Sunday, November 19, 2017

Evil Meet Justice Chapter 5

Marc approaches his house, opening the door as soon as he reaches it.  He's agreed to go to the beach with his friends, of course, but he was having second thoughts at needing to stop at home to get his swimsuit.  Despite what he'd said to Mallory, he really isn't keen on stopping in.  He spends time with friends to get away from his family.
Well, his mother's fine, if a bit overwhelming in her compassion.  His father's the one who he tries to stay away from, when he can.  Aside from the occasional business trip, it's difficult, since Joe Fitson will take any excuse he can find to take a day off; it's a polarizing effect, for the most part.  A few days staying well into overtime at the office, then a few days where he finds some excuse to work from home or take more PTO than he was probably meant to have.
Were Marc his own father's boss, he'd fire him, but he unfortunately isn't.  Instead, the higher-ups all agree that they can let Joe's behavior slide on the simple fact that he's been working so long, and anytime they've even tried to get somebody trained to assist with his workload it hasn't worked out.  Marc wonders if that's because the trainees couldn't stand his father's absurd organization methods on the data he's responsible for, or if they just couldn't stand his personality.  'Both' seems to be the answer which makes the most sense.
Lucky enough for Marc, his father isn't in the dining room when he opens the front door.  With that potential off the table, he sighs in relief and makes his way upstairs to his room, to get his swimwear.  Swimming at Myna Beach was never warm, but he hadn't gone hypothermic yet either.  Still, it was generally agreed that it was safer to swim in that water with a bit more fabric on, so most people use rash-guards.  He's never seen anyone but tourists attempting to wear bikinis to that beach.
With the swimwear retrieved, Marc gets changed into it and stuffs his dry clothing into a tote bag so that he can change back when they're done, since he's planning to continue hanging out with Chris for as long as he's able to.  He doubts he'll be able to stay over tonight, what with Chris's cousins visiting, but at least he can eat dinner at the Gonzalez house.
On the matter of Chris's cousins, he's already decided that he's not especially fond of the orange-haired one.  It's got nothing to do with the fact that he doesn't shower enough, either; rather, that guy's been acting weird towards Mallory.  Marc may not be able to pinpoint the reason why he feels protective of her, but that doesn't change the fact that he is. Something about that guy just makes him feel... Uneasy.
That's the best way he can describe it.  Unease is the way that Dawson Packard makes him feel.  It isn't a matter of feeling possessive over Mallory, because of anyone in the world, she's the most impossible to possess.  And if it were Marc who Dawson was fixating on, he thinks he'd be equally as put off by it.  He doesn't want to go thinking the worst of his best friend's cousin, but he also isn't about to turn a blind eye to it.  Just because somebody is someone's relative doesn't excuse them from being suspicious.
Once Marc's changed and has everything he needs to bring with him, he moves to duck right back out of the house without being noticed, but his mother's walked into the kitchen.  She smiles at him, and he freezes as he waves, then gives in and walks into the room, keeping his voice low, "Hey, Mom.  Is Dad home?"
"Not right now," Marc's mother, Deborah, shakes her head as she answers, "He went out to get a few small things for his woodworking, that's why his car's still here.  He should be back soon, if you need something from him?"
Marc taps the counter, frowning, "The opposite, actually.  I was hoping to miss him altogether."
"Well, you should if you get going soon.  What were you up to?" Deborah asks, tapping her fingers on the counter in front of herself.  She doesn't even question why her son wants to avoid his father; she would avoid him too, if she had the opportunity.  It wasn't that she saw him as an absolutely awful husband, or even a bad person necessarily, but she had been young and too starry-eyed.  Joe Fitson was fine, she thought to herself, but he was not worth giving up on her dreams for.
She had truly been a fool, but that was all in the past now.  There was nothing she could have done about it, because she didn't have anything that really compelled her as grounds for a divorce.  It wasn't like she needed a sturdy reason, but it would help her to avoid losing anything.  Were she to divorce Joe, she didn't want to take anything from him, but she didn't want to lose a thing to him either.  Most especially not her son.  Deborah seemed to many like the model of a housewife, not worth much more than the meals she cooked, but she did have a college degree.  She had passed the Bar Test, too.
It is weird, she thinks, being a lawyer who'd never had the chance to tackle a single case.  Joe couldn't technically stop her, she knew, but there was something about being with him which kept her from finding any opportunities.  Maybe it was pathetic that she let an idea like that; Just the idea, control her, but she never claimed to be a person of strong character.
"I was hanging out with Chris and the others," Marc answers, "I just stopped by to get my swimsuit, since Chris decided he wants to go by Myna Beach.  The others are going to meet me along the way if I just walk a little bit faster.  They are slow as a group."
"Friends do tend to be," Deborah chuckles, lifting her hand up to pick at her nails, "I won't keep you longer, okay?  You should get going.  Enjoy the day with your friends, sweetie.  If you happen to run into Jacob, could you tell me how he's doing?  I lost his number again."
"Mom," Marc rolls his eyes as he wanders toward the door, "Sure, if we somehow end up either getting arrested or going to John and Mallory's house, I'll let Jacob know you said hi, and that you need his number again.  Or you could just call the town's non-emergency crime reporting number and hope he picks up."
"He's the father of my son's new friends, can you blame me for wanting to be on good terms with him?  You never know when you might need a favor from somebody.  Now shoo!" As Deborah tells him to shoo, he's already got the door open and one foot out.  As expected, he catches up with his friends without a problem.  When he arrives back to the group, they're discussing school lunch.
That's a nice, generic subject that everybody has some thoughts on, an easy way to break the ice in a group.
Marc joins in seamlessly, "So is it a universal thing that absolutely no potatoes served at a school can ever actually have anything resembling the texture of potatoes?"
"Good point," Mallory says, pushing her glasses up, "I do not see school potato as potato, but as gouache.  That's what it is, really."
"What the Hell is gouache?" Dawson questions, ever the uncultured one.
"It's a type of paint," Mallory explains, "And a style of painting, at the same time.  It's extra-thick, so it gives the painting a bit more of a three-dimensional feel.  Anyway, I don't have to worry about school lunches anymore.  John makes bagged lunches for both of us!"
"I hate to toot my own horn, but they are pretty good," John says, pressing his fingertips together, "I make a mean sandwich.  I use a lot of fresh produce from my garden too, when it's in season."
"You'll have to let me try one sometime," Tina gives John a smile, "Just the facts that they're sandwiches made with fresh produce makes them sound great.  And I trust Mallory's judgment, too."

"Don't trust my judgment," Mallory holds her hand up, "I mean, I can tell when a food's good, for sure.  But I also like a lot of food's that are definitely not good for real.  Like peanut butter and banana sandwiches-"
"Those are good, though," Dawson interrupts.
"With mayonnaise," Mallory finishes.
"Oh," Dawson doesn't know what to say.
"Mallory," Marc shakes his head in disbelief, "I like mayonnaise as much as the next guy, but that is a bad mayo."
"Huh, well," Mallory holds a finger to her chin, looking up at the sky, "I think it's good, yeah, but it is a bad mayo for sure.  That's the kind of thing I really love.  Plus, if all the food I eat is disgusting to other people, then I never have to worry about my lunch getting stolen when I one day work in a soul-sucking office job."
"Remind me never to let you cook for me," Chris mutters.
"Come on, Christopher," Mallory scoffs, "Like I'd ever cook for you anyway.  I can barely cook for myself.  Cereal is too much cooking for me most mornings, and that doesn't even involve heating anything up.  Just putting it together."
"You can cook pancakes," John adds in, unhelpful.
"Just because I can doesn't mean I want to," Mallory answers, putting her hands back behind her head, "It's not like food is even all that great, really.  I just eat to sustain myself, or just because the food happens to be there... Unlike you and Dad, John.  You gluttons."
"I eat fruit," Marc adds in his two cents, useless as they are, "That's about all that I eat for the sake of eating, otherwise, yeah, food's not like an amazing experience or anything weird like that."
"I can't even believe I'm friends with you right now," John shakes his head, holding two fingers up to his own temple as he sighs, "I mean, honestly.  Food is an art form, people!  It's tied in with culture, climate, and all sorts of things like that.  You really should enjoy food!  It has so much personality!"
"I do enjoy it," Mallory shrugs, "But I wouldn't be crying myself to sleep if I had to go a month eating nothing but ration-bars, or cardboard."
"Mallory..." Tina starts, raising her eyebrows with a coy smirk, "You like the taste of ration-bars, don't you?"
Mallory turns red at this statement, whirling on Tina with her cheeks puffed out, "No, of course not!  Nobody likes the chalky texture and near-tastelessness of ration bars!"
"Sounds to me like you're praising them for those facts," Tina waved a finger in front of herself, "Come on, you need to be honest with me, and with yourself.  Embrace your love of the blandest food mankind has ever created and admit that the only reason you'd be okay with spending a month on them is because you secretly love them."
"I dug this grave for myself by saying how much I like terrible foods," Mallory groans, backing off with a slump of her shoulders, "Yes, you're right.  Unfortunately, I do enjoy the lack of flavor that ration-bars offer.  That doesn't change my statement, though.  I don't think delicious food is a necessity to enjoy life."
"Yeah, me neither," Dawson agrees with her, and Tina resists the urge to kick his shin with the lies he's telling, "In fact, I'll even eat foods that I hate.  It's just to stay alive anyway, so why does taste exist?"
