RP Lynx

Obsidian

Member

The cabin had been difficult enough to find. Sulphur’s search had begun in Walker, where he had gotten instructions on which way to go to get to the Leech Lake Reservation. That had been the easy part. Asking after the Snow Owls on the reservation had been the hard part.

Everyone was more than willing to talk about them, about Mandy and LJ, but no one was willing to share anything about their location. As he had been specifically told by one of the younger people on the reservation, “Yeah, but I’m not telling you how to find them. Go fuck yourself.”

So it had taken hours, almost a full day, and several hundred dollars, to finally be told that he had to go back to Walker, and head out toward Paul Bunyan State Park. Apparently, the Snow Owls kept a cabin out there.

It was while he was snooping around that he had confirmed some of the information that he and Lapis had acquired. Joe Snow Owl, Mandy’s grandfather, had been accused of murder and had disappeared into the forest. And then, generations later, Mandy had shown up on their metaphorical porch, her young son LJ in tow. She had had questions, questions no one was willing to repeat to him. Questions that he was sure he already knew.

“What am I?”

Sulphur had some ideas. Or rather, Slate as a whole had some ideas. Putting together the missing bodies from the local hospital and funeral homes, plus the rumors of the Redding Butcher disappearing around the same time that the Snow Owls left Redding– well, it wasn’t that hard to figure it out. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that Mandy Snow Owl was eating people.

Sulphur knew why he was there. It wasn’t just because she was a potential meta-human. It wasn’t because she was even eating people. It was because Obsidian was hoping she was going to be something like him– a predator. He wanted her to be something like him, a monster that hunted other humans. He wanted so desperately for her to be this that he had sent Sulphur out to Minnesota just before Christmas.

It was for that reason, and Sulphur’s love for his brother, that he was driving up a barely cleared road in the dead of winter, as the sun was setting, toward a cabin that he might not even find. The instructions he had been given were incredibly hazy at best, and possibly made up at worst. Still, he would do anything for Obsidian. For his brother.

Finally, he found the turn-off to the long driveway that led out to the cabin. The Range Rover, however, could only get so far. Soon, the snow was too deep, even in the parts where it had been cleared, for the rover to safely travel. Sulphur sighed softly as he turned the vehicle off and got out. He pulled a coat from the back seat and wrapped it around himself, and didn’t bother to lock the doors to the car.

The weather had never bothered him. Rain, sun, snow, it didn’t matter to him. That was why he was able to move in just his three-piece suit, his coat, and his boots. Thank god he’d chosen to wear the boots and not dress shoes. He’d had no idea he was going to have to stride through three feet of dense snow, and yet, there he was.

He cursed softly under his breath and he moved down the driveway. Eventually, the cabin came into view. He was a little surprised at how big the place actually was, but then, nothing had ever said that this was going to be some shitty log cabin in the middle of nowhere. He hadn’t even known it was going to be a cabin. He had gone with the full expectation of them living on the reservation, where their mailing address had been.

He marched straight up to the door. He made no fuss, didn’t make any noise, and barely stumbled as he shook the snow off his boots. He looked at the well-maintained but older truck sitting in the driveway. It clearly hadn’t been used for a little while, judging by the snow that was piled up around it.

Sulphur straightened his coat out with a sigh, smoothing the black wool fabric and making sure the collar was standing up. He didn’t care what other people thought of him, but he believed that looking sharp and well put together was something that helped people form a good opinion of you in their mind. And he wanted Mandy Snow Owl to have a good opinion of him in her mind. The better he did with her, the more likely she would say yes and return with him. So he pasted a small smile onto his face and raised his hand to knock.​
 
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The door opened before her guest could touch it.

She’d heard him when he reached the end of her little-used driveway. Unless one was used to, or built for, the deep snow of mid-winter, there was no way to make a quiet approach. Between the tires and engine, and his boots when he got out where the blanket of snow became too thick, and the soft cursings and mutterings as he picked his way through thinner patches just to be met by the under-layer of ice, Mandy would have to be deaf not to know when he reached her front porch.

Deaf, or human.

The door had no peephole, and he was quiet once he was on the porch, but by then Mandy was waiting on the other side. Her own steps and breaths were the quiet of a predator, her footsteps padded by thick purple socks LJ had gotten for her last Christmas, almost a year ago now. He loved things like that, small gifts, small favors. He was gone for the day; some of the other teenagers from Walker had volunteered to take him down to Duluth for the day to see Bentleyville. They’d be back late tonight, after they’d had their fill of the light show. So now, at sunset, with a stranger on her doorstep, Mandy was alone.

