Trigger warnings: Gore, Cannibalism, and Suicide. Please Read With Caution.
It was six p.m. when Sam had finally cleaned enough blood off herself to leave the hotel room. She had snuck back in through the window, a feat that was easier than it should have been. Windows on the sixth floor shouldn’t be open air. It was like they were asking for someone to fall. In this case, Sam wasn’t going to complain.
It took an hour under the spray of the shower to get the blood out of her long curls, off her suit, and scrub down her hammer. Honestly, she was considering cutting the curls off again. She didn’t care much about style or care for them how she should, so they were always a tangled mess instead of the spirals they were meant to be. Even after her shower, even after combing them, they were still tangled and messy by the time they had dried.
That was a tomorrow problem though. Today was meant to be her last day in Montana. She had been staying just outside Billings, where she had been hunting down another sect of Slate and eradicating it. Her body count was up to thirty-two, which felt… she wasn’t sure how it felt. She was a little numb to it by then. Columbus and Connor had left her raw, but then she quickly moved on from it.
Once she had wormed her way in through Connor, it had surprised her how many sects there were, and how many places Obsidian could be. She had a list, and she was working down it. This marked off Montana and left her no closer to finding him. With a frustrated sigh, she finished packing her suitcases and her backpack and headed out of the room. Check-out wasn’t until two p.m. the next day, but she had no reason to stay any longer.
She dropped the room card off at the front desk, where the concierge smiled at her and asked if had enjoyed her stay. She had been honest– the room was great, but her trip had come up without the results she had been hoping for, and she wished the woman a good night. Packing her bags back into the trunk of the Beetle was easy enough, and she kept the bag with her, in the passenger seat.
Sam had very little possessions anymore. She had a suitcase of clothes, a suitcase of tech and a few painting supplies, her vigilante kit, and then her more personal items. Wrapped up tight in clothes were two framed photos. One was her and Joshie, sitting on a beach with their feet in the water. The other was a portrait of Alice and herself. Her two favorite people in the world, both gone from her life, albeit in different ways.
With that, Sam was about to head out to her next location when her stomach protested and a small wave of exhaustion hit her. When had her last meal been, really? She couldn’t quite remember. Surely it had been recent. But she realized with a start it had been two days. No wonder she was feeling tired. She had started to burn through her body again, letting the fire eat her alive. She sighed and decided that another hour or two in the city wouldn’t kill her. She pulled out of the parking lot of the hotel just as the sun started to set.
She found a diner, the kind of place that looked almost like a hole in the wall. That usually meant good food, and cheap food at that. Sam wasn’t hurting for money– quite the opposite in fact. On top of the ten thousand she had saved up before the trip, she had come into the possession of another twenty thousand at the last Slate hideout. Normally she wouldn’t take anything from a scene before leaving it, but the idea of being able to fund herself for a much longer time? Well, she couldn’t pass that up.
She pulled into the parking lot, pulling in next to a Malibu and an older Chevy truck. When she walked inside, her backpack slung over her shoulder, she found that most of the booths were occupied, but there was plenty of space at the counter. No matter where she sat, however, she’d be sitting next to someone. Her eyes froze as she caught sight of a particular person. So she chose the tall man with the dark curls, whose face she couldn’t see yet. Something was telling her to sit next to him, and that something was likely the Vibe Checker 9000.
Alice had always joked that her Vibe Checker was never wrong. And so far, it hadn’t. So she climbed onto the bar stool next to him, where he sat at the end of the counter. She looked around for a menu and saw a stack of them on the other side of the stranger. She winced as she realized she was going to have to ask him to pass her one.
“So sorry to bother you, but could you pass me a–” her voice faded as she finally looked up at his face. Softly faded blue eyes and dark curls, an almost too sharp face, almost predatory in build. He was thin, and he was probably over six foot, though by how much Sam wouldn’t know until he stood.
He was devastatingly handsome, beautiful in the way that a wolf or a big cat might have been. She felt a shiver run down her spine and caught herself just as she realized she was staring. A little bit of warmth began to radiate off her, just a bit more than usual. She couldn’t remember ever seeing someone so attractive in her life, and it brought a small flush to her cheeks, her red-haired genetics betraying her attraction to him.
“... A menu? Sorry, could you pass me a menu?” She couldn’t tear her eyes off him, and a strange tension built up in her chest. It was so strange. She felt like. Like her sitting there was definitely meant to be. The Vibe Checker was always right. And right now it was telling her that there was something about this attractive man that she needed to be paying attention to.
