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He nodded at Todd's brief response, taking a sip from his coffee.

"Mm." He said, "I was with her for a few months- half a year, in total. I was the one to break it off, in the end, but that was only because she couldn't bring herself to do it first. She always said I was an awful guy to argue with- I guess she didn't want the conflict."

Kosuke winced- guilt, in face alone.

"I had been here for just over two years, at that point- settled down, set up a store, started a band, I was living clean, y'know? To everyone around me, it looked like I finally had my shit together- sure, I wasn't working at fucking Toyota, but I wasn't... I wasn't doing what I used to be doing. I kept my hands to myself, and my head out of trouble."

He frowned.

"Kept my band at arms length, at first. And my employees. My circle was big, but it was distant- people socialised with the idea of me, with the person I was trying to be, to the point where I lost track of everything else. The choices I made, they made people like me more, so I assumed they were the right ones. I didn't bother working on the rest."

There was another hint of something in his face, now. Frustration, maybe- like he was reading off a scripted apology he didn't quite believe in, like this was some mandatory PR tour after some scandal. In a way, it was. Their relationship had been public, after all.

"Carmilla... wasn't the first, but she was the last. When you get close to one person when you're not used to closeness, then- I guess-"

He snapped his fingers, searching for the right way to say it.

"They see the whole picture, no matter what. So, if there's shit you haven't had to clean up yet because you're so used to pushing it down, then they'll see it. And, if you're not used to taming it, then-"

He shook his head, resting his elbows against the table and running his hands through his hair. Once again, he couldn't look Todd in the eye- and, when he spoke, the guilt had returned to his voice.

"I was never... violent with her- with any of them. Never abusive. But, I think... I think they could tell I used to be. I... said things, y'know? Things that, in my old life, nobody would've batted an eye at- but, because I wasn't used to toning it down, they all just... came out. And- look, I'm not saying you're as bad as I was, Todd, I'm not accusing you of that at all, but..."

He shrugged.

"I just... shouldn't have rested my whole weight on one person like that. If you're not confident enough to take on a few close friendships, then god knows what'll happen with something more intimate."

A pause.

"I'm better, now. After we broke up, I started getting closer to everyone else- my relationships weren't as fake anymore, I wasn't as fake anymore. I don't know. What I'm trying to get at, here, is isolation isn't something you can do half-way, yeah?"

He laughed, slightly.

"And it sounds like you've got a good thing going with this roommate of yours, so you might as well swing away from this bullshit whilst you can."
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He listened to Kosuke’s story with an apparent passiveness. He did pay attention to the details, to the words used, but his eyes on Kosuke’s face weren’t just polite eye contact. He sipped his coffee, and realized just how little he seemed to feel, compared to what he expressed. The most real thing was the frustration – frustration like he didn’t actually want to be having this conversation.

But Todd listened to what was actually said, because this wasn’t a suspect, this was Kosuke, and Kosuke seemed to be having a hard time trying to share the relatable experience. When he was done, Todd was quiet for a little while, as if considering what he’d said.

“I’m…” He took a deep breath, then decided this was worth it. It wouldn’t hurt anything, at least. “The equipment is for me to… to leave her a message. In case anything happens to me. I’m trying not to keep her at arm’s length, but it’s hard. She’d throw herself at my problems headfirst if I let her. Fuck, if I let her know at all that they’re problems, she’ll try to take them on headfirst. If I can’t leave her an explanation while I’m here, at least for a while, then I-I want her to know what happened to me if I can’t tell her myself.”

He smiled, faintly.

“You’re right. I should probably try to have a bigger circle, but friends – they’re a hard habit to form. Harder than other stuff. I’ve never been one for a big friend group. Even in foster care, while the other kids were hanging out in cliques, I was realizing I didn’t quite fit in anywhere. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but – you are right. I need people to ground me. I guess my bigger problem isn’t trusting her with too much, it’s just – it’s hard to trust her with anything. To trust anyone with anything. Being on my own did that to me. Losing– losing Arlo didn’t help at all.”

He sighed. Partial truths weren’t as exhausting for him as others. A bad habit, worse than the smoking and the drinking and the caffeine. He finished off his coffee before he finished with, “I know I should be trusting her completely, trusting her to make her own decisions. It’s just… it’s hard, learning how.”
So, he wanted to say goodbye.