"Well, on second thought," Mallory notes, "Food is actually pretty cool.  The fact that different people can taste things differently and appreciate or hate them is kind of fascinating, even if I don't think that tasting good things is all that important to happiness...  I still don't want to eat foods that are disgusting, like strawberries."
"Who doesn't like strawberries?" Dawson questions.
"Me," Mallory gives her answer in a matter-of-fact way, without any hesitation, "I like other fruit, but strawberries and strawberry flavored things just make me gag.  I won't ever eat another strawberry if I can help it."
"Hey," Chris butts into the conversation, pointing behind himself, "Yo, everybody.  Come on.  Let's turn right here."
"But that's not the way to Myna Beach..." John says, looking around and trying to figure out why Chris is acting so strange.  Unfortunately, they aren't able to react in time due to confusion, and a voice that the majority of them aren't fond of hearing speaks up behind them.
"Ah, Marc.  Where are you and your friends off to dressed like that?" Joe Fitson had been walking back from the store on the opposite side of the street, and crossed to speak with the group, "Isn't the weather a bit off for swimming?"
"The temperature's fine, even if it's a little cloudy.  It doesn't look like it will rain today," Marc answers, looking up at the sky, "So we're going to Myna Beach for a bit.  Oh, these are Chris's cousins, by the way."
"...Charmed," Joe notes, keeping his attention on his son, "And you're sure that swimming is all you're doing?"
"What else would we be doing, going on an expedition to find some hotsprings to take a dip in?" Mallory involves herself, hands on her hips, "We're wearing swimsuits.  What could possibly be suspicious about that?"
"You could be going to a party," Joe answers, waving his hand in the air next to himself, "A degnerate party with somebody who owns a hot tub... Like, say, Evan Temmer?"
John freezes up at the mention of that name and steps forward, almost protective of Marc, "We don't talk to Evan anymore and you know it, Joe."
"I don't know anything," Joe responds, clenching his fists, "And you should watch your tone, John Shingle.  My son has kept secrets from me before and I'm right to worry that he'll do it again, so forgive me if I don't believe that a gaggle of teenagers aren't up to no good."
"Dad," Marc glares at him, "We really are just going swimming.  Chris is on the swim team, remember?  Swimming is too important to him for it to be used as an excuse."
"I guess there's nothing I can do based on suspicion," Joe sighs, and throws his hands up as he turns back around, "Whatever.  Don't say I didn't warn you if you do something stupid. and face the consequences for it."
With that, Joe Fitson leaves the group behind.  There's silence for a while before Tina speaks up, "Who's Evan Temmer?"
"Evan's a kid in my grade, likes acting as if he's older than he is.  He's pretty rich, so he's pretty popular," John answers, folding his arms over his chest, "We used to hang out with him a lot, but he... Well, he turned out to be a little bit of an asshole.  I guess rich guys sometimes are, right?"
Marc hesitates, but does add in an explanation of his own, "I dunno if he was really trying to be an asshole, though.  He just didn't know how to take no for an answer, in certain situations.  Truth is, when he asked me out I might have said sure, let's give it a shot, if not for my dad."
"Of course," Mallory steps in, "Word travels fast in a small town like this one, you know?  Even though Marc turned him down, Evan spread a rumor that they were dating.  Joe freaked out, and we had to come up with some story about us all hating Evan now just to get him to lay off Marc a little bit.  You can probably tell he didn't lay off much."
"Goddamn," Dawson shakes his head in a dismissive fashion, "What the Hell was that about?  Gay people just don't have any sense of boundaries, huh?"
"We're still friends with Evan.  We just don't hang out outside of school anymore, because he pulled that one dick move, and now Joe'll be up all our asses if he sees us in the same place," Marc wrinkles his nose at Dawson, "It has nothing to do with his sexuality, and that was just one boundary that he admits he fucked up on."
"It's straight guys who don't know what boundaries are," Chris jokes, "So I've heard, anyway.  I guess anyone can cross the line, but every rumor has a reason."
"If some guy did that to me, I'd beat his ass," Dawson puts his hands behind his head, "You can do what you want, I guess, but don't expect me to meet this Evan guy.  As far as I'm concerned, anyone who'd pull that is a huge tool.  Telling someone you're dating a person when you're not?  Who would do that?"
"Dawson," Tina mutters, trying to communicate that he ought to stop talking without making it seem as if she's outright defying him.
"Look, Dawson," Chris stops walking as his feet touch the pebbles of Myna Beach, "I dunno what you're hearing from anyone, but if you're going to hang out with me and my friends, you have to be a little bit nicer than that.  Evan's a good guy, and I hear enough trash talk about him from Joe.  I don't need to hear you ragging on my friend, too."
"Even assholes deserve a second chance," John doesn't seem quite as forgiving as the others, but he's got a light tone as he says this, "Really, as long as they're trying to get better, assholes need friends to encourage them to change."
Dawson looks between everyone, then huffs through his nose as he walks away down the beach, leaving the rest of the group behind.  Nobody bothers to try going after him, or even calling out for him to calm down.  Eventually, Mallory turns to Tina, "Your brother is kind of a dick, no offense."
"None taken," Tina shrugs, "He is."
"Though... Even assholes deserve a second chance?" Mallory questions, looking to John.  He shakes his head at her, but she puts both hands on her hips and separates her legs in a determined stance, "There's gotta be something worth somebody's time in that guy, and I'll find it.  Well, not like I think he'll be worth my time, but somebody's, you know?"
"I wouldn't recommend that," Tina says, and everyone else agrees with her.  Chris, too, isn't especially fond of his emotionally maladjusted cousin.  It's beginning to seem like nobody does, but that can't be true.  Dawson has plenty of friends at school.  Maybe somehow, some types of people are drawn to someone as absurdly crude as Dawson Packard.
"Come on.  What's the worst that could happen?" Mallory asks, then wanders down the beach towards the water, "Anyway, Chris.  I'll race you.  Ready to stomp me?"
"Always," Chris jokes back, dashing down to stand next to her, waves lapping up at their toes.  John runs forward as well to cheer his sister on, leaving Marc and Tina standing at the head of the beach, looking down.
Marc looks to Tina, then speaks up, quiet, "You should stay here."
"What?" Tina questions, eyes wide as she turns to look back at him, "I don't- Why?"
Marc shrugs, "Because you're fitting in with us?  I feel like you'd be better off here than back in New Mexico."
"Huh," Tina hesitates, bringing her arms up around herself, "Well, maybe you're right, but... I wouldn't make you deal with Dawson any longer than you need to.  Seems like nobody's getting along great with him."
"I'm not saying Dawson should stay here.  I'm saying you should," Marc steps closer to Tina and reaches out, putting a hand on her shoulder, "I'm pretty sure that Chris's family would let you stay with them.  If they wouldn't, then I know for a fact that Jacob; I mean, Mr. Shingle, would."
Tina chuckles a bit, "You know John and Mallory's Dad well enough that you call him by his first name?"
"Nah, he's just one of those types of dads who says you should call him by his first name.  Everyone calls my dad Joe because they hate him and it's disrespectful, but Jacob's always just trying to be the cool dad," Marc explains, "I guess it kind of works?  As much as a police officer can be the cool dad, anyway.  He's trying his best."
TIna nods before she speaks again, "He sounds nice.  Well, that explains why John and Mallory are such sweethearts..."
"Yeah, they were actually raised well," Marc agrees with a small laugh, "I mean, if you ignore all the snark, those two are some of the nicest people I've ever met.  Mallory's even saying she'd give Dawson a chance to prove he's not as obnoxious as his first impression?  That takes a certain type of person for sure."
"Heh.  Yeah, that's saying something," Tina admits, "Maybe it's shitty for me to say this about my own brother, but I don't think that there's anything there for Mallory to find.  He's... Well, he's probably a walking trash bag.  I don't mean that as an insult, I mean it as, there's not any good there.  And a trash bag could have been filled up with something to donate to charity or something, but he just got garbage."
"You think that he could have been better?" Marc asks, not seeming at all put-off by Tina's terminology.  Despite it being rude and a bit cruel, he just finds himself agreeing with what she says.
"I dunno.  Maybe.  I guess there's still time, he could mature some more," Tina says, "He could end up being a better person.  And he probably could have been better from the start if we weren't left alone all of the time... Well, I'm just thinking about things which aren't true right now.  It's pretty pointless to think about what-ifs like that.  And Hell, maybe he really isn't as bad as I think."
"You're defending him now?" Marc asks, and Tina just shrugs in response.  He scoffs, "Don't.  Just... Don't bother, okay?  I didn't like the guy from the moment I met him, so obviously, there's something about him that's really unlikable.  You don't need to stand up for a guy like that just to try and sound like you're a better person for not hating him.  You're allowed to dislike people.  Even if they are related to you..." He hisses, scratching the back of his neck as he looks away.
Tina leans to look at his face, "So you don't get along with your father too well, huh?  I mean, he really seems like kind of a dick."
"He is," Marc groans, dropping his arm to his side, "My dad's... Well, he's just the kind of guy who's way too proud of having a son?  You know, he's always encouraging me to be more masculine and shit like that.  It's pretty goddamn lame."
