Obsidian was waiting at his booth in the back of the Diamond for Todd to arrive. He had closed the bar early, so most of the stragglers were finally clearing out. Many stopped by to wish him a good night or check up on him before leaving. Obsidian had made it an early point to walk the bar and meet some of their guests, and those guests had continued to come back. Why wouldn’t they, when Hematite and Rhodanite managed the bar, friendly and smiling. Now, they were cleaning glasses and getting them put away. Lapis and Sulphur were upstairs, delving as much as possible into one Todd Fowler.
So far they hadn’t been able to find anything interesting– the guy didn’t have any social media, for fuck’s sake– but they were still looking. In the meantime, Obsidian had pulled several of their more expensive bottles off the shelf from the cellar and had lined them up on the bar for Todd to choose from when he arrived.
Which would be soon, based on his phone call. He had been hesitant, but he had said the pack could join. So while he sipped his whiskey, Hemie and Rhody ran upstairs to get cleaned up. Obsidian had left the door unlocked so that Todd could walk right in. He was halfway through his drink before Sulphur stepped down the stairs, his blonde hair brushed back and away from his face, his tattoos at his eyes obscuring some of his neutral expression. He was dressed in a grey suit, one that was cut just right for his tall, lanky frame. He gave Obsidian a nod and slipped into his spot at the table they had brought over to the booth, creating one long seating arrangement.
The second one down was Lapis, dressed in a skimpier than normal crop top and a pair of low hip-hugging cargo pants. She had painted on her eye of Horus makeup, one eye with the swirl and lines, and the other with just a sharp cat eye. Her black and blue laced hair was spiked outward at the ends. “This is a casual drinking meeting, Lapis. Not an attempt to seduce him into bed.”
“I’m only going to try a little. You know, if he’s hot enough.”
“Sista, you’re going to scare the man off before he even gets in the door.” The gruff voice of Hematite rang out from the staircase. He had switched from his all-blacks into some deep, jewel-toned clothes. He was fashionably dressed in a mossy green and violet sweater, his jeans dark-washed. The sweater matched the beads that were woven through his locs.
“I’m sure she doesn’t mean anything by it. You know how Lapis is.” Rhody came down the stairs after Hematite, now changed into her pink and white ensemble. Her blouse was a butterfly pink, with eyelet lace edging. Her white capris had ties on the sides so she could adjust their height, and were currently tied up at her knees.
“Lapis, I don’t suppose you’d be willing to go change?”
“Not even the slightest. If he says no to this then we know he’s either gay or in a relationship he didn’t disclose. That’s valuable information, Phur.”
The tall blonde man sighed and gestured for the other three to take seats. Lapis took the middle by where Todd would be seated, and Hematite and Rhodanite took the furthest seats. Obsidian gave Lapis a knowing look, one that she returned in a mocking manner. A feral grin broke across his face. Of course, that information was valuable. Any information was valuable, and Lapis was good at getting information.
Todd only smoked for three reasons. One, he was hungry. Two, he was waiting. Three, he was nervous.
Today was a number-three day. Today he was going to meet the pack, Obsidian’s pack, Malachite’s pack. He’d been spending the day bracing himself to meet with Obsidian – Ethan. It had been on his mind since he got up this morning. Something said today, and that was the kind of instinct that he didn’t ignore. He’d waited to call until after work, just to make sure Vik didn’t have a rush order for him. There wasn’t anything urgent, and only a little bit of him was disappointed by that.
He’d called the number Ethan gave him when he got into the Malibu, and had hesitantly agreed to meet with everyone else, too. He had time to prepare himself for that, too, since he gave himself time to shower, long and hot and enough to get the grease out, and then layered in one of his more comfortable tan suit. By tan suit, of course, was meant two long-sleeved shirts, a sweater, a larger collared shirt that still fit a little loosely, and then another sweater-vest and the overcoat and tie. Black gloves hid some of the lankiness of his hands, but not if someone looked too closely or touched them. The pants were easier, didn’t sit as obviously loosely, and suspenders that creased the layers under his coat helped. It wasn’t quite cold enough for everything to look comfortable, if it was visible, but Todd had a lot of experience making sure everything sat without unusual rumples or lumps.
He was going to meet the pack. That lingered in the back of his mind. Ethan’s people were either going to know – and there was really only one way for them to find out – or they wouldn’t. If they knew, Todd would probably be fucked unless he could outrun them. If they knew, he was walking into a trap with an unknown number of jaws ready to take him. A group of metahumans, even a pair of them, could spell the end of him.
But he couldn’t go armed. No knives, no claws, not even his handgun. They were meeting at a bar, after all, the Diamond. Bars were good for Todd to meet new people, and really overall. Alcohol didn’t really stick with his metabolism, so that wasn’t a danger, and the surrounding scents and smells and bodies helped distract his predator enough to focus on whoever he was drinking with as a person.
Because, well, he wasn’t worried about what would happen if they knew. If they knew, he was aware it would be fight or flight, and he could run or he would die. That was a simple outcome.
Todd didn’t know what he would do if Ethan was right, and if Ethan hadn’t told them. He was worried about what would happen if they really would accept him.
His predator had never known acceptance. Even with Sam – even the things he was sure she knew, he was also sure she wouldn’t recognize. The monster behind his eyes, the nature of the hunger it had for her – he didn’t let her know that. There was no world where she would know that, and he wouldn’t die.
But. If he could give it a different outlet, maybe it would leave her alone for a while. After all, after his first meeting with Ethan, with the other Walsh, he had been able to embrace her when he came home, before he went to bed, and felt no stirring of the animal that wanted her heart in every sense of the idea. There had only been her, and she was his.
So maybe this wouldn’t be so bad in the long run, he thought, as he flicked the cigarette out the window and put the Malibu in park. A group meeting in a busy place where he might be able to show his teeth a little, might be able to let someone else in.
He still felt the need to pause outside the front doors, and listen. Some of the tension he’d banished started to crawl back in as he realized that he didn’t hear bodies, not really, or more than a handful of voices. He looked back at his car, and realized the area around was mostly empty, too. This was a bar at rush hour. He’d expect there to be more activity, unless –
Trap? his gut asked, instead of stating. He licked his lips a little. If it was a trap, it was an obvious one. While he was on the doorstep, he could turn around and walk away, avoid being stuck. Well… no, no he couldn’t. Something in his chest, either his pride or simple animal excitement, was getting in the way of that. It was too late to back down now, even if he felt like a fox walking into a wolf’s den and hoping not to get ripped to pieces.
But he wouldn’t look like that. He took a deep breath, centered himself by sound and scent, and took his cap off with one hand to run the other through his curls. It was either going to be fine, or it wasn’t, and there was only one way to find out which. He made the tension drain from his posture, put on his polite, close-lipped smile, and stepped into the Diamond.
He cast a glance around, like he was making sure this was the right place, and saw the tables in the corner. He swallowed back the nervous instinct that said to go while the door was still open, and waved as it shut behind him, closing him in. At the same time he caught Ethan’s eye, and he relaxed a little more as he took in the actual people, not just the bodies at the table.
“Hey! Sorry to keep everyone waiting.” He was on time, but they looked like they’d been ready for a few minutes, at least. He would’ve been early if he’d been expecting a private gathering – if only to scout the place out. He kept his voice calm and warm, doing his best to project harmless into the room of potentially malicious strangers.
None of them looked malicious, though. All of them were… more or less relaxed. The air was thick with them, like they had moved around a lot before he arrived, or like the same people spent a lot of time here. Probably the second. From where he was standing he caught various florals, strong masculine scents, linens and leathers, metal, gunpowder, ozone, pepper. He knew where the pepper was coming from, but the rest were going to be a mystery until he walked over to that table and sat down.
He didn’t yet. He took a few more steps inside, away from the door, but looked around the wider room. He only let his eyes rest on the alcohol for a second before returning his attention to the table with an approving nod.
“Nice place. Good work with the renovations.”
Always compliment the things people have control over. That was a learned rule, not an instinctive one, but like casual flirting it normally worked in his favor. The flirting… okay, that had worked a little too well the last time, and the woman by the empty seat didn’t look like she took anything like that casually, but that one couldn’t go too far.
