Todd smiled understandingly as Kosuke admitted to what Todd had already noticed. There wasn’t any shame in it. He had to keep up appearances, but wasn’t comfortable losing any of his inhibitions. Todd was very familiar with similar balancing acts, meeting expectations to keep certain masks in place. As long as nobody looked at the thoughts behind the sparkling blue eyes, he could pass for normalcy.
As long as Kosuke didn’t see the moment of distraction.
For a moment, Todd’s memory brought him back into the warehouse, the smell of blood and gasoline thick in the air. The neatly slashed Achilles tendons that stopped the prey from running, torn ragged by the man’s attempts to do so anyway. His memory tried to rewind a little more, to when a more vicious hunter would slash or tear only one to…
He blinked. The usual phrase was legs kicked, that was it. Probably just a difference in vocabulary, given English wasn’t Kosuke’s first language. Todd would have considerably more problems than mixing up idioms in trying to learn a second language at all, so there wasn’t any judgment, just a little note made.
That pause aside, Kosuke seemed relieved to have the outlet to talk about his work. It wasn’t the kind of research Todd had expected, but it made sense that Kosuke would go from potential office work to a small business involving his interest in music. Something that would give him the time and resources to record and write. By losing everything else, Kosuke had gotten everything he wanted.
So why was it he seemed… dissatisfied? That wasn’t right. There was just something off, like reality wasn’t quite what Kosuke thought it would be, maybe. The investigator in Todd’s brain knew something was missing. He wasn’t here to investigate, but…
“As much as I’d love to hear Vanity perform live, I don’t think I can contend.”
It was said with a bright and self-aware smile, with his hands raised in front of him in a friendly defense. If Kosuke argued, he’d agree, but he wanted to see if Vanity would push.
For a moment, Todd seemed... uncomfortable. A second of distraction, a slight falter in his facade; he hid it well, but not from Kosuke. The musician retained his placid smile, pretending not to have noticed his companion's discomfort. Perhaps, after all Todd had excused, it seemed only fair to let this one slide as well. They weren't here to drill into each other's psyches, they were here to get drunk and sing karaoke. Well, maybe not the former, but certainly the latter. The latter was what Kosuke had paid for.
Unless Hasegawa gave him this session for free, which was likely. Sometimes he forgot. Sometimes the old man simply didn't bother charging him. He really seemed to like Kosuke.
"Good thing this isn't a competition, then."
Kosuke grinned at the remark, shaking his head.
"C'mon, you've had a stressful week." He shrugged, "Best solution for that is to pick something loud and cathartic and just go for it. Doesn't have to be good."
"Fuck- there's a reason I only take my friends here, rather than just anyone. I've got an image to uphold, I- ah, is there a sound version of image? Image means visual, right? Whatever, you know what I mean. If anyone came here and recorded me, it'd be the talk of- well, everyone at VULTURE."
Kosuke stood up, walking towards the machine.
"You start. Sounds like you don't want the comparison- what song should I put on for you?"
Kosuke pushed. Todd blinked at the insistence, gentle and friendly as it was. He looked surprised. Maybe he was surprised, or maybe he was hiding his relief. He didn’t even really understand his relief, just that it was there when Kosuke expressed something. But he turned the surprise into another bashful smile, like he agreed absolutely with what Kosuke was saying.
“Tone,” he suggested, as he watched him go to the machine. “A certain tone to maintain, maybe. Instead of an image.”
He stretched a little, then got up and picked up the mic while he told Kosuke the title he had in mind. Nothing about this was triggering fight or flight. A little bit of embarrassment, but Todd didn’t get stage fright. In fact, making a fool of himself was probably for the best. It’d make him feel better, anyway. He took a deep breath, steadying himself even when there really wasn’t anything to steady.
Todd didn’t have any vocal training. That’d be clear in his tone, in the way he sang. What he did have was passion. Passion, and connection. It was clear from the first few lines that he knew the song. On occasion he’d glance at the lyrics, but mostly, mostly he was singing from memory. American Idiot had a special place in his heart. One of the older teens had left the CD behind when they graduated from the system, and LJ was the only one who showed any interest in it. There were other CDs in the case, too, but this one was something... different. Something special. It had started something for him. That would be clear to anyone watching his shift as the song carried on.
By the time he hit “City of the Damned”, all self-consciousness was gone. His body moved. It wasn’t dancing, just expression. Maybe that was a dance in its own way, the same way a hunt could be a song. But over the course of the first part of the song, his posture had changed. That casual slouch, even in costume, had melted away. His voice, usually softened around the edges, now took on real emotion. It rose with “I Don’t Care”, and fell with “Dearly Beloved”. He let it move through him like the hunt – hell, there was a reason he called the hunt a song, wasn’t there?