"I know someone like that," TIna suddenly recalls, "Back in New Mexico.  Her name's Anna, and she's really obsessive over having a daughter.  She makes her dress up all the time, makes her act especially girly.  And in a way my friend appreciates that, but it can also be annoying to have somebody putting such specific expectations on you..." Tina thinks for a moment, "I guess, even I've experienced having expectations put on me, but I can handle them.  I like having an idealized version of myself to strive for."
"I don't," Marc says, "I don't like having people expect anything of me.  Makes me feel like I don't have room to grow or change... Like I just gotta stick to a mold, you feel?"
"I get it," Tina agrees, and she does.  She can see it in him, the effects of growing up like that.  The entire group is at the age when they begin to develop a real sense of self-questioning and identity, and it can be suffocating to start having those thoughts in a situation where one has always been willing and ready to let their identity be shaped by someone else.
Jacob Shingle likes to think of himself as a good man.  At least, that's what he tries to be.  It's not like he has any scale to measure himself against, and he's certainly made his own fair share of mistakes in his lifetime, but he still holds onto the idea that he's a good person.  He is a good person.
Jacob has two children, and he lives with the two of them in a somewhat nice two-story house.  He's never left his hometown of Mesteri because he has a stable job and the real estate market here is absolute garbage, which for anyone looking to afford a home, is great news.  The island's inconvenient and lacking in jobs, has been since shortly after the conclusion of World War II.  It's a dying town, but he calls it home, and he doubts he'll ever leave.  This is where he'd hoped to build a future with his wife.
Even with her gone, he doesn't want to leave that idea behind.
John, the elder of his two children, is fifteen now.  He seems to keep to himself for the most part, and unlike most parents, Jacob is glad for that.  Fifteen was how hold he himself was when John was born, and though he doesn't regret the outcome of that ordeal, he wouldn't wish the experience on anyone but his worst enemy.  It was hard to deal with all the guilt and scorn at the time, but he and Adelaide had worked through it enough that she was already pregnant with Mallory by the time the pair was graduating.
There was just that much love between them.  It's been eleven years now since she died, not soon after Mallory was born.  At least John has a few fond memories.  It's been over a decade, and Jacob knows that he'll never truly be over her.  Nonetheless, he keeps moving forward.  It's a very important thing to do, he's well aware.  Jacob has to be there for his children, and even when he was still in active mourning, he's always made sure to put them first.
His career choice is even linked to his children, in a way.  He became a police officer because there's a shortage of them in Mesteri, and an abundance of crimes that go utterly unnoticed.  Having been a teen himself not too terribly long ago, Jacob's work with the police sometimes makes it seem like he's the only one who's really trying to keep the kids safe.  There's juvenile crime all over, and in a town such that everyone knows everyone, anyone who knows their neighbor's doing something illegal will probably keep quiet out of fear for their own secrets being revealed.
Jacob doesn't have those qualms, though.  He doesn't have secrets at all; It isn't that only his nearby neighbors have a grasp on the more unsavory aspects of his life, but his secrets were already all up on display in the past.  Perhaps now that his kids are reaching the point where they're transitioning from children to adults, he'll have to be a little more concerned, but for the time being he's happy to keep tabs on everyone and act on anything which is truly unsavory.
At least, as much as he's able to learn about.  People are more careful with their gossip around a police officer, so he doesn't hear as much as other people might.  He knows enough, though, and he's busted several people with this tactic in his career.  He has a deep-seated desire to bring due legal process to anyone who needs it, especially the worst type of people in the world who always seem to fly under the radar in towns like this one.
There's still a shortage of police, even compared to the town's population, but Jacob likes to feel that he's making some small difference to that situation.  Obviously, he's not about to single-handedly stop all crime in Mesteri, but he can certainly work to make sure that he stops everything he can.
A comfort to him is that recently, his children have made another friend.  They're both very kind kids, but they have sarcastic streaks and introverted hobbies that keep them from being too sociable.  Their friend Chris introduced them to his own childhood friend, and Jacob's glad for that.  Deborah Fitson is a lovely, compassionate woman.  She's a bit flighty and forgetful, but she has her own fair share of talents.
Joe, meanwhile... Jacob can't say that he's fond of Joe Fitson, the few times that they've met.  It could be that it's only a reflection of his offense at meeting such a brazen homophobe with his own bisexuality in mind, but that man definitely rubs him the wrong way.  It's a wonder that somebody as kindhearted as Deborah wound up with a guy like that, but Jacob can't presume to know how they got together.
It's a strange family, he thinks.  Not that they're especially odd in any measurable way, but he just can't understand what they're doing in Mesteri.  He knows that they moved to town before Marc was born, but they bought quite a nice house, and a nice car, and Joe's income is certainly enough that they could have settled down to start a family in someplace nicer than this.
Especially considering that they moved here from Kansas.  It would be one thing to want to get out of Seattle, away from the city to have a child in a quiet town, and there's a variety of options for housing here that would give them the benefit of picking and choosing for individual features in a home... But it wasn't like most of the midwest wasn't in the same position.  There were plenty of great homes for raising a family in those states.  Really, it doesn't make sense for anybody to move here from that far away.
As far as he knows, they don't even have any family in this area.  That's the most confusing part.  Well, he doesn't have time to dwell on that sort of thing today.  He's visiting his mother to help her with some housework projects; Hanging some framed puzzles that she's recently finished putting together, fixing a leak in the roof.  Jacob always spends his days off in one of two ways; Doing something fun with his children, or finding something else to busy himself with.
He doesn't like to be bored, and there aren't a ton of televisions shows which interest him in a particular amount, so he finds himself with strange hobbies.  When he's not messing around his own home or helping his mother at hers, he enjoys baking and putting together model vehicles.  Planes, boats, whatever kits he can buy for cheap that he thinks will look good on shelves around the house.  He finds it funny that he's ended up with such a stereotypical dad hobby, but it does help give the house some life that it wouldn't have otherwise.
He's still a single dad after all, and though he makes good enough money, it's not so much that he can splurge on real decor for the house.  Any extra money he ends up with goes toward his children, because he had a great childhood right up until he screwed it all up for himself.  He wants to give his kids the world, or at least their own pleasant childhood where he can.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Checkboxes Chapter Twelve

Fucko promised yesterday that it would give me answers soon, and I suppose I'm enough of a wet noodle to allow that to placate me for the time being.  I don't feel bitter about it, though.  Not in the least bit, which may seem strange, but it's good enough for now just to be assured that there are answers for me, even if I can't be provided with them yet.  It's like wondering if you'll be receiving a birthday gift, and then being assured that there is one on the way, but the shipping's been delayed so it will arrive a little late.  In the meantime, I just need to listen to what it decides I should do next.  Today is Tuesday, so I won't be able to talk to anybody in the Light Music Club after school.  
I know that Fucko will tell me who I'm supposed to be talking to, but I can't help but try and figure out who it could be each day that I'm supposed to have a conversation with.  I have to assume it's somebody I haven't talked to much yet, so maybe one of the other members of the occult club...
I don't need this.
Anyway, the real situation is this.  At lunch, you should speak with Maka Nishikikouji, then after school you'll want to have a conversation with Shizuka Inbo.
Oh, Maka.  We haven't talked much yet, just a few passing words on the school trip and when she was in the science room yesterday.  I'm sure Fucko won't give me direction on where she eats her lunches, so I decide to go searching for her instead and find that she's sitting under a tree in the courtyard, eating french-fries out of a takeout box with chopsticks.  I walk up to her and crouch down, then sit cross-legged a few inches from the ends of her feet.  She sets her chopsticks down and pulls her mask back up over her face from around her neck before she speaks, "Ah, hello, Hako-chan... What brings you here?"
"I just want to have a conversation," I shrug, pulling out my own lunch from my bag.  It's leftovers from last night's dinner.  Rice and grilled chicken were good warm with fresh vegetables, but I mixed in some seaweed salad to have it cold today, "Is that okay?  You can keep eating.  It's fine if I see you without the mask on, right?"
"It's rude..." Maka mumbles, then startles in place and waves a hand around as she corrects herself, "Rude to you, not rude to me!  The mask is a symbol that I stand for protecting the girls of this town, you included, so to remove it in your presence feels like I'm saying that I don't intend to protect you, which isn't the case at all..."
"Is that why when we all ate together the first day in Kyoto, you all kept your masks on?  I thought you were just scared of city germs," I note.
"Nope," Maka shakes her head, "It was out of respect for you and Shorty-chan."
"I see Kaiba-san's nickname rubbed off on you," I chuckle, feeling a bit bad for Sayaka.  I am glad that Kaiba doesn't know me well enough to come up with an embarrassing nickname for me, but then again, Sayaka didn't seem too bothered by it.  It's all in good fun, it seems, "I don't need protecting, though, so it's fine.  You can eat with convenience instead!" I lean towards her, 'Why are you eating fries with chopsticks, though?"
"Oh, that's simple," Maka answers, lowering her mask at my permission, then holds up her right hand, "I grew up in a place that taught me the left hand is unclean, and it's kind of ingrained.  I'm left-handed though, and the first knuckles on my right hand don't move.  All I can do is flex the fingers themselves and move my thumb, I can't do anything like make a fist or do fine-motor tasks.  Picking up finger food is impossible, too, so I just use utensils.  They exist to be used, after all, I may as well use them even if it's for a less conventional purpose."
"That makes sense," I agree, starting to eat my own lunch, "Where did you get that, anyway?  I didn't think there was any western takeout in town."
