Closed RP Mechannibal

This RP is currently closed.

She grinned at the dumpster fire joke, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. Those held a bit of sadness, now, a bit of loneliness she would never admit to. A part of her still remembered the sheer joy of running through the night with Alice, of carrying her on the wind and then dropping her as she bent the ground to meet her. It remembered a hand in hers and a laugh to match hers and missed the warmth of feeling freely. It missed the old Sam, who let people in and was friendly and genuine.

But she could never be that again. Not ever.

So instead she focused on the details Todd was freely giving her. She nodded along as he talked about Montana before responding. “Billings, I’ve never heard of it. Well, if I ever pass through Montana in the winter for some weird reason, I’ll be sure to find a small town to ride it out in.”

Why was she even thinking about any of this? What was it that was dragging up all of this bullshit right now? It wasn’t like… Shit. She hadn’t talked to another human being for more than five minutes in the last month she’d been there. This was the first real human interaction she had had since leaving her parents behind in Lockbourne. And that had been years ago.

That had to be the reason she was feeling weird around this guy.

“So, what’s there to do around here? Like I said, I only got here a bit ago and haven’t had a chance to do anything outside renovating the gym.”
“I’ve only been around for a bit myself,” Todd admitted. “I’m more of an outdoor guy, so I know most of the parks. I’ve been up to the Phipps gardens once, I’d recommend it. There’s some quiet spots on the hiking trails I’d recommend too.”

He reached for one of his tools, talking all the while. As long as she kept up the conversation, he stood a chance of getting her to smile, so he redirected the subject.

“There is this Chinese place I recommend to everybody. They’ve got this all-you-can-eat buffet and I have yet to figure out what their upper limit is, if they even have one.” He grinned at her, a grease stain on the side of his face, then returned to the engine. “It’s a bad hobby, but I make it a point of principle to find that kind of thing where I can. I’ve got a long track record of bans from different buffets.”

Sam got a sideways grin at the idea of a hiking trail. She thought back to the Meadows Park by the Erie Canal in her hometown. It was one of the only places in the town she could escape to without being bothered. She’d had a wide patrol range, from Scioto Meadows all the way to the Rickenbacker International Airport. She’d even gone as far north as Hamilton Meadows. But no matter where she went, Lockbourne Meadows Park was her quiet place. She’d have to find a new one of those here, in Pittsburgh.

“I would love to check that out, thanks for the recommendation. If you know any really quiet paths, I’d love it if you could maybe write me a note with some of the names. I used to have a place in Lockbourne, but I don’t think I’m ever going back there.”

Then, he brought up one of her weaknesses. She suddenly stood up straight, her hands unfolding to go into her pockets. Her new stance was one of complete attention. She coughed once to clear her throat, and then asked, “Oh, a Chinese place, you say? And uh. You haven’t found an upper limit? Interesting. Never gotten sick from it before, right? I’ve been to a few Chinese buffets that have made me completely ill afterward.”

Sam also made it a point to find any place with good, but usually cheap, food. Feeding herself was a tricky business. The amount of food she had to consume was absurd, and given she chose to eat most of it in the morning and in the evening, finding some kind of dinner buffet was always a score. They usually cost a fraction of what buying that amount of food would actually cost. Even if it was fifty dollars, that was still cheaper than trying to cook herself two meals for the day.

She had done the math a few times, and she tended to live off basics in order to reach the calories she needed. Rice, pasta, and potatoes were all filling foods if you cooked enough of them. But she had quickly learned she needed serious protein because living off just starches was hell on the blood sugar. She tended to shop at places like Costco in order to buy enough food at a reasonable price. And even then, she was still racking up almost three hundred a week on her own.

So a buffet with seemingly no limit? That wasn’t going to make her sick as hell for five hours the next day? A godsend, if she ever saw one.​
Todd nodded when she mentioned writing down the parks as he pried something loose in the engine compartment. But it wasn’t the trails that caused her to actually perk up. His smile widened a little, maybe at her sudden raptness, maybe at the reply that slipped right off his tongue.

“I haven’t, but don’t trust that. My stomach’s got to be lined with steel or something. Nothing ever makes me sick.” He very well knew the reasons for that, at least in theory. He was designed to eat. That was it. Everything else pointed to that. So, by rights, nothing should make him throw up. He barely even had a gag reflex anymore, though that came more with practice than anything innate.

