A silhouette passed behind her in the hall and she spun around. The halls went from dark and grey to a orangey hue. Wispy, silvery fog formations churning to dark black smoke. She coughed, gasping for breath in between wordlessly screaming, calling out for someone in the halls. She was searching for something, trying to find it before someone else did. She was being followed. The presence bearing down on her heavier and heavier even though she couldn’t see them.
There was a flash of light. Blinding pain and searing heat. She couldn’t move, back flat against the floor and a heavy weight keeping her pinned. All she could see was the black smoke and orange glow. Feeling the heat, and yet ice cold at the same time. She just couldn’t breathe. Gasping for air, trying to shift her limbs. Nothing moved, nothing shifted. Everything was blurring. Hazy. Numb. There were heavy footsteps again. Someone running towards her. It was too late. The world was dark and far away. Nothing but a fading echo.
Julian woke with a start.
“I wouldn’t mind dreams feeling that realistic if I were dreaming about Taylor Lautner. I’d let Taylor Lautner dream kill me.” Angela’s statement came with a thoughtful expression, despite the fact she had a candy bar hanging from the corner of her mouth. She took a bite, flipping through another page of her book. Remaining on her perch at the edge of the table while Julian searched the book shelf for what she needed.
The day had been an uneventful series of classes. Julian had rolled herself out of bed, showered, had breakfast, went to school. Struggled to stay awake through most of it. Pretty much the typical day. Now that school was over, she was at the library with Angela.
“Yeah, well, if he HAD been in the dream I wouldn’t be near as freaked out. It’d just be another one of those ‘Why am I in Angela’s dreams?’ moments.” Julian laughed softly, plucking a book down and reading the back summary quickly. With a shake of her head she placed it back and resumed searching. Her day had been normal, but the dream was hard to shake. Julian had strange dreams all the time. Where she was in other places, seeing, breathing, feeling. They were always so real. That’s what made this one so disturbing. She died. She felt herself slipping right out of her body.
“Anyway, that’s why I fell asleep in Anderson’s class and why I am now stuck doing not one but two reports. Because apparently nobody hands out detentions anymore so I can just sleep there.” Julian muttered.
Angela snickered. “As long as you don’t blow me off for homework, it’s all cool. You promised to rejoin me in the land of the free and the fun, and if I have to play the I-just-broke-up-with-my-BF card I’ll totally do it. Dance, boys, pie, the whole package.” Her book snapped shut and she tossed it on to the table. Angela stood, stretching her arms over her head. The blond was only two or three inches taller than Julian, but she was wearing crazy tall stilettos that bumped her up a good six inches more. “Speaking of the whole package~!”
Angela’s tone had shifted which had Julian’s immediate attention. It was that soft, amused, conspiratorial voice reserved for special treats. Julian grinned wide in response, though she was still browsing the books on the shelf. “Let me guess, boy?”
“Uh huh. That new Adonis who had the intense dark smoldering eyes for you all 4th period. He just turned in to the sixth row.”
“What? Nobody was giving me the smolder-eyes.” Julian cast a quick look over her shoulder, but her was well out of her line of sight. She just turned her stare to Angela who was now fanning herself with a folder. “Who was it?”
“You really must’ve been asleep all day, because that guy has the kind of jaw you just wanna sink your teeth in to. I think he’s a transfer student or new in town. I sure as hell haven’t seen him anywhere before today. Aaaand he seemed to find yoooouuu pretty interesting, despite all the snoring and the drool. Can we say Prom Date potential?” Angel chirped the sentence in a sing song voice while tugging at Julian’s sleeve, though she was being careful not to say it too loud and alert the potential prey.
Julian couldn’t help but laugh out loud, having to cough and lower her own volume before swatting Angela away. “Okay, Madam Matchmaker, how about you stop being a total weirdo and get to work before you get fired again? I still have to pick out a couple a books.”
Angela smothered a few mischievous giggles as she stuffed her things in to her bag and hefted it over her shoulder. “Do something wild and crazy and talk to a stranger, kay? I’ll call you tonight!”
Julian watched her friend go, chewing on her bottom lip as she gave talking to a new guy some serious thought. She DID promise Angela she’d try to get back to being normal. …but then talking to someone meant introducing herself and awkward conversation. When did talking to people get so hard? Julian groaned at herself and resume her book searching. At least THAT she could manage.
There she was.
