Dying was something that Obsidian wasn’t afraid of. He knew that one day, he would would likely be killed. He had a lot of enemies, and even the people who were considered his allies were sketchy at best. The only people who he really trusted were his family. His family, and Todd, who had been visiting on and off. There was just one thing wrong with how often they’d had Todd over.
Obsidian had forgotten to eat. Not just that week, but for two weeks, to the point of exhaustion. He could feel the heaviness settling into his bones, weighing him down. His eyes were heavy as he stumbled into the living room of the housing above the Diamond. He pressed his left hand to his temples. The room began to spin around him, and he half fell and half walked to the armchair. He collapsed in it. Everything was spinning, his body was too heavy to move anymore, and he could feel his vision begin to fuzz.
Fuck. Fuck. He had gotten so wrapped up in Todd and the shipments for Carmen and Lament. He’d allowed himself to become too distracted. This happened sometimes, but it had been years since the last time. And the last time, Mal had been there with his endless stores of energy, to help him come back. Hell, if even Rhody was home, he would have been fine. Instead, he was a shivering, freezing mess, unable to stand anymore. He patted his pockets down, eyes closed, before groaning in frustration, his voice rough and low.
He had left his cell phone on his desk in the office.
There was no way in hell he was going to manage that. He would just have to wait for someone to arrive home. He couldn’t remember through the increasing haze where or what they were doing. Lapis had left without a word, possibly off to see Connor… again. Rhody and Hematite were out on their anniversary. And Sulphur was at the office in… in… Bloomfield. The haze swirled through his head like a dark rain cloud forming on the horizon.
His eyes shot open as he heard the faint clicking of the key in the door. He looked at it, his eyes wide for a moment as he suddenly remembered that Todd was supposed to be coming over that day.Fuck! He tried to force himself up into a more acceptable position. He needed to at least be conscious enough to send the young man home. If he looked out of sorts, that might cause him to dig, and Obsidian didn’t want to feed off Todd. Not after the situation they had been in the last time.
Nobody answered the door the first time Todd knocked. He had a key to the apartments above the Diamond – Ethan was insistent that he be able to come whenever he wanted. But he wasn’t part of the pack. He wasn’t one of the members of – of Slate. Slate. The Pack only had a name because Sam – well, Sam hated them. Because of how much she wanted to kill the man Todd had been invited by. Because the man who’d invited him had already tried to kill her.
They needed to be kept as far apart as possible.
That could’ve been part of the reason why Todd insisted on calling, or at least knocking, when he came by. His Malibu was the only car in the street parking, and the Diamond was closed for the night, so he’d assumed it would just be Ethan. But when nobody answered the door on the second knock, he realized that something had to be wrong. He fished in his pocket, and retrieved the key he’d been given.
The unfamiliar lock turned with a little effort, and Todd opened the door to the living room that was no longer a strange place. The positioning of the coffee table, bookshelves, couch, and armchairs were all exactly how he remembered, with the fireplace in the corner. What was unusual was the man seated in the far armchair.
It didn’t take the sudden chill in Todd’s instincts to tell him that Ethan looked like hell. His face was tight and sharp, his yellow eyes set above dark circles. He looked tired. Exhausted, even. Todd remembered that Ethan fed on energy, not anything physical. He remembered the drain of Ethan’s hand against his shoulder. It made sense, then, that he’d appear tired, and not starving. It made sense, then, that the animal inside of Todd gave immediate and contradictory orders.
You’re hungry, and he’s weak, the predator instinct said.
You’re weak, and he’s hungry, the prey instinct said.
As a result, he froze in the doorway for a second. His own features were more angled than usual under his cap, his skin slightly off-color from the week-old burns, his eyes even sharper and brighter than most days. He wore more layers, too, which hid most of the sudden tension in his muscles as they tried to decide without his conscious mind whether he should run or pounce.
The time passed slowly, but it did pass. He sorted the instincts back into their correct boxes, got control of himself again, and made his muscles relax as he stepped inside the door and closed it, deliberately behind him.
Only after the other man’s name came out of his mouth did he realize how chiding he sounded. He had kept trying not to step on Ethan’s toes, especially in his own home – and he could hardly talk, anyway. He felt his pale face color just a little as he started to walk across the room. He wasn’t sure how aware Ethan was, or how Ethan responded to hunger. If Ethan decided to charge, he’d have to be ready to move faster.
If Ethan didn’t move, he’d finish crossing to the edge of the coffee table to sit down. He didn’t have that much energy to spare right now, but given how his body had responded last time, Todd would have to be ready if he didn’t want to find himself biting Ethan back on instinct. He stayed calm, kept his movements open and relaxed, but underneath all of that was the clear undercurrent of worry.
Obsidian sighed and allowed himself to slump back into the chair as the younger man approached him. As he watched Todd move toward him, he remembered the first time he had almost let himself die. He remembered the door opening on him, remembered the way the light had come on as he had looked up, one hand over the mouth of the woman whose life he was stealing. The horrible whisper on Zeheb’s lips as he saw what Ethan really was for the first time.
“Ethan, what have you done?”
His eyes shot open, and Todd was already sitting in front of him, and Obsidian realized it was starting. The blackouts were already happening. Then Todd asked him how long it had been since he last ate. He… couldn’t say. He knew it had been… the man off Third Street, the one who smelled like cheap cologne and who had been harassing women leaving the bar. That had pissed him off enough that he hadn’t even gone for subtlety. He had yanked the man round the corner, slammed him into a wall, and had fed until he felt those precious last sparks. On this occasion, he took it all.
“... Two weeks. I think, I think it’s been two weeks.” His voice was hoarse and raspy, like all of the cigarettes had caught up to him all at once. He was a hand to his eyes and rubbed them. His vision was blurring. He lowered his hand and looked Todd over, then snorted. “Not like you’re looking much better. Those scars still haven’t faded all the way. When did you last eat?”
He didn’t attack, which was by all standards a good sign. Todd was pretty sure he couldn’t have outrun him, even in his state, not with a bad leg. Given the situation, there was a good chance he could’ve fought him off again, though. Especially given Ethan had passed out for a few seconds while Todd found his seat. It might’ve seemed a little childish to choose the table instead of the other armchair, but Todd wanted to be facing Ethan, not beside him.
