One of these days, that kiss was going to stop haunting him.
Cryptid’s self-assigned territory stretched across the south bank of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh, so sometimes, his patrols took him into Elliot. Given recent circumstances he felt like he should be avoiding Elliot, but unfortunately the neighborhood was home to one of the Jackals’ biggest bases of operations. Obviously, a lone vigilante no matter how feared shouldn’t try to take on a whole den of enemies like that at once – fear alone couldn’t protect you from guns.
In coming here, Cryptid hoped that spending time in territory this full of prey would cure him of his distraction. The scents, the sounds, the activities and bodies, might do what his usual stomping grounds couldn’t, and help him forget.
Help him forget her.
Samantha Walsh had kissed him, and she’d meant it. His gut wouldn’t let him forget that she had meant it. She’d signed his memory with her touch – her touch, fingers curled in his hair, and her lips fierce against his, her kiss tasting of her, the same her he had smelled in the blood of her car, something more innate than the shampoo or lotion she used. Well, her, and teriyaki chicken, which only inscribed her more clearly in his memory in a way he was afraid to think about.
She’d been on his mind all that afternoon, keeping the same stupid grin he’d worn as he’d watched her go on his face until he locked up and closed. He’d faded to a smile when he got back to his apartment, but each time that kiss to mind the grin leapt back out. He still burned from her heat, the wonderful kind of burn that came from stepping out into the sun in the middle of summer, the kind that made him forget that he’d ever been cold. And now he couldn’t get rid of her. He shouldn’t let her do this to him – they’d never see each other again, they’d both agreed. She didn’t love him, couldn’t love the real him, although she didn’t know it; and he couldn’t love her, because he couldn’t stop being what he was for her. They’d met once, spent a day together, and kissed at the end.
And kissed at the end. A kiss full of floral scents and vanila and the warm smells of autumn and rage.
Hold on. He stopped with a roll on the next rooftop, and frowned. Cinnamon and jasmine and vanilla and rage. That wasn’t part of the kiss. It’d borne the heat that came with her anger, and none of the smells. For the first time in days, his mind was suddenly and clearly on the present as it wafted past him again.
He turned his face up to the wind, and it was warmer than it should’ve been, even for this time of year. With a deep breath, he found it again: the smell of her, of absolute anger, of sweat, of blood and charred meat. If he hadn’t been distracted like a lovesick highschooler, he might’ve noticed it earlier. He followed the direction of the wind in his mind, tracked it as the crow flew down a few blocks to…
Oh. Oh no. Sam – whatever her alias was, she was still Sam – hadn’t been around long enough to scout out the Jackal den in the area. She didn’t seem to be the type to rush in.
He hesitated. No, that kick of rage, the smile and flirting, the straightforward honesty? She was exactly the type to rush in. Whatever was happening inside him, she needed to be sorted from her to ally, nothing more, because if she was more and he lost his train of thought he’d be no help at all. He took a deep breath, and then started to move in the right direction, long practice helping him where formal training was nonexistent to pick up the pace. The trip would help him clear his head at least, give the predator inside him a real focus for the first time in a listless week.
One of these days, that kiss was going to stop haunting him. Today was not that day, but he could make himself forget about it long enough to save her life.
Phoenix had fucked up, to put it in as clear words as possible. It was supposed to be simple, just a small den of drug-dealing gangsters she had been tracking the last few days. She had followed them across town several times, watching them as they brought their supplies from the warehouses along the docks. She had watched their den, watching who came and went through the door. She had counted seven in all, mostly armed with handguns, with one or two heavier arms.
She could have handled that. That wouldn’t have been a big deal for her at all. Phoenix knew her limits and it was about ten lightly armed men, or six heavily armed men. That’s how many she could reasonably take down, quick enough that they rarely had time to open fire. And if they did open fire, she was quick enough to dance around their fire, Skirting it just enough to not be hit.
Maybe if she hadn’t still been thinking about him she would have scoped the place out a little more and would have noticed some other factors at play. Maybe she would have looked at the other side of the damn building. But no, her brain had to still be replaying that afternoon with Todd god damn Fowler. The man her brain was screaming at her to go see again. The reason she was throwing herself into her work so hard. The reason that despite the full return of her anger, the core of it seemed to remain that summery burn.
Todd god damn Fowler was just on her mind. And now she was paying the price for that.
She had gone in the way she normally did– strolling through the front door, twirling her hammer, a quip on her lips. Until she had counted almost fifteen men, easily, and her smile became a sharp grin. With her still healing ribs, this was… not great.