Through the creases in the door’s seal, the chill air pulled in hints of the other man’s scent. Vanilla, ink, wood. Gunpowder. The mixture gave Mandy an idea of the man before she rested her hand on the knob, just as his footsteps came to a stop on her Welcome mat. Her eyes closed, and she wished her eyes human. Black scleras turned white, slit pupils rounded, rendering her face softer for company.

The door opened before he could knock. It opened all the way, and inward, to frame a woman with iron-gray hair, skin just a touch fairer than that of the people who lived on the reservation, features strong but thin. Her eyes were dark, a sharp black that was softened by her expression, her genuinely warm smile. She could have been forty years old, or seventy.

What most people would find immediately obvious about Madeline Snow Owl, however, was the pair of branching antlers that curled back toward the back of her head like a crown. The only sign that there was anything out of the ordinary about her physiology; and, as things stood, they could have been the only thing out of place, the only thing meta-human about her.

“Hello,” she said, and her voice gave no clue about her age. Slightly hoarse, very soft, but assertive and unafraid. Heavy, with long exposure to the Minnesota accent she’d been born into in the first place. “You’re a long way off the main road. Did your car break down?”
 
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Sulphur wasn’t terribly surprised when the door opened before he could knock. He would have been more surprised, maybe, if he didn’t already know to expect anything. He was a touch surprised by how… normal she looked. She was thin, maybe a touch too thin, and she had those antlers, but otherwise, she looked entirely human, with no desiccated skin, no fangs, no hollow eyes. She looked almost perfectly normal, age not quite placeable.

He lowered his hand and let it rest against his thigh. She was shorter than him, by a fair enough amount that he had to tilt his head down to her. He gave her a polite smile in return to her warm smile. His blonde hair, slicked back as well as the fluffy strands could be, had already started to break the hold of the gel and was falling in his face. It fell into his bright eyes, brushing against the tattooed lines. He inclined his head in her direction as an acknowledgment of her words before speaking.

“Mandy Snow Owl, yes? I’m actually here to speak to you.” He extended his hand toward her, and in that same soft but clipped voice, he added, “My name is Sulphur. I’m here on behalf of Slate to discuss a potential– well, it would be better if I explained in detail. Is now an alright time?”

The hand he held out toward her was gloved as it was in an older-style driving glove. Between that and his soft wool coat, reaching almost to his knees, and the narrow and proper boots, Sulphur had a simple and clean profile, but an expensive one. He had good taste in clothing, and the hint of the grey suit beneath the black coat was clearly well-fitted despite his tall and thin stature.

Everything about him screamed of some kind of money. But beneath that, there was a sharpness to his soft and polite expression. A glint in his honey-colored eyes, maybe. A too sharp turn at the corner of his mouth. Something about him that was too sharp and precise and tightly wound, as though ready to move and fight even in such a simple and relaxed interaction. His body language might have been relaxed, but beneath the surface, he was anything but.​
 
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Sulphur wasn’t a real name. Mandy knew that, yet something in her said it resonated more as real name than whatever his parents had called him. So, rather than ask why he thought he would need to hide who he was from her, she shook his hand. Her own hand felt small, and perhaps too bony, but the shake was firm and gentle all at once. When it was finished, she pulled her sweater a little bit tighter.

“Now is alright, yes. You must be freezing. Please, come inside. I’ve got coffee on.”

That sweater, deep blue with fluffy white owls designed all over – a gift from one of the women from the church in Walker, where she volunteered – had the same thick, comfortable appearance as the rest of her clothes. Her red sweatpants, designed with snowflakes. Her purple socks. Even the way her hair frizzed rebelliously against the loose braids she’d pulled it into. Even the way her smile banished all but the sharpest edges in her face.

Maybe there was something underneath the apparent softness: in the quiet nature of her step, perhaps, as she moved out of the way to let Sulphur into her home; or in her gait as she stepped around to close the door, although it was impossible to tell why it felt wrong; or in the way she would occasionally take a deep breath, or tilt her head toward an unexpected or persistent sound, or catch a quick glance of her guest from the corner of her eye as she led him into the kitchen. Maybe, like him, her appearance could be deceiving.

Ah, but his appearance did remind her. The way his soft blond hair, straight, not tightly curled, fell into his eyes. The intelligence in those eyes, ice under a foot of snow. The care he took for his appearance, however difference it was from Lyle. She hadn’t– no, that wasn’t true. She thought of Lyle every day, although LJ didn’t need to know that his father once ran his hand through his hair in frustration at a current problem, or murmured incoherently while cooking. Cooking. Mandy no longer shuddered when she thought of Lyle’s cooking. She understood, as well as an owl can understand the rabbit that loves her. Loved her, before he startled her, and tasted her talons.