There were a few benefits like that. The other one, the biggest one, was that due to the nature of his usual diet, he actually didn’t need to eat. Buffets were, like he told her, a hobby. Nothing more. Sure, enough calories could take the edge off – if he ate enough for a whole day, especially once the cold got bad, he could stretch his resources for a little while longer, putting off a hunt. He didn’t need to do it often, though. Mostly, he ate food for the taste, and stopped when flavors started to blend together.

One of the many benefits of an American Asian restaurant was that it had a variety of flavors, and so he didn’t worry about that for a good, long while. He thought about it for a second, then decided to make the offer.

“Tell you what, if you’re still hovering at lunch, I’ll drive you there. I usually get an hour around noon. Should be plenty of time to see if between the two of us we can get that ban I’m aiming for.”

He snuck a glance upward, trying to catch her eye so she’d see he was serious, not just flirting, although there were hints of that in his tone.

“You’re free to say no, obviously. There’s a deli or two I can get you directions to in walking distance when I go – I’ll have to lock up. It’s totally your choice.”

Once again, her smile became genuine and a little wave washed away from her. She caught his eye, smile still in place. She raised an eyebrow. He had been borderline playful the entire time, and between the excitement of food– she hadn’t eaten a proper lunch in almost five years– and his persistence, she decided that maybe it would be fine. After all, she’d never see Todd ever again. And if he tried to offer a number to her at the end of this, well, those were easy to lose.

“I’d say it’s a date, but you probably won’t want it to be after you see me eat. But it’s definitely a deal.” The words slipped out surprisingly easily, and she felt herself relax a bit. It was definitely at the prospect of food, and not because he seemed… safe. It definitely wasn’t because he seemed like the type to be able to handle themselves should something happen. No, it was only the idea of food that made her relax.

At least, that was what she was telling herself.

Still, she couldn’t help the slight blush on her face. That must have been from embarrassment at being excited about food, and not at all because she was going to let herself have a normal moment, a single hour of letting her guard down around someone she confessed already was– no, no, it was definitely embarrassment about her eagerness to eat.

The next bit of time passed easily, with them talking about the hiking trails he recommended, and then with her taking a short walk to stretch her legs. But she made her way back exactly at noon, stepping back up to the garage’s doors, looking around for Todd. Sam called out, “Hey, I’m back. Whenever you’re ready, I’m ready.”

She felt her cheeks color a bit at the clearly genuinely happy tone her voice had taken on. But the prospect of food, and food with another human being, was honestly bringing a bit of life to her.​
By the time lunch came around, most of the Beetle’s engine parts were scattered around on various flat surfaces for safekeeping so that he could access the timing belt. He’d pulled the worn out belt, and pulled and set aside the tensioner pulley, too. There was no use having her come in next week because it had dried out and caused new problems for the new belt. He’d wait to check for leaks and cracks in the system until after lunch, just in case.

He kept talking all the while, bouncing conversation back to her and admittedly basking in the warmth. It was few and far between that he came across the kind of direct heat that could make the cold slough off like thawing snow. That was only one of the benefits to her company, though. It seemed like they’d frequented some of the same parks in Columbus, but in a city of almost a million people, it wasn’t a surprise they’d never crossed paths. The world was small, but not that small. And he’d described a few of the Pittsburgh parks as well, the ones he’d found that had busy trails that gave way to quieter ones.

She left for a while to stretch her legs, and Todd took the opportunity to step into the back of the shop and shower off the grease and oil, at least the top coat. The rest would wait until he had more time at the end of the day, but at least he wouldn’t have visible black streaks along his face and up his arms when he went out for lunch.

When Sam came back, Todd was dressed in his more usual attire, and was in the process of locking up the body of the shop. The time alone had made room for doubts, but he’d recovered by the time she came around. His cap was under his arm while he finished locking up the shop, the “Out to lunch, be back at 1” sign clearly visible in the window from the front.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.” He flashed her a smile as he flipped the cap on and stepped up to the bay doors. Vik’s garage still opened and closed manually, although he did have a pretty neat security system that kept the antiques that came through safe on breaks or when they had to be left overnight. Todd closed it, then led the way across the parking lot to his own vehicle, fishing in his pockets for his keys.