This trip to the library was mainly a pretense. He had followed her there after the last school bell rang, shadowing her from an innocent distance, watching as she and her friend talked and laughed together. The pair seemed to be quite close, he noted, as he tilted his head to better catch their conversation. When he realized that they were discussing him at this very moment, his lips quirked into a small smile. Fancy that.
It struck him that her grin didn’t quite light up her wide hazel eyes.
Finally, the blonde dashed away, abandoning the object of his interest to her search amongst the shelves. She looked deep in thought as she stood there all alone, chewing on her lip and perusing the books. The opportunity was now open for him to approach her without any interference, and he certainly wasn’t going to squander it.
He was standing one row over from her, now; he could catch glimpses of her face in the open spaces of the shelves as she wandered. When she paused at the end of the row, plucking another text from the selection, he rounded the corner with his nose buried in a book of his own… and stepped in just such a manner that he jostled her a little too hard. Her armload dropped to the carpeted floor.
“…I’m sorry,” he told her, a touch of sheepishness tugging at the corner of his smile as he stooped to collect the spilled books. “That wasn’t very… cool, was it?”
He glanced down at the titles as he handed them back to her. “For Mr. Anderson’s class, right? Wait,” he admonished himself with a slight wince, “That’s rude. It’s just that I think we share that class.”
His dark eyes met hers, and he held out his hand in the commonplace polite gesture. “I’m Michael Hightower.”
And it was done. He had found her and introduced himself. All that remained was to discover whether the Hollinger girl was who he thought she was. Michael studied her through lowered lashes for her reaction.
Julian had a clever quip to respond with. Something about yes totally uncool that would be followed with a nice joke. Then she realized it was that guy Angela chirped about and all her smart comebacks died on her tongue, trying to replace themselves with cheesy lines of Hey, baby come here often? and My, what dark eyes you have..
While she was trying to squash bad impulses, he was apologizing and picking up her books. Verbally fumbling out loud in that very same way she was thinking in her head. The way he said his name reminded her of an old man introducing himself to business colleagues and not a guy who couldn’t be more than a year or so older than her. Julian chewed on her lip, trapped in a dimwitted, amused silence. He clearly wasn’t much better off than she was in the talking to people department. For some reason that was just hilarious, considering she was trying to think of ways to talk to him without looking stupid.
He offered her his hand to shake too.
That’s when she laughed. Then immediately silenced when she realized he’d have no idea what was going on in her inner dialogue, and probably thought SHE was being a jerk. Julian looked just a tad bit apologetic, but now she was full on grinning and rocking ever so slightly on her feet.
“…sorry! I am just… not any better than you at saying hello, apparently. I’m Julian.” Before he decided she was a complete lunatic and turned running, she took his hand to shake and paused. Chills. Cold chilly, tingle right up her spine. In a split second rush that almost dizzied her. Her eyes darted up to his. The moment was gone in a flash, leaving Julian’s head spinning. She couldn’t remember a time anybody gave her goosebumps, and now her thoughts were straying off to the land of Kismet, Destiny, and One True Loves. Which was completely mental. She just met the guy.
She didn’t realize she was holding on a little too long and probably staring. Angela was so right, his eyes were super intense.
He felt her shiver when their hands touched. Standing up a little straighter, he watched for the little changes in her expression, but he could see nothing to indicate fear or recognition. Even so, perhaps it still meant something… but it was too soon to say. Interestingly, her pupils were ever so slightly dilated; he filed that away alongside the other details for later.
Laughter suited her, Michael decided, taking no offense that she found his behavior amusing. It was good, in fact, that they were at ease together almost at once. His smile widened, and he took a step back to allow for an appropriate distance between them, but he never took his eyes away from hers.
“It’s nice to meet you. I guess it’s obvious that I’m new in town.” Silent Pines may have expanded somewhat since last he’d visited, but it was still the same small town where everyone knew the names of their neighbors and news had a tendency to circulate quickly. “…Well, in a way. I haven’t been here since I was very young. I just moved back.”
His gaze flicked around to take in their surroundings. They still had a modicum of privacy, although he wasn’t sure how long that would last.
“And I’m telling you my whole life story,” he went on with a wry twist of his lips. “I promise that I don’t make a habit of doing this.”
Her little staring spell was broken, which was good. Because the last thing Julian wanted to do was be that weird staring girl. She reclaimed her books, at least the ones she planned to keep, and returned the extras to the shelf. Ever so often she’d cast a glance over her shoulder. Cursing Angela for her heads up, as now she wasn’t going to be able to have a conversation without wondering if there was flirting going on or if she should be flirting.