Two weeks. Ethan was like this after two weeks. Most of the time, after two weeks, Todd was just starting to get hungry again. When he’d eaten that often, he’d been strong and full. Eating that often could probably protect him from most of the building threats around him – from killing Sam; from Lament’s games; from Slate, if they found out about him.
But he refused to give in to the hunt in order to do so. Hunger was a better weapon.
Instead of commenting on any of those depressing paths, Todd cracked a smile that showed some teeth at Ethan’s appraisal. “Malachite. But I haven’t waited too long, I’ve just overworked myself. There’s a big difference, unless you’ve recently been in a housefire or got shot by a serial killer.”
Or shot by armed thugs or had your hunger cut off by some teen or rebroken your own leg or exhausted yourself with unexpected emotions. It– hadn’t been a kind week, since his last dinner with Sam. And technically, he realized after a second, he also hadn’t eaten since Lament shattered his fucking jaw.
After Ethan spoke in his slow, hoarse way, Todd kept a note of almost chipper in his tone. He hardly believed laughter was the best medicine, or that he could deflect all his problems with a good joke, but leaning into Ethan’s behaviors would only add to the shadow in the room. He was starving himself, sure, the cold still gnawing on his bones like a scavenger, but he wasn’t shaking. He had his own ways to stave off the hunger. Hell, he knew even in his condition, the last bits of Jasper and Mark could keep him going for another week, if he really wanted to push himself and stayed out of trouble.
“Plus, I can still stand up and hunt for myself. Doesn’t sound like anybody else is home. You seem pretty calm, so this can’t be the first time. What do you usually do when this happens?”
Ethan didn’t crack a smile, even though he wanted to when his brother’s name was mentioned. It wasn’t a pleasant smile that he wanted to give, but it was a smile nonetheless. Except, Ethan couldn’t force his face into a smile right then. Instead, he tilted his head back, his vision telescoping as he stared at the ceiling. He sighed, instead, and chuckled low in his throat.
“I wait for someone to come home, preferably Rhody. She’s got the kind of energy stores to get me back on my feet so I can hunt. Nothing else I can do for it, when it gets this bad. Sucking some energy out of an outlet would help, but I burn through that far quicker than I do what I get from people. I think it’s a different kind of energy, in a way.” He waved a hand in the air in a tight circle, but it immediately fell, heavy, to his lap afterward. He sighed, then continued, “It’s all watts, but the stuff I get from people, especially people who are… worked up… well, it’s its own kind of energy I can’t get without hunting.”
Ethan couldn’t remember the last time he had explained this to someone. It had to have been Hematite, all those years ago when they had saved the kid from his insane family. The first time they had decided to bring Hematite out on a group hunting trip. That had to have been the last time that he had told someone his theories about human energy versus electrical energy. He thought for a moment, then hesitantly added, “The thing that really makes people more appealing than carrying around batteries everywhere I go, well. Not only does it sustain me more consistently, but when I take those last sparks– well, I get a kind of energy boost that nothing else could hope to give me.”
Ethan tilted his head back forward and looked up at the clock hanging next to the tv over the fireplace. He groaned and let his head fall back. “You should leave. It doesn’t look like I’ll be of much use until after someone gets back. Even then, Rhody and Hematite are likely staying in a hotel tonight. Sulphur and Lapis might be able to get me back on my feet and take me hunting when they get back.”
Todd’s expression changed to something closer to neutrality as Ethan explained how he worked. His own hunger was straightforward by comparison; based mostly, he was pretty sure, on body weight and mass. He could calculate exactly how much he needed every month just using calories. Watts was an entirely different set of math, and that kind of math hadn’t been his strong suit before he dropped out of high school.
But Todd did get the answer he’d been looking for with his question, almost right away. Ethan didn’t have to kill every time he ate. He could borrow from members of his family, strong ones, like Rhody. Todd still wasn’t clear about what everyone could do. He hadn’t asked, just picked up context clues over the last few weeks. But nobody was home tonight, and it didn’t sound like they’d be home until tomorrow at best.
Yeah. Todd wasn’t leaving Ethan like this overnight. He might be a monster, but starvation was a unique kind of torture. It was the only one that would actually work on himself, long-term. That wasn’t right.
The other thing Todd learned was that the last sparks of a person did something different to Ethan’s diet. He didn’t have anything to compare – he actually didn’t want to think about it, since the closest thing was probably satisfying the hunt. Instead, he listened, and then tilted his head a little bit.
“Those last sparks,” he said, thoughtfully, only addressing the advice to go with a wave of his hand. “I– might be able to help with those, actually. I could go for another week and a half, maybe two, and that’s just before I get too hungry not to hunt. I’ve got energy to spare, and, more than that…”
Now that he’d reached that point, it felt like something fucked up to say out loud. He took a deep breath, but pressed on, eyes lighting on Ethan’s face, on the eyes that were almost Sam’s.
“Malachite. Jasper. He’s the last person I ate, so, reasonably, he’s the – I should backtrack. I’m a little aware of how the energy of the people I eat gets distributed, kind of. Not enough to actually count it out, long-term, but… enough to know how much I have left, like an internal clock. It’s how I knew I – had to eat, after our fight.”
He sighed again, some more of the humor leaving. He remembered Jasper’s eyes when he looked at Katherine for the last time. He thought about the way Jasper had talked about Obsidian. A little lost, he’d said. Didn’t want to hurt anyone, he’d said. Those might’ve been true. But Todd knew one thing for sure.
“He loved you. He said he almost loved you as much as he loved Katherine.” He shifted his position on the table again, slowly. “I– might have some of his sparks. I don’t know how my extra energy manifests, but there’d be only one way to find out, right?”
Only then did the smile come back, a little sad, but present. Grounded. Real, with a little tooth to prove it. Not enough to hide the bit of apology in his eyes.
“I think it’s what he’d want, Ethan. He was yours. It’s only fair.”
