved to do the same. "Hey, I think I forgot my watch again - what time is it, A?"

 

He was starting to get used to that surreal-to-normal jet lag, anyway… Aaren stood up himself, glancing at his watch. "Eleven-fifteen," he reported, even managing to keep most of the shaking out of his voice.

 

At least he could do that much.

 

"Already? Man, time flies in here, doesn't it?" Tucker gave Laqueta a bit of a sheepish grin. "Sorry, L, but we'd better take off - I have to work in fifteen minutes, and A's going to go home and eat so we can head out when I'm done. I'll bring C next time, and you can do Tarot readings, cool?"

 

"I could handle that." Laqueta rose to her feet with a certain dignity, face almost exaggeratedly composed, and back straight. Without the magic and the low voice, the girl seemed a lot more like a teenager playing at being mysterious and less like a steady-eyed psychic. She smiled a bit, with honest friendliness.

 

Aaren couldn't shake his unsettled feeling all the same.

 

"See you later, L!" Tucker set a hand between Aaren's shoulder blades and pushed him firmly toward the door - waiting until they were outside and blinking in the sunlight before moving away and shaking his head. "Seriously, you looked like you were going to freak out - or pass out, whichever came first." He grinned a bit, obviously amused. "If I knew you were so weird about that sort of thing, I'd have left you outside."

 

"I'm fine." Embarrassment was starting to sink in; Aaren squirmed, and shrugged awkwardly. "It was just different being in there, that's all. I mean, it seemed really…" He hesitated, trying to think of the right word.

 

"Yeah, I know. Don't worry." Tucker clapped him on the shoulder, still beaming away. "Bet you didn't have anyone like L back where you came from, right?" He swung forward and took the stairs two at a time. "Come on, you can walk me to work - and pick me up after."

 

At least things seemed normal now. Aaren grinned, falling in beside his friend again and feeling much more secure. "So should I bring flowers, or are you into casual dating?" he joked.

 

Tucker's startled glance caught him completely unaware - there was a guarded uncertainty in those wide green eyes that Aaren hadn't expected at all when he'd made the casual jest. It only lasted a moment, though - a moment that seemed like eternity, with an awkward silence to go along with it - and then the redhead suddenly let out a short, forced-sounding burst of laughter. "Oh yeah… that's a joke, isn't it?"

 

Okay… best to get past this. Right. "Yeah, what did you think?" It sounded miraculously casual.

 

What had he thought? Aaren felt his heart pounding hard - not because of fear or disquiet, but because he honestly did want to know what the reaction meant. After all… it was sort of important, relating to him…

 

"Ah, not important." Tucker scratched the back of his head, laughing nervously and looking away with obvious discomfort. "Just a surprise. I mean" - at that, he turned again, smiling a bit awkwardly - "not like I'd have a problem with it or anything. I didn't expect it, that's all."

 

What does that mean? Aaren could feel himself teetering on the edge of some kind of dangerous revelation, and choose to lean towards safety instead - at least, for the moment. "Well, I was just kidding, so you can relax." His heartbeat was gradually slowing; at least it didn't look like the other boy was going to ask questions.

 

"Yeah, of course." Tucker shrugged, laughed again, and abruptly changed the subject. "So, this way, huh? Dad set up on the main street through town - you get good business that way, with the tourists coming through every now and then." His words were a bit too fast; he smiled nervously at Aaren and jogged ahead around the next corner, waving his friend on after. "You should come in and eat some time - food's pretty good. Eggs aren't burned, anyway," he added, with more of an easy grin.

 

All right… It was kind of weird, but Aaren wasn't sure if commenting might seem suspicious, so he just left it at that. "So it's better than my cooking, then."

 

"Man, I could probably cook better than you, if you can't even handle eggs." Tucker seemed completely back to normal by then; he threw himself into the new conversation enthusiastically. "Really, that's just sad - even C can do eggs, and he's not that great either."

 

Aaren grinned. "He'd better learn if he wants Blair, because she hates cooking."

 

His friend's answering laugh was comforting just for the fact that it didn't sound forced.

