Across the shore from Brunot Island, several men worked in the dark. The district had long since shut down for the night, and these weren’t men who worked out on the docks. These were the men of Leo Vasquez, there to pick up a fresh shipment.
Well, except for one.
One man stood, watching the group as they worked. He seemed to make no move to help them. He was leaning against a shipping container, his legs crossed at the ankle as he watched with mild interest as the rest of his party worked. He wasn’t dressed like the rest of the men, who had all donned dark clothes as if it would hide them should someone stumble upon them. This man wore a worn-out white shirt, a studded leather jacket, and bright red Doc Martins, and he wore them with ease, like a second skin.
“Come on, Mal, ain’t you supposed to be helpin’ us?”
“I was sent to keep an eye on things. Not to help you cart drugs out of this shipping container.”
“We’d be done in half the time if you did, though. Help us out, man. You could throw these crates around like it were nothin’.” One of the men adjusted his gloves, shooting the tall, dark-haired man a smile. When Mal smiled back, it wasn’t a smile of camaraderie or politeness– it was all teeth, his eyes growing tight. The man balked and got back to work. There was no more talking after that.
Malachite watched and waited until they were done. Their three vans were full, and there were two men to each. They started to pack in and start the cars up, but still the dark-haired man stayed leaning against the shipping container. He had decided to wait for them to file out before hoping in his jeep and following. That way, if any of the vans got caught, he wouldn’t be with them. He watched as the first van started to peel away from the warehouse.
Todd Fowler was well aware that was the only purpose for his peculiar combination of biological traits. Chameleon, carnivore, sturdier than the things he was designed to kill. It wasn’t healthy for him to think of people as prey, but sometimes, that made the job easier. By compartmentalizing, he could allow for casualties without losing control completely, and it let him get a better look at what he was up against.
Six of Leo’s guys, which was typical. Each dressed in a black that most people would lose in the dark, if their eyes weren’t adjusted to it. Todd’s were, and he could watch from behind his grinning mask on the chosen perch a little down the road. He didn’t need a full view of the warehouse for deliveries like this, just the caravan, but Leo had conveniently put this warehouse somewhere the vans could reach without the cargo having to go too far on foot. Probably due to yours truly, but he didn’t have time to be flattered. Three of Leo’s unmarked vans and a strange Jeep.
Near the Jeep, up against a shipping container. was the lookout, tall, not visibly armed. Dressed different – some kind of merc, maybe. Vasquez hired mercenaries from time to time to protect shipments. Usually they came in groups of two or three, and were spread around in sniping positions, but maybe he’d tried to shake it up once his people started to mysteriously get the shit beat out of them.
At the very least, there weren’t any other snipers on the buildings around. Cryptid had checked.
As an unknown, that merc was probably the most dangerous out of the bunch. Cryptid watched him the closest, his eyes, disguised near-black, following the interaction between the thugs and the hired help. That smile was a familiar one. Predatory, threatening. All teeth. He squinted at that smile, because it made his instincts say danger.
All the same, the Cryptid could’ve gone down and taken them head-on, but that wasn’t smart. That’d been smart when they’d had to transfer cargo down a few alleys to avoid being followed, when they’d been squeezed into a choke point with packages that would cost more to Leo than their lives. Now that they had the vans right up front, Cryptid had an altered method in mind. Still ambush, but not quite as direct.
There were a lot of reasons to hit the first driver. If the second driver got started – and he waited the right distance to make sure he had – there might not be enough time to register what was happening up front, and there’d be a crash. Two for one on the vans, might even take out the driver and passenger. If not permanently, the airbags would slow them down. And even if they stopped, they wouldn’t have the range with the position of Van Number One to shoot properly without risking friendly fire.
Van number three was always the hardest. Van number three could stop, letting the men get out with guns drawn. Which was why Cryptid busted through the windshield if he could – he usually could; bulletproof glass didn’t account for boots and weight crashing right down on it. This tangled him with the passenger, most of the time, leaving the driver to untangle himself from the wheel and pedals or else lose control of the van. The passenger was more dangerous; gangsters still took shotgun in its original context. So if the shower of glass didn’t stop him, the claw up the side of the wrist would usually do the trick.
All of this would be within the span of ten seconds. Even if he didn’t catch the bastard’s wrist, Cryptid would withdraw himself from the glass, drop to the asphalt with a roll, and catch the tire with his other wrist to blow it out in case the driver got any funny ideas. He could usually use the body of the van as cover from fire from all angles. Cryptid’s home turf was within the brawling category, because what he lacked in formal training he made up for in speed, durability, and dirty tricks. Unless tall, dark, and mysterious was a pro wrestler or some shit, he’d be able to hold his own in hand-to-hand.
Things happened fast, but Malachite was able to track at least part of it. A dark shape crashed through the windshield of the first van, and the second one crashed into it when it suddenly stopped. A spray of red filled the first van, and then the shape was back out. Malachite watched as the spray of blood hit one of the windows, bright and crimson. He didn’t panic or rush over immediately. He wasn’t there to keep those idiots alive, after all.
He was here to deal with the dark shape.
He shrugged out of his jacket, leaving him in just his jeans and shirt. He tossed the jacket to the side, over the bar on the shipping container’s door. From the third car, the driver and passenger threw open their doors and took up positions on either side of the car, guns pointed in the direction of the shape.