If a mechanic drove a new car, they weren’t good enough at their job. Everywhere Todd went he’d heard that, though he’d purchased the Malibu before he’d ever made up his mind to become a mechanic. 2002 was hardly an antique, but it didn’t have to be antique for him to have to make repairs every so often. Parts taken out of his salary in installments were usually part of his deal with whatever shop took him in. That was how he met –

Nope. No, nah, not happening. Bad enough Summer kept coming up, he didn’t let his mind wander to Arlo again.

The Malibu was an unassuming little car, everything that people assumed of a sedan. Simple grey, too faded to be silver anymore, and with the long-nosed look of an odd old animal, it didn’t draw too many eyes, except when people noticed it was a twenty-year-old car running in good condition. Most important, it smelled like him. The different layers of Todd that had existed over the last eight years, the different air fresheners. Only if someone had Todd’s nose would they notice the smell of blood. Not just his blood, either – not like Sam’s Beetle, which carried the scents on the filters he’d had to pull to get to the alternator.

The duffel bag was back at his apartment, hidden well enough that he didn’t worry about it too often during the day. Maintenance wouldn’t stumble upon it, and nobody breaking in would check for it where he’d put it. If they did, they’d have bigger problems than realizing what was inside it, as long as they didn’t call the cops. Which statistically they shouldn’t do, because they’d be arrested for breaking and entering.

He clicked the doors unlocked, then slipped into the front seat, folding into the little car like a scarecrow rather than a real person. It was clearly a maneuver he was used to, as familiar as walking. The interior was what most expected, plastic dash and door liners that weren’t pretty but were serviceable until he had the money to spare for cosmetics. The seats were fabric, which remembered scents better than the leather of the Bug, but Todd had never come across another meta with his kind of senses, so he wasn’t too worried about it. He took a deep breath of the stale car air as he started her up and belted in.

Sam saw the inside of the of the shop’s garage just before Todd came over to close it, and she recognized several pieces of her car, spread out across various surfaces. The water pump, the camshaft pulley and the idler were clearly visible. She had researched the process behind replacing a timing belt to see if it was something she could potentially pull off, before deciding to just take it in. As they walked to the car, she inquired, “You’ll have to replace the water pump too, right? Since you’re already taking the thing apart. I know they’re commonly replaced at the same time.”

They got to his car, and it was probably the most nondescript car she had ever seen. But the state of it clearly said it was old and well-used, which meant he likely worked on it as well if it was still running. She’d already had faith when he came to the same conclusion of the timing belt being bad, but now she was certain that it would be fine.

Then she opened the passenger door of the car, watching Todd fold himself into the car, and was hit by the smell of cigarettes. Not a powerful smell, but still present enough, mixed with the smell of coffee. Not fresh coffee either, but old coffee. She shivered a little and hopped in the car. “Do you smoke?”

Her older brother had smoked. It had been bad enough that she had gone through nicotine withdrawal when he left. She felt her mouth water slightly at the smell, but she swallowed and tried to ignore it. The impulse to actually smoke had been bad after Joshua– no, thinking about that would mean thinking about them, and then the unusually good mood she was in would be ruined. She was determined not to have that happen. So instead she turned her full attention toward Todd for the first time since he had walked out the door… and stopped.

These clothes fit him much better. Even the hat looked right on him. It was an odd feeling, being able to tell that this was the right way for him to look. It was then that she realized she was putting off a lot of heat, almost as much as when she’d been angry earlier. She’d been so lost in thought that she had forgotten to control it. She lowered the temperature, trying to withdraw slightly.

“Sorry, obviously the answer to that is yes. Not that your car smells like an ashtray, just that I can smell it. Makes me want one, but I’ve spent years trying not to pick up that habit.”

She blushed a little, realizing that that might have been too open a thing to say. God, she was really letting herself get carried away, wasn’t she?​
“And the tensioner pulley. Unless it’s new, it’s best to replace all three at once so you’re not rolling it back in next week.”

He got the old car started up. The heater kicked on, and he switched it off almost immediately. It was warm enough in the car with the heat of the sun keeping everything crisp. The added warmth – notably without the bitter undertones of anger in the scent it wafted throughout the vehicle – was almost enough to take the edge off the cold, before she withdrew it again. He at least showed no signs of visible discomfort, either way.

He laughed as she stumbled across the smoking question. The scents weren’t noticeable to him anymore; the car just smelled like his car. It was reasonable that someone would notice, though.

