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Soot & Cinders

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Matt had been waiting for her.

 

He'd been trying ever-so-hard to not look like he'd been waiting for her, and on a normal day he probably could have pulled it off with his well-honed apathy and a set of scout dogs, but there was something under his skin and it was making him somewhat less than subtle. And so he paced, or tapped his foot, or drummed fingers against his knee to some song in his head, all while periodically pulling at a bandage wrapped tightly around his left forearm.

 

He'd tried rolling the sleeves of his black overshirt down to cover it, but they didn't cover quite enough of his wrist and at some point he'd just given up. He'd given up on a lot of things, really.

 

"Raina!" So much for playing it cool, well done. He pulled at the bandage again, unconsciously, pulling back a bit so that she didn't feel like she was getting ambushed outside her last class for the day. "It's...not that big a deal, but I could use a favor. Maybe. I'd definitely owe you one - heck, I'd owe you two, if it goes well."

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The last class of the day was the absolute longest, and made even longer by the fact that it was so boring. Raina could appreciate that there was some use for math out in the real world, but she was absolutely certain that calculus was a tool invented by the gods to punish the hubris of high school students. She'd spent most of the class passing notes with Merlin through silent text messages, figuring she could probably tease him into doing her homework later anyway. She was still engrossed in her phone as she walked out of the classroom, enough so that hearing her name suddenly made her jump a little. 

 

Expertly covering the moment of startlement, she gave Matt a lazy smile. "If it's something you're going to owe me two for, sounds like it's not that small a thing," she pointed out. "What is it you're looking for?" She passed her phone to Merlin, who obligingly stuffed it into her backpack while regarding the Hound with Matt rather dubiously. 

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Matt's dog looked up at Merlin with too-keen eyes, like a well-trained guard dog watching a squirrel - calm, patient, but with avid interest. Matt had almost started his reply when he noticed, and opted instead of reach down and flick the hound's ear. "Be nice."

 

The dog almost looked admonished. It at least made a reasonable effort in that direction.

 

"I just meant that it's not the end of the world," Matt explained, shoving his hands in his pockets. He was imposing, and he knew it, and he hated it, and it showed. "If you're busy I can figure something else out, but you're first on the list. You do the magic and fire stuff better'n anybody - how're you on anti-fire stuff and wards?"

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Raina began walking, subtly moving them away from the flow of students leaving the classroom. The last thing she needed was one of Madison's girl gang hearing her say anything about magic. It wasn't that she minded a fight, but she had better things to do with her time right now. "You know anti-fire anything goes against everything I stand for, but I do know the basic principles," she told him. "What is it you're trying to do? And how'd you screw up your arm?" Merlin kept his perch on Raina's shoulder as he rode, one tiny hand in her hair for security. He gave the dog a surreptitious hiss, showing his teeth in a grin that would've been more threatening if he'd cracked the ten-pound-bodyweight threshold. 

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Matt's hands were trapped in his pockets, but the way his shoulder twitched probably meant he'd reflexively gone to touch his forearm; still, he just shrugged. "Got burned a little. I've had worse," he assured her, "but that's kinda why I'm asking. I'd rather not, uh, get more of these, and I'm not really dumb enough to not get some help if I need it."

 

"And we spent three hours convincing you to not get yourself hurt more," said the dog, in a voice like gravel and grave dirt. It was looking up at Merlin still, and when he'd grinned, it grinned - too many teeth, too clean, and having too much fun antagonizing.

 

"....well, okay, and that. It's not that dangerous, I'm trying to help someone and it's not working out so great." He was trying so hard to NOT explain while he explained, while still being helpful. "I've got what I need to make stuff work, but it's hard to deal with my thing and the fire and other crap on a probably tight schedule, and...that sounds dumb and sinister. Eugh." He took a deep breath, the dog looking at him with a distinct lack of pity. "Sorry. I promise it's not."

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"You ever hear the one about the guy who protested too much?" Raina asked, slanting a glance in Matt's direction. "I'm going to need a little more than 'it involves fire and it's not too sinister' before I promise you anything." She glanced behind her. "I'm also going to need you to tell me whether I have to set your dog on fire before he tries to eat my monkey. I don't really want to do it, but you know how it is." They walked out of the building and into the pleasantly cool fall air, away from the quad where students tended to congregate. "Is this something that's going to be illegal or get us suspended?" she asked bluntly. "Cause that's not necessarily a dealbreaker, but I'd like to know up front." 

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Matt hated this part; he pulled his good arm out of his pocket and ran it down his face, trying to figure out if he had a good angle that wasn't lying or wouldn't lose him the help he felt he needed from a friend. In his extremely limited experience with a very small sample set, nobody ever responded well to this part.

 

What did he have to lose but a third of his population of friends? Or more. Word got around.