The kitchen had been the heart of their home in Redding, and now it had been made the heart of Joe Wintekowa’s old house, even if Mandy herself rarely needed it. She’d had a growing boy to feed here, after all. Feed, and educate, and entertain. And entertain his friends, and her friends, and her visitors, like this strange man who called himself after a stone and reminded her of love long lost.

“Please, sit down, make yourself at home.” She gestured to the round table in the breakfast nook as she walked up to the stove. “I’ll get you a mug. Cream or sugar?”
 

Sulphur looked around as they moved through the cabin. It was homey. There were jackets on hooks and shoes by the door, but as they passed the living room, Sulphur saw more signs of life. There were photos scattered throughout the place, on the walls and on the mantle especially. There were nature photos, rather nice ones, alongside photos of who he presumed to be LJ. The kid had his mother’s strong features, her dark looks, but startling blue eyes.

The eyes made more sense when he caught sight of a photo of Mandy holding a baby, held similarly in the arms of a man with blonde tight curls and flashing blue eyes. So, that must have been the missing husband, Lyle Hart. The one whose name LJ shared. They looked happy in the photo, in love. The young baby had a few tight brown-black curls, just like the kid seen in the photos. He looked like a late teen in what Sulphur assumed was the most recent one, sitting on the porch with a camera around his neck. Maybe just turning eighteen, at the most.

The house was a far cry from a mess, but there were scattered signs of the young man around the place. A heavy army green jacket thrown over the edge of the couch. A pair of hiking boots in the corner by the fireplace. A book, lying facedown on the table. Titus Andronicus, a Shakespeare play. Sulphur chuckled softly, realizing it must have been for school. A senior then, still, but graduating in the spring, most likely.

He took a seat at the table, and very softly, he replied, “Cream, no sugar, if you could.”

He waited for a moment, watching her as she moved through the kitchen. Then he spoke up, and in an equally soft voice, he began, “I think it’s only fair to begin with this: we know what you are, and we mean you no harm. I mean you no harm. And as long as you don’t try to assault me, I am happy to discuss this matter civilly.”
 
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Mandy pulled two mugs out, tilting her head to keep the front branches of her antlers from scraping the cabinet door. Hers was a pink mug from Caribou Coffee decorated with small hearts. The other was much larger – twenty ounces, at least – shaped like a snowman. She poured hot coffee and creamer into the bigger one, and then coffee and sugar into her own, just to make it palatable. She only smiled a little at the man’s implications, or attempt to lack implications.

“Sulphur,” she said. No, she chided, in the soft, patient tone of someone who had done this before. “You are my guest. So long as you sit in my home, and eat and drink at my table, you have nothing to fear from me, and as long as I do the same in your company, I have nothing to fear from you.”

There was no room to dispute her as she sat down across from him, at least not in her behavior. She was a strong believer in hospitality, perhaps because she herself had once been in need of it, or perhaps it was simply her belief in small kindnesses. Small kindnesses like maybe too much coffee in a cute, almost childish, mug. Small kindnesses like not mentioning the scent of gunpowder, the residual violence that wouldn’t leave the man visiting her.

Small kindnesses like the humor in her smile, and her tone. “So, Sulphur. What brings you to Wintekowa’s doorstep at the darkest time of year?”
 
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Sulphur was taken slightly aback by the ease with which Mandy took the information that they knew what she was. Or maybe she assumed they didn’t actually know? She seemed far more concerned with her rules of… hospitality? Engagement? Whatever was the case, the mug of coffee she had placed in front of him was far more generous than he had been expecting. He looked down at it blankly for a moment while he took in her words.

Then, he lifted the mug to his lips and took a slow sip of the hot coffee, feeling it warm him through. Sulphur wasn’t bothered by the weather or the cold, maybe as part of his fucked biology, but he could feel the cold draft that breezed through the home, despite the roaring fire in the fireplace. The coffee was a sharp contrast to the temperature outside his body.

“Ms. Snow Owl. I’m here because my employer would like to offer you a job based on your unique… abilities. We’re aware of what you are and we think we could find good use for your talents. We’re working toward a future where metahumans don’t have to live isolated and afraid. I’m sure you know there’s been a rise in violence against metas in the last few years,” The cool and collected voice was twinged then with something heavy, something like malice or fear. Maybe both. “We think you would be an asset to our cause.”

He took a longer and deeper sip of the coffee. It had just the right amount of cream in it, which surprised him. Usually, people put too much in it, but this cup was just the right level of bitter and smooth. He set it down on the table and rested his hands, joined together, on the top thigh of his crossed legs.​
 
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For the first time since she had heard Sulphur crunching through the snow that led to her house, Madeline Snow Owl frowned. She didn’t seem to be watching Sulphur closely, but she noticed things about him. How the tattoos on his face tried to mask his age and feelings, even if she could smell the adrenaline and cortisol that indicated fear or anger, if she could see the tension lines in his body under his nice clothes. How he said what he said, with the exterior of calm and logic but the sudden spike in his heartrate before he calmed himself.