Ethan took in a sharp breath and looked at Todd’s face with a sharpness that his eyes hadn’t previously possessed. The sudden clarity in his face was due to the conversation about Malachite. At least, that was what Ethan hoped Todd would think. Because he knew the truth. That jump in his pulse, that sudden interest, was entirely due to the fact that Todd was offering himself to him. He felt, for a moment, sick with himself. He felt that way every time the others had to feed him as well. Sick with himself for the excitement that it brought him to feed on people, even his family.
The bar in his eyebrow glinted in the dimmed lights of the living room as he shook his head. He didn’t want to say yes. He didn’t want to give in to this. He wanted to gently send Todd away. He’d rather fall to the sleep, fall to the exhaustion, than potentially kill Todd when he had so little to give. But instead, the words that left his mouth were, “Alright. Alright. I will. I will take what’s left of Mal from you, but you’re going to go hunting with me. Understand?”
His tired eyes searched Todd’s clothes and looked him over slowly as he tried to compose himself in his silence. If he didn’t have a complete handle on this, Todd could be severely injured, if not killed. He sighed, letting the hunger, the ache, fade as much as it could in his state. He propped an elbow up on the arm of the chair, holding his hand out. “Take my hand. I prefer this when it’s– when it’s people I care about.”
The younger man clasped his hand and Ethan’s eyes grew sad for just a moment. “I can’t make this less painful. I’m sorry. I wish I could.”
Then, he pulled. He pulled, and pulled, feeling that intoxicating energy swirl through him. Todd’s energy was like honey. It was thick, slow-moving, and full as it coursed through his body. He felt a shock run through his system, pulling him back from unconsciousness. It felt good and he sighed, tipping his head forward.
Normally, Ethan was a good judge of how much energy a person had, at how much he could take– which was why he was surprised when, without any warning, he hit Todd’s own sparks. They vibrated like crystals in a recording studio, resonating with the energy around them, with the vibrations of Todd’s breaths. He wanted them. Wanted them to flood him with that hit of euphoria he knew he would feel if he just– He ripped his hand away and gasped in air. He had been less than a second away from snuffing Todd out. His breathing picked up and he looked at the young man with an almost fury in his disbelief.
“I thought you said you had enough! Todd, you’re half dead.”
Todd knew by the way his instincts flared what the sharpness in Ethan’s eyes meant. It was all he could do not to square his shoulders and set his jaw again, the way he had the last time they met, the way he had when he realized the other monster viewed him as prey. This time though, this time he didn’t even have his claws to bare if it got out of hand. The paranoid part of his brain harbored the unwelcome thought that this was exactly what Ethan had wanted by gaining his trust, that he’d known Todd would have the loyalty to feed him and would be able to take his revenge.
He hushed that thought with a nod to Ethan’s offer of a hunt after. As much as he hated the idea of letting the eyes that were so much like Sam’s see him at his worst, he knew better than to refuse. He’d have to hunt after, anyway. And it wouldn’t hurt to see Obsidian at work, to see what his patterns and style were. That, at least, was enough to make the paranoia quiet down, as he gave it something else to think about. It let him offer Ethan his gloved hand without complaint, just a weary smile and a little nod.
Just like last time, for the first few seconds, there was nothing. And then there was everything, and everything was cold. His muscles seized and he hissed a shallow breath to counterbalance that. Once again the cold bled into him as he felt his warm bleeding out of his hand like a cut, and once again cold of a different kind rushed up to take the place of the heat, spreading outward in a pulse of adrenaline and hunger that tore at Todd’s very bones.
When Obsidian brushed up against Todd’s sparks, he brushed up on the first row of teeth. Todd kept contact with where Ethan’s eyes had last been, and had he been looking – when he looked again – he’d see the hunger behind them. The sharp tension. The restraint that it took to master his urge to bite back, to snap the jaws closed on the hand in his hand. Ethan was lost in his own huntsong; it wouldn’t even be that hard to shove past the growing cold and snap his jaws on his throat, crushing it before he could finish the last of his spare energy.
But he’d promised that spare energy, and so his cold was kept in check.
Except Ethan didn’t take the spare energy, pulling back like Todd had burned him. Todd’s eyes lit up in surprise as the last bits of cold bled into his muscles, and he froze, completely, for a few seconds. The only movement was a slow blink as he processed what Ethan had said, step by step – hear the sound, find the pattern, hear the pattern, interpret the pattern. Form a response.
The words hesitated, and he blinked again, looking down at himself with a confused frown. He wasn’t worried at all. He knew what he’d offered, and he knew what he had left. But it was when his eyes fell on his own hand, still outstretched, that the shaking started.
He shouldn’t start shaking now. That was – something was wrong. Something was more wrong than Ethan taking too much. He stared at his own hand blankly for a few seconds, then realized just how widespread the cold was. His very skin hurt with it. His internal temperature must be hypothermic at this point, and it had nothing to do with what he’d let Ethan take. When was the last time he’d felt this? He knew what it was, but why now?
Unfinished hunt. That was the feeling. Like coming down from a strong high without any kind of satisfaction without another hit. When prey got away, and he couldn’t catch it before the adrenaline faded in his own system. It’d been years since he’d even hunted, let alone had an unfinished hunt. That must be why it was hitting so hard now, even though it made no sense that he was experiencing it in the first place. Unless…
Slowly, he flexed his hand, his fingers curling in on themselves with a stiff tremble that spread up from the wrist to the shoulder to his very breathing. The crisp blue eyes closed. He pressed the closed hand into a full fist, and focused on centering himself, on being whole, on keeping the parts of his soul in balance. He focused on Ethan’s scent, on the rage that now leapt back up under the pepper. He focused on the cold. He focused in the sound of his heart, and the otherwise silent apartment.
He exhaled, and there was less of a tremble this time. He opened his eyes, and his blinking was normal. He took a second long breath, and got control over his limbs again. Then, he just – smiled. A real smile, no threat, even if it was full of teeth in the face of Ethan’s anger. He shrugged, too. No need to worry the other man further.