He really was super cute. He had a classic look, which was he was totally making worse by talking so formally. Julian was now imagining him as one of those old world princes.
“If that’s all you’ve got in your life story so far, I guess that means the good parts are gonna start soon?” she grinned again, holding her books against her chest just to keep herself from fiddling with them and dropping them. Now that she thought about it, Hightower sounded like a familiar name. She could have Angela snoop about it later.
“I’ve always lived here, so I guess my life story doesn’t vary too much either. Do you make a habit of running in to girls at libraries or is that special just for me?” A little practice flirting wasn’t going to hurt!
“I can truthfully say that it’s only ever been you.” He turned the book he’d been reading over in his hands as they talked; suddenly, he looked down at it as if seeing it for the first time. After a pause, he held it out to Julian. “I think this might help you with your paper. If you’d like, maybe we could share? Mr. Anderson asked me to write something to make up for missing the first week of homework.”
Another pretense. He wasn’t ready to let the conversation end just yet.
“I don’t know what your plans are, but we could find a table. Or somewhere more… casual… to research. Where do you usually like to go, since you’re the one who has lived here forever?”
It wasn’t the most obvious brand of humor, but Michael had always preferred a more subtle approach. He hoped very much that Julian Hollinger could appreciate that.
It’s only ever been you. With one simple phrase, Julian was hooked. At that moment she decided diving in head first was an excellent idea, Angela was right about everything, and it she was way past over due for a little living. Her inner romantic was swooning, while common sense’s he didn’t mean it like that was being shoved in a closet. It didn’t matter what he meant, she was going to relax for once and enjoy doing something spontaneous. At worst she’d have a new friend to hang out with, and at best… Well, she’d daydream about that later.
“You know, I really could use the extra help and brain power. If anything we can compare notes and you can shake me awake if it starts putting me to sleep.” Taking the book, she flipped through a few pages to scan over them just from the habit of it. Then snapped it shut and tucked it with the rest of her pile. Part of her was wondering if she was smiling too much and if it was making her look like one of those crazy manically perky girls.
“The library is great, but there’s a newer place in town with coffee and music. ” Julian was already heading towards the front desk, occasionally turning to walk backwards as she spoke. “It’s way more comfortable for studying and if we’re lucky my friend is still there and we can get drinks for free.”
That had been easy enough, hadn’t it? Michael smiled to himself as he followed close behind Julian. She was so open and trusting, even despite the certain reserve that he’d sensed in her before they’d spoken. Hers was a life untouched by the darker aspects of the world. It was such a pity that it couldn’t last, but he would certainly do what he could to keep her innocence preserved.
“Coffee and music sounds perfect.” He waited patiently while she checked out, and then moved to hold the library door open for her. He squinted up at the sky and confirmed that it was quite definitely overcast and grey. “Is it a long walk from here? It looks like rain. I have a car if you would rather drive.”
As she caught up to him, he gently but firmly took hold of her pile of books and lifted them away from her grasp. In Michael’s personal code, chivalry ought not be declared dead just yet. “Please, let me take those. It’s the least I can do.”
While he stood there smiling at her, the moment was rudely interrupted by a buzzing from his jacket pocket. “Excuse me,” he apologized, his tone a little clipped, and stepped away to pull his cell phone out.
she’s adorable ;)
He couldn’t prevent the faint look of disapproval as he read the text message. Quickly, he typed out a reply.
u r sposed to b at home
Before he could put the phone safely away again, it was already vibrating in his hand. Even Michael wasn’t sure how anyone could use their thumb to text that fast and yet maintain relatively good grammar.
i know, but i’d rather spy on your little date
This time, Michael simply turned the phone off and returned it to his pocket.
He was being oldschool sweet and Julian discovered she was a total sucker for it. It was actually refreshing to be curious and exhilarated for once. She hadn’t felt anything more than melancholy for the longest time. Even her creepy dream was pushed to the back of her thoughts in favor of a little boy chasing. Julian hadn’t been one of those girls that felt invisible and were surprised when a boy talked to them, but a year’s worth of hiding definitely made her a bit rusty.
Her head was tilted to the side as he responded to a text. There was the slightest raise of her eyebrow at his sour expression. Or disappointment? Irritation? Either way, she could tell he didn’t like what he read cause he turned his phone off. OR maybe he turned off his phone because he wanted uninterrupted time with her? There was that pleased feeling again as Julian turned on the smile and rocked on her heels.