 

~~~~~~

 

The front door was locked by the time Aaren made it back to the house to get himself some lunch. A glance at his watch told him it was only a few minutes after noon, but the place was deserted all the same.

 

Blair went out before two, and it's not a school day?

 

It was hard to believe.

 

At least he had room to think. Aaren made his way into the kitchen and slumped against the counter, relieved for the closed space as much as for the air-conditioning. His thoughts were a mess.

 

What did it mean that Tucker got so weird about that joke? Was it a bad sign? Or maybe he thought it was childish of him to make jokes about that sort of thing. Aaren frowned to himself, more worried than he really wanted to admit. That would make sense, though, right? Maybe he was sensitive because he had another gay friend or something.

 

Right…

 

But he said he was okay with it - that's good, isn't it? Sometimes it was good. Sometimes it meant the guy was okay with it until someone he knew was gay - and then things just got awkward.

 

Aaren seriously hoped it was the first.

 

And then there was Laqueta - with her freaky psychic eyes and her knowing things… It wasn't even so much that as it was the strange feeling he'd got - although Aaren was pretty sure the two were connected. After all, the feeling came whenever she started acting like a real psychic.

 

And why just me? Why didn't Tucker react?

 

It was weird.

 

But, he probably wasn't going to figure it out just by sitting there and starving to death. With a long, frustrated breath, Aaren pushed himself up and set about seeing what they had that was edible.

 

Lunch ended up being raw ichiban and a glass of pre-mixed koolaid. He ate the meal while reading one of his books to keep his mind occupied, which worked out fairly well. The stories he was into at the moment were dealing with Scottish haunts, and banshees and loch ness monsters were a long way from his problems at the moment.

 

If he really did have problems and wasn't just worrying for no reason.

 

I'm starting to confuse myself. Seriously.

 

He finished his lunch and put the book aside, gulped down the rest of the koolaid, and glanced at his watch again. Twelve-thirty.

 

Tucker said he was done at one… It probably wouldn't hurt to be kind of early. He could hang out at the café or something. It hadn't looked too busy for him to find a seat and watch his friend serve people. Hell, after Seymour's comments, he was curious to find out just how bad the other boy was at it.

 

And he could put away those worries and forget about them before they gave him a headache.

 

"Maybe I should leave Mom a note," Aaren muttered to himself, grabbing a pen from the open tin on the counter and hunting around for paper. He'd been kind of vague about his plans for the day earlier - mostly because he didn't really feel awake yet and hadn't totally forgiven her for interrupting what might have happened with the green-haired boy.

 

The thought made him grin a bit, as he scribbled out a short description of where was going to be for the rest of the afternoon. At least he had that to think about when he wanted to be distracted.

 

The memory was still on his mind when he set the note down on the kitchen table - and felt the familiar, spine-tingling sensation of being stared intensely at.

 

This… is it…?

 

Aaren turned around, very slowly - and felt his heart rate jump up a couple of notches.

 

The green-haired boy stood in the kitchen doorway, sporting a fair imitation of the smirk he'd had on that morning, his posture somehow implying a domination of the room without being anything special on its own. The angle of the windows in the room behind him was perfect for the moment - as he stood there, he was highlighted by sunshine streaming in from behind. It made him look even more like an ethereal being, too beautiful to be real and blazing with the force of presence that couldn't possibly be achieved by any normal person.

 