He wasn’t going to join the group without being invited, though. That would give the wrong impression, and he still wasn’t completely convinced this wasn’t a trap.
Obsidian saw him first. Todd in normal clothes was a lot thicker than Todd in his vigilante clothing. He wondered briefly if that was intentional. Of course it was, to hide his constant state of starvation, most likely. He was also slouching, making himself smaller, which Obsidian was less of a fan of. He gave the young man a real grin, full of teeth, but nonthreatening.
“Todd, good to see you. We haven’t been waiting long.” He kept the grin as his new friend complimented the renovations to the bar. Obsidian quite liked the sleek but subtle look of the place. It was just casual enough that most people felt fine drinking there but just high-end enough to draw in the more artsy and rich crowds. It was a subtle balance between the chrome and black decor that really did it. “I’m glad you approve. We spent the first week here having it worked on. We’re in the process of renovating the upstairs right now, We live here, and we want it a little more… communal.”
We want to be able to be together every second we can. That would be a weird thing to say, at least this early on. Obsidian had done nothing to explain how their family worked, just that they were in fact a family. A pack, almost, in the way they operated. He gestured with a hand to the bar, his grin softening to a smile, a hint of something that bordered on pleasure in his face. “Have anything you want. I wasn’t sure what you’d like, so I pulled a few choice bottles, but if you prefer something else, well, we have plenty in the storage room. I’ll let everyone introduce themselves. Oh, and stop slouching. You don’t have to make yourself small here.”
He took a sip of his whiskey, savoring the burn, although he knew it wouldn’t get him anywhere near drunk. His tolerance for alcohol was off the charts and might have had something to do with the fact that he didn’t need to eat. He wasn’t entirely sure. But he gestured toward the others, and they didn’t disappoint, taking turns introducing themselves.
Sulphur was the first to introduce himself. He looked up at the man from his seat, his hands clasped together under his chin. He knew, looking the man over, that he thrifted his clothes. There was nothing wrong with that. Not in Sulphur’s mind. He himself thrifted his clothes fairly often, and had done only that as a younger man. It was hard to find clothes that fit a tall frame like theirs, even more so when you were as thin as Sulphur himself was. However, after Obsidian’s comment, he couldn’t help but notice Todd’s slouch.
“Good to meet you, Mr. Fowler. I’m Sulphur.” A simple greeting, but one that said Sulphur was of the more formal type. He wouldn’t use Todd’s first name unless told he could. He had given the only name he had gone by since the age of twenty, when Obsidian had first recruited himself and Malachite to the cause.
A sharp pang struck Sulphur in the chest as he thought of Malachite. Obsidian had told them about the vigilante named Cryptid who had killed him, about the gorey remains he had found, and how he had picked out the pieces he could from the mess. It was enough to make even Sulphur furious. The treatment of one of his best friends in such a disrespectful and horrific manner was making him clench his fists. He took in a soft breath and forced himself to relax. He gave the young man a nod and then got up to pour himself a screwdriver.
Rhody took second. She gave a small wave and a cheerful smile. He was taller, about as tall as Sulphur, and that was a little surprising. Given how fast and lethal Obsidian had told them he had been against Cryptid, almost killing the man by the sounds of it, he had expected someone a little less… well, less.
“I’m Rhodanite. But you can call me Rhody, everyone does. It’s always lovely to meet another meta.” She seemed like the type who would have hugged him if they had been standing, a soft energy about her despite her clearly athletic and strong frame. She also looked like her hugs might hurt. Not because she would mean for them to, but because of how tightly she would hug you.
She took in his sharp face with a bit of a passive smile, her dark brown eyes glinting. No one would have ever guessed how strong or unkillable she was given her soft demeanor. Her very soft color told that this was the effect she wanted, this deceptively warm and soft look. That glint in her eyes, however, was impossible to hide. The glint that said she lived for the hunt as much as the rest of them did.
Hematite tipped his nonexistent hat, his dreads jingling as the beads collided and rattled. He gave a genuinely friendly smile to the man, who looked roughly the same age as him. He stood up from his seat, took the few steps needed to close the distance between them, and offered his hand. His colorful clothing against his darker skin was striking, and it was clear his clothing was of good quality.
He gave a wide grin as he said, “Hematite, but they all call me Hemie. Good to meetcha, brotha.”
If Todd took his hand, he’d pull him in and clap him on the back before letting him go. Then, he went to go and make himself a drink as well, a Skittle Bomb, by the looks of it. He reached up behind the bar, snatched one of the Red Bulls, and started pouring it into a highball glass.
Finally, it rolled around to Lapis, who had turned around entirely in her seat. Lapis had been eyeing him up the entire time that the others had been introducing themselves, and enough that if he had noticed, she was sure it would either make him uncomfortable or would divert his attention her way. She gave a slow, languid smile as she tilted her head to the side, as though she had made a choice. That choice was, of course, whether or not Todd Fowler was a meal or a friend. But then, why couldn’t he be both?
“Lapis. A pleasure to meet you.” There was a hungry look in her grey eyes as she looked him over. She kept that almost sensual smile and she tried to hold his eyes, trying to gauge his reaction to her, to see if he’d recognize what her energy was. To see if he’d act on it and respond to it. It would tell her everything she needed to know about their future relationship.
Then she stood, walking slowly over to the bar to pour herself a drink, subtly watching his face as her tiny form moved. She placed a hand on Rhody’s shoulder as she passed. She poured herself a double of some honey whiskey before just as slowly moving back to her seat.
Well, they didn’t rip him to pieces, which was a very good start. It was a great sign that Ethan hadn’t told them, but he also hadn’t told Todd what he had told them. That meant that he wanted Todd to piece it together, to get the feeling for the group and their intentions. Or it meant that he’d simply overlooked something. Ethan didn’t seem like the type for that, however.
So he was checking something, maybe trying to learn how well Todd could adjust, how well he fit. That left Todd with the option to observe, adapt, and survive. That, in turn, meant that Todd needed to pay attention as they addressed him, watch speech patterns and emotions as closely as he could manage. That was… a surprisingly unstressful task. He’d been doing that since foster care without realizing it, he just needed to find the pieces to create the self that could be comfortable here, and make the people around him comfortable in return.
Ethan first. Genial host that he was, Todd already knew the predator behind his smile, even if the bare teeth did nothing to stir his own animal. He reacted to the request to stand up with a sheepish smile, but rather than flow into it, he eased up to full height. The curve in his back and shoulders squared out, the relatively loose fit of his coat sat the way it was supposed to on his figure, and both his height and his build became clear to those who hadn’t noticed it already. He countered the effect it might have by slipping his hands into his coat pockets, letting him fill in the extra space that suddenly surrounded him with his bent arms.
His eyes moved when the next man spoke, and he picked up the important elements in his body and voice. Sulphur looked – not harmless, exactly. But even with the tattoos, there was a deliberate neutrality to him. He’d somewhat seen it in the album he’d kept from Malachite. Not as a trophy, but as a reminder that despite the pain he’d caused, Mal had been a human being. That Ethan, and Sulphur, were human beings. He didn’t know how much he’d need it, but he’d have it.
And of course he couldn’t miss the moment of anger. Anger was pungent, and translated too easily into body language to go unnoticed. Todd sometimes met anger with anger as Cryptid, but more often, he relaxed in the face of it. Sulphur had a right to his anger, after all. It was the fact that he didn’t turn it on Todd that finally settled the part of him that suspected this was a trap, because anger like that often came unbidden and caused mistakes. Even if Sulphur wasn’t the type to make mistakes, his rage would have more direction if he knew its cause was in the room right now.
All this in the time it took Todd to smile experimentally, with just a little tooth visible, and tell him, “Just Todd is fine, really. Mr. Fowler makes me sound like a banker.” He’d used that line on employers before, and usually it got the point across and pulled a laugh out of them.
When Sulphur walked past him to the bar, he caught the breeze in his wake, the smells that defined him writing themselves into memory. The faint hint of something that wasn’t quite vanilla; some kind of wood; secondhand smoke; then gunpowder, and some kind of ink. Pragmatic smells. Dangerous, but not to one of his own pack.