When he finally reached “Tales From Another Broken Home”, there was no hiding the connection he felt to the song’s character. It’d been so long since he’d actually listened to this, but what Todd lacked in musical training, he made up for in an investigator’s memory. He would’ve noticed the way his voice bit certain words. And when the music softened again, so did his voice, and his eyes held an odd light – not new, but old. Sparks of old rage forgotten for newer guilt and even newer romance, kept in check by long practice.
He didn’t drop the mic when the song ended, but it was pretty clear he’d found the experience refreshing. He stood tall, and there was something in the smile that was suddenly mostly teeth as he turned it on Kosuke with a laugh only a little rougher for the nine straight minutes of singing. His eyes didn’t lose the glow right away.
“Okay, okay, you were right. I needed to get that out of my system.”
Kosuke sat back in his seat as Todd picked up the mic, relaxing into the lightly-cushioned back to watch the performance. His posture was relaxed, as it had been this entire time. Not judgemental- god no, never judgemental. There was a smile on his face throughout the song, plain and unmoving, enjoying what he was hearing- or, at the very least, tolerating it as part of a social activity.
Which was impressive.
People say music is nothing without emotion, that knowing how to feel a song is almost as important as knowing how to sing it. And, to an extent, this was understandable. Disinterest breeds disinterest; if you want people to get into a song, you have to get into it yourself. Still, as with many, many things regarding the artistry of music, Kosuke found that it was all too easy for people to lack nuance when it came to just how much of themselves they should put into their performance. It was like acting. You don't want someone to be flat and robotic, reading their lines like a high school presentation project- but the other end of the spectrum was just as grating.
Overacting lead to fumbled lines and rushed queues, to harsh screams and painful exaggeration, to embarrassment. One line taken too far, one word shouted when it should've been spoken, and the whole scene falls apart. There was a time and a place- but, even when the time was now and the place was here, it could still be taken too far. Now, Todd didn't fumble his lines. He didn't rush his queues, didn't scream too harshly, didn't over-exaggerate to a particularly noticeable degree. And, with Kosuke just nodding along, he didn't embarrass himself, either. The song, as well- it called for catharsis, begged for it. Even without the alleviated social pressure of karaoke, it would just be wrong to sing something like this with too much restraint.
Still, the performance Todd gave showed just how much he trusted Kosuke.
He gave a quiet little golf clap once the song was over, his smile warming up ever so slightly as he stood up to take the mic. The smile reflected was different; less placid, more raw, perhaps the most genuine expression either of them had made that night, obscure as it was. He seemed to have enjoyed that. He seemed to have needed it.
"Of course I'm right- I'm always right." Kosuke laughed, "You see why I do this sort of thing now, yeah? You see why I'm able to manage my job without fucking killing somebody?"
He shook his head, setting up another song in the machine.
"Can't yell at customers in store, so I yell at them through recordings instead- and they eat it up every time. Right-"
The song began: Reptilia by The Strokes. Somewhat of a basic (that was the word Cass had used, he remembered) pick, given everything else about him, but it was one he could sing well. Not that there was much he couldn't sing well, mind, but the combination of quiet, almost dreary verses and a loud-enough chorus meant that he could show both sides of his voice; calm, and calmly aggressive.
The roughness of the original was present, but subtly managed; Vanity's voice, though loose and dreary, was habitually precise; like he was singing the right notes by accident, but always, always hitting them dead-on. Every exaggerated inflection, every voice crack, every word marked by vocal fry- all intentional, all planned, all effective. He had improvised his inflection a thousand times, he knew it like a routine. He hit the verses a little quieter, and the chorus a lot louder; a voice clearly used to singing over much louder instrumentation.
However, unlike Todd, the one thing it was missing was attachment. Vanity's rendition was a performance in the truest sense; like he was singing in a language he didn't quite understand, all empty syllables and vocal trickery with no mind to the meaning beneath. Perhaps the song was too vague, too non-specific for him to really connect with- or, perhaps, his grasp on the English language was purely conversational, that he struggled much more translating subtext than text. Or, perhaps, he was trying for the same ironic detachment of Casablancas' original.
Kosuke said nothing when the song ended. He just smiled.