He was at the one-month mark. It used to be that he couldn't go two weeks without the hunger stirring, and he’d eat the second it moved. He should’ve felt it two weeks ago, even though he was now at one-month intervals, and had been since he–
He sighed and took a drink of his black coffee. Nobody drank black coffee for the taste, because they liked it. Unlike a lot of things these days, it wasn’t penance. It was just the fastest way to put caffeine in his system, and it helped that diners like this had bottomless refills. He’d been living off of black coffee, water, and the cheapest cigarettes he could get for the last month. Food didn’t taste right after–
The waitress came back by and refilled the coffee. He saw the pity on her face, and knew he had to look pretty bad to be at this joint and get that look. He offered her his softest smile, no teeth at all, and she nodded before going back to work. His smile faded out, but didn’t turn back into a frown. There were people here, real people. They’d recognize expressions if he wore them too clearly. He needed to adjust his camouflage to actually blend in, instead of getting worried looks from random employees.
Someone sat next to him as soon as he’d fixed his face into reasonably friendly neutrality, and he was washed in the scent of cinnamon, apples, vanilla, and– blood. He blinked a few times, but sure enough, under the cheap hotel soap, there it was, unmistakable to him. He looked up at her, and saw her staring at him. She must’ve seen the sorrow in his face, too, but all he saw was her. Her golden eyes, like a fox’s or a cat’s. Her overgrown red hair, curled around itself in a messy tangle that his would probably look like if he let it go from shaggy to long. There was an intensity to her, but something about her, maybe the cinnamon or blood in her scent, caused his animal to settle enough that he caught himself smiling with a little bit of teeth for the first time since –
The sorrow came back into his eyes, but he couldn’t drop the smile without being weird, so he just turned and grabbed the menu for her.
Sam accepted the menu from the handsome stranger, and she intentionally but subtly accepted it in a way that would make their fingers brush. She kept her eyes locked on his as she did. There was a sadness in his eyes, etched into the attempt at a smile he was giving her. When their hands touched, a shock ran through her arm. The light brush had caught his heartbeat, and she felt the unique twang of it.
As the vibration ran up her arm, she fought against the soft gasp, but it still slipped through as a shaky inhale. Her own heartbeat seemed to adjust to the vibration, letting it cause a slight tremble in her hands. She could feel, for just a moment, his breathing, his heartbeat, the overall vibrations of his body, and something deep inside of her screamed at her to touch him again, to feel it again. Instead, she returned the grin, slow and steady, her breathing picking up just a bit. More heat flooded off her.
Her reaction to him was ringing alarm bells in Sam’s head. The last person she had felt such an immediate desire for was– A sharpness entered her smile and her eyes. It wasn’t the sharpness she used to ward people off, but rather the sharpness of someone who had just taken a great interest in something. A critical and intense look, a full attention look. The last person she had felt such immediate desire for had been Alice.
Sam believed in love at first sight, and she believed in soulmates. And as she felt her heartbeat start to race, as she took in the soft sadness of his beautiful eyes, she was already turning toward him slightly. “Thank you. You have… beautiful eyes.”
She blushed a little, but she didn’t apologize or correct herself. She kept eye contact, swallowing softly. She pulled at the sleeve of her suit beneath her hoodie, pulling it into view for just a moment before letting it snap back into place. A subconscious habit, one that appeared whenever her emotions started to get intense. And boy, was this man making her feeling intense.
He felt himself turn red when her fingers brushed his hand. The warmth of her touch – actually, her warmth overall. For just a moment, the contact between her and his own cool skin woke the predator back out of the lull her scent had put him in. The scents she carried, warm apple pie mixed with blood, wafted over him and stirred… something. His heart picked up, his skin crawled, his muscles tightened a little, but not like springs. This wasn’t the hunger. Or was he just so full that the hunger felt different? He didn’t trust any of his instincts to not be oriented in its direction. Not–
He felt the heat wash over him again, and then realized it hadn’t been this warm a moment ago. It was December in Montana; no radiator on earth was enough to settle the gooseflesh on his skin, least of all at the counter of an all-night diner, least of all with his typical internal temperature, the cold that gnawed on his bones. And there was no mistaking where the warmth was coming from.
The heat she radiated was enough to pull him out of the beauty of her eyes. If she was like him, like– well. If she was like him, different, enhanced, then she was dangerous. A threat. That immediately shattered any emotions he’d felt a second ago, when their fingers brushed. It also shattered any imaginings about the hunger, though. Which meant she was safe from him, and he’d be safe from her unless she realized what he was.
