TRANSIENT VIRTUE"Thank you for this. I mean it."
"Hey, it's alright, honestly. I want you to be safe- and I want you to feel safe as well, yeah?"
It was odd seeing Cass like this; receded into herself like a pillbug, hands a thousand leagues deep in her pockets, hood pulled up tight to cover her freshly-dyed hair- anonymous, or as anonymous as she could get. She could never be described as shy, or even nervous before, but something seemed to have got to her that day. Kosuke noticed from the moment she walked into work. Usually, what lay behind her smile was judgement, bitterness, but today? Today she was twitchy, and quick, and curt; had been since the morning, only getting worse as the hours rolled on and the evening drew nearer.
He had taken her aside mid-afternoon, whilst the store was empty and he still had cover from the lunch rush. Guarded as she was, it didn't take long for her to tell him what was going on. Kosuke always had been easy to talk to; perhaps a little too easy. It was a boyfriend, she said- well, a one-night thing, a friend of a friend, someone she hadn't given much thought at the time but now seemed convinced she would be the one to fix him. Well, either fix him or kill him. Somewhere along the line, his delusion had turned violent. Aggressive. Then, last night, as she was walking home from work, suicidal.
Kosuke asked why she had come in that day. She said she needed a different crowd; people who weren't in that circle, who wouldn't bring it up to her as a tragedy to mourn. She was paranoid, too, as the last person he was seen with. There had been a lot of crime lately, and the increase in metahuman violence meant anything was possible. A suicide was easy to fake- or, god forbid, induce. What if they thought it was her?
Admittedly, there wasn't much Kosuke could do to help ('Really, just hearing me out is fine enough.'). He gave her the rest of the week off, offering to cover the shifts he wouldn't otherwise be taking ('But you're already overworked as it is!'), and offered to walk her home in the evenings ('Isn't your apartment way closer?'). She was grateful for that, despite her insistence; they both knew she just wanted the company.
So, here they both were; walking home in the bitter evening, Cass constantly checking over her shoulder, and Kosuke constantly looking to reassure her.
"We did well, today." He said, "Good sales. I know you don't give a shit about that, but-"
"I know you don't give a shit about it, either."
"Yeah, but..." He returned the laugh, "Yeah."
It was just something to change the subject to, really- something to distract her with. His words, like his gait, were casual, yet purposeful; careful, without seeming like they were.
"Did you go to Resident for that- uh, that party they were doing?"
Cass shook her head.
"Not my scene. I don't like being judged- I prefer doing the judging, y'know?"
"Yeah, I feel the same. I'll admit, the only reason I go is I like it when people recognise me, y'know? I like the attention. Couldn't give half a shit about the place itself- though, ah, with the exception of-"
"Downstairs, of course."
"Of course." He smiled, "That old man needs someone to talk to, as well."
They continued like this as the walk wore on, idle chatter on local matters, from the perspective of two people who thought themselves far above that sort of thing. It was enough to fill the time, and just about enough to distract Cass from her immediate worries, as well. Kosuke always had been good with distraction; perhaps a little too good. It was appreciated here, though. By the time they had reached her door, Cass had visibly relaxed. Her posture was almost back at its usual slouch, her eyes were no longer darting about quite as much, and the look on her face was considerably less haggard. She glanced over to Kosuke as she opened the door, smiling slightly.
"Thank you. Really, thank you."
"Hey, any time." He smiled sympathetically, "Like I said, I want you to be alright. You're our best barista- VULTURE would be in a shit load of trouble if you left."
"No, but- seriously, Cass. Any time." Kosuke sighed, "You're- like, you're a good friend, yeah? It's the least I can do."
"Hey... hey, man, you too. Thanks, again, I-"
Kosuke shook his head and smiled.
"Go, get some rest." He said, "I'll keep my phone on in case you need anything, okay? Don't be afraid to call me."
"I won't. Alright. I- yeah, alright. Good night, Kosuke."
She closed the door, but paused- opening it just a crack to say one more thing.
"And... and you get home safe, alright?"
She closed the door. Kosuke stayed at the step for a few more moments, in case she had anything else to add, before turning around and walking home. He put on a pair of headphones, playing whatever he had queued up, and turned the volume down; perhaps he had taken Cass's advice to heart, and wanted to be able to hear. It could be dangerous, at this hour, though the streets weren't completely empty; people were just starting to leave for parties, socials, gatherings, whatever they had going on. Kosuke kept his head down. If he saw anyone he recognised, he'd smile at them, but that seemed unlikely.
He had left his bike at home, again. VULTURE was just close enough to walk to, but he preferred to use his bike whenever he could. Sometimes, of course, it was nice to walk, but it was equally nice to sit- although, some could say he did that enough at VULTURE. It seemed that, in the months post-MYTHOMANE, Kosuke's sedentary tendencies had got even worse; pushing the chair around the store like a go-kart, rather than getting up to walk. He had mastered when to stop it so as not to crash, though, so it wasn't an effortless mode of transportation.