There was a moment, a few seconds, where Kosuke paused, filling the store with the eerie silence that followed whenever he truly stopped. He pulled his eyes away from the counter to look at Todd, his expression warm and concerned and deeply, almost uncharacteristically human- at least, from behind the lenses. So, this was the kind of danger this private investigator was putting himself in- such that he needed to send a message to his girlfriend, knowing he was going to die. Kosuke nodded.

"I see."

Grief seemed to be more visible than guilt, even unresolved like this. Concern, too, had become more natural for him, as of late; no longer wearing down his face like thin rubber, and more just... settling into place. Not quite natural, but not quite strenuous , either. There was something Todd wasn't telling him. There were a lot of things Todd wasn't telling him.

"It's hard- I know it's hard, but- fuck, you know what I'm going to say, don't you? A burden that you're convinced will end up killing you- Todd, you can't carry that alone. You really can't. And, y'know..."

He reached forwards, for Todd's hands, holding them gently in his own.

"Talking to me- that's a big step, yeah?"

A smile started to form on his face- small, yet familiar. Friendly. Open. The smile of someone used to being leaned on. This wasn't the first time he was in a conversation like this, clearly- and it wouldn't be the last.

"Look, just having one person you can trust, one person that isn't- y'know, fucking living with you, that's important. That's really important. And... I know how hard it is to do this, to talk to people about shit you can barely admit to yourself, but it's the only way you can take hold of it. It's the only way you can... overcome, that's the word- the only way you can overcome it. But... shit, it's fucking hard, isn't it?"

The frustration had returned, though a lot lighter this time.

"How to exorcise your demons without releasing them into the world."

He sighed, at last taking a sip of his coffee.

"I'll admit, I wasn't the same when I... when I lost someone, as well. He trusted me too much, I didn't trust him enough, and it all just-"

A pause- what seemed to be another scripted break, though it carried that same asphyxiating silence. Kosuke furrowed his brow. An unexpected topic, perhaps? Or an unexpected emotion? Either way, nothing but his observation was visible. He cleared his throat, took another sip of coffee, and turned back to Todd.

"I'm- sorry. I haven't really... I haven't really thought about it all that much."

He looked... nervous?

"Arlo-" He snapped his fingers, "What- what was he to you?"
Todd measured the silences in heartbeats, his own and his host’s. Equal and even, calm despite everything both of them were feeling. Or should be feeling. Between beats, Todd could feel the pacing of Kosuke’s words, his expressions, his attitude. It was measured, deliberately or otherwise. That was odd, but then again, Kosuke was a performer at heart. If he was going to keep giving him the benefit of the doubt, he could assume that it was just because he was so used to the press, to the spotlight, to the stage. That alone filled in a lot of blanks in his story, anyway – everyone knew what kinds of people rock stars could be.

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”

He couldn’t just leave that hanging. He couldn’t just ignore the question, but he needed to decide what he said to whom. And needed to remember what he’d already said, about Arlo, about everything. His story wouldn’t feel scripted; it blended together naturally, with pauses and hesitations. He was pulling on his memory as he went, and he’d only done this part a hundred times. Just never with something so… really personal.

“Arlo was my first friend out of foster care. I wandered around for two years doing probably illegal side work as a detective. Then, when I got to Billings, my Malibu had this hiccup in the engine I couldn’t figure out, so I brought it in to this mom and pop place to get it checked out. Not a chain store, no long-term records in case I had to bounce. The guy at the counter was – Kosuke, I’m not exaggerating when I say six seven, six eight, three hundred pounds easily, all muscle. And he just – talked to me. He noticed the mileage on the Malibu and somehow realized that I was basically living out of it. Offered me a place to crash for the night, then paid for a motel room when I wouldn’t stay at his place. That’s just… that’s the kind of guy he was. Somehow, whenever I tried to leave, he had something that’d keep me there. Side jobs, finally the mechanic job – ‘oh don’t worry Todd, it’s just a couple weeks, until we can find a new guy’ then bang, it’s been two years. And if I asked for any help doing the PI side work, he’d back me up one hundred and ten percent. He… never knew everything about me, not everything he should’ve, but we were there for each other when it actually counted.”

He adjusted his cap, and set the mug down.

