Well, it was a simple question. Nahual knew that much, but she could not remember exactly where she had ended up. She had traveled to the city of Pittsburgh, 'the Pitts' as she liked to call it. The journey down from the mountains had been long, but worthwhile. She had fed along the way, of course, lest she devolve into madness and lose all control over her form. The biomass had to be maintained, but-
Grr, it occurred to her that she had not fed herself. At least, not how she should have. Beef jerky and squirrels simply were not enough caloric intake, she was no longer a small thing. Nahual smacked herself on the head gently, her hand was oddly warm and wet. Squinting in the darkness, she looked at her fingers and wondered if they were always red. No, she decided quickly, they were not. Her clothes- a nice white blouse, a soft white shawl, and a lovely black skirt, were stained blood red and caked in biological debris. Hair, bone chips, sinew strands, and so much coagulated blood. She couldn't see it in the darkness, but she could smell and feel it.
Ah, of course. She had fed. Even if she did not recall, the evidence was clear. How to clean the evidence was the new question. Looking around, Nahual realized she wasn't exactly sure where she had hidden herself. Feeling out, she came in contact with the walls around her fairly quickly. Ceramics and mortar- brickwork? She was in a pitch-black tube of circular bricks, how peculiar. Below her- oh that was feces, disgusting. Had she eaten in a feces hole? That was embarrassing! She was better than that! Groaning, she picked a direction and started walking.
Blegh, it stunk. Nahual worried that her initial lack of notice of the smells was evidence of her nose adjusting to it naturally, without her input. That was disappointing. Slowly, she began to adjust her eyes. She had eaten enough creatures of the night to know how to change her eyes to see in the dark, but if it was still light outside then she'd be blind the moment she exited this tunnel. Cringing internally at the pain of blinding light, Nahual decided that was a risk she'd need to take. The last thing she wanted was to accidentally trip on something in here and fall.
Oh, oh the horror. If she fell now- the mere thought made Nahual want to retch. But retching lost precious biomass, and she could spare no more than that which she consumed now for her eyes. Outside, freedom, that's what was needed now. Giving herself a few reassuring pats, the creature of biological nature reassured herself by speaking aloud,"Focus, Nahual, focus. We are getting free."and she wondered if such outward assurances were an acquired trait of a creature she ate, or from something far more primal.
Cryptid’s life hadn’t gotten any more normal after he dealt with his hunger. That was expected, really, given what he was and what he chose to do to counterbalance it. It still didn’t make moments like this any more surprising.
He’d been mid-chase when he caught the scent of blood. Mugger, usual bullshit. This one he was pretty sure he could give a good scare and then let go, an old fashioned catch-and-release as long as he could control the huntsong. Honestly, the chase alone would be enough for him, which was good, because Todd’s steps faltered when he caught the smell.
He slowed, then stopped. The man he was chasing didn’t, and that was okay. Let him run. If he did what he’d done tonight again, he was going to have a lot more than a scare to deal with, but fear was a good motivator for crooks and criminals. It was better than– well. Than the reason why Todd paused, because just a little blood wouldn’t have distracted him. This was more than a little. He stopped at the end of the empty side-street, then took a deep breath and started to backtrack.
It took some effort. Circling around, looking with all his senses. He thought he heard a voice, once, but there wasn’t anyone on the street, so it could’ve been from inside a building. What his nose was telling him was that the blood volume had to be impressive. A serious injury. A fatal injury.
As he stopped under a street lamp, where his game of hot-and-cold told him was the closest, he realized just how much blood he was picking up, and where it was coming from. The manhole cover under his feet stared back, and under the grinning mask, Cryptid frowned at it. There was only one way that a human body lost half as much blood as he was detecting.
He thought he’d been lying to Slate when he said he wasn’t the only one of his kind around.
That should’ve made him pause. That should’ve made him careful. But the idea of something like him – a maneater, something that ate everything – touched on instincts recently reawakened. He took a deep breath, aware of where the cover led, and then reached down and pried it up. Heavy as it was, it wasn’t any trouble to pull it aside enough for Cryptid to fit through, to flood the sewer below with light enough to see by. At the very least, he could see the rungs of the ladder that led down.
God, that sounded stupid, but moving a heavy piece of metal and lighting up the sewer hadn’t exactly been subtle. And, fuck, it smelled like – well, like shit. And blood. Enough blood for a kill of his own caliber. He’d need to move carefully, going forward, but at least his presence was announced.