Aaren stood frozen in place, afraid to blink in case he banished the image. It was… unreal. Impossible.

 

Fantastic.

 

"You're…" His voice cracked; he cleared his throat and tried again, unconsciously reaching up to clutch at his shirt over his fast-pounding heart. "You're really here. Right?"

 

The boy tilted his head to the side, looking amused. The look in his eyes made Aaren shudder - it had the same intensity as Laqueta's gaze, but in a very, very different way.

 

He swallowed hard, and tried something else. "So… you're one of Them?" That got him no reply, so he inclined his head jerkily in the rough direction of the line of trees that would be just beyond their house. "From the… the forest?"

 

The smirk on the boy's face gained a knowing sort of tilt - a lot like how Laqueta had seemed, but… different. Laqueta's face hadn't made Aaren's insides jump around and his libido scream at him, that was for sure. The next second, the boy was taking a step towards him - slow and deliberate, without taking his eyes from Aaren's face.

 

Unconsciously, Aaren backed up a step - right into the kitchen table. His heart was still going like crazy. "Um… I…" He stopped, forcing his mouth shut. What was he going to say? Was he supposed to talk? Would it ruin everything if he got something wrong?

 

Why weren't there books that explained this sort of thing?

 

The boy stepped right into his personal space without a pause - Aaren noticed dimly that there were a couple of inches in height difference, although it wasn't much. Still, even that little bit made his companion seem to loom over him. It took his breath away and caused some painful tightening of certain clothing in certain areas. He couldn't breathe - it was hard to think. But, damnit, he would bite off his own tongue before he tried to stop any of it from happening.

 

Oh god… he…

 

He half-expected the boy's hands to be insubstantial when they reached out to where his were clutching the edge of the table in a white-knuckled grip. Somehow, it didn't seem real - it was like a dream, or a really vivid fantasy. But they closed over his, cool and unusually smooth, and his head cleared as spikes of excitement went shooting through him.

 

This is really happening…

 

It still felt hard to believe.

 

And then the boy leaned over him, his breath lightly tickling Aaren's face just before his mouth could follow suit, almost a prelude to the kiss itself.

 

Aaren's eyelids grew too heavy to stay up; he could feel his heart beat, his breath stop, his body tense with anticipation. Things seemed to be happening in slow motion - he shut his eyes and turned his face up…

 

It was just a brush at first - a soft pressure against his lips. The boy built from that, first pressing in deeper, and then drawing Aaren out slowly to move with him, only allowing their mouths to open enough to get a brief taste.

 

It was enough. Was it ever enough… Aaren's fingers tightened even more on the wood beneath them, hard enough to make it creak, and he pushed himself up as much as he could, wanting to delve into that mouth - wanting to devour, to be devoured. So many desires and wants and wonders hit him at that moment, and he felt like he was being taken up - lifted by the force of them and left floating, ungrounded. The boy's lips were smooth and sure, and tasted… clear, somehow. They sent him spiraling up to heaven; he didn't ever want to come down again.

 

And then his partner was pulling back, breaking away; a whimper forced its way out of Aaren's throat as he tried to follow, to keep up the contact, and found no answering pressure. His heart was just about breaking out of his chest; he was dazzled, drained - unquestionably infatuated. His eyes slide open, just barely, and he regarded the boy above him hazily.

 

That was… so…

 

"What's your name?" he breathed out, hardly capable of thinking beyond that. He just… wanted to know. Something. Anything. Even the smallest detail to cement his attraction.

 

The boy smiled at him, brushed his check with cool, impossibly smooth fingers - and vanished.

 