Malachite knew it was a person, most likely a metahuman after that display. He cracked his shoulders, swinging his arms back as though warming up. As the idiots opened fire with their handguns, Mal leaned back and placed his hand on the steel bar behind him. He felt it against his fingers and willed his skin to change. The smoothness of it moved up his arm and throughout his body. He rolled his shoulders and heard them grind, metal on metal.
It was only then that he took off running toward the fight. He wasn’t meta-human fast or strong, but he was bulky and trained for exactly this kind of shit. Taking out meta-humans was a bit of a hobby for him. Ahead of him, he heard empty clicks and then cursing. As expected, they had quickly burned through their clips and probably hadn’t even really gotten a good hit on the guy.
You’d think the fuckin morons would learn after the second or third time this happened, right?
All Cryptid really had to do was keep his feet out of the way while Thugs 5 and 6 wasted Vasquez’s ammunition budget on him. There was no movement from Van One, and nothing but a lot of swearing from Van One. Well, and the screaming, but the man really should’ve protected his wrist better. As for Van 3, Cryptid was just counting shots before he slipped forward and vaulted over the front of Van 1 for momentum, crossing the space at an Olympic speed, and clocking Passenger 3 in the nose with the metal bar that kept the knives on his bagh nakh in a straight line. With him stunned, Todd used the door for leverage and hopped onto the roof of the van with the intention of hitting Driver 3 over the head with something, probably a boot.
The sound of oncoming footsteps was able to momentarily distract him, at just the right moment.
For just a second, both Cryptid and the human cannonball were both illuminated in the moonlight for the other to see. It was a good thing the shadows hid his eyes in the cavernous holes of the mask, because they were about the size of dinnerplates as he actually registered what he was looking at, what he was smelling.
The man was made out of metal. Oh, sure, there were subtler smells – a cologne that was expensive enough to not be obnoxious, masculine with hints of cedar and herbs; a touch of pepper of all things, although that was even fainter – but he definitely smelled like someone made of metal. Cryptid allowed himself a second longer to just watch him come, broader than he’d seemed under the trench coat, leaned up casually on the crate. He felt like a twig in comparison – although, to be fair, he probably also looked like it.
Oh, sure. Sam Walsh gets to be a living space heater. Mary the Warlock gets fucked-up magic. That Nat kid’s a metalbender. And this guy turns into a statue. And somehow the gene pool still decided that I ended up with ‘oh sure you’re stronger and faster and can shapeshift, but only if you eat people!
He was pulled out of that lovely train of thought by a movement in the corner of his eye. He acted before he really registered whether Driver 3 had actually pulled a weapon, or just moved too fast, because he let his foot stamp down off the roof to give the man a concussion through the ski mask. He’d probably live, but that was all six down for the count, at least momentarily. Thug 5 still posed the risk of a problem, but only if he could get his gun reloaded through a clash of the titans.
5/6 was good enough. Satisfied, he did the smart thing and hopped down from where he’d be a visible target, and put the van between himself and the oncoming freight train. Not directly between, because that would be stupid and just break all his bones, but at enough of an angle that if the freight train picked the ‘barrel through’ method, he’d need to slow down or reroute to get a passing swipe in.
“What the hell’s Leo feeding you people?” he snapped, testing the waters with the new opponent just to see if he’d bite onto the opportunity to banter. He certainly didn’t look like he would, but people were always just full of surprises these days.
The shadow was lit up for a brief second, and Malachite wanted to stop and laugh. This was the guy who was killing and capturing all of Leo’s men? Obsidian was going to get a kick out of this when he brought him in for interrogation.
The man, for it was definitely a man, was as thin as the steel bar that Mal had pulled onto his skin. He was wearing a black duster, leather by the shine on it. He was wearing a black turtleneck and a ballistics vest, with what looked like armored pads on his knees. None of that was what made Mal want to laugh. What made him want to laugh was the fucking white mask he wore to cover his face. It was white, with a horn structure that black curly hair curled over the top of. The smiling mouth was full of sharp teeth. It had a defined cheekbone and a sharp chin. He looked like a shitty knockoff killer from a B-rated horror movie. This was the man killing all of Leo’s men and disrupting his chain of supply. This man.
Malachite didn’t slow down as the man dropped down over the side of the van and called out a quip. He reached the car and saw one of the men, the one still standing, struggling to reload his gun and shook his head as he vaulted straight over the van, skidding across the top. Most people assumed that Mal was some dumb tank who would barrel through everything in his path That was not the case. Malachite had been training since he was fourteen, when he and Sulfur and Obsidian had escaped from Brightheart and had run off to Philly together.
As he came down from his skid across the top of the van, he rolled across the ground before springing up to one knee. His hands pulled up close to his chest. He pushed up with the foot that he came up with and pulled into his fighting stance, his legs spread to lower his weight to his hips. His stance spoke of someone who was formally taught to fight, maybe mixed martial arts.
Malachite enjoyed surprising people. He enjoyed being a fucking problem for them. And now he had the scarecrow trapped between the van and himself.
Until the fucking idiot opened fire, having got his second clip in– on the wrong person. The bullets skidded off Malachite’s skin, bouncing off in various directions. He sighed deeply, but kept his eyes on the man as he said, “I don’t know what Leo feeds these guys, but I’m starting to suspect it kills their brain cells. I’m not necessarily with them.”
Metal Man didn’t come through the van. He came over, proving himself a lot smarter than Cryptid had given him credit for. The first sound of metal-on-metal screech set his teeth on edge, but it was warning enough for Cryptid to start rethinking his strategy. He needed to move, or he’d be cornered between the other meta and the van.