She took out three of them before the rest had a chance to react, but then they started opening fire on her. Or tried to anyway. She managed to dance through most of it until she was in their midst, where they didn’t shoot or dare to hit each other by accident.
Her anger then was mostly at herself for being so stupid. Of course, there was another door. And as she danced through them, never staying still long enough to take anything other than a punch, she heard more men pouring in from that newly discovered other door. Well, that wasn’t good at all. None of this was good. Fifteen she might have been able to handle on a good day, but this was a bad day, and there were easily two dozen of them now. She wouldn’t be able to dance around out of their reach for too much longer, not without a good distraction. Even as her feet connected with people, even as her hands found purchase on the floor, on their shoulders, and even as her hammer connected multiple times, she was quickly being overrun.
With minimal other options, she started offputting as much heat as she could in a quick burst, the temperature around her quickly reaching one hundred and fifty degrees. Some of the men reaching for her started withdrawing, shaking out their hands and groaning at the burns she had given them. She didn’t dare crank the heat up further, even as it became clear that she was very much outnumbered, even by her standards.
There were too many guns trained on her, too many hands trying to land blows on her, and despite her enhanced endurance and her barre training, Phoenix could feel the adrenaline making her legs shake.
Cryptid had never been able to get a good shot at this place, even to slip in for the layout. There’d been too many guards just out front. Hitting even one of those would’ve been like kicking an anthill – if every ant had an uzi. He’d been trying to figure out how to wiggle his way into the foxhole for weeks now, every plan coming up with nothing novel enough to actually help him.
It’d never crossed his mind to come in the front door. But there it was – wide open, the air outside shimmering with heat like an open oven. And not a single guard in sight. Based on the sound of gunfire, they were all inside. That was a bad thing, but a good indicator Sam was alive in there. He breathed, felt the warmth starting to eddy in the loading area outside the front of the warehouse, caught the rage in her body, and let that calm him. He landed on the ground below in almost absolute silence. Not because he thought anyone might detect him, but just out of habit. The threat was inside, after all.
His tall, deliberately ragged figure appeared in the doorway, cast in odd shadows as the heat bent the light around him in waves. This was way warmer than the kiss at Vik’s – and then he realized why she might turn up the heat, surrounded as she was by armored and armed guys. Somewhere in the twenties, with the door to the back bay still open to let more in if possible.
The room was big, despite all the noise, and after his first glance, Cryptid tilted his head to an odd angle, fingers curling so that his claws were fully visible.
“You guys really just let anyone in these days, huh?”
He gave it a second to settle, for someone to notice, before he started to move. He relied on his above-average speed and strength to give him the burst he needed to cross to the first gunman, the farthest from Sam and most likely to hit at his range. One jab to the back of the knee, a place most people could protect if they knew what was going on but would work well to overbalance him, as Cryptid moved on before he even realized what had happened.
Then, he imagined, he’d have some gunfire of his own to worry about.
“You guys really just let anyone in these days, huh?”
If Phoenix hadn’t been focused on spinning and weaving between the guards, she might have looked to see who had spoken. Some of the men she was fighting had begun to turn away from her. And pull away, raising their guns, and training them on something that Phoenix couldn’t quite see, but caught just enough glimpses of to be moderately relieved. It was another person, a blur of blacks and a streak of white, moving as fast as her
They had joined the fray and some of the heat on her lightened up. Now she could work again. She readjusted her grip on the hammer, and she stopped spinning through their ranks. Her hood had fallen back at some point, and her heavily banded hair fell loose. She doubted that would matter much, even if it was a very easily identifiable color.
Phoenix started to weave through them again, this time with her hammer moving as well. She aimed for kneecaps– her preferred method of unbalancing and crippling opponents– and when she couldn’t reach a knee, she spun and swung her hammer up and into their jaws. She could feel the give as she broke the first one she did that to. She had four more down, scrambling to get back up, in a few seconds.
All in all, the other person, a man by the sound of the voice, had probably just saved her life. She wouldn’t have been able to turn the tide by herself, not so late in, and she wouldn’t have been able to fly out without getting riddled with bullets. Phoenix chanced a real glance over at the man, and she saw… well, she guessed that she had worn her getup at one point. The Batman look was definitely working for whoever this guy was. It was more intimidating than her black leather pants, leather jacket, and hoodie, that was for sure. That mask especially was next-level horror movie shit.
Was that what he was going for? Horror movie? Well, he was doing a good job at it. He looked like a slasher from a B-rate movie. In her harsh voice, the one that she used when she dropped all pretenses, she called out, “Oh, I wasn’t aware this was a membership-only club. My bad, guys, really, I couldn’t have known any better.”
