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The Lonely Hunter

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There is a witch in John’s apartment.

 

He smells her before he sees her. Scent of ozone, sweet and heavy like the air gets before a storm. The reek of her magic is all over the doorstep, the locks. When he pushes open the door, hand on his holster, he can smell her even more clearly: the chemical odour of her perfume, the faint acid of her sweat. The bloodsaltbone of her flesh.

 

He knows her.

 

“Get out Selina,” he says.

 

“Put the gun away, John,” she says. She’s sitting by the window, pale legs crossed. The fading light coming in through the glass behind her carves out her silhouette, leaving her face in shadow. But John has good eyes. He can see the grim line of her mouth, the flinty tension etched into her jaw. “I’m not a threat. Not today anyway,” she amends.

 

“I still want you to get out,” he says. Feels the edge of a snarl curling at the end of his words. His fingers itch. He’s half seriously considering shooting her. That, or getting out his claws. Baring his teeth. Showing her exactly what she’s fucking with.

 

Instead he backs down.

 

His instincts are telling him to get her out of here, use force if he has to, but John learned long ago not to trust his instincts. They’re illogical, purely animal. They lack human intelligence. John’s human brain, that cool head he’s worked so hard to maintain, is telling him that no witch worth her salt would fuck with a werewolf’s territory without good reason. And Selina is nothing if not smart. She has a reason to be here, a very good reason, and John needs to know what it is before he does anything… brash.

 

He breathes in and out, deep and slow. The apartment, shabby and small as it is, is John’s territory. It smells like peace and safety and home, and even the electric scent of Selina’s magic can’t dampen the comfort John gets from being on his own turf. His heartbeat settles. He moves nearer to Selina, shoulders straight, face calm. He can see her stilettos; sharp little blades on the ends of those long, long legs. They gleam in the light.

 

He’s careful to keep out of kicking range.

 

“Why are you here?” he asks.

 

“I’ve had some interesting news,” Selina says, in a curiously flat tone. She’s looking at him carefully. Measuring. “It seems Gotham has some new guests.”

 

“Gotham always has new guests,” John replies with a shrug; wonders what Selina isn’t telling him. “What is it this time? Vampires? Fae?”

 

He isn’t sure why the arrival of new -  guests -  should matter to him. He’s managed, over the years, to carve himself a comfortable niche in human Gotham. He doesn’t involve himself in supernatural politics. He’s learned to be unremarkable; to drift under the radar.

 

“Wolves,” Selina says flatly.

 

John looks at her. And looks at her.

 

Her words hit him like a physical blow. Hard as a knife between the ribs, a puncture to the lungs. He wants to flinch, wants to howl. Wants to transform right there in the middle of his apartment with the blinds open and a witch sitting in front of him, claw the walls down, taste blood.

 

He clamps down on his instincts. Hard.

 

“You’re wrong,” John says. His voice feels raw.

 

“Oh, I’m not wrong,” responds Selina. Something about his reaction – the terror he wasn’t quick enough to hide – has made her soften, tinged her expression with an emotion that looks horribly like pity. “I trust my sources.”

 

“How many wolves?” asks John, because there’s still hope. Maybe. If there are just two or three, he might be able to fight back, might be able to kill them first – he has a gun, and he knows how to fight –

 

“A Pack, John,” she says softly.

 

Okay, thinks John. Okay then.

 

“Wolves don’t like cities,” John murmurs, thinking of his mother, of her hungry loneliness, of the way Gotham slowly crushed the wild light out of her. “What’s a Pack doing here?”

 

“I don’t know,” Selina says. Her voice is grim. “This Pack, John... they’re not normal. No one can tell me much, but they’re old, and they’re dangerous, and they aren’t known for their mercy. It doesn’t matter why they’re here. You need to get out. Tonight if you can.”

 

John shakes his head without thinking about it.

 

“My job,” he says, stupid with numbness, the thick anaesthesia of terror. “I have responsibilities it’s my job to protect people – ”

 

“Not people. Humans,” cuts in Selina, voice dripping with scorn. “Do they really matter to you? I’m sure the swarm can take care of itself without you.”

 

“I like humans,” snaps John.

 

I feel at home with them, thinks John. I feel like I belong.

 

“If you’re smart, you’ll run anyway,” says Selina. That almost-pity is still in her eyes. Like she knows all the things John isn’t saying. Like she knows how afraid he is of the thought of leaving his territory, his home. “But if you were smart, you would have left a long time ago, wouldn’t you?”

 

Fucking witches, thinks John. They can see through anything. Put on your best front, if you want, but it makes no difference to a witch. She’ll always see those hairline fractures running through your heart and cut you open a little wider.

 

“They may not find me,” he says quietly.