He ignored the instinct to do it while his enemy was in the air – once he hit the ground he’d be able to change tactics. So he waited, and it was during the roll that Cryptid slipped just a little bit to one side, so that the driver’s still-open door wasn’t blocking the escape route to his right.
Also, so that Passenger 3 didn’t have a clear shot of him anymore, which worked out in the end. It was unsettling to see that the guy he was apparently supposed to take on with a pair of antiques could just eat small arms fire, obviously. Cryptid was really lucky that none of the newly angled shots came toward him. He had enough problems without a bullet wound before the metal meta decided to start throwing punches.
“Yeah, I’d be willing to bet it’s the drugs.” Cryptid kept his posture loose and his voice low despite the gunfire and danger he was in. He had no professional training, but instead of advertising that, he usually advertised a weakness he did not have: casual hubris. “You look a little expensive for Leo’s budget. I’m flattered to think he just took you on to punch little old me in the face.”
He decided he couldn’t throw the first hit here. This wasn’t the first time he’d fought a guy out of his physical weight class – most of Leo’s goons qualified for that – but it had been a long time since he’d seen a meta who could probably snap him like a toothpick if he wasn’t careful. And the only time he’d tumbled with the Phantom Ox, Cryptid had needed a lucky shot to survive. Then again, Phantom Ox would’ve just barreled through the van, so maybe he’d learned something since then.
What he remembered from sparring with Arlo was that he couldn’t afford to throw the first hit. No matter what he did, he wouldn’t be setting the pace of the fight. For the first part of this, he needed to stay on the defensive and keep his exits open, otherwise he was looking at a lot of broken bones and nothing to show for it.
Well. At least there was a supply of bodies here if he survived this long enough to need to heal.
He kept most of his weight on the foot on the open side, but didn’t pull himself in that direction quite yet. Running was not a good look, nor was it necessarily safer. Todd had underestimated this guy’s intelligence once – he wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. So the defensive it was, until he could get more information. Who knew? Maybe he’d get chatty.
The man was smart, at the very least, as he had moved just far enough that the door wouldn’t block him in He was still between Mal and the van, just not as much as Mal would have liked. He put his hands up for a brief second, as the man didn’t seem keen to throw the first punch. There was a soft grinding of metal on metal as he turned his arms. “You think I work for Leo? Fair assumption given who I’m with. No, I’m from an interested third party. He has a bit of an investment here, and I take interest in his interests.”
Malachite shuffled while he talked, circling the man a bit– but not toward his exit. He shuffled closer to the van, his hands coming back into his fighting stance. Those, and his words, were a distraction. He wanted to take this man alive, so breaking his spine wasn’t a good call. He’d have to control the power in his throws until he had gauged what the man’s actual powers were. He could be extremely durable, like some metas seemed to be.
He thought for a moment, his tongue flicking out and across his metal lips, a habit more than a necessity. He grinned, that same sharp grin he had given the men earlier. This man had the air of someone who was used to be the most dangerous thing in a room. He moved like a predator. But, he had all of his weight shifted to evade rather than to attack. That meant he considered Mal a threat. He edged a bit closer. He stayed far enough back to not alert the man to what he was doing, but there was no way this guy would be able to predict that Mal could jump almost seven feet from standing.
So it was with that intent that Mal crept close but kept enough distance to not alarm the man. He shifted his weight low, crouching just a bit. Flying punch? Maybe. Flying kick? Also a maybe. He hadn’t decided quite yet, and he needed to see how still this guy was going to remain for him. If he backed up, he’d have to do a running jump instead, but his distance with that was even great, so he could close the gap quickly.
“Tell me, scarecrow, what do you go by? All you vigilantes go by names, don't you? I’ve met quite a few of you. Killed most of them. Even my boss requires us to go by codenames. So what’s yours, wiseass?”
The merc didn’t actually say all that much, but he did give quite a bit of information. He didn’t react to being told the stranger had killed quite a few vigilantes. It wasn’t hard, given that just about anyone could put on a mask and go out there. Heck, Todd had killed a few vigilantes.
There wasn’t room for guilt at the moment. He set it aside, focused on the present, the here and now. Here and now, his opponent was edging closer to him, but not trying to cut off his exit. That was a trap if Cryptid ever saw one, but it wasn’t like he had much other choice besides turning in that direction and edging back to keep out just of arm’s reach.
Here and now, the metal on metal sound grated against Cryptid’s ears as they both moved, slow and tight. His own weight started to drop, too, not as low as the stranger’s, but enough that his knees were bent, his arms spread out a little, braced to evade a frontal hit. As his senses pulled in with his body to focus ahead of him, Cryptid started to notice some things. He was familiar with the nervous habit of licking his lips. He reflected it as he realized something in the close quarters.
The stranger’s tongue and his teeth weren’t steel. Nor, now that Todd was paying attention, were his eyes. The metal ground against itself in plates. The man hadn’t turned to metal – he’d covered himself with it, somehow.
The interior was still meat.
Some of Crytpid’s fears settled as the predator resurfaced, for real this time. There was almost amusement in his voice as he answered, “Cryptid’s fine.”
Todd was getting used to that phrase. Rolled off the tongue, and gave a different impression than an actual introduction. It didn’t really help with the wiseass accusation.
Every second they took to assess each other, the more tension built between them. It was tangible, at this point, but the merc was talking. Leo’s ally was quickly becoming a point of interest for Cryptid. No– not ally. Investor. Investor was more dangerous, because that meant he had leverage. Someone who could get leverage under Leo Vasquez could be the next touching point once Todd had finished with Vasquez himself.