Then Rhodonite – Rhody – spoke up, and he looked at her for the first time. In her soft features and pastels, he had almost written her off. No, not that. He’d almost not noticed her, the way his slouch and awkward, friendly smiles could let people go without noticing him in return. But because of that, hers were the first eyes he actually met. And like him, she was hiding something hungry behind her harmless appearance. The glint reminded him that he was among wolves, that all of these people were capable of the same kind of violence he’d experienced at Malachite’s hands.
The soft face around those eyes reminded him that maybe, a fox and a wolf were not quite so different.
Maybe she’d see the moment of understanding in his eyes before they turned toward Hematite, distracted by his movement. He returned the hat tip with another sheepish smile and a real tip of his own cap. Like Rhody, there was certainly something in his eyes, but there was no lie in the friendliness he put forward as he got up to greet Todd. Noticeably, he was the one who smelled like metal – not the copper of blood, but real metal, steel, maybe, the way a new engine smelled. There was leather in there, too, and whenever his dreads moved, Todd caught a little bit of his sandalwood shampoo.
He reached out and let Hemie take his hand to shake almost without thinking, and only realized after that both the bone-thinness and the strength of his normal grip would be very noticeable. That all only lasted a second, though, because Hemie pulled him in and clapped him on the back, momentarily surrounding him in expensive fabric and the smell of metal before pulling away again.
And to his surprise, Todd realized that he hadn’t even suspected an attack that time, despite the abrupt action. Despite the danger, his instincts were giving him the all-clear, and the longer he stood here in the middle of them, the clearer the lack of fear was to himself. Even as he became aware of the sharpest set of eyes turned towards him, the kind that he’d been able to ignore the way someone might ignore a stranger at the bar. But it’d be rude to keep treating her like a stranger, and so he turned his head back to her.
She wasn’t hard to read at all. In fact, she was projecting her intentions into him, waiting for a response. He met her eyes without hesitation, despite the hunger behind hers, and returned her head tilt with one of his own. She was sizing him up, and she’d be able to tell he was letting her as he took her in, as he did her the courtesy of watching her up until she passed him.
She carried the scent of floral perfume, the cheap kind that was very noticeable and clearly fake to anyone with a good nose. But underneath that was something else, something equally inorganic. Ozone, maybe. Clean and crisp.
“The pleasure's all mine,” he told her as she finished passing, but in that dry kind of tone that implied that it was simply a formality, the best response to her own introduction.
He could feeling her watching him from the bar, and knew she’d see the crooked little smile and miniature head shake to brush her off without further words. Whatever effect she had on him was mitigated by years of experience rebuffing somehow more obvious efforts in cheap pubs and sports bars. Even if he hadn’t had Sam, she wouldn’t have even been a temptation.
He started to make lists, to create folders for each of them in his mind and senses. And of the things that he noticed about them, collectively. Their shared theme of stone names, even if he’d never seen hematite or rhodonite. Each of them shared the hunger to some degree, even if it was most obvious in Ethan and Lapis. And somehow, his inner predator was comfortable with that, despite the fact that their teeth could turn on the outsider at any second, because it was clear that they didn’t want to.
So he walked, without the usual awkward shuffle he might have in a group of near-strangers who might perceive him as a threat, and read a couple of the labels on the counter before picking up the rum and looking at Hemie and Sulphur.
“Is there any cola back there?” he asked, although he could see it from where he was standing. He’d get it himself, but again, this wasn’t his place. He might be more comfortable than when he walked in, but he knew convention, and it was more polite to ask than to intrude. He stayed on the outside of the bar, kept himself separated, waited for invitation. He could make himself a quick Cuba Libre without any kind of fuss about specific ingredients.
He was in that stage of exploration in new territory – the absorbing stage, where he wouldn’t intrude, but wouldn’t argue against being intruded on. Where he took in questions and information, and gave back enough to get a taste of what was actually coming. Give no fuss, get no fuss; follow, don’t lead, because this territory wasn’t his. Not yet, and might never be.
There was a collective pause as Todd straightened out. All of the eyes in the room shifted to him, and for a moment, the entire pack was silent. Then they moved again, the clanking of glasses filling the air once more. No one seemed to particularly react to the change, not so much as to change their own behavior. Obsidian knew it was because they were simply witnessing the change.
They liked to collectively witness things, he had discovered. It was one of the reasons they had a ritual when it came to Obsidian feeding, when they could. They liked to watch him kill them. Maybe with the exception of Hemie, but he’d still only been with them for five years, a relatively late recruit by all things given. There was still time for him to relax a bit more and enjoy the finale of their hunts.
He looked around and took in all of his pack’s faces, took in their reactions to him. So far, everyone was being surprisingly relaxed. Even Lapis, who he thought for sure was going to be a problem tonight, was relatively tame. She was pouting now, after the little head shake that Todd had given her, but that did give weight to one theory. Men were always tempted by Lapis. She had helped him blackmail many looser men in the past, and she did it with glee. If Ethan wasn’t gay, well. It wouldn’t be a hard sell. So was Todd gay, in love, or simply uninterested? Whatever the reason, Obsidian took note of it, the same way he knew Lapis was.
“Todd, then. There are some cokes behind the counter. Feel free to grab one. What’s ours is yours.” It was a simple statement from Obsidian’s lieutenant, but one that spoke volumes as Obsidian didn’t refute it. What they had was Todd’s too, if he wanted it. They would share everything with him if he only asked.
“It’s the least we can do after you saved Obsidian’s life. He didn’t tell us a lot about it, but what we do know is that we owe you everything.”
There was a sudden hush after Hemie spoke, a soft and sorrowful moment as they all thought together about how much they wished Todd could have saved Malachite too. Obsidian didn’t have to be in their heads to know that. They had told him as much when he had shared Mal’s death. They were all grateful that Todd had “saved him”. In a way, Todd had saved him from Cryptid. Just not in the way that the others might think.
Obsidian had no intent to tell any of them the truth. Not now. Maybe not ever, depending on how all of this worked out. Although he hadn’t voiced it aloud, the pack knew the plan. Slow assimilation. They were going to slowly bring Todd into the fold until he was one of them, and then they could begin the actual radicalization.
At least, that’s what their plan was. Obsidian would allow it to happen, so long as it didn’t drive Todd away. That was the only thing he cared about at that point. He wasn’t going to lose this rare, once-in-a-lifetime chance to bond with someone like himself. If it didn’t work out with the pack, then Obsidian would just have to separate Todd and the pack and keep them both. It would be annoying, but worth it to have someone who understood.
Anything was worth that.
Lapis lifted her glass to her lips, taking a long sip, then she looked up at Todd. “He hasn’t told us a lick about you, actually. Just that you’re a powerful meta. You must be special for Boss to be interested in you. Special like us.”
She rolled her shoulders back. That was a good sign. She was hunting something other than Todd– she was hunting information. She wanted to know about the incident, about him, and she was asking questions. Obsidian would keep an eye on her, but otherwise, he let her speak. She was the only one that Obsidian was concerned about. She was the one most likely to show her true colors this early.
Beside him, Sulphur retook his seat, and across from Rhody, Hemie took his seat. Rhody took the chance to stand and grab a juice from the same cooler that Todd would be grabbing his Coke from. She gave him a look that was genuinely soft and she said, “Thank you for saving him. I don’t know what I would have done if I had lost both of them.”
She passed a Coke toward him, holding it out in her hand for him to take.
Todd could feel their eyes on him, which was why he didn’t relax completely even after he passed the point of suspecting a trap. He hadn’t been brought here to die, but he’d still been brought into a den full of much bigger teeth, and needed to find where he fit before he could relax int safety.
Still. There was a moment, there, when Sulphur spoke. Todd looked at him – it was polite, he just tended to look where he heard a voice. He wasn’t nervous, but he kept shifting, like a man deep in thought. What was theirs, was his. It was an open invitation, one that he was a little divided about, and so didn’t address quite yet. He’d stepped around the counter and started checking for Cokes, and so his back was to the table so nobody could see the expression on his face when Hemie said that he’d saved Obsidian.
Right. Right. He was supposed to be figuring out a cover story. And even with his back to them, he’d hesitated, just a little too long. Immediately he put his defenses back – not as strongly, because they’d notice that, but enough to protect him from slipping. If they thought he was anything but a lost wolf, or worse, a threat, he’d lose the momentary safety he had here.