Cryptid leaned over the hole, peering down, then sighed, then regretted the deep breath and shook his head. With ‘now or never’ in mind, he crouched down, grabbed the first ladder rung, and started to descend.
Nahual had been walking for a long while, or perhaps she had only been walking for a short time, it was impossible to tell down here. A creature born in the deep forest of Appalachia, Nahual had no previously formed concept of this underground darkness. So far, tallying up the little bits of information she had accumulated already, she felt as though she knew enough to formulate a solid opinion.
She hated it down here.
Suddenly, her body tensed up as she heard a voice in the formless void. With her eyes adjusted properly, she saw the shining light at the end of the tunnel with perfect clarity. The light, yellow and artificial, was cast from some street lamp far down and above this dark hole. While not as gentle or welcoming as sunlight, it was still far preferable to her current situation. The voice though was strange. What predator announced their presence? Proper predation required stealth, advantage, and power. Creating a noise only caused a willful release of advantages, so-
Not a predator? Prey? Possibly. Approach as sentient and evaluate. The biomass could stand to increase, even if it was no longer critically necessary. Approaching the light, her eyes could make out the form of a human finishing its descent from a ladder. A ladder! Freedom! Smiling, Nahual began to slowly revert her eyes and continued her approach. Nahual called out, her voice weak and pitiful,
"Hello-! Is- Is someone there? Help me! Help me, please! We lost!"
Deception was a powerful tool in the acquisition of human biomass. Most humans, strangely, seemed to come toward calls for help. In the mountain forests, a call for help in the dead of night was to be strictly avoided, even by the monster that called itself Nahual. She was not the only hunter who stalked the night, and she would not forget it.
Unfortunately, in her attempt at deception, she couldn't get a good look at the being at the end of the tunnel. Changing her eyes as she walked meant she could no longer see in pitch black, even if it also meant she looked more 'human.' Give a little biomass to gain a lot more, this could be a profitable trade by the end of the night.
A quiet voice, a weak voice, called out from down the tunnel. Cryptid paused in his climbing to listen. He could replicate any voice he wanted to, too. It almost sounded like the other maneater was looking to draw in more prey, maybe someone who’d heard whatever noises it had made. He felt a tight knot of anger growing in his chest as he looked down and behind him, toward the source of the voice.
Any anger he’d been feeling evaporated immediately. The figure in the sewer was thin, frail, even. She was surprisingly young, but he could see the dark stains set against her light skin in the dim light. Sure, he was a shapeshifter – this could be an elaborate trick to make him let his guard down. And even if she was what she appeared to be, he knew she’d be a lot stronger than her thin frame suggested.
He couldn’t smell her, over the blood and shit, but he imagined she couldn’t smell him, either. He looked around, back up out the manhole, then stepped away. Clear communication was probably the best bet to avoid any conflict. He didn’t want to fight tonight, after all.
“Hey, it’s cool. You don’t have to play prey with me.”
He looked down at the water for a second, then sighed again (with no fewer regrets) and stepped off the ladder. He kept his posture open, his hands relaxed. No bared teeth except his mask’s grinning face, no bared claws. His head had a slight tilt to it as he watched her approach, but he didn’t meet her eyes directly. I’m not being territorial. I’m not afraid of you, and you don’t need to be afraid of me.
“I’m not mad. By the way. Mostly… surprised. I thought I was the only one.”
Something else crossed his mind, and for the first time, he met her face completely. He’d almost forgotten about the huntsong. Ironic, given how recently he’d experienced it, but it was entirely possible he wasn’t talking to the person who usually wore that body, just their hunger. He searched his mind for the right kinds of questions, then decided on something… human. Human things were good for the circumstances. He kept his tone calm and gentle, but there was a new firmness after he realized something else.
“You said you’re lost, right? Do you really not know where you are, or was that part of the trick?”
Nahual froze in her tracks when the man at the other side of the tunnel spoke. Well, he did more than just speak, he did a lot of things that stirred primal reactions in Nahual. He didn't look her in the eyes, deference-? No, his posture seemed only non-confrontational, not submissive. His frame was tall and skinny, but simple descriptions like that were useless. Nahual was short and skinny, but Nahual was dense. This one could also be dense. Before he continued speaking, he also moved out of the light. Advantages, obscuring himself on the other side of the light would delay Nahual's reactions ever so slightly.