He caught sight of her when she finally stopped moving. The curls were unmistakable, the same blaze of orange that had lit up Vik’s, loose and flowing with the rest of her in deadly dance. Like him, she wore leather; unlike him, she wore it well, emphasizing the way she moved, comfortable in it like a second skin.
The temperature cooled off as some of the fire shifted to the Cryptid and missed. Someone recognized him, shouted his name, and while that gave him a lovely little flutter of pride it also made him a bigger target. Fear to the point of urban legend was useful like that.
“I wouldn’t worry about it. Leo’s bouncer absolutely sucks.” He caught the back of one guy’s leg with a hard downward kick that ended in a nasty pop, while turning and slashing open the wrist of someone else who’d stupidly started to reload. Then he dodged back out of a line of semi-automatic fire, a step ahead of the guy’s aiming speed, and found himself within speaking-and-not-shouting distance of her. He turned his head to watch again, taking on the tone of casual conversation despite the situation. If he didn’t think about how fucked they might be if any of these guys developed a braincell, or if the guys in the next room flooded all at once, he could actually start to enjoy this part.
“So, what brings a gal like you to a joint like this?” The dark eyes glittered as he caught her golden ones, then broke off as he turned to the next target, who’d thought he was sly and tried to catch Cryptid with a switchblade. “Not that I’m not enjoying the change in scenery.”
She heard his name called out. Cryptid. That definitely had the energy of the man she was now fighting alongside. He moved in a way that was more instinctive than trained, and while she admired that, it also left her feeling a little uncertain.
Phoenix’s grin under her mask lifted to be a little sharper as he caught her eyes. Whoever he was behind the mask, he had some of the darkest eyes she had ever seen on a person. They were the exact opposite of the eyes that she wanted to see, but she would take whatever eyes got her out of danger right then. She didn’t really know why she had expected a different pair of eyes under that mask, but she needed to stop thinking about that right the fuck now or she was going to get hurt.
Wrong eyes, wrong voice. She could save that distraction for later.
“A gal like me, huh? Well, I was just out for a stroll, saw an open door, thought I might as well come inside.” Her voice took on a slightly teasing tone as she decided to play along. She turned to find a gun right in her face, the wielder cocking it back. She lept, creating a small vortex to carry her as she flipped through the air, and then dropped down behind him, spinning and smacking her hammer into the side of his head. She felt more than heard a crack, but a fracture wouldn’t kill him.
“What about you, tall, dark, and handsome? Do you come here often? Don’t think I’ve ever seen you around these parts.” As subtle a way of asking if she was in his patrol zone as she could possibly ask. If someone normally patrolled this area, then she wouldn’t worry about it as much and would stick to the wide strip she had started to carve out. She kept dancing her way around the men, though now she was paying a little more attention to the stranger.
Cryptid understood the code as it was given, while he disarmed Switchblade and kicked him back with more force than balance. Didn’t seem to be too many guards, so I took an apparent opportunity. As he regained his footing enough to dance aside from another spray of bullets, he interpreted the rest, too.
He definitely heard the crack of the skull as she took down her next target, and his head turned to see the man collapse. The wound trickled blood, so he probably wasn’t dead. Bleeding stops when the heart does, he knew from experience.
Or when gravity couldn’t pull any more out of a gaping hole. But usually death did most of that job.
He kicked the next nearest gunman’s leg so hard it went sideways, and punched the one after in the face using the bar of his bagh nakh. He always had to turn his wrist in an odd direction to do that, but he’d gotten used to that.
“Oh, I’m something of a barhopper, depends on how I’m feeling. I keep to the Southside and the Strip.” He wandered different areas, but his territory included the south bank and the warehouse districts, although that last part might be less clear given she’d only been here a month. “I’m a bit of a VIP with the Jackals, though. Hang out at Leo’s clubs a lot.”
As if the sudden focus shift hadn’t told her that, or the way his name was being echoed in other parts of the warehouse. It sounded like the start of an evacuation, which was both a good thing, and a bad thing. A good thing because it meant less people. A bad thing because he knew for a fact Leo was going to be pissed, and he had too much going on without that kind of heat.
Other kinds of heat, though… He glanced back at her, continuing in a flow that was inherently different from his jerk and jab.
“You must be new in town if you haven’t heard. I don’t think I caught your name.”
“Well, surprised I haven’t seen around before. Seems we like to frequent a few of the same areas.”I have been hitting the warehouse district on the southern bank..
She swung her hammer for the back of one of the thug’s knees as she rolled under his grasp, definitely hearing the crack as the man went down, grasping his knee and screaming. She popped back up and her hammer kept moving, catching another of the still-standing men right in the shoulder. That strike made a vicious and loud crack, and she winced a little. That hadn’t been intentional, and she realized she was moving just a little too fast, her speed and strength kicking in as she danced around.