“Yeah, no, I do smoke. Not too often, but I do.” Just when the hunger gets bad. “Just when I get stressed. It’s a nasty habit, really, but it does the trick in a pinch. I wouldn’t recommend it, personally.”

The radio had also started with the car, the local “70s, 80s, 90s, And More” station where “and more” meant that sometimes Taylor Swift or P!ATD got shuffled in with the classics. Not that Sam would be able to tell. The radio was turned down by Todd’s standards, meant to just be ambient noise for him. To the ordinary ear it was almost inaudible, plenty of space to talk if Sam wanted while Todd was focused on pulling out and getting into traffic.

Sam’s smile got a little bigger as Todd laughed. He had a nice laugh, a genuine laugh. Her smile became something that was not a smile. It wasn't necessarily a frown, but it was a look of thoughtfulness. She put her elbow on the dash and leaned her head into her hand, angling herself to look at him. Her expression had changed again, this time openly curious and maybe a bit suspicious.

“I have to ask you something.” She paused for a second and lined up her thoughts in her head. She’d wanted to ask him before they left because that would have been the normal thing to do as a woman who was about to get into a car with a man she had just met. But Sam had no reason to be nervous getting into stranger’s cars, even strangers who were subtly flirting with her. Or at least, she thought were flirting with her.

Which brought up the question, “Todd have you been intentionally flirting with me, or was I misreading it? I probably should have asked before getting in a car with you, really I shouldn’t have agreed to this at all, because you could be some creep who wants to do horrible things to me. You could be a serial killer for all I know. But I just wanted to check if you’ve been flirting with me and are really taking me somewhere for lunch or whether I’m about to end up in a warehouse or buried on a nature trail.”

She stopped, a flush rising to her cheeks. She had always hated how easily she blushed. The curse of being a redhead, she knew. But she had been told many times by her family that she wore her emotions on her sleeve, something she had tried hard as an adult to avoid doing. It was bad enough that she off put heat every time she got worked up about something. She didn’t need people to be able to read her like an open book, especially when the polite disposition hid so much anger and vitriol for the world.​
I have to ask you something was very rarely a good start, and he made himself relax instead of growing tense. She wasn’t accusing him of anything, not yet anyway, and she wasn’t mad at him. Or mad at all, actually. She remained calm, and as a result, so did he.

And it worked out, because it wasn’t the worst case scenario. He let his mouth quirk up again, and he gave her a side-eye without fully taking his attention off the road, just to gauge her general composure.

“I have.” There was no shame in admitting any of it – of this, anyway. “It’s an old trick I picked up back in Montana. You seemed – pardon the French – pretty pissed when you came in this morning, and once I got going, you seemed to cool off. Not that I don’t think you’re pretty and funny, and I like that we have shared interests and everything, but honestly I’m not all that interested in a relationship right now. It doesn’t mean I’ll stop if you’re willing to take it in good fun and not as anything really serious. I hope that’s not a dealbreaker for you the way being a serial murderer would be.”

He took a deep breath. There were a lot of reasons for him to not get in a relationship, now or ever. First, and obviously, what he was wasn’t conducive to close relationships. Even friendships went sour every fucking time. He could enjoy someone’s company for a few hours, especially in a working relationship, but he had too many secrets to let anyone in, and he never knew when he might fucking snap on them. She was way too pretty to end up as food.

Then again, even with her talk of serial killers, he sensed enough of what she was to get another smile out of him at the suggestion that an ordinary guy, especially of Todd’s build, could take her on. Heck, he didn’t know what she could do in full.

“In all honesty, Sam, I wouldn’t’ve offered if you hadn’t struck me as someone who could take care of herself.” That was said seriously, with a slight frown, but the smile came creeping back as he glanced at her again. Humor was, after all, a good way to get rid of lingering tension.

“But now I have to ask. Would you prefer a warehouse, or a nature trail? I could take a detour.”

The sigh of relief that came out of Sam would have been audible across the street. She immediately coughed and waved a hand between them. “I’m sorry, that wasn’t because I was relieved. I mean, I am, but that’s because I’m in a similar boat. Not looking for a relationship and all of that. So we’re on the same page.”

She smiled at him, a little playful, with a bit of open and real warmth, that was accompanied by a small rise in temperature. “You’re right, I was pissed this morning. That car used to belong to someone I cared a lot about. I think I would lose it if anything ever happened to it if I’m being honest with you. And, as for the flirting- I won’t take it seriously if you won’t, cheekbones.”

