The snarl that broke free then was involuntary. The implication that his family wouldn’t do anything they could to kill this Todd, this Lyle, this Cryptid? Nothing could have made him more angry. Because he knew the truth.
“My family would send everything they had at you if it meant that they could kill you. But he would make them be smart about it. He’s smart about everything. Smarter than anyone I’ve ever met. That’s why no one will come after you. Because he’s going to keep everyone in line and when you least expect it, he will tear your world down. That is, if you don’t join them. They might forgive you if you do.”
There was a bitterness to his voice at the end. Malachite didn’t like the idea of his family around this monster. He recognized his usefulness immediately. A nearly unkillable hitman who could get rid of the body entirely. Mal had done his fair share of body disposal. No method was perfect, or untraceable, but some got you pretty close. Consuming the corpse? That would be a perfect disappearance if he ever saw one.
He took a shaky breath in and realized he had just fucked up. He had admitted that someone would come after him. He breathed out and cursed under his breath. That wasn’t good. This wasn’t good. This back-and-forth between methods was throwing him for a loop, and he needed to stop talking. He chuckled, low and bitter.
Todd hit a nerve, and Mal sang in response. Oh, theoretically it was a bite. But, as Mal realized after, it gave Todd the central piece he needed to pull all the strings together and see what was at the center of the web of scraps he’d gotten over the course of the night.
Tone and words together gave him that last hint. Todd, who had been fidgeting with the finger in one hand and the knife in the other, stopped. Went still, completely and entirely, in the way only a predator can. Not in response to Mal’s anger, nor to the threat of someone else coming, not directly, anyway.
To what he realized with a tight worry in his chest.
He should’ve been relieved that he found the key to make Jasper talk. And part of him was, the part that was focused on the task. But under the blood and meat and anger and cold, the human part of Todd was stirring back, the conscience slipping back up through the cracks of the shattering realization of what a metahuman arms dealer, the kind of person who kept people like Obsidian – predators who killed the average human with impunity – would want with another, bloodier kind of carnivore.
In essence, Jasper had accidentally found a nerve to hit back. Not the kind that reacted to pain, but the kind left raw from years of self-control.
“What do you mean, join them?”
His voice felt crisper than it should’ve, in his throat, in his mouth that still tasted of blood and meat. He focused in, eyes locking onto Mal’s face, and as if it had been waiting for this, the same cold part of him that had stirred in anger and pain was back as a dim point of light behind the blue. Warning him not to push, because suddenly, somehow, this felt more personal than just a hit.
“Jasper,” he said, more slowly, just as clearly, as he continued to give the man undivided attention – “what would they want with me?”
Mal went as still as anyone with a knife through their hand could. He could feel the sudden and full weight of Todd’s attention. Mal knew what it felt like to have the eyes of someone on top of the food chain watching you with intent. He swallowed softly, trying to hide the nervous motion as much as possible. He kept eye contact with those entirely too-blue eyes. Mal wanted to tell him to go fuck himself. He wanted to do anything other than keep talking. He wasn’t doing his family very proud right then Not with all the information he was giving up. Lapis would be so smug if she could see, if she could hear what was going on.
In a very even and careful tone, he replied, “Join them, Todd. They’re going to need to replace me after you eat me. Who makes a better replacement for a hunting dog than the beast that ate the dog? You’d make a perfect hitman. Sometimes bodies need to disappear. Sometimes, they need someone who can track well. I was the one who did all of that. There would be no better replacement for me than you, Todd. And I would recommend doing it.”
He leaned in a little, his voice growing soft at the recommendation. He knew what Obsidian would do to this kid if he didn’t join. Just looking at him, he knew exactly what codename he would get too. He knew the way Obsidian named everyone. Todd would be Kyanite. A sharp blade-like stone found deep down in the terrain, down at the depth you’d find garnets and quartz.
He also knew Todd’s unusual powers and their requirement would be generally accepted by the rest of the team. He hated that he knew they would accept him as one of their own– except Sulphur. Sulphur would never treat him as an equal. He would always be the one who killed Mal in Sulphur’s eyes. And that gave Mal at least the smallest bit of satisfaction. If left to Sulphur, Mal was sure that Todd would end up dead. He was the best strategist that Mal had ever worked with. And Obsidian was going to have to put a hard stop on whatever he would want to do.
“If they want to recruit you, I’d accept it. Otherwise… There’s no telling what they’ll do to you.”