Crooking her head to the side, Nahual spoke in a quiet, pitiful tone. It was the voice of someone whose heart was breaking, a truly painful, begging sound, "Y-you, you do not believe us?" Then, as if a switch had been flipped, she continued in a little singsong, slightly inquisitive, tone, "Why? What is it that gave us- us..." She smacked herself again and threw up her free hand in defeat, "Damn, 'me.' Me me me, not us, not we, only me myself and I. Why is this so difficult for 'me'? Haha!"
Nahual sighed and continued walking forward. The other had tensed his tone, but it did not appear as though he was poising for attack. As she moved toward the light and the ladder, her eyes finally fully readjusted to their 'natural' green. Still speaking in a natural rising and falling, songlike voice, she replied, "Yes, yes yes, not a lie, I am not sure how I got down here. Really don't remember! Is this Pittsburgh? I'm trying to get to Pittsburgh- oh! You have a nice mask! Are you a hero? Oh! Are you a superhero? A superhero and the same as me, no- you cannot be the same as me, can you?"
Nahual stopped herself short of the beam of light beneath the manhole. Looking at herself clearly now as the light illuminated her form, she moaned, "Oh, it's ruined! Damn it! Cannot ever wear these again!" Looking up, she added, "Do you have clothes?"
The switch was an even better sign, and a point in favor of his theory. So was the temporary amnesia. The hunt was an odd thing. He remembered details when he participated, but never in the moment, and never when coming down from the high. She seemed to be reading his body language, responding to it in turn and with a little less thought. In fact, it was the human part she seemed to be having trouble with – language and behavior alike. He bookmarked that information for later.
He weighed a few things in his mind, paying attention to her helpless act, and decided before she finished crossing the space between them to make a quick adjustment to his own eyes, from sharp and black to a soft honey-brown. Mimicry was a form of communication all its own, and reflecting her appearance added communication that we are the same.
“Not a superhero, no. But I don’t think we’re that different.” He gave the pool of blood and bone, coagulated as it was in the sluggish water of the sewer, a little nod of his head.
He sighed deeply one last time before starting to work the buttons and buckles of his outer coat. It wasn’t like it was doing him any good, anyway. It took an extra second with his claws, but the alternative for those was to leave them in the coat pocket. While he wasn’t planning to start a fight, he did intend to be prepared if one broke out.
Handing her the coat, he said, “I’ve got some clothes in my car, but nothing that would fit your shape very well. No chance you could change into someone a little bigger, could you?”
He said it casually, conversationally, in his turtleneck and bulletproof vest and various visible joint pads. He said it like he didn’t expect the answer to be anything but yes, or any confusion to be feigned. A trick, maybe, or maybe just something that understood, that knew without asking.
“Sorry,” he added, “I know it smells like me. My spares will, too, just so you know. We can look into getting you something that’s yours later, if you don’t have any extras. I might know someone about your– is this your normal size? If I asked, she’d lend me something long enough for us to get you something that fits better.”
He changed shape. Specifically, the other one changed the color of his eyes. Nahual was not so distracted by her upsetness at her ruined clothes to miss that. She smiled softly as he said he didn't think they were that different, maybe they weren't after all. As he began to remove his coat, Nahual wondered what he was doing for only a moment until he offered it up.
Taking the coat, Nahual turned away and began stripping off her filthy garments. She did not remove everything, she retained her underwear, because she felt a weird heat rise within her while she discarded her ruined skirt, blouse, and shawl. It wasn't desire, no, far from it, she felt like she wanted to demand he turn away from her while she changed. Weird. She wasn't sure why these feelings were coming to her, were they innate? She had never changed in front of someone else before...
Realizing a question had been asked, Nahual responded while buckling and buttoning up the coat, "Oh, no, that's unwise. My reserves were low enough that I lost control, I should not risk that. This size is preferable." Then, thinking for a moment, she continued to answer him while turning to ascend the ladder, "Normal size... Yes, this form is preferable. It just feels right. You know someone of similar proportions? Fantastic! Are they free to acquire? Or, are you saving them for later? Is this something I should ask?"
Nahual felt a little bit of giddiness as she exited the manhole into the city. There was a being with her now that understood what she was like, a shapechanger! And while she wasn't positive if he too had no qualms with prey selection, he seemed to imply he understood humans as a viable source of biomass. How exciting! Nahual couldn't wait to pick his brain, then maybe pick at his brain?