“It’s right down the street. Just about everything in the middle of town is in walking distance and I don’t mind the rain too much, anyway.” Julian started walking, having nothing but her bag to carry. And that she was slinging back and forth gently in one hand. Shrugging a shoulder, she gestured towards his pocket. “I am nosy and now that you know that tidbit – what was that all about? Parental unit? Girlfriend?” Thank luck for the perfect opportunity to ask questions!
“You’re welcome to ask questions,” he invited her graciously. He took care to match her pace perfectly so that they strolled side-by-side down the sidewalk at her leisure. The traces of displeasure had faded from his features, and when she inquired whether it was a girlfriend, he even felt his smile return.
“No girlfriend. Just a… friend. Family, actually. He’s a sort of cousin, and he’s living with me and my brother right now.” That hardly summed up the relationship, of course, but it would do well enough as an explanation for the time being. The full truth would only spook her at present, undoing all of today’s progress. “He likes to annoy me.”
The conversation was veering into undesirable topics, however, and so he made the choice to turn the question around. He knew fairly well what to expect from Julian’s answer, so he was as delicate as possible. The subject would eventually need to be broached, no matter what happened.
“My family situation is… a little unorthodox. What about your family?”
“Erm, hmm.” Her step faltered, though she corrected her pace almost immediately. She couldn’t say the question was unexpected, that’s where getting-to-know-you banter always wound up eventually. But it never was any easier to explain and would always be the hardest part about new people. Her mouth twist to one side as she debated the best way to go about it. Laugh it all off and pretend like it didn’t drive her crazy? Give the soulful pity-me eyes and say she’s okay, really!
There was always turning around and running away screaming, that was a personal favorite.
“Hum..!” she sucked in a deep breath, then let it out slow. Nope, no running. She was going to have to learn how to talk about it. “I don’t know, actually. They disappeared over a year ago and the sheriff found their car empty outside of town. Nobody really knows what happened and Iiiii, hmm. I could say I’m fine, but that’s not true. But! I’m not sitting in corners crying either.” she cast a wry grin, which quickly shifted in to a pleading look as she gripped and tugged on his shirt sleeve. “So pleeeease don’t tell me you’re so sorry and then treat me like I’m made of glass because that’s the worst. If I hear any more Poor Julians I’m gonna scream.”
For a long moment after her revelation, he just looked at her intently, searching her expression. She really doesn’t know. He’d suspected as much, but now he could plainly read the desperation in those eyes of hers. They were hollow and haunted in a way which he was intimately familiar with, and Michael found that he didn’t care for the strain in her features as she struggled to put on a brave face.
“My parents are dead.” His words were very quiet when they came, not quite a whisper. It was for her sake more than his that he spoke gently and privately, still conscious of her distress. “Along with the rest of my family. All I have left now are Leo and David. I know it’s not quite the same thing.”
He took her hand in his, coaxing her to loosen her grip on his sleeve, and did not immediately release her. He could feel her pulse fluttering under the thin skin of her wrist, and he was sorely tempted to trace a small circle with the tip of his finger… but he refrained. Eyes squarely trained on hers, he gave her a small smile; only then did he let go.
“What else is there to know about you, Julian Hollinger?” The change of subject was intended for killing two birds with one stone: keeping her happy for her sake, and keeping her talking for Michael’s.
Julian held back her comment about welcoming him to the dead family club. One, because it was an awful thing to say. Two, because she didn’t want to think about her parents being dead. And three, telling her about it was brave and incredibly hard to do. She should know.
He held her hand for a moment, only a short one, and she was positive she could hear her heart beating against her chest. This time she managed to keep herself under control. If only because his eyes were so warm, and that small understanding smile made her want to smile back.
She was thinking an awful lot of becauses in response to him. It was starting to stray in to over-thinking territory. Julian quickly jumped on to the change of topic, resuming their trek down the sidewalk. Forcing herself to relax, she was gesturing a lot with her hand as she spoke, which was stiiiiill tingling.
“Not a lot! You can call me the average everyday girl? Pretty much all I do is go to school and read all the time. I was in the school’s Color Guard for awhile which seems reeeaaally lame, I know, but it was fun. I like to dance. Um. I could say I am the most boring person ever, but I have recently decided to change that, sooooo…”
Julian laughed, pointing at the coffee shop’s sign as they approached. “I guess today is the first day of a very un-boring life. What about you? What is there to know about Michael Hightower?”