“I can’t really give you an example of the times out there, it’s been a while, but… Do you remember that guy I told you about? The one who offered me a job? I– dug around, a little. And I found out who he is. Arms dealer, new in town. Probably just looking to recruit in general. That’s my kinda thing.” He’d apologize to Ethan later, he’d already decided. Making it seem like he was accidentally giving too much information – that was a good way to keep Kosuke distracted from the things he wasn’t saying about Arlo. “He seemed to take a real shine to me. I’m– I’m thinking about taking this in he’s offered me with his group. Not the job itself, but… Undercover work. It’s possibly my best shot at figuring out what they’re up to, because this doesn’t seem like run-of-the-mill gun running.”

He rested his forearms on the counter with a sigh.

“And this isn’t just me playing the hero. Sammy– she lost a good friend to this group. She wants to see them go down more than anybody, but they’d know her on sight. Not like that’d stop her, if she knew, she’d run in headfirst because that’s just who she is. God, she’s so much like him that way. Stubborn, hotheaded, not scared of anything. But if I can get a lead, get information first, get something for the authorities if I’m not caught…”

He relaxed a little, like something had dampened his spirit and softened his muscles, and then shook his head. “But getting caught would be a death sentence. They wouldn’t forgive a mole. This kind of thing – this is what Arlo was to me. He’d do anything, cover for me, back me up, act as intimidation if I actually needed it. I’m not exactly the scariest guy out there. I know Sam would do that for me, and more, if I let her, but I can’t lose her. I can’t lose someone else.”

He stared at the counter for a minute, then looked back at Kosuke, eyes reflecting back the gentle concern he’d been shown, the humanity, the compassion. It wasn’t even entirely fake – in fact, it was really just a processed form of his own grief and regrets.

“You’ve got my dirty laundry, Kosuke. It’s your turn. What happened to you?”
Arms dealer. Actively recruiting. New in town. Big enough to already have a group, and dangerous enough to have already taken lives.

Kosuke nodded. He had been the whole time, as a way to show he was listening- the things Todd was saying, about Arlo, about his life, and the things he was not, about his death. That was hardly reason to be suspicious, though. Kosuke hadn't asked him about how things ended, he asked about how things were- and he seemed satisfied with the response. He seemed like a nice guy, really. The kind of guy someone like Todd really needed in his life. No wonder he had issues with attachment, now; losing someone that meant so much was devastating, no matter how you lose them.

Though he looked somewhat uncomfortable with the topic, Kosuke decided he would honour Todd's request, and respond to his confessions in kind. He drank his coffee and stared down into the ice, its coldness reflected in his face as his face was reflected into it.

"Akira. His name was Akira."

His speech was slow and quiet, more a byproduct of whatever was going on inside his head than anything purposeful. A way to keep moving. A way to keep grounded. He was reluctant to speak, but he had to, now. There was no other choice.

"We were buddies, back in college. Met at induction, ended up sharing a room together later down the line. He said he followed me around because I made him feel cooler than he was, which was odd, since he was a pretty popular guy as it stood. Y'know, he was quick, funny, kind of a flirt, but a real fucking hothead- the kind of guy you'd find annoying now, but when you're nineteen or so, they've still got their charm.

He looked thoughtful, as he spoke- lost in his own head from the very first word. It was like Todd wasn't there at all.

"He was a singer, as well- only guy in the world with a voice that rivals my own, that's what I'd always say, but.. god, I could tell from day one, this kid would die for me- and, yeah, I abused that trust a little bit. Invaded his crowd, split them off, broke their hearts- look I'm not saying I wasn't also a shithead nineteen year old, here. We were both assholes, I was just... quieter about it, yeah?"

(Sammy? Who the fuck was Sammy?)

"Anyway, when we graduated, we took a couple of mutual friends, and we travelled- did shows in shitty bars, started fights outside shittier clubs, rode around on the shittiest motorbikes- god, looking back, it was almost funny, how cool we thought we were. It was like... we were all so boring and studious in high school and college, that we had to have our teenage rebellion in our twenties."

(He was buying her the same sort of stuff that Samantha listened to.)

"But... yeah, it didn't stay funny for long. We, ah- we found ourselves in a pretty sketchy part of town a few times, ended up having a few close shaves with... well, people you don't wanna piss off. Akira was always nervous about that sorta thing, but I- fuck, man, I thought I was immortal, y'know? I though this was still college- that I could fuck people over and get off without consequence. But... well, this was the real world. This was reality."

(And Samantha, he knew, believed she had lost a friend to Obsidian. To Slate.)