Maka glances at the bag, and I note that there's not even a logo yet, it's just a brown paper bag, "It's a new place. I heard about it, and decided to try it.  Here, try some!  I think it's pretty good, though I'm not exactly a meat connoisseur."
"That is good!" I am not a meat connoisseur either, though.  In fact, I am not a connoisseur of anything, "I bet everyone here would be happy to hear a place like that's opened up in Korekara, you should spread the word!" 
"I wish I could," She shrugs, stretching out, "But, you know, I don't have a lot of presence at all.  It's hard to get anyone to pay attention to me in the first place. I think you're actually the only person outside of No Boys who has ever acknowledged me.  It's a shame... I even do my best to stand out.  I dyed my hair, and I tie my neckerchief, and I wear yellow shoes.  None of that seems to get me noticed, though.  Kaiba-kun says it's a skill, and I guess it is, but I would still prefer to have a different skill than natural stealth, maybe?"
I shrug, "It happens.  People end up in situations that aren't preferable all the time, but you know, I do think that it's important that you find a way to use your talent for a good cause.  If you have a unique ability, something that most people need to learn to do but that you're naturally good at?  Use it to help people, then do what you really love to do for yourself."
"Are you in a situation which isn't preferable?" She questions, and I freeze.  Am I?  Would I prefer to be anything other than following Fucko's instructions?  I guess it depends.  Somebody would need to be doing what I am, instead.  I'm using my talent to help people just the same as I just told Maka to do, and I'm proud of myself for it.  It's still strange to think what I'd be doing if this burden belonged to somebody else instead.  Probably just sticking to Amai all the time, like when we were little kids.  Or, if I'd never been in a coma, with her and Hiromi and Sayuri.  It's for the better, though, that we went our separate ways, so I'm not even sure now that I'd want that change.
"No," I answer, and it's the truth.  My situation is preferable.  I wouldn't want to have any other responsibility than this.  I wouldn't want to be anyone else but me; and having a different experience would have made me a different person than I am right now.  I'll let time take its course to decide who I'm going to be, and I won't change that.
That same fate which seems to desire the deaths of all your friends?
I wouldn't mind if somebody else changed my fate.  And I'll change the fate of others, too.  I would never do anything, though, to try and alter the path I'm supposed to take as a person.  And it really does feel like the path I'm meant to take, at least for now, is the one that Fucko's leading me down.
After school, I set about looking for Shizuka, as I was instructed to speak with her today.  She isn't anywhere I'd expect her to be, though.  Nowhere to be found, even, when I start looking in the places that I would not expect her to be.  How am I supposed to follow my instructions if the girl I need to speak with is not around?  Nobody's even seen her that I ask, so I decide to ask Kemuri.  She'll know if Shizuka left the campus, anyway, though I'm not sure how I'm supposed to speak with her if she's not even around.  Unfortunately, even she has no clue where Shizuka could be.  I'm thinking about giving up, since Fucko's once again giving me the 'telling you the details would break the rules' schtick.  I don't understand how the rules are more important than me actually completing my goal, though.  I sigh and sit down against the wall in the hallway.
"Hako-san?" Somebody questions, and I look up to see Iwako standing over me.  She's standing as if somebody taped a ragdoll to a stick, in contrast to her usual sharp posture.  I guess she's not trying to be intimidating right now, "What are you doing here?  Are you waiting for somebody?"
"No, I was looking for Inbo-chan, but nobody's seen her today.  Doctor, do you know where she is?" I question, standing up to look her in the eyes with my hands behind my back.  She only holds eye contact for a moment before glancing away.
"I-Inbo-san...?" She stutters.  I never took the doctor for the type of woman to stutter.
"Yeah," I nod, "Shizuka Inbo.  I guess I can't just assume you know who everybody in the school is though, huh?"
She pauses a moment, taking one deep breath before she answers me, "I do know who Shizuka Inbo is.  She's not the first in her family to attend this school, however.  I'm sorry, I was remembering her elder sister..."
"Oh, her sister attended?" I ask, pushing against the ground to get to my feet, brushing the dust off the front of my skirt.
Iwako hesitates, then gestures for me to follow her, turning back around to enter the infirmary again.  She unlocks it, her movements slow and unrefined.  This seems very unlike her.  I follow her into the infirmary, and she closes the door behind us, then just throws the key onto her desk.  She pushes her glasses up her nose before she speaks again, "I can trust you, right?"
"I'd like to think I'm trustworthy," I answer.
"It isn't a matter of you being trustworthy," Iwako shakes her head, "It's a matter of me being able to trust you.  There's a big difference there.  I know you're trustworthy, but I also know that you're talking to a lot of people.  I don't know if you would keep quiet if you learned of a crime."
"I definitely would.  I have, so far," I nod, "I would never tell the police about a crime.  Usually crimes aren't that bad.  When they are bad, it's better to leave things to the vigilantes.  Incarceration rates may be high in this country for people who go on trial, but indicting can be a problem for a lot of the things which I think are actually terrible to do."
"In that case, I suppose I can tell you.  You've been informed of Yui Asahi, and the rest of her graduating class, yes?" Iwako asks, and I nod, so she continues, "Inbo-san's elder sister was in that class.  She was a nice girl, but everything was so chaotic for that class.  Sasane... Well, Ikimura-sensei, she wasn't assigned to that class that year.  The english teacher at that point was a woman named Mercury Mars.  We thought she was trustworthy, but it seemed she engineered the downfall of that class, since she disappeared shortly after Asahi-san's death.  Meiko Inbo was one of that year's innocent victims."
"Oh..." I mumble, shifting between my feet, "So it's because of that teacher, what happened to them that year?"
Iwako shrugs, "We never could have known that.  We only suspect her because she disappeared without a trace in the end of it all.  Everyone said she was a good teacher, they liked her.  I guess we're only even pinning it on her because we don't want to believe that everything would have happened without her there.  The public release blames Yui Asahi, though, because... We didn't want to admit that we'd made a mistake in our hiring process."
"Some people think that it's a conspiracy," I note.
"I don't blame them, it's pretty conspiratory," Iwako gives a bitter chuckle, "Meiko was murdered by one of her classmates, and Mars-san brought her to me in a panic.  I wasn't able to save her... So I killed her killer.  I contributed to the loss of that class.  It was this day two years ago, that Meiko died.  So, I sent Inbo-san home early.  She came to me looking for advice on her mental health, and all I could do for her was tell her to go back to her house and rest."
"Doctor," I ask, taking a step towards her, "Can you tell me more about the class of 2015?"
"I can't," Iwako shakes her head, "I wish that I could, but there's more important things for you to be worrying about right now.  I'm sure you'll find out more about them someday in the future, but I'm sure you have things to focus on.  Oh, you wanted to speak with Inbo-san, right?" She turns to her desk and scribbles something out on a scrap of paper.  Her handwriting is awful.  She hands me the paper, "Her address, assuming she didn't go back to her family home."
"Thank you, Doctor," I nod, then look down at the paper.  I should have expected that Shizuka doesn't live in one of the dorms, given she comes from such a rich family.  I recognize the street name, though, so I get going.  It's still close enough to the school to walk, though it may take me a while.  Half an hour of walking at a brisk pace, a while, it turns out, but I find myself in front of her home.  It's quite large, but not as big as I expected it to be.  I knock the door, and I don't get an answer, but it swings open.  I frown and step inside, even though that's probably a bit rude of me to do.  I don't see her anywhere.
Just investigate, it should be fine.
I think it's weird to just wander around somebody's house, uninvited, trying to find them... But I'll do as Fucko says.  It turns out that though the house is large, the rooms are not; the first floor consists of a fairly normal layout, with a kitchen, living room, bathroom, and empty bedroom which I'm assuming is the one that Shizuka uses.  Upstairs, however, just seems to be made up entirely of small rooms off of branching hallways, each one with a different theme.  They don't appear lived in at all, more like photographs of fake houses used to advertise things in catalogs.  As I'm searching through all of these different rooms, I eventually stumble across the one that Shizuka's actually in, though I don't say anything after opening the door.  She seems to be on camera right now, which makes sense.  I know she makes gaming videos and streams.  The room is themed like an ultra-cute kitchen, and it looks like she's playing a cooking-themed game.
So I now understand the nature of all of these rooms.  She's really dedicated to her gaming channel, it seems.  I like seeing that; it's a nice reminder, when I'm trying my best to help everyone through their traumas, that everyone is also working hard at those talents which they all have.  That's what Natsuki was saying to me yesterday.  Everyone here is recognized for excellence, but there are still, for some reason, dangers.

As talented as everyone at Korekara is, that excellence had no future for them before being invited here.  As long as the faculty can twist it around when releasing information to the media, there's nothing to be done but accept it.  It's survival of the fittest.  We fail, then we die.  We succeed, then we go on to rise above the rest.  It's a test of youth.  Even with the declining birthrate, nobody really wants anyone who's incapable of contributing society to continue living here, even if they say they're better than that.
I understand it, now, but I won't fight it.  I'll go with the flow, honestly, because I'm the same as everyone else.  I don't want anybody to die.  But were I told that somebody did something self-destructive and died because of it, and that a certain place just gathers up the people who'd do that kind of thing, I wouldn't blame the place which gathered them.  I'd feel bad, and wish it didn't happen, but being told that it's someone's own fault, what sort of outrage could I muster?  Even when I might be targeted by this same type of media manipulation someday, I'm not angry at all.