She ended up close to the stranger, however, and she flashed a grin, her long ponytail swaying as she leaned in a little, despite keeping her voice at the same level, just loud enough to be heard over the screaming around them. “Phoenix, at your service. I’m definitely new to town. Haven’t heard your name before today, sad to say.”
Even though Todd remained on her mind, she said it with a suggestive kind of grin that implied she was interested in getting to hear his name again. The grin quickly fell through as a bullet rang out. It came from the direction she hadn’t been looking, so she quickly threw up a thermal wall, creating a current that would slow down the bullet and diminish the impact. It hit her square in the chest, and her suit dispersed the impact down her chest. She felt it in her bruised side, but thankfully her ribs had healed by then, so it didn’t bring her down or make her distracted.
She threw the hammer right at the man’s chest before he could fire again and angrily stalked over to pick it up as the man was knocked backward to the ground. Anger radiated off her as she picked up the handle, giving a swift kick to the side of the man’s head, just enough to knock him out. “I’m trying to have a conversation here! Very inconsiderate.”
Phoenix. That fit her, a bird of prey that burned bright and fast, curls trailing behind her like feathers in flight.
He heard another, clearer crunch of bone, and he risked another glance at the sound to see her brilliant smile. He hadn’t really met another vigilante who was so willing to put people in a cast since he and Arlo were on patrol together, back in Billings. Arlo was always careful not to do anything lethal, but his hands could fracture concrete and bend metal. Broken bones were inevitable. And that had actually helped Todd tone down, too – the earliest towns the Cryptid hit left bodies, found and otherwise. Arlo’s strict non-lethal policy had rubbed off on him, although it had taken some time and a lot of long conversations.
A sharp pain in his right arm brought his head right back out of the clouds. The bullet had pierced the jacket, but the deceptive padding kept it from putting the arm out of the game completely – just grazed, painful but not permanent. His masked face snapped toward the offending marksman, and he moved. He caught one of the men he passed in the ribs with an elbow, and another that tried to cut in front of him with a rake of claws against his unprotected face.
“Of course, where’s my manners?” His voice had a little growl to the end as he slammed the metal bar into the jaw of the man who’d shot him with his good arm, and took his ankle out with a sharp kick. Then, returning to something smoother, “The Cryptid. I am at your service.”
Cryptid then shook out the bad arm, where the bleeding had already stopped. It burned still, but that was just mending nerves. There wasn’t any blood on the sleeve, just the hole in the fabric. As usual, he’d just have to go find the bullet when this was done – the DEA would be in here tomorrow, if everything kept going the way it was going, and it wouldn’t do to leave DNA evidence anywhere.
The room was almost cleared, and nobody else had come in from the other side of the warehouse once Cryptid showed. He could hear a few of Leo’s white vans already running, and imagined the rest of the available bodies were working to get as much merchandise out as possible. He wondered if someone had already called Leo, or if this would be a pleasant surprise for him to wake up to tomorrow morning.
They’d have to let them go, of course. Even Todd’s usual methods wouldn’t take care of a whole fleet of vans, and they’d done enough damage just by clearing the space out. Pushing their luck now would be rough.
“You have any plans after this, gorgeous? Maybe we can go someplace a little more private and get to know each other better.”We should communicate about our routes and goals after this, and I think we should leave as soon as we’re done here.
Phoenix looked around and saw that if anyone was standing, they were fleeing. There were more than several bodies on the ground, and as she looked around, some of them were bleeding, but for the most part, they all looked intact. She walked over to the man whose skull she had fractured and checked him over. He was bleeding, but when she lifted his eyelids and looked at his eyes, there were no alarming abnormalities. She nodded at that while she listened to the man talk.
With a bit of a pep in her step, Phoenix approached the Cryptid, hammer held between her hands and behind her head, braced against the back of her neck. She gave him a neutral once over before giving an almost wicked, almost feral grin and saying, “The Cryptid, you say? I think you’ve got yourself a date, tall, dark, and terrible. Shall we go for a walk?”
I’m on the same page– let’s get out of here. She started casually strolling toward the front door, leaving behind her a heat trail. It dissipated a few steps behind her into a warm haze, but walking right behind her was like being in a boiler room. Her anger had disappeared, or at least been reduced to a manageable level. Nothing to cool your jets quite like an all-out brawler, was there?