"One of them caught us. No idea what we did to piss him off, really- honestly, I don't know if we pissed him off, or if he just got a kick out of this sort of thing. But... we never met him, not until later. The old bastard decided he'd hit us where it hurt first- I guess to show he was serious, or something. He... he fucking- killed my brother. Pushed him off the roof of his apartment, or something. Made it look like a suicide- a real convincing one, as well. Akira and I- Todd, we watched him fall."

(Then, Todd was talking about Slate.)

"I had to stop him. I had to. Men like that make me fucking sick- arrogant, conniving little serpents who have their hands in everything, in everyone, who think that makes them gods. I wasn't going to let this slide- I couldn't. So, I told Akira- we're going to find the fucker who did this, and we're going to kick his shit in so hard, he'll throw himself off that goddamn roof. And... god, I really- Akira fucking agreed. He was scared shitless, but he agreed. He didn't even know the guy who died- all he knew was how much it hurt me, and that was enough. That was enough to..."

(Then, Todd was infiltrating Slate.)

"Fuck, sorry. It's hard to- I haven't had to- I don't talk about this, Todd. Not with anyone. It was my fault that he fucking died- it was my fault that any of this happened at all, to any of them. If I hadn't dragged us to that part of town, if I hadn't pissed off the wrong person, if I hadn't dragged Akira into my blind quest for revenge, then- then he wouldn't have followed me to that casino, he wouldn't have tried to stab that bastard, he wouldn't have-"

(Then, Slate had let him in.)

"Yeah. We... uh, we tracked him down, traced him to the basement of this casino- some weird member's club for rich criminals, that sorta thing. He let us in, sat us down to explain himself, fucking taunting us the entire time, like he knew Akira was going to go after him, when..."

(Then Todd...)

"Truth be told, I have no idea what happened. No idea at all. He must've held something heavy over Akira, something real personal, real deep because- all I saw was him leaning in, saying something, making some sort of threat, and then... Akira... just broke. Didn't speak to me at all, when he left- he just took his bike from outside, left his helmet on the floor, and drove it five minutes in the wrong lane of the highway. Just like that. He collided almost immediately- ran right into a truck, fucking splattered himself across the asphalt in a matter of seconds."

(...was a metahuman.)

Kosuke sighed, finally looking up from his coffee. His face was hollow, his eyes were empty- there was a weight to his expression that his face couldn't carry, like he wanted to show sadness but couldn't. The void would have to suffice. It seemed cold enough.

"Sorry- that... that was a lot." He said, "It just... it helps to get it off your chest, yeah? This sort of thing really- it sticks in the head, if you're not careful."
Todd’s face showed how closely he was following the story. A fond softness, free from judgment, when Kosuke described what being nineteen was like. (As if he could’ve judged anyway, given what he’d been doing at that age.) A slow relaxation at the memory of an open road. Soft horror and compassionate pain at the description of the man who’d taken to fucking with a couple of twenty-somethings for apparently no reason. A twitch of his nostrils and a glint in his eyes at the mention of the arrogance of humanity. (He didn’t think of his own arrogance, or that once upon a time, he’d thought himself more than a god.)

The anger softened at the apology, brought back under control with just a slight release of tension in his face. That relaxation stayed, only softening more in sympathy as Kosuke described what happened to Akira. That was why he blamed himself, then. That was where the guilt – at least, it should be guilt, it had the right tone and external signs – came in. And Kosuke wasn’t lying. Not about enough of it for him to notice. The distraction, the distance, that was enough for him. If it was a lie, then it deserved to fool him.

But he met his friend’s eyes as they looked back up at him, met them with his own gaze – and though he was the one with a hole where he should have a heart, he realized that in that look, there wasn’t any real emotion. The attempt was there; the attempt was real. The knowledge of what Kosuke should feel. There was something in those eyes that reminded Todd of someone he tried not to think about.

The attempt was there. The attempt was real. The attempt would be enough, even if he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. The eerie similarity to a man who’d been broken so thoroughly that the camera from his interview only picked up flashes of emotion as they flickered across his skin was coincidence, nothing more. He couldn’t fault Kosuke for looking like his father in that moment. Any more than he could fault Sam for being so much like Arlo.

He smiled with his lips closed. It wasn’t deliberate – instinct took over for a second, mimicry of the right social cue for Kosuke’s behavior. Just while he untangled his thoughts, suppressed the part of him that couldn’t help but keep seeing similarities, now that they’d come to his attention.

