Sam had been cooking for almost two hours. She didn’t mind cooking– in fact, she quite enjoyed it. It was a good thing she enjoyed it, because two hours was the usual amount of time for her to cook for herself in the evening. It hadn’t been hard to make twice as much food when you already made enough to feed a family of five for yourself. Her table was already almost full to the brim with baskets of chips, a full pot of pozole, a tray of chiles en nogada, and a massive bowl of cochinita pibil accompanied by homemade tortillas. She was finishing up the chile relleno, wondering briefly if she had made too much, when her album finished.
She set the huge baking dish on the counter, gave the birria one more stir, and then walked over to the record player in her living room. She had been listening to The Death of Peace of Mind, but something told her that that likely wasn’t Todd’s speed. Especially not “Artifical Suicide”.She slipped the vinyl back into its case and started flipping through her music collection. Definitely not Stone Sour, and definitely not Motionless In White. Rosenfield was a maybe, but that might also send a message she wasn’t quite ready to send yet.
Finally, she flipped to the end of her rack and found one that was neither suggestive nor pure noise. Beneath The Skin by Of Monsters And Men slipped out of its case easily, and Sam put it on her vintage turntable. She turned the volume down low, so it would provide a soft background noise instead of the blaring volume she’d had it at before.
She returned to the kitchen, finishing her setup. Sam let her mind wander while she attempted to fit all of the large posts and serving dishes onto her four person table. Tonight was a bit different than their last few dinners. She had questions. Questions about Todd. She realized that he didn’t talk at all about his life before coming out to Pittsburgh. She had never heard a single story of him growing up, of his family, or even the story of how he had discovered he was a meta.
She had other questions too. After meeting Connor, she had more questions than ever about Todd’s powers. There was a big piece of the puzzle that was missing. A central piece that Sam wanted. She wanted to have the answers. She knew there was something, something he was keeping from her. She could see it in his eyes sometimes when he looked at her, a kind of sadness that mingled with the hunger. She heard it in his voice when they danced around the question.
“What are you really?”
Sam wanted to give Todd everything and was already well on the way to doing so. She was almost nervous about how much of her heart and soul he already owned. But then, hadn’t Alice done the same to her? Hadn’t she walked into her life and broken down every wall that Sam had? She wasn’t shocked at all that Todd was doing the same. There was no surprise in the fact that he was bringing her back to life, bringing her back from the brink.
What there was was hesitation. Todd… didn’t trust himself with her. Didn’t trust her the way she trusted him. She wasn’t hurt by this. She wasn’t hurt that he was keeping things from her. What she was was struggling. She was struggling to follow his speed, to go as slow as he clearly needed this to be. She was struggling with the not knowing. Because Sam wanted to know all of Todd, wanted to explore as much of his soul as he would let her. She wanted to know his history, his dreams of the future, his hopes for the now and then.
Because of this, there was a sense of unease in her chest. If wasn’t about Todd, exactly, but it was about the idea of giving herself so wholly to someone who… wasn’t doing the same for her. It was an unease about telling everything and giving everything and sharing everything with someone who was keeping things from her. She was worried about being hurt.
Just because she was meant for him, didn’t mean he was meant for her. Even if he had claimed her as his.
Sam became so lost in her thoughts, in her worries, that she almost missed the knocking at the door. She leaned around the corner, hands still full as she finalized the table, and she hollered toward the door, “It’s open, Todd!”
Ever since Todd had moved in at the gym, Sammy had insisted on cooking for him. That might’ve had something to do with the fact that for obvious reasons, he hadn’t kept any food at all in the old apartment. She hadn’t said anything about it, but he knew she’d noticed. It was possible that she thought he was depressed – Arlo had done the same thing, when Todd never brought a lunch to work and politely refused dinner invitations until the big man had put his foot down. And oh, could Arlo cook, but never the same amount or the same kind of food that Sammy could manage because of how much she had to put into her own furnace.
He wasn’t going to complain. Any time spent with Sammy was time well spent, and even if his predators was still sated from his last real meal, the quantity was helping to keep the edge off the rest of the time, to the point where smelling her cooking even on nights when she didn’t invite him started to soothe him. Even when the music she was listening to wasn’t to his taste, he listened, because he knew she was listening to it.
Obviously he wanted more than anything to spend every waking moment at her side. He wanted to bask in her heat and drown out everything in her scent. He wanted to be hers, as wholly and completely as she thought she wanted to be his. Even if her hunger for him seemed bottomless, she couldn’t ever the depths of his, because it would swallow her up, and he’d be alone again.
A little aloneness now and again wasn’t nearly as terrifying as that. Keeping her at arm’s reach was worth being about to reach out his arm and touch her. Listening to her music and smelling her cooking from down the hall, instead of being there and watching her, was better than tempting himself until the time came.
Cage me like an animal,
A crown with gems and gold.
Eat me like a cannibal
Chasing the neon throne…
He was at the door right on the dot. Her music had changed, something softer that he couldn’t hear clearly until he was right outside. He knocked, waited, and then heard her invitation. He shifted the boxes he was holding to one arm, and opened the door with his now-free hand.