She grinned as she commented on his facial structure, still leaning forward onto the dash. Her posture had relaxed, however, and her hair had fallen over her shoulder, the cloud of curls held back from her face by her hand against her cheek. She seemed much more at ease now, having gotten the answer she was hoping for. Still, she couldn’t suppress the little twinge in her chest. She could ignore it, though.

“A nature trail. You know, if you ever have to kill me, I’d want a nature trail. Too many bad memories of warehouses.” The words were out her mouth before she could really register she was saying them. She suppressed any reaction, trying to pretend she hadn’t just said that. Maybe he would take it as a joke in line with what she had already said, and not dig into it or ask why. She could come up with a lie, but she preferred lies of omission to direct lies. Sam was an honest person, if a terrible one.​
At “cheekbones,” Todd let his teeth show again. She wouldn’t realize it, but the way she was leaning against the dash, the sun coming through the windshield caught in her hair and made it look like she’d caught fire. He let himself appreciate the view for just a second longer than he should’ve before turning his eyes back to the road.

He could’ve asked her about the warehouse, but everyone was entitled to their secrets. He didn’t want to open up a can of worms if he had to lie in it, too, and boy was he not ready for that yet. Especially with a pretty stranger who might be able to incinerate him if he got too close. Not impossible, with people these days.

“I’ll keep that in mind. In fact, I’ll leave flowers there – oh, or maybe just one flower, every year on the anniversary, like a taunt to the cops or anyone who comes up.” He let go of the wheel long enough to wave a hand dramatically, intoning like a bad Shakespeare actor, “A single red rose, lovely as she was.”

Even as he chuckled again, he knew he really shouldn’t be this comfortable talking about something that very well could come to pass, let alone joking about it. But the levity was working, and besides, there wouldn’t be enough of her left to bury if it ever came to that.

Wasn’t that just a cheerful thought.

“See, if it was my choice, I’d say a warehouse. In this town it’s more likely that somebody will find me in the next, oh, I dunno, five years?”

Maybe sooner, as his recent encounter in the warehouse district indicated. Not that he’d want to touch the subject of the kid there in the relative security of his own car, especially with a relative stranger, and he wouldn’t. It did inspire his smile to stay, though.

“Okay, I guess since we’re on the sunny subject… preferred method of death?”

There were obvious methods, like “at home in bed surrounded by my grandchildren” or just “painlessly,” but he half expected her to have more fun with it than that. He definitely would if it came back around.

Sam laughed a little at his dramatics. She shook her head at his mention of a rose. Sam wasn’t a rose girl. She made a little gesture with her free hand and said, “A spider lily. Much better than a rose, and more significant. A red rose is generic. A spider lily is a statement.”

A perfect flower for a sad death. The spider lily had always been her favorite flower, despite its sad meaning. She had even chosen them as the bouquet for Alice’s funeral. Despite that, she still loved the flower and sometimes bought bouquets of them just to have in her home. She wanted to eventually have a small garden when she was older, where she could grow them. That was, if she lived long enough to be that old.

“See, I wouldn’t want to be found. I would rather disappear entirely from the face of the earth. I would deserve it if I let a serial killer get me.” She leaned back in the seat, drawing one heavy boot up onto the seat. “Preferred method of death… Have to be falling, because at least I’m going to have an adrenaline high while I’m dying. Otherwise, I’d want something horrible. Something that’s going to be really fun on a headstone, you know?”

She chuckled and tucked her hair back behind her double-pierced ear, the metal rings glinting as she did. A real smile had settled onto her black-stained lips, her eyes glimmering slightly. “And what about you? You can’t just ask that and then not answer it yourself.”
He made her laugh again, and then, to his surprise, she told him her favorite flower. That was oddly personal, for flirting meant in light humor, but he let it slide, too. Besides, the curiosity was shattered by the irony in her next statement, about a serial killer getting her. Since, legally, that’s what he was.

Still, he’d been right – she’d given him an interesting answer. The fall didn’t kill you, but the adrenaline would dull the instant if terminal velocity pain. He appreciated that. And the alternative of “anything fun” was always a good answer, even if it was only sometimes meant as a joke.

He nodded when she asked him. He’d expected that. “True, it’s only fair.”