How she’d surprised him with his coffee. Likely the ratio of cream. Lyle had always been particular about his cream. One of the few things he had been particular about.

The frown didn’t fade, but it didn’t deepen, either, even if something a little sad came into her eyes. But her voice didn’t change from the calm patience when she spoke again. “Mandy, please. Madeline if you must be formal.”

She sighed, and took a sip of her own coffee. The sugar was just to dull the edge of its bitter taste. Caffeine, she had learned early, dulled the cold in her bones. It helped her think clearly in situations where she might otherwise make rash decisions. And she couldn’t be rash, here. Not until she knew for certain what he was talking about.

“What do you think I am, Sulphur? What do you think I’m doing out here?”

She was hardly hiding. There wasn’t a soul on the reservation who didn’t know who, what, and where she was; it was safer for them that way. She was aware of the network of people and favors they had to have to keep her fed so she didn’t harm them. And she was grateful every day for their hospitality, for their willingness, even if for most of them it was mixed with fear.

“And lastly, what is your cause, and why do you need Wintekowa to accomplish it?”
 

“Madeline, then. It is my belief that you are a Wendigo.” He let the statement sit in the air for a moment as he took another drink of the coffee, enjoying it far more than he thought he would. If nothing else were to be said about Madeline Snow Owl, it could be said that she made a damn good cup of coffee. He sighed as he set it back down, and then he continued. “After considering many factors, we believe that you and your husband were in fact the Redding Butcher. We can only assume that based on his disappearance, he is long since dead, and it is likely that you ate him.”

He looked around the kitchen, though his eyes notably shied away from any photos of the three of them together or of Madeline and LJ. He only let his eyes focus in on the nature photos or the ones of them individually. A lance of pain shot through him at the happiness in their faces. He felt the burn of a blade along his spine, felt the needles and the clamps that held him in place. He felt the heaviness in his heart of when he had found his parents, who looked so very much like him, and the weight of their rejection. It was etched into his soul like a soldering iron had been taken to it. He turned his polite smile back to her, as though he hadn’t just been remembering the words ‘we didn’t want you’.

“If you want my opinion, you’re out here for the community. If we have the numbers right, then you have to eat fairly regularly and they likely supply you with help to acquire those bodies you need. Like the body of Moldavite. You know, if you had never eaten him, then we never would have found you.”

He scratched his neck at his collar and shook his head, lifting the mug with the other hand. “We were a day late in picking up his body. We were going to bury him next to his sister who had died a few years back, but, well. We can’t do that anymore.”

After that, he was silent for a moment before he carefully spoke, with a preciseness to his words indicating his careful choices, “Our cause is simple. We want equality and safety for metas. Right now, they are not considered a protected class. The amount of violence against them is higher than any other minority or social class in the country right now. We aim to acquire these things by… any means necessary.”
 
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Sulphur didn’t answer any of her questions. It’d been a long time since Mandy had to deal with a solicitor, but she knew the style. Sulphur was looking to sell her something, and he wanted to see how cheaply she was going to buy it. The adrenaline and cortisol spiked again, the fear and anger responses, as he looked around her kitchen, at LJ’s photos and the photos of LJ. Her frustration with the man’s – boy’s, really; barely a man, even if his tattoos tried to make his eyes seem older – with Sulphur’s lack of answers melted in the face of the sadness she felt when she sensed that anger. Someone had hurt him. Likely, they had hurt him for being a metahuman. Not everyone chose to be as kind as the people at Leech Lake, or in Walker.

“I don’t ask their names,” she confessed, echoing his sip of coffee. “John Red Cloud said it gives me a layer of deniability. He’s right, of course. But I’m sorry Moldavite cannot be buried beside his sister.”

She pronounced sorry as sore-y, in the near-Canadian roundness of the local dialect. Her own eyes had gone unfocused, however, when he mentioned the Redding Butcher. She couldn’t help her own wave of sorrow as she thought about what her husband had done to her – and had done for her. He had loved her, in his own way, in the only way prey could love predator. A strange way, but they had been strange from the start.

“Lyle was the Redding Butcher. I was his unwitting method of disposal. I… don’t know how long it went on for, or how many people he really killed for me. When I killed him, it was blindly. It was because I killed him that I moved back here, to people who might know what to do about me. Who could teach me how to protect my son from myself.”