Kosuke’s pick was significantly shorter than Todd’s, and the lyrics were harder to understand – deliberately, he was pretty sure. It sounded right. He’d never listened to the song, but Vanity seemed very intentional in the tone, in the way he moved. Or, really, his lack of movement. He was performing like he was on stage, but as Todd studied the other man’s face, his eyes behind those sunglasses, he found… nothing. Not apathy, necessarily, but the detachment was… hm. Off. Weird. Hollowness didn’t seem to suit the Kosuke he knew, especially when it came to music, one of his passions. It wasn’t really worrying, in any way. But it didn’t sit right. Sounded right, yes. It just… he had no idea. He couldn’t put his finger on why the performance made him nervous.
He didn’t let it show, of course. He pulled his feral relief back in, resuming his more civilized body language. He didn’t close off completely again, he kept his shoulders relaxed and even let his smile, when it showed, have teeth in it. But the sharpness faded from his edges, and he was just Todd again, quiet and friendly, who finished his drink while his friend sang. He clapped when Vanity finished his private performance, because that felt like the right thing to do in the moment.
“And that’s exactly why I was worried,” he joked, the compliment clear even if the slight discomfort lingered in his eyes. Was he jealous? No, that wasn’t right, either, and that wasn’t what showed in his little smile as he went over to the machine. Now that he’d seen how to operate it, he could scroll through a little, and picked a title he recognized.
Maybe it was a little basic. Actually, it was really basic. But– well, it was more about the vibes, more important maybe that it was a little quieter, a little less cathartic, a little more serious.
This performance wasn’t detached, but it didn’t have the raw passion “Jesus of Suburbia” had had, either. He’d picked a radio favorite, something he’d found himself humming to ever so often even before he met Sam. He stumbled a little over the first two lines, but seemed to find his rhythm. His voice only caught a shadow of real emotion beyond the enjoyment of partaking in the experience of karaoke when he reached the chorus, and when just a hint at a familiar but preemptive grief crept into the corners of his eyes.
“Don't get too close; it's dark inside. It's where my demons hide, it's where my demons hide….”
And the softness didn’t go away completely as he wrapped the song, though he swallowed it back when he was done. The rest of the feral energy was gone, now, and he was back to the Todd who’d come down with Kosuke, the Todd who came into VULTURE as a blank slate looking for suggestions, unimposing and harmless.
Kosuke laughed and shook his head, but didn't say any more. Perhaps he took that tone of his more seriously than it seemed; perhaps he put as much pressure on himself as he did- ah, Todd didn't know about the others, did he? Perhaps he just put pressure on himself. That might have been where that hollowness came from.
He listened to Todd's next performance- electing not to comment on the song choice. It wasn't his personal taste, to put it one way. He was a known hater, to put it another. It didn't show on his face, regardless; this wasn't the time, or the place, or the point. He was here to listen to Todd, not to judge his taste.
Once more, there was that attachment, that emotion creeping into the song's darker lyrics. Todd, despite his occasional mask-slip of grief, had struck Kosuke as somewhat reserved- reticent, almost, to show anything more than you'd show the bartender at your local haunt. It was all implications, all masks. He had given Kosuke just enough for an incurious soul to be satisfied, but it just led to more questions- questions he wasn't going to ask. He didn't need to. People sing louder than they speak, and the person who sang was far different than the one he had spoken to. Maybe Todd knew more about a stage persona than he let on. Maybe he had his own tone to uphold.
Kosuke clapped again, nodding politely at the performance.
Then, he stood up and took the mic, plugging in his own choice once again: an odd choice, Undisclosed Desires by Muse. He was almost surprised to find it on the machine, the first time he came here. Not a deep cut by his standards, but... well, it wasn't exactly party music. Then again, by his standards, neither was Imagine Dragons.
It was a choice that would've appeared almost stupidly on-the-nose, were it not for that characteristic detachment lending him an air of plausible deniability. He liked this sort of music, after all- he liked this band, even, hesitant as he was to admit he liked anything this well-known. It suited his voice, as well. As with Reptilia, he kept it quiet and gloomy, though this song didn't quite call for the same peaks of energy. It was almost soporific, the way he sang; calm and calming, despite the content.
Once again, he ended the performance with nothing more than a smile.
Then, he pointed to the machine, to the other mics in the holder, and looked over to Todd.
"Let's take the next one together." He said, "I'd love to sing the harmonies, for a change- I'd love to see if I can remember them."
Kosuke’s choice sounded like an answer to Demons. Todd didn’t really think it was, but it almost did. Maybe he’d let himself get too emotional in the song, let too much slip. It was easy with Kosuke, though. He seemed like an open book with blank pages. Receptive to whatever anyone around him would write down, without actually giving anything back.