“No problem. And, um… thanks. So’re yours.” To avoid that, he needed to keep up appearances. He was just happy she hadn’t sat down any earlier, or she might’ve seen something that might’ve tipped her off.
Unless she had. He saw the bit of red, the unusual sleeve, like a leotard or something under her normal clothes. He felt his heart pick up again, but there was something else there now, something he’d thought had subsided a month ago. His animal wasn’t hungry for her at all. It was afraid of her, of this tiny, burning, golden-eyed woman who’d chosen to sit next to him.
Did she know about Arlo? Was she here to find a monster?
Thinking about it made his blood freeze, banished the warmer emotions like a curse. What was that in her eyes? There was something sharp there. Predatory, almost – no, not predatory. Just hungry. A hunger of her own as their hands brushed, when he let go of the menu. It tickled that thing in his brain that might’ve been the predator or the hunger or just the animal.
He’d been staring. He hoped she hadn’t seen his fear; his sadness was still heavy, and his fear had never shown strongly before… that night. But times change, people change. Maybe he’d changed. Maybe he just needed to finish his coffee and leave, but if he ran away now, that’d be an admission of guilt at best and triggering another predator to chase at worst. So he adjusted his camouflage again and gave her the same smile, hiding behind civility and good manners.
“I– uh, I recommend their chicken-fried steak. It’s really good.”
And he took a sip of the hot coffee, even if he didn’t need the warmth anymore.
For a moment, there was something in his eyes as he held eye contact with her. She was sure of that. He had, for a moment, been exactly where she was. She could feel his heartbeat pick up through the seats, could feel the beat crawling across the floor and over to her. She knew that he felt what she had felt. It was evident in the flush on his face as he looked at her.
And then it was gone, and replaced by a brief flash of fear. The moment of openness and electricity between them died and he shut himself off from her. She felt a sharp pang in her heart, one that was far too painful for the few moments that she had been sitting next to him. And yet, it was there, the pain of what felt like a rejection.
Maybe that wasn’t what was happening. Maybe he just… maybe he just wasn’t aware of what had just happened. She could work with that. She could work with shy or oblivious. Neither of those explained the brief flicker of fear in his sad eyes, but they gave her space to try and push a bit. So she smiled back, but full of warmth. Maybe too full of warmth.
“Thanks for the tip, handsome. What’s a guy like you doing in a place like this?” Maybe a little too bold, maybe a little too eager. But Sam didn’t let things pass her by, and the idea of being with someone again, of maybe having some kind of connection again, of being able to let her guard down– filled her with a deep desire that she couldn’t quite name. She knew it would shine in her eyes, though, the desire she had for him.
This was all going too fast. Sam felt like the moment was slipping away like she needed to do something drastic or it was going to disappear. She just didn’t know what. She didn’t know how to get that spark back into his eyes. All she knew was something was going wrong. Something was supposed to be happening right now, with the two of them. Everything inside her was screaming that. The ache in her chest radiated out through the rest of her body, and a soft anxious feeling began to grow.
She wet her lips while she looked at his eyes. She traced the outline of his nose and lips, looking again at the sadness etched into his face, and the way it affected his polite smile. God, she didn’t want that polite smile. She’d rather see the sorrow on his face than this fake smile, now that she had seen the hint of warmth in a real one.
Once he noticed how wrong the situation felt, the animal in his brain couldn’t stop noticing. She kept trying to catch and hold his eyes, searching, maybe, for the guilt under the sadness. Even while he kept wearing the human mask, his heartbeat picked up and stayed up. And while to most humans his look at her face would seem polite enough, he didn’t let those hypnotic amber eyes catch him again.
She was asking him questions now. It was a harmless question, obviously – the kind of question you ask a stranger in a diner when you don’t have better conversation topics. But coming from her, from what he’d already seen, the question made his heartbeat pick up again. Even if his face didn’t leave the realm of polite neutrality. If she meant Billings – he’d have to make something up, maybe, or maybe just tell her half the truth. Half the truth tended to be enough for people.
“Just taking a little shelter from the cold.” Despite the nerves, he could pretend she was talking about the diner. While Billings wasn’t as cold as the rural areas in the plains, where Todd had needed to take some of his hunting last winter when Arlo started looking into missing persons cases…
Hadn’t done either of them any good, that. God, it was hard to even think his name without thinking of his face, his anger, and his blood, in that order. It was why he’d been trying to avoid it, the same way he avoided her eyes. He’d almost been successful for the last week. The second a distraction presented itself, though, his brain started to spiral. He had to stop it before she noticed either the sadness in his eyes again, or the way his coffee cup shook before he brought it to his lips. A sip and the shaking stopped.