“Hey, Sammy! I come bearing pies, since you wouldn’t let me buy groceries this time.”
Sam finished setting up the table and wiped her hands on her apron. She stripped it off as she walked back around the corner. The moment she saw him, she felt a moment of pure peace, of sheer bliss. His eyes melted away her worries, at least for the time being. She threw the apron over the couch, and something became abruptly apparent– Sam wasn’t wearing her suit. There was no sign of it underneath her short-sleeved shirt and jeans. Even when they had been in her apartment, she had worn it. She wore it every single day, without fail.
And yet, it was absolutely not on her person. Her fair and slightly freckled arms were bare, as was her neck, free of the collar that usually sat right above her collarbones. She hoped he would notice, and take it as it was meant to be taken– she trusted him enough to take off her armor, her second skin. A sign of her trust in him, that she hoped he would return.
“That’s so sweet of you. Here, I can put those in the kitchen for now.” She took the boxes from him, not giving him a chance to fight her on it. Her loose curls swung as she moved. She looked back over her shoulder, and with a smile, she asked, “How was your day today? Any interesting cars come through the shop?”
She set the pies down on the counter and turned back to look at him. She let her eyes trace over him unabashedly. His curls were as tamed as they could be, combed back away from his face. She let her eyes travel down his black and green sweater and white collared shirt, down his brown slacks, all the way down to his shoes. She then slowly made her way back to his face, her eyes warm.
She could swear that he was looking thinner every time she saw him. It was almost concerning, and it had become one of the reasons that she kept inviting him over to eat. He ate just as much as her, probably to power whatever secret part of his powers he was hiding from her. She had no idea how it seemed like he was losing weight. She wondered, for not the first time, if he ate when he wasn’t with her. If he had depression, and that was why he was losing weight.
Was she causing his depression?
Just like that, Sam was back to her previous fears. To wondering, to thinking, to feeling. Was she not good enough? Was he only doing this to entertain her? She hesitated for just a moment but banished the thoughts with a smile. She crossed the room to him, to hug him, while listening to whatever he answered her with.
He hated the way he always checked that first, but it was a habit he couldn’t apparently break. First her face, her golden eyes, that always caught his before his could catch them. But as he traced her curls, the first thing about her that he really noticed now was the white skin of her neck. At first, he didn’t know what he’d noticed; and then it rushed in all at once that she wasn’t wearing the red bodysuit.
In his surprise, she swept the boxes away, and that gave him time to recover.
She trusted him enough to take off her armor, and that scared him. Sure, he had been the one to start stripping away his disguise – one layer at a time, until today it was just a collared shirt and black sweater that didn’t quite reach in the arms – but this felt… soon. Very soon for her to lose that layer of invulnerability.
Breathe in, breathe out,
Let the human in.
He did that. When she returned from the kitchen he’d walked in a few steps and was ready to return her once-over, sizing her up in a way that had little to do with the animal at all. Without the suit, her body looked more natural, and she had soft, chronically pale skin that clearly freckled on the rare occasion it was allowed to see sunlight. The t-shirt sat nicely, the v-neck very flattering, and the jeans were a perfect fit. For a second, the hunger in his eyes was almost enough to match hers, before he looked back up at her face and saw the worry there.
Had she noticed him staring? Had he been too obvious? The tension tried to climb up his spine and across his limbs, but he forced it away with a grin as he started to talk about the day, about the shop and Vik’s mood and the cars and customers that had come through. Nothing out of the ordinary, but every day was different.
He talked, because talking was human, and it filled the space, and because talking about the shop was talking about one of the few things he could do in his daily life: fixing things. Fixing things and making people happy was a good way to counterbalance all the breaking and misery he caused at night. He didn’t know where Sam fell in the balance, but his heart said it had to be good.
So he talked, and took her in his arms while she listened. He held her warmth in him, letting his body consume at least that part of her. When he kissed her, he kissed her hair, not trusting his teeth any farther south than that. He might not be able to give her as much as she gave him, because his hunger could only demand more. Still, in that little kiss, she would feel with all the passion that either man or beast could manage: mine.
When Todd took her in his arms, it banished all of the worries. When he kissed the top of her hair with the intensity that she wished was on her lips, it banished the strain she had been feeling. He wouldn’t hold her like that if he didn’t want her. He wouldn’t kiss her like that if he didn’t think she was good enough. She hugged him when she felt his lips in her hair, her fingers clutching at the back of his sweater. She tugged on it slightly, a soft sigh leaving her lips.
Still, she felt a tension in his body, a tension that didn’t reflect the kiss and his hold on her. She swallowed hard against the emotions that threatened to choke her before she untangled herself. She let her smile be genuine, let it reach her eyes, trying to let it hide her insecurities. She could feel them clambering inside her chest, trying to rise to her throat, to slip out on her tongue, to make her say things she didn’t want to say, to ask things she didn’t want answers to.
My lungs feel so small,
And I couldn’t breathe if I tried.