Of course, the safety was only temporary, anyway. He couldn’t run now, but he wasn’t theirs, either, and they weren’t his. He was a guest. He was Ethan’s guest, and Ethan had told them a lie about their first meeting. Probably to protect him from them. In the silence that followed – when Todd had already gotten over the momentary hiccup to collect his Coke and his iceless rum – he knew that there was no way they’d let him go if they knew the truth, and Ethan didn’t want to lose him to them.
Rhody was beside him, and she pulled out a Coke and met his eyes with such genuine sadness in every smooth motion of her being that Todd had to stop himself from pausing again. He’d known, of course, that someone would be losing Malachite. Everyone had someone who’d lose them, even the darkest scum he killed. And Mal may have been a monster, but he wasn’t scum. And not even scum deserved what Todd did.
His eyes might’ve betrayed a touch of guilt before he turned it into a sad smile, said “Thanks,” and turned to head back to the table.
He was in a dilemma. He had some choices to make in the brief time it would take his limbs to close the distance between the bar and the booth. He could take the route of outright lying, but to concoct a full story, he’d have to know exactly what Ethan had already said. Otherwise it was too much of a risk. He could lean into half-truths, try to get Obsidian to tell what he had in mind for him, follow his lead, but they knew Obsidian well enough to recognize a slip, unless their faith in him was completely blind. The faces around the table didn’t look like the blindly faithful type.
There was a third option, and he was already aware it was the best one. It leaned into the persona they were letting him build, a nervous meta in a new situation, someone Ethan had charmed or coerced into coming in to meet them – a half-truth. He’d saved Ethan from Cryptid – also a half-truth, given that the Cryptid bore more of his animal than Todd, and it was Todd who wanted this connection as much as Ethan did. Rather than growl and become bigger to fit in among the wolves, he had to embrace what he was, what they’d already seen in him, and do it without actually appearing weak.
He kept all these things in mind as he took his seat beside Lapis, who hadn’t stopped moving since he’d given her his sign of refusal. He didn’t acknowledge it as he poured the Coke into the glass. He didn’t let it get to him, or any of the grief. He looked like he was cutting himself off again, like as an outsider he didn’t deserve to partake in that.
That was another half-truth. After all, he shouldn’t feel guilty about surviving, not when he’d already been absolved. But the guilt clung to him the way it did with every kill, and not even his sheepish smile could hide the knot in his chest, not from people watching him so keenly already. He wondered what they’d think of that, if they’d suspect or come up with another excuse.
He needed to redirect, and he was very good at that. He looked at Obsidian, still as a statue, beast tight under wraps, and absolutely no help. He smiled at him a little, then tipped his glass toward him as he addressed the rest of the table.
“Ethan’s plenty scary, from what I’ve seen. I’m a lot more mundane than all that.” He still ate things with his teeth, after all, predator or no. He took a sip, and let the burn and fizz ground him again. Enough feeling sorry for himself, enough worrying. He could enjoy this, even the worse aspects. “All I did was serve as a distraction. He’s the one who got an actual hit in.”
He continued the trend of not-quite-addressing questions, because that was the him Ethan had met, that was who he’d been so far. And that kind of speech suited the gentle sense of self-doubt he was letting them see, something a lot softer and more innocent than how he really felt. It was true, too. If Todd hadn’t slipped through, if the man hadn’t redirected Ethan’s attention –
No. No, he’d been telling a whole truth when he said Ethan was scary. He couldn’t beat him in a head-on fight, he was almost sure of it, not without a lot more preparation and a few more tricks. Ethan would’ve made it home in one piece. He channeled that knowledge into the person he was letting the pack see, acknowledging their alpha as a much more dangerous predator than himself, and then once again waited for the results.
There was a collective pause, this one much longer. All of the faces at the table turned to look at Obsidian, who hissed in a breath. He closed his eyes and sighed deeply, reaching for his drink and downing a fair bit of it. And then, it came.
“Ethan? You told him your real name? Most of us didn’t know it.”
“Well, you know it now, don’t you, Sherry?” Lapis’s face turned bright pink and a look of frustration crossed it.
“My name is the name you gave me. Lapis.”
“And my name is Obsidian, but I can choose to go by Ethan Walsh if I please. That is all of our individual choices. So yes, I told Todd my real name. I trust him with it.”
Lapis looked pissed, but she didn’t respond any further. The rest of the table relaxed, and Sulphur nodded his head, his facial expression reading as though he had expected such an action from Obsidian. He had crossed his arms at some point but now unfolded them to lean onto his hands again. He looked sideways toward Hematite and Rhody who were whispering in excited voices, just barely hushed enough that Lapis and Obsidian wouldn’t notice.
“His name is Ethan? But that’s like, really human. I expected something so much… more?”
“Me too, but we can talk about this later, I don’t want Obsidian to catch us. I don’t like getting dressed down like Lapis does.”
“That’s… fair. Alright.”
Sulphur chuckled a little bit and gave them a knowing look, and they both leaned away from each other in their chairs. Rhody reached a hand across the table and Hematite took it, rubbing his thumb over her knuckles. They both took a drink of their respective drinks, their hands remaining visible over the table.
With that seemingly settled, at least for the time being, Obsidian turned back to Todd and grinned, this time a little sharper. Todd was playing humble, but Obsidian had seen him vulnerable, had seen the predator, and he wanted both of those. If he couldn’t have one, he’d have the other. He leaned forward on his hands and looked directly at Todd. “And you, you shouldn’t be so humble. After all, as I recall, you took quite a bite out of him. I’d say you’re as scary as I am. Especially given our… similarities.”
Once again, they all went quiet, but this time it was to look at Todd. Obsidian looked down the row and gave each of them a look, and they looked away, all of them clearly still paying attention, but no longer staring. That was, of course, except for Lapis, who latched on to the statement like a suckerfish.
“Boss never calls anyone scary. You must be pretty impressive. What do you do? Why does he think you’re similar.” She looked back and forth between the two of them, her grey eyes narrowing slightly. Obsidian raised his drink with a knowing smile to Todd. This is all you, my friend.
"You don't need to be shy. You don't need to hide here, Todd."
Ethan – no, Obsidian hissed, and Todd froze as some alarm in his hindbrain got tripped. He’d made a mistake. He’d tried to be so careful, but he’d made a mistake, and he knew the second that it happened because it resonated back into the prey instincts, the ones that rebuilt the walls he’d been fighting without a second thought.
He set the drink down, so he didn’t break the glass by accident with how his fingers stiffened, and looked at Obsidian. He’d turned a few shades more healthy from the initial embarrassment and worry, and so only got a shade darker when Ethan turned the conversation back on him. While his eyes never left Obsidian, he still watched the rest of the table. Lapis’s irritation was a strong scent, but Sulphur moved, and he could hear Rhody and Hemie’s conversation just fine. Something in him did bookmark that Lapis liked getting dressed down, but that was a lot less important than the fact that he had to control the instinct to get up from the table and run.
He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with everyone again, and then letting them go. He relaxed, on the exhale, and pushed the stiff one-directional prey thoughts away, too. Nobody had attacked him directly, he’d just surprised them. He looked back at Ethan – Obsidian's smile. Hints of the feral grin that had wanted him when he found out about his teeth, about his own predatory side, hints of that hunger that wasn’t human, but wasn’t animal, either.
And, oddly, that helped him relax, because it made his situation clear.
Ethan was pushing him, which Todd understood was kind of deserved after that little fuck-up. He’d had no idea, but he should’ve read the room. He’d been so proud of his ability to do just that, and he’d missed something clearly vital. Nobody else had given their real name. He had Sherry, now – and she really did look like a Sherry, although she leaned hard into Lapis. He’d respect that, though. He understood. If anyone called him Lyle now, or god forbid, LJ, he’d react badly at best.
That wasn’t the point. The point was, now that he’d slipped, Obsidian was pushing him. Todd just didn’t know if he was trying to push him the way a cat pushes a mouse to its kittens, or a bird pushes a juvenile out of the nest.
Maybe Obsidian didn’t know, either, and he wanted to see which Todd would be.