He maintained eye contact, but tilted his head, an oddly light movement for all the tightness going around.
“And your – what’dya call it? Codename? Cute of your boss, but you’re way too pretty to be able to hide behind something like that.” The grin under the mask’s probably showed in his borrowed black eyes. He was listening, more than watching. The second the tension cut, the second the stranger moved, so would Cryptid. One heartbeat at a time until then.
The man– Cryptid– did not stay still, but edged away as Mal edged forward. So running jump it was. He gave a disarming smile at the comment about his prettiness. A smile that clearly had charmed many ladies, and maybe even a few men, in the past. In this case, it was only used to demonstrate Mal knew how pretty he was.
As the severely thin man kept the distance between them, he opened his arms in a shrug. “Guilty as charged. But not all of us like to put our families at risk by using our real names when we deal with thugs like Leo. So you can call me Malachite– for as long as you can talk, that is.”
A few things passed through Mal’s mind as he assessed Cryptid. The man looked like he weighed nothing. That would be helpful in knocking the guy around, but he had also just watched him crash through a car’s windshield from the top of a building. So the man was clearly durable. That meant it would take some time to actually take the guy down, even with his knuckles of steel. Of course, he still couldn’t tell what the man’s abilities were. He could have any number of abilities that could make this more difficult. But he wouldn’t know that until after the fight had actually started.
So he took the first move.
Malachite shifted his weight back and then kicked off, running one step, two steps, three steps, and then jumping high into the air, he closed the distance. He landed and kept moving, bringing his closed fist up toward where Crytpid’s chest had been when he had leaped. Should his first hit miss, he would duck low, hands to the ground, and try to sweep the tall man's legs out from under him in one smooth movement. Either way, he was aiming to get Cryptid on his back.
If his face hadn’t been made of metal, Todd might’ve agreed with the apparently general consensus that he was as pretty as all that. However, given the human eyes and teeth set in statuesque features, the grin didn’t have the right effect on Cryptid, and didn’t distract him from what was coming next.
“Oh yeah, a common gem, I can see that.” He didn’t really pay attention to the comment about talking, and instead took an experimental little jab at the vanity. It probably wouldn’t work, but it filled the space over the sound of his own racing heart as he worked himself up for the fight that was finally at its breaking point.
The Cryptid’s reputation – what little he’d achieved – was rightly for dirty fighting. No holds barred, no code of honor except “don’t kill the bastard you’re punching if you can help it”. That was another, more polite way of saying that he clearly had no formal training, and relied more on talent, instinct, and wit than fancy footwork.
But for all his informality, Cryptid had a few things that remained standard, namely in the defense department. If it wasn’t broke, he wasn’t going to fix it. The training Arlo had given him in boxing really came in handy here.
He didn’t do anything fancy with it. Just a reverse lunge to drag his front foot back while he tucked his head and shoulders behind his forearms, fingers gently uncurled to protect him from stabbing himself with a bad punch from his opponent. It didn’t hit, but it was good in case of a follow-up punch once the other guy had his balance again. A jumping hit like that was really impressive, but shouldn’t be used as an opener – too obvious, too flashy, too much of a risk if Cryptid had wanted to follow up and reverse. It gave him a little insight into Prettyboy Malachite, but didn’t do anything to serve Mal’s purpose unless –
Distracted, Cryptid took the kick to the back of his ankles. He was good with balance, and kept his hands up, making sure to catch himself with his shoulders and not let his head hit the pavement. A concussion would be a bitch right now, even if it wouldn’t do anything permanent. His breath was knocked loose from his lungs, but he used the air to puff out the word, “Cheap.”
Being a light guy, Todd was used to being knocked around. He spent a lot of time on his back for someone who should have the upper hand. He had some experience with the follow-through that came with putting an opponent in this position. Ideally he shouldn’t stay on his back, but that was the only way he’d be able to get the bastard off if he decided to come down with. He’d need to leverage more strength than he’d like, but if he could get his feet under Malachite as he came down, there was a chance to leverage the other man aside for enough time to regain his own footing. If that didn’t work, but Mal’s face got close enough, maybe he could hook a claw into the mouth or eyes. It’d at least hurt while he came up with a better plan.
He’d need to wait, though. Wait to see if Mal was going to follow him down and risk close quarters like that, or just beat the shit out of him from a standing position, where Cryptid might be able to otherwise counterbalance him by simply grabbing an ankle and pulling him over with strength that wasn’t typical to someone of his malnourished build. In that case, he’d count on someone made of metal falling hard enough for him to be able to regain his feet and get a little distance again.
Mal could never find anyone to spar with him. Most of the rest of the meta-humans that they had brought in had been glass canons except for Rhodonite, and she couldn’t keep up with Malachite’s endurance. She tired out after the first or second round, even if she never sustained real damage due to her healing factor. It had been a while since Obsidian had let him off his leash and allowed him to really fight someone.
The guy was on his back, so that was one success. He might have missed with his initial punch, but he had distracted the guy enough with the showy punch to sweep his legs, which was a good sign for Mal. He could switch between moves designed to distract and moves intended for actual damage, and the guy might actually take the real hits. That would be good for later in the fight. For now he had to carefully weigh his options for how to handle him now that he had the guy down.