Ten minutes later, after I've gone to wait in the hallway, Shizuka walks out of the recording room and sits down next to where I'd slid down to sit on the floor.  Neither of us say anything for a while, until she speaks up, playing with her hands in front of herself, "Hako-senpai.  Why did you come here?"
"I was looking for you after school today," I shrug, "Then Same-Hakase told me this was the anniversary of when your sister died at Korekara two years ago, and gave me your address."
"Meiko..." Shizuka sighs, looking up at the ceiling, "We were going to share this house, before that happened..."
I have to take time to think before I speak again.  I want to avoid being disrespectful, "Why did you decide to attend Korekara after it killed your sister?"
"Korekara Academy didn't kill Meiko," Shizuka answers with a shake of her head, "How could you blame the school for what happened to her, when it was just one student?"
"That's what everybody does," I note, "Korekara Academy is dangerous, that's the opinion."
"Everywhere is dangerous," Shizuka mumbles, crossing her legs, "The whole world is just full up with danger, and there's nothing to be done about that.  Just because certain places get a reputation... That doesn't mean they really are any more dangerous than others.  It just means that the truth has been made clearer there.  Meiko could have been killed just as easily while on a train, or in our own family home.  So of course I won't blame Korekara Academy.  Anyone who does is an idiot."
I stay quiet for a while longer again, sitting on my hands.  Trying to explain the way that I feel about our school, "Well, of course it's not the school itself, but I hear things.  People think the faculty have a hand in it all."
"I don't care if they do," Shizuka answers, glaring at the far wall, "I don't.  I blame only the person who killed Meiko, and she's dead too.  It's closure, I have closure.  I'm not going to open myself up to other possibilities when I'm already content in what I have.  Of course I'm still grieving!  Anybody would," She hisses, then returns her tone to a mellow one, "Why would you bother theorizing that more people are against you than probably are?"
Shizuka has a good point, and it's one that I haven't heard before.  Now that I think about it, it's probably important that she disregard conspiracy theories and worst case scenarios, as somebody whose made a name for herself on the internet.  So many people look to her for entertainment, so many people looking to criticize her every move.  It goes beyond the raw skill she needs to play games well on stream, she also has to give them charisma and a collected appearance.  To let herself think for even a moment that the people she works so hard for might be after her head, I can only imagine that would be unbearable.  
That definitely provides some perspective to the idea that ignorance is bliss.  That saying always seemed strange to me before, but I can understand it as it relates to this particular situation.  Maybe that's why Amai is always talking about how weird things are common knowledge.  She'd rather be ignorant and blissful than admit that something's wrong.
"Anyway," Shizuka starts again, eventually, as she stands up, "Since you're here anyway, I guess I may as well make two portions for dinner..."
"Oh, it's fine, you don't have to!" I'd hate to impose, "My parents actually live in Korekara too, so I can always eat dinner with them.  I did show up unannounced at your house and just walked in and went searching for you.  I think I've caused you quite enough trouble for one day."
"Trouble?  I mean, I have to cook my own food anyway.  The least you could do to make all that up to me is let me actually be a good host for once in my life," She rolls her eyes, then holds a hand out to me.  I take it and stand up, then she goes downstairs to the real kitchen rather than the prop one, and I follow.
"So what game were you playing?" I ask, deciding to make small talk now that the heavy topic's out of the way.  I still don't know quite what Shizuka's real reason for being invited to this school is, it can't be a result of Meiko's death given they were planning to live together when Shizuka arrived.  My earlier decision still stands, though.  I won't press her on the matter, because she has better friends to open up to.
"Huh?  Oh, I set up my wii in there.  I was working on one-hundred-percent completion on Cooking Mama.  I guess that's not really an impressive game, but I think after completing a no-deaths stream of Dark Souls I deserve to play something a little less hardcore," She shrugs, opening up the fridge, "Is it fine if I make pasta primavera?  I have a lot of vegetables I need to use before they rot."
"Sounds good to me," I nod, "I mean, you're being nice enough to offer me dinner, you don't have to ask me what I'd like... Make what you want to, and I'll eat it."
"Pasta Primavera indeed," She decides, pulling out several bell peppers and cherry tomatoes from her fridge.  Most grocery stores outside of metropolitan centers only carry produce in season, so I'm a little surprised to hear that she's got two vegetables whose seasons are decidedly not October.  I guess when you're rich you can get any type of food you want anytime, no matter where you live.
Shizuka's food is good, though obviously not mind-blowing like Amai's is.  That's only to be expected, since her talent is video gaming and she isn't even in the cooking club.  It's still pretty great, and I would almost say it's unfair that she actually has two talents, but she's just so much better at the one she was admitted for that I wouldn't call them comparable.
Either way, her food's better than either of my parents', and way better than anything I could do myself, given that I learned almost nothing spending my first year in the cooking club.  I really was mostly just in it to spend time with Amai.  I'd have joined it again when I got back, probably, if not for Fucko's instruction to aid at the infirmary.
I'm glad that I am the infirmary aid, though.  Iwako is actually nice, at least to me, and she seems to have information about the class who all died.  I also get the feeling that she knows what Fucko and I are trying to do, since when I started asking about that class she told me that I have more important things to worry about right now.  I guess she's right about that.
"Apollo, come in," The communicator inside my ear buzzes with those words, waking me from sleep.  I sit up and rub my eyes.
"Apollo here.  Roxie?" It could be any number of a few different people, but I'm pretty sure I recognize her voice, "What do you want?"
"Don't be rude," She continues.  I stand up and wander around the room, pacing despite the fact that I've been advised against moving around too much for the time being.  Something about it wearing away on my joints until later on.  I can't say that worries me much, though, and talking on the phone while sitting still just feels very tedious, "Do I have to want anything to contact you?"
I freeze where I stand, then deadpan, "Yes."
"Well, I don't," Roxie says, shocking me, "I don't need anything from you, I just wanted to update you on the situation.  Everything is proceeding just the way that Fucko wants, though the subject is beginning to become curious about unrelated matters, such as how the AI knows what needs to be done, or what happened to the class of 2015.  You still have some influence, right?  Do you think you could push her back on track?"
"Influence or no influence, it's impossible to change what she thinks.  Now, why is it a problem if she wonders about those things?  Is the control function broken?" I question, tapping my fingers on a desk as I lean against it, "I thought I witnessed it working just yesterday."
"Witnessed?" Roxie questions.
"This is what happens when you don't check in, Roxie, you don't even know what sort of options I have at my disposal.  This whole place is wired with security cameras.  Collaboration between Kira and the club," I can't help but taunt her as I power up the monitors again, just to check them.  I don't expect to see anything but Sakazaki and Yamiko around the school grounds in the middle of the night, but I may as well have a look around, "Very useful asset, as long as we don't let it fall into the wrong hands.  Lucky for us, Sakazaki Yuu is the only possible leak, and our esteemed president has her under control."
"Are you sure that Kira's not the wrong hands?" Roxie asks, and I think about that for a moment.  Well, we couldn't have gotten these set up without permission from the headmaster, so it's not like that's even a relevant part of the equation.  Roxie continues speaking, though, "And isn't it very suspicious for you to be spying on an all-girls' school like this, Apollo?"
"As a man, yes.  As me, Apollo, no.  As men go I'm not exactly on the scale of likely to peek at the girls' locker rooms," Just as I say this, I notice something on one of the screens.  That's... Odd.  I expand it to the full monitor rather than just the quarter it was taking up to get a better look, and just as I was worried, there's somebody standing in the middle of the courtyard, wading in the fountain, "Hey, Roxie?  Any info on an unidentified student who stands in the fountain on this night?"
"You know where I get my data, right?  What possible reason could she have ever had to witness this?" Roxie questions, and I realize that she's right.  This is a variable we couldn't have possibly predicted, and unknown variables have a habit of throwing things off.  I realize what I have to do.  There's only one option, I can't go investigate it myself.  I have to outsource.
"Roxie, I'm gonna have to call you back," I say, then hang up on her before making another call.
"...Hello?" Sakazaki questions, answering without a hint of grogginess.  It's nearly two in the morning, she should be asleep.  Then again, she is a disaster.  I'm pretty sure she's been drinking from the pitch of her voice, but I can just hope it's been a light beer night rather than any heavier liquor.
"Yuu-senpai," I refer to her with respect despite not technically being her underclassman.  I'm still younger than her, "It's Apollo.  We've met once before.  I need you to take on a mission for me."
"A mission?" She questions.  Good, I've piqued her interest.
"In the courtyard right now, there's a girl wearing the Korekara uniform who has waded into the fountain at the center.  I can't make out her identity.  Think you could find that out for me?"
"Can do, Apollo sir!" Sakazaki agrees, and stays on the line as she makes her way out to the courtyard.  I watch her on the cameras, though I keep my focus on the courtyard camera.  The girl standing in the fountain hasn't moved.  Sakazaki arrives in the courtyard, then approaches the fountain.  Since the only way to identify the girl is to see her face, and to do so would require shining a flashlight at her, Sakazaki doesn't bother to be stealthy.  She moves to the edge of the fountain then calls out, "Hey, you!  What's the big idea?" The girl in the fountain turns to face her, and she exclaims immediately, "T-Tomoe-chan!?"