So he smiled sheepishly again, but this time, he let his teeth show. The color hadn’t quite left his face when he picked his glass back up. His heart rate had slowed, his head had cleared. He was sure someone, probably most of them, had noticed the moment of real fear before it went away again.
Eloquent start, that. He took a sip of his drink again. Ethan wasn’t going to give him any more help than he already had. He didn’t have to make himself small. He didn’t have to hide. He wasn’t a mouse, and, even at his weakest, never had been.
Obsidian wouldn’t stand for his usual dancing around the subject. Shapeshifter, heightened senses, durable, none of those would slide, even if Obsidian had seen each of those aspects in action. That didn’t mean he had to let go of his act yet, though. Hesitation pulled in attention, and they liked giving attention, liked sharing it. But he didn’t give in to the temptation to draw it out too long, either. Just enough time to give the impression that he was wrestling with himself over how much to say.
Which, truth be told, he was.
“Sorry, sorry. I just don’t really… talk about this.” He looked at Lapis, grounded himself in the steel gray of her eyes, the steadiness, the curiosity. Hers was the reaction he wanted to see the least, but she’d asked the question, and this was all about manners now.
“Eth– Obsidian and I are similar because we’re both predators. I’m a little more… physical, than he is. More strength and teeth. But I’m– built, I guess, for hunting, killing, and eating.”
He put a hard stop there. He’d kept his voice soft and steady while he spoke, and now he looked away from Lapis to Ethan. He was at the edge of the nest, looking down at the void, and the void – the rest of the truth – filled him with the same dread he’d first felt when Mal mentioned that his boss would want him to join them. The same dread he’d been feeling since he paused outside, a deeper dread than any trap could give him.
The next question was going to be the worst of it, but he needed the push to get past it.
Obsidian smiled. There was something like pride in that look, something that looked pleased with Todd’s choice. While Obsidian would never force him to tell anyone what he did, Todd had all but said it himself. He looked around and took in everyone’s faces, a glint of glee reflected in his eyes.
Sulphur’s eyebrow quirked up, That explained a lot. Ethan didn’t give his name to just anyone, especially not people he didn’t know. Lapis had been with them since the moment she turned eighteen, but even she hadn’t known his birth name. Everyone knew it now, but Obsidian had been discussing the idea of telling them for a while. He felt it would promote more trust in the group.
But that was beside the point of what was being said, then and now. That could wait for later. What couldn’t wait until later was the fact that Todd Fowler had all but told them that he ate people. And that made a lot of sense to Sulphur. It made a lot of sense as to why Obsidian had been so worked up over this meeting, why he had told Lapis to be on her best behavior, and why he felt such kinship to the younger man.
Sulphur felt a small pang in his chest at what it was that meant to Obsidian. True, real understanding from someone. Something that Malachite and himself, despite their best efforts and their own predatory natures, couldn’t provide for him. They didn’t have to kill to survive, not like Ethan did. And that had always left a distance between them that, while they loved each other more than air, could never be bridged.
Then, a moment of relief followed the pang, and his features softened. Obsidian, Ethan, he was not alone. That was a big deal. He had always felt alone, especially after that moment eight years ago, with the two girls in Columbus, with his sister. Ethan had, for the longest time, thought himself to be the only monster like that out there.
But now he wasn’t. Sulphur didn’t care about anything aside from the fact that this was going to change Ethan’s life. Maybe the kid would be good for him.
Rhody wasn’t scared by the implication of what Todd was saying. He ate people. He was a cannibal. So was Obsidian, in a way. While he might not consume the body, Rhody believed that he consumed the souls. Consuming the soul and consuming the flesh were likely equal levels of hell in the Baptist church, the church her mother had been part of when she was growing up. To be honest, Rhody wouldn’t be able to tell you. After what the church had done to her, she had been determined to forget every bit of scripture she had ever learned.
What she did know was that both Todd and Obsidian would go to hell if there was one, and so would she, and so would Hemie, and so would the others. If there was a hell, Mal was there.
So Todd ate people. Rhody could deal with that. She wasn’t in any position to judge someone who was likely doing what they needed to survive. Not after the things she had done to survive. The things that were done to her, and the things she had done in return to the people who had done it to her, well. She was just in no space to judge. So instead, she squeezed Hematite’s hand, looking for comfort in his grip, in the hand of her love, as she had a sudden flashback.
It passed quickly enough, and she cleared her throat, and very gently asked, “So what you’re trying to tell us is… you’re a cannibal?”
Hematite felt his wife squeeze his hand and he squeezed back, grounding her. He knew that she had just had a flashback based on the jerkiness of her squeeze, so he looked up at her and almost missed what she had said. A cannibal. Well, that was… something. That was something. What kind of a something, Hemie wasn’t sure. It was enough that his lover said it with a soft ease, like it didn’t bother her. If it didn’t bother her, it wouldn’t bother him either.
So he raised his head and looked down the line at Todd. He gave the man a small smile. It wasn’t his fault if he was born this way. No one could control what they were born, only who they became. Hemie would know that just as well as anyone else at the table. He could practically feel the warm spray of blood on his face that correlated with those thoughts. Thoughts of survival and thoughts of doing what you had to to live.
“Hey brotha, it’s all good man. Just tell us. If you were born tha’ way, well. That’s not your fault.”
Lapis’s eyes began to sparkle with interest as Todd spoke, and that interest exploded across the rest of her face in a savage grin. That was better than she could have ever expected. He was a human eater, a monster like the rest of them, a hunting beast in human skin. Everything about that excited Lapis. No wonder Obsdian wanted to bring him into the fold. No wonder he wanted him to join Slate. Lapis wanted him to join Slate.
She leaned in close, getting into his personal space, shifting on her chair so her leg slipped through the back, leaving her straddling it sideways. She leaned into her arms, which gripped the edge of the chair. With wide eyes, she started to say something, but then stopped. She looked over at Obsidian, like a child checking for permission. She waited for the red-haired man, the one man she respected more than anyone else, to nod his head. He gave her a small smile and did just that.
She leaned even closer, close enough that he would feel her breath on him. “What’s it like? What’s it like hunting people, eating them? Do you have to do it? What does it give you? Like, Boss, he gets that speed, he gets the shadows, but what does it give you?”
Obsidian’s smile filled with even more pride. They were behaving exactly as he had hoped they would. With sympathy, with gentleness, for the most part, and with understanding. Lapis was as excited as ever, but she had sought his permission before she went for it. The others had accepted it so easily. He knew they would. After all, they’d been with him, most of them, for five years or longer. They didn’t fear metas, no matter how different. In fact, they barely feared anything. Certainly not the kind of god who would hate what Todd was, yet still make him the way he was. Certainly not the meta himself.
They feared man, however, and they knew that Todd must also have to fear man. There was no way Todd lived his life in any way in the open. Not with what he was. They all understood that. Their powers might not be as fearful as his, but they were all aware of the cruelty of man.
That was how Obsidian knew Todd would be safe with them, no matter what. So long as they never found out about the truth about Mal, then everything would work out. That was easy enough to keep from them if Todd and himself managed to lie just right. He was sure that Todd would be able to pull something out, to adapt to the situation.
The question didn’t come from Ethan. It came from Rhody, and pulled his attention away from Obsidian, and his pride, and the man at his side to her, to her soft face and sharp eyes. To her fear, not the prey-fear, but the same creeping, clinging fear that he’d accidentally brought out of Jasper. Trauma.
But Hematite had her hand, and his voice turned the compassion in his tone to Todd. He’d been the most genuinely relaxed person here, his body language open and friendly. Todd liked him, he couldn’t help liking him already. His instincts said he was good people, despite the warnings about everyone else here, despite the sharpness behind his eyes, too.
Cannibal made him flinch, though. Internally, almost imperceptibly, but there were perceptive people. When he was hunting, he didn’t feel like a cannibal. He felt like an entirely different breed of creature, strong and sharp and so deeply hungry he never thought anyone would understand.
But Ethan understood. He could see it in the corner of his eye, in the smile of pride he was receiving, that started to soothe the predator and struck an unfamiliar chord in the human being that he was. And – and despite not knowing what he was, Sam made him feel human, and whole, despite how much his predator wanted her.