At first, Michael mistook the somewhat faded words above the coffee shop door to be graffiti; then he realized that the shop name had been stenciled onto the building’s brickwork in large, stylized curlicue lettering.
No, he certainly did not remember this place from his last visit to Silent Pines. The row of tall paned windows that faced the street afforded him a decent view of the interior… and from what he could see, it was reminiscent of a makeshift lounge, with barstool seating and dark wooden cafe tables under industrial hanging lamps. Several booths had already been claimed by clusters of high school students.
So. This was the local hangout, then. Michael made a mental note of that.
“…That doesn’t sound boring to me,” he remarked, once again intercepting her path in order to open the door for her- despite the cargo of library books- and allow Julian to enter before him. “I like to read too. And I enjoy music, very much. Literature and the arts are among the most beautiful things that humanity has to offer the world.”
What else was safe to divulge at present? Michael spent a moment in consideration before the corner of his mouth took on a satisfied curve. “I play a little piano, but I’m out of practice. And I like to… people-watch, I guess you could call it. I’m both new and not new to Silent Pines, I take cream in my coffee but not sugar, and I’ve been lucky enough to run into you right away and not immediately be dismissed as unworthy of your time.”
Julian strode through the door pretending like she couldn’t feel her face turning red. She didn’t want to think of herself as the kind of girl that fell for cheesy lines, but there she was getting giddy over the dumbest of statements. Matching glances with Angela who just walked out of the back with a tray of drinks and was now mouthing Oh my gaaaaawd! in a way that was probably making her table think she lost it, Julian managed to sober up before she launched in to grade school giggling.
She found an empty booth and slid in to the seat, setting her bag down beside her. “Playing piano sounds really cool. I could never get the hang of playing instruments or reading and recognizing notes. I’d love to hear you play!” she leaned across the table to whisper conspiratorially. “Don’t ever tell them, but the Silent Pines School Band is awful. I think it’s a town curse that everyone is completely tone deaf.”
“Hiiiiii, I’m Angela, what can I get you two lovebirds?” Appearing out of nowhere was Angela, notepad and pen in hand, a duck print apron around her waist, and the most cat-eat-canary smirk she could get away with. She wasn’t saying a word, but by the look on her face, Julian knew exactly what the girl was thinking.
And she totally refused to acknowledge it!
Julian pointed at Michael, biting her lip for a split second. “Black coffee with cream and no sugar, right?” Then she pointed at herself. “Cinnamon Mocha Latte, minus the sass. By the way, this is Angela. My bestest and most amazing friend in the universe.”
“That means she doesn’t want me to embarrass her in front of the new hot guy. So I’ll just say hi again.” Angela chirped, holding her hand out for a shake and making no pretenses about checking him. “Welcome to town, Mikey.”
Michael’s smile faltered for a brief instant as the waitress leaned in over the table and inserted herself into the conversation. The blonde was a stark contrast to Julian Hollinger; in fact, there was something almost familiar about the irreverence in Angela’s tone and the little smirk playing about her lips. Familiar in a way that nearly made Michael forget his manners.
“…I prefer Michael,” he corrected politely at last, accepting her extended hand. This time, his touch didn’t linger, and he curled his fingers in rest atop the table when he was done. “Nice to meet you, Angela. Your friend has been helping me get reacquainted with the town. When did this shop open up?”
He paused, and then glanced between Julian and the pile of books at his elbow. “Oh, I’m sorry. Julian, did you want anything to eat? We might be here awhile.”
Hopefully it was evident in his phrasing that he was offering to pay… and hopefully, she wouldn’t find that proposal offensive. These days, it was hard to tell when chivalry might be misconstrued.
Angela looked like she had something interesting to say about that handshake. Or about him insisting he preferred Michael. Or maybe it was about the offering of food. It didn’t matter because Julian was interjecting before Angela could comment on whatever it was that had her giving the weird eyebrows.
“Yeah, actually I wouldn’t mind something to eat at all. Maybe one of the specials? Anyway, this place hasn’t been around long. I think it opened in the past year or two. No one is really sure who owns it, but we’re all sure they have to be as old as Lucifer to be selling vinyl.”
“Or a hipster. Probably a hipster. You know, the ones that wear fedoras and scarves even in the summer.” Angela mumbled, scribbling down what she assumed Julian would like best. In the process she was subtly wandering behind Michael’s seat, out of his line of sight. Where she then proceeded to mouth out things like oh my gawd!, smoulder eyes!, and unfunfunf! while making a few hip thrusts and ridiculously inappropriate gestures out where customers and her boss could see her.