She ran her fingers from the base of her antler to the end of one braid, gently untangling the hair at the tip while she thought about her next question. He hadn’t even answered the first ones; and those questions were necessary to understand why he was here. Why he was really here, disturbing the life of a metahuman living in relative peace with the people around her.

“Do you know what the wendigo is, Sulphur?” she decided, finally, “Do you know what it means, what it represents? What those possessed by it are said to do to those closest to them?”

Her eyes were sad when they focused on his, and her smile returned in a gentle slope from the corners. “And – if you do, what exactly are you asking of this one? What great cause needs the violence that only famine and winter can bring?”
 
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Sulphur looked at her from over the ridiculously large cup of coffee. He sighed and set the cup down. Folding his hands back over his lap, his eyes searched Madeline’s face. She wasn’t stupid. She wasn’t going to be won over by some clever words. When he spoke again, his words fell more naturally from his lips, as if the shiny veneer of the sales pitch had been lost. “I know what a wendigo is, yes. Though you’re… different from the ones you read about. Yes, you eat humans, and you’re clearly fine with the snow and the winter, and I imagine if you wanted to, you could snap my neck easily, or rip my throat out with your teeth.”

He paused there, hesitating for just a moment. He picked through all of the information he had learned over the last month, remembering what was most important about the evil spirits said to roam the upper states and Canada. “As I’m aware… the wendigo is a sign of gluttony. Of hunger. One that represents the evils of canabalism. As for those closest, yes. I’m aware of the fact they are supposedly the first ones a wendigo eats. Clearly, another way in which you differ from the lore, given your son is still very much alive.”

He sighed heavily and scratched the back of his neck then, adjusting the lapels of his suit before he continued to speak. “I’m not going to give you the spiel. I have the feeling you’ll see right through anything but the most direct truth. What you can do is make people disappear permanently. I meant what I said. Our cause is to make metas safe. Sometimes that requires certain people to disappear if they cannot be bribed or threatened. We are asking if you would become… an assassin is a strong word. An enforcer isn’t quite enough. Somewhere in between those.”

He uncrossed his legs and placed his folded hands on the table, keeping them calmly and neatly folded. This time, his gaze didn’t stray from her face. It stayed locked on her, locked on her eyes, as he waited for her response. The truth, he expected, would get him one of two things, and he had a feeling he knew which way she was going to swing. Now that he had met her, he had the feeling that he was going to make no progress on her. Not really. This was over before it had even started. Maybe if they sent Malachite…

He snapped back to the present, awaiting her words.​
 
“Protecting metahumans at the cost of other people.” Mandy frowned again, but took another drink of her coffee. She knew better than to focus on Sulphur’s eyes; not because of harm he could do, but because the spirit within her responded badly to such challenges. She had no intention of breaking his neck, or ripping his throat out. After a moment to steady herself, she shook her head, and met his gaze steadily.

“That is not equality, Sulphur. That’s not a world where my son is safe. That is not a cause worth killing for or dying for. You could ask anyone at Leech Lake what blind vengeance wins the oppressed.”

Her free hand moved to the end of the other braid, and started to worry out the knots there. Her son was the best example – human, as she’d once been, as he’d continue to be if she could help it. But there were other humans, people who were good, and kind. People who loved and were loved by the people around them, without cost or expectation. She didn’t know any other metahumans. She’d never relied on other metahumans. Despite the fear she was sometimes met with from those that knew what she was, she had never encountered violence.

And for that, she even thanked the God that had let her become this; everyone had vices, after all. She did what she could to keep what she had to do to survive under his watch within boundaries, within parameters. Killing blindly for someone else’s revenge was not in those boundaries.

She sighed, soft as a breeze. The eyes that had never left Sulphur’s turned sad again, but he still had a nearly full cup of coffee.

“Who convinced you the world is war, Sulphur? You and those that agree with you? Who hurt you so badly?”
 

For a moment, all of his hope was dashed. He had definitely failed, but they never could have known they were approaching a woman so well-connected to a community or so grounded in reality. Most metas they approached had reasons to hate humans. She herself had cause, in the form of her dead husband. He sighed softly, his eyes closing– only to blink open in surprise.

He took in a sharp breath and looked up at her. He thought for a moment about standing up, thanking her, and leaving. He might have done that, if it weren’t for the very large and very full cup of coffee in front of him. It would be rude of him, especially after she had opened her home to him, to leave such a large cup of coffee behind. His breath was shaky on the exhale as he realized he was effectively trapped. He looked down at said mug, and then lifted it between both of his hands, bringing it to his lips. He took a long drink of the hot beverage before he spoke.