"Saka...zaki..." I can hear Tomoe through the communicator as she steps toward the wall of the fountain, reaching out, "Please, don't make us... go back there..."
"Us?" Sakazaki asks a clarifying question, and on the  screen I can see another silhouette behind her.  The frame is human, but the slow, creeping movements like a cat stalking its prey.  Animal and unnatural.  I act on instinct.
"Yuu!" I shout, "Get out of there, now!"
"H-Huh?" She questions, then Tomoe grabs for her wrist.  She avoids it and starts running, only for both of them to chase after her.  Tomoe's legs hardly seem to be moving, but she's keeping up with the other's savage movements.  As she's running, Sakazaki yells back at me, "It's Tomoe and Nami, but... it's not them!  Apollo, they're Class X agents, aren't they?? What are they doing here!?"
"Good inferring," I can't help but praise her observation, "They're definitely not human.  Nami and Tomoe Kaguya died gruesome deaths, and-"

"That's the thing," Sakazaki continues, checking the doors as she goes for one that's not locked which she could hide inside, "Tomoe's got an eyepatch, it's on the same eye that those thugs-  That she got hurt.  You have any clue what the Hell those scientists are up to this time?"
"You're more in with 'Assis-co' than I am at this point," I answer, "I know less than you do.  If I had to hazard a guess, though, Kira sent off the bodies for experimentation.  Maybe they're being controlled by AIs.  Robots in flesh bodies," It's the only theory I can think of, since I know that those scientists haven't dabbled in demon magic since Ren Massou-Kobayashi turned up dead.  Given the fact that Fucko could, if it wanted, take complete control of Box's body means it's also entirely possible that a corpse could be managed by an AI, if all organs and the like were restored to normal working order first.  I can't imagine Doctor Same could manage a process like that, since she splits her time between surgery and chemistry, but there's always Doctor Martin... 
"I really fuckin' hate Kira sometimes!" Sakazaki sounds like she's on the brink of tears, but manages to get one of the doors open.  The infirmary.  She shuts it tight behind herself, and locks it.  There's one loud crash against the door as the thing which used to be Nami tries to get inside, but then the both of them give up and instead make a break for the school gates, both escaping into the night and out of my field of vision.  Don't make them go back there.  Were they trying to force Sakazaki to help them escape?  Why were they at Korekara in the first place?  I run back through the footage from earlier in the night, and my suspicions are confirmed.  Certain cameras were disabled for a short time.  Whoever created those two wanted to show them off to Kira.  Further investigation of the footage proves to me that they must have escaped from Kira's office, but probably received some sort of halt command which was only broken when Sakazaki appeared.
I worry about that.
Things have been going so well.  Box is doing so well.  I'd hate for Fucko to have to start all over again.  I call Roxie again.
"Please put the appearance of Class Experimental agents Nami and Tomoe Kaguya into your permanent databank.  Maybe we'll know what to do about them the next time around."

Next Chapter->

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Evil Meet Justice Chapter Four

Dawson has the sense not to do anything to Tina when she arrives back, anything but a strict talking-to.  He knows that if he does anything to her physically, his aunt and uncle will notice and become suspicious, with the trip coming up so soon.  They weren't especially observant people; if they were, they would have taken Dawson and Tina in a long time ago.  After all, they were good people.  If they knew just how neglected their niece and nephew were, they wouldn't stand for it.
Tina manages to keep to herself for the rest of the evening, and she and Dawson take the bus to the airport early the next morning.  He stinks, as most teenage boys do, so it's unpleasant to be next to him on the plane.  Even so, she's able to fall asleep, and when she wakes up, the plane's already in descent in Seattle.  She's glad for that.  Once they're on the ground, she and Dawson get their baggage, and she's hardly pulled her suitcase off of the carousel when she looks up and sees her cousin rushing towards them, calling out, "Tina!  Dawson!  How was your flight?"
"Hey Chris!" Tina greets him with a wave and a smile, "It was nice, I got a good catnap in."
Christopher Gonzalez
"I wasn't able to fall asleep, so it was miserable.  I just read a book I had assigned for English class.  I'd hope it would be boring enough to put me to sleep, but then it was interesting, so now I'm tired and I know things," Dawson complains.  Tina has no idea why he'd be so upset about being able to get some of his homework done, but she doesn't claim to understand him.
"Well, it sounds like you had a productive time," Chris shrugs, then points out toward the door, "My dad's gonna bring the car around to pick us up, he'll drive us out to Mesteri.  It's kind of a long drive, so if you want to get some more sleep, go ahead!  You had to wake up pretty early to catch your flight, right?"
"I will attempt to sleep," Dawson groans, dragging his luggage with him as he goes on ahead towards the door.
"I won't," Tina says, falling into step with Chris to follow after her brother, "I'm well-rested, and I want to get caught up!  It's been too long since we last hung out."
"Yeah, it has," Chris nods with a slight laugh, "I mean, I could definitely do with seeing less of Dawson, but the two of you are pretty much a package deal, at least for now.  Maybe when you're older..." He shrugs.
"Yeah, maybe," Tina agrees, staring at her brother's back, "He doesn't seem to enjoy seeing you very much when you visit us, so I guess he probably would have preferred to stay home than to come visit.  You wanted us to meet your friends though, right?  Are they nice?"
"My friends are the nicest," Chris smirks as they reach the curb and his father pulls up.  Tina might not know a great amount about her parents, but she knows that Chris's dad is her mother's brother, and that was the only way she found out her mother's maiden name, which television seems to make out to be as an important thing for people to know.  Chris helps the twins load their bags into the trunk, then offers Dawson the shotgun seat so he and Tina can chat in the backseat, less distracting than one of them twisted around to look behind.  Dawson's reluctant for a moment, but decides he would like the front seat.
Once Tina is situated in the passenger-side backseat, with Chris in the other one, cupholder between them with an empty water bottle in it, she speaks again, "So tell me about those nice friends!  It'd be impressive to know about them before I meet them, right?"
"Impressive or creepy depending on who you ask, but I think these friends would appreciate knowing that I talked them up ahead of time," Chris notes, shifting in his seat, "So there's Mallory, who draws a lot and has some pet birds.  She wants to get a parrot of some sort, but they're a long-term responsibility so she probably has to wait till she's living on her own.  Marc's kind of a jock, he plays basketball, but he's the nice type of jock.  And John loves gardening, he's always giving away fresh vegetables, which is cool."
"Those are some very concise descriptions," Tina giggles, holding a hand up to her mouth, "I can't wait to meet them."
"I can," Dawson complains, but then asks a question a bit quieter, "Is Mallory cute?"
"I feel like I'm not the right person to ask that," Chris responds, "You'll just have to wait and see for yourself."
"Why are you not the right person to ask?  You gay?" Dawson questions, turning to stare into the backseat.
"I couldn't tell you if John or Marc are cute either!" Chris shakes his head in protest, "I don't really get what qualifies as attractive, that's all.  I think all my friends look nice, I guess, but I could never hazard a guess if anyone else would want to flirt with them or anything.  I don't really understand that stuff."
"So you're a late bloomer," Dawson notes, dismissing him to turn back around and try to go to sleep.  Chris frowns, and directs his next protest to Tina instead.
"I don't think I'm a late bloomer, I'm a year older than you guys.  I think I'm just not super into that whole romance thing, period," He leans against the car window, "That's fine, isn't it?"
"Yeah," Tina agrees, "I think it'd be more convenient, to never have to deal with all of that stuff.  When I get to high school, I bet everything's going to get even more chaotic as everyone tries to date."
"Hey, Tina," Her uncle calls from the front seat, "You and Dawson, your birthday's this week, right?  Do you want us to get you a cake while you're here?"
"I dunno, we don't usually celebrate it.  Cake's always a good thing to have, though!" Tina decides, leaning forward, "So I won't say no, if you want to get us one!"
"Since your brother's asleep," He chuckles in response, "You can decide the flavor."
"Chocolate ice cream cake," Tina doesn't even hesitate in her response, which Chris laughs at a bit, then smiles because that's his second favorite type of cake himself, second only to carrot cake with good cream cheese frosting.  His father agrees to Tina's decision of flavor, and promises that he'll get it for her closer to her actual birthday, since it's in the middle of the week.  With that sorted out, Tina turns back to her cousin, "So what have you been up to anyway?  How's eighth grade treating you?"
"It's fine," He shrugs, then raises a finger in the air, "Right, by the way, Mallory and Marc are seventh graders like you.  John's a high school freshman now.  I should have mentioned that sooner."
"Are you incapable of getting along with people in your own grade?" Tina pokes fun at him.
"Hum, well, it's difficult," Chris shrugs, "People my own age have known me a lot longer, they had to deal with me when I was an extra obnoxious child, before I joined the swim team as a way to get all that energy out.  I was really disruptive all through elementary school."
"I remember," Tina nods, "When you visited when we were younger, you'd always chase me and Dawson around with water guns.  You would hide all the ones you weren't using, though, because you knew if I got ahold of one I'd shoot you in the face."
"I was doing you a favor, it's so hot where you live!  I was just trying to refresh you, in all of my ADHD glory," Chris laughs, shaking his head, "For real, though, swim team really helped me to calm down.  I play pickup games with Marc sometimes too, though he always beats me because I suck at basketball.  Hey, maybe we can all play one together?"