He averted his eyes while she changed without being asked. He’d grown up in homes with sisters that were basically strangers; that had cured him early of any embarrassment when it came to certain things, and had also cured him of any untoward thoughts on the subject of the feminine form.
Her phrasing was off, but he got the right implication from context clues. Are they free to acquire – followed by are you saving them for later? was enough for him to tell him that’s how she thought about eating. Hunting was just acquiring food, after all.
“You’re hunger all the way down, aren’t you?” He laughed a little bit, and surprised himself with that. Did he find her considering Sam as food… cute? No, definitely not. Not cute. Immature, maybe? That was closer.
Shouldn’t he be feeling… even a little territorial? He’d been pissed a minute ago, and should’ve been pissed about the insinuation. But she seemed to feel the same, the vague sense of same he’d been following all this time. He had to worry a little that this had something to do with giving in to the hunt, but he wasn’t feeling any of the usual lows or highs that came with that.
Maybe, he decided, it was just nice that somebody might understand. Or maybe his last interaction with Connor had started to fix the part of him that was violently independent, combined with Ethan’s understanding. Or he could be spending too much time with Slate.
Whatever the case, her response raised some questions, and kept giving him answers. The way she thought about hunting felt pragmatic, scientific, even, but he considered that different brains processed the, well, process, very differently. He’d likely leaned into the animal angle because he was familiar with it. Anyway, the math added up. She had a reserve of mass, same as him. She was using a smaller body because it took up less mass. Her natural form could be a bit larger, or, like him, she could just be naturally frail-looking.
“Rule number one here in a big city: not everyone is food. Not even everyone you can get alone to eat. I had to learn that the hard way.” He hauled himself out of the sewer behind her, and glanced around the street, a habit rather than anything specific. Still clear. “Besides that, Sammy’s mine, and she’s not food. At all. Just being very clear about that.”
He lifted the manhole cover with a little effort, and dropped it back into place. He then wiped his gloved, clawed hands off on his vest, and turned to –
He’d worry about her name in a minute, maybe in private, where he could give her his real name back, instead of just “Cryptid”. There was a more important question that needed to be asked.
Nahual didn't understand what was so funny about his statement, nor did she understand what he was asking. She was not hunger all the way down, she was a collection of trillions of cells, bone, sinew, plasma- Maybe it wasn't supposed to actually be a question? Maybe he was making a joke. Very delayed, Nahual laughed awkwardly back.
Watching the other with thinly veiled curiosity, Nahual listened as he attempted to instruct her about what was and was not food in this location. It was, strange, to hear such divisions. Not everyone was food? Without thinking, she voiced her thoughts, "Strange, in the mountains, if it moved, it was food. Humans knew better than to come up, mostly. When they came anyway, foolish hikers, they disappear. Sometimes not even my fault! Ha"
Then, knowing she needed to acknowledge his second clarification, Nahual added, "Sammy, yours, and not food? I understand, I think. Please point when we see Sammy, that is a name, right? You've named the 'not food'?" She didn't leave the quotations in her tone, Nahual raised her hands and actually made the little motions with her fingers.
Giggling, Nahual began walking around the other, circling him like a stalking beast might stalk her next quarry. She was not trying to off-put the other, but she wasn't sure what to do until he directed her. If the other started walking away, Nahual would follow while she replied to his next, seemingly serious question, "How often? Mhm, as often as I can. We -no-not-we- I eat when I need to, I eat when I want to, I eat whenever. Eat eat eat, I am bottomless. Gluttonous. Only need to eat something big once- er, that's a secret. Don't know you well enough. We- er, it is we? You and I, we. We are not friends yet. But want to eat everyday! Ha!"
Then, with the same seriousness, Nahual asked, "How often you been eating?"
He didn’t like the way she talked about food, but his first clue that they weren’t quite the same was that she ate every day. He couldn’t eat every day at his best. He slept off his meals, twenty hours on average. No time to hunt in between that. He could, theoretically, eat every other day. He watched her, and now that they were out of the sewer, he was starting to pick up her scent. Blood still, traces of sewage. Underneath were scents Todd only knew from long experience on nature trails and using deep forest. A few different types of wildflowers. And– some kind of fungus, mushrooms, maybe. He started walking, and she followed in his shadow.