As she stepped out into the much cooler almost autumn air, she turned to look at the Cryptid. His curly dark hair really was making her think of Todd, despite the voice and eyes. She couldn’t quite shake it. Even as they had spoken in code, she had picked up things, things about the way he spoke, but she brushed it off. She had all but told Todd she was a vigilante, and if he had been, he likely would have returned the favor. Although, maybe he wouldn’t have. He seemed like the kind of guy who would be hard to really crack.
“You ever fly before, handsome?” She offered her hand out to him, a small vortex already kicking up under her, picking up leaves and dust and kicking it away from her boots.
As the fighting finally died out, Cryptid had a chance to really assess the carnage they’d caused between them. The part of him that was a carnivore picked out the weakest among the injured, those who stank the most of blood and fear. But there weren’t any casualties. And that was a win.
Intent on keeping it that way, he turned toward Sam – toward Phoenix. The violence clung to her face and body language, undeterred by the fact that the fight was over. His own violence drained out, and he relaxed again, conserving his energy for later use as the vans started to pull away. Her warmth helped him to do so, though he didn’t bask in it the way he’d allowed himself to at Vik’s. They were still on enemy territory. No way would he let his guard down, even if he could hear the Jackals leaving.
“I’ll be right behind you, beautiful.” Cryptid paused beside one of the unconscious gang members, patted his pockets, and found his phone. He pulled up the emergency line, and held it up to his ear, warping his vocal chords until the operator picked up.
He gave the address in a deep, rich voice – Arlo’s voice, although the operator didn’t know that, and neither would Phoenix if she was listening. Police and Ambulance. Twenty or more injured.
He hung up before the nice woman on the other end could ask too many questions, dropped the phone back on the unconscious Jackal, and took off after Phoenix at a casual lope, collecting up the bullet with his blood from the dent it had left in the concrete as he passed.
The cool air met him, pulled on his hair, tugged at his coat, as it was displaced by the warmth she couldn’t seem to help. He ran his fingers and the claws of one hand to push the curls back with the casual caution that came from long experience. It left blood behind, but it wasn’t anything that wouldn’t wash away. The bullet was safely deposited in his pocket as she asked her question.
He could hear the air moving under her feet, and knew that there was more than just suggestion in her question. He tilted his head, but there was a smile in his voice as he gently placed his hand in hers, careful not to cut her fingers with his claws.
“Can’t say that I have. Why, do you plan to sweep me off my feet?”
Phoenix turned her hand slightly and tightly gripped his wrist, pulling him a little closer. She grinned again, all teeth, but this time in a less feral and more joyous way. “Well, if you’re going to let me.”
She spun her vortex wider until it encompassed both of them. She kept it tight but also left a deliberate pressurized void around the man's own body, that way he wouldn’t get burned by what was about to happen. She kicked the heat up high, and they had lift off. She rose in the air, taking him with her. She held on tight to his wrist, leaving hers open in a trusting way for his own grip. She wasn’t sure why she was choosing to give him that trust, but maybe it really was that he just reminded her of Todd.
Now that they weren’t facing imminent possible death, she could allow herself to think about Todd again. God, that made her heart do a little flutter and she was only slightly not a fan of it. The longer she looked at the man who she was flying with, the more she just saw Todd. God, was she really that childish?
Her ponytail flew in messy curls behind her as she took them high enough in the sky to see the city, but not high enough to suffocate either of them. She kept a pressure around them via her vortex that kept the air pressure from changing as well. This was, in her opinion, the only way to fly. She couldn’t help the grin on her face and the sudden whooping sound she made as they flew through the air. Then she turned to look at him as they closed in on Mt Washington. With as big a grin as ever, she took tight hold of his wrist and said, “Hold on tight, handsome!”
Then she began their descent. Sharply. They plummeted toward the ground in a controlled arc, and when they finally arrived at the tallest building in the area, she pulled them up, setting them down on the roof. She bounced on her feet a few times to stop, skipping out of the vortex as it died. This meant they were halfway across the building, standing almost dead center. She wove her fingers through her ponytail, happy to see the tie hadn’t snapped, and then turned to look at Cryptid.
“I don’t think anyone could have followed us from that. What do you say, big guy, should we talk now?” The words slipped out of her mouth, and she almost frowned. She had never called anyone but Todd that before. Twice in a week was… odd.
Stepping into that vortex was just like the kiss all over again. It was all warmth, all fire, all her. Although now, instead of mixing with the smell of their lunch, it instead carried with it the scents of blood, of violence, and the last lingering traces of her anger. Accented by the flowers and the fall scents, and he felt like he was experiencing her for the first time, whole and free.
