Write to Rank: Hunter's Boon

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A/N: This is a continuation of sorts from the previous entry: Write to Rank: Stick and Stone.


***

There is no love.There is no joy.There is no sorrow.There is no hope.

There is only fear.

-Hunter's Prey mantra

***

Quinn stands in the middle of the street, wide-eyed and pale, cars honking and tires screeching as they swerve to miss him. He takes no notice of them, just as he takes no notice that the crosswalk light has long since turned red and it's no longer safe to be in the middle of the street.

He's staring at an old woman on the far sidewalk. She's sitting on the bench, wearing slippers and a wide-brimmed hat, and she's beaming. A big old toothless smile that creases the corner of her eyes and bunches up her cheeks.

This is wrong, Quinn thinks, and in the hollow space in his chest, he feels the clawing scrape of fear. He stares at her, his eyes seeing nothing more than a cheery grandmother, but his instincts, oh lord, his instincts scream and spew mindless, panicked warnings.

That is not a grandmother, they tell him. That is not a woman, they cry. That is a Variant, a predator, and it's hunting, waiting, lurking -

Her cloudy ebony eyes snap to his. The distance between them wavers, then shrinks in an instant like the snap of an elastic band, until he feels her right there with him, in his space, in his head, in his mind – and suddenly he knows without a doubt that his instincts are true.

This is a Variant. An impossible, human-shaped Variant.

And now she's got her claws in him, holding him place with her gaze as surely as she could hold him in place physically with her hands. But she sits on the bench. And he stands in the street. Cars roar between them.

Quinn can't move. She won't let him.

She rises from her bench. Takes a step towards the curb, towards him. Then another.

And Quinn shudders, eyes squeezing tight, hands clenching, a familiar sensation gnawing at his gut. She's hunting me. He knows what it is to be hunted, and oh! How he knows, more than anyone else on earth. It terrifies him, but he grabs the emotion, clings to it, for it is the only one he has left.

It's purely by instinct that he reaches up, grabs the stone hanging from his neck. He knows every curve, every bump, every millimetre of its surface by memory, and his fingers tighten around it. 

He opens his eyes.

The woman is on the street now, vehicles slamming on the brakes to avoid her, people leaning on horns, rolling down windows to shout, but like he, she takes no notice. She walks towards him, getting closer with every step.

Take me out of here, Quinn thinks. The stone warms in his touch, and it does as he asks. One moment he's in the street, the next he's on top of a skyscraper on the other side of the city.

Wind ruffles his hair. He takes in a deep breath. Exhales. It's much quieter up here. Safer.

He looks down. Just by the toe of his shoe is a stick, a mere twig. He bends down, picks it up, a habitual action. Now that he's used this location, he needs to find a new one. Having spent a year as the Hunter's Prey, he knows this all too well.

A year...he remembers as clear as day when the Bureau came for him a year ago. They spouted lies at him, speaking of honor and duty, but the truth was, when they called a civilian to Serve, it was little more than throwing them to the dogs. Toss civilians to the Variants, let them keep the creatures occupied for a while, let them suffer so that others may live in peace. And when they were used up, throw them away and find a new one.

At one point, Quinn has felt betrayed by this. Hurt and despair beyond repair. Now though, he doesn't even feel bitter. It's no longer within him to feel so. He's done his Service. It's over, and he's survived. Sort of.

A pigeon lands – a flurry of wings and feathers - on the edge of the concrete wall lining the roof's edge. It tilts its head, peers at Quin, and coos.

Quinn takes one look. His eyes widen, warnings flare in his mind as he immediately backpedals. This bird – it's not –

Its black eyes catch his. And once again, he's caught. Trapped. His legs lock up, feet planted firmly to the concrete beneath him, and his heart trembles in his chest. With the stick in his hand and the stone around his neck, there's nowhere for him to go.

The bird's body shimmers. In the space of one heartbeat, it morphs into a man. He stands on the narrow surface of the wall, uncaring that his toes and heels peek over the edges. He's dressed in a gray three-piece suit, immaculately tailored. Blonde hair neatly parted on the side, a rogue lock flopping boyishly over his forehead, he looks down at Quinn with glimmering black eyes.

Quinn stares, tries to understand what he's seeing yet accepting it all the same.  The Variant before him was never a pigeon. It was always a man. Just a matter of perception, really.

"Hello, Quinn."

Quinn swallows, whispers back, "Hi."

"There is no need to be afraid." The man lightly leaps off the wall, landing neatly on the roof. "I merely wished to take a look at the Hunter's Child."

Child? Quinn soundlessly mouths this word. Then he shakes his head, because that's wrong. He was the Hunter's Prey. Not child.

The man laughs, a rich, warm sound that drifts past Quinn's ears but fails to reach inside him. "Don't deny it, little one. Ever since you walked out of that forest two days ago, you've known. You're as much driven by instinct as the rest of us."

Quinn didn't understand. Nor did he care to. He just wanted this man to leave so he could be alone. And find somewhere safe to hole up in.

Yet the man walked slowly around him, briefly leaving Quinn's field of vision as he went behind him. Every nerve Quinn possessed went taut, wailing in alarm. A predator lurked and he had to flee!

But he couldn't move. When the man finally came back around and stood in front of him, Quinn was drenched in sweat, pale and wide-eyed, trembling as his body sought to flee but failed.

The man looked at him. Lips parted into a knowing smile. Then those black eyes dropped to the stone tied around Quinn's neck.

"Did you know," he said lightly, "that every Variant has a boon?"

Yes, Quinn knew that. Everyone knew that.

"And did you know," the man goes on, "that while ordinary humans can possess a Variant's boon while inside the Variant's domain, it's impossible for them to do so once they leave it?"

Quinn blinks slowly. The fear churning in his gut intensifies. Without realizing it, he reaches up, grabs tight the stone around his neck. His other hand holds the stick in a grasp that wouldn't loosen any time soon. The fact he is free to move again never registers.

"What do you mean?" His voice is barely more than a whisper, like the wind sighing through the trees.

"You humans call it Service," the man says gently. "We call them trials. Those who make it through to the end are given an opportunity. Quinn, Hunter's Prey. Now Quinn, Hunter's Child. I wonder..."

Suddenly the man leans in, his nose barely inches from Quinn's. Black eyes bore into his own, fixing him in place. It only lasts a moment, but when the man pulls away, he's smiling. He hops back onto the ledge, giving a backwards glance.

"I look forward to seeing what kind of Variant you'll be, little one."

And with that, the man leaps off the ledge and into the wide-open air, hundreds of stories above ground.

Quinn stands where he is, in silence, with the stick and the stone.

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