“Once a month.” He didn’t have a problem telling her his frequency, mostly because he was hardly like clockwork. He was weighing her scent in his head. “I’m also bottomless, I’m pretty sure. I can’t ever feel full. I also want to eat every day. But once a month keeps me fed. It meets my needs and keeps me from hurting people. People like – Sam. Samantha. I call her Sammy.”
Because she’s mine, he didn’t add, because that might be too aggressive. But despite the fungal scent, he could feel the animal in her, and tried to focus the animal in him enough to keep communications tame, especially after she implied that Sam was only conceptually inedible.
“That’s her name, and was before I met her. She’s her own person. Most humans are. That’s the difference between them and other… food.”
Nahual listened as the other described his eating frequency and, at the mention of meeting his needs and not hurting people, her face twisted into confusion. He continued trying to explain the differences between this 'them' and 'food.' It reached a boiling point and Nahual couldn't stop herself as she asked, "Why do you care?"
There was a pang of a feeling Nahual couldn't place when she spoke, and she decided to try and change the subject very quickly, "No, don't answer, I don't wanna talk about it right now." Shaking her head, she reached up to check her hair braids and frowned deeply as her caked hands touched her caked hair. A genuine, whiny, "Aaawww..." escaped her as she found that her hair would need multiple washes to get all the blood and feces out of it.
Looking around and noticing that the other was leading her toward a vehicle, Nahual had a moment of clarity and asked, "What is your name? I am Nahual! Little Friend! I'm going to be a hero- wait, did I tell you that already? Don't worry about it! What shall I call you- other hunter?"
Cryptid pretended not to notice the hesitation, to gloss over it. He wanted to pounce on the moment of weakness, to fill the emptiness with – not with teeth, for once; with everything he’d learned, a decade of experience for something that was clearly lost in her own hunt.
But preaching wouldn’t fix her. Only she could do that. He could only help her.
So he just led her to the Malibu, the unassuming little car in its unassuming spot on the street. He didn’t let his steps hesitate when she asked him for his name, but there was a pause in the conversation. He’d been planning to tell her on the car ride to– well, he’d figure out where to later. For right now, he looked around the street, making sure nobody was watching when he spoke to her.
“It’s Cryptid, when I’ve got the mask on. I’ll take it off and introduce myself a little bit better once we’ve got some privacy.” He patted where his pockets would be, then looked at her with a little apology. “My keys and ah– lighter, are in the left pocket there. I need the keys to open the car, and if I smoke it’ll help with the smell.”
He took them when she handed them to him, finally slipped off the bagh nakh, and unlocked the Malibu. He gestured for her to get into the passenger’s seat while he folded into the driver’s. Only after they were both inside did he look at her again, taking her in completely. Under the mask, his face melted back to his own face, like a muscle relaxing.
“Don’t stress about the blood,” he said, more gently. Human, Todd. Normal. “I’ve got some stuff back at my place that’ll wash it right out. And conditioner for afterward. It’s for curly hair, but you’ll want anything that’ll keep it from drying out.”
He sighed, reached into the pocket of his door, and pulled out the box of Dunhills he’d come to expect wherever Ethan or Slate had access. He shook one free, and only then did he slip his hand under his mask and pull it free to reveal his sharp features and set jaw. He slipped it under the back seat by turning around, a move made smooth by experience. Then, he put the cigarette between his teeth, and lit it up. He deposited the cigarette pack and Zippo in the cupholder, and finally rolled the window down just a little.
“Right. Introductions.” He got the key out, and slipped it into the ignition while he talked. “I’m Todd. If anybody asks, I don’t know who Cryptid is. You know – superhero stuff. I need to protect the people I care about. Sometimes, that means hiding.”
Usually, it meant hiding. Almost always. But he didn’t feel like hiding from Nahual, and he suddenly realized why. Like Connor, she didn’t want anything from him, as far as he could tell. That’s where the impression of innocence came from. He puffed at the cigarette, then turned the key in the ignition. The CD in the player hummed to life, soft enough not to be a distraction as he put the car in gear.
I’ll be the blood if you’ll be the bones
I’m giving you all, I’m giving you all…
He thought carefully about his next question. Then, he settled on, “So, little friend. If humans are just food, why do you want to be a hero?”
Nahual followed 'Cryptid' toward his vehicle, giggling at a little at his choice of name. She had been called a 'Cryptid' before, a couple of big city hikers spotted Nahual in her more 'hunt-oriented' form and called her that. She ate them, of course, but it was still a funny name. She nodded as Cryptid asked for his keys and lighter, handing them over from the coat pockets without a second thought.