And what would she find in him in return? Nothing, if he could help it, except the unexpected warmth in eyes meant to resemble a monster’s. Maybe something too careful for a pure predator in the way his hand held her wrist, where a misplaced twitch could tear it open. But he maintained his self-control with the same ease he always did, and he just enjoyed the view as they went. The view down, of course, down at Pittsburgh’s lights, and its life.
And over at her, which she’d absolutely see when she told him to hold on tight. The pressure of his fingers increased in response to her words, and he let her take him down.
He mimicked her landing as best he could, although her several skids turned into one awkward leap for him that ended with bent knees and a low chuckle. The fall wind cut into him, but for once, he couldn’t feel the cold of hunger coming with it. Maybe that was the late, if disastrous, meal that was still far from wearing off. Maybe it was just… her.
Who hadn’t ever wanted to see him again. Who, he reminded himself, he couldn’t fall in love with. She deserved better than what he was, what she hadn’t seen in him.
He ran both hands through his hair, this time, and was pleasantly surprised to find the bagh nakh still radiating heat. He let his hands rest there for a second, eyes closed, breathing deeply. Then he turned back to her, lowering his arms, and trying to hide the smile in his eyes as he went about removing the knives and slipping them into his pocket.
“I think this is private enough,” he agreed, looking around. “No cameras, no prying ears. Just you, me, and a discussion of why on earth you thought it’d be a good idea to jump one of Leo Vasquez’s biggest warehouses by yourself on a weekend.”
He didn’t sound disappointed in her, or angry. He sounded impressed. She’d been holding her own when he’d showed up; if he’d just drawn fire, she could’ve actually taken out the whole place herself, he was sure.
Phoenix couldn’t help the cheeky grin that crossed her face. First, she had caught him looking at her as they flew, and now he sounded impressed with her. For a moment she seemed to debate something, and then she touched the edge of her mask while she spoke. “For one, I didn’t know it was a, what did you call them before? The Jackals? I didn’t know it was theirs. I just knew that some wannabe gangsters kept hulling up there.”
Her hands left her mask, and she took a few unassuming steps toward the man, her hand taking the wristband of her handle off. She bent down and set it on the ground. She left it handle up, so if anything happened, she could easily roll back and grab it. If she even needed it. The guy looked like he might weigh as much as her. She took a few more steps toward him, almost like she was afraid of startling him.
“Two, I knew I could take on… maybe eleven or twelve guys, and of the guys I saw consistently go through the front door? Ten max. The rest were uh, what would you call it? A bonus? I definitely needed someone to redirect their fire, though, so thank you for showing up when you did.” She got just close enough to lean forward, her hands tucked into the pockets of her black leather jacket, and she grinned, something fierce and wild.
“Three, it’s the weekend. Clearly, you had nothing better to do either. Now, handsome, why don’t you go ahead and throw a punch at me real quick?” Sam took her hands out of her pockets and gestured for him to give it his best shot. There was still an undercurrent of flirting to her words, but the wolfish grin on her face said she was serious.
“Come on, throw a punch. I promise no matter how strong you are, you’re not going to hurt me. I’m very sturdy.” The wind whipped past, and her long hair was swept up in the current, and it ruffled her hoodie and jacket, emphasizing how ready to move she looked.
Cryptid watched her come toward him, curious about the difference between her face and her body language. The wild freedom was there in her eyes, in her smile. And yet there was a caution in her steps, not the caution of a mouse approaching a cat – but a cat approaching a mouse. And yet he didn’t feel threatened. That was different, too. She was going to surprise him, somehow.
“Well, I can certainly think of worse ways to spend the weekend.”
She asked him to hit her. He trusted her judgment, because she’d just seen him fight. His right arm hurt, but that was just a dull throb by now, and it hadn’t affected him in the middle of a fight. So he shrugged, loosening his shoulders, and shifted into a basic boxing stance, like Arlo had taught him a lifetime ago.
He didn’t normally bother with posture, but he felt like whatever she was doing, it was going to be important. It’d been a long time since he’d actually practiced – he was used to throwing punches in the heat of things, and letting them land wherever. Right hand up at the top of his chest to protect the face – even if the mask was there for that – right hand a little behind, to join in if needed. His elbows stayed tucked, his upper body tight. He actually had to push down the urge to bounce, to start moving.
He might’ve tried to forget the late nights in Arlo’s home dojo, but his muscles remembered.
He waited a few seconds, taking her in. This time there wasn’t time for golden eyes and orange curls, this time he was watching posture, watching position. Once satisfied, he gave it another second, then went through the same motions his legs and arms remembered: slip forward, open up, lash out, pull back in.