"We'd have to figure out a fair split, though.  Dawson and I don't really play, but I'm athletic and he's tall..." Tina holds a finger to her chin.
"I already know how to split it up.  You, me, and Dawson against Marc, Mallory, and John.  Those latter two aren't athletic in any way, so they'd make for a good handicap for the guy who's actually on the school's team," Chris offers, bouncing his leg where he sits, "Of course, we can just wander around and hang out, too.  There's a lot of abandoned buildings around here.  Some of them are transient communities, but a lot are just fun for teens to wander around.  I think last time you were visiting, we were still too young to be trusted to wander the town without getting infected with lots of tetanus."
"Yeah, it has been a while.  You always come down to Albuquerque," Tina notes.
"That's because Kim and I have full time jobs, so it was tough to have more children to keep an eye on.  It was easier to just send Chris down to you as an Unattended Minor," Chris's father, who Tina remembers is named Fernán.  She'd forgotten her uncle's name for a bit there, but being reminded that his wife is named Kimberly jogged her memory regarding his.  She decides not to mention the fact that her own parents were almost never home while Chris was visiting.  He continues, "Now that you're all basically teenagers, though, I think we can trust you to your own devices while we're working."
"Great," Tina agrees with a nod.
"Anyway," Chris takes control of the conversation again, "Have you guys decided if you're going to move up here for high school yet?"
"I don't know," Tina shrugs, "I would like to, but I think Dawson's against it, and I know that Mom and Dad won't let us make the move unless we both agree on it.  Still, it'd be nice to live closer to you.  I have to feel kind of isolated, there's not a lot of kids in my neighborhood.  Just this one friend we have, Arturo.  I'm sure if we moved further away, though, I could talk to him on the phone," Dawson doesn't tend to let her make calls, but there's no way Arturo could 'steal' her away if there's miles between them, so hopefully she'd be allowed.  That's the one reservation she has about moving, now, since she discovered that Arturo was always more her friend than Dawson's.
"Who knows, maybe he'll come around," Chris offers, then looks out the window again, "Oh, we just turned onto Highway Zero!  It's not far now, the highway only starts like... Ten miles from the bridge."
"Y'know, I heard the bridge might get demolished sometime in the next decade," Fernán joins in the conversation again.  It seems that he just wants to be the cool uncle, "Now that Mesteri's such a ghost town, the upkeep on such a long bridge is just a big loss of money.  It might be more efficient to run a ferry."
"Will it be a car ferry?" Chris asks.
"Do you think the mayor is that kind?" Fernán questions.
"Not in the least," Chris relents.
"Yeah, we'll probably have to keep this car parked on the mainland and just use your mother's to get around on the island," Fernán explains, tapping the steering wheel, "If they decide to do that, anyway.  If the population goes back up, keeping the bridge will definitely be worth it, but right now there's just not enough people who need to use it regularly."
"Well, at least there's a good bus line," Chris shrugs it off, "And they're an independent company, right?  So town politics can't shut it down."
"Yeah, it shouldn't be a big problem for people with just one car who work on the mainland, I think the gas to cross the bridge probably costs about as much as a bus ride from anywhere in town to the docks so it wouldn't be a serious change," He realizes something, then speaks to Tina, "Ah, sorry!  I keep an eye on town politics, since I've received an invitation to be on the planning board!  I'm wondering if I should accept or not."
"I think that you should," Tina says, leaning toward him, "You definitely know your stuff about Mesteri..."
"Thanks," Fernán chuckles, staring off across the horizon, "I sure will, if you and your brother end up moving here.  Investing in the town for just my own son seems a little selfish, but for my sister's kids too?  That'll keep me from seeming like I've got self-centered intentions when budgeting out the high school."
"I'm pretty sure that will still come across as nepotism," Tina teases.  This is nice; her extended family is so much better than her immediate.  This is the type of life she wishes that she could have, but there's Dawson, always Dawson.  He's the problem.
Marc Fitson
The day after Tina and Dawson arrive, Chris invites his friends over for his cousins to meet.  Marc is the first to arrive, walking in the front door without even knocking.  He just waves hello as he immediately raids the fridge, coming up with a plum that he bites into, then talks through a mouthful as he wanders across the linoleum in the direction of the living room, "What's up, Chris?  These your cousins?"
"No," Chris rolls his eyes, "They're just some strangers I invited in to watch Frasier."
"Well," Marc swallows his bite of plum, but takes another one right after, seeming to have something against talking without his mouth full, "It's nice to meet you.  The name's Marc Fitson.  Basketball player.  Peach and Plum appreciator.  Smartest guy I know."
"I'm Dawson Packard," Dawson answers, looking up at him, "And this is my twin sister Tina.  I was born ten minutes sooner so I am the older twin.  I'm probably smarter than you.  I like swords.  I hate all fruit."
"If you hate fruit," Marc raises his eyebrows, finally speaking without a mouthful of plum, "Then you're definitely less smart than me.  Fruit is some of the best shit this world has to offer.  I mean, meat and veggies are good and all, but fruit, man.  Fruit."
"I don't like you," Dawson states, matter-of-fact.
"Please excuse my idiot brother," Tina speaks, looking up at Marc.  He's so tall for a thirteen year old.  So damn tall, "He doesn't like anybody."
"Damn," Marc chuckles, then looks up and turns around when he hears a knock on the door, "Yo, that'll be Mallory and John, I'll go let them in," He goes to the door and opens it, "You do realize that knocking is one hundred percent unnecessary here?"
Mallory Shingle
"That's impolite!" Mallory frowns, pushing her glasses up her nose, "Marc, you're impolite all the time!"
"Whatever you say, Bluebird.  Come inside," Marc teases as he steps back into the house, gesturing for the other two to follow.  John isn't  quite as tall as Marc, which seems weird given the difference in their ages, but growth spurts are growth spurts.  Mallory is kind of tall too, but both she and John are on the heavier side, so it seems more proportional.  They're obviously related, with the same nose and hair color.
"Greetings and salutations!" John waves, taking off his shoes before he steps onto the living room carpet, "Chris, it's an honor to meet your family!"
"Stop being weird, John," Mallory chides him as she steps past, walking straight up to Tina and Dawson, "Hi there!  Do you like birds?"
"I have no opinion on birds," Tina answers truthfully.
"Birds are the coolest," Dawson answers, lying.  Tina gives him an odd look as he continues talking, "Mallory, huh?  Can I call you Mal?"
"Um," She fidgets where she stands, glancing away, "I don't know, uh, my grandma's the only person who calls me that, so it would be kind of weird..."
"Cool beans," Dawson has never in his life said cool beans before, and he seems to be totally ignoring the guys to focus on Mallory.  Tina is suspicious of this behavior, "So what do you like to do?"
John Shingle
"I draw..." Mallory mumbles, taking a few steps to the side.  She seems uncomfortable with the attention, "Um, my big brother and I watch a lot of television together, too!  John, why don't you tell them what sort of things we watch?"
"Oh yeah!" A wide smile splits over John's face, "Just yesterday, we watched this really weird movie called Devilman: The Birth.  It's very quotable.  I wouldn't mind watching it again with everybody if you'd think it'd be a fun thing to do!"
"I don't give a shit," Dawson dismisses John, then turns back to Mallory, "You draw, huh?  Do you think you could draw me?"
"How mean..." John mumbles.
"I don't know," Mallory shakes her head, "I don't do portraits, the closest I get to drawing people is using them as reference for gesture drawings, so I don't think I could really draw you well."
"Isn't it really important for artists to study anatomy?  I could help you with that," Dawson offers.
"No thank you!" Mallory squeaks, then starts walking back to the kitchen, "I'm going to go over here now!"
"Hey Bluebird," Marc chases after her and opens the fridge, "There's plums in here.  Want a plum?"
"Ah," She gives Marc a sweet smile and nods, "I'd love one!"
"Now that's passive aggressive if I ever saw it," Dawson mumbles, resting his chin his palms, "Am I actually that repulsive?"  Chris and Tina refrain from answering.
John stares out into the kitchen for a while, then turns to Dawson and shrugs, "Usually, Mallory isn't shy at all.  She wasn't when she greeted you either, right?  I'm guessing that you freaked her out with that nickname."
Dawson screws up his face in confusion, then scoffs, "Seriously?  Mal seems like a normal nickname to me.  More normal than Bluebird, for sure."
"You!" Marc calls from the threshold between the living room and the kitchen, pointing at Dawson, "Are you ragging on my nicknaming skills?  I'll have you know that Bluebird is a great one."
"Great's a bit of an overstatement," Mallory chimes in as she walks past Marc, now with a plum of her own, and sits down on the far end of the couch.  John reads her movement and sits next to her before Dawson has a chance to move over there, "It's dumb, but I guess I like it a little."
Dawson frowns, then stands up and walks over to stand in front of John and Mallory, "Hey, sorry.  I think we got off on the wrong foot there.  I didn't mean to freak you ou-"
"The Mal thing?  That's nothing," Mallory shakes her head, "Sorry John, you were wrong.  I don't care about that.  I awkwardly evacuated the room, Dawson, because you smell like ass.  When's the last time you took a shower?"
"Two weeks ago," Dawson answers without a pause, as if this is a normal thing.
"You're turning thirteen this week, right?" John questions, leaning back on the couch with an amused smirk, "Probably should have started when you were eleven.  Teenagers smell bad, it's the natural state.  Make an effort, okay?  Take me, for example.  I smell like flowers.  That's because I take a shower every day, and use good shampoo, and use bodywash.  Soap works too."
