The point that running away for a third time becomes a bad idea is roughly around the same time that Leo runs into another group of kids, which, for the record, never normally ends up with braiding each other’s hair and sharing stories over hot chocolate, not back in the foster homes and definitely not out on the streets . The usual tale of looking inconspicuous and turning tail as fast as he can failing as the tallest of them literally barrels into him; shoulder slamming into Leo’s chest, his face panic stricken as he roughly grabs him, the hard point of his fingers digging into the flesh of his left arm as he yanks him away along with him in the opposite direction, a rough bark of “Don’t look back,” aimed his way as Leo tries his best to get his feet to obey his brain, given no choice but to fall into step with the fleeing trio.
The flight part of his head kicks in automatically and Leo follows, footsteps slapping down on the sidewalk, but he still can’t stop the natural instinct to look back at what they’re running from: a swarm of what look like the biggest gulls he’s ever seen arching towards them, and sure, he’s had a fair few times when he’s thrown them the odd bit of bread or whatever and had a couple of them flock towards him flapping their wings and sending him into a bit of a panic, but this, well this is just ridiculous.
“What in the...?” Dumbfounded, he stumbles, kept up only by the grip the other boy has on his arm.
The boy bites out in return, “Don’t ask. Just run.”
Clearly this was the reason shops put up those signs not to feed the birds in the first place, no matter how much they squawked and hopped and swarmed together around the docks, beady eyes waiting for that one lot of crumbs you might drop from your burrito. Never again, Leo wasn’t even going to throw them a scrap.
Quick as a flash, his feet barely back under him, the guy pulls him sharply to the side, eliciting a squawk of protest that Leo determines sounds very much like that one time he and Mandy from foster home one tried to bathe a very unhappy cat. The four of them instinctively knowing where to slot themselves away from sight, huddling behind a dumpster that’s definitely not been emptied in a while, the dank smell of it weaving into the air and around them - - in fact he can already feel the smell of it clinging to his hair like toxic hairspray, L’Oreal garbage, because he’s been near it - - as the swarm of birds fly straight past them and away into the darkness.
“And that’s why we don’t try and shoot our dinner!” Snarls a younger boy at the lone girl in the party, still clutching at his chest to try and stop his racing heart beat, the girl’s hair coming out of its ponytail in thick choppy strands as her face turns paler by the second.
“Never again,” she pants out, making a weird gesture over her chest as if to ward off the birds with a clawed hand. “Sorry, Luke.”
It takes just a few seconds for shock to set in, Leo’s heart beating rabbit quick against his ribcage. The fact that he’s never run that fast in his life and his breathing is laboured showing as the retreating birds feathers shine for just the briefest of seconds what looks to be a sharp metallic hue, feathers that look knife sharp and deadly, their beaks a duller set of what looks like bronze but just as nasty and capable of cutting him to pieces. Leo blinks and shivers, the regular fluffy feathers coming back into existence as the last of them swoops through the air and away from them; what is clearly just a trick of the light or something, his brain lacking oxygen.
Right? He’s not going mental.
Once the birds have gone and the air begins to still there’s nothing but the heavy set of four kids breathing, each one trying to catch their breath as Leo feels his limbs start to turn into jelly as the adrenaline leaves him, slumping against the wall to keep himself upright. The tall kid, Luke he figures, finally lets go of his arm, giving out a huff of shaky laughter and turning his head to check around the corner that the birds really is just an old horror movie and not some new reality that only Hitchcock knew would happen.
Despite his fear, Leo follows suit, desperate to know the coast is clear, and sticks his head out from behind something he’d rather not think about, his nose crinkling due to the smell as the garbage shifts along with him with his movement.
All clear, he turns to look at the guy that grabbed him, not sure whether to thank him or lay into him for bringing that kind of hell upon him. “What the hell did you feed those things?”
The boy blinks, the relief that they’re all still in one piece lighting up on his face with a still slightly shaky, if cocky grin.
“Nothing,” chimes the girl from behind, “just stupid stymphalian birds.”Picking what looks to be a congealed banana peel off her shoulder, and looking at Leo as if he has any idea of what she just said.
“Styrofoam, what now?”
The two guys look at each other, the younger one rolling his eyes before he says, “Nothing, just Kayla over here being a bird freak.”
“Ri-ght,” she goes, sticking out her tongue, “that’ll be me, knowing all the different breeds of um, birds and everything. Nasty things though those ones,” she sidles up to Leo, elbowing him lightly in the shoulder, “you wouldn’t want one of those taking a - -”
“Kayla!” Goes Luke, rubbing his nose and wincing at the action; a thin and angry line of red dribbling down his arm, the sleeve of what once looked like a pretty decent fleece jacket hanging together now by shreds and revealing the top of a matching tattered sleeve of a once orange, now blood splattered t-shirt.