With her chest still feeling tight she pulled him by his hand further into her apartment, using her free hand to push her hair back behind her shoulders. She had a hair tie somewhere in her pocket, but she would pull her hair back after they had sat down. In a soft, mellow tone she said, “Your days are always interesting. Always different.”
She chuckled softly, her hand tightening around his slightly. She pushed away the feelings she was struggling with. Maybe it was just eight years of isolation. Maybe it was all in her head. Either way, Todd was there with her, his hand in hers, the lingering feeling of his lips in her hair. She didn’t need to worry about these things. She had so many other more important questions to think of.
As they got to the table she finally released his hand and laughed a little. “I may have gone overboard, a bit. I hope you’re hungry.”
He felt her relax under his arms, and ignored the thoughts of weakness that he’d been fighting since the first time she’d given herself so freely to him. Instead he held her, felt her pulling at the back of his sweater, wondered if she could feel his bones through it – whether he’d taken the layers off too fast, whether she would only worry more the more of him she’d see. He couldn’t tell her not to worry – he’d be worried, too, if he was her, if he didn’t know.
But she didn’t sound worried, as she finished listening to his day. He heard the happiness in her voice, and he relaxed, too. She took his hand, and he’d let her lead him to the end of the world as long as her hand was in his, and his in hers, in equal parts and perfect balance.
Even if his hand was in hers alone. Even if his life was in her hand, he’d be happy.
And he smiled when he saw the table, picked up the glorious mix of herbs and spices that did manage to drown out all but the most integral parts of her to his nose. “Always am, especially when you’re cooking.”
He’d learned with Arlo that people didn’t leave traces of themselves in the food they made, not in – his sense. But the utensils used, the hands that prepared them, always left something that never quite cooked off. It might not satisfy the monster that wanted so much more than a taste of her, but he would know her cooking anywhere in the world, no matter what dish it was.
My beating heart wanted more,
But I'll keep it in and keep you out.
He said none of that. She knew he could smell her, she didn’t need to know how badly he wanted to taste her, too. Not in the way she wanted him to. She let his hand go, and he took his seat – the seat next to hers, in case she needed to touch him, in case she needed to enjoy the short time he was there with her before he felt the need to pull away again so he didn’t douse her fire.
“Oh, it’s uh. Well, I might have made some of my favorite foods. I wanted to have you try them. They’re traditional Mexican foods, which I thought be a nice change of pace. It’s also easy to make enough to feed a small army.” She chuckled and felt her heart flutter a little as he chose the seat right next to hers. She could feel the shaking starting in her hands as she explained the different dishes to him as she served them.
She was always shaking around him. Her body constantly betrayed her when he was there. Her traitorous hands managed to keep just still enough to hide the trembling as she finished serving the first round of dishes, pouring out large bowls of the pozole and birria. But then she looked into his eyes and immediately she forgot how to breathe. The soft blue consumed her, even when he wasn’t looking at her with that hunger they both shared.
But in this quiet company,
I forget sometimes just how to breathe
Fill my lungs with a sound.
It was only after a few full seconds that Sam realized she had stopped talking, stopped moving, and stopped breathing. She gasped softly and looked away, a blush on her cheeks. “Sorry, I didn’t– I didn’t mean to stare.”
She quickly finished filling the plates as she spoke, her flush only growing darker as she realized how warm the air around her had become in those lost moments. She had a soft smile on her face despite it, because she was sure that Todd would understand. She didn’t need to explain further. Still, her lips parted and the words flowed out. “Your eyes are just… I feel like I’m drowning when I look at them sometimes. In a good way.”
She stopped right before she started eating and looked up at him again, the soft smile becoming a wide grin, her cheeks still flushed. “Not that I mind drowning in them, that is. You have pretty eyes.”
She was shaking a little, as she served him, as he watched her – trusting her judgment with the food, knowing better than to interrupt her when she was sharing. She described the foods to him, and his nose let him pick out the pieces as she did so. The beef stew with vinegar, chiles, garlic, cumin, bay leaves, and thyme. The chicken in maize with cabbage, chili, avocado, lime, radishes, garlic, and onion. The two bowls side by side, alongside her scent, was more than enough to make his mouth water.
She’d see the hunger in his eyes, he knew, but he met her eyes anyway, bathed in the beauty of them. When her hands shook, her eyes were steady, and he smiled at her, a warmer smile than just casual, than just the polite. The smile he hadn’t been able to help since they met, that ignored all rules of predator and prey, that was teeth and joy at the same time.
Hungry for the kill, but this hunger, it isn't you.
“And I could bask in your eyes all night,” he told her, leaning in as she sat down and kissing her under the chin. She’d feel him inhale her scent, but he didn’t push the hunger into the kiss itself, just let her feel the brush of his lips to banish her embarrassment in favor of something else. “They burn me up from the inside out, and I’m too dazzled to resist. If my eyes are pretty, yours are works of art.”
He had no idea what about her it was that brought this out, that made him wish he paid attention to poetry. He brought his face to where she could see it again, where she could see his own eyes sparkling, and then he stole another quick kiss from her lips and pulled away before she could push it into something more fervent. Then he leaned back into his seat, before she could pull him back in for something they’d both regret.