"Do not rely on body spray," Chris adds in, standing up to pace around the room as he speaks, "Marc tried that."
"Did not work, and body spray doesn't even smell that great," Marc explains himself.
"God, I get it," Dawson rolls his eyes, "I'll go take a shower right.  Now," With that, he stomps off toward the bathroom.  The others feel a little bit bad for spotlighting his lack of hygiene in such a way, but only a little, because he really did smell awful.  Sometimes humiliation is the best motivator.  With that sorted out, Mallory shifts in her seat and addresses Tina.
"Is your brother always like that?" She questions, adjusting her glasses again with narrowed eyes.
"Like what?  Smelling bad, or insufferable?" Tina asks, "Because the answer is both.  He always smells bad and is always just that insufferable."
Mallory gives a slow nod, then reaches into the messenger bag she brought with her and pulls out a sketchbook.  John leans over and sees that she's drawing Chris's living room, and frowns, "Don't you ever get tired of drawing the same thing over and over again?"
"Well, I'm bored, and there's nothing better to draw than this living room," Mallory answers, then glances around the other people in the room, "No offense to all of you, but I am bored, and I will do anything I can to remedy boredom as soon as I encounter it.  Why should I spend any time doing nothing and disliking it?" 
"That's a good philosophy to have," Chris notes, then turns to his television, "I guess sitcoms aren't the most enthralling thing ever.  Do you want to do something else?  I don't have any video game consoles, but we could change the channel, or play a board game.  I guess it'd be rude to go outside before Dawson joins us again."
"Who cares if it's rude?  If we go outside, maybe there will be a pigeon I can draw," Mallory shrugs as she shades in the coffee table on her drawing.  She's drawn this same room so many times now, and from so many different angles, because she is very often bored while at Chris's house, "All of your board games are awful."
"They're not awful!" Chris protests, and Marc puts a hand on his shoulder.
"Chris," Marc sighs, shaking his head, "We've been meaning to tell you this for a long time now, but... Five different licensed versions of Monopoly is not a board game collection.  It is, in fact, the worst.  Every time we play, one of us starts cheating just to make it end sooner.  I'm sorry that you had to find out this way."
"You must have a few other games.  Scrabble?" Tina asks, stifling a laugh at the idea of everyone cheating at Monopoly out of boredom.
"No, Tina," John shakes his head with a heavy groan, "I guess this is something you didn't know about your cousin.  Chris here... Only owns different versions of Monopoly."
"Mom and Dad prefer reading to playing games, so our entire game collection is just the ones I want!  And what I want is Monopoly!" Chris protests, holding his fists in close to himself in earnest, "Property management is the greatest form of entertainment provided to us mere mortals!"
"You need a new hobby," Mallory groans, standing up, "Start writing or something.  Mere mortals?  Talking like that, you could write fantasy or something... Become more interesting."
"I don't want to become more interesting," Chris sighs, but it sounds defeated, as if he actually is going to take his friend's advice.  She glances toward the bathroom door, then rolls her shoulders in a shrug and opens the door to the backyard, stepping outside and approaching a bird that's sitting in the grass.  It's a dreary day, but most days in Mesteri are.  Even days with blue sky don't feel clear.  It may be an island in the Pacific, but it's still part of Washington state.  It's the opposite of tropical.  Marc follows Mallory, only to see that she's crouched down a few feet from the bird and is now drawing it.  He notes that it's a ratty pigeon.  A rock dove, to be specific.  He hates that he knows that, and blames Mallory for giving him the useless information.  After waiting for Dawson a little while longer, Tina, John, and Chris also step outside, but keep their distance to avoid frightening the bird away, sitting down on a garden wall near the door.  The garden itself has nothing growing in it, though.
"Once Dawson rejoins us," John starts, scratching the back of his neck, "You guys wanna go wander on the beach?"
"There's a beach?" Tina asks, "I thought the whole place was just steep drops."
"Mostly is, but there is some beach a little further out.  There aren't any roads by it, though, and it's not like we ever get any weather to qualify as a beach day.  It's more pebbles than sand, too," Chris explains, kicking his legs, "But the water's nice there, and the pebbles are smooth!  It's good for swimming!"
"Swimming, huh?" John asks, then turns to look at Mallory and sees that she's done with the pigeon, closing up her sketchbook again, and thus calls out to her, "Mallory!  Did you happen to bring our swimsuits?"
She looks over at John with a bit of surprise, then up at the sky.  None of those clouds are dark enough to rain, she notes.  He would ask her that even if a thunderstorm was rolling in.  With the lack of impending downpours determined, she nods in his direction, then approaches to speak at a normal volume, "They're in my bag, back in the house.  Are we going down to Myna Beach?"
"Chris wants to go swimming, so we might," John nods, then looks over to Marc, "Fitson!  You up for a swim?"
"Up for it?  Sure," Marc shrugs as he walks over as well, hands on his hips, "Jeans are awful when wet, though.  I'll have to stop at home for some trunks.  Don't think yours will fit me, Chris," He chuckles, looking over his much shorter friend, "If it's Myna Beach, though, we'll pass my house anyway."
Mallory grimaces at that statement and raises her eyebrows, "Your dad off work right now?"
"He is," Marc shrugs, shifting his weight between his feet, "I mean, come on.  He's not that bad.  You can tolerate being within the same thirty yards as him for a few minutes, can't you?"
"Of course I can," Mallory rolls her eyes, "But can you?"
Marc pauses at that question, then shrugs and gives a nod, "Yeah, it should be fine just to stop and grab my swimsuit.  He can't possibly give me a hard time for that."
Tina looks between the two of them, and furrows her brow, "What's the problem?"
"Huh?" Marc turns to her, then gives her a smile which seems a little bit fake, "Oh, it's nothing.  My dad's kind of overcritical at times, that's all."
"He's always been that way," Chris notes, standing back up again.  He'd only sat down for a few moments, "Kind of one of those guys who thinks any kid of his has gotta extoll every single virtue he's got.  'No son of mine is going to quit basketball', that sort of thing."
Tina nods, pressing her hands together, "Oh, I see.  That's pretty rude to do, though.  Hobbies are one of the few things that children are able to choose."
Marc shrugs, walking towards the door back into the house, "I mean, I'm lucky that I like basketball.  What's really annoying about it is that my dad thinks I'm going to go pro with it, or something.  Just because I'm tall, doesn't mean I'm good enough for that.  And I'm definitely not too cool with the idea that I'm having my future career decided when I'm not even in high school yet."
"Well, at least you've got us," John pipes in, clapping a hand against Marc's back, "We won't ever let you sell out!  See, I told you there was a benefit to having weird friends."
Marc chuckles, a bit awkward as he opens the door back into the house, "You're not that weird.  Anyway, I wouldn't trade you for the world.  Is that strange to say, when we haven't known each other that long?"  Marc and Chris have been friends for years, as have Chris and Mallory, but the actual combination of those friendships into one group was only about half a year ago.
Mallory steps up next to Marc, ducking into the house behind him as she speaks, "A little bit strange, absolutely.  Lucky for you, I feel the same way.  Chris has good taste in friends, or at least decent taste.  You're cool, I guess."
"Is there such a thing as a direct compliment from Mallory Shingle?" Chris questions with a laugh, also stepping inside and gesturing for Tina to follow as well, which she does.  John walks in last, latching the door behind himself.
"A direct compliment?  From my mouth?  It's less likely than you think," Mallory jokes, crossing her arms over her chest, "You probably think I'd do it at some point, but no.  Never.  I will never be genuine and open about my emotions with anybody!" She gives her best rendition of an evil laugh, "I'll be the next big supervillain!  Emotionally-Reserved-Man!"
"Wouldn't that be Emotionally-Reserved-Girl?" Dawson questions, having finished his shower and returned to the living room.  Rather than getting dressed, he's just got a towel wrapped around his waist.  He seems to be trying to show off his muscles, but they aren't great muscles at all.  Especially if he gets compared to his sister's washboard abs.
Mallory turns around and pouts as she pushes her glasses up her nose, "It's my joke, I can name my supervillain idea anything I want to."
"Yeah, but you're saying the supervillain is you, so," Dawson brings his arms up to his sides in an exaggerated shrug, "I'm just saying, it doesn't make a lot of sense."
She puts her hands on her hips and groans, but before she can get into a fistfight that she would surely lose, Tina steps forward, speaking in a loud voice, "Dawson, you should put your swimtrunks on.  We're all going down to Myna Beach.  We're all getting changed into swimsuits here, except we have to stop at Marc's house since he didn't bring trunks and he's wearing jeans."
"The beach, huh?  I kind of thought beach days were usually sunny," Dawson notes, peering out the window, "But I guess as long as it's warm enough..."
"The temperature's nice today," Chris confirms, "And the water's not usually too cold, either.  It'll be a great day to go for a quick swim," He laughs as he says this, and stretches his arms out over his head, "So, once we get there, who wants to race me?"
"Absolutely nobody," Marc answers, crossing his arms, then points toward the door, "Anyway, I guess I'll go stop by my house while you all get changed, meet me in my driveway?"
"Will do," Mallory nods, snatching her swimwear from the bag and running to the bathroom Dawson just vacated to get changed.  Everyone else agrees as well.