Todd didn’t respond to the hint of fear that his prey gave him. The monster noticed, obviously. But he didn’t pounce on the weakness. Instead, he listened. Words, tone, everything, as if the calm was keeping the beast at bay. Even the recommendation was taken in quiet stride. He was silent, deadly silent and still, for another few long seconds after Jasper was done, while he made sure there wasn’t anything else besides that vague threat.
Energy returned to him all at once, the stillness shattered in the one word. He breathed a deep sigh, and started to bounce the knife as he leaned into the back of the chair he sat backwards in.
He needed answers. That was why they were here, why Malachite was still alive. Todd needed to decide which answers he was going to get, and which ones he’d let go. He wanted everything, but that would be too simple, if he could get everything at once. And he had a feeling that even scared, Malachite wasn’t stupid. If he wanted this information, he needed to piece together how to get that information with the least effort possible.
He got up, not in a violent outburst but in a fit of sudden, nervous energy. He set the big knife down on the table and popped the rest of the finger into his mouth all at once, and chewed on it once again without thought of the man it once belonged to. Not an intimidation tactic, but to empty his hands to think.
And then he started to pace, his hands occasionally running through his hair, occasionally getting caught in a curl and working through it. It’d been a while since he let the emotions run rampant like this, at least where another person could see it, even if that person was now little better than meat.
He wanted to snap and snarl, to tell Malachite that a beast hardly made a good hound. He wasn’t a domestic dog. Nobody tamed the wolf that ate their pet. That wouldn’t do him any good, though. That wasn’t how he got his answers, that wasn’t the right approach.
He couldn’t tell him that he’d thought the same thing, either. He couldn’t tell him that if he wanted to be a hitman, he could’ve done it independently years ago, and been a lot more content for it. Except there was a chance that it would’ve bitten him in the ass. Still could if he started now.
But he couldn’t honestly say he’d refuse them, either. If given the choice to join or die – he knew himself. He’d choose to survive, even if he hated the consequences. He needed to be able to prepare, to think about it clearly before it came to that. Maybe Mal would see that part, in the way he was fighting with himself, wrestling the part that was even slightly tempted. Maybe that’s all he’d see. Todd had no way to know.
What he did know was that Jasper cared about the family that had formed in the group he was starting to see for what it was. He honestly wanted what was best for them, and right now, having someone to fill his shoes after the feet inside them were reduced to shredded meat was what would be best for that.
He sat back down in the chair, but he didn’t reach to pick the knife back up. There was a hard outline around his eyes that hid his emotions and furrowed his brow a little.
“Talk to me, Jasper.” He’d calmed down, but there was still the echo of danger under his tone. “If you tell me who they are, this group, and what they want, I’ll kill you the easy way. Knife across the throat, a little pain and then just waiting for your brain to realize you're dead. No more biting. But I need to know. What would I be joining, if your family wanted my teeth more than your justice?”
What Mal had told him had fucked with Todd. That was clear to see. It was also clear to see that he was struggling with something. There was a glint in his eye, or maybe a tilt to his head, or maybe some micro expression, but something was telling Jasper that Todd wanted to consider it. He wanted to consider just saying yes to Jasper’s family. For some reason, he was really fighting that.
When he finally sat down, when he finally spoke to Jasper again, Jasper’s eyebrow quirked up. There was an almost dark look on the man’s face, but he had no idea what they even would want him for. He was getting worked up over, well, nothing. Slate had never done anything wrong, in the cosmic sense of things. So with that in mind, a slow smile came over his face.
“We want the same thing that I think all metahumans want. Freedom. Freedom to be ourselves and freedom to be safe. Metahumans don’t have a great history with regular humans. Our goal is simple. Recruit as many metahumans as possible and lead a revolution. We don’t want to kill everyone, but we want… I guess what every minority wants. Rights, equality, safety. And a few other things.”
There was a grin on his face that told all. Malachite was lying through his teeth. This was the sales pitch, the pitch that helped to radicalize people when they first joined. Slate’s core group all joined knowing the truth. Their philosophy was one of violence and blood and death. All humans, all nonmetas, they deserved a fate worse than death. They deserved to live in the same cages the rest of them had been put in. They deserved the horrible things that had been done to eight children in different places around the country.
They deserved Brightheart.
Malachite leaned back in his chair and chuckled a bit. “I don’t take you for an idiot. That’s just the sales pitch to the kids we try to radicalize. It’s true, we want everything normal people have– and we want them to bend to our will the way we have had to bend to theirs. If you joined, you’d be part of the greatest revolution to ever be. My boss, he’s got big dreams, Todd. You’d rather be with him than against him in the end.”