But most of the time, Todd was no different. The best way to get information was to be open to it – and his were tricks he’d learned back when he was moonlighting (daylighting?) as an underage PI. He should’ve wondered how Kosuke knew those tricks. Instead, he focused on the lyrics of the song, and wondered, again, if Kosuke was replying to his choice in Demons.
I know you've suffered, but I don't want you to hide
It's cold and loveless, I won't let you be denied.
Kosuke’s voice was detached. Just as detached as the last song had been, just as hollow. The hollowness lent itself to his observations about receptivity, but also let him focus maybe too much on the lyrics themselves, since Kosuke’s performance was – not lacking. It was too deliberate to be lacking. It was something, though. Something itched at the back of his mind.
You trick your lovers that you’re wicked and divine
You may be a sinner, but your innocence is mine.
As he tried, and failed, to find the source of the itch, something changed in his own eyes, slightly unfocused. Even when he wasn’t paying attention to them, the lyrics were trying to talk to him. Violence, masks, demons. A hunger that couldn’t be shared. Maybe there was hunger in his eyes, or maybe they just shared Kosuke’s hollowness, or maybe they really were just focused elsewhere. Maybe the sharpness was part of his confusion, and not something he usually had to try to conceal with warm, toothless smiles and relaxed, slouched posture.
Both of which slipped back in as soon as Kosuke finished the last chorus. Todd applauded to cover the fact that he’d stopped listening, but he’d relaxed back into the chair to let the roll of his shoulders come back, softening his frame.
“Absolutely, and I apologize in advance.”
He rolled to his feet when Kosuke invited him – he realized that he wasn’t nervous at all, to be singing melody with Kosuke on harmonies. But he wasn’t, especially since a song immediately jumped to mind that anyone could sing, badly or not. Another basic choice, but a classic all the same. A song where Todd wouldn’t have to focus on the lyrics, and could keep an eye on the man beside him as they started. He’d have to let his mask slip again – let Kosuke see emotions that came as soon as the ballad started.
But then again, that’d mean Kosuke was paying as much attention to Todd as the other way around.
"Well, you haven't needed to apologise so far. I'm sure you'll make this a- what do they say? Hat-someth- hat-trick?"
Then, the pair started to sing.
It was almost a guarantee, at this point; if someone was going to sing karaoke with him, this song would come up sooner or later. Honestly, even if Kosuke wasn't there himself, he was fairly certain that this song would come up regardless; it was a classic, one of the first things people thought of when tasked with picking a fun song to sing for a group of friends. He wasn't complaining. It was, as with many of his choices, a song he had sang countless times before; he knew the harmonies as well as he knew the melodies, though he was grateful to be singing the former.
Once more, his performance was largely impersonal, though with a dramatic edge to it that wasn't quite there before. Perhaps the brooding garage rock of before didn't call for it, like how PREMORTEM often didn't, but Vanity was nothing if not a showman. He was moving, leaning into the louder notes as he sang them, pacing around like he was on stage, like the screen before him had been replaced by a crowd- the kind of crowd he wouldn't be seeing again for a very long time.
Still, despite this, his own performance wasn't what had his attention. His mind was trained on Todd; his voice, his emphasis, the way he held his body as he sang. Though the song choice was hardly going to be lyrically relevant, unless Todd was a very strange man indeed, the way he presented himself when he was supposed to be having fun was an area of interest for Kosuke.
Todd had a good ear, but his voice didn’t always match up with it. He caught when he was out of tune with Kosuke early in the song, and after a few seconds of worry, decided to lean into it. He wasn’t a professional, after all. And he was supposed to be doing this for fun, not worrying about what Vanity was going to think of his voice.
Besides, he had more important things to focus on.
He was watching Vanity. Not like most people could resist – after the earlier, hollow performances, this one at least had some motion to it. Even so, there was still something impersonal about it, something missing, something empty. Maybe professional, but maybe – hard to say what else it could be, if not professional. Todd at least hoped Kosuke was having fun.
Maybe that explained Todd’s own behavior, or maybe this really was how Todd handled social outings. Wherever Vanity seemed lacking, Todd filled in. By the time they got through the intro and the first verse, Todd had started pouring some of the emotion from Jesus of Suburbia into the song, without the personal relevance. Where Vanity was perfect, Todd allowed himself his imperfections. Where Vanity moved and paced, Todd kept his feet static, while rocking and leaning into the notes wherever it felt called for – certainly not Kosuke’s perfect opposite, just letting him have the imagined spotlight.