“It’s… easier not to think about it like that. But… technically. Yes, I eat people, and I am a person, so cannibalism.”
It had taken him a long time, to reach that second conclusion, that he was a person, too. Before Arlo, he was above people, a predator with good camouflage. After Arlo, he hadn’t felt like a person even when he wasn’t hunting. Reintegrating with other human beings had helped. Summer had – almost helped. And almost ruined him.
Sam, though. That touch from Sam, the kiss that would haunt him to his grave even when she was in his arms. That had made him whole.
But it wasn’t because of his kiss from Sam that Lapis’s sudden proximity made him restless. She was beautiful, there was no doubt, and she did everything she could to emphasize it. She might as well have been a clearly labeled bear trap with perfect bait in the middle. Todd didn’t want whatever was in the middle. He just wanted her to get out of his space before he broke her, because that’s what he usually did to things that came this close.
He was tempted to snap at her face, just a little click of the teeth in warning, but given Sam’s reaction she might be into that, and he wouldn’t risk any more of her interest. He definitely wouldn’t be telling her about the hunt song.
“Trouble, is what it’s given me.” He let a note of warning into his voice, before taking a deep breath that was all too full of artificial scents with a whiff of her interest integrated into it. He then unfurled the calm, the same kind of slow calm he’d forced himself to have when Obsidian took his own bait, and spoke more evenly. “It gives me what I need to hunt again. Strength, speed, camouflage. The energy to heal faster, if I’ve eaten enough lately. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds itself. And yes, I have to.”
Todd reached expectations. A full confession of what he was made the monster inside Obsidian unfurl and stretch its long-scaled body. The amount of pride at the confession that Obsidian felt was oozing out of him. Pride in Todd, pride in his family, a pride that was almost one and the same.
Then Obsidian heard it. A tenseness to Todd’s voice, a warning. Lapis had gotten too close, was getting too close, and Todd was unhappy with it. Well, that settled that. He snapped, sharply, and Lapis leaned away, jolting backward like she had been shocked. She gave him a sheepish grin and he shook his head at her, a smile still on his face. “Sorry, Boss.”
“Behave, Lapis. I don’t believe our new friend likes you getting so close. Refrain from doing that again.”
“Yes, Boss.” Despite her sheepish grin, the manic energy had come back, and she was tapping her feet, a shine in her eyes.
Obsidian looked down the table and saw Rhody and Hemie whispering to each other. He raised a brow the moment one of them caught his eyes. They both smiled and leaned apart again, and then as if they had been discussing what was best to ask him, they began to rapid-fire questions.
“So you have to do it, but what started it? How did you know what you were?”
“I imagine you don’t like it, based on your tone. If you have to do it, is there nothing about it you find enjoyable?”
“Do your prey have to be alive?” The question from Sulphur surprised Obsidian, until he saw the look in the man’s eyes. He looked like he was asking it because he knew someone else would ask it anyway, and he didn’t want said person to do so. Especially with the way his bronze eyes rested so heavily on Lapis when he spoke.
Still, the woman couldn’t keep her thoughts to herself. “What’s your favorite part? Even if it’s horrible, everyone has a favorite part of hunting, so what’s yours?”
Her question was the same one that Obsidian wanted to ask. Obsidian wasn’t going to ask any questions, but he would be paying quite careful attention to the answers given to his family. The more he knew about Todd, the better he would be able to pull him in and bring him into the fold. He took a long drink of his whiskey, emptying the glass. He opened the bottle where it sat next to him and poured another tall glass. He couldn’t feel anything remotely close to a buzz yet, but hopefully, before this conversation was over, he would.
“If you have a favorite part, you have to have a least favorite part too, right? What’s that for you?”
Todd felt the pride coming from Ethan, and realized that… it felt good. It felt good to have someone like him, who understood him, be proud of him for – well, his first admission to what he was, ever. Maybe because he felt proud of himself for it. And he knew, consciously, that Ethan’s pride was trouble, that it meant danger, but the rush of relief drowned out the worry as effectively as the hunt drowned out pain. He let Obsidian see the gratitude, for the pride and for Lapis, in the moment before the tension broke.
Because when that happened, he didn’t have time to worry. Another rush came over him, all questions, all talking at once, and he felt the predator relax at the deluge of sound and feeling, the scents of excitement and the general uptick in body movement to keep track of, to pay attention to. It helped him focus, even if that didn’t sound logical with all his senses spread out like that.
“Yes,” he decided to start with Hemie, because he’d asked the easiest question, “Everything. Everything organic, at least.”
Eyes flicked to Sulphur. “It doesn’t have to be fresh, but I only eat what I kill. Scavenging doesn’t feel… right. Especially since I know the cycle. Eat to hunt, hunt to eat. No wasted energy.”
He paused, looked at Rhody, who’d actually asked hard questions. He wasn’t going to acknowledge Lapis until the end, mostly because that question had so many different answers, and most of them weren’t things he wanted to say. But Rhody’s question was hard for a different reason.
He’d never really talked about Liz. Nobody else had, either. Nobody really knew what had happened to her, and he hadn’t taken all of her. It was so long ago – but he remembered, and he was almost certain of the turning point that night had been.
“I was fifteen, there was an accident, I– got curious. It didn’t really stick until later. Least favorite…” That was hard, too, because while he could go into gory details, Rhody wasn’t asking about the body. She was asking about the hunt, and he didn’t want to talk about the blood or the guilt or the pain. The gore would be easier, but that wasn’t the point. That wasn’t the question, and that wasn’t fair.
“I think my least favorite is the start. There’s this… dread. That comes with preparation. If I let myself think about it, the hunting is harder, because I’m overthinking, I’m anticipating the things that can go wrong, and… and the guilt after. But when I don’t let myself think about it, I risk losing…me. So my least favorite time is that uncertainty.”
He tipped back the last of his drink, then turned back to Lapis, eyes serious, but honest.
“The best part is the end, though. When it’s over, and it’s just you and the prey. If I’m lucky, it’s a good death for them. I can’t – really describe what that means, in words, I’ve never tried before. But there’s this moment, this… click. There’s a click when they go from person to prey, but there’s the click when they go from prey to food, too. The first one’s when all the fear sets in. The second one is when it all goes away. There’s a resignation to it. Makes the ending…. Easier. For both of us.”
His eyes had become unfocused, and he leaned back in his chair with a slight smile, forgetting for a second where he was.
“And then after everything, at the end of it all, when the meat’s gone. There’s this… fullness. It’s the best kind of exhaustion. The hunt’s done, there’s no more fight, and I can rest. Sometimes for a day or more, depending.”
“Got curious how? What could have made you curious about that? Did you not have powers before then?”
“Why would you ever do anything but hunt? That sounds fantastic.”
The rest of the pack went silent at Lapis’s words, watching her. Their eyes eventually flicked to Obsidian, who had fixed her with a stare. She shrunk underneath it, withdrawing somewhat. He kept his eyes on her, his expression unreadable. That didn’t matter, because the energy coming off of him, the tension that was suddenly present in the hands that recorked his bottle, setting it to the side. His eyes never left Lapis.
In a soft voice that seemed to fill the space, Obsidian said, “Like myself, Todd has to hunt to live He does it to survive, Lapis. No hunter should hunt just for fun. The ones who do will never understand the ones who do it to survive. Never forget that. We hunt to survive. Not to have fun.”
He looked around the table, and everyone looked serious. They all understood what he was saying to them, even Lapis, with her flushed face and refusal to meet his gaze. With that he relaxed back into his seat, taking another long drink of his whiskey. The family was different from Todd and himself. Yes, they had had to hunt to survive in the past, but the moment that Obsidian had pulled them out of where they were, they no longer needed to do so. They hunted to help Ethan survive, now. And he loved them for that.
Even when they said very questionable things sometimes.
He watched as Sulphur adjusted his position, leaning back off the table and sitting up tall in his chair. The man looked in his glass, at his half-drunk screwdriver. Unlike the rest of them, that would be the only drink that Sulphur had all night. Otherwise, he risked accidentally gassing all of them. The man looked up from his glass, eyes sharp beneath his tattoos. “That’s fascinating. That you sleep it off, almost like a lion. Obsidian never sleeps. When he does it’s because he’s going into starvation mode. I don’t suppose you find it harder to rest when you’re hungry, do you?”