She shivered violently when his lips left hers. She chased after him for a moment, but he was too quick, and by the time she had opened her eyes, he was leaning back in his chair. Her eyes burned into his as she swallowed around the desire to stand up and climb into his lap and remind him that as much as she belonged to him, he belonged to her. She took a few shaky breaths before straightening out in her chair. She took one long, deep breath and held it.
Open my chest and colour my spine
I’m giving you all, I’m giving you all
Swallow my breath and take what is mine
I’m giving you all, I’m giving you all.
Sam let the breath out and then picked up her spoon and started in on the pozole. She made it about halfway through her bowl, deep in thought. While her earlier insecurities still lingered, even after his kisses that left her wanting more, she pushed them aside for the time being. Well, all but one.
His trust was something she realized she would have to earn when she realized he wasn’t telling her everything on that rooftop. When he wouldn’t tell her what kind of a predator he was. When he didn’t tell her that missing piece that linked everything together. So she would earn whatever trust she needed, she had decided, and she would try to be patient. She would show her trust first and take a leap instead of a small step. She felt almost naked without the suit, but it was worth it to have him see a visible sign of her trust. She went to tug on the sleeve, the way she would normally do due to nerves, but instead touched her bare wrist.
She put the spoon down and looked up at Todd. She took a moment to drink him in before she opened her mouth and asked, “Todd, what was your childhood like?”
She winced as she realized how bluntly she had just asked that question. She leaned forward on her elbow, placed on one of the few empty spaces between all the dishes. She toyed with the spoon, pushing pieces of beef around. “Sorry, what I mean is, well. I want to know more about you. What your life has been like, what all your powers actually are, whether you’re the Hulk or not…”
She said it with a slightly teasing tone, but if he looked into her eyes, he would see some of the worry returning. Some of the fear that he didn’t trust her, would never trust her, even though it had only been a few weeks and she knew these things could take time. The fear that she was giving her all, her everything, and asking for nothing in return and receiving it. She bit her lower lip, pulling it in between her teeth. The sensation cleared her head just a little.
Todd waited for Sam to start before he set at his own bowls. After the incident with the bone, he had no shame about how much or how fast he ate around her; but she cooked the way Arlo used to cook, with such a complex blend of spices that he took it slowly just to enjoy it. Sam could chalk it up to self-control, though. She had no way to know his diet consisted mainly of raw, unseasoned meat.
He felt her watching him, the way she sometimes did either when she wanted him to notice or was hoping he didn’t. He couldn’t really tell the difference; his instincts on that were always a little off-kilter, colored by the knowledge that she didn’t want to devour him in the animal sense, but she did want all of him, even the parts that would destroy her to know in any detail. She didn’t watch him like prey, like the food she’d be if she found the monster beneath his skin.
When she bit her lip like that, she didn’t look like prey at all. Especially to someone who knew her danger.
I’ll be the blood if you’ll be the bones
I’m giving you all, I’m giving you all.
So lift up my body and lose all control
I’m giving you all, I’m giving you all.
He didn’t look back at her, in case she didn’t want him to notice her staring. He waited for her to speak. When she did, he paused in his chewing and finally looked back at her. He didn’t look hurt, or even surprised. He was curious about why she’d bring it up now. She tried to explain, but as she did, she actually started to make less sense. Normally he’d take it as an excuse, but he’d almost been ready to answer when she got to the last part. Lucky for both of them, he’d managed to swallow, because otherwise he would’ve choked on the meat when he laughed.
“The Hulk?” he really tried not to sound incredulous. The Wolverine, he would’ve gotten. Actually he took notes from those comics. The Hulk was just so out of the blue he just kind of stared at her for a little while, trying to piece together where she got that idea.
He shook his head, and touched her arm – for the first time, he realized, actually touching the soft skin there. He wanted her to know it was surprise, not offense, that made him laugh. “Sammy, I hate to focus on the wrong thing, but – why the Hulk?”
When Todd laughed, Sam gave a small huff, but she couldn’t help the smile that crossed her lips. His laugh was wonderful, and it made every part of her light up with the need to make him do it again. Instead of making another joke, she ran her fingers through her hair, pushing it back. It was then she remembered the hair tie in her pocket. She dug for it and started to pull her halo of tangled curls back while she spoke.
“No, I understand. I do. I met this guy earlier this week, and, well. He reminded me of you, the things you do, and he… I don’t even know how to explain what Connor did, but his body changed and the only thing I could think was shifter or the Hulk, okay?”
She finished tying her hair back. There was the sensation of air on her exposed neck, and it made her shiver slightly. She was so used to the suit dulling all her senses that things like Todd’s hand on her arm and the air on her neck sent her into a sensory spiral. It was so intense, so very intimate to have someone touch her bare skin.
You hover like a hummingbird,
Haunt me in my sleep.