There were three options, as far as Mal was concerned. The first was to remain standing and beat the shit out of him from up high, but that would leave him at risk for the guy to do the same thing to him that he had just done, and to take his own legs out. The second option was dropping do and keeping it close combat. He’d have a great advantage if he could pin the man to the ground by straddling his waist or chest. However, if the guy somehow managed to push him off, it would give him enough time to get back to his feet, and Mal didn’t want that.
So Mal chose option number three.
The weight of his skin and the weight of his muscles was solid enough and heavy enough to break ribs if he could dead-weight drop it onto someone’s chest. It wouldn’t be hard. He tucked his arm in closer to his chest and, with a small shake of his head, he dropped, his shoulder aiming to hit the man’s chest right above his ribs. Maybe a couple of broken ribs would keep this guy down.
This was objectively a risky play. The guy could roll out from under him if he was fast enough and had recovered from his initial drop to the ground. Or he could try to kick Mall out of the way. Either way, this put him on the ground with the guy, and that wasn’t the best position to be in if this went wrong.
A deadweight drop was not on the list of things Cryptid was prepared to deal with. If he hadn’t been paying attention to check for options 1 and 2, he never would’ve seen option 3 coming. The moment before the statue dropped on him was a moment that took forever, as most moments in a fight did. And it wasn’t very long at all, because if it’d been longer, maybe he could’ve come up with a better plan.
He wasn’t going to be able to roll over fast enough, not completely. Even if he made it, his coat was going to get caught – that was almost a worse position to end up in, because with mobility limited like that, he might as well just do nothing. A moment of cost-benefit analysis later, the best course of action was probably the second most painful, and he’d just have to deal with that.
He just had to really, really hope the guy had no idea about his healing factor.
Cryptid started to roll like he was getting out of the way, and stopped halfway there, his dominant right arm pinned between his body and the asphalt, the left raised back up to protect the side of his face and neck. It wasn’t going to save all of his ribs, but it’d let his humerus and shoulder take a hit meant for his sternum, and might let the rest just crack instead of outright break. He’d take that, because he knew from experience he could live with cracked ribs and a broken arm. Fracturing most other things was going to be new territory, and he really, really didn’t need any more new experiences tonight if he could help it.
Mixed with the taste of his own blood as he clamped down on his tongue was a sound that a human throat really wasn’t designed to make, a groan or snarl that came from somewhere between anger and pain – and all the air being forced out of his lungs again. There wasn’t room for a smart comment, which was a real shame because he could’ve picked back up on the conversation about weight.
Funny the kinds of things you think about when you’re trying to ignore a white flash that might otherwise stun you completely, huh?
As long as the pressure continued, Todd’s body wasn’t going to heal. The bones would start to mend, and then the fractures would spread silently back out to create this unique feedback loop of crushing agony that hopefully let him do a good impression of someone down for the count. He’d really just need the same amount of time it would to take a breath. Thank whatever was out there that he’d eaten recently, or he’d already be fucked.
He had to have a little faith in Malachite’s experience and pride. As long as Cryptid was pinned like this, there was nothing he could do but painfully move to keep his hand and forearm close to his neck and protect it from a stranglehold, at least. Really, if Malachite wanted to cut the crap, he could break Todd’s spine right now and there wouldn’t be much he could do about it.
All he really had was his quick peek at Malachite’s vanity, and the predator on the ground hoped for all he was worth that the one on top would want to play with his food a little longer.
A successful hit. He could almost hear the cracking of his bones as the man made a noise that Mal had almost heard before. It was more animal than human, and it set Mal’s teeth on edge. He recognized that sound. It was close to a sound Mal had made when he was young, when they had all still been at Brightheart, and he’d had to endure his body being opened up again and again. His face might have been pretty, but his body certainly wasn’t.
For a moment, he thought of his wife. She was back in Philly, waiting for him. She was one of the reasons he could never lose, his Katherine. If he lost, she’d lose a husband. And that didn’t fly with Mal. He had never met a woman quite so gentle, quite so accepting, who hadn’t balked at the scars but embraced them, and embraced everything else about him. He loved her more than anything. His wife knew what he did, of course, but she tolerated it as long as he always came home.
And that was what was on his mind as he twisted his body around on top of Cryptid, keeping him pinned to the ground, and began to rain down blows on him. He might be protecting his face and his neck, but that meant his organs were open game. His liver, his gallbladder, his right kidney, and the upper half of his pancreas were all on this side– easy to damage and inflict maximum pain with. He decided to aim for the liver, Right under the hopefully fractured ribs. It might even keep him from being able to breathe in, given its proximity to the diaphragm. Were they in a different position, he might have gone for the man's lungs, but at this angle, that would inflict the most damage.
Malachite had studied human anatomy when he had started college, all those years back. He had been in his second year of his medical degree when Obsidian had approached him, suggesting a better line of work for him, incredibly violent and feral as he was. Malachite had always been the one Obsidian relied on for tracking people down, both figuratively and literally. He didn’t have any heightened senses, not like some metas, but he was instinctively good at hunting people. Chalk that up to the fact that he felt more animal than human some days. It had never bothered him, nor would it ever, but he supposed it would bother some.
This man, with his wild snarling, was likely more like him than other humans. He was a predator, and Malachite would have to be careful. If he gave this man any room to fuck with him, he was going to quickly become a problem.
If Cryptid didn’t have patience, he wouldn’t have been a good ambush predator. Each blow hurt like hell had finally came knocking, but he didn’t resist beyond simply protecting those areas that would kill him if a stray punch struck there. And beyond mere instinct, Cryptid was smart. If he’d been the one on top, he would’ve wondered why someone with only somewhat-above-normal give would just lie down and take it, unless they felt like they didn’t have a choice but to take it. On his part, moving too much would be a waste of energy he sorely needed if he actually wanted to live through this.