He decided to go for a classic deflection. “I heard there’s a storm coming in. Five or six inches this weekend.”
Sam huffed a little, but the smile never left her face. He wasn’t engaging in the flirting she was trying for. She could feel his heartbeat through the seat still, could feel it as it echoed through her body. It was… different now. It wasn’t as steady, wasn’t picking up the way that it had been right at the beginning. Nervous? Maybe. But not the good kind of nervous. She felt it a moment longer and almost frowned. Was he… afraid of her?
He told her a partial truth then. It tinged off her radar, but she wasn’t entirely sure what part of what he had said had ticked it. Or maybe it was the way his hand shook when he lifted the coffee cup to his lips. Something. Something was stopping him. She swallowed and looked away from him for a moment, trying to get a grip on herself.
What did she know? She had just met an incredibly attractive stranger in a diner, one whom her brain was unable to stop screaming about. That little touch, that small touch of cold skin against her heat had been just enough to short-circuit her and bring a part of her brain she thought long dead back online. And now that part was spiraling. Spiraling at his touch, wanting for him to really touch her. Spiraling at the warmth that had been in his eyes for just a moment. Spiraling, spiraling, spiraling at the sudden desire to pull him in by the front of his shirt and kiss him, harder than she had ever kissed anyone in her life.
That was a lot. That was too much. Sam could acknowledge that. She could accept that she was feeling too much and too intensely. Still, it didn’t stop the screaming in her brain. It didn’t stop the twitching in her hands, the way her fingers were starting to tremble.
Before she could process it longer, the waitress came for her order. She took a quick glance at the menu, then ordered three different sandwiches and a chicken-friend steak. She then put in a request for any green tea they might have, but specifically, jasmine if they had it. Once the waitress left, Sam turned back to the man and smiled brightly again. Maybe restarting would work to calm his nerves.
“I’m sorry, I was just trying to flirt with you. I’m Sam, by the way. Sam Walsh.” Sam didn’t accept his deflection. An introduction, and nothing else, despite the warmth in her golden eyes. She tried to catch his faded blue ones, seeing only sadness hidden behind a thin veneer of politeness.
It wasn’t until she looked away, brief as it was, that he got a grip on the part of his brain that was screaming run. It was a coincidence the same way meeting– the same as last time. Last time he’d let the coincidence get away with him then. This time he wasn’t going to let chance, or his fear instinct, get the better of him. He could be cool. He could be fine.
And what she said to him could be true. Under the cinnamon and the blood he could smell the attraction, the mix of hormones into her sweat. She could just be flirting with him. That wasn’t new; he’d had to beat off his fair share of barflies when– when he’d gone drinking. But the blood was too strong to ignore. The blood and– and the rage. Undirected, but present, ever-present, now more noticeable through the other rush of emotions. The blood and the rage were indicators of violence.
He’d had enough violence for a lifetime. As much as he knew he was doomed to more.
The waitress came back, and Todd relaxed even more. He noticed how much food she ordered, but considered that the most normal part of this situation. Enhanced people, in his experience, just ate more. Arlo could clean out a Chinese buffet by himself. Had, once.
The feeling of his mug getting weighed down by another pour from the pitying waitress stopped that spiral. He offered her his soft smile again, and she looked from his eyes to the girl full of heat and back to him. He felt the red creep back in as he understood that she thought he was just being dense. He waited for her to walk away before looking back at Sam again, still never meeting her eyes.
“Oh, right! Sorry. Duh.” He hoped the blush in his face was a good indicator he understood. And maybe that he hadn’t understood before. His heartrate was up again, partly from embarrassment, which would hide the new spike of fear as she asked for his name. He couldn’t give her his name, not if he thought she was looking for him. Maybe she couldn’t connect him to Arlo if he didn’t.
It was a split-second decision.
“Nick. Nicholas Oscar.”
Technically – technically, those were both his names. Middle names, and he’d never actually gone by Oscar, but he’d gone by Nick long enough in foster care for it to be something he could respond to. And if she did keep investigating and did find out, well. He could lie. He could just say that was what he went by. He could lie – he did it all the time, a lot more before Arlo but a lot to Arlo, too.
He offered her his hand. Never quite met her eyes, but smiled again, closer to the real thing. “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Walsh. Sam.”