While Malachite spoke, Todd rested his arms on the back of the chair, and rested his forehead on them, so that his prisoner couldn’t see his face. He didn’t want him to notice the way Todd’s face darkened, the way his eyes narrowed, the way his jaw set in a white line. His chest had a tight knot in it. Anyone else may have blamed that on indigestion, but Todd didn’t get indigestion. His body was made to hold, process, and distribute food.
And that was the problem, wasn’t it?
He was quiet when Mal was done, quiet for a while, as if digesting the words the same way.
He’d heard about potential “meta-terrorism” cells in the past. Just rumors on the wind, and they almost always turned out to be nothing. But he checked anyway, because there was something about it that didn’t sit right, to Todd. It threw off some kind of balance in his head. And maybe that was just social, maybe that was how he’d conditioned himself. Out of anyone, though, he knew why people might be afraid of metahumans. Why they might be afraid of monsters.
These people wanted a world where monsters could hunt with impunity. And it filled Todd with a fury and a fear that he had to wrestle back into their place under his survival instinct, which would put them to better use than the visions of a world, succeed or fail, with open season on one or the other group. If he didn’t put them back where they belonged, he might take it out on Mal, who he wasn’t quite done with.
But it would be visible, despite Todd’s efforts. His knuckles whitened against the back of the chair, his shoulders were a tight line, his body went rigid and still. That was the main sign he hadn’t outright fallen asleep.
“Well, Mal, there's a mistake in your sales pitch. Not all of us want freedom.”
His voice was tight, but he breathed, slowly, reigning himself in, focusing on the cold as it reminded him he wasn’t done. As he let it remind himself what he was. He licked his lips, tasted what was left of the blood there, Mal’s blood. And in his chest, the knot unwound enough for him to raise his head, to look at Malachite and show him that there was worry, hunger, and – almost hidden – fear in his eyes. He let the prisoner see that he knew what he was.
“Safety, sure, why not, I'll take it. Survival. Security. The ability to live, yes. But freedom to be what we are, openly? You've clearly never wanted to be normal. And why would you, right? You've got one of the cool abilities. Turn your skin into other stuff. Whoop dee fucking day. You're not one of the reasons people are afraid. A little kid sees a guy on the street who turns into metal and he's going to think you're a fucking superhero. That's you.”
Todd gestured around them. Gestured to the blood, to Mal, to himself, and rather than rise to fever pitch, it started to drop to something cold and hard.
“Now look around us. Look at all this, look at your hands for fuck's sake. Look at me. Maybe you're a bad example - you fucked with me. Whatever. Look at Mark. Oh wait, you can't. At least he got to die in his sleep.”
Something in Todd had started, was going, and wouldn’t be stopped until it was done. He really thought he’d killed this habit after Arlo, but apparently fucking not. Maybe it had been his attempt to scare Nat that reawakened this, the part of him that wanted his prey to hear what was happening, to have a final say before they died.
Maybe he just didn’t want a living soul to hear it, and so he told the dying ones all the things he told himself when he was alone.
“You're not a predator, Mal. And I don't mean that the way I did earlier. You're not a real monster. You don't get the- the itch. An ache that lives so far down in your bones it’s never going to go away. Your body isn't built, geared, evolved, whatever - you're not literally designed for the sole purpose of killing people. Everything about me is made to be a monster. I have the feral part in me that likes the hunting, likes the killing, likes devouring other life. Not even animals enjoy the devouring. And that part does not deserve freedom.”
He stopped. He remembered what he was talking to – who he was talking to. Maybe he was stretching, maybe some small part of him was reaching out for conversation about this, or maybe he was challenging Mal to try to change his mind before he was reduced to meat. Maybe he wanted to see if someone could change his mind. His world would certainly be fucking easier if he heard a compelling argument in favor of the monster for once.
“People have a right to their fear, Mal. Maybe not to the torches and pitchforks, but they have a right to be afraid and still live their lives. I've seen the reason why they're afraid and I'm afraid of it, too. I would take the chance to be normal over the chance to be my monster any day of the week, no questions asked. Maybe I'm just used to going against the grain, I'd rather be one of them than what I am. What your revolution would ask me to be.”
And finally, Todd caught his breath, and then sighed, the fight draining out of him, leaving room if Mal wanted to try to use any of his own remaining breath to try an intervention.
Mal tensed, going completely rigid after Todd said the first bout of his piece. He stayed silent while the man got it out of his system. It was clear this was something that had been bothering him, but it had triggered something deep in Mal’s mind, something that made his breathing pick up as he fought to stay calm. He clenched the tender hand that wasn’t pinned to the chair and he closed his golden brown eyes. As Todd finished his rant, Jasper simply nodded. For this, he was just Jasper, just a four-year-old boy, a ten-year-old boy, a twelve-year-old boy, all of whom shook and trembled with fear.