Todd didn’t have anything to live for, not in a grand sense. No family he wanted anything to do with. No lasting relationships. Even Sam... even Sam. He wanted Sam, but desire did not reality make. She wanted him, too. She would miss him, miss the him she thought he was, the part of him he had given her. But he had gone into her arms ready to grieve her.
He had no long-term visions that needed to be fulfilled, beyond doing at least as much good as the harm he had to, in order to keep surviving.
But he hadn’t reached that yet. His ledger was still unbalanced.
There had been several times when he’d had to talk himself down from the edge. After his first real kill. After Arlo. After summer. And he knew, deep down, why he couldn’t give up. Todd lived because of the good that was still undone. He lived because all the atrocities he’d committed so far to survive would be moot if he let himself die now, when life was still an option. Todd lived because surviving was better than dying, simple as. Even his instincts agreed with that, under the pain. Todd lived because as a predator, he was designed to survive.
And because of that design, Cryptid was far from dead when the hammering against his exposed side and back stopped. He’d gone rigid and still; under the mask, his closed eyes had melted back to their natural shape and color at some point. His breath, when it came back to him, was wheezing and shallow, edged with a growl that was almost inaudible.
Under the layers of clothing, Cryptid’s body temperature rose to a fever pitch, and then plummeted to hypothermic. Under the layers of bruised skin, burst blood vessels closed. His ribs, once the pressure had let off to target the rest of his insides, had knit themselves most of the way back together. And as a result, the biting cold edged in wherever the pain started to recede.
Cryptid lay still, and waited. He shook, not from the pain or even the taste of his own blood, but the familiar tremors that came with a sudden onrush of the cold and the hunger. He still had reserves, but the expense of his patience was already showing. He ground down on his tongue as he centered himself, as he focused on that cold that spread outward from his center.
Todd lay in wait for the man who thought he was an animal to stop wasting his time and either kill him, or give him the space to bite back.
This guy was weird. Malachite had fought many people in his “career” under Obsidian. He was the man's right hand and was no stranger to taking care of things that were considered very unsavory. Beating the shit out of people was one of the most frequent things he got asked to do. Nothing spoke more to the severity of one’s standing with Obsidian than what kind of visit you got from his right and left hands. If Sulfur showed up, you were in the clear, and he was either coming to collect or he was there to strike a new deal.
But when Malachite showed up, you were fucked.
He’d taken on normal humans as well as metas. Having to take care of a meta was rare, but it always brought Mal a great deal of pleasure to fight someone who usually knew what they were doing. There weren’t many metas these days who didn’t know what they were doing in a fight. His favorite had been the girl who had been throwing bolts of electricity at him. He’d had to be on his toes with that one.
All that to say, Mal recognized the weirdness of this man just… taking his punches. No one just laid there and took punches to the gut and back and didn’t try to fight back, didn’t try to move, didn’t try to do something. Something to make the pain stop. And Mal knew his punches caused real damage. Even if he weren’t made of metal, all he did outside of hunting people down was train. He made time for his wife, and then he trained, and he sparred, and he took up new forms of martial combat. He was proficient with firearms, with most traditional weapons, and he could improvise like no one’s business.
So why was this fucker just taking it?
He pushed up off of him, aiming one last punch with all of the force he could into his side. Then if the first hit connected, he’d aim a kick right into Cryptid’s spine. Then, he quickly backstepped to put some distance between him and the scarecrow of a man. Something about this wasn’t right. Something was wrong. If this fucker didn’t sit up and immediately start coughing up blood, or even got up at all, despite the give that Mal had felt under all his blows, then this guy could heal. He knew the signs of it. His sparring partner Rhodonite’s main ability was regeneration. She was strong too, but what she really did was repair damage so fast it might as well not have happened to begin with. She was hit by a moving car at 60 mph, and had walked it off.
If he could heal, well. That was going to make this more interesting.
The last punch broke a nearly-repaired rib clean across the fracture. The pain was a clear knife through his concentration, and his body jerked against his will with another low growl. The boot to his back almost wasn’t so bad; it hurt, but the way an electrical shock hurt, a tingling, suffocating numbness that dissipated once his body was sure there wasn’t anything permanent, and returned focus to the more dire injuries.
He didn’t move for a few seconds. A second is a long time, in a fight, but he wanted the time to assess the damage. He at least waited until the rib stopped shifting when he breathed. He healed pretty fast, especially with the number of calories he had built up to burn. Not instantaneous, but a few seconds would be enough to clear anything necessary for moving and breathing.
When he moved, he did so by pushing his upper half up with his pinned but miraculously intact right arm, then his left, where the humerus still throbbed but had stopped shifting like it’d been shattered. He got one foot under him, like a racer ready to take off. He didn’t look at Mal, from the distance he was. He’d be able to hear him even over the rush of blood in his head as gravity took its normal course.
His balance was off, but he exaggerated it with a sway as feeling returned to his lower half. Nothing had been broken, but his nerves hadn’t made up their mind about the injury to his lower back. Nothing beyond the fact that they didn’t like it, anyway. It gave the impression that he was confused, not completely himself yet, dazed and still healing. It let him rest back against one leg and take a deep breath through his nose, helped him gather energy again, helped him listen to the clear night, helped him brace again – this time to move, not in the slow circles of two equal predators, but in the quick burst required to take down big prey when Malachite came for him again.