By the time Angela wandered to the other side of the table, giving Michael an innocent questioning look for his order, Julian was biting in to her lip to keep from smirking or laughing out loud.
Angela’s antics passed without notice by Michael, who was preoccupied in taking a cursory look at Fleetwood Macchiato’s menu. The fare seemed to be the coffeehouse standard, although several of the dishes had been renamed in order to play off of band names or song titles. (At least, that was what Michael assumed, since he couldn’t recognize more than half of them.) It didn’t take him long to settle.
“I’ll have the Three-Piece Reuben.” The reference was completely lost on him, but a Reuben was a fairly safe bet. “No sides, thank you. Just the sandwich.”
“Excellent choice! If you’re a fifty-year-old man,” an all-too-familiar voice chimed in over his shoulder, teasing.
Michael straightened almost imperceptibly in his seat, his expression darkening, and slowly turned to stare down the intruder.
“Leo.” His voice was flat. “What a coincidence. I thought you were… busy, today.”
The man who was leaning against the nearby booth was tall and lean, with medium brown hair and startlingly bright blue eyes. He didn’t look more than a year or two older than Julian and Angela, but something about him definitely gave off the vibe of being older. Maybe it was the hint of scruff on his face; maybe it was the black leather jacket and the way he held himself without even a trace of teenage gawkishness.
“Hi, Mikey,” Leo returned, pointedly. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?“
There went Angela’s jaw. Julian could hear it hitting the floor and rolling under the table. Maybe it was just her pen in reality, but it was timed so perfectly to the dumbfounded stare her friend was giving. And Julian knew exactly why. His eyes were striking. Absolutely gorgeous. They weren’t the deep warm color of Michael’s, but they were very similar in color to Angela’s and Julian always loved her best friend’s eyes too.
Julian rest her chin in her hand, grinning wide. So this was Leo, Michael’s pain-in-the-rear cousin. He didn’t have to say anything, the way he sorta… stiffened up… let her know he wasn’t too keen on his cousin being there. She could fix that and give Angela something fun to do besides tease her. And wouldn’t it be cool to have double dates with cousins! “I’m Julian. The girl under the table is Angela and she’s very happy to meet you.”
THUNK! There was a clatter on the table as Angela’s head hit the underside, followed by some muttering before the blonde popped back up with her retrieved pen. Angela was quick on the rebound, though. Scribbling down Michael’s order and offering up a charming smile without a single ounce of embarrassment or shame.
“I’m also very single. In the meantime you gonna sit and eat too or should I go ahead and ring up the lovebirds?”
“Oh, I’m not hungry,” Leo answered, smiling at Angela as if enjoying a private joke. And Michael understood precisely what the punchline was. “I already ate. But if I work up an appetite, I will definitely let you know.
“So! You’re Julian Hollinger, right?” He zeroed in on Julian, taking the empty seat beside her and propping his elbows on the table. Catching her eye, he wiggled his eyebrows. Michael suspected that he thought this was all very charming. “Go on, ask me how I know that.”
“Did I say that you were invited to sit?” Michael frowned, not bothering to disguise his disapproval. “We’re here to study.”
One of those brows arched at Michael in turn. Blue eyes met dark brown, challenging. Always challenging, these days. Even over the smallest of things, Leo took every opportunity to spite and defy him. Michael had wondered, more than once, if they would ever be able to mend the rift. As long as he despises me, nothing can be done. Perhaps eventually…
While Michael pondered this, Leo continued what he seemed to believe qualified as friendly and innocent conversation. “Sure you are. What’s the topic? Local history? Because as it happens, I’ve been doing a little research myself.”
Angela rolled her eyes and was laughing as she left the table to relay the order in the back. Julian couldn’t figure out what was so funny, but she was sure Angela would tell her all about it later. For now, she was a little concerned about Michael’s cousin plopping next to her and that sudden atmosphere of intense dislike. She scooted over in her seat to put some distance.
“You seem to be a good guesser. We grabbed a bunch of books from the library and were gonna go through them. Though I’m sure we could use any help we could get. Are you going to Silent Pines or doing a paper for somewhere too..?” He looked a bit older, but not by much. He could easily be a Senior or in his first years of college. He didn’t seem to be as mature as Michael, though. And the comment about Michael’s choice sounding like a fifty year old man’s came to mind. Julian had to swallow a grin.
