Water, Blood, and Thicker Things

Restaurant Row 
#1


 There was a swimming hole outside their town that children would flock to in the summer months, seeking respite from the heat. The roiling current of thin, thrashing limbs loosened the silt below, turning the emerald water brown, and his siblings took great pleasure in teasing him from the water, staring up at the thin boy who kept sentry on a boulder or tree limb above. Benji liked to swim, and the sun pressed him to move, but he feared the murky depths. He did not like diving into what he could not see.

 In his drive to meet his brother, that trepidation flared bright, bolstered by the intense feeling that this was someone else's home. Cats. Cheetahs. Strangers. His beast was the one that urged him forward, and he arrived ten minutes before their designated time. Benjamin De Luca felt like he was drowning. For more than a year it was one unknown after the next, wave after wave of brown when all he sought was clarity. If he was lucky, maybe the water could settle now.
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#2


Rogue in the territory, keep your eyes peeled.
Yana

A message from Yana that had come to him twenty or so minutes before he was set to meet with Benji. It had his gut twisting, coiling like a snake as he weighed the odds of it being some freak coincidence. What were the odds that Benji was here to seek him out over the one thing that Mathis had not wanted to consider? What were the odds that Allegra had lost her control around their brother and infected him? What were the odds? Higher than he would have liked to admit. And now, as he drove toward the restaurant, there was an electric tension that ha him bristling. The proverbial hair along his spine on end, a low and inhuman growl bubbling in his chest that he kept bottled.

It was impossible to ignore, the closer he drew. As he parked, as he unbuckled and gathered his belongings from the seat, as he stepped out and clicked the button on his keys. As he took a step toward the front of Palomino's. Cheetah. A bouquet of smell and sensation pushed right beneath his nose. There was a cheetah here, and no longer doubt. Benji. Mathis' fingers were still and precise as he reached for the phone in his pocket. He clutched it as he stepped through the door, stopped at the podium and hardly regarded the hostess as she greeted him. His eyes were their natural blue as they fell upon his brother at a table nearby the door. He eyed him, stationary for a long moment as he regarded the cat that shared his sibling's body. A soft, shaky sigh through his nose as he glanced to his phone.

I found him. I'll get back to you soon.
Mathis

With that, the phone went back into his pocket, and he stepped toward the second family member who's life he was responsible for changing irrevocably.
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#3
 Benji traced the wood-grain of the table while he waited for his brother to arrive, one nimble finger trailing over the smooth, shellacked surface. He'd never been a particularly vain man, but he held a great sense of pride in himself for what he did. These hands, these fingers, they were important. They had a job to do, and they were very nearly robbed of that noble occupation.

 Stolen by the man who was walking towards him now.

 Benji stood. Whether he planned to hug his brother or shake his hand was unclear because he moved to do neither. His beast chirped, betraying the aloofness of his attitude. "Hello, Mathis. Hopefully there's no remaining confusion as to why I'm here."
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#4
It was aggressively overwhelming, the divergence in feelings. What took precedence was the cat's adamance that they move closer, inspect the new cat, reach out to touch him. It was a singular notion in the back of his head, an indisputable fact. This was family. One in the same in more than one way. They were closer now than they had ever been, and there was a natural urge toward immediate acceptance. And yet, there was the ache in his chest. The downturn of his lips. There was hostility in Benji's words, a pointedness that Mathis could understand. For even if he had not been the one to bite him, this was Mathis' doing.

"No," He said with a sigh through his nose, his jaw working to keep slack, "Non più. Was it Allegra?" It was logical to think so, but he sought to be entirely sure.


Not anymore.

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#5
 "The very same."

 He sat back down to get out of a server's way, tucking his legs beneath the table. "Unfortunately, she didn't offer the same support you must have given her." Looking up at his brother he saw all the ways that they were different and all the ways that they were exactly the same. It was a gaze he couldn't hold for long, the cat forcing him to break his stare out of respect. The other cheetah felt heavy. Important. And his beast was as eager as it was apprehensive.

 "At least I assume that's why you took her away with you." With no notice it had all been a lengthy guessing game.
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#6
Of course. Mathis let Benji sit first, lingered as he spoke. Of course Allegra hadn't been able to offer him anything. She'd been so frustratingly adamant that it was all bullshit, that there was some way to reverse it, that he was a monster trying to keep her this way because it was some part of his own twisted agenda. Mathis sighed through his nose as he took a seat, keeping his back straight and eyes on Benji despite the reluctance for eye contact. "I thought I could help her here." He confirmed, his throat tight. "She wasn't willing to stay and learn, and I couldn't just leave the group I have here to be with her back there." Italy was where he had been born and raised, but it wasn't home. He'd made the decision that his family, while he loved them, were better kept away from all of it. That had been before Allegra, before his parents disowned him, before Benji sought him out in Colorado. He knew now he'd been right. Regretted ever answering the message from the man across from him about his sister. They should have stayed strangers.