Rhody and Hemie, who had scooted their chairs closer to each other at the end of the table, both looked at each other briefly. The look, Obsidian knew, was because they weren’t aware he could sleep. The last time he had slept had been almost nine years ago. He would have died had Malachite not found him and forced him to feed off him. That day had also been the last day that Obsidian had ever cried. Almost killing Mal had made him realize the direness of his situation.
“What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without eating?”
“And can you eat other things? I mean, you’re drinking right now, but does eating actually do anything for you if it’s not a person?”
The questions were helping to distract him from the itch in his gut, the twinge of bone-deep instinct that demanded he never address this out loud. The lack of disgust, the lack of fear, the genuine openness, all stuck with the part of him that he’d known would enjoy it. The rest, the survivalist fear, could be put away long enough for him to at least satisfy their curiosity.
Still. He came back into focus as the room grew abruptly silent, the yes meant for Hemie on the tail-end on Lapis’s much more uncomfortable question. Rather than focus on her, he looked around the table when he paused, then looked at Ethan when everyone else did. Obsidian’s forced calm was familiar, and Todd understood that now was a time to wait.
Obsidian surprised him with the answer. He knew that Obsidian liked the kill, for much different reasons than Todd’s moment of peace. He’d been on the receiving end of what was supposed to be a kill-or-surrender strike, and seen the sharpness behind the hunger, the way the wolf wanted pain even more than food. In spite of their differences, the understanding there matched up.
The moment was interrupted like a ripple on a still pond when Sulphur moved. It felt like he was drawing attention in the otherwise quiet, and Todd obliged. Something in his brain that was still thinking about self-preservation would remember that Obsidian didn’t sleep unless he was starving. He found himself smiling again when he nodded in reply to that, and by extension, to Rhody’s second question.
“I do, actually. It makes me restless. Nervous. I can eat other food to take the edge off, but I think that’s mostly placebo, even big meals. Smoking and drinking – alcohol or coffee. Those help, too, but they’re short term. A few hours, maybe a day if it’s not too bad. Then I’m all jumpy again. It makes – actually eating harder to resist.”
He was glad for the excuse to drop the question about Liz. It might come back later, but there was so much going on that he could buy himself time to think about it. Instead he turned to Hemie’s latest question.
“The longest I’ve gone since I was eighteen was four months. Before that it was a few years in between– the accident, and the first time I actually experienced the hunt.” He’d made it one month longer after Arlo than Summer. He didn’t like to think about the implications that had for his self-control. He didn’t want to think about how long he’d try to push himself when – no. If. If he ever had Sam.
He took a deep breath, banishing that thought with an effort of will. Unable to hide the sadness in his eyes, he decided to shift attention to something he’d already addressed to Obsidian, this time with significantly less detail.
“The four months was after I killed a good friend of mine. The guilt pushed me over the edge a little. Survival felt like a bad excuse for a little while.”
He looked at Obsidian, knowing he’d know what Todd meant. His expression changed from a search for understanding, to something else. Survival versus the hunt was something he understood, but only from experience. Unlike Lapis, he didn’t look to Ethan for permission – nor was he asking for forgiveness, in case this was overstepping a boundary. Just a warning, maybe, that he was going to turn back to the tiny woman next to him and offer at least a little explanation.
“I did live like that, Lapis. For a while, when I was figuring myself out. The hunt’s addictive. Doesn’t help that I’m a bottomless pit when it comes to food. But when I hunt too often, it loses the parts that matter. I never felt full because I was always thinking about the next hunt. That – prey-to-food moment didn’t mean anything except the hunt was over, it was time for the kill. People stopped being people. Believe me. Hunger aside, it’s better when it’s alongside survival, and not just a show of power.”
Obsidian tilted his head as he caught Todd avoiding the initial question from Rhody. He let the younger man get his piece out, and then he leaned forward onto the table. The pack knew that meant he had something he wanted to say. All eyes returned to him, the way they always did when he made it known that he was present and not passive. He tilted his head forward, letting the flop of copper hair fall forward. He brushed it back with a gloved hand as he straightened his head back out.
“Todd. I don’t believe you answered Rhody. What happened that made you curious about eating people?”
Slowly, all the eyes that were on Obsidian turned to Todd. There was a kind of tenseness about them. If Obsidian asked a question, you answered it. If he told you to jump, you asked how high. If he told you to go hunting, you brought him back a fresh kill. You did what Obsidian said. That much was evident in all the eyes on Todd. They were waiting to see if he would listen, if he would answer, and become that much closer to being one of them, or if he would deny him the answers he wanted, and thus be ostracized.
Obsidian himself, well. He was curious. He was used to having his curiosity sated, to being provided with the answers he wanted. So far, Todd was offering quite a lot of answers. But this was a big puzzle piece, one Obsidian wanted.
The more Obsidian pushed for answers about him, the more Todd was learning about Obsidian, and about the pack. Ethan didn’t miss anything, not a detail, not when he was paying attention. Once was accident, twice was happenstance, three times was enemy action. He didn’t want Obsidian to be his enemy. But if he ever was, Todd knew that lying would never be an option.
As for his pack, they loved him, yes, respected him, yes. But they also listened to him without words. There was a dynamic here that Todd knew on an instinctive level that he would never actually be a part of. He wasn’t like them; he didn’t belong to someone with such fervent devotion. Not even Sam would have all of him, not as they were, not as long as the hunger wanted her.
But he could fit in. That was his adaptation, that was his survival. And so where something else might have frozen under Ethan’s gaze, Todd remained calm. The release of tension from the rest of the situation was enough to let him meet Ethan’s eyes, the same golden as Sam’s, and smile a little apologetically. The fear wasn’t gone, but it wasn’t holding him back anymore. Look what you’ve brought out of me, the gaze said, before Todd respectfully broke it off and looked back around.
“Like I said, there was an accident. It killed one of my foster sisters at the time. Her name was Liz. The order things happened in – I couldn’t tell you that. But she fell. She was dead as soon as she hit the ground, but I went down and checked on her. She…”
Todd hesitated, because he wasn’t about to lie and say she was his first dead body.
“She was the first person I saw die,” he decided, instead, because that was the truth. “I – don’t know what got into me. Morbid interest? One too many horror movies? Just – intrusive thoughts? Instincts I didn’t recognize yet? Could be any of those things.”Wasn’t any of those things. Half-truths. Because he’d known he’d eaten a person before, and the morbid interest was mixed with a morbid desire to know if he should’ve known better, if he should’ve tasted something different. Although it was, he knew now, at least partly instinct, and that was how his brain had rationalized it after the fact. “Whatever that was, I – before I went and got help, I listened to whatever-it-was, and…tried some.”
He didn’t say how much, what parts. He didn’t say that before he could think about it, he’d crushed her wrist and torn her hand away with his teeth, and when he reeled about that he decided to just wrap it in a cloth and hide it nearby. Cleaned his face off as best he could, which was good enough. The scene was an accident; human teeth didn’t do that, so they’d blamed scavenger animals. Technically they were right.
He came back the next day. Someone let him go back by himself, he couldn’t remember who, and he’d gotten his gross trophy and found someplace quiet. He’d never told anyone before that somehow that raw human hand was the best thing he’d eaten since his mother died. He wasn’t going to tell the wolves that now watched him with hungry eyes, not even the alpha that wanted him to be his.
“It– there wasn’t anything after that, not like after the first time I actually… hunted. I hadn’t ever been able to put on weight anyway, I ate like a growing teenager, but that’s when I started to get restless. It was after that, that nothing felt right anymore. I couldn’t really place it, but I stopped feeling like I belonged, right around then.”
He looked back at Obsidian, not in defiance, but in gentle query. Is that enough for you?
The silence lingered after Todd finished speaking. It lasted until Obsidian gave a small smile and leaned back into the booth. That will do was the clear message in his relaxation. With it came the rest of the table loosening up and relaxing again. Rhody and Hemie had finished moving their chairs so that they were sitting right next to each other. She leaned her head against his shoulder, and they wove their fingers together. The moment of silence carried longer, and then Hematite spoke up.