“You wouldn’t mind, would you, Michael? I’m sure Leo could behave if I bribed him with a sip of my latte?” If Leo didn’t annoy Michael, she could get to know them both better. Then throw Angela in the mix and Julian figured it would be great for everyone. At the very least she could ease some of the tension between a pair of warring cousins.
There was a tense moment as Leo and Michael locked gazes again across the table. Leo’s head tilted to one side, one eyebrow quirking in what Michael knew to be silent defiance.
“It’s perfectly fine if he joins us,” Michael permitted smoothly, leaning back in his seat and gesturing to the pile of library books that lay between them. “Provided that he can… ‘behave’.”
“Oh, you know me, Michael.” Those intense blue eyes were glinting. “I’m always on my best behavior when you ask me nicely.”
Michael let that remark roll off of him, pointedly smiling at Julian. It wouldn’t do to let her think he was uncouth or temperamental. That, he suspected, was Leo’s motivation behind the surprise appearance; he was hoping to ruin the girl’s first impression of Michael, for some petty reasons of his own. Michael would tolerate the insolence as always, but he wouldn’t give Leo the satisfaction of success.
Leo, meanwhile, had draped an arm across the back of the booth behind Julian’s head. He was peering around at the interior of the cafe with apparent interest, but the smugness radiating off of him belied any casualness to the gesture. “This is a swanky little place. Nice to see progress is making its way to Silent Pines. Oh, I’m sorry, you asked me a question. Where are my manners? You could say I just have a personal interest in local history, is all. My family’s from here. Or was. Ever hear of the Laniers?”
Very subtly, Michael stiffened in his seat.
Julian now fully understood what the phrase meant by the air crackled, because it DID. She glanced between the two during their stare down and expected to see real sparks. Michael wasn’t kidding about their relationship. But when he smiled and agreed to let Leo stay, Julian smiled wide too. Whatever their problem, it wasn’t so bad that they couldn’t hang out. She was glad.
“It kind of sounds familiar? But don’t quote me on that, history is so not my topic, and that is why I’m being punished with a stack of books and a paper about the town.” her complaint was half hearted, especially since she was too busy smiling at Michael and being oh-so-grateful for this unexpected study-date. Julian couldn’t remember the last time she had actually been GLAD to have homework.
Now that they were talking, she seemed a lot less perturbed by the guy sitting next to her. She regarded him with a curious glance, resting an elbow on the table and her chin in her hand. “Since my paper is supposed to be about the town history and all, do you have any interesting suggestions? All I can find is stuff about wars, and I’ve probably written a dozen papers on wars…”
“You need to brush up on your heritage,” Leo told Julian teasingly, giving her a lazy grin. “The Laniers were one of the Big Six, founders of Silent Pines, along with the Hollingers. And the Hightowers, too… Isn’t that right, Michael?”
“Leo,” Michael warned.
“Michael,” Leo sang in return, and Michael’s lips curled into a frown. If he recalled correctly, they had discussed this.
When Michael chose neither to respond nor cut him off again, however, Leo pressed right onward. “Don’t mind Grumpy here. He’s just afraid I’ll scare you off with our sordid family histories. But I’m sure you already know all about the witches, don’t you?”
Both boys had their eyes on Julian Hollinger as they awaited her answer.
“That right there,” added Leo, “would be a great topic for your paper.”
The old families of Silent Pines, that’s right. Her parents had never talked about the family history much, outside of comments in passing when they’d get invitations to events or when some distant relative she didn’t know passed away. In fact the only time it ever came up was when some jackass at school thought it was gave them bragging rights. Julian was glad she didn’t hang out with that crowd.
The thought of sordid family history made her laugh, especially with Michael’s sudden frowning. Julian supposed there were some colorful family stories, probably embarrassing ones. There were always black sheep and skeletons in a family, and some people didn’t seem keen to embrace it. Michael was one of those upstanding, good guy individuals. …Leo was clearly not!
“Witches? Did you have witches in your family? Or oh, witch hunters!” she was instantly interested, already reaching for one of the library books to start thumbing through looking for references. “They haven’t mentioned anything about witch-related history in school. You’d think they’d love to be another Salem – Um. Unless you’re pulling my leg?” The thought occurred to her then, that Leo was just teasing her too, since he enjoyed teasing Michael so much. It was something Angela was also prone to do, and Julian really should have seen it coming.
“He’s serious,” Michael reassured her quickly, conceding the point to Leo at last. He didn’t like it, but he could make this work. “The town tends to keep it somewhat quiet, but all six of the original families moved here from Connecticut and Massachusetts to found the town in 1694. It was a result of the trials in Salem, in fact.”