He tilted his head like he needed to think about it. He did need to think about it, but he didn’t need to think about the answer – just rework some of his reasoning. He couldn’t exactly tell her that he’d find it a good form of retributive justice if he died the same way he preferred to kill people, after all. And his reasons for that were entirely different, outside of being “relatively humane”.

“Bled out, either as a result of an accident or by human means. Sure it’ll hurt for a little while, but – I guess like falling, there’ll be that little bit of hysterics right up until the ‘fall asleep and never wake up’ part. That and with the blood going the brain stops working right so there’s no fear, and the pain stops a while before death. More humane than some other violent means.”

“That’s definitely a choice. I can see the appeal in it. I bet it would take a long time to bleed you dry. You’re a… big guy.” Her tone implied something just the tiniest bit suggestive. She didn’t blatantly look him up and down, although the part of her she was letting free definitely wanted to. Instead, she let her lips curl up into a lazy smile and she looked at his face, trying to catch his eye.

She let that rest for a second, and then she pondered out loud, “I think the worst way to die would be starvation. That sounds like hell. I already don’t eat enough, and hunger is the worst feeling in the world.”

Again, she looked up at him, this time with a less lazy smile. He still had no idea what he was in for when they got to the restaurant. She had eaten many people under the table. She had to eat an absurd amount of food every day in order to avoid her body eating itself up. She had meant it– hunger was the worst feeling in the world. Far worse than a cracked rib or a concussion or even a stab wound, all of which she had had. No, hunger would kill her over time if she let it.

She leaned into her drawn-up knee and pointed a finger in his direction. “So what do you think the worst way to die would be, then?”
Todd was going to make a comment about being mostly bone when she caught his eye, and he got the message. His smile quirked back up, and he waited a second before looking back at the road.

She’d still, maybe, see something in his eyes change when she mentioned starving to death. Like magic, the word seemed to pull the cold back out of his bones and drench him with it. The chill didn’t turn into a shudder, but it crawled across his skin and took rest in his lungs as he took a deep breath. His eyes also became just a touch colder, not in color but in expression. It was a death he was afraid of, she could be sure of that.

But like the previous question, his real answer didn’t lie in what he was afraid might happen to him, but in one aspect of what happened to his victims.

“Cruelly. No- not even that. With neutrality.” He watched the road, and not her. “Taken apart piece by piece by somebody who doesn’t even really care, just has this kind of impersonal detachment. Being in pain while somebody who doesn’t care and won’t bother to let anyone know how or even that you died watches, keeps causing it.”

It was why he went for bleeding out, when he had information. It was a mercy to cause blood loss, and, yes, it improved the texture of the food. But a cruel last hour or two deserved a small mercy, even if that mercy might extend their life by just a little while.

All things, in balance.

Todd cleared his throat, and relaxed a little bit. “There’s not really anywhere positive we can go from there. What do normal people start with – favorite color or something, right?”

He chuckled, to finish pushing the cold away, the cold and the dark and the hunger. He was glad he’d suggested the Chinese place. There was a good chance he’d be able to eat enough to get rid of that edge completely for a day or two, assuming they didn’t get thrown out before they were done.

“You’re right, that was pretty grim.” She gave a little laugh, trying to disperse some of the obvious discomfort she had caused him. There wasn’t much of a change in his posture, maybe a little more tension, but something had changed in his eyes. She had hit a nerve, which wasn’t her intention. His redirect was welcome because she’d talk about whatever he wanted if he stopped looking quite so… actually, she wasn’t sure. She just knew that she suddenly felt like he needed to talk about something else.

She let a little more warmth out, hoping that it more help to relax him, or maybe distract him. By this point, she was pretty sure he must have known something was up with her. She hadn’t been subtle at all about her power, but maybe she should have given how much time she had spent around him already. Usually, if she knew she’d be around another human for a long time, she’d reel it in, and control her emotions a lot more. But part of her allowing herself just this one afternoon was allowing herself to feel and that meant allowing free use of her power. So she used it now, more consciously, to warm the car up to a pleasant temperature.

“I think they usually start with an introduction, actually. Hi, I’m Samantha Walsh. Nice to meet you.” She said it with a little bit of a dramatic flare, putting a hand to her chest and shaking her curls out. “And my favorite color is jewel purple. Really deep and vibrant purple.”