“I just realized after that, that, well. I don’t know nearly as much about you as I wish I did. I don’t even know basic things like what are all of your powers. You never explicitly told me you can smell things the way you can, but you identified the kids in the dark on Halloween before they had ever spoken. But you also didn’t say anything about whether or not you felt that fucking creepy doll moving, so can you not feel vibrations? You can shapeshift, and you’re strong enough to push cars. What else?”
She breathed in and stopped, realizing she had started speaking quickly, rapidly talking as though she feared being interrupted. She gave him a crooked smile in apology, her eyes showing how genuine she was being. There was an almost tiredness to her eyes, as though she had been holding in the words since the day they met.
He saw the look in her eyes, saw the relief, mixed with worry. Smelled her nerves – nerves without her fury, without her rage, for now. She wasn’t mad at him. She was… she was hurt. He knew that’d be the case when she figured out he wasn’t telling her everything.
“Connor.” He decided to start with Connor, one eyebrow raised, because it was an interesting development. There was no doubt in his mind that Connor knew most of what he was, although he was fairly sure Connor hadn’t told Sam what he was, given that Sam hadn’t sent him packing, shied away from him, or tried to kill him.
Or was that what this was? An intervention? He felt the knot start to grow in his chest, a little tighter.
How much was she going to dig? She didn’t know that he was a bottomless pit, a hole that just kept going down and down. She filled that hole with warmth, but she was all warmth. She could sweep in and pour an ocean into him, and get nothing back out without him making the decision to give it to her. And he didn’t know how much he wanted to give her, how much she could take before she capsized in the storm. And still she kept pouring herself out, even and especially when he didn’t ask her.
You’re sailing from another world,
Sinking in my sea.
“Is that why you came home smelling like wet dog a couple times last week?” Humor. It was accompanied by a toothy little crooked grin, but he didn’t use humor to hide, just to defuse situations. He’d known about Connor, but he was still avoiding Connor, so he hadn’t confronted the other predator about it, and there wasn’t any other way for him to have known without Sam bringing it up first. But, well, she already acknowledged his sense of smell.
“Most people don’t feel vibrations, Sammy. Adelyn and I got vibes, but that’s more a gut thing, not any sense in the air. My ears aren’t as good as hers, and the wall was made of stone. Yes, I have a good nose. Good enough to pick up emotions, sometimes, but not good enough to pick anything up through a wall, even something that stank like that doll thing.” He ran a hand through his curls, his free hand, the one not in contact with her arm. To break contact with her felt like a betrayal, especially when he already knew he was – well, he wasn’t going to lie to her. He just wasn’t going to tell her the whole truth.
How could he? How would his strong, brilliant Sammy take I want to eat you alive, slowly, after stripping you of every emotion known to man and those never seen before? And how would his monster take that rage if it was directed toward him? Not well, he was sure; but he wouldn’t let it have her, when the time came. She could have him, all of him, as he’d had so many others. All things in balance.
…Damn it, he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about all of that. “Yes, I’m stronger and faster than average. A little more durable, too, though that does me no good against bullets or anything. I can shapeshift, with some restrictions. Not enough to Hulk out, or whatever it is that Connor does. That guy’s weird by my standards.”
Sam smiled and laughed at Todd’s comments about Connor’s scent. She didn’t need a superior sense of smell to smell the wet dog on Connor. You could smell the man from halfway down the block. The next time she saw him she was going to have to talk to him about this wonderful invention called showers. Then, she listened to him as he listed off his powers.
Something inside her sank ever so slightly as nothing he said seemed to line up with what she was looking for. Then, she remembered something else and she reached a hand up and touched his jaw, where there had been a scar just before Halloween. There was nothing there now. She knew because she had checked for it the next day, and it had been gone. She held her hand there even after the memory had passed, running her thumb over his jaw.
He hadn’t even told her the whole truth about the things she knew about. She felt a little of her relief sucked away. A little of her smile died, but not enough for it to completely disappear. Just enough for it to look a little more tired. She closed her eyes and breathed in.
Oh, you’re feeding on my energy
Letting go of it, she wants it.
She breathed out. The strain eased some and she smiled, warm and full. “And you heal. I remember that scar on your jaw. It was gone by the time I saw you again. So you also heal. Is that everything? All of your powers?”
A yes or no question. She looked into his eyes with a hope that was so intense that she couldn’t even begin to describe it. Todd had never lied to her. But he had come close, once, and now she was giving him a question that he would either have to be completely honest about, or completely lie about. She wanted nothing more than for him to tell her the truth. For his yes to be real, or for him to honestly answer no. Even if he told her “I can’t tell you more than this” she would be fine.
If he lied to her, she would know.
If he lied to her, she felt like a piece of her heart might break.
If he lied to her… she wouldn’t call him out on it, she knew. She would accept it. Because even if he wasn’t ready to trust her now, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be in the future. They had so much time. Just because she was impatient, because she wanted his trust now, that didn’t mean it would be like this forever. Maybe in a month. Maybe in two. Maybe, and she shuddered internally at the thought, it would take a year. But he would trust her one day, and he would give her what she so desperately wanted.