“You’re right. People deserve their fears. You’re wrong, you know. Sometimes having a ‘good’ gift is just as bad as being a monster. It means that you’re easy to perform experiments on.” He delayed a moment, just long enough for hesitation and anxiety to war across his face. This scarecrow was unlikely to actually care about what Jasper had to say. But Jasper was going to tell him anyway.
“Sometimes when you have the cool powers, you get kidnapped at the age of four and end up in corporate-run labs. Sometimes they break you open, over and over, and they take you apart, looking for what makes you tick, so they can replicate it. Sometimes they cut you open while you’re awake, with nothing to dull the pain, and you pass out because the pain is so intense, and you fall in and out of consciousness because they’ll make you go through so much pain that you wake from it. Sometimes, you get to watch as they rip out your lower ribs at the age of ten.”
There was a tremble to his voice as the anxiety won out and he started to shake. People were evil., and he wanted Todd to see that. Right then, it wasn’t about whether or not he could recruit Todd to the cause. It wasn’t even about convincing him that all people were evil. But he needed to convince him that there were monsters worse than themselves out there. Monsters who wore human flesh and didn’t eat people, except when they ate them alive. Monsters who didn’t bite, except with the sharp pain of blades. Monsters who were real monsters, who did what they did because they wanted to, and not because they needed to.
“The three of us, we were stuck in a research lab. They starved us, they tore us apart to see what made us tick, and then they haphazardly threw us back together, with pieces missing. They almost killed all three of us, myself, Sulphur, and Obsidian. Obsidian had it the worst. They wanted to replicate all three of us, but they used to starve him so much that Sulphur and I used to feed him. We never knew which one of us they’d come for at any given time, so we constantly lived in fear.”
He stopped, his voice cracking. He hated to think about this. He hated to think about their days at Brightheart. Half of their lives were gone and wasted at that place before they learned to just fight back. Before they realized they were the strongest things there, and they had just been so broken down that they had come to fear lesser beings. Once they realized they had all the power, they had plotted their escape and talked about it in hushed tones as they waited.
“People have a right to their fear until they start using that fear to destroy children just because they fucking can, Todd. Because people can’t be trusted to not do that. All of our families gave us up because they were afraid of us. We were tortured at the hands of normal people for merely existing. Are you going to tell me you’ve never met a single truly evil person who fucked you up, a vile human who abused your powers?”
Jasper stopped and his breath hitched. The panic was overtaking him, the memories flooding back too quickly. The feeling of knives in his skin, cutting open his chest. The feeling fo bones being ripped from his torso while he was awake and the extremely blinding mind-altering pain that had come with it. If Todd thought him cutting off his fingers was bad, then it was because he had never had his insides cracked off while awake.
Todd didn’t take his eyes away, when Jasper started to talk. When Jasper started to shiver, Todd watched, and something in his eyes started to soften.
For once, the show of weakness didn’t invoke the hunger that lived inside of him, even through the gentle exhaustion. This wasn’t prey-fear. This wasn’t the fear of something that knew it was going to die and wished more than anything to run. This was the fear of memory, of something Todd could never understand on a direct level. He was right. Todd had never been reduced to a lab rat, an experiment. He couldn’t imagine what being pulled apart like that was like, what the fear of the prisoner was like. That was why he could inflict it with impunity.
Todd had seen a human monster, though. Not in the faces of the bastards he killed. Not in the faces of lab-coated corporate doctors. Not even in the face of the monster himself.
It was the face of his mother, decapitated, her head left in the freezer.
And a child couldn’t understand that. A child only understood the fear, the panic, the hours after of blaring sirens and flashing lights and big men in blue uniforms asking him the same questions over and over again and his dad refusing to even look at him. Not even saying goodbye when they put him in the back of one police car while his son was put in the back of another to live somewhere else forever.
Jasper wouldn’t understand that.
Instead of being convinced of Jasper’s position, Todd understood that nothing he said could convince Jasper he was wrong. Fear was stronger than reason, stronger than logic. Fear lived on the same level as instinct. It lived in anything that understood pain, because fear, even misguided was survival. At their root, their fears were the same, his and Jasper’s. But they would never be able to understand, not really.
And just like that, he wasn’t angry anymore. He couldn’t bring himself to be. He thought that, maybe, if he didn’t have the right to be sorry for the guy – well. At least he wouldn’t be angry.