~~~~~~

 

"I'll just be a second!" Tucker called out over his shoulder - loudly - as he carried away a tray full of dishes from a table that had recently emptied. The café was reasonably busy, so it was necessary to be kind of loud in order to be heard over the talking.

 

Aaren sank into a free chair with a loud sigh, letting his head flop forward onto his hand as he propped his elbow on the table. He wasn't sure if he should be elated or disappointed.

 

It was definitely a weird mix of emotions to be caught in the middle of, that was for sure.

 

Oh well… He'd been kissed. At least that much had happened - and it had been great. Aaren smiled a bit, keeping that thought firmly in his mind. He hadn't been spoken to, but he had been kissed - that was an accomplishment.

 

Anyway, supernatural beings were supposed to be mysterious, right? It shouldn't bother him so much. There was probably a good reason that he didn't know anything at all about the boy besides the fact that he was gorgeous and a good kisser. It was a spirit thing, probably. Like, They weren't allowed to speak to ordinary people or something - just kiss them or make out with them or… other things.

 

At least I can probably look forward to more of that. The thought cheered him up noticeably.

 

"What's with the smile, huh?" Tucker leaned against the table beside him, still in his serving apron and with the usual good-natured grin. "Looking forward to tracking down Them today, or what? I mean, not like I ever see any of Them, but hell, you might. Or maybe just because you're there, I'll see some too, huh?"

 

"Maybe." Aaren smiled back. He was wondering about that, actually. What would he see once they made it into the forest? Would Tucker see what he did? Maybe he could check it out, and then go and ask Laqueta about it. He was planning on going to see her again later anyway - as nervous as she made him, he did have questions for her, and he wasn't sure he wanted Tucker to hear them. "You wearing that, or are you not done yet?"

 

"Oh, right - whoops." Tucker grinned sheepishly, and reached around to untie the apron. "Be right back," he added, and jogged through the crowd to get behind the counter at the back of the little café - nearly running into one of the servers and practically causing her to lose her tray.

 

"Tucker Cardinal! You watch where you're going!"

 

"Sorry!"

 

Aaren couldn't help but snicker to himself, and effectively managed to push his memories aside for the afternoon.

 

Tucker, as it turned out, had an agenda when it came to the forest. There weren't any paths leading into the forest, but - according to him - there were some natural avenues inside it that led to a couple of neat places.

 

"I don't just go in there for the hell of it, you know," he explained, as they made their way toward the fence at the end of the road by the new house. "I mean, there's some really cool thinking spots." He grinned, punching Aaren's shoulder lightly. "You can go use them yourself if you feel like it - just go see L first, or you might disappear, right?"

 

"If you say so," Aaren agreed, shaking his head and smiling back, kind of amused by Tucker's attitude. "But if you think she's so great, how come you don't listen to her warnings?"

 

Tucker looked a bit uncomfortable. "Well… L's trying to look out for me - I mean, she's worried because I've got that claim or whatever. She says it means one of Them wants to drag me off into the forest and bask in my spirit for the rest of my life, or something like that." He shrugged, as if to dismiss the words. "I figure, I just don't let it happen and everything's cool."

 

Aaren blinked. Somehow he got the feeling… "Is it really that simple?"

 

"Why wouldn't it be? What are they going to do, club me and drag me off?" Tucker grinned again, shaking his head. "I'm pretty careful, so I could catch them at it. Nothing to worry about." They'd just about reached the fence by then; he jogged on ahead a bit. "Come on, let's go in."

 

Doubts were starting to tug at Aaren's enthusiasm, but it was probably too late to back out - and he still wanted to see those 'thinking spots'. "Yeah, coming!" he called, and hurried after his friend, climbing the fence and starting across the tall grass that separated human habitation from wildlife.

 

If he'd been expecting a startling transition from the field to the forest, he didn't get it.

 

There was nothing out of the ordinary about the thick thatch of trees, roots, and bushes that Tucker led him into - Aaren had been in forests before, and this one was pretty typical. The trees were spaced loosely enough so that sunshine highlighted everything, and shadows were small and non-threatening. He could hear birds in several different directions making various sounds, and a couple of squirrels raced up into the trees when the two of them disturbed the peace nearby.

 

"Over this way is the best spot," Tucker told him, waving a hand in front of him enthusiastically as he veered off to the right. "It's farther than some of the others, but worth the extra walking, trust me."

 

"Sure." Aaren felt his shoulders relax a bit, and was kind of surprised to find that he'd been so tense. But so far the forest seemed harmless - a lot more so than meeting Laqueta had been, that was for sure.

 

Maybe I'm just getting too uptight about all of this. Which was funny, considering that when he'd first got there, he couldn't wait to encounter the supernatural at every turn. Now that he was tripping over it, all it did was make him nervous.

 

It was weird how those sorts of things worked out sometimes.

 

As he'd remembered seeing when they were driving into town the day before, the forest dipped into a ravine after about five minutes of walking. It wasn't a large dip - just far enough to be seen from that kind of distance, which wasn't too dangerous as far as climbing went. The sides had a lot of loose dirt and slanted down such that Aaren had a feeling he could slide down and arrive at the bottom perfectly unharmed. Roots and plants stuck out at odd angles around the edges of the cut, and at the bottom was a small stream, lined by rocks and sparsely growing plants.