“It’s been a weird fucking week.” He reached up, and pushed his hair back off his face. He was still cold, and everything still ached, but he was better. His body language was back, if with a slight tremble at the very edges for the observant to observe. “I’ve– still go the energy. You might be feeling the hunger. I- I don’t know how that feels, from the other side. But– if you’re better, we won’t worry about that. Can I – hate to ask, but could I bum a smoke? Should take the edge off for me.”
The first thing Ethan noticed was the dull thrumming in his body. His body had come back to life, but only enough to be painful. He rubbed his aching skin, his suddenly screaming nerves soothed by the pressure. He had never taken so little from someone before to get back on his feet, so he’d never experienced this level of pain before. It was nothing like when he was fading down to exhaustion. He took in a few harsh breaths as he watched Todd.
Because the second thing that Ethan noticed was Todd’s shaking hand. He saw when the trembling started, and watched as Todd himself caught it. There was nothing behind his eyes when they closed, when he seemed to pull himself together by willpower alone.
Ethan knew what it looked like when you couldn’t get that high at the end of the hunt. He saw it in himself every time he chose to leave someone alive, when he didn’t take those final sparks. He used to get the shakes bad from it, especially once he had stopped caring. During that period after Zeheb, during that period where he had given up trying to be good about his feeding, he had started to struggle with completing kills. This, whatever was going on with Todd, had the same feeling.
He waited until the younger man stopped shaking. He was still trembling, but he looked significantly better than that stare so full of confusion, than the shaking. He searched Todd’s face, but saw no signs that whatever had just happened was out of the ordinary for him. He was silent for a long moment before he finally responded to Todd’s request.
“Yeah. Yeah, I think that would do me good too. Let’s head downstairs.” Ethan pulled himself up from the seat. He let Todd move out of his way, and then stiffly walked over to the coat closet. He pulled out his black wool duster, slipping it on with a sigh. “I don’t know what that was, Todd, but I touched your sparks. I… almost took them. I need you to understand that. I could have killed you. I don’t know how you’re still… standing.”
He picked up his carton of Dunhills from the entryway table, snatching his zippo lighter up as well. He turned the thing over in his hand to view the engraving of an O on the front of it. Orante, swirling lines, in the first letter of his chosen name. He remembered when Malachite and Sulphur had first given it to him all those years ago.
With a sigh, he tucked it into his pocket and swiped his keys from the keyrings by the door. Never seeing Mal again sometimes hit him like a ton of bricks as opposed to the soft despair it normally was. He was never quite prepared for when the mourning began again. He made a gesture to Todd without really looking at him. Malachite would’ve understood why Ethan hadn’t just killed the kid. He would’ve known and he wouldn’t have been angry. Not at the acceptance and the grace that Todd had given him.
Mal wouldn’t be mad about that, but god would he be mad about Ethan allowing himself to fall to exhaustion. He swallowed as he opened the door and turned back to let Todd out first.
Todd got up and moved aside for Ethan to pass, but maintained the energy of someone ready to react if the other man stumbled or fell. Ethan was stiff, but seemed fine when he walked, so Todd kept moving, careful to hide the lingering limp as well as he could. It wasn’t perfect, and he could feel Ethan watching him, but it wouldn’t seem as bad.
He tried talking to cover it up, while Ethan got his coat and keys. “I–”
He was about to say I’ve been worse, but even Arlo – even Mal – hadn’t equated the slow chip at his resources this last month had. With both, it’d been an easy fix of one kill and then a feeding. But this week – this whole month – had been one fucking thing after another. First the drain from Obsidian, then the fucking jaw incident, then Sam, then Lament again taking out his knee and… Todd rubbed his neck as he thought about the blood loss. He should be surprised he was still standing. Hell, he should be surprised he resisted the urge to take Obsidian down while he was weak.
So what he said instead was the truth. “I’ve never been this bad, actually. You’re right. Takes a lot to keep me down, though. I’ll survive.”
The last part had the casual tone of I’ve survived everything so far, after all. Made him sound a little cocky, but some false self-assurance felt right in the space between them. After all, it had always existed there. He accepted the implied invitation to go first, patting his own pockets to fish out his own lighter, the ghostly bull over the Taurus constellation. Not quite an ox, but still Arlo’s. His fingers closed around the lighter as he led the way downstairs to the parking lot.
As soon as they got to the parking lot, and Ethan had a chance to answer, he spoke up. “Todd, you need to be more careful. You barely had anything to give back there. I don’t want you dying on me.”
Ethan stopped as they got to the parking lot. He sighed and pulled the coat tight around him, doing up the buttons down the side of the jacket. As if that would do any good. Ethan didn’t have the energy to spare to raise his body temperature above freezing. The stiffness in his joints showed as he reached back into his pocket and pulled out the carton of cigarettes and his lighter. He tapped out a cigarette halfway, catching it between his teeth. Then he tapped out a second, holding it out for Todd to take.
The last person he had ever shared a cigarette with had been Mal. It had been right before he had sent him out to take care of Leo’s “problem”. They had smoked in that very parking lot, the jeep parked in front of them. He had given the jeep to Katherine, as well as the box of his parts, and everything from his bedroom. The only thing Obsidian had kept was the heart valve that Todd’s teeth had crushed. That felt like it had been years ago now, with all that had happened since then. With how tired he had been. Not just physically tired, not just running on empty, but emotionally. Emotionally he was more exhausted than he had been since they escaped Brightheart.
There was a weight in Ethan’s heart now that he didn’t know what to do with. It weighed on his soul, or what was left of it. Not that there had ever been much to start with. Dr. Eliza Russo had broken him down so thoroughly, so cleanly, that she had stripped him of his soul. Pieces of his organs, his valves and his bones, his joints and his skin, nothing she took from him quite equaled the loss of his soul. So no, Malachite’s death didn’t weigh on his soul, but his heart sure fucking hurt.
There was so little he could do to stop the pain. The answer, he knew, was to keep moving. No matter what happened, the three of them kept moving. When Zeheb died, he kept moving. When he had killed Samantha, he had kept moving. He had collected a family and brought together his own pack of wildlings, and they needed him now more than ever. And he needed Todd. He needed the young man to keep moving. Otherwise, Mal’s death might have broken him completely.