 

"I promise Fang's not gonna eat your monkey," he said, a bit more put together. "She just likes messing with people. Most of 'em do. Please don't set my dogs on fire, though; wouldn't do any lasting harm, but they wouldn't like it much. And the help is...not illegal? And not suspended as long as nobody catches us not meeting curfew, and I don't think they really enforce that on our grade. I'm...trying to help a ghost," he explained, as if that made perfect sense and was a sane thing anybody would say. "The ghost is not big on being helped. And normally that's not a problem, but this one's trouble and kinda complicated and I could really use the backup."

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"There, see?" Raina told Merlin, who seemed unconvinced. "The dog's going to leave you alone, Matt says so." Merlin pointed out that's exactly what Matt would say even if it were possible that the dogs would in fact try to eat him. "Look, if they try anything you can, I dunno, ruin his credit rating or something. But I'm sure it's fine. Stop being such a baby." Merlin's chirrup in reply was untranslatable, but she got the gist. 

 

Raina turned her attention back to Matt. "So why are you helping a ghost that doesn't want to be helped?" She paused a moment, tilted her head. "Okay, let me unpack that. Why are you trying to help a ghost, and why doesn't it want to be helped, and what exactly is the trouble?" 

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Fang harumphed, and - robbed of her entertainment - sat on her haunches to watch the conversation.

 

Matt paused a moment for open appraisal; no outright rejection of hard skepticism, but he probably should have expected better. That was good, though. "Why I want to help is...complicated?" Fang made a snorting noise, but Matt was undeterred, frowning. "Can I promise to explain that after? It'll be easier, if stuff goes well. The ghost is, uh." He had to pause for that one, too, chewing on his words. "....did you hear about the fires over by Lantern Hill? An old store, the house, the one tree?"

 

The tree, at least, had gotten some minor news - not because the tree itself was any special, but because it had somehow managed to burn to charcoal in the middle of a grass median without scorching any of the surrounding flora. Not world-shaking heroic combat, but enough of an oddity to be worth an article in the recent events page of a newspaper or a quick article in online journalists' feeds.

 

"The ghost's...not doing well," he said, fluttering one hand in the air uncertainly. "She doesn't really get what's happened, so she's stuck, and she's causing problems. I'm pretty sure I've got a way to unstick her, but it's touchy and she's almost as all-about-fire as you are and she's attracting...attention?" Something about that 'attention' Matt really didn't like, but also didn't feel like elaborating on right away. "Trying to get to her and deal with the fire if things get touch-and-go and deal with whatever she draws in is more than I could do this time. The dogs wanted me to get help, and they're...probably right."

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Raina thought about that, drawing up one leg under her so she looked oddly flamingo-like, then pulling the other one up as well to sit cross-legged in the air. "So what you're saying is that you've got some kind of poltergeist thing setting fires, and you're going to try and lay it to rest? But it doesn't want to go to rest because it doesn't exactly know it's dead, so it's liable to try and set you on fire if you get too close to it." She seemed to be ticking off points on an invisble checklist, with the monkey nodding along. "You can handle the ghost mojo on your own, but you need somebody around to keep you from getting a fifth-degree sunburn from it. And I can't ask you why you're so interested, but if I do this for you, you owe me two favors?" She looked at him for confirmation, her brows arched. 

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"Yyyyyyyees," Matt said. Fang was laughing - a distinctly canine noise, but unmistakably laughter none the less - and he was pretty pointedly ignoring her. "That's about it. If you've got anything that can ward an area against....ghosts, basically, that isn't fire and can be set up before hand, that'd also be pretty useful. If not I can make the dogs take care of that part. It stretches 'em thin, but they're pretty sure they've got if if they need to."

 

He grimaced, pulling his not-so-good hand out and rubbing the bandage again. "It's not not dangerous, but if stuff falls apart it wouldn't be hard to cut and run. The ghost hasn't really figured out flying, and neither has the crap it's attracted, so worst case you could just take off straight up and there's nothin' either can do about it. I just figure I'm running out of chances to do this gracefully, and I want to make this one count. Two favors, minimum."

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Raina seemed a little uncertain, not a look she wore often. "I might be able to get into the library books and set something up to deal with ghosts, but it wouldn't be very powerful and it would take some time," she warned him. "Ghosts and stuff aren't really my thing, but I can handle fire stuff, and at least give you an idea of what's going on if magic starts flying around."

 

She folded her arms, regarding him frankly while looking a bit like a djinni floating out of a bottle. "Now I'm just left to wonder if you're really bad at negotiating a deal or if there's something you're not telling me about how dangerous this is. But Fred trusts you, and despite her cluelessness about many things she's a decent judge of character, so for now I'm going to go with the former. When exactly do you want to do this?" 