“And I can heal,” he confirmed, without hesitation, as soon as he saw the worry in her eyes. He hadn’t been hiding that from her – he’d genuinely forgotten, and forgotten that she’d seen it, too. Normally he just didn’t get hit, with his usual tactics.
He touched her fingers where they touched his jaw, where Lament’s bullet had gone through. Lament had gotten him in the leg, too, although that hadn’t bothered him at all. He’d taken a few pot shots here and there, usually mixed with a spray of other bullets, but nothing quite as deliberate. Nothing besides the beating he’d taken from Malachite, or the freezing cold of Obsidian’s touch.
Fuck, he really had started to collect enemies since he came to Pittsburgh, hadn’t he?
And I run from wolves, ooh,
Breathing heavily at my feet.
He thought about the question, eyes on hers but clearly thinking all the same. Faster and stronger, and the jaw could be encompassed in stronger. Good instincts, even if he’d just implied that. Good ears, better nose. She knew that his metabolism had to be at least as high as hers, maybe assumed it was higher, with his narrow frame. And she knew he could heal and shapeshift, even if she didn’t know the restrictions and details of either. Altogether, a weird menagerie of powers that worked out, but didn’t make sense without a purpose.
But it was like he’d told Sulphur, like he’d told Obsidian’s Pack. Eating people wasn’t something he considered a power. It was an outcome, not an ability. And the huntsong, like his camouflage, was just psychological. It helped him process the kill, it didn’t make him any better for it. In any sense or idea of better.
So it was with honest conviction that he could tell her, “Yes. If there’s anything else, I’m not omitting it on purpose. I just forgot.”
A second later, something else pinged, and he held up a finger, already aware he’d fucked up at least a little.
“I can see in the dark. Not great, but better than average. But I think that’s everything.”
It was neither. He wasn’t lying to her. He was telling her the truth about that. That was all he could do.
But the vibes of what he was telling her told another story entirely. They said that he was withholding something. Something that he didn’t consider part of the answer to her question. Something important.
She was left with a roiling mess of confusion in her stomach. Sam wasn’t sure what to do with this information. Todd wasn’t lying but he wasn’t telling the truth? But those couldn’t both be true. And yet, the puzzle still didn’t fit together. She was hesitant for just a moment, her hand still caressing his face. In that hesitation, something happened that Sam didn’t catch until after it had already happened.
For just a moment, for the briefest of seconds, Sam’s heat almost disappeared. This hurt. It hurt her much more than she anticipated it hurting her. It hurt with the same intensity that she felt love for him. Love. She hadn’t said that yet, not even in her own head. She smiled to cover the sudden moment of cold, to cover for the fact that just for a moment she felt her bones turn to ice. Love. Did she love him? Already? It had only been a few weeks. She counted back in her head. A month. Four weeks.
But then, she had known that word would cross her mind sooner rather than later. The intense connection between them left no room for it to evolve into anything else. At least, for her. There was never going to be any other avenue for Sam to walk after that moment in Vik’s. After she had spent just enough time with him for it to fall into place. Her hands longed for his, her eyes for his eyes, her lips for his lips, even her blood sang out for him.
I can see through you, we are the same
It’s perfectly strange, you run in my veins.
And that was why it hurt so fucking much.
She couldn’t help the way her smile turned a little downward, the way her brows tipped up ever so slightly, the way her eyes filled with a soft sadness. She nodded her head, silently, and ran her thumb over his jaw again. There was a tenderness to her touch even then. She didn’t pull away. She didn’t accuse him of lying, of withholding. She just nodded and kept a smile on her face.
“You can’t feel vibrations in the ground? In walls? Next you’re going to tell me you can’t focus your eyes on distant figures when you’re tracking people down.” She chuckled and gave him the most loving smile she could. Because his lie, his not lie, it didn’t change anything. “Tell me about growing up. Cali, right? What was your childhood like?”
She went cold, when he told her the truth, and the sudden absence of her roused the frost in his bones. He curled his hand around hers, an unthinking attempt since he had no warmth to give her. He had nothing to give her. He could only take and take – and he was doing that now. He felt her flicker. And he knew, he knew it was his fault. This was what he was afraid of, even if it wasn’t fear that showed in his eyes. There was nothing he could do for her, because to give her any more would snuff her out.
So instead he leaned over, and kissed her brow with the gentleness of the first snow before pulling back again, changing back again to humor, to the laughter of her Todd, the one he could let her have.
“No offense, Sammy, but I really think you should see an optometrist for that.” He buried the grief. The sadness. She could give it to him, if she wanted. She could have pushed him for it, if she’d asked.
He might’ve even answered.
“Yeah. Um, a little outside of Redding, if you know where that is. That’s where I – where my parents were. I hopped around a lot once I was in foster care.”
How can I keep you inside my lungs?
I breathe what is yours, you breathe what is mine.
He wanted to pour all of it out for her. He really wished it was as easy as breathing. But there wasn’t much he could give her without – without telling her what he was. And without her being the first person he ever told. Not even Slate knew where he’d been born, with good reason. And he hadn’t told them about his parents. He’d never told anyone about his parents. If they needed to know, then they’d find out.
