"You take what needs doing into your own hands," he supplied. "I get that."
This was no interrogation. The details about the police lifestyle were something to remember, but bore as little relevance to the man before him as his day job at Δcorp. That was an aspect of his life which had steadily fallen away in the last month. They wouldn't term him, not yet - he hadn't done anything egregious, and he could fake his work decently enough. The money had been flowing in for a while, but every night he went out, the less real that seemed, like it was the fantasy and this was real life.
Someday soon, he felt, Δcorp wouldn't matter at all. All it would take was a push.
After a pause, he continued. The words he spoke next were kinder. Easier.
“Lost a good friend on the job. Best person I ever knew.”
He didn’t get choked up about Arlo anymore. He’d been talking about him more, and that was helping him reach catharsis. He’d never fully forgive himself for what happened, but – as much as he hated to think about it – Obsidian had been right. He’d been defending himself, and he had been surviving.
Unlike The World. The World did not kill for necessity. He wasn’t called by some secret hunt, not as far as Cryptid could tell. He killed because he saw killing as the best way to do what he was doing. He was wrong, obviously. But you couldn’t tell someone like that they were wrong, not in words. He’d been like that before Arlo. Arlo hadn’t been able to talk to him, so he’d shown him instead.
Todd didn’t work with newbies, though. He really didn’t have Arlo’s patience.
“He would’ve hated that little show back there,” he continued, his voice steady. “Like Phoenix, strictly no-kill, and made sure everybody around him had the same attitude. And, before you say it, that’s not what killed him.”
The one time he’d suspended his morals. The one time he’d gone for the throat – or the spine, or the ribs, or anything that would slow Cryptid down enough that he could be killed faster than the healing factor could fix him. That had been what killed Phantom Ox.
God. He never thought that would ever seem like a mild name compared to someone else. Really, it wasn’t, he was just annoyed by his situation as he decided to keep to the ground rather than take back up to the rooftops. Truth be told, he had no clue where he was heading. Definitely not back to the Malibu. But he walked like he knew his exact direction, hoping The World got bored of talking before he actually had to get somewhere.
It was in line with the question he'd asked, but the answer was still touching. A friend lost on the job. And he had a no-kill rule, so this wasn't a policeman. This happened afterward. That detail was interesting. Usually it was the other way around - lose somebody, then become a vigilante, or what have you. But that detail wasn't important. It could be combed through later.
I can't keep this on now, can I? he thought, brow knit. He sighed and his shoulders slumped. With one hand, he reached up and yanked at the back of his mask, where the seam met his neck. He took a moment to smooth his hair as he held the cowl at his side.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Cryptid."
There was no manic light in his eyes this time. Just genuine affinity, unexpected even to him.
"I know what that's like. I lost someone too."
Instead of a faceless gunslinger, Cryptid would see a gaunt man with dark circles under his eyes and a thin white scar over his lip.
His head turned toward the rustle of cloth. The World’s sigh had already sparked curiosity, and now as he looked he saw the thin, tired man. The man who had to be years older than Todd, despite his relative inexperience. Not everybody took up lethal vigilantism fresh out of high school, he realized. And he didn’t forget the guy was a bastard, but – Todd was still human. Even monsters got second chances, he reminded himself. Even bastards were people.
“You should pace yourself,” he said without thinking. A little redirect, a little friendly advice. The edge of irritation faded out, with a little focus. He didn’t drop his pace at all, though, and his own mask stayed firmly in place. Both of them, dark eyes and white grin. Still, The World’s sympathy was reflected back to him in body language and tone. “Burning the candle at both ends won’t make you more effective. It’ll just wear you out.”
“I know.” A lot of the tension in his body was fading the farther they got from the bodies, from the warehouse. “I like to walk, this time of night, and given you haven’t disappeared yet I figure you want to talk.”
He paused, then took a deep breath. The kind of deep breath that said I have something to say, so if you want to disappear now’s a good time for it.
“It might seem easier now not to have a civilian identity, but it’s good to have something like that to ground yourself. Better not to accept being identified as an inevitable, you know? We’re all defined by our decisions. Have a hobby, get a side job, you don’t have to be who you are now. But if you don’t have something besides this? If you treat that back there as your vocation? You’re gonna get lost, man. I can guarantee you’re not gonna be the person you want to be.”
It helped, Todd realized, that the eyes and voice he’d picked as a second mask were more in the range of The World’s age than his own. It would suck for him if Nat tried to talk down to him, even if he’d had more experience. Hell, Nat did talk down to him, sometimes, when he thought he knew something Todd didn’t. He was usually right, but that didn’t change that it was only sometimes admirable or – and Nat would never hear him say this out loud – even cute. Todd wasn’t trying to teach The World, though. His tone was friendly. It was advice from experience, not a lesson to be learned. Completely open for interpretation.
He didn’t work with newbies, he reminded himself. Nat was an outlier, he was keeping an eye on him for the sake of making sure a stupid kid didn’t get himself killed or get in his way. But there was something in the gaunt man’s tired eyes that gave him the same kind of unease that he’d felt with other monsters he’d met, lately. The World wasn’t a monster. But he could be. Was he just trying to prevent that, he wondered, or was he trying to see if he’d push?
Questions for another time. For later. For himself. For now he needed to see if his advice was going to be received or argued with.
"Buddy, I'm already there," he admitted with a shrug.
It wasn't a deflection of the man's sober words. This was the first person he'd actually talked about what he was doing with, and twisted as he might have been, the World could feel the empathy in his tone. He didn't want to shoot him down with some smug remark or cryptic quip. He felt comfortable here - still as invincible as before.
"Truth be told, I'm not careful enough to avoid detection. I'll slip up. But I can't let that stop me. We'll cross that bridge when we get there. It's not like there's a jail cell that can hold me."
"That's another reason it has to be me. The police can't physically do anything about me, so they have plausible deniability. No point in locking me up when I'm caught. I'll just leave."
The implications of Cryptid's statement still hung over him. That he wouldn't be the man he wanted to be.
"You're one of the good ones, Cryptid. I'll remember this. Give me a ring if you need transportation."
Digging a phone out of his pocket, he tossed it to the lanky vigilante. There was one number stored on it - the World's.
Cryptid caught the phone, careful about his claws. He turned the screen on, checked the time, then slipped it into his pocket with a nod. The World wasn’t really listening to what he’d said, as far as he could tell. But that wasn’t the worst case. The seed had been planted, and maybe the other man would at least think about the advice. He was right about being somewhat invincible when it came to the cops – but Todd had once thought he was invincible, too.
It took one person to shatter that worldview. He honestly hoped it didn’t have to come to that for The World. But if it did… well, the other vigilante was offering a lot, with a phone number and a quick way out. If Todd set his heart to it, he had a feeling he could find out who’d bought minutes for the number.
He wasn’t planning to do that, though. That wouldn’t be fair.
“I’m sure you’ve got this number saved. You need backup or a place to crash once your identity’s out, let me know. I could give you a hand.”
Equal exchange, no favors owed between them. He was glad that he hadn’t let his anger slip earlier, even if the guy’s attitude still annoyed him just a little. He didn’t seem like the type to ask for help. More important, though, was the communication that Cryptid was willing to help The World out, as long as lines didn’t get crossed. Could be friendship. Could just be business. Time would tell. For now, the help was accepted, and offered in return.