He looked at her again after they both entered the car, his body seeming to relax a bit. Nahual was a little thing, but even under the filth, many things could be gleaned about her personality from her appearance. Her face was soft, but her features were not kindly. Her teeth weren't formed correctly, her fangs protruded too far when she smiled and every tooth seemed a little 'too white' and 'too strong.' Her hair was messily cut, but it was messily cut in a way that was made to look messily cut. It was the sort of hairstyle someone had when they put a lot of effort into their hair but didn't want to look like they did.
Finally, he truly introduced himself. Todd. Nahual smiled at the reveal, responding,
"And I'm Nahual! I think I understand, superhero stuff, I gotcha!"
With a wide grin. She didn't really understand the reasonings yet, but she understood what it was Todd was asking for and that's all that mattered. Resting in the passenger seat and not worrying about the blood, Nahual breathed a sigh and realized in that moment how utterly exhausted she was. Her body had consumed an adequate meal by the measure of her new density, but apparently, she hadn't been sleeping enough even before in her starvation-fueled hunt.
She'd need a long rest after cleaning up. Hopefully Todd wouldn't mind her sticking around? 'I'll have to give him something,' Nahual considered. then realized she had been asked a question,
"Oh, well, when we was little, we-uhg! I'd watch VHS recordings of Lady Liberty. She was the most beautiful, most amazing person I ever seen. I wanted to be her! But I can't, not built that way! So next best thing, I wanna be what she was, a hero! The fame, the fortune, the crowds! I think it'll just make life easier, and humans are easier to trick if they already like you. Maybe would have enough money, don't even need to eat humans. If I could afford a cow every day, aw, now, that'd be the life."
Nahual smiled and relaxed further, listening to the nice music on the car stereo and thinking of eating a cow every single day. Then, realizing she needed to ask something in return, Nahual added,
"Whatabout you? You wear a mask and you've got a name, I'm pretty sure that makes you a hero! Why'd you do it?"
Nahual’s explanation made perfect sense to Todd’s predator. Much like his shapeshifting, his potential use of food previously consumed to draw in new meals.
“I started doing it because I had to eat. Being a vigilante – which isn’t the same as a superhero – meant I could… rationalize, I guess. Justify it. I was doing good because I was only eating bad people.” He focused ahead on the road, but his eyes became just a little distant. “Then I ended up meeting someone who believed that the world isn’t just predator and prey. He believed that there are people who are strong, and strong people should protect weak people from other strong people who abuse their strength. From– from monsters.”
Monsters like me, he didn’t say, because that would suggest monsters like you. Even if, between the lack of menthol in her scent and the inconsistencies in her appearance, he was becoming more certain they weren’t the same. Similar, still. Very similar. Both monsters, by Arlo’s definition. But not the same monster. She could choose to eat other things. She chose people, not from malice, but from ease. The same reason an animal would.
Which one was worse would be an interesting and probably depressing train of thought for later. Not for now. For now, he was getting her to talk, and that was good.
“Anyway, I wish I could actually get nutrients from things besides people. You seem to be a well-rounded kind of predator, like a mountain lion. I’m hyperspecialized. More, uh…” He paused, thinking, and then the realization hit him. “Oh! A lynx. Unlike most other cats, Canadian lynxes only eat snowshoe hares, and they keep each other’s populations in balance. Lynxes pick off the hares that are dangerous to the rest of the collective. Most predators do that, maintaining a kind of natural balance. The hares keep the lynxes fed, the lynxes keep the hare populations healthy, and when one gets to be too much, the other one can correct it. If the lynxes overhunt, the hares become more sparse and the next generation of lynxes starve. If the hares overpopulate, the lynxes can eat more until the population becomes balanced again.”
He paused to take a breath, then realized what he was saying. His face colored just a little bit, and, with his lips still closed over his teeth, he gave Nahual a sheepish smile.
“I, uh– sorry. I don’t remember where I was going with that. Where did you say you were from, again? Did you say?”
Nahual was resting her chin in her hands as Todd smiled at her. In return, she giggled. "Mountains! I'm from the mountains. Don't worry about it!"