"Tell me it's just you." He sought to confirm as the thought that it could very well be the entire family by now settled into the back of his mind.
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#7
 Ever tactile, he traced his finger round the rim of his water glass, the cool bit of moisture giving him something to focus on other than the situation at hand. There was that incessant pull, a tug towards cruelty that yanked on the doctor's good intentions like a hand would a loose string. Benji licked his lips. "Just me. Allegra vanished, but she did so before she spread the disease to anyone else."

 As far as he was concerned, that was enough talk abut Allegra. Straightening, his beast inched forward, a gentle huff as it tried to make contact with his brother for the first time. "The group you mentioned, is that why this area feels so different? Is it yours?"
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#8
Good. Allegra had gone, and he hoped she did not revisit the family. She'd passed along the infection far enough through the family. It wasn't the worst that could have happened. She could have killed them all, instead. It had been one of the fears he'd had as he left her. If could have stayed, could have convinced her to stay... Well, Benji was stronger for it, if not forced into being so. What was it he did for a living? A doctor of some kind, similar to Frank. So, he was still capable, in not in need of adjustment. He was curious about the Coalition, unlike Allegra, whom had not wanted to hear a word of it. Already, it felt different. He'd sought him out, and he was unwilling to believe it was just to rub it in his face or taunt him. Benji needed help.

"Yes, that's it." He said with a nod. "And, no, I act as a Second. How much were you told about groups?" The cat on the other side of his mind eyed the younger cat ( the only instance of Benji being younger) with a curiously cautious stare. Unwilling to let him out of his sights, aware of every move he made. It was an intense underlying interaction, but it would help to ease the conversation once the felines were acquainted. For now, it was all perked ears and flicking tails. The waitress approached, and Mathis paused them there, skipping over any offer of bread or appetizers and ordering the gnocchi and a bottle of wine for the table, seeking to avoid as much interruption as possible.
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#9
 "I wasn't told about anything." His voice was as sharp as their thwacking back door that had lost its hydraulics. "It's been a difficult year for me, Mathis." Benji sighed, giving way to a subtle softening as he finally lifted his gaze to stare at his brother without malice.

 While he'd received no verbal instruction from their sister, he'd observed what he could before she left. He realized her struggle stemmed from the harsh denial of her reality, the internal war she waged as she tried to banish a section of herself that was, somehow, a part of her whole. Science did not explain it, but there was plenty of physical, emotional, and spiritual sensations practicality could not touch.

 Benji shared who he was with an animal. On the full moon and in times of stress, he became that animal. They were separate and they were one, and there was no explanation for it.

 "I've made strides from where I was. I can finally work again. But I'm sure there's still knowledge I don't have that I could benefit from. That's why I'm here."
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#10
He blinked at the snapping of words, his jaw tightening some as the cat bristled from the rise in tension. It went as soon as it came, Benji likely realizing that being explosive wouldn't get them further than having to step outside and possibly handle things on a more physical level. He calmed himself, and Mathis found himself sighing heavily. He knew it was hard, of course, and he did feel horrible for Benji. Horrible, and responsible. Guilt was there, but not at the forefront. He was the cause of it, yes. But he had come to terms with that fact that he had not known what he was doing, when he infected Allegra. Had done everything in his power to help her. That she had decided to return home, paint him into a monster, only to turn and presumably attack one of their own siblings... there was a disconnect there.

Still. Benji was here, asking for help. Doing more than Allegra ever had in the way of coming to know her cat. How could he ever refuse that? "There is a lot." He said with a nod. "I'm glad to see how far you've come in only a year." And, admittedly, surprised. He would not voice as much. "I can help you, but. It can't be done through just some crash courses." He waved a hand, then brought it to his chin to scratch at the hair there. " Are you willing to stay? There's others, four, plus me. It is better for you to be around them as much as you can." He'd functioned well enough alone for this long, but being with others of his kind would only help. Mathis had been alone for three years before he found the Coalition in Italy, and things had improved immensely as soon as his cat made a connection. It could happen for Benji, if he was willing.
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#11
 Benji sipped religion like a wine. Overzealous gulps made the doctrine sharpen to vinegar, but small indulgences allowed the words to breathe. With enough thoughtful consideration the verses melded to his scientific brain, producing a grand blueprint of elegant design. He approached the world with an open mind but a fair bit of skepticism, pensiveness that helped shield him from unproductive extremes.

 If he was being frank, Mathis seemed to be peddling something akin to a cult. And if he was being frank, perhaps that's just what he needed.

 "I'm willing. But before I sign my name in blood, if I find this isn't a good fit for me, will I be allowed to leave?" He took no joy in being a pessimist, but he had no desire to throw his life away either.
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#12
Willing, but cautious. They were alike in more ways than he'd first thought. Perhaps more would come to light, the longer her stayed. They had been the closest as children. The only two boys, close in age; not even a year apart. And while Benji had always been the more reserved and watchful of the pair, things had certainly changed for Mathis. He would not make assumptions now. There were a million and one chances for this all to crash and burn. But, there was a small chance something good could come of it. "It's not a contract," Mathis said with a soft huff of something like a chuckle, shaking his head. "You're free to go, if you want. I've given up on forcing people into things, even if its something that could be good for them." Nothing good had come of it, and Benji could attest to that.
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#13
 For all the upheaval Mathis had caused, Benji trusted him.