“One got you,” goes the younger boy, pulling at Luke’s shirt to get a better look. “It maybe needs some stitching, nectar should do it.”
Luke nods, “We should get some place covered, some place safe if possible.”
“Like that’s a possibility,” the girl whines, mouth falling slack as she checks herself over.
Leo pushes himself away from the wall, thinking of the gleam of the bird’s feathers as they passed and shaking his head. The fact that if not for this Luke, Leo could well have been bird seed with various parts of him scattered across the walkway, the odd wayward pigeon chowing down on him, well he owes him. “I know somewhere you can go.”
As one, the trio turn to look at him, as if for a second they forgot he even existed; the dim streetlight highlighting the bags under their eyes, mud covered clothes and messed up hair that looks like they’ve been running from other things than just your average crazy blood drawing birds in the middle of a dark and cold night in San Francisco.
“It might not be warm,” he continues, watching his breath curl up and away from him. “But there’s cover from the wind and rain and I’ve spent a few nights there.” He shrugs, “It’s safe at least, which is something.” The key to running away, Leo had found, after the first failed attempt when he’d been snapped up by some social workers after only a couple of days shuffling his way from doorstep to doorstep, was to never stop moving; spending a night here and then continuing on, constantly on the go where no one could find or start to question you. But Leo had found himself tailing back around to the same place this time whilst he tried to get his bearings; a rare unused building that seemed less creepy and more like his own personal, if empty and full of cobwebs, mansion. It might not have those good old home comforts or furnishings, though he’d settle for a good warm bed with a soft mattress, but at least it was a roof over his head and not full of people with dead-eyed stares huddled around their last few true belongings. Of course all of that was helped by the fact that Leo could pick a lock open in a heartbeat.
“I can show you, if you want.” He’d been heading back that way before all the craziness anyway.
“Looks normal to me,” Kayla blinks, revealing a strip of white teeth that stand out all the more on her dirt lined cheeks.
The boys seem more hesitant though and Leo finds himself shuffling on his feet, the younger one looking up at Luke and waiting for his opinion.
“Can’t be much worse than a flock of stymphalian, lead the way.”
“This is it?” Goes Kayla, entering the building and trying to shake off the chill like a wet dog, her eyes roaming around the large room and eyeing up the shadows in its corners, a pitying look crossing her face as she comes across the scrap pile of blankets that make up Leo Valdez’s bed for the night.
Leo toes the floor, scuffing up his shoe and sending a small puff of dirt into the air. “It isn’t much, I know.” His voice trailing off as he realises that this isn’t exactly what he’d pictured when he’d imagined bringing a girl back to his bachelor pad for the first time.
“It’s away from the cold and everything else and that’s all that matters.” Says Luke in response, keeping one eye on the lookout for Chris, who’d opted to grab some hot drinks and anything edible from a coffee shop just up the street. “Anyway, look at all the room we have here, it’s bigger than the cabin Chris and I get at camp, less kids in it too.”
Kayla sniffs at that, walking away from the stream of cold air that blows in from the doorway and over to the shabby pile of blankets that constitute Leo’s bed. “Can I?” She asks, looking at Leo and awaiting his answer. There’s nothing else but dust and dirt that surrounds them, his makeshift bed the only area that looks even vaguely comfortable.
Surprisingly, there’s a small hard part of him that feels the urge to say no, the small rules that he’s learned wandering from foster home to the streets: that a man’s belongings are his own and nobody else’s, but Kayla looks like she’s been through enough for one day as it is, her thin shoulders still trembling slightly from the cold as she wraps her fingers up tight in the sleeves of her jacket.
“Sure,” Leo answers, shifting away a couple of empty wrappers of what had been the day before yesterday’s dinner; a good day that one, when he’d managed to find a half salvageable bag of chips under a rotting newspaper in the garbage.
“So this is home,” she goes, settling in and breathing out a sigh of relief as she toes off her shoes and wriggles her socked feet free of them. She pats the pile of blankets beside her, inviting Leo to take a seat.
“Not really,” he replies, collapsing down next to her and shaking out the damp from the curls of his hair. “Just a temporary living arrangement until my place is ready in Union Square.” She laughs at that, nose crinkling as she sounds out a bark of laughter, and Leo finds himself relaxing for what feels like the first time in at least a week, settling down next to her as the noise of Chris and Luke bustling in makes its way to his ears.