“When I was young, I was taken by Brightheart, which is a company that still exists. They’re even bigger now as far as I am aware. They… it was myself, Malachite, and Obsidian. We were held in the same facility. I have… a lot of joint replacements, I’m missing my bottom ribs, and there are artificial valves and drainage tubes all over my body. My sternum has been cracked open three times. I wasn’t asleep for all of these.” His voice was soft, almost a whisper, the precise and clipped tone melting into something a little softer. His accent came through a now, just a touch. A rhotic accent, maybe Pennsylvania.

“I can’t say much more about that. It’s not just my story to tell. But I can tell you that when I got out, it was just the three of us. It was hard for us. Three meta kids right at the peak of the first wave of metas, without families and completely alone in Philadelphia. We did a lot of things to survive. Obsidian did a lot of things for us to survive. I can never repay him for the things I know he did. What I can tell you, is that when we were old enough, we went looking for our parents. I found mine.”

He paused, swallowing hard. He lifted the mug back to his lips and took another long drink. It was still fresh in his mind. Only two years ago, not very long at all. Not long enough for the pain to have dulled, certainly. He set the coffee mug down and touched a hand to his chest, but quickly pulled it away. He kept his eyes down as he spoke.

“They didn’t want me.”
 
Sulphur understood his situation perfectly well. There was a momentary twinkle in her eye as he took his first long drink of coffee, despite his surprise about her question. The issue needed to be addressed gently, but it did need to be addressed. People – groups – like this rarely stopped with one visit. People who felt that much hate in their hearts, who wanted other people to understand their suffering, needed to be made aware of their own suffering. John Red Cloud had explained that to her, when she was re-integrating with the community. LJ had even written a paper about it at one point.

Her visitor had suffered beyond description. Mandy had seen people ripped apart – she could remember doing it, countless times. Part of her curse was blind violence, sometimes when her prey was still alive. She couldn’t control herself during those periods. She could only pray for their souls and her own after the fact. The crack of bone, the location of every joint and organ and valve, all things familiar from her biomed days; and now even more familiar from her monthly rituals. Yet he spoke of it calmly, scientifically, like it could be rationalized and organized, like his anger did not control his actions.

She could smell it still, though. Could hear it in his heartbeat. His grief and rage mixed as he reached the conclusion of his story, and when he said the last part, she set her mug down. Not just a reflection of his earlier action, but deciding that it wasn’t safe for the nice ceramic to stay in her hands, which she folded over her own knee. Under the table, where he couldn’t see her own white knuckles.

Children. Children. There was a long history of experimentation on children; she was familiar with it, and abhorred by it. When children were wrong, companies and governments swooped in, sometimes with empty promises. But these weren’t well-meaning parents hoping for a cure. These were parents who refused those children for being else. That would explain the departure from his real name – from the name that had been given to him by the people he couldn’t stand. She couldn’t blame him for his hatred, or his anger. It wasn’t right or healthy. But she couldn’t blame him.

She’d remember those names. Malachite, Obsidian, Sulphur. Small stone figures in her mind, two who didn’t have a face. Children. If someone had done that to her son–

But being wounded as children did not give them the right to wound other people’s children for the same reason.

“I understand,” Madeline said, quietly, after letting the silence and the anger hang in the air. She sighed, deeply, and picked her mug back up. “And I’m sorry that those things happened to you. I’m glad you have found your own way, all of you. No one’s son should have to go through that. If I could have a word with your parents…”

She let the not-quite-threat hang as she took a sip of her coffee, her fury cold and calm as a still day in December. She let the silence hang, and put a prayer in her heart for the children so unloved by the people who should love them most. She took a second sip, and waited to see if Sulphur would continue without prompting.
 

Sulphur chuckled low as he stared down at the mug before him. He shook his head, a few more stands of the fluffy blonde hair breaking free of their gelled prison. Leaning forward, he rested his head in his hand, letting the fingers thread through that fluffy hair. His eyes closed, and he smiled, the look filled with sorrow and a touch of pain. He was clearly reliving the memory as he told it to her.

“Malachite’s parents were at least dead. He didn’t have to look them in the face and hear them say ‘We gave you to them. We knew what they were. We didn’t want you. It was too much of a hassle to care for you.’” He paused, his voice trembling, and lifted the coffee mug to his lips and took another long drink. This, this was what disturbed him. It brought him so much more pain than Brightheart could ever hope to inflict.

Now, Madeline had unlocked those feelings, that pain and anger, and Sulphur had no escape other than release. That was why when he looked up at her again, those honey-colored eyes were wet and sparkling. Sulphur was not an emotional man. He was not the type to normally pour his heart out to a stranger. But there was an air about Madeline Snow Owl, a comforting air, an open air. She wanted to hear this. That was obvious.