He remembered the first time Arlo had taught him to throw that jab. It was after they knew each other’s names, after they knew each other’s identities. Cryptid had gotten his jaw broken by a particularly nasty bruiser, and while it had reset just fine, the Phantom Ox had watched both the hit that landed, and the animal fury that followed. Todd was still better with the berserker rage tactic, but after that he’d learned a few basic boxing hits and blocks to keep himself from taking more hits than he needed to.
Over the years, without real practice, his posture wasn’t up to Arlo’s standards, but he was just as quick and perceptive as ever. And he took her word that she could take it if it landed, didn’t do the gentlemanly thing and whiff on purpose. Whatever she was doing, he rolled with it.
Oh, this poor man. It was exactly what Phoenix thought. His form was shit!
She watched him get himself into position, watched him line up his punch. It was clear he hadn’t practiced a punch in some time, and because of that, he was much slower than he should have been when he struck. Which was what gave Phoenix enough time to calmly grab his wrist, and the front of his jacket. She used his own force against him, taking the momentum of the strike and bringing him up and over her shoulder.
As he went, she made eye contact, this time with a fully feral grin on her face. She kept him going, all the way over, and when he was high in the air, she let go of his jacket. She turned and spun him all the way to the rooftop, slamming him back first into the masonry. She let go of his arm and then knelt next to him, getting really close to his face. In a soft, almost purring voice, she said, “Lesson one. Just because your enemy doesn’t look ready to fight doesn’t mean they aren’t. Always be prepared for a redirect like this one. This is a basic self-defense maneuver. You should always be ready to encounter someone with real fighting experience.”
She offered him a hand, balancing it on her knee in front of him as she continued, “Lesson two. If you’re going to utilize any formal training, you need to practice it frequently. Otherwise, you’re slow and clumsy. And that leaves too many openings, especially for an experienced fighter.”
She looked down at his mask, with its sharp carved teeth, and the dark eyes behind them. Again, they weren’t the right shape or color, but she knew that Todd could shapeshift. Surely it wouldn’t be hard for eyes… She fought the temptation to try and remove his mask. That was a big no-no. You didn’t unmask your fellow vigilantes. So instead, she mumbled quietly, barely audibly, “So strange. You remind me so much of someone I wish I could see again. Too bad he wasn’t interested in that.”
She kept her proffered hand balanced for him to grasp. If he did, she would pull them both to their feet, making sure she used a little extra strength than was necessary, to give him just the slightest taste of how hard she’d be able to throw a punch in exchange.
As she grabbed his wrist, Todd abruptly remembered that Sam Walsh had recently opened a gym that taught self-defense lessons.
Being used to taking hits as they came, he offered little resistance to being pulled through the air, just braced for impact. He oofed softly when he landed, careful about the position of his head to avoid any kind of fracture or concussion. He let his head rest on the ground as she knelt down next to him, so close again that he could almost taste her. He was glad she couldn’t see his smile under the mask’s grin beyond the way it moved his eyes, and he sighed like he hadn’t heard her (admittedly very good) advice when she offered him her hand.
“Give me a second, I’m appreciating the view.”
And he took that second and let himself have what he wouldn’t when he stood back up, when he let her take his hand in hers, something that in a real fight would be a stupid action. He gripped her wrist back again, more comfortable now that he wasn’t keeping the blades of his claws from her skin. He let her pull him up, but held on in return with strength that matched hers, and waited for her to let go first in their silent communication.
Truly silent. Not like her words, so soft that he wouldn’t have heard them had his ears not been primed for such noises, breaths in the night, footsteps a dozen yards away. He looked at her after she said that, really looked. She was beautiful under the autumn moon, the wind this high up tugging at her hood, trying to pull it free. Her golden eyes had such a longing that he couldn’t ignore them the way he wanted to. The way that he knew he should.
“Maybe,” he said, his own voice the same quiet – so that if she didn’t want to hear him, she wouldn’t have to; “maybe he has a good reason, whoever he is.”
Something in Sam’s face changed. She had heard his ever-so-quite words on the wind, heard them said in such a soft voice, and she knew. He didn’t have to tell her. He didn’t have to say anything else. She just knew. She was never wrong about this kind of thing.
Cryptid was Todd. Todd was Cryptid. That was why her rapport with him had been so good up to this point, why she felt at ease around him. Why despite the eyes and the voice change, she had noticed the similarities in his speech, in his movement. And if he was Todd, he likely knew that she was Sam. He had seen her hair, and the mask did nothing to hide her eyes except on camera.
She smiled softly and she leaned in a little too close to softly respond to his statement. “Maybe… just like me, he needs to let someone in. I would… like to be that person, I think. I’d like him to be that person. I think that maybe… he and I are both strong enough to be around each other.”