From beyond the van, he heard a softly horrified “Holy fuck.” Mal might not have heard it, but Cryptid slowly turned his head towards Passenger Number 3. The man actually whimpered. He’d feel sorry for him, but he didn’t have the energy for it right now. At least it’d make him think twice about using the goddamn gun.
A wisecrack formed on his lips, but what came out was a little gurgle sound that made him pause and blink. Oh, right. His tongue was probably a low-priority healing point right now, meaning it was still in tatters, even if it had stopped bleeding. He swallowed and then licked his lips slowly. And then he looked right at Malachite, blue eyes bright in the darkness of the mask.
He held up the middle finger of his intact right hand, showing off the claws on either side, sending as clear a message as he could given the circumstances.
A grin cracked across Malachite’s face as he took in the sway, the middle finger, and the– hadn’t his eyes been black before? Whatever they were before, Mal could clearly see icy blue eyes beneath the mask. The grin that crossed his face was sharp and predatory in nature, and if Mal could have growled the way a rottweiler could, he would have. This was turning out to be fun. A healing factor meant that Mal could go all out.
He kept his eyes on the man and slowly got down low to the ground. He put his hands on the concrete below them, willing the molecules of his skin to take on their texture. He felt the buzz as it moved across his skin and rearranged to the new structure. And then he willed it to compress and build more layers. Soon, he was heavier than before, now covered in reinforced concrete.
He slowly moved back up, the grinding of concrete on concrete resonating in the air. He moved back into his initial stance, arms up and close to his chest, his center of gravity low. Now that he was bulkier, it was a little harder to move with the fluidity he had had before, and he was more likely to miss in spots where the scarecrow had the upper hand on speed, but every punch he did land was going to hurt more than before. Malachite was looking for blood, now that he knew he could freely beat the shit out of the guy.
“What’s wrong? Cat got your tongue, scarecrow?”
Malachite shifted his weight back and forth on his feet for just a moment before he charged in. Unlike before, he was barreling in, aiming to tackle the man to the ground again. He was aiming low, to grapple him around the waist so he could pin him to the ground.
Cryptid maintained eye contact as he watched the other meta at work, only breaking it to look down at his hands on the ground, and follow the concrete up to his steel shoulders.
Ah, so that’s how you do it. The deliberate show was enough for Cryptid to clearly see what happened – skin contact with the ground. It made the man heavier and more fragile all at the same time. Steel didn’t chip, after all.
Behind the van, there was a scuttling of feet as Passenger 3 took this chance to make a run for it. The predator somewhere in Todd whispered, chase. But he wasn’t completely the predator yet. His tongue had gotten most of its mass back, and he grounded himself by muttering, “Not anymore.”
He shifted again, which would look like a sway the way he let his arms just dangle. His eyes went back to Malachite’s, and he became aware that he wasn’t putting any focus into keeping their shape. They were his own again, and they burned with the cold and the hunger as his nerves finished mending and the pain receded into a dull throb that matched the beat of his heart.
He counted those heartbeats that seemed to echo in every part of his body, and watched. He wound himself up in the shoulders and legs, and waited, because he learned from his mistakes. The charge seemed obvious, almost too obvious, but it also wasn’t worth risking getting all his ribs broken this time.
His scarecrow swaying leaned left as he finally lowered the offending finger. He breathed as the sound of concrete-on-concrete rang in his ears, closer with every step. He leaned a little more left, almost throwing his whole balance as he made some educated guesses.
And then he darted to the right.
“To-rrrrro!” he howled hoarsely, rolling the r hard as he danced aside in the moment when he was sure the momentum was too much to resist. Even from his much more small-scale experience, altering his weight like that meant that his center of balance would be just barely off for the first charge; there was a 200 pound difference between his body and his replica of Arlo’s at least, even if it was made of the same stuff. The first pass was typically the worst.
Rather than stay put and wait for the second pass, he summoned up a burst of speed and moved at a sprint toward Malachite’s back. He got airborne, trusting his gut that he had enough space to land on the concrete back before Malachite had time to turn a concrete fist on him. The man’s low posture should give him the landing pad he needed. The force of his fall wouldn’t dent the concrete, not from here, and there wouldn’t be much he’d be able to do but wrap himself around his arms and shoulders like a backpack hold on –
But he was going into this with a plan. The concrete in his shoulders audibly grated. If Todd was willing to sacrifice the bones of his hand, he might be able to jam his claws into the crevice and draw blood, forming a painful anchor that'd keep his thin frame from being tossed right off. That wasn’t the main target, though.
The main target had two goals. First, it would throw off several important factors in a fight – depth perception for one. Weirdly balance, for the other, if Cryptid could get the claw in there good and deep, and cause the liquid to burst.
Second, Malachite was way too pretty to be this much of a bastard, and kinda deserved to have that vanity hurt. If he got away, he’d probably have something to remember Cryptid by in the form of a patch over his left eye.
The consequences of this were going to suck so much, whether it worked or not. He was precariously balanced on a point between instinct and reason. He should’ve gone in with a joke prepared, but his tongue still hurt and so did his diaphragm. Being jammed right up on the back of someone made of concrete wasn’t conducive to good words. And he was bracing for the unpleasantness that would come from jamming his fingers, curled as they’d have to be for the knives to stick, into the grinding point between two pieces of concrete. He’d be stuck once that was done. Or – option two – the guy got pissed about him fucking with his face, and threw him a distance away. That was the distinctively better option, even if it put him back on the ground.