“They were all accused of witchcraft by their neighbors,” Leo stage-whispered. “Or at least were afraid they might be.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t heard something, at least. The talk of witches may have faded, but Silent Pines has a bit of a reputation for… strangeness. Hauntings, creature sightings, psychics…” Michael’s gaze turned somewhat expectant, but he was too cautious to push Julian further. Bringing up her parents again so soon would only upset her.
“Our ancestors were into some freaky cult religion way back when, too,” Leo chimed in once more. “I hear some people still think it’s around today, but I don’t know if I buy that. Spooky, though, isn’t it? You don’t believe in any of that stuff, do you, Jules?”
“She sure does. She’s the BEST person to take to a horror flick, cause she’ll spend the whole time shrieking and covering her face. Then you get to spend the week spooking her.” Angela’s presence was announced by a couple plates being set down in front of Julian and Michael, along with their drinks. “Wait, what are we talking about?”
Julian grinned, what was true was true. And Angela provided such a great hint for potentially scoring a movie date later. Best friend ever! “I wouldn’t say believe it, so much as open to the possibilities, I guess? People are discovering new bugs and animals all the time, whose to say there’s not tons of other stuff we haven’t figured out.” The topic was making her think about her dream again. It hadn’t been the first time she had a weird dream like that. Ones that just stood out from the normal nonsense and just kinda felt different. But there was no way in hell she was going to bring that up around a new hot guy she was trying to flirt with. Especially when she died in it.
Julian tried to shake off that skin crawling and just smiled wide again. “So family cult religion, huh? Is it the sacrificing virgins kind, or the drinking poison punch?”
“My bet is vampires or werewolves.” announced Angela, who was refusing to get back to work despite the fact her boss was giving her the stink-eye from across the room. “What? They’re en vogue, lately! Some weirdo at school as been posting this blog called Supernatural Silent Pines where he reveals the ‘truth’ behind the recent newspaper headings and a few days ago he said the dead guy found out in the woods was mauled by a werewolf. He likes to say it’s all tied to the Big Six being part of an ancient alien genetics experiment. It’s hilari-” Her named was shouted and she groaned. “Gotta woooork.” Angela waved most pitifully as she exited the table.
“…maybe writing about one of the wars is a better idea after all.” Julian confessed.
“Are you sure?” Leo was giving Julian an appraising sort of look, swaying toward her as if the pair were magnetized. There was something about watching it that made Michael’s stomach turn. “There’s an awful lot of interesting dirt to dig up around here, if you look in the right places.”
While that might be true, Michael found that he had had quite enough of indulging Leo’s antics for one afternoon.
“Leave her be.” He fixed Leo with a hard stare. It was an expression that Michael trusted would be effective, for every bit of his will was channeled in that stare… and they both knew very well that Leo couldn’t hope to overpower him in that department. Not yet. Perhaps not ever.
Those vibrant blue eyes turned dark and ice cold, and after a beat, Leo slowly held up his hands. “Right, Cuz. I get it. I’m crashing your little private party here. I’ve got places to be, anyway, don’t I?”
He could think of only one that wouldn’t require cleaning up some kind of mess. “I’ll see you at home.”
“Sure,” Leo drawled, sliding out of the booth and waggling his fingers in Angela’s direction. “You can count on it. It was very nice to meet you, Jules. Don’t let Michael keep you out past curfew.”
“I’m sorry,” Michael apologized, as the cafe door swung shut after Leo’s overly-dramatic exit. He offered her a small, tight smile. “Where were we?”
It would be best, he decided, if they steered the talk back away from the subject of Leo Lanier… and from the notion of anything supernatural in Silent Pines.
Julian found Leo amusing, but she still leaned away from him when he leaned closer. She didn’t have a chance to interject before Michael was telling his cousin to leave her alone. There was that small pleased flutter in her stomach, and she struggled to squish it back down before she let herself get carried away. Thoughts of Michael being protective of her space, because he liked her and didn’t want his cousin moving in first. He liked her.
…or at least she was really, really hoping. After such a long time of grieving and being antisocial, it was kind of awesome to actually feel excited about someone for once.
“It’s okay! I’m used to Angela popping in and being nosy about stuff, so your cousin is no biggie.” she returned his smile, only barely managing to suppress the urge to giggle. “Here, lets start through these books, maybe we’ll find a good topic.”