She wouldn’t go into why instead of purple, all her clothing was green, because that was definitely too personal. She was never ready to go there with anyone, not even her own family… the ones who spoke to her still, anyway. She flashed a grin and leaned back into her knee. “While we’re on it, my favorite time of day is sunset, my favorite drink is jasmine tea, and I have a crippling caffeine addiction. How about you, big guy?”
Warmth came over him in a gentle wave. She’d noticed, then. She didn’t ask, which was good, because he had no idea what he’d say. No, I’m in a constant state of near-starvation unless I eat other people felt like a real downer, given the circumstances.

He let himself bask in it for a second while she introduced herself in a way that sounded a bit like a Tinder profile. He smiled genuinely again.

“Todd Fowler. It’s a pleasure.” He actually had to take a second to think about the rest, and while he did, his head tilted again, like he was listening for something he was never going to hear. “My favorite color’s this gorgeous shade of orange-red that you sometimes see in pretty girls’ curls.”

That wasn’t quite true – he liked any shade of red. But the “flirting to lighten the mood” thing went both ways, and combined with the rise in the Malibu’s temperature helped to banish the last of the ice back into his bones.

“My favorite time of day is midnight, actually. My favorite drink’s A&W root beer, and I’ve got a mix of small addictions that get really annoying when they all hit at once. I’ve got a knack for fixing things.”

He patted the dashboard affectionately as he said the last part. Cars were his favorite, but he’d done his share of handiwork and hard labor over the years, too. Small jobs that people wouldn’t miss him at, maintenance and retail work and one little stint in construction.

“So, Samantha, whaddya do for a living?”

Todd Fowler. Well, the guy certainly knew how to casually flirt. She ruffled her hair and grinned wider, her face hurting a bit from how unused to it she was. God, had it really been that long since she allowed herself to smile? Probably since Connor, but those grins were all fake. This one was real, a real grin because there would be no consequences to these actions. She wasn’t leading him on, he wasn’t leading her on, and it was harmless fun. That alone allowed the smiles to be genuine.

“Hmm, midnight! Definitely the best time to see the stars and go for walks.”

She was speaking from experience, of course, Her favorite time to watch the daytime sky was sunset, because it brought with it the night in a bright kaleidoscope of colors. Not because it marked the end of another day, but because it marked the beginning of the night, and her being her real self. None of the masks, except the painted domino mask that obscured her face on cameras. No hiding, except for her very identifiable hair. She preferred when she got to be all her, without having to hide what she was. Maybe one day metahumans wouldn’t have to hide their identity and be forced to be vigilantes.

Hiding was exhausting.

“Hm, what do I do for a living? I run a gym. Might sound weird, but I always wanted to own a gym. Specifically, one that teaches self-defense courses. We haven’t quite got those up and running yet, but the kickboxing classes are a real hit, as are the barre classes. Trying to keep the place well-rounded so it caters to as many people as possible. Of course, we’re not even officially open yet, I’ve just been letting people in while I finish the renovations.”
“Oh, even when it’s overcast or storming. There’s something about thunder in the dead of night that hits different, you know?”

Cold weather didn’t affect Todd. There was something in him that genuinely liked working even in a full downpour, even when it dulled his senses. The weight of it, or maybe just how differently it felt, definitely affected him somehow. It made him feel cleaner, more real, somehow. Or maybe just more grounded.

He listened to her explanation about the gym, and nodded along. It was good to see someone with long-term goals, and someone who wanted to help other people in the process. He bookmarked a new gym in the neighborhood for future research – not to be nosy, but because he could actually use some self-defense training for future reference.

He did have his reasons not to go looking for a membership, however. Arlo had taught Todd a little boxing, but he’d never considered going somewhere for formal training. Part of it was paranoia about someone eventually recognizing his fighting style, some of it was paranoia about having any kind of membership to anywhere, and the rest of it was because he didn’t trust himself not to hurt anyone in close quarters combat. That was fine when kicking in drug dealers’ teeth, but that was not fine when sparring with strangers in an open forum.

It was probably for the best that he continued that trend. Still, he smiled – a real, toothy smile – at Sam and nodded his approval.

Teaching self-defense – a good’s no Chicago or Columbus, but this is a tough city. Though, if you need a hand with renovations, I can manage a little bit of free time.”

It wasn’t any weirder of an offer than lunch, and could also be taken as a flirtatious excuse to see her again – or a reasonable one, for a little cash on the side, although he wouldn’t ask for payment if it came up. He wouldn’t be hurt if she said no, though.