 

“Oh John,” she says. Shakes her head. “They already know you’re here.”

 

She stands up. She cuts a keen, graceful figure as she makes her way towards the door. Her eyes are fixed on John the whole time. Sensible of her. His claws are out. His skin feels too small, as if he’s on the edge of an unstoppable change. But he’s in control. He is.

 

“Tonight,” she says again, stressing it, as she puts her hands on the door. “You won’t get another chance.”

 

“Why did you come here?” blurts out John, watching her.

 

She stops. Considers.

 

“You belong to Gotham,” she says, shrugging with deliberate lightness. “The other wolves don’t.”

 

She smiles at him; a terrible, too-sharp smile that reveals the strangeness inside her.

 

“Witches can be territorial too,” says Selina.

 


 

 

John is a shit werewolf.

 

Selina should never have had to warn him. He should have sensed a Pack – a whole fucking Pack – encroaching on the city. He should have known them by smell; sensed the threat of them, like knives at his back.

 

But the only werewolf John has ever known was his mother, and she died when he was just a little kid. He can barely remember the scent of other weres. He barely knows how to be a wolf. He knows about territory, about the terrible pull of the moon, about hunger and blood. He knows enough to be sure no Pack will tolerate a lone wolf on its land. But apart from that, John is essentially as human as you can get when you have a monster inside you. He’s never had a Pack of his own. He’s never run through open woods or hunted for prey. He’s spent his whole life hiding his strangeness, living with humans, brushing shoulders with a supernatural underworld but never quite letting himself become a part of it.

 

At his heart, John has always felt more human than werewolf. But that doesn’t change what he is.

 

And what John is, basically, is fucked.

 

He packs his bags in a panic. His clothes, his few tattered books, his gun, his spare gun. The money he’s been keeping hidden in the left sneaker at the back of his closet. When he’s done packing he goes to the window and stares out at the city. Glittering neon, it looks decayed and ugly and on the verge of death. It doesn’t look like a place any person, human or otherwise, should want to live.

 

He stares at it for a long, long time.

 


 

 

It’s almost dawn when he leaves.

 

Too late by far, but at least the buses have started running. John could probably have taken a squad car, but he wasn’t keen to start his journey by leaving an obvious trail of outright theft. He doesn’t have a car of his own. He’s fucking poor, is the thing. He’s going to be even poorer, soon enough. No job, no apartment, nowhere to go. But at least he has his bank card and his health, right?

 

The bus is mostly empty. There’s a girl sleeping at the back, swathed from head to foot in baggy jeans and an overlarge hoody that conceals her face. Vampire, John thinks, and dismisses her. She won’t cause trouble this close to sunrise.

 

The journey is quiet for the most part. John stares out at the landscape, breathing carefully, searching for unfamiliar scents in the chaotic city air. Apart from the smell of the vampire (death, dust, forgetfulness) there’s nothing unusual about the world around him. John doesn’t relax, exactly. But he thinks, just maybe, maybe he’ll be able to get away, to survive this –

 

Then something heavy slams into the front of the bus.

 

The driver swears loudly, sharply, and brakes hard. John rocks forward in his seat. The engine makes an ominous sputtering sound and goes dead.

 

They’ve broken down on an isolated street where the buildings are abandoned, the windows boarded up. Only a mile from here the city gets busy again, crowded, safe. A block back there are shops opening up for the morning rush. This may be shitty lucky, but John has a feeling this wasn’t about luck. No.

 

This was timed.

 

The driver gets out of his seat.

 

“Don’t go out,” John says impulsively, leaning forward, gripping hard at the seat in front of him.

 

The driver looks straight through him. He’s probably used to crazies, to hotheads. He isn’t going to take John seriously. “Stay in your seat, kid,” he says absently.

 

“No, fuck, you have to listen to me – ”

 

But the driver’s gone. John stands up abruptly, his heart racing.

 

John doesn’t wait to see pale, overbright eyes in the dark. He doesn’t wait for the driver’s cut off scream, although he knows it’s coming. Their scent, something like earth and wilderness and ashes, is already in his lungs, in his flesh, right deep in the heart of him.

 

Wolves.

 

For a moment he’s frozen. It’s been so long, is the thing. The scent is almost – almost – like coming home. It reminds him of his mother. Of soft fur, and yellow eyes and being a child. A pup. The memory is paralysing.

 

“What are you waiting for?” asks the vampire. He turns to face her sharply. He’d forgotten she was there.

 

Her hood is still low, but he can see her narrow, reflective eyes. She’s staring straight at him. Wide awake. Not so harmless after all.

 

Run,” she hisses.

 

And John, hearing a bloodcurdling howl far too close for comfort, does exactly as she says.

 

He runs.