 Reassured, he nodded to his brother, allowing a tentative smile to spread across his lips. "Alright then. I came here for help and answers and if this is what is going to let me find a greater balance within myself then I'm at your disposal." He knew nothing of what happened next, but he'd allow that to be Mathis' concern. Benji was the pupil, ready and willing to learn.

 "So...how have you been?"
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#14
It felt... too easy. With Allegra it had been a constant tug from either end of a rope that should have been cut cleanly before it split and unraveled on its own. With Benji, an immediate offer to twine the rope together. Mathis took in a steadying breath, chipping away at the tension and willing every part of himself to lax. "I will do everything I can to help you," He assured his brother.

Their wine arrived then, and an assurance that their food would come soon. Mathis moved to fill both glasses as he answered the question, "Things have been... well, they’re improving.” And they were, things were easier to handle, he’d settled into an plateau in his feelings on the death of that hyena, accepted some things were just out of his hands. Like Benji coming to him out of nowhere, infected and seeking help. Life was certainly happening to him, and he was slowly beginning to get a handle on the reigns that would allow him to be the one in control of it all.

Both glasses filled, he slid one to Benji and moved to take a sip. “Do you plan on finding a practice here? What sort of medicine do you do, again?” Perhaps Frank could help in finding somewhere for Benji to work. They would need to meet, and while he might have feared things going poorly before, there was some optimism in the idea. Firstly, however, they would be going to speak with Yana.
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#15
 "I'm a general practitioner, and yes, I'd like to continue working." It'd been years -- technically more than a decade since they'd had a conversation this long. Benji wouldn't hold it against his brother that didn't know the area of medicine he worked in. He'd still been in school when Mathis left the first time, and he'd had other things on his mind. In this, their knowledge was skewed. Benji had done his research, reading the numerous articles written about his brother and his pottery work. It was a voyeuristic view of his life. Now he wanted a genuine one.

 "Do you enjoy living in mountainside and being a part of this group?" He swirled the wine in his glass before sipping it. "I'd love to see some of your pottery work, by the way. It seems like you've truly found your niche here."
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#16
A general practitioner, yes. Somewhat different than Frank, but he was sure he could help out. Mathis found himself relaxing some, tension easing as his back found the back of his chair. At the question Mathis looked from his wine to his brother. "I do. It's more of a home to me than anywhere. The group is kind, welcoming... helpful when needed." He said with a nod, and paused to take a sip of his drink. "You should come to Work Release after this to meet with Yana, our leader. That's where I work, and I can show you my collection." He said with a sheepish sort of smile. It was always hard to take compliments.

Their food arrived then, and Mathis sat back for it to be placed before him. He set his glass aside, and went about unraveling his silverware and placing the napkin across his lap. As he did so, and without meeting Benji's gaze for it, he added. "My boyfriend does emergency medicine at a clinic in Crestview. I think he could help you find somewhere to work. Boyfriend felt... strange on his tongue. A touch juvenile, despite the term not having any other synonyms that sounded much better. Significant other, lover? No. And partner sounded too, he didn't know, established? Relationships.
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#17
 "I'd like that very much."

 Their food came and Benji was mid-bite when Mathis casually dropped a word that made him pause, lamely hanging with his mouth open, fork halfway to his face. Setting his hand down, he wiped his lips primly with a napkin, revealing a smile when he was done. There'd been hints over the years, glances and tendencies Benji had caught, and perhaps noticed more, being as close to Mathis as he was in their youth.

 "I'm happy for you." Not so religious or conservative to rob his brother of that joy and freedom. His thin devotion to the church did not reach to social ideals. "And I would love to meet him. I'd love to meet him and Yana both." How lucky this was, to reunite and be promised such a positive and illuminating future.
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#18
The pause further discouraged him from looking up. He smoothed the napkin on his lap, tucking the tag beneath the seam. He glanced when he caught sight of Benji wiping his lips, and eyed the smile that was revealed from beneath it. A similar one pulled at the corners of his lips, and he felt a spark of warmth ignite in his chest. A soft chuckle shifted through his nose at the comment, his eyes flickering down to his food as his cheeks warmed some. He'd spent years as a teenager attempting to be discreet about his preferences. His parents would disapprove, if they even noticed. He was sure his siblings might have been keyed into it more, but no one had ever brought it up before he left.

That Benji was so accepting left him feeling warmed. Optimistic by the minute that this would be something positive. A meeting was definitely in order. "Thank you," He said with a genuine smile now, before turning his attention to taking a bite of his food. "We will go to Work Release, then. Yana can meet you properly. Then I will ask Frank to meet us soon. He's, er, like us, but a jaguar." A few more bites, before he pulled his phone out to text Yana.
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