She looked up then, into the eyes of the mask, the same longing in her eyes as before. She saw in him a longing of his own, but unlike her hopefulness, his was tinged with sadness, a guarded look. If Sam had to guess, he wanted to tell her who he was. For some reason, he wouldn’t. Or maybe it was something much deeper than that. He had said he’d had a friend who did what they did before. Had he also lost a partner? Someone he loved? That would explain a lot.
She knew, and she knew he’d know she knew, the same way he’d known she’d known he’d known about her vigilantism. Did she think he’d come out for her, he wondered? Had she been thinking about – about them, and all their possibilities, the way he had?
Did she think about that kiss?
And just like that, the hope came in, and it would be clear for an instant. The smell of her, rich and heavy and uniquely hers and now missing the pure rage that made her seem whole in the heat of combat. The look in her eyes as she made him promises, without promising anything at all.
But right on its heels was the cold, every memory he’d kept to himself, all the weight that came with daring to think that someone might listen to him. This wasn’t like with Arlo, just a confession of violence. And he’d learned with Summer that he couldn’t hide everything and hope to still be there for her. There was more now, and he was afraid of that.
The fear swept past the guilt in his eyes when the guard started to go down, and he averted them so she wouldn’t see it. Not as clearly, anyway. He hoped not.
Her words rang softly in his ears, and he remembered he was holding her before he could clench his hand into a fist. He let go first, suddenly aware of his own tension under the pressure of everything he was feeling, everything that tied itself in knots in his throat.
“Maybe you should ask him sometime. He might not trust himself. To be that person, that is.”
Or at all. He didn’t look at her as he thought about that. Not at all. He didn’t pull away in body, but he fell back in mind. She’d seen two halves of him, two sides. And that was all she’d see. He wouldn’t let her look deep enough to see the rest. It was too much to let her see, let alone help him carry. There were things he’d never ask of her, especially not now – not here. The novelty was what kept giving him hope. He wouldn’t spoil it by taking the novelty away, not so soon.
The disappointment she felt when The hope in his eyes became something else, and then became fear– that was almost palpable in the air. This almost felt like a challenge to Phoenix– no, to Sam. One of them was going to have to admit it first, and she swallowed around the knots in her throat. She wanted his friendship. She wanted him to be that person she could rely on, that she could turn to and have be there.
She wanted him to be the one who wouldn’t die on her. After what she had seen him do back at the Jackals’ den, she felt certain, this was why he had clicked into place in her mind.
She also knew she wanted to rip the mask off him and kiss him again. And she was struggling with that feeling. Maybe she had gotten some wire in her brain mixed up when it came to him. Or maybe… maybe he was meant to be her new Alice? The thought made her blood run warm, and she let it out in a burst of heat.
Fine, if he was going to be this way, then she would be the first one to break it. She would be the first one to admit to what they both knew. If this was how it was going to play out, she’d be the one who did it. She shut her eyes tight, and then opened them again, determination in them so deep and fierce that one could drown in it and never reach the bottom.
Sam was all or nothing.
So she raised a steady hand and she caught the mask in her hand. She curled her fingers around it for the briefest second, until she found his face underneath it, and straightened him out, forcing him to look at her. Her heart started beating hard in her chest as she searched his eyes, looking for something beyond the fear. Then she let her hand soften.
No, that left too much room for him to pretend he didn’t understand. She curled her hand up into his hair and pulled, pulling him down so their faces were closer. The look in her eyes softened back into hope. Back into longing, for both him, what he could be, and what they could be. She thought again about crossed wires. She could settle for friendship if she had to. She could settle for camaraderie. Whatever he needed this to be, she would let it be.
Maybe he hadn’t thought about that kiss every waking second for the last four days.
Maybe he didn’t want it so bad he could feel it in his bones.
Maybe he didn’t want her around at all, and that was why he was edging around the question.
The thought had crossed her mind, of course, of whether he wanted her, too, in any way, shape, or form. If he wanted her as a friend, one who could help him out when he needed it. If he wanted her as a partner, who could have his back.
If maybe he wanted her as something more.
Right then, she would be whatever Todd god damn Fowler needed.
So she looked back up at him and in a firm, but gentle and soft voice, one that left no room for any misinterpretation, she said, “Will you trust yourself, Todd?”
This was a risk. She knew it was a risk. She could be reading far too much into this, but god be damned if she wasn’t so sure that it hurt. This was Todd Fowler. Cryptid was Todd Fowler. This man in front of her was the blue eyed, cheekbone having, tall guy she had kissed just a few days prior.