That was another half-ting, but closer to a full one than his other half-truth. He didn’t look like a Nick. Definitely not a Nicholas. But he said that name with enough ease that she assumed it was close enough to the truth. But it was just far enough away from the actual truth to almost be a lie. She didn’t call him out on it. She didn’t want to call him out on it. If he wanted to tell her his real name, he would after they spent enough time together. He was nervous enough to lie, though, so the first order of business was calming him down.
She reached out, a little hesitantly, but took his hand to shake– and was immediately floored. She gasped softly at the intensity of his heartbeat, of the sensation of touch, at the warmth that suddenly radiated out of her. Her heart twisted in her chest, almost painfully, and she couldn’t help the way her lips parted for a moment, the way her eyes suddenly filled with want. She swallowed hard and withdrew her hand. She noticed then the tremble in her own hands.
Maybe she was the one who needed calming.
The waitress brought her her cup of tea then, and she thanked her softly. Then she turned her eyes back to… Nick. What would be the best way to calm his nerves? Maybe just flirting with him a bit more would help him relax. It was clear that he hadn’t caught on until she had said it, which was actually rather endearing. She gave him a soft smile and leaned in a little, not close enough to invade his space, not quite. But close enough that he would definitely feel her warmth if he hadn’t already.
“So, is it okay then? If I flirt with you, cheekbones?” She looked up at him from under her lashes. The few freckles on her sun-starved skin were highlighted as she blushed. She was being bold, but maybe that was what she needed in this circumstance. Her smile then was genuine and flirtatious, only growing more so as she obviously looked him over. Everything about her radiated how much she hoped he said yes.
Todd – Nick. Nick had to buy his own lie for this to work. It wasn’t that big of a lie, so he could make it work. Nick felt the warmth of her handshake, the strength behind it. The trembling. And in the burst of warmth, the dissipation of her scent, he realized that right now, her want was much stronger than her rage. He’d been right the first time: this was a strange coincidence. And now it was one he could back out of before it went any farther, before that want rubbed off on him.
He bounced her arm twice, for formality, then let go of her hand. Now was the time to run, if he was going to do it at all. But his coffee mug was half-full. And there was something to that scent, for all the danger under its sweetness, that tugged at his instincts. It couldn’t be his instinct of hunger. He wasn’t hungry. He realized with a start that he still wasn’t, even with her sitting right next to him. Even when he felt threatened by her. And she wasn’t trying to kill him, not right away.
He focused on her eyes again as she asked her question, as she added more jasmine to her scent with the tea. The sweet florals accented the kick that seemed to exist at the core of her being. The vanilla and apple that sat at her surface only rounded out the appeal. He wanted that scent.
He could enjoy her scent for a while. He could let her take his mind off of Arlo for a while. She was pretty. And it was a little bit of harmless fun. As long as he kept an eye on his instincts for more warning signs, about her or himself, he’d be able to… enjoy this. Let himself enjoy something. It was better than the alternative of being afraid of her.
“Sure you can, Freckles.” The tension melted away, and his mouth quirked up into a smile that reached his eyes, for once. There was still hints of it behind the joy, but unless she could smell him, hear his elevated heart, then there wasn’t any way for her to know it lingered there.
Nick gave her a real smile then, one that reflected in his eyes. Through the seat, she could feel that his heart rate was still a bit higher than it should have been. He was still nervous. But he was engaging with her flirting, and that was a good sign. A great sign. So that had been the right path. She leaned onto the counter and smiled back, and her hand went into her messy hair to prop her head up. For once, she almost regretted not taking the few extra minutes to diffuse her curls so they wouldn’t tangle. Almost.
She tilted her head and made no attempt to hide the way she was looking him over. She had noticed basic things off the bat– his tall and thin frame, his dark curls, his soft blue eyes– but now she took the time to actually examine them. His curls were black-brown, and Those blue eyes were deep set, with sharp brows over them. They had a ring of slightly deeper blue that seemed to spike through the almost white of the rest of his irises. Looking at them almost made Sam dizzy from how much she felt herself getting lost in them.
She held his eyes though, and with the flash of a white grin and a soft voice, she said, “Oh, wonderful. I was worried you and those beautiful eyes were going to tell me to fuck off.”
She sat back up straight, but kept her head tilted, her curls falling over her shoulder. Everything else in the diner melted away for her. All that really existed was him, the heavy beat of his heart, the soft scent of coffee and mint, and those beautiful, beautiful eyes. Something in her head– or maybe it was her heart, or maybe it was both– clicked into place with an audible snap. She suppressed the almost sharp gasp as her eyes went wide.