Kosuke was his friend. Human, though… his father had been, too. Still was, fuck him. But this was different. This was as natural as Todd’s own camouflage. He still wouldn’t give his friend that lecture, especially not now, but he saw through the mask for the first time, and knew the quiet void underneath, where Vanity’s voice resonated around. He’d seen other hollowness, but this one was so natural that he pushed both Lyle Hart and Lament out of his head. He didn’t know which word was right for what he was seeing – sociopath, maybe, or narcissist. But the attempts, those were clear.

He was trying to be human. And mostly, he was succeeding. Todd wouldn’t let Kosuke see that he’d noticed what he was, because that wasn’t who Kosuke was. Kosuke was choosing to be his friend, the open, calm, laid-back record store owner. At least next time he wouldn’t freak out as much when he noticed the mask slip.

After a second of silence, with that reassuring little smile under sad eyes, Todd shook his head a little.

“It helps, to get it off your chest. I get it. If you don’t, it just sits there until you can’t breathe anymore.” Another pause, and the smile faded, although the sadness receded, too. Both into something like real gratitude.

“Thank you for telling me, Kosuke. That– thank you.”
He kept an eye on Todd's response; instinctive, algorithmic, a set of queues with none at all missed. His attention was unbroken, and his face remained placid. Human, despite everything he knew- everything he now knew. The reaction of an ordinary man, looking a little too deeply into something that wasn't all the way there.

His gaze flicked downwards, back to the counter. The emptiness had vanished- though, with his eyes averted, it would be difficult to tell.

"It does. Yeah."

He laughed.

"It's funny- I spent this whole time telling you to open up, to let these things out, and now I'm- ah, this isn't."

A pause- trying to find the right words, most likely.

"I guess... it's just harder than I thought. You don't know how much these things change you until you play them back, huh?"

There was a frown starting to etch its way into his face- deep and serious. Not quite grief, not quite longing; it seemed more peaceful than anything else. Something cold. Accepting.

"You don't really see who you are until you hold them up to who you were." He muttered, "I always liked to think I'm better now, like I'm someone else entirely, but..."

He looked up, back at Todd, keeping his gaze sheathed behind the sunglasses.

"Maybe Kosuke is. Maybe, behind that, I'm still the same. Maybe the rage he left me with, the misery, the violence-"

A pause. His tone shifted a little- a reluctant explanation.

"He killed himself so I never could. Fucking- built up all that pressure, then sealed off the outlet. And, fuck knows, it worked."

That part, in its entirety, was genuine.
The anger was real.

It didn’t come out of Kosuke’s throat in a growl, or a whisper. His friend kept the same tone for the last as he had for the first. Because – that was Kosuke, just like this was Todd. They were who they’d made themselves, both of them. If Todd hadn’t been so tired, he might’ve laughed with relief at finding the closest human thing he could to a kindred spirit.

Instead he said, as another faint smile bled in, “You don’t have to dwell on it.”

He took a deep breath. His eyes closed for a second, and behind the lids was a face much like his own. Whiter, with blond spirals where his curls were black, but the same cold blue eyes. The face of a real monster. He released his breath, and reopened his eyes to look down into his empty mug.

“Our best revenge is living a life they can’t lay a hand on,” he continued, softly. “You’re Kosuke because you’ve decided to be Kosuke. Kosuke is a choice you make every single day, when you wake up and come in here and make people happy just by being yourself. I’m Todd because I wake up, drag my sorry ass to Vik’s, and fix people’s cars so the world can go round, so Sammy can have whatever wholeness she thinks I can give her. My mom – I don’t remember too much of her, but one of the things I remember is something she used to say to me, when I was a kid.”

It wasn’t something he lived by. It wasn’t something he could live by. But he’d seen Kosuke, seen him live. His mom would’ve liked Kosuke, he thought. Then, he wondered where that thought came from. He wanted to shake the thought off.

He looked up at Kosuke, met those eyes that weren’t really hollow anymore with eyes that were too tired to be a predator’s.

“Kindness makes us human.” He chuckled. “I know it’s silly, and optimistic, and just the right thing to tell an eight year old who did… I don’t even remember. But I think it’s a good framework for trying to be a better person. And I think you’re doing a good job with that. Better job than me anyway.”