And where Vanity put on his stage persona under that spotlight, Todd’s started falling away, shoulders rolling back again, back straightening, teeth showing, eyes following his partner throughout at the cost of a few of the lyrics. Nothing hungry in those eyes; nothing lacking. Maybe some of the lyrics did speak to him, but he put the same energy into the whole song, filled in the gaps left behind in Vanity’s performance, and then let the silence rest for a few seconds when it was over, as if he needed to catch his breath after the whirlwind of the last two verses. Or maybe he was just waiting for Kosuke to offer judgment first, the way his gaze rested on his friend, the way the genuine, lopsided smile that showed just a little bit of teeth lingered, the way true warmth seemed to have filled his face, however briefly.
Todd's imperfections, though barely noticeable when he was singing alone, were starting to grate on Kosuke when layered over his own flawless harmony. The dissonance it created- it was a good thing he was used to hiding his frustration, or their friendship would've been cut (perhaps mercifully) short. He caught up after the initial falter, remaining fine for the rest of the song, but it wasn't a performance to write home about.
Still, that wasn't the point, was it? Despite his criticisms, Kosuke didn't think any less of Todd for this. It simply confirmed what he already knew; a good singer was hard to find, and a singer up to his standards was almost impossible. For an amateur, he was good. For a friend- fuck, for a friend, he was a fun time, a great companion, and he knew not to take these things too seriously. And, for someone so habitually secretive, it offered a way for him to speak without speaking, to express the unheard without fear that someone would try to dig any deeper that what he was willing to show. It seemed good for him. It seemed healthy. That was what Kosuke said he wanted, wasn't it?
Even with the abstract lyrics, Todd seemed to give his all. Were the previous songs not so pointed, it would be safe to dismiss any suspicions regarding his attachment under the assumption that this was just how he was with everything. Of course, Kosuke knew what he saw. He knew what he heard. He wasn't going to bring it up, of course- but, if this was intended to be a smokescreen, it had failed.
The song ended, and Kosuke allowed his smile to linger.
"Fuck, I haven't done that in a while."
He set the mic down, slowly pacing back towards the bench.
"Y'know, most people want me to sing the melody- I guess they'd prefer to hide behind my voice, in case they make any mistakes. I guess they think I give a shit."
"It's nice to be part of the background sometimes, y'know? It's nice not to be Vanity."
He reached for his drink, then pulled his hand back. There was no need to pretend to drink it anymore. Perhaps he had forgotten that during the song.
"I guess when you're not chasing the spotlight, you're running from it. Can't ever be happy, huh."
“I don’t really see the point in all of that – stage performing.” Todd folded himself back into the seat across from Kosuke, his smile slowly fading out. He didn’t give Kosuke’s second-guess about his drink any more attention than a footnote on the evening, along with his commentary about running from the spotlight. It had been nice, singing with him, not letting himself worry.
And, he realized, it was nice to start relaxing back after.
“I get fading into the background, though. A lot of the time it’s just easier. I couldn’t do Vanity, that’s for sure. Too much pressure.” He laughed, softly. He didn’t reach for his glass, either, and instead folded his arms on the table and rested on them, further reducing his size while indicating he was comfortable enough to lean toward Kosuke.
Maybe he did know a thing or two about stage acting, come to think about it.
“I also get the – being someone to meet expectations, thing. But the exaggeration, that’s where I get hung up. I have no idea where you get the energy for it and have any left over afterward for normalcy.”
"Eh, some people like it, some people don't. That's good, I think- ain't enough room in the spotlight for all of us. There's barely enough room for the ones that make it."
Aside from Vanity, of course.
He watched as Todd relaxed, and smiled in return- glad that his friend was enjoying himself as much as he was, as if he was worried that their song choices had somehow driven a wedge between them. He pushed the sunglass lens up his face so it covered his eye properly. The damn thing had been slipping a bit as they sang, as he moved and had almost completely exposed the damn thing to the light.
"Want me to let you in on a secret, Todd?"
Kosuke leaned forwards.
"This is exaggeration. This whole, like, casual, confident, cool guy without a care in the world? It's an act, just like Vanity- the only difference is it's more subtle. I take all the traits I like about myself, and I play them up more than the ones I don't like. I'm playing a role, y'know?"
"Can't exactly tell the regulars at VULTURE that the Kosuke they all love so much is actually a stressed-out, caffeine-dependent weirdo who constantly mourns a job at a fucking car company, can I?"