 

"This is just the best place to go down," Tucker assured him earnestly, as if he thought the sight wasn't impressive enough somehow. "It dips down again further on, around that bend" - he pointed to where their side of the ravine jutted into the cut, forcing the stream to curve around instead of flowing straight ahead - "and that's the spot. Come on, I'll show you." He started confidently down the side, toward the bottom.

 

"Okay." It felt like all he was doing was giving one-word answers - although Aaren was more than happy with the place. It looked like a great spot for camping - above the ravine, that was, not in it. There was enough space between some of the trees to set up tents, and they could go wandering around by the stream in their spare time.

 

He wandered if he really could talk Blair and Seymour into coming. After all, the forest didn't look very dangerous so far…

 

"Here." Tucker grinned, his face a sort of mix of excitement and anxiousness as trotted a bit further ahead, and waved a hand in front of him to show off his place. "This is it."

 

Aaren came forward more slowly, taking it in. The ravine widened a bit, although the stream didn't, and there was a second short dip just beyond where Tucker stood waiting for his approval. There were more plants growing between the rocks - just to the sides, adding touches of greenery to a clear grey, black, and white scene. The stream emptied in a small, gurgling waterfall to a pool at the bottom that overflowed into another trickle down a second shorter dip and then back to a steady path. It was like a couple of steps in a staircase - steps that would be taken by someone at least twice their size, but with water and greenery, and the encasement of the ravine sides beside them. Sunshine sparkled in through the trees to give the water a dynamic hint of glitter - like the finishing touches on a child's finger-painting.

 

"This is great," Aaren breathed out, and meant it whole-heartedly. He'd never seen a place like it - as much as he wished he could've.

 

"Great!" Tucker sounded both relieved and gratified. And he was probably wearing that full grin - Aaren turned to smile back…

 

And froze in place, lips falling out of that half-formed grin as an abrupt shiver danced across his skin.

 

"What?" Tucker blinked at him. Aaren wasn't paying attention, though.

 

Just to his friend's side and slightly behind him, a boy sat on one of the rocks. It was not the boy Aaren was familiar with already - but it was definitely someone like him, because he was too perfect, too finely constructed, to really be human. His clothing was a lot like the other boy's, although in grey and blue shades rather than brown and green, and he looked an inch or two shorter, more compact. His hair was about Aaren's length, just above his chin, but raggedly cut - and a shimmering, impossible shade of silver-blue.

 

His eyes were what mostly froze Aaren in place, though - they were dark and beautiful, and they glared at him with a certain haughty, malicious anger.

 

Aaren resisted the urge to step back a pace, kind of alarmed. His skin was prickling, so much that he was sure Tucker could see it from where he stood.

 

What is he…?

 

"A? What's the matter?" Tucker stared at him in confusion for a moment, then looked over his shoulder, obviously trying to match the direction of his friend's stare. "What are you looking at?" he asked, sounding baffled.

 

The boy behind him rose from his place then, and moved gracefully to where Tucker stood, eyes growing hot and possessive as he reached up with a surprisingly gentle hand to cup the redhead's cheek.

 

Aaren felt chilled - in exactly the same way as he had with Laqueta, but more so. He couldn't explain why the sight filled him with such irrational panic - fear for his friend's sake, probably, but the strength of it surprised him, and he tried to swallow it down. This is what she meant by claim… He imagined he could hear the girl's words again, as if they were only now echoing back to him. "One day soon," she had said, "you will never come back out."

 

One day soon, Aaren could see now, watching as Tucker unconsciously turned his head into the jealous caress even while staring at his friend in bafflement, the silver-haired boy wouldn't let him come back out ever again.

 

And there was nothing he could do about it.

 

The boy let his hand slide from Tucker's face then, and - with one last dark glare in Aaren's direction - disappeared.

 

 

~~~~~~

 

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