“So, everything, huh? What’s your least favorite part? I think mine would be hair. That sounds like it would feel weird in your mouth.”
“I’d take hair over full organs– wait, do you eat everything… as is?”
Sulphur took another drink of his screwdriver, a thoughtful look on his face. “You said four months is the longest you’ve gone without eating since you turned eighteen? Todd, wouldn’t you have been starving to death by that point? What happened with your friend that made you do… that?”
Having Sulphur voice the same concerns that Obsidian had made it easier on the copper-haired man. He could sit back and listen, allowing Todd to interact with the pack. He could have the young man alone any time they wanted. This meeting was as much about allowing Todd freedom to be himself as it was about him meeting the pack. Obsidian wanted them all on good terms with the young cannibal because he intended to keep Todd around.
Hemie got the conversation back on track with the kind of question that was a lot easier to handle than the past, and Todd looked from Ethan to him with a degree of relief despite the subject matter.
“Hands down, the worst part’s the intestines. Tedious, awful texture, and get in the way of everything else.” The bloody parts were a lot easier than the personal ones, even if there was that itch in his brain that said he shouldn’t share things like ‘least favorite part of the human body to eat raw’. He looked at Rhody, and then nodded. “Once I realized as-is wouldn’t hurt me, I took to that exclusively. It’s faster and easier.”
When Sulphur voiced his concerns, Todd actually laughed a little bit as he realized what they must’ve been thinking. Maybe it wasn’t something he should be so relaxed about, but the situation was way past the point of no return, and he didn’t need anyone worrying on his behalf when it came to food.
“Oh, no, I don’t have to eat every day. If I did, I’d need a much bigger range – I’d decimate the prey population unless I set up in a population center the scale of LA or traveled up and down a range of States. And given how much the disappearance of three hundred people a year in a predictable pattern would scare the general public, I would not have made it this long.” He didn’t dwell on it, but he’d almost forgotten he knew some of those words. Hell, he’d calculated it out when he first got started. Ecological studies, especially in relation to predator-prey populations and patterns, had always been a huge draw for him; but right now, he said them like anyone would know what those words meant, and turned the conversation back to a more specific predator with a little shrug. “In ideal conditions it’s maybe one every two months. Sooner if I’m more active or take a lot of physical damage. I did the calorie count one time out of curiosity, and it adds up. All told, it rounds out to about once a month.”
Still, even that made four months a long time, and he knew it. Twice as long as necessary, even if he hadn’t been nearly as active.
“After I killed–” he hesitated, looked at Ethan, then took a deep breath. “After I killed Arlo, it was mostly guilt. I don’t think I was…depressed, exactly? Maybe I was. Grief’s complicated like that, I know now. But after that, I needed to remember how to be human again for a while, because if I didn’t…”
If he didn’t, it would’ve just been the hunt again, eating every two weeks like clockwork, thrilling in the blood and the pain just to forget what grief felt like, what guilt tasted like. He would’ve been chasing highs just so he could escape.
If it hadn’t been Arlo, he probably would’ve done that anyway.
“If I didn’t, there just would’ve been the animal, and that’s not what he would’ve wanted.”
There was a collective sigh of relief as Todd explained he only needed to eat once every month or two. A tension they didn’t know they had been holding faded out. While none of them, save for Sulphur, knew what he meant when he was talking about prey-predator patterns, Sulphur was quick to clear his throat and say, “He’s saying that it would not only be very obvious but also dangerous for him if he had to eat every day. Of which, I must say I agree.”
Rhody and Hemie both nodded their heads, but Lapis, having finally regained her tongue, leaned forward. “But why would you need to care about that? I mean, if you’re built to kill people, why care about there being a predictable pattern? And if you only need to eat that infrequently, then you should just stay here. No one is going to notice more human scum going missing.”
She sounded annoyed, as if this was an obvious answer to his problem. She was leaning forward in the chair again, getting dangerously close to being too close. She stayed just far enough for it to be “uncomfortable” rather than “too close”. Everything about her body language said she wanted to push her luck again, but her quick glances at Obsidian also said she knew her leash was currently short.
Obsidian himself took another easy drink of his whiskey, enjoying the burn of it in his throat. His eyes were watching Lapis, warning her against moving any closer to Todd. When he set his glass down, he asked, his voice soft, “Will you tell us about your first hunt, Todd? What caused it, what did it feel like? What happened during it?”
Rhody, who looked like she was about to ask a question, closed her mouth, leaning back into Hemie. She would wait her turn, wait until Obsidian’s request had been answered.
“People are always missed. And even scum are people.” Todd let his hackles go up. He was curious about what that might do, although he doubted Lapis would be the one to react. His brow furrowed, and he frowned, and he met and held Lapis’s eyes. It wasn’t a threat, but there was warning in his own. “And when people are missed, the people around them get scared. As is natural. Scared people react, and then the tables turn. Everything’s a balance. I’m designed to kill a person. I’m not designed to kill a mob that’s rightfully afraid of me.”
He felt the table’s attention had shifted, but he addressed Lapis first, because the words needed to be said. He held her gaze for a few seconds longer, then sighed, blinked for the first time since she asked, then looked at Ethan, and his shoulders relaxed.
The anger couldn’t stay when he thought about his first hunt. After all, it was the first time he’d been taken by it, the first time he’d discovered heaven on earth.
“I don’t know his name. I didn’t think to look after.” He spoke clearly to the table around, and started with the most important part. “When I got out of foster care, the not-belonging was the strongest feeling. It made me mad, it made me feel like other people hated me, couldn’t understand who I was, what I’d been through.”
At least from what he’d heard from Jasper, he had a feeling the people here would get that part.
“I was angry. I wanted violence. But I wanted to do the right thing, too. So I went looking for – well, scum. Not an hour in, and I found a mugging in progress. I don’t know how he recognized what I am – instinct, maybe. Or maybe he just saw the anger and the violence in me, or maybe he was just a coward who got caught. I didn’t stop to ask, because when he ran, I started running, too.”
He took a deep breath, long and slow. He’d have to be careful about this part, but for the first time in his life, he could acknowledge it out loud. Like so many other things tonight. And he could acknowledge it to Ethan – Obsidian, the predator who might understand, but he needed to say it in such a way that got it across in its entirety to everyone else there.
“There’s nothing I can say that can describe the hunt. It starts like a pursuit, an ambush and then when they run the instinct that says chase kicks in. And then you catch what you’re chasing, and you don’t know how, but there’s blood in the air.” He leaned back in his chair, away from Lapis, but for the moment, she was the farthest thing from his mind. “It’s the blood that sets it off the rest of the way. It’s everything and nothing, heaven and hell, full control and full surrender. It’s ecstasy, it’s euphoria, it’s – perfect peace. It’s deafness and blindness. I’d say it’s a song, but it’s not about the noise. It’s about the feeling of my own heart in my ears. It’s about the fear and sweat. It’s about me, and everything that’s not me, and all of that is prey. It’s about having all of the violence and none of the anger. It’s about pulling every possible emotion out of the prey before they’re done.”
His eyes opened, but the faint smile he’d started to develop faded as he remembered.
“We started in an alley, and ended in the woods. I remember every second of the hunt, and nothing about how we got there. I came to covered halfway in blood, both aware of what I’d already eaten, and abruptly realizing what I was eating. And knowing that I couldn’t stop, or else there’d be a body.”
He licked his lips gently out of habit, he told himself afterwards, and not from the memory of the first time in years when he’d actually felt fed. He looked at Obsidian again, then around the table, and finally at Lapis, taking her eyes again. His voice now held warning.
“The hunt’s a drug. It’s an addiction. The more often I gave in, the less it meant to me. The kill didn’t even matter except that it gave me the energy to hunt again. I was worse than an animal for it.”
That hadn’t been part of the question, but it combined the tightness of his voice to get the point across. The hunt was an unhealthy addiction, life-threatening if he wasn’t careful. He had no idea if Obsidian even knew what he was talking about, but he had to make his point clear to the rest, the pack of hungry wolves that were hunters but not predators, that he wanted it more than anything in the world and hated it with a passion that couldn’t be expressed in words, any more than the hunt itself.