So he passed the dark-haired man a cigarette, his fingers trembling from his own cold. “I need you alive, got it?”
He wouldn’t know how much Ethan meant those words. He couldn’t know how much of Ethan’s humanity hung on him now. How the guilt for what he was doing melted away in his presence. Ethan wasn’t in love with Todd, he knew better than that. But he did love him, as much as someone like Ethan could love anyone else. He loved him the way he loved Sulphur, the way he loved Lapis, the way he loved Rhody, the way he loved Hematite. He loved them all, and now he loved Todd.
That was why there was a package for him in the apartments above the Diamond, sitting in the drawer of his desk, waiting for the right time to present it to him. Ethan couldn’t show his love through anything other than words and gifts, so he tended to shower the people around him with gifts because he choked when it came to words.
He couldn’t give them the time they deserved, between Stonewall and Crystals, his time was eaten up by work. He couldn’t touch them, he was always afraid of what he might accidentally do. And he couldn’t perform acts of service, not really, not when what they did was so much more than anything he could hope to do. And if words didn’t work, gifts it was. He gave them everything he could, all of the things they wanted, all of the things they needed, and all the things they never knew they wanted. It was the least he could do.
Todd took the offered cigarette. While his own skin was cold, so were his bones. He was used to it. Even the most frigid external temperature wouldn’t change anything, given he was already hypothermic. All his layers, from long-sleeve shirts to turtleneck to collared shirt to sweaters to jacket, made no difference. His hand only shook a little as he put the cigarette between his teeth and struck the lighter.
I don’t want you dying on me. Todd took a deep breath of smoke, his eyes closing for a second. Wasn’t that a nice sentiment. When was the last time someone had actually said that to him? Was it Arlo? Had Arlo said it? He couldn’t remember now. Nat worried about it, but never said it outright. He knew Sam hadn’t hadn’t. She assumed she didn’t have to. His shoulders relaxed as he exhaled and thought of her. He loved her, if he could love. Sometimes it felt like there was a hollow place where his heart and soul should be, an empty place that could only be filled with blood. Or with smoke.
He took another deep breath. Ethan was the first person who’d ever said it out loud to him. Asking for that, requesting it specifically. Todd knew he couldn’t make that promise. It felt like worse than a betrayal to do it.
But it was the only thing Ethan was asking of him. To be asked to do something – that was ideal for Todd, honestly. He was often too broke to purchase gifts for the people he cared about. Quality time was nice, but often impractical, especially with the distance necessary to keep the people he cared about safe. Same thing for touching. Sam was a toucher, though, and so he gave her all the time she wanted while they were together.
Since that wasn’t enough, he could do things for her instead. Things that covered the gaps between touches. Things that he couldn’t quite find the words for. Things done around the gym, surprise trips, small gifts if possible. He would do anything she asked. Except – except this, if it was his life or hers.
Could he do it for Ethan? The only thing Ethan was asking from him? He was a monster, a bastard, an arms-runner, the guy Leo had turned to so that Cryptid would stop bugging him. He was a predator who hunted, enjoyed the kill. He wanted Todd’s monster because it echoed his own. But that went both ways. Todd needed another monster like himself to stay grounded, to remember what he was and why he was doing it. And his humanity needed someone who understood – one person in the world, who could do what not even Sammy could.
Maybe the promise was a lie. But that wouldn’t matter if he broke it, would it? So although his smile was crooked around the cigarette, his eyes were bright as the smoke curled out his nostrils.
“Got it, boss.”
That could be too much, of course. “Boss” had a lot of implications. But he felt the weight that was gathering around Ethan like Obsidian’s shadows, and he knew that kind of weight needed something to banish it before it drowned him. So the tone of levity, while taking the seriousness away from Todd acknowledging Ethan as boss the way the others all did, also helped counterbalance the energy of the – well, not room. Situation.
He could see the old Malibu from here, parked a little way down the street. It was at the point in autumn when the sky was dark ridiculously early, and the part of the week when streets were empty that early, too. Now, hours later, the world felt empty except for the two predators. His words felt full, despite the lightness he tried to put into them. Maybe it was just the hunger getting to him. Even with the cigarette in his mouth, he felt it chewing on his bones, waiting for the chance to tear into something else. He was going to have to be doubly careful with Ethan watching him.
Those words were the same words that Malachite had said before he had died. Word for word, in that light tone that implied there was never any outcome but one. Hearing them again caused Ethan to freeze. The cigarette in his hand was half raised to his lips, and he forgot all about it as he heard those same words echo in a completely different voice.
“Got it, boss.”
He remembered, in that moment he was frozen, every detail of Malachite’s face. His face they had all joked was too pretty, with those eyes lighter than his bronzy skin and his deep brown hair. Eyes that seemed to glow with life. That smile on his face that had made him look like an eighties heartthrob, that had made Ethan roll his eyes every time. Those piercings that reflected the light pouring out from the Diamond’s windows, glinting on his face and in his ears. He could see the man’s face so clearly, as if he was standing in front of him.
And then he blinked and he was gone again. The pain in his heart became crushing. He made a soft sound, and his lips parted while his eyes closed. Then, he quickly put the cigarette to his lips and pulled in a long drag. He held it in his lungs until they burned, until they felt like they would burst, and then he let the smoke curl from his lips, slowly. He gasped in his next breath and that was it. Tears slipped down his cheeks, silently like the first snow in winter.
“That’s what Mal had said before he left. Those were the last words he ever said to me. I had told him to be careful, because I thought Leo wasn’t telling us everything. And that had been his answer.” He rubbed the tears from his face with his gloved hand, a harsh laugh coming from somewhere deep inside him. “I had a bad fucking feeling, and I still let him go. I still let him go.”
He turned his face to the ground, taking another drag, this one quick, and then he looked at Todd with tired, heavy eyes. “You ever regret something so deeply that it fundamentally changed you as a person? God, first Samantha, now Mal. I just keep killing my family.”