Oh god. Was he…? Was this…? She didn’t want to think it. She didn’t want to think it and have it be wrong. Or worse, have it be right, but have him not want her. Had he felt it too? Had he felt her click into place inside him, like she was always meant to be a part of him? She managed not to move, not to give anything away other than a slight widening of her eyes. What she couldn’t control was how dilated her pupils became.
“So, ah, how does a guy like you end up in Billings, Montana, huh? You just passing through, or are you a local?”
Her eye contact should’ve made him uncomfortable, but he could look into her eyes all night, the way a sleepless traveler could stare into a campfire. He kept getting lost in her heart-shaped face, in her smallness. She would’ve just been pretty without her intensity, he decided. He hesitated, when she snapped to attention, when her eyes widened and she gasped. Had she seen something in his eyes? Had she noticed the ever-present hunger there, the coldness of them, even when he should feel warm and satisfied?
No. Whatever she’d seen, it didn’t make her flinch away from him. Her pupils had dilated like a cat with a mouse in sight, who wanted to play for a while. He had no idea how to take that. Was she still a threat, or was she actually flirting with him? Everything was starting to tangle up.
“I could tell you something similar,” he offered before he realized what he was saying. His voice even carried a little weight and hoarseness. Then, he turned bright red, and looked down at his coffee. He took a sip to try to hide his idiot grin. Where’d that come from? He hadn’t ever– and he probably never would. Too much risk. Too much similarity between different kinds of hunger.
He cleared his throat a little, and then actually answered the question. “Passer-through who couldn’t resist the local charm for a while. Road’s calling again, though. I’ll probably be heading out in a few days.”
His blush only stirred Sam even more. She leaned toward him as he answered her question, and she couldn’t help her hand suddenly pulling through her curls, playing with the bouncing strands as she spoke. Sam was, or had been, a naturally flirtatious person. Usually, she never meant for people to take it the way they took it. She had never intentionally tried to flirt with someone other than Alice, at the end, and even that hadn’t been like this.
“Oh, a traveler. I bet you have a lot of stories about places you’ve been. Maybe you could tell me a few.” She let herself pause, let her words be punctuated by her eyes looking him over, her lips parted slightly, before continuing. “Or you could tell me that something similar. Who knows, maybe I’ll have an answer for it.”
She bit her bottom lip, a flash of her upper teeth as she did so. She looked down for half a second, feeling just a bit shy about how much she was pushing, but then she was right back to trying to hold his wintry eyes. Her heart was thundering in her chest at the mere suggestion of what he would say, could say.
Sam had never done that with anyone before. Not for lack of trying on her part. There had been a few times she had tried after Alice, when she had realized she didn’t actually love Alice like that. When she realized she had yet to love anyone like that. It had never worked out, because she never jumped at their touch, never felt anything through the kisses. But now, as she sat in this diner, flirting with Nick in a hushed voice, she addressed that click. Soulmate was what her heart was now screaming. Soulmate was what her brain was telling her.
If he offered, she would say yes. If he asked her to, she would happily say yes. A soulmate was a cosmic gift that she didn’t deserve, but god be damned if she wasn’t going to accept it. From that point on, all of Sam belonged to Nick. If he even suggested one more time that he wanted her, even just a fraction of how much she wanted him, then she would figure out if her hotel was closer, or if wherever he was staying was. Because she would be getting this man in a bed with her if she had her way.
There was a hunger in those beautiful eyes. It wasn’t like his hunger, bone-deep and brutal; it wasn’t the fire’s hunger to take him until there was nothing left. This was more sensual, still animal, but in an entirely different vein. He could smell the excitement on her. He knew what she wanted from him, and his heart raced in his ears. He felt like he was burning up. He must be beet-red at this point.
He was not prepared for this.
Nick swallowed hard, eyes locked on hers, trying to control his breathing but taking in the blood and cinnamon and rage and excitement with every inhale. Now that his fear was settling, he could feel it. Not the usual hunger that seeped coldly out of his bones, but something that spread warmly into his blood and across his skin like the flush across his face.
But even if they felt different, they were still both hunger. They were still close enough that he couldn’t bring himself to say the words. Even if she still scared him a little, he wouldn’t let it touch her – she deserved so much better than that, with her adorable features and tiny frame, and eyes the same gold as a wolf or panther. The parts of his brain that said predator and mate crossed, burned out, and fizzled back to life.