Sulphur wasn’t used to people wanting to know what was going on in his head.

Sure, Malachite and Obsidian wanted to know, but they already knew everything. The three of them could read each other like open books. It had been so long since someone wanted to read him, since someone pressed a hand to his spine and leafed through his pages. He thought about a pair of crystal clear chocolate eyes and–

“I want you to understand something, Mandy. We don’t want to hurt anyone. We don’t want children or mothers to suffer. We just want our people to not have to suffer at the hands of those who think we deserve to.”
 
When he rested his head on his hand and tangled his fingers in his hair, he looked like Lyle. So different from her son, really, very different from her husband – but Mandy could see things in him. The quiet detachment, the way he was unused to speaking freely about his emotions. Lyle had been like that in college, when they first met. She had been able to speak for hours, but it had taken gentle coaxing to make him say a word on what was going on in that curly blond head of his.

When the dam cracked, however, the feelings started to pour out, and like she did then, she listened with an open mind and an open heart. Her anger was real, but it was not directed to him, and therefore he did not need to see it. She was serious, but not severe. That had been learned from having a son of her own, as had waiting until he was ready to hear her again.

She got up when she felt him winding down, still listening, head tilted toward him, as she went to the counter. She gave him the privacy to work through his emotions, while being available if he wished to continue. Then, when he addressed her directly, she spoke.

“I do understand that, Sulphur.” Mandy sighed a little as she turned back to the table, coffee pot in one hand, carton of cream in the other. She set the cream down in front of him, then began to refill his drink. “But it’s too easy to become what you fight against, if you fight with just your anger. People will hear what you are saying, and some of those people will only hear the call to violence. Whether it is your intent, people will be hurt.”

She poured herself another mug as well. This time, she didn’t stir in more sugar. She returned the half-full coffeepot to the counter, and sat back down.

“As you likely know, I am mixed race. My mother, Sara, was Anglo. My father, Nicholas, was Anishinaabeg – Ojibwe, Chippewa. On both sides, my blood is laced with rebellion and revolution. Conquest in the name of conquering before someone worse can conquer, or resisting those that would overcome us. I’ve learned a lot about our history while some of the elders were teaching LJ our roots. It’s a history written in blood, as most histories of violence are.” She punctuated that with a drink. “A call for justice through pain soothes no-one and fixes nothing. Hurt people are easily angered, and angry people try to communicate their pain the only way they know how. It is easy to be cruel, even – no, especially when you have suffered cruelty.”

She smiled a little, searching his sad eyes with her own. “You mean well. That’s half the battle. The other half, doing well, that’s the hardest part. If you succeed, you’ll see change in the world. But there are wolves waiting for the wardrums as an excuse to bite. Just remember that, and I have faith you will be able to do what you’ve set out for with as little suffering as possible. Maybe there will be peace. People are kind, at their heart. But you have to work for that peace, and find that kindness in yourself, as much as you want your enemies to understand your pain.”
 

There was a lot there to think about. Madeline had made some good points. However, she made one mistake, and all of the softness in Sulphur that she had worked out became sharp. He chuckled bitterly and shook his hand, pressing his forehead into his palm. He looked up at her and smiled, the look still soft and sad despite the sharp edge.

“People are not all kind, Madeline. People aren’t kind at heart. There are so many people who are evil at heart, so many people who want to hurt others. I cannot believe that you are naive enough to believe that all people are good. You’re so very intelligent, that much is clear. So why would you believe something so… childish?”

“Franklin, not everyone is bad. Not everyone is out to get you. You don’t strike me as someone foolish enough to believe such a thing.”

A soft voice rang in his ear, a voice different from the one speaking to him now. He remembered the scent of daisies, a tumble of autumn red hair, so unlike Obsidian’s, and beautiful brown eyes on a freckled face. A girl who he couldn’t love, because he didn’t know how to love. A soft and freckled hand dragging him through a library, that soft voice talking amicably about the good in people.

Madeline sure did remind him of Greta. God, he wished he could forget about Greta.

“I would… like to stay. Maybe we can talk about this more. Who knows, maybe you could be the first to convince me. I would… like to hear your arguments.”
 
Madeline’s eyes softened as she watched Sulphur hide behind his edges. His laugh, his words, his eyes were sharp, but that didn’t hide the places where he had already softened. For her part, more sharpness would not win; she could see that, she understood that on a level both human and animal. Patience was the best tool for this project.

“You can stay as long as you’d like, Sulphur.” She smiled, and though it didn’t hide the sadness, it didn’t betray any sign of her disappointment. “We have a guest room LJ’s friends usually stay in if they’re here too late. I wasn’t planning to make dinner, since LJ isn’t going to be back until about 8 or 9 tonight and he usually eats in Duluth when they go that far, but I think I can throw something together.”