“Here,” says Chris, shifting his hands around a cardboard drinks carrier to pass Leo a drink. “Hot chocolate, extra whipped cream and,” he flicks open the lid, “yep, chocolate sprinkles.”
Leo has to stop himself from snatching the drink out of Chris’ hands, mouth practically drooling at the thought of something that sweet and hot to boot, filling his mouth, instead he manages to keep his composure, fingers wrapping around the hot cardboard like it’s a lifeline, breathing in the scent and diving in to take his first sip. It’s been too long since he’s had anything this hot; in fact he isn’t even bothered when the first gulp full burns his tongue and the roof of his mouth. “Thank you.”
“Least we can do,” Luke returns, grinning as he brings out a box of what look like actual donuts from behind his back. Actual glazed doughnuts, the type that Leo hasn’t had in years, not since before his Mom... well, not for a long time, the foster homes tending to focus on the healthier side of things and any of the junk food that was available, hoarded away for the bigger kids, who’d then taunt anyone like himself whilst they finished off the best pickings.
“So how long have you been here?” Asks Chris, mouth full around a bite of doughnut and looking like it’s been a while since he had a decent bit of food himself, in fact Luke seems to have already polished off his own one, Kayla carefully licking the tips of her fingers clear in case she happens to have missed a bit.
What Leo’s learnt is that kids on the streets don’t normally share their secrets, a few even going so far as to constantly change their names, most having left everything behind them and for a very good reason, but there’s something that strikes different about this lot, something that seems just a little strange and not quite right.
It’s not in the clothes, he decides, in fact on that count Leo seems to be doing even better, slightly tatty looking maybe and he’s definitely smelt better, god he can smell himself from here, but at least his clothes are still in one piece. Whereas the three of them, even down to their skin, are coated with dirt and something that he doesn’t even want to think about but looks suspiciously like some kind of slug slime times a thousand, a covering of which seems to have matted to Kayla’s hair like a thick wad of gum. They all seem to be wearing the same under shirt though, like they’re all part of the same team, their own unique unit; a vivid bright orange that wouldn’t look out of place on a night time cyclist it’s that blinding, and definitely not something to keep you out of sight on the streets. But it’s more than that that divides them, the way that they sit close together, watching each other’s backs in a way they don’t even seem aware of, all limbs waiting tense, ready to leap into action at a minutes’ notice if need be. A far cry from when he last sheltered alongside some kids and couldn’t help but notice the haunted looks that seemed to be etched into everyone’s faces.
“A few days,” he shrugs, savouring the last bite of doughnut as Kayla makes a sympathetic noise in the back of her throat.
“Just here?” She questions, taking another quick look at what accounts for Leo Valdez’s belongings.
“You should see it in the daylight,” he says in return, watching the way that Kayla can only bring herself to numbly smile back at him this time.
“Better than some of the places I’ve spent a night,” goes Luke, now busy trying to patch up the mess of his arm with what looks like a supply of white cloth strip.
Leo nods, unable to make a quick joke this time but thinking of the last bound of running away that had led to taking a really unforgettable trip down a sewage line to get some shelter.
“Here, let me take a look at that,” says Kayla, uncrossing her legs and moving over to Luke’s side, fingers pressing at the area of the wound and her free hand taking control of the white cloth as she mutters, “Never got the best healing share of Dad’s gene pool, but hey, can I kick some monster ass with a bow and arrow.”
“Or cause it,” mumbles Chris, earning him a swift thump to the shoulder. "Everybody get some rest, I'll take first watch tonight."
Leo pats the full mound of his stomach, resting back against the wall content, his eyelids already falling.
It’s too early or late in the morning when Leo wakes up, the last embers of a fire that Chris had eventually got going with some scraps of paper and old rotting furniture beginning to die; the cold starting to creep its way in through the cracks in the building as fingers of frost line the windows through the grime. It would take him just a second, he thinks, fingers already beginning to tingle as he thinks about how warm it would be if he just gave the fire a quick boost. Not that he would, of course, staring at the sleeping and huddled forms of Kayla and Chris, his body shivering all over as he imagines the damage he could cause with just a snap of his fingers, everything that could possibly go wrong.
Leo looks over to find Luke hunched against the wall, chin tucked into his knees as he watches out the window.
“Guess I’m just used to early mornings,” he says, trying to work his sleepy tongue around his mouth. “What about you?”
“Last watch,” Luke returns, and when Leo blinks, “We tend to sleep in shifts, just in case something happens.”
“Like the birds?” Leo quips, trying to keep his voice to a bare minimum.
“Exactly like the birds, that or dragons.” And Leo imagines a great fire breathing dragon chasing after them, scales glowing ember hot as he snorts liquid fire at them, not that it would ever happen.