Samantha. He hadn’t thought about his little sister in… at least a few months. But now it came racing back to him. His hand around her throat, so much energy coursing through him, all of it feeling just like the end of life sparks. All of her, so full of power, so full of energy, that she had almost burned him out. The look of fear in her eyes that had brought back long forgotten memories of their mother. She had looked so much like her memories of the woman. The curly, fiery hair, the almond shaped amber eyes, the heart shaped face that had been under the mask he had ripped from her face. Even the shape of her nose, and her lips, she looked exactly like the memories of their mother.
And he had killed her. He had taken every last spark and had dropped her body to the ground, and then he’d had to kill the other girl, who had been trying to summon her powers, who had made him feel like he was dizzy and flickering out of existence. He had never learned her name. But their deaths were one of his biggest regrets. They hadn’t needed to die. Ethan should have had better control over himself. But he hadn’t, and they were gone, and he could never go back. He could never fix that mistake.
He laughed bitterly and ran his free hand through his curling hair, pushing the long strands back from his face. He had killed so many people. So many people whose names he didn’t know, whose faces he would never remember. And yet, they haunted him more than anyone else. The small and fragile red-haired girl made of fire and the tall raven-haired girl who had screamed his sister’s name. They haunted him more than Zeheb ever had. And now, they would compete with a death that hadn’t been at his hand, but was equally his fault.
Todd cringed just a little when Ethan said that he’d just echoed Mal. He wanted to apologize, to say something soft and comforting, to do something, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. Ethan had already absolved him. For that, at least.
Still, there was that fear. Like hunger, fear always lingered right under Todd’s amicable surface. Fear was how he’d learned to survive without his initial rage. Fear had been what kept him in line under Arlo for so long, what had kept him alive in the face of his best friend’s hatred, what had kept him separated from people for so long. But fear was also what killed Summer Kelley, in Columbus. A girl, a teenage girl, in Columbus.
And then, Todd realized, he was crying too. A single tear, a pair, but that was it. God, he was cold. God, his bones fucking hurt. His skin still itched where Samantha had burned him. He had let her burn him. Had let her fill him with her fire, because she was his, and he was hers, and it was the least apology for teeth against her throat.
Apologies. He couldn’t apologize to Ethan. But he could – do something else. Maybe. Maybe. The idea clutched his heart, but he forced it to settle before it started racing. He took the cigarette out of his mouth, and wiped his face with the sleeve of one arm. Control. He could control himself – had to. He had to be in control right now, because suddenly, there was a lot in the balance. This could escalate faster than Todd could stop it, if he handled it wrong.
He took a shaky breath, and then looked at Ethan.
“Who was Samantha?” he asked, quietly, a little hoarsely, before he put the cigarette back between his teeth and waited. Watched. What he did was more important than the words he said, but he listened for those, too, and started to pay attention to what his nose told him about the other man.
He had to see if Ethan felt guilt, fear, or rage before he made this decision.
Ethan let out a shuddering breath and tipped his head back. The tears wouldn’t stop. They kept flowing from his eyes as he looked at the sky. He remembered, faintly, distantly, his mother’s voice. He remembered her talking about the Otherworld, and about Tech Duinn, and he wondered if she was somewhere there, in either of those afterlives, or if maybe she had gone to heaven. Ethan didn’t know what afterlife was real, or if there was one. He didn’t know where her soul had gone after he had killed her. He just hoped it was somewhere good.
“Samantha was my sister. This is a long story, I’m sorry about that.” He wiped the tears from his eyes, but his shoulders had fallen, as if weighed down by the weight of his own emotions. He took a breath, his whole body shivering, then took another puff off his almost finished cigarette. He blew the smoke out in a sharp stream that curled into the air as it lost the force behind it. He watched it for a moment before he spoke again.
“When I was four, I was given to a facility called Brightheart. I’ll spare you the details, but I was there for twelve years. They’re the ones who broke the three of us into pieces and stitched us back together again. You saw the scars on Mal. Found the pieces of him. Sulphur and I are like that too.” He rubbed a hand over his chest, as if he could feel them cracking his bones open. And then he stopped, right over his shoulder. He spread his fingers there, as if mirroring something underneath the coat.
“When we got out, we made it on our own for a while. And then I got into some stuff, and I managed to get fake documents for Sulphur and Malachite, and got them into school. Then Zeheb happened and, well. That was the year we all decided to find our families. I think they thought getting in touch with my family would… help me.”
The tears started again as his eyes searched the ground in front of them, as if looking for answers in the concrete. He went quiet for a moment, and went to raise the cigarette to his lips, only to find it had burned out. He sighed, tossed it in the nearby ashtray, and ran a hand through his hair. This was the hard part of the story. This was the part where he had to admit what he had done, and there was a heaviness in his body that made it hard for him to even stand. He turned his face to Todd and smiled sadly.
“We found them. Jasper’s first. Dead. Fran– Sulphur’s next. They wanted nothing to do with him. And then we found mine. The Walshes. Living in the same house in Lockbourne as they had when they let Brightheart have me. I- I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe a couple who were still entrenched in sorrow? I wasn’t expecting to see them Samantha and Joshua. My sister and my brother.”
With that, Ethan covered his eyes with his left hand and shuddered. He wiped the tears away again, then cleared his throat. The last time he had told anyone about this, he had been angry, had been furious, but now– now he just wished he could take it all back.
“ I was. So angry at the time. So furious. They had given me up, but they’d had two more kids, two kids who were also metas. And I was so furious. I followed Samantha around that day, watched her, and saw how… normal her life was. I was jealous. I was angry. And I did something… I did something so stupid. I caught her that night, in her little vigilante costume, with another girl who was dressed like her, and I. Fuck. I killed them. I killed both of them.”
He rubbed both hands over his face and then shrugged and looked away from Todd, anywhere but at Todd. He didn’t want to see the judgment, the disgust he was sure was on the man’s face. After all, this was proof of Ethan’s missing soul. This was evidence of the monster he really was. This showed how much of a bastard he really was.