“It’s easy to be a monster.” He spoke softly, unsure whether Jasper was actually hearing him, or whether his mind was still trapped in the past. He started to talk through the quiet fear, though. He was passing the time. Something inside him, the part that wasn’t a monster, refused to kill Jasper in this moment of weakness. “It’s easy for them. It’s easy for us. We’re all made of the same stuff, when it comes down to it, meat and blood and bones, fear and love. What you do with power you’re given isn’t up to what you are. It’s up to who you choose to be. And if you’d do the same to someone else’s child for being human – well. There’s nothing I can do for you, then.”
He took a deep breath, and then sat still, waiting with an eerily calm patience for him to speak, or be still. He’d give him the time of day, give him the choice for how to spend his last minutes. He’d already made up his mind to remember this. To remember it, and keep it somewhere he could ruminate on it later, when he was faced with the rest of Jasper’s family, Jasper’s pack, Jasper’s group. When faced with his own demons.
Whatever happened in the next few minutes, he was going to let Jasper Torres haunt him.
Specifically, he was stuck in the memory of when they broke his hip, taking the joint out and replacing it with metal. He’d been awake through the whole time, at the age of fourteen. Two long years before they had run away, before they had reached Philly and tried to live normal lives. He remembered the way the bone saw had felt, the way the tongs had ripped it free. He remembered screaming until his throat was raw. That had been when he was still conditioned to only use his powers when requested, upon threat of darker experiments.
He’d only had his heart stopped twice before he’d gotten the picture. “Fuck around and we’ll kill you”.
He was stuck in the memory until Todd’s voice broke through it. And Jasper was pulled free, he couldn’t help the gasp and the tears that streamed silently down his face. He shook his head softly. “That’s not what we… that’s not what I want. Not really. But I’d do anything for him. Anything he asked of me. After what he did to get us out, I would do anything. And his dream is my dream. And his dream is a world where he doesn’t ever have to fear someone doing that again. He doesn’t want to hurt everyone, not really. He’s just a little lost. But I love him almost as much as I love Katherine.”
He looked up, his body still racked by spasms, although he was riding them out, with only the softest gasps and the most silent of tears. The world was a little too blurry, and he knew he was on the edge. The way his vision was starting to fade meant he was going under again. The panic attack had been the end of it for Jasper. So he looked up into the now soft eyes of Todd, Lyle, Cryptid, and gave him a little nod. A nod that said he recognized it was time, that he was telling his warden it was time, that he was on the edge.
“Would you do one thing for me before you do it? I want to see her face one more time. Just once. Can you show me the photo of her in the photo book, the one where we’re sitting together on the park bench? That was the happiest she ever looked. I just want to see her again before I die.”
His voice was surprisingly even. Slowly, the spasms in his body had receded, and now he was just silent and calm. He swayed slightly, and his eyes were getting heavy. He definitely wasn’t going to be awake much longer.
Todd had now killed almost one hundred and fifty people, counting the man in front of him, the man who was only alive by his whim. Some had been quick, some had been slow. Those that lived to see death always showed their true colors in the last minute. The true colors of Jasper Torres were not his fear, although that was what drove him to tears, what caught his breath. But his words bared his heart to Todd. His eyes had a look that bared his soul.
It was the look the rabbit gave the fox, when it knew the hunt was over, when it could rest.
There was no such thing as a good time to kill someone, but if Todd had to pick one, it would be that moment. When all the fear and all the anger was gone, when they were ready. He didn’t have any more questions, and Jasper didn’t have any more answers. The hunt was over, and the prey could rest, and told the hunter so by the look in his eyes.
At the heart of the monster that was Jasper Torres, there was only love. Love of the people he had let in, had given himself to. Love of the man who had saved his life, who would become his employer, if not more than that; and love of the woman who had accepted him, monster, scars, and all. That love was more than what Todd had built himself around, but he felt no envy of it, no guilt at what was coming.
Todd stood up, and walked to the table. He picked up the photo album, and turned to the page. He already knew it, he’d been through it, and a few photos stood out. This was one of them.
He could just put it in Jasper’s hand, of course. Put it in Jasper’s hand and let it be ruined in the spray that would follow. But the rabbit was ready to sleep, and foxes were not monsters. Jasper had given Todd the means to survive a while longer. A while in body, with food and information. And a while in spirit, with the contemplation of monsters, and of love. This was the least he could do for the man.
He sat down across from Jasper again, and held the book up, where he could see it. He kept his fingers from staining the page with the blood caught in his prints, and let Jasper look at his wife one last time before sleep finally claimed him.
He didn’t thank him, not in any more words than a fox would use. He thanked him in patience, in a steady hand and calm demeanor.