And he realized he’d been way too quiet for way too long. He’d frozen like a rabbit. God, he must seem so awkward. He cleared his throat again, and said the first thing that came to mind in response to her other question.
God, his heartbeat was thick and racing through her veins. He wanted it. He wanted her. But he wasn’t giving in to it. Instead, he froze like a deer in the headlights, and then hard switched into her question about his travels. She deflated visibly, closing her eyes for just a moment. Maybe she was coming on too strong? Too fast? God, but he wanted her too. She couldn’t help the way that made her feel.
“No, I can’t say I have. Why don’t you tell me all about it?” Maybe if she could get him talking, he would loosen up. Maybe she could still get this to swing in the right direction. This had to work, and it had to work tonight. Both of them were on their way out of town, and if she couldn’t get him to sleep with her tonight, or at least spend the rest of the night with her in some capacity, then he could leave and she could never see him again. That gripped her heart with a panic so deep that she was sure it must have flashed through her eyes. She blinked it away.
This would work. This was going to work. She would make sure this worked. So she let go of the sudden burst of fear and breathed it out. Then she flashed her most dazzling smile up at him. It was then that a few plates slid her way. She had completely forgotten that she had ordered so much food, but was suddenly reminded of how hungry she was, how much she had abused her body recently. She flashed an apologetic smile for what he was about to see and started in on the food, watching his face for his answer.
She really was interested in his travels. In fact, she was just interested in him. She was struck with a sudden desire to know everything about him. His travels, his interests, his favorite things, what he hated, what he loved, what he wanted to do with his life. She wanted to pry him open and have everything that he would give to her. She wanted to see him down to his very core, and she knew for sure that that was obvious in her eyes.
Her smile left him starstruck for a second. She was trying, God, she was trying so hard, but it seemed so natural to her, too. Why on earth she was trying so hard for him was so far beyond him. Her food arrived, and those amber eyes apologized before she set on the food like she’d been starving. He wasn’t in any position to judge her, after all. The first time Arlo cooked for him–
Nope. Not right now. Not that.
So instead, Nick took her invitation and ranted. He ranted about the Sequoias, the forest, the levels of canopy, the smallness that came from just standing there. He ranted about the stars that could be seen between the branches, constellations invisible nearer the cities, untouched by light pollution. He ranted about eagles and anemones and insects. He ranted about habitats and conservation and condors. He talked about familiar animals, too – talked about sea lions where forest met coast and pine martens and foxes with their mates in matching winter coats. He ranted about migratory patterns and finally the relationships and range between predator and prey in the ecosystem, their relationship to their unique environment, the balance that rested at the center of everything, self-correcting as it was without external influence.
And as he ranted, he slowly lost the tension he’d built over the last month – the last few months – the last two years – the last five years. Layer after layer peeled back, until suddenly he was younger, more animated, less cautious. Until there was no sign at all of the fear or the predator, and he finally stopped to catch his breath with a full smile that flashed white teeth readily without threat, even if his face was flushed from either the effort, or the sudden memory that he had an audience as the waitress refilled his coffee mug again.
“Sorry. I’m, um – I wanted to be a park ranger when I was a kid.”
It was like watching a flower unfold in one of those time-lapse videos. The change in him was gradual, but became increasingly more and more infectious. She asked questions here and there, and was always rewarded by a long explanation. They stayed on the topic of foxes for a while, one of the few things that Sam knew a lot about. She couldn’t help the happiness in her voice as they spoke. It was reflected in the bright grin on her face that stayed there for the majority of the conversation.
The want never left her eyes, even through his whole rant, and seemed to grow the more he spoke, but now something else was leaking into her expression. Something tender. Adoration began to color her features. Adoration and want, and for the first time in what felt like years, contentness. Being around him felt natural, felt right, felt like breathing for the first time in years. God, but she wanted this to last, to continue.
“I can tell. You’re really passionate about this. I love it.” She gave a small laugh, the first genuine one since Alice’s death. Even with the sultry and raspy edge to her voice, it tinkered like bells. She leaned close to him, finally pushing into his space, her food finished and her tea half drunk. She couldn’t help the smile on her face, the way her heart was racing, or the way her fingers pulled through her long curls while they talked.
“Mmmm, can I kiss you?” The words were out her mouth before she could really process them, tinged with want and adoration. She colored deep red, the blush creeping down her neck. She swallowed hard, cleared her throat, and smiled bashfully. “Sorry, that was… maybe a little too forward. You were just so animated, and I really liked that.”