“It was… Honestly I don’t remember much from before foster care, but once I was in the system I guess it was surprisingly normal? I don’t know. I went to whatever the local public school was. The parents took us to their churches. I guess I wasn’t as close to the other kids as some of them got, but that’s from getting shuffled between families and eventually between counties for bad health. I could fit in anywhere I needed to. It wasn’t so bad.”
Just a little lonely. The kind of lonely where lonely kids started to stick together, where the people you hung out with – well, they might miss their families more than they actually ever told anyone. Where they had a sadness that couldn’t be cured. Where they became the reason you’d never let yourself just give up on life. Where they accidentally became the reason you were what you were.
But he was being honest when he told her it wasn’t so bad. At least at first. The anger didn’t come until after.
He really, really hoped she’d ask, though. Because this wasn’t something he needed to keep from her, not completely. One part, one small part, but the rest? The rest she could have. She could have the very blood in his veins and breath in his lungs. The only thing he couldn’t let her have was his teeth, that was it. Everything else, anything not belonging to them already, was hers. He needed her to understand that.
He let his eyes give her the permission he couldn’t, to ask more, to ask for something, instead of waiting for him to just give it up. He’d give it to her, but she had to ask.
Sam didn’t want to be wrong. She didn’t want to be wrong about the almost desperate openness in his eyes. Like he wanted her to ask, like he wanted her to take from him. He wouldn’t give her that puzzle piece, but maybe he was willing to trust her with other things. She curled her fingers around his, keeping their hands pressed to his jaw. The pang in her chest softened and warmth returned to her bones, melting the ice that had settled there.
And I run from wolves,
Tearing into me without teeth,
And you can follow.
You can follow me.
She nodded her head. Her eyes got a little shiny as spoke, “Okay. And after that? What did you do between then and now? I want to know everything. Everything that happened made you who you are today, and I want to know about it all.”
There was a softness to her voice laced through with something else. Something more intense. Maybe a few something elses. Desperation was definitely there. A desperation to have more answers. There was hunger as well. A hunger for whatever she could take, whatever she could have, whatever he would give. There was something softer, though, softer even than the softness of her tone. Something she didn’t want to put into words. Not yet.
She moved the arm he had been touching and caught his hand up in hers, lacing her fingers through his if he allowed her to. She needed his hands right then. She needed the fullness in her chest that that connection offered her. She needed it to chase away that last bit of pain. Even now, there was a tremble to her touch, to the gentleness with which she held onto him. He was shelter from the storm that threatened to rage inside her. He was a lighthouse that guided her safely to shore from the black night waters. She needed that right then.
She needed to banish those insecurities that still threatened to make her break down. She needed to free herself from them. That feeling of inadequacy, of being unworthy of him and whatever love he could give to her. She didn’t want that to show, but her shining eyes were betraying her. So she closed them and leaned in toward him, her head bowing, while she waited for his answer, her trembling hands holding his as though she could draw on his strength to save her.
She didn’t ask about Liz. Directly or not, she didn’t press about that. Someday, he’d tell her about at least part of that. But today, she wasn’t asking for that. She was asking for everything else, everything else he could give her – he could see in her eyes, the hunger for whatever he could give her. She took both his hands, and he let her have them as the food got cold, because it meant she stayed warm. She, Sammy, who was so much more than food. Who he forced his carnivore to ignore. Who he sat still and held, sturdy and steady, because that was what she needed from him right now.
Feel the ocean as it breathes, shivering teeth.
See the mountains where they meet smothering me.
He could tell her. He could talk to her about at least parts of it, the parts she’d understand. He’d give her the open road and the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean and the forests and parks and cities and towns. But first, he’d have to give her himself.
“Well, I was… angry. I don’t even know what I had to be angry about. I had it good. People who cared about me. I’d been saving up for college, and spent it all on an impulse on my Malibu, the process to change my name legally, and an impromptu road trip all within a month of turning eighteen. It wasn’t too long after that I decided to try the whole vigilante thing.”
Until he felt the call of the huntsong. Until the predator stirred, and he decided to do something with it. He looked at her, looked at her and her rage, the rage she shared with one of the scariest predators he’d ever met, and both of them had shared with him, when he was young and wild. He couldn’t share the worst part, not with the other predator.
But his Sammy, who wasn’t predator or food… even if she was still prey, his teeth wouldn’t touch her. So he’d tell her, as he looked into her golden eyes. He’d give her what he could. What she’d understand.
“I liked it. I liked hurting people. I liked the violence. I liked the chase. I let it carry me away until I got to Montana.” He blinked, and looked down a little. Happiness and sadness met in the middle. “There’s a reason why I have a no-kill rule, now. That reason’s name was Arlo Baker. It’s dramatic to call anybody the finest man I’ve ever met, but – that was Arlo. Kind and gentle, even if he had a violence in him that could scare anybody with a nickel’s worth of sense. He was good people. He made the people around him want to be better.”