“I still don’t know why I did it. I had no reason to. I could have just left, could have left and never gone back. Instead, I wrapped my hand around her throat and I took everything she had to give, Todd. I took all of her sparks. And for so many years, I justified what I did. I went back to Philly, I started Slate, started Stonewall, and I connected with my old contacts and I started running guns. I stayed angry. I stayed jealous. And then, one day, I woke up and it dawned on me what I had done. Like, it really hit me. And I haven’t… been the same since. That’s what Mal told me anyway. Said it made me different.”
Ethan closed his eyes, willing the tears to stop, before they became more than just tears. But they didn’t listen to him. They kept falling, and falling, and he had no power over them. He wiped them away again, taking in a shuddering, audible breath. Then, for the first time since he started, he turned to look at Todd. He was ready for whatever judgment he was going to get. For whatever Todd said.
Ethan wept. It couldn’t even be called crying. This was all tears, all feeling. And all Todd did was listen, all he could do was listen. Listen without judgment, listen with eyes that were only full of sadness, empathy. Understanding.
Brother and sister. That made sense. Todd hadn’t asked Ethan his age, but that felt right. He hadn’t heard anything about Joshua, but Sam would bring him up, eventually, maybe. Todd had no doubt they all had the same eyes, the same eyes he’d used to recognize Ethan as a Walsh in the first place. Eyes that betrayed the overwhelming guilt Ethan felt about his sister’s death.
Guilt was hard. Todd knew from experience. It was unpredictable. It was a quiet emotion that sat like a stone in the chest, but could be shoved away if the replacement was strong enough. Rage could easily overpower guilt, and the body welcomed it, or at least, the mind did. Nobody wanted to be at fault. Anger was easier because it placed blame. He smelled no anger in Ethan now, but – well, he was a Walsh. As in Sam, that could change in the span of a heartbeat.
“You were angry. That’s enough, sometimes.”
Todd was standing next to Ethan when he finished. He’d moved quietly, not too fast, and it helped that Ethan wasn’t looking at him. He spoke quietly, too, when the golden eyes finally met his blue ones. His own smoke was gone, crushed on the sidewalk, which left his hands free for his next move.
He embraced Ethan before the other monster could back away. Hugged him tight around the shoulders, not with all his strength, but enough to pin Ethan, just for the moment. To let him feel Todd’s heartbeat, to let Todd feel his own. He knew, like him, Ethan was probably rarely touched. It was dangerous. He was always hungry – hungrier than ever now, and he knew where Todd’s last sparks were. But Todd wasn’t afraid of him. Monsters couldn’t be scared of each other like that, not the way people were.
Besides, Sam’s love language was touch. It was almost natural for Todd to respond to someone almost exactly like her with the same.
He held Ethan in silence for several seconds, cold brushing against cold. Even as the other man froze, Todd stayed. He only pulled away when he was sure the surprise had passed, only stepped back and cleaned his pale cheeks against the sleeve of his own jacket. He took a deep, tremulous breath, swallowed hard, and looked at Ethan again. Now, he didn’t try to stop the shaking. This was too important to distract himself with his own body, with his own needs, even if they were starting to burn like his scars.
Her first. She was more important. And Ethan, who was so much like her, was the one here now. Who needed the man who was a monster as much as Todd did.
“If you could do it again, would you? If you could see her, touch her, talk to her, even if she hated you, would you want to try?” He smiled, but there was a strain behind his eyes. “I think the answer to that makes the difference between people, and monsters. You know you can be honest with me. I wouldn’t hate you if you said you’d do it all again. I couldn’t do anything differently about Mal, after all.”
And despite the half-joke, the guilt for that leaked through the mask of lighthearted stoicism he was trying for.
When Todd hugged him, he froze in surprise. That was… definitely not what he had been expecting. Not for that story. Still, he couldn’t remember the last time someone had hugged him. Had it been Sulphur, for that brief moment when he had come home from Columbus? It must have. When he and Mal had both hugged him, Sulphur for just a moment and Mal until he had started sobbing. When the anger and grief had overwhelmed him. That had been eight years ago.
Eight years was a long time, and this time, Ethan had a very similar reaction. He started shaking his body tense, tight, but slowly loosening up. He tipped his head forward to rest on Todd’s shoulder, even if he didn’t hug him back. He didn’t trust his hands, the hands he was so used to taking others' lives with. He didn’t trust them on Todd, as weak as Todd was. So they stayed, fisted at his side, as he let himself relax into the embrace. When Todd pulled back, he reached a hand up and wiped his tears away again.
But then Todd’s question– He froze again and thought. He was silent for a long time, and then finally, “If I, as I am now, had the choice to do it again, I wouldn’t. And if she were here, now, right now, and she hated me with every fiber of her being, I would understand. I would take it because I would deserve it. I think if I could see her again, I would just… I would hold her, I would let her burn me again, and I would apologize. I would want to try. I would want– I would want to fix it.”
Ethan wasn’t sure when the last time he had something so sincerely, so earnestly, and meant it to his core. Samantha had been the worst mistake he had ever made. Not going to that front door and knocking, not trying to see if everything he had ever been told was true, was his worst regret. Just as he had realized the horribleness of what he had done to Samantha, he had realized how much of what Brightheart had told him must have been lies. In his anger, in his uncertainty, in his confusion, he had believed they had given him up.
He had never considered that they had wanted him.
If he had just knocked on that blue door, if he had just knocked on it, then all of this could have been different. Everything would have been different. He, Mal, and Sulphur would probably be living in Columbus together, as near as possible as they could be to the Walsh residence. He would have gotten to have a family. He had a family now, and he wouldn’t trade them for anything, but he would kill to change what had already been done.
“Sorry, I know that’s heavy shit. I didn’t mean for the conversation to turn this way.”
Todd’s smile softened at the edges as he studied Ethan’s face. Part of him wondered, had to wonder, how the hell he’d found the monster who was just like him, at his worst. The one that cringed under touch, the one who regretted so deeply that he’d let himself die if given the second chance. Surely not every monster was like this; surely not everyone experienced guilt that ate so deeply it felt worse than the hunger. But for Ethan – for Ethan, there was hope. He saw it in the sincerity of those eyes, golden like Sam’s.