In truth, she didn't fully understand what Todd was trying to tell her. It wasn't from a lack of desire to understand, nor a lack of effort, but rather that her mind was trained exactly how Todd thought it was. She was practically a mountain lion who had figured out humans were easy and stupid prey, and Todd was a lynx trying to teach the lion a better way. Both great cats, both dangerous in their own ways, but one could be far, far more destructive to the ecosystem if it wasn't reined in sooner rather than later.
Because if Nahual didn't rein herself in, someone else would. In the natural order, when mountain lions begin to hunt humans, humans shoot them.
Nahual fiddled around trying to open the window until, after a few failed clicks of the lock, she figured out the button. Rolling it down, she started picking crap out of her hair and flicking it out of the vehicle. Gently swaying back and forth, her body moving to the nice music that still played, and absentmindedly shared her thoughts,
"Strong protect the weak, interesting idea. Can't imagine why. Well- mhm, perhaps if the weak were my offspring? I know not how I might craft them though. Cut off an arm... Let it wriggle, no, that's wrong... But yeah! If it were my own weakness, I can see a need to protect it!"
Sighing as a particularly large piece of fecal matter found its way from her head to her hand to outside the car, Nahual added, "But why everyone? Good- bad, heard those before, not sure what the difference is..."
Todd smoked, letting Nahual ruminate on what he’d said for a few seconds while he tried to decide what to think of her. It was pretty clear she was willing to listen – more willing than Obsidian, even. Ethan had his own issues, even if, like Todd, he was closer to human than animal. On an instinctive level, Nahual seemed to have a sound grasp of her needs. Eat and hunt, protect her offspring, don’t offend other predators. But on an instinctive level, Todd could feel something more there, a deeper intelligence. Maybe even empathy, with the right guidance.
He didn’t know if he could give the right guidance. Maybe he could give her a push in the right direction, though. She seemed to trust him. They were almost to the gym, but he had a little time to talk.
“Bad people,” he said, slowly, “they’re like… sick animals in a herd. They hurt their own kind, for whatever reason. Money, wanting to feel powerful. Sometimes fear or desperation, if they’ve been hurt by other bad people. It really can be like a sickness that way. Sometimes, that sickness can be cured. Fear is a pretty good antidote, in my experience. Some people are beyond that. Like rabies or wasting disease, it’s rooted too deep in them. It’s safer to remove those people from the herd. Most of the time, humans try to do that peacefully. Isolation, removing them from society. Putting them in jail. Those kinds of things.”
He paused to take a deep drag of his cigarette, and pretend not to think too hard about what Lament had told him about pretending to be a sheep dog.
“Because we can look like them and act like them, humans usually assume we’re just bad people, too. It might not change their opinions of us – actually, it usually makes those opinions worse. But for our part, we can help take care of the problem for them while keeping ourselves fed. It’s also harder to get caught if we do that. They tend to care less about bad people, since they’ve usually already decided they need to get rid of them anyway. They won’t look as hard for a killer.”
That was just the start, but he hoped it was enough, because he turned his blinker on and rolled into the parking lot behind the gym. He pulled the Malibu into the spot right under the fire escape, under his apartment window, his usual entrance from patrols. He flicked his cigarette out the window, then rolled both windows up and turned the keys to shut the car off.
He got out and went into the back seat to pull out a duffel bag that clanked like it was full of metal. Then, he walked up to the building to open up the fire escape’s ladder and gestured for Nahual to go first.
“The shower’s on the left from the window. Orange soap under the sink, go ahead and use the black towels. The soap will get the blood out, but it’ll also strip all the natural oils out of your hair and make it brittle. My conditioner is for curly hair, but it’s better than nothing.” He stepped away from the ladder and pointed toward the corner of the building. “I’m gonna go borrow some clothes for you. Take all the time you need, I’ll be up there in a little bit.”
Todd said a lot of things. Normally, Nahual would just kinda zone out and think about food when people talked a lot. However, the intense smell of, well, shit, kept her mind fairly off food. That left only listening, so she listened.
It gave her a lot to think about. But, it also didn't make complete sense to her. If bad people were like the sick and diseased in a herd, why focus on eliminating them? Why pretend to be among the ostracized to exist within human society? Nahual was good at blending, or so she thought herself good at it. So why not blend as one of the 'good ones' of the herd and eliminate the bad ones? Wouldn't that be easier? Nahual understood the logic behind why 'bad people' were easier to get away with adding to the biomass, but that was the only thing she thought she might agree with.
It was all so much. She decided she'd think about it and talk later.