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Matt almost argued the 'cluelessness' part, but clicked his mouth shut before he'd started - that was probably not a productive path to go down. "Tonight's probably best," he admitted, grimacing at the imposition. "Tomorrow, maybe, if you want some prep time. Nobody's gotten hurt yet, and I kinda want to keep it that way if I can."

 

He ran a hand through his hair, long black locks falling in front of his face a bit as he took another breath. "It's not a deal negotiation?" He shrugged, frowning at the idea. "I'm...asking a friend for help, I guess. Which I don't like much, and I'm hoping I can make it worth your time later, is all. It's...not a personal thing, but it's important, to me. I get that I'm cagey about some stuff, but I promise I'm not trying to drop you into any awful danger - and I'll answer any questions you have after, if you want. As a favor," he added, with a hint of shrewd humor that fell away almost immediately. "It's not super safe, though, no, and if you don't wanna help or end up backing out 'cos of it I totally get that. I'm not gonna hold you to helping solve my problems."

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"Who better to negotiate deals with than your friends?" Raina pointed out cheerfully. "Besides, it sounds as though if I do get killed or something, you'll be able to see me haunting you. That's not nothing." She unfolded her legs and stood on them again. "Tomorrow's not going to be enough time for me to get anything meaningful done on a ghost-proofing ritual, so we may as well wing it tonight. I'm gonna have to get some supplies ready but I'll be set after dinner."

 

Merlin took that opportunity to remind her that she had homework to do and he had a multiplayer mission setup for that evening, but she scoffed in his little face. "There may once in our entire lives been a time when I would've cared about either of those things, but it is certainly not now. Just tell them to get another tank for the evening. You'll just be in more demand if you're elusive." Merlin seemed dubious but thoughtful about that proposition. "Meet out by the back gate at dusk?" she asked Matt. 

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Matt looked actually, genuinely hurt for a moment, but he buried it too-quickly under his usual care-free apathy, and a small measure of genuine gratitude at the finalized offer of help. "Right," he said, straightening out as Fang got to her feet. "Meet you there."

 


 

Matthew Rivera was waiting at dusk as promised, still flanked by his dog - and a car, an old El Camino in a black that blended in fairly well with the quickly-dimming light. Unusually for the normally-dissheveled young man, he'd dressed up, or something close to it: a black vest with gold trim and clasps above nicer-than-normal tight black jeans and old, durable boots. He'd had to roll the sleeves of his shirt up to allow for the bandage (and some lingering end-of-summer heat), but even it was in somewhat nicer condition and of better fit than his usual fare.

 

He was also carrying a large, unmarked paper grocery bag, contents well-hidden with the top rolled down into a handle. "It's probably not as good as flying," he said - presumably about the car, not the bag. "Better than walking or running, though. The ghost's in Lantern Hill, in an old corner of the graveyard, last I knew...she should still be there, though she'll probably wake up soon. Ready to go?"

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Raina had a bag of her own, a black backpack full of many, many pockets, including a large mesh-fronted one that was most likely for Merlin if he wanted to go undercover. He was riding on her shoulder for the moment, though, his furry face lit oddly by the screen of his phone as he tapped away busily. Raina was wearing her brand new Sparkler uniform for this, a black bodysuit with stylized gold and red flames chased across it, and a matching hairpiece that pinned up her golden hair with a metallic red barette.  It was, in her opinion, at least a thousand times better than the school uniforms she'd been wearing for two years. It was also rather unlike what Matt was wearing. "Ah, so is this not a costume gig then?" she asked, pulling a round makeup compact from her bag. "I can change, just give me a quick second." 

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Matt looked down at what he was wearing - which was his costume, minus the gloves (which weren't built for bandages), and no mask (because he felt weird wearing it at night for ghost stuff), and opened his mouth to almost make a couple of self-conscious noises before deciding he just...had better not. "....no," he said, finally, looking uncomfortable. "It's not a formal thing, just...wanted to blend in a little. You can change if you want, but I don't think the ghost is going to care."

 

The car wasn't the fanciest thing Raina had ever been in, but the seats were comfortable (newly-upholstered, probably, if not expensively so) and it drove surprisingly smoothly as Matt directed it west. "I'm...pretty used to just running around with the dogs," he admitted, thumbing back toward the open rear of the car where his dog was enjoying the wind...along with four other similarly-large canines that hadn't been there when they'd set out. "So I'm trying to figure out if there's anything helpful to warn you about. The ghost, she's...uh, fixated? She's not really all here, and it's probably easier to play along because she doesn't take it great when you try to reason with her otherwise."

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"Okay," Raina agreed easily. "I'm probably going to hang back and let you deal with the ghost stuff unless I have to do something. I've seen ghosts before, during seances and stuff, but it's not exactly my thing." Merlin looked over the back of the seat and chirruped alarm, which got Raina craning her neck as well. "Holy... how many dogs do you even have?" she asked, though not sounding like she necessarily expectd an answer. "Oh, and if there's some tell that means she's winding up to start in with the fireballs, that'd be good. So are you going to, like, resolve her unfinished business or something? Have you got stuff of hers in that bag?" 