She stood up without waiting for an answer, took a pot from a rack mounted on the wall, and started scrounging for the ingredients for a simple soup.
 

Sulphur smiled softly as the woman started to move to cook for him. He let the warmth of the coffee bleed through him. It warmed him to his core, and he sighed softly, sitting up straight and removing his hand from his forehead. He gave Madeline a genuine smile and then took a long, deep drink of the beverage. He hadn’t felt quite so at ease in years. And even then, it wasn’t like this. Surely, Obsidian wouldn’t get mad at him for just… one night.


“Sir, I’m sorry it took so long for me to call. I’m stuck out here for the night. I’ll be back on my way tomorrow.” He kept his voice soft as he sat on the guest bed, his blazer and shirt carefully folded over the chair nearby. He brushed his fingers over the thin undershirt he wore, just over his heart, which for the first time in many years, didn’t hurt quite as much.

“Is she coming with you, then?” The voice on the other end, though soft and almost far away, had an indescribable tone. A tone that said he was used to having what he wanted and was used to being listened to. That was why Sulphur paused for a moment before he replied.

“Madeline Snow Owl has elected not to come.” He kept his voice just as even as before. Obsidian didn’t need to know that he had sat and spoken with this woman for hours, had dinner with her, had met her young son who had come home and told him all about the Christmas light show. Those weren’t the things that Obsidian cared about. Well. They were things that if Sulphur told Obsidian, he might care about. And Sulphur didn’t want him to care about those things.

“I see. Why can’t you make it back out tonight?”

“I’ve been offered to, ah, have breakfast in the morning. I figured I would try one more time then to convince her.” Not the entire truth. He might ask her half-heartedly to come, but he was in no way going to pressure her. Not after she had been so kind and so warm to him. She had treated him as warmly as she had her own son.

“Understood. Do your best. If you can’t convince her, if she’s too kind, maybe we can send Malachite. He might be able to ‘nice’ his way into convincing her.”

“That might work. Malachite has a way with people. And, she would like him. I think she would like him.” Sulphur looked down at his hand, flexing his fingers. Malachite wouldn’t be able to convince her. He might not even try. He’d probably be too interested in just talking to her to actually try to rally her. And for once, Sulphur didn’t want to recruit someone. He wanted… he wanted to leave her alone.

“We’ll see you again in a few days.” The voice on the other side of the phone was still just as soft and far away as it had been before. He smiled as he realized, sadly, that Obsidian was lost in his memories. He was there, but in his head, he was in Columbus. The phone went dead, then, before Sulphur could say anything else.

He set the phone down on the bedside table with a sigh. He ran his fingers through his hair, the fluffy strands finally breaking free entirely of their gel prison. It made him look younger and softer. His brows were turned up at the corners, and he looked around the room, letting his eyes follow the flow of the room. Finally, when he felt more tired than sad, he laid down and clicked the light off.​
 
Mandy lay in the master bedroom, in a bed that used to feel too big for just her. Her grandparents’ bed. Joe Snow Owl’s bed. It had needed a new mattress; John had helped her with that. With most of the renovations. John had known her father. They’d be the same age, or just about.

She wondered, on some quiet nights, whether she and Lyle could have been happy in this house. The cabin was too big for her. It might’ve been too big for her and Lyle. But with LJ, with the friends he brought, with the visits from the reservation… it never felt empty, even when the whole house was silent.

Quiet enough that, straining her ears just a little, she could overhear the conversation in the guest room, the bedroom nearest hers. Once LJ’s bedroom when he was younger, it had become the guest room when he took up residence on the far side of the house in the second largest room overall. She hadn’t been hurt about that decision. He was growing. He needed space. And he couldn’t stay at her side forever.

She smiled a little as Sulphur didn’t quite tell the truth to whoever was on the other end of the phone. One of his brothers, probably. Obsidian most likely, as Malachite was mentioned, and given the deference her guest gave him. In the morning, Madeline would politely refuse again. Especially with LJ there – she couldn’t leave him for a crusade, even if she could accept Slate’s justifications. However, she was certain that LJ’s presence would just reaffirm certain points she’d made. He was a good kid, and opinionated.

If he had been as she was, monster or metahuman, she might be worried Sulphur would attempt to convince him. He had the same undercurrent of anger that a number of the children in the reservation gained in their teenage years, rage at injustices. She had taught him how to channel that rage as best she could. He’d found his cause, his calling, and would pursue it in the spring. And he’d never become what she’d become, not as long as she could protect him.

For a few more months, Mandy could close her eyes and sleep, without worrying for him.
 
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