But his luck tonight wasn’t all that great. He was counting more on staying jammed into the bastard’s back and slammed into a wall over anything quite so merciful as ragdolling for a hundred yards.
The scarecrow darted out of the way in the last second, and before he could turn back around, something collided with his back, and something sharp dug deep into his left shoulder. The sound that came from his throat was somewhere between a snarl and a scream, but it became a real scream as quick as could be a hand pulled across his face, knives dragging across his eye. He managed to shut it just in time, so he didn’t lose it, but it fucking hurt. He could feel them slice through his eyelid and into the actual eye itself. That was going to be a problem.
With only half his vision, there would be more blind spots for the scarecrow to dart around in. And he’d just proven that darting around was in his wheelhouse. That didn’t bode well for him.
However. The man was now stuck to his back. The claws were buried deep in his shoulder, in the cracks between his armor. He could use that.
The way he saw it, there were two options right now. The first was flinging the fucker off of him and into a storage container. But he was light, and that likely wouldn’t do the kind of damage that Mal wanted it to do. He’d hit it and it wouldn’t so much as leave a dent in the metal. The second option was to smash Cryptid between himself and something else. There were plenty of options for that, but Mal really wanted this to hurt.
He had tried to take Mal’s eye, after all. And he couldn't let him think he’d be getting away with that.
Mal reached up and tried to grab the man’s hand as it passed his face. If he caught it, he’d hold it in place, pinning him more effectively against his back. Then in a swift motion, Mal gave a little hop backward but didn’t catch himself. Instead, he fell with all his weight backward on top of the thin man, trying to crush him between, effectively, a rock and a hard place. He didn’t even brace himself, knowing that it was going to hurt. It was going to hurt him far more than it would hurt Mal.
This would, of course, drive the blades deeper into his shoulder, but it was the shoulder that the metallic joint replacement was in, so there was minimal risk of him taking out something important. And Mal was willing to risk some damage if it meant this asshole felt some real consequences.
Cryptid’s luck stayed predictable, if nothing else.
The eye didn’t burst, which sucked, but he felt the slick blood between his fingers as he withdrew the hand, slipping his fingers out of the crushing grip at the last second. He focused on that, focused on keeping his arm free, as the world teetered and then leaned and then fell backwards.
He kept his arm clear, and angled his face so that it wasn’t crushed under Malachite’s concrete head. And then he tensed completely, and braced for impact.
His body squelched. There was a tremendous series of pops and cracks as the weight came down and distributed itself along Cryptid’s skeletal structure, and the things in his torso that had already been severely bruised now suffered almost complete rupture. As major blood vessels burst and started to fill cavities they shouldn’t have under force that would’ve killed a normal person, that would’ve killed him. Should’ve killed him.
Todd had never experienced everything breaking at once before. To be honest, he didn’t even really feel it now, besides a single instant of world-ending agony, then darkness. He didn’t black out for long – just long enough for his brain to stop reeling at the fact that he couldn’t fucking breathe, and that every single one of his bones –
Not every. Through all of the pain, he realized he was still moving his right arm at the elbow. And his skull had to be intact, if he was thinking. But the intact arm was a sign of two things. One, he wasn’t completely dead, and apparently still had the energy to move. Not a ton of energy. Not enough to struggle. But to move, and to think.
One and a half, the only reason he was alive had to be that his body was healing as fast as it could, preventing vital organs from bursting completely. He could breathe, just shallowly, and painfully, because he could feel his ribs moving the way they absolutely should not be. He had to have a pierced lung, probably two, because he felt something warm and wet rising with each miniscule breath. But his heart hadn’t burst with the pressure, and his poor bruised organs hadn’t failed on him despite the misalignment somewhere in his spine that was keeping him from feeling his feet, which might still be clutching Malachite’s sides like a rodeo cowboy in rigor mortis.
But two. Point number two, of his right arm being mobile and his skull being intact, meant he saw what was right under his nose. Quite literally. Blurrily, but the joints that let the bastard move his head were in sight beside his face. There was a crack in the concrete, in the armor. He stared at it for a while, or for what felt like a while but wasn’t very long at all, since the bastard didn’t move his elephantine weight, and realized that the arm that could reach the man’s face could just as easily reach that. And under the mask, through bloodied lips, the Cryptid smiled a heartless, heatless, wolfish grin.
Between the blood and the incorrect position of everything in his chest, he didn’t sound human when he rasped, with the tremor that only the bitterest cold could give him: “You’re not… a hunter.”
Then he angled his intact right arm, and put his bagh nakh into the man’s neck at the base where it met his shoulder.
He could’ve gone for the skull; that’d kill him. But that’d be stupid, long-term, because then he’d have to get the man off his stupid battered body. He needed to force him away, first. Then, he could kill him at his leisure once he could feel his legs enough to stand.
For the same reason, being a fairly experienced butcher, he didn’t aim for the jugular or even the carotid. He wanted him hurt, not dead. He wanted to make him bleed, to panic, to mix adrenaline with the smell of fresh blood. He wrenched the other hand in its shoulder prison, too, to add to the pain he was ready to cause the bastard. If he wasn’t completely stupid, which was debatable at this point, he’d want those claws as far from his body as possible. From the rare vital spots that would cause the mighty to fall, that let in the twisted steel and hands that thrummed in agony but shook too much to understand pain through the numbing ice that spread outward from where his body was distributing his last meal – maybe his very last meal – to keep him alive for a little longer.