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"I think almost twenty, last time I counted, but I can't have them all around at once," Matt absently explained, hanging a right onto SR6 toward Lantern Hill. "When I was a little kid I could only manage one or two, though, so I guess either they're getting better at it or I am. Probably both."

 

"Both," confirmed at least three of the dogs in unison, though it was almost lost under the sound of the road.

 

"You'll know if she starts up; she's...she gets dramatic, near as I saw. Fire'll start up all around her before she tries to throw it at us, but that kinda thing might risk burning us without her meaning it, and that's the kinda thing I hope you can help suppress without making her mad. And, yeah, resolving business is the idea. The bag's not...her stuff, her stuff's gone. You, uh." That was not a happy thought. "You don't turn into a crazy fire ghost for deaths that keep your stuff intact, y'know? But it oughta help."

 

He glanced over at Raina, that tiny bit of wry humor almost making it back out. "Everyone likes teddy bears."

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Raina's eyebrows went up again. "If you say so." Merlin was more than a little disquieted by the idea of twenty grinning ghost dogs, eventually retreating to the safety of Raina's backpack where he could work in peace. "So do you do this a lot?" Raina asked conversationally as they drove. "Laying spirits to rest, I mean. You hardly ever come hang out with everybody else, is this what you're doing instead? Like hero work but for ghosts?" That was a more interesting line of thought to pursue than dwelling on people who died fiery burning deaths, definitely. 

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"....yeah, sorta," Matt reluctantly replied, with the downer tone of voice normally reserved for people who could never make the fun parties because they had a closing shift at work. "It's...that's the kinda thing I promised to explain after. It's...complicated."

 

He frowned, thinking too deeply on something, before realizing that he'd almost missed their exit. That was always the advantage of night driving - not so many cars heading north after dusk. You made good time. "That, I guess, or odd jobs. The dogs....aren't expensive, but I've gotta eat, can't always rely on the school for that stuff. Gotta pay for gas, buy stuff sometimes if I'm lucky. Even the car was...uh, windfall, and took a lot of fixing. Haven't got Fred's crazy chemistry stuff to get money, and even I don't know what Riley does."

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"I think he's got a rich relative or something," Raina said, double-checking her outfit and the items in her bag now that they were getting closer. "You should talk to Fred, see if maybe you can work with her. She's doing most of the grunt work on her own right now and she could probably use some help getting things set up. But it's not going to be too long before she's making money hand over fist. Get in on the ground floor of that and you could be set. Besides, you two get along, so that helps." She zipped up her bag and leaned back again in the seat. "Could be a good plan for after graduation, too. Only this school year and then we're all out of here." 

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"....yeah."

 

Matt frowned, largely at himself, as he pulled in toward the graveyard proper; the years had gone by entirely too fast for his liking, and he'd had few ideas on what he could do after school was out. "College...probably isn't happening. Not gonna be able support myself with my music. That's as good a suggestion as any, I'll give it some thought."

 

That was, fortunately, not a line of thought he had a lot of time to dwell on, for better or worse. "Almost there. Any last-minute questions? Last chance to back out before you have to be around crazy ghosts."

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"Nope, I'm good. Let's get this ghostbusting show on the road." Raina picked up her backpack and was out of the car as soon as they stopped, looking around to get her bearings. She didn't spend a lot of time in the local cemetaries because that would be weird, so she didn't really see anything she recognized. Merlin poked his head up out of her backpack as soon as she slung it over her shoulders, doing his own reconnaisance. He reiterated his opinion that human rituals surrounding death were macabre at best, but Raina had no interest in revisiting that old argument. "So where do we find this lady?" 

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Matt gestured northwest, and northwest they went.

 

He'd been acting like a spring wound too tight ever since popping up outside Raina's last class, and graveyard or not, dark of night or not, Matt seemed like he was glad to finally have something to do. "Sky, Moon, left," he ordered, with a lot more confident authority than one could usually eke out of the young man's voice. For all his faults he had a lot of experience handling his dogs, and in that arena he was unmistakably playing the role of Master, right down to the steady efficiency in his hands as he gave directions. "Hunter, Ob, right. Fang, you're on our backs, so you've got the hard job; give me a bark if the others have trouble. Sorry, girl."

 

The dogs were gone, disappeared into the shadows by the time they hit one of the small mausoleums tucked away in the far corner of the graveyard. "The ghost ought to be right around here somewhere," he said, turning to look at Raina. "Pretty sure she's been hiding out under some of the old stonework. I don't think she's got the full going-through-solids down yet, but she can slip through the cracks pretty-"

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