She looked away and cleared her throat again, but the idiot grin never left her face. When she looked back up at him, there was a kind of humor in her eyes, but also, she looked guarded. Like she was preparing for rejection, but desperately hoping for a yes.
Nick felt his face grow warm. It wasn’t just his embarrassment cutting through the cold. She knew her stuff, especially about foxes. And he realized he could’ve talked to her about them all night – and, even more surprisingly, wanted to. He wanted to spend time with her. His instincts were no longer warning him about danger. He only recognized her want under the blood and anger and the sweetened cinnamon smell that reminded him of apple pie.
And when she asked to kiss him, he didn’t want to run away.
“I guess it’s only fair.” He couldn’t help the tease in his voice, despite the itch in the back of his mind that said this was a bad idea. “For putting up with all that.”
He’d been talking long enough that all her food was gone. He set his coffee mug down, then leaned on the counter as he turned to face her. He could feel the eyes of the waitress on them, and realized he didn’t care. For the first time in a month, all the grief and guilt were suspended in a perfect moment – one chance. One small chance to be happy for one small moment.
She let out a shuddering breath and her smile grew slowly. She swallowed, softly, and then put her own arm on the counter to stabilize herself. With her free hand, she reached out and put a slightly shaky hand on his chest. Her eyes shut for just a moment as she let herself adjust to the feeling of his heartbeat, to the vibrations of his body’s movements. For a moment, she identified that some part of him was… hollow, almost. Where there should have been movement, there was none. But she didn’t focus on that right then.
Instead, she focused on his expression, letting everything else fall away. That was the look she had wanted this entire time, that soft, warm smile, those crystal blue eyes lit with what looked like hope. Did that mean he could feel it too? He had to. He had to be feeling it. Any normal person would have told her no, would have said she was being too forward, pushy, maybe even creepy. But Nick had said yes.
She leaned in, using the arm on the counter and the hand on his chest to balance herself on the stool. Her heartbeat filled her ears as she brought her lips up to his. She thought it was going to be intense. She was wrong.
It was so much worse.
She couldn’t help the sharp inhale as their lips met and she was drenched in heat. Warmth spread from her lips and out through her body, to her fingertips, to her toes, and then burst out from her body in a wave of soft warmth. She couldn’t begin to describe the feeling in her body even if she tried. Heart bursting, head spinning, warmth inducing, all so intense that she couldn’t stop the way her hand clenched at the front of his shirt. So intense, she couldn’t help her hand leaving the counter and burying in his hair.
Under any normal circumstances, Sam would have been embarrassed by her own actions. But this was so much more than just a kiss. This was the connection she had been searching for all her life snapping into place, taunt like a wire stretched out between two rods, both electrified. When she finally broke the kiss, she leaned her forehead onto his.
“This, this is definitely too forward. But is where you’re staying close by?” Her words were said in a soft whisper in the breath that passed between their lips. They were meant for him alone, though she knew that anyone who had seen them come in separately would see them leave together. But it didn’t make that moment any less private.
What was he doing? He hadn’t kissed a girl since high school. Not that there hadn’t been girls who were interested, but there was too much– it was too close to–
Her lips touched his, and all his fear melted at once. His senses suddenly exploded to life, drowning in her scent, mouth full of her taste, heat itching on the sensitive skin of his face like being just a hair too close to a roaring campfire. And he was close enough to hear her breathing, the small sounds she didn’t realize her throat made in her eagerness, even the race of her heart, heavy and loud as his.
She was intoxicating. Even without blood, the feeling was as warm and liberating as any hunt. More so. He hadn’t realized before she touched him how tired his heart was, how tired of guilt and sadness and fear. He reeled at how wonderful she was to have – whole, without blood or meat or hunger. He felt the thing like hunger that crept up, not from his bones but from his core, his center, reaching out for the warmth she gave him.
Her forehead pressed into his, though he’d tried to follow her lips. His eyes opened. He hadn’t realized they’d ever closed, all his senses so full that losing sight was no detriment except that he couldn’t see her golden eyes and freckled cheeks and button nose. God, she was cute. Her warmth spread out of her and into him and he accepted, not with snapping jaws but gentle resignation. Not as a hunter, but as caught prey.
“It is.” His voice was quiet as he shared her breath. Dreamy, distant, and yet close enough she’d smell his coffee and cigarettes. “I’ve got one more night on the room, Freckles. If you want to be a little more forward.”