This time, he gave her more, and gave her space to ask questions. There were no tears shed for Arlo, not with Sam here, not knowing that without him Todd would never have any of this. He’d already told her some of it, but she could have the rest. She could have Arlo, as much as anyone besides his killer could’ve had him. And maybe she’d have that killer, too. If she asked.
“I understand that. I… I had a few years where I… I hurt people really bad, too. I was also angry. I also liked the violence. I justified it by saying it was okay for me to do what I was doing because I was ridding the world of horrible people. It was shortly after I dropped out of college. I understand that. I’m sorry you felt that way.” Her eyes opened then, a little clearer, a sad smile on her face.
There were a lot of questions she wanted to ask. Some were important. Some were less so. But she wanted to ask all of them anyway. She thought for a minute, trying to decide the best way order to ask her questions. As she thought, she focused in on Todd’s pulse, which vibrated up her arms from where their hands were joined. She let the beat of his heart fill her and ease the rest of the tension in her body. His pulse was strong, steady… enticing.
I find comfort in the sound,
And the shape of the heart.
“I’m going to ask you a lot of questions. I’m not going to apologize either.” She sighed softly and straightened back up, pulling their joined hand down to the table, letting both their sets of joined hands rest together on one of the only open spaces. The food was entirely forgotten in her desire to know him.
“What were you going to go to college for, and where did you go on your road trip? What made you decide to do the vigilante thing?” The easy questions, in her mind. The ones that would have straight forward answers. Things that hopefully wouldn’t hurt.
But then she moved on to the harder questions. Ones she thought might hurt him. She didn’t want to hurt him, but he was offering her so much right then that she couldn’t help her desire to pull at the threads and unravel them, to take those threads and stitch their hearts even closer together.
“You’ve mentioned Arlo before. What happened to him? How long were you with him? What made you adopt that no-killing policy?” She hesitated then. A soft swallow as she took a deep breath. This last question was the one that he was likely going to deny her the answer to. She would understand. She would understand even if she’d be hurt by the denial, but the soft rejection.
She’d dropped out a little later than him, it seemed. He’d remember that. When she was done with her questions, if he didn’t destroy her completely, he’d have some for her, too. About her life. About her loss. About Alice and school. That was, if she didn’t fill in the blanks for him while he answered her.
Well. easiest first. He couldn’t help the smile that came with the memory of what he’d wanted to be, back when he had dreams.
“I was actually going in for environmental zoology. I wanted to study food chains and ecosystem balance between predator and prey mammals. It’s mostly complicated math and statistics with some biology factors.”
Next in order. One at a time. Easiest to hardest.
“Kind of related, I just drove up to Redwood National Park and watched the wildlife for a week. Technically I was absent from school, but that didn’t matter as much as being there, out in the open, by myself. I slept in the Malibu, ate gas station food, and just. Lived for a week. It was refreshing. I’d hardly been alone for a second since I was nine years old. That’s when I decided I couldn’t actually go back. I’d aged out, I was just going to stay until graduation, but since I wasn’t going to college, what was the point, right? So I got my stuff. And then I just drove.”
He sighed. On to three. Three, which was where the lies started. No. No, not lies. He wouldn’t tell her a lie. He’d tell her what he felt, before he knew. He’d give her what he could about the truth.
“And then, when I’d driven as far as I could, I started to get restless. I had to do something, and I had all that violence. So I tried putting it to good use. Never really looked back, except after– well. After I got to Billings.”
Another sigh, more wistful, as the questions started to blend together.
“I knew Arlo for two years. Almost three, I think, but all the dates start to get fuzzy after a while. He was actually the one who enforced the no-killing policy. He believed the strong should protect the weak, and metas should never use their powers to kill normal people, no matter what kind of scum they were.” He smiled, a wry but fond little twist of his mouth. “And there was no arguing with him. Stubborn ass. He had all the violence, sure, but he’d found a way to put the brakes on it. Broken bones were one thing. Broken necks were another.”
And you're staring back at me like I wasn't there,
As our bodies become stills, we welcome the fear.
“Then I had a day when I couldn’t put the brakes on it. And he found me. And he flipped.” It sucked to put it in this light, but it was the truth. It was what happened. He still had days when brakes wouldn’t stop the hunger. But if he tried to actually describe it, he was afraid the same fear that had happened in front of Obsidian would wash back over him. So he shook his head instead. “That’s all it takes, right? One bad day. One misunderstanding, one flash of blind rage, and it’s over. He didn’t… really give me a choice. There wasn’t anywhere to run, and he was just… well, he didn’t like metas who picked on people. And from where he was standing, he was seeing just that. Just a monster.”
And last. Last, and worst. Last and least and Lyle, but while he’d given that to Mal, Mal wouldn’t be able to look it up, wouldn’t be able to find out what he might be. His eyes turned sad, and he held onto her, waiting for her to go cold on him again, waited for her to need what little heat he had.
“My birth name… is my dad’s name. He’s a monster, even if he’s perfectly human. I haven’t used his first name since my first home.” He ran his fingers over hers, gently. “My name is Todd Oscar Fowler. I picked it, I made it mine. It’s who I am. It’s who I’m giving you, if you’ll have him. If you’ll still have me.”