The room goes still again, the two of them listening to the heavy, deep breaths of Kayla and Chris snuffling, sleep-mumbling about Cyclopes and Pegasus as something scurries about in the background. “You know, you should be somewhere better than this, definitely somewhere warmer.” At that Luke pulls his knees in closer with his arms and Leo feels that threatening pang of what he could do if he could only control himself and know for sure that it wouldn’t cause any trouble.
“One day,” Leo grins, forcing himself not to think about better, easier times. That if he could only meet people like this every once in a blue moon, he’d be happy.
“God’s no,” Luke shouts - - and how harsh is that, Leo thinks, shuffling a step back as Luke scrambles to his feet and begins to wake the others. Surely there’s hope for him yet, right? But Luke isn’t even on the same track of conversation anymore as a fierce tapping starts to echo around the building, a quick scan revealing what looks to be one of those creepy stalker birds trying to get in through the window.
“Impossible,” Leo mutters.
“Nope, just your average day and really bad luck,” yawns Kayla, scrambling though her backpack to pull out what looks strangely like a bow of some kind, one that had no way of fitting into her bag and leaves Leo kind of dumbfounded. “Stay back,” she orders, fitting an arrow and readying her aim at the steadily cracking window.
“How many?” Asks Chris, cracking his bones and trying to roll out his shoulders.
“From what I can see it just looks like a few, not nearly as many as before, but then who knows how many are on our trail if these guys found us.”
This is crazy, Leo thinks, taking a step back and watching the three of them, everyday kids like himself form into some sort of weird fighting unit, like they do this kind of stuff for kicks every day. They have weapons, his mind flares, actual sharp and pointy weapons that could do someone some real damage. "What the hell are you guys?"
Kayla doesn't even take a second glance at him, arrow flying straight through the air and leaving behind it a squawk of terror. "Half-bloods," she shouts back at him, "half human, half God."
"The Greek Gods are our parents," Chris supplies, "we're on a quest so Luke can find an apple."
"Wait, what?" That's even more confusing than the half-blood thing.
Luke's next to him with a dagger in his hand,"Right now it's kind of not important, I'll explain everything after."
“Leo, get - - ” but whatever order is about to be said is drowned out as the glass in front of them shatters, a flock of birds streaming through the window and the twang of arrow after arrow flying loose as Luke and Chris charge into the fray and Leo feels himself being pushed back, his feet tripping over the strange Mary Poppins backpack as he goes crashing to the concrete floor, head slamming against the ground and immediately losing consciousness; which is just his luck really because a bare knuckled fight against crazy metal covered birds probably isn’t a fight he’d be placing odds on him winning.
It’s late when Leo wakes up, bones cracking, jaw popping and mouth gummy as he cradles his head from what must have been one hell of a night’s sleep against a hard floor, fingers rustling through his hair for bumps or lumps and finding nothing. It’s colder this morning than he remembers, hitching the pile of blankets around his shoulders as the morning light shines in brighter, revealing what appears to be a newly broken window with the remnants of glass glittering back at in at him in the sun.
There’s a steady cold breeze filling up the room, making his nose, the tips of his fingers and toes uncomfortable. It’s probably a sign that he should get going, but there’s pause for thought there, he could cover it up with something; maybe even find some kind of covering in this very building, old sheets of newspaper maybe, even some panes of wood panelling. Shuffling around in his socked feet, he’s careful not to go too near the shards of glass; the last thing he needs is to go cutting up his feet when he’s supposed to keep moving.
If he had the supplies, he thinks, quickly toting up how big the canvas would need to be, it’d be easy. His Mom could fix anything this simple in just a matter of minutes, singing out a tune lowly in the back of her throat as she smiled at Leo tinkering with any bits of scraps he could get his fingers on.
He wouldn’t though, that’d all be too easy, and it had already been too many days now that he’d been camping out here, strangely making the place into what constituted a makeshift home.
Nope, Leo decides, tracing his way back to his bed and shoving his way into his shoes, gathering up his supplies and noting how he has more food now than he remembers, a couple of doughnuts, actual glazed doughnuts wrapped up tight in a brown bag with a hand drawn smiley face and what weirdly looks like a doodle of a seagull with an arrow sticking through it. And when he tries to think back on it, he can’t even remember buying them, like his head is filled with a weird hazy fog, not that Leo is ever one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and definitely not one that is such a delight of sugary goodness.
He pops one in his mouth and turns his back on the place. It just simply isn’t time yet for him to settle down, even if the place does feel kind of comfortable.
Leo Valdez is meant for better things than this and it's about time he got moving towards them.