But this was as Ethan was now, exhausted, drained. And Todd knew the limits of Sam’s anger at Slate. It was only because of the venom in her words that he even knew what they were called, after all. He’d seen the other side of both of them, brother and sister. Manic hunger and bottomless fury. There was also, of course, the risk that Ethan would want Sam for her fire – only for her fire, the way a part of him Todd knew still only wanted his own hunger.
But that part wasn’t here right now, as Todd stepped away and let him breathe, took himself out of Obsidian’s jaws and just a step out of reach, a habit rather than an intentional act of self-defense. He was still shaking, too. He was past the point of no return with that now.
“It’s fine, Ethan. Really.” His smile became something more solid, and he took a step closer again to clap the other man on the shoulder before stepping off the curb. “Let’s go get something to eat, yeah? I’m sure we’ll both feel better after.”
Which wasn’t the whole truth. Todd would feel physically right as rain, but he already knew that even Ethan watching him would bring out a different thread of guilt than his usual private grief. Still, he’d agreed to it, and he wouldn’t take it back now. Couldn’t, really. If he didn’t eat tonight he was going to have a real problem about self-control, and he couldn’t risk that, not with how close he came with Sam while he was healthy.
And as for Sam – well. He’d have to see. He’d have to see how Ethan was, what he did, how he hunted. Because if Todd put either Walsh in danger from the other, he’d never forgive himself. He couldn’t risk losing one of the people who’d come close to his teeth without flinching – even if that person was a monster who’d let himself run wild. Especially then, because then, Todd would be alone in a way words wouldn’t describe.
Ethan chuckled as Todd clapped his shoulder. He nodded slowly to Todd’s words and then sighed. He felt emotionally just as exhausted now as he did physically. He couldn’t remember the last time he had hunted like this. It had to have been pre-Zeheb. That was back when he was so exhausted by what he was, so against having to do what he needed to live. He had hunted tired all the time back then, but not these days. Not now.
He gestured for Todd to follow him and he stepped toward the side parking lot of the Diamond. “Let’s see which cars they left us to choose from, shall we?”
Todd followed behind Ethan, and as they walked, Ethan thought. It was inevitable, that with the talk of people he had killed, that he wouldn’t think of Zeheb. He could remember that day so clearly. He remembered being in the dark of his apartment, the man who thought he was there to secure a drug deal in his arms as he lowered him to the ground, as he balanced the amount of energy he had taken. He was carefully draining the man down to his sparks, avoiding taking them, when the door had opened and the light had come on.
He had looked up in surprise, and Zeheb had been standing there, an expression of soft surprise. At that moment, Ethan forgot what he was doing– until he felt those last sparks flow into his body. It was like, he assumed, taking a hit of cocaine for a normal human. It filled his body with warmth and fire and he felt a moment of pure euphoria. He couldn’t hide it when his face reflected that feeling, and that was the moment Zeheb pieced what was happening together, and as the man’s body went slack, and Ethan’s hand relaxed, Zeheb ran into the kitchen and pulled a combat knife from the kitchen drawer.
Zeheb had been military before they had started dating, and as such, had insisted Ethan had weapons to defend himself with. He had bought him a combat knife with one of those serrated spines. More useful, he had said, than one with just a straight blade. It was that knife, with its customized green and black handle, that Zeheb had descended on Ethan. He had given younger Ethan no time to talk, no time to explain, he had just struck, going for his face. He had raised his hands in defense, and the serrated spine had dragged across both of his palms.
Ethan couldn’t bare to remember what happened next, but his mind wouldn’t let him forget. It wouldn’t let him forget grabbing Zeheb’s ankle and pulling him down, then climbing on top of him and wrapping his hands around his lover’s throat. He had cried the entire time, had whispered “I’m sorry, I love you” until the light had gone from his eyes, and for a long time after that as he had held his body cradled in his lap. He was still whispering it when Malachite and Sulphur had arrived, had found him bleeding and crying, and had done their best to help him get rid of the bodies.
Ethan shook himself from the thoughts as they arrived at the garage behind the bar. He looked back to make sure Todd had followed him before opening the door using the pin pad next to it. The combination was the letters of everyone’s names from oldest to youngest. The door slid open to reveal… an almost completely empty garage. The only vehicle inside it was his own Jaguar, the deep blue paint job almost sparkling in the low light from the street lamp just outside the back lot.
Ethan looked at Todd. “I don’t suppose you came in your car, did you? I think mine might be… noticeable.”
An original, beetle-blue 1957 Jaguar XK-SS Roadster sat alone in the garage. Todd knew about that car – oh, he knew about it. Arlo had given him an excited lecture about it when someone brought one of the million-pound 2016-2017 models in. God, that man had known about nothing but horses and cars, at least on the surface. He’d known other things – music, movies, a bit of a history buff. But cars and horses had been his go-to conversation topics.
Todd knew Arlo would’ve loved this car as much as Ethan clearly did. He had to appreciate it in his place right now, because, oh, man, it was one of the sixteen original models, kept in museum condition despite clear regular use. He couldn’t help the low whistle that slipped between his lips as he admired the vehicle from a distance.
He’d rolled back into habitual posture once they started walking, little slouch, relaxed jaw, slightly unfocused eyes. Ethan didn’t start a conversation, so Todd didn’t, either. But the collector Roadster had his full attention right now, until Ethan did speak. Then, the clear blue eyes turned to him, pulled out of his memories just like that.
“Yeah. I put the Malibu in street parking, but she’s probably better. A lot more unassuming.” He let his smile spread out a little again, as he looked at the Jaguar one last time before turning on his heel. “You haven’t seen her yet, have you? She’s nowhere near as impressive, but I keep her in good shape. She’ll do the trick.”
He started to fish in his pocket as he took a step back away from the garage, and pulled his keys. Nothing exciting – a gas station souvenir of a keychain with a cowboy from Montana, and what looked like a braided friendship bracelet from… ah, didn’t matter where that one was from, even if his eyes lingered on it the way they always did.
He took a deep breath, then flipped the keys around his hand and waited for Ethan to close the garage back up. Even shaking the way he was, he’d be fine to drive. If nothing else, his focus was completely untouched.