Walking over to the fire escape, Nahual listened to the instructions and felt like she should say something in response. She stood there, holding the ladder for nearly a full minute before the response came to her. Grinning, she said,"Thanks!" and climbed the fire escape into the building.
The room inside was, well, Nahual really didn't even look at it. Her whole existence had become single-mindedly focused on cleaning herself. Shower on the left. All clothes off and thrown into the nearest garbage bin. Orange soap under the sink, black towels, and Todd's conditioner. Everything acquired, Nahual turned on the water and began the process of stripping a layer of skin off with the nearest loofah and the orange soap.
It didn't take long, however, before Nahual began singing the song Todd had playing in his car while she cleansed herself.
"And I run from wolves, Whooooo~ Tearin' into me, without teeth"
Sam was not having a great night. Due to the new cracks in her ribs, she had been back for far longer than she would have liked. She was holding an ice pack to the ribs, trying to keep the swelling down as she walked through the apartment. This was going to take her out of the field for at least four days. But being shot twice and then kicked in the ribs by a mercenary would do that to you, wouldn’t it?
She was in the kitchen, trying to cook herself something easy to eat, when she felt the fire escape on the other side of the building. A small smile came over her face as she realized that Todd must have just gotten home. That made a small knot of tension in her chest ease and smooth over. Knowing that Todd was safe always helped to ease her soul, to leave her more relaxed. She felt as the steps moved through the apartment.
Slowly, she stopped chopping the garlic on her cutting board and went still, feeling the steps in the other apartment through her floorboards. They were faint, as was the case with so much material and space between them, but Sam would know Todd’s steps anywhere. And those were not Todd’s footsteps.
For a moment she tensed up, trying to decide what to do. Someone who wasn’t Todd was in Todd’s apartment. Unlike with her apartment, Todd hadn’t extended an open-door policy to her yet, nor was she expecting him to. He deserved to have his space and his privacy and if he wanted to keep her out for just a little while longer, he could. She would never fault him that, even after the talk they were going to need to have soon, her and her wendigo.
Whoever was in that apartment was going to have to be taken care of before they could find any of– she wasn’t sure, but whatever Todd might keep there that made what he did easier. Surely he had tools. She wiped her hands off on her apron and pulled it over her head, hissing at the tug on her cracked ribs. She took a few deep breaths as she mentally readied herself for the possibility of having to possibly disappear a person when the strangest thing happened. First, the shower in Todd’s apartment turned on.
Second, there was a knock at her fire escape. She walked over to the window and her eyebrows went high when she saw Todd sitting on her fire escape. She stopped short and then moved over and quickly threw the window open, leaning out to smile at him, her previous concerns lost.
“Todd!” She kept her voice soft, but couldn’t help the warmth that flooded it. “I didn’t think I was going to see you tonight. What’s up?”
The smell of garlic rolled out of Sam’s apartment a moment before her apple pie scent. All of the tension he’d built up on the climb up melted away. He met her golden eyes, and the whole night dissipated around them.
“Hiya, beautiful.” He reflected her smile. “Wish I was here to Romeo for you, but I actually need a favor. Do you have some old clothes I can borrow? I promise it’s not for anything weird. I’ll get you the rest of the details in like… twenty to thirty minutes.”
He batted his eyelashes, though he already knew her answer.
Sam giggled as he batted his eyelashes up at her. She leaned out the window a little further and very gently pressed her forehead to his in greeting. She took a soft moment to breathe in, to feel the chill of his skin. She wrinkled her nose at the smell and then backed up, disappearing back inside the window.
“I think I can spare you a few. I’ll be right back– I’d invite you in, but in this case, I’m going to ask you to please keep those boots away from my carpets.”
She ran back to her bedroom, and in the span of a few minutes, pulled out a full set of clean sweats and a short-sleeved t-shirt. She folded them up nicely in her arms and on her way back, she paused in the hall. She could still feel it. The shower and the movement of feet on the other side of the complex, the soft movements that indicated another person in Todd’s apartment. She slowly walked back out, her mind racing.
Why was there another person in Todd’s shower? Why did he need women’s clothing? Was there a woman in his shower? That sent a spike of fear through her that she didn’t know what to do with. Her hands were shaking when she returned to the window. She knelt down next to it, sat on the edge, and passed the clothes out to Todd.
“Here you go! Just uh, bring them back or something when you’re done with them?”