His apartment was on the middle floor of a fairly boring complex; nice enough to be comfortable, but nothing fancy. It was the kind of place you'd expect the manager of a record store to live, but not necessarily a rock star- though, when you actually entered the apartment and saw the way he had decorated the place, the latter would likely click into place. The external halls were empty; most of its residents weren't exactly party types. Kosuke took the headphones out of his ears as he approached his door, turning the key in the lock and stepping in, the red glow of the automated LEDs greeting him as he breached the threshold. The door clicked shut behind him.
Kosuke turned his phone off and threw it on the couch.
As much as he hated the bastard sometimes, he was proud of the persona he had crafted- if only for how practical it was in its eccentricities. Everything had been explained away. Exhaustion brought on by a nightlife of crime? Stress and overwork- plus, would you ever consider Kosuke a morning person? Knowledge of Pittsburgh's underground that no normal person should have? Research for the darker tone of VANITY PROJECT; plus, would you ever consider Kosuke a poser? The deliberate mask-slips where he let his cruelty seep through, intimidating his peers to get what he wanted? Well, he worked retail, didn't he? It would be weirder if he didn't have a scary side; plus, would you ever consider Kosuke a pushover? God forbid! God fucking forbid.
There were things to do, that evening, as there often were. People to watch, to track, to alter. He had his sights set on one young woman in particular. Hazel Clarke. 22. Metahuman. A fine arts student with a wide circle of friends; a good support network, helping her through the struggles her powers brought on. Her touch was corrosive. Something on her skin, some highly concentrated acid, could burn through almost anything it touched, so she had to learn to cover up. She was warm, all the time- too warm; wrapping her body in resistant material before putting on clothes, even in the height of summer. The only things that were removable were the gloves over her hands, since her degree required a bit more dexterity than they would allow. Her tale was one of tragedy, and of triumph. She had managed to contain her dangerous nature. She had managed to live, to thrive in spite of it.
Oh, it really was a pity. Not only for her, but for her network as well; attacks like this don't often happen to people who will be missed. It would ruin them. All of them. Scores of strangers he had only read about in passing, brought down from their ordinary lives to shatter against the concrete like porcelain urns of their friend's corrosive ashes. They'd be inconsolable at the news, praying her death was quick, at least- but, of course, of course it wasn't going to be. He wondered how many would try to deny that, how long that denial would linger. He wondered how many would seek out the man who did this, only to find a corpse, or a convict unable to conceptualise his own innocence, blinded by the guilt he was forced to bear. He wondered if he'd see any of them in the future. He wondered how many of them had a future.
But he was getting ahead of himself.
He pulled the jacket over his shoulders; thick and cut-resistant, the leather and padding providing both physical protection and a way to alter his figure. The boots served a similar purpose. Steel-capped monstrosities with knives hidden in the soles and a block inside, above the heel, making him stand a few inches taller than he normally did. The gloves. The belt. The thick leather pants. Then, before the mask, the face. He spent a while in the make-up chair, applying just enough to make himself as unrecognisable as he could. It wasn't flawless, especially from up close, but he looked like a complete stranger from afar. Once satisfied, he covered it with tight-fitting fabric, leaving a gap for his eye. Only then did he put on the wig, the mask, and, finally, the hat.
Lament armed himself, then walked out the door.
VICARIOUS SINShe was like him, he noted. Unlike many other metahumans he had met, her physical capabilities remained unaltered; she wasn't much faster, stronger, or more durable on top of her corrosive touch- all she had was her touch. Perhaps, with the right guidance, that wouldn't be so much of a weakness. God knows it wasn't for him, and his power tended to be a lot less destructive than hers. It's not the vessel that matters, but the pilot; and the sonic doomsday weapon he carried behind his teeth. Ah, well. It was too late for that now. The injuries she had sustained were, whilst not immediately fatal, unlikely to allow recovery. She had been fighting for too long, taken too many blows, shattered too many bones- Lament wasn't blessed with X-ray vision, but he knew a case of severe internal bleeding when he saw one.
It was vicious- it had been the entire time. As soon as that man laid eyes on her, he had no choice but to strike; wound up like a cheap toy. Violence was inevitable. Brutality was inevitable. What Lament hadn't been expecting was how long it had taken. As soon as the man's fist made contact with Hazel's face, his skin started to burn and blister. Repeated strikes to the head like that would've killed her in minutes, but there seemed to be just enough sense left in him to make him avoid that area for the rest of the sordid affair- anything uncovered, anything he wasn't protected against, he avoided. It was almost impressive, how well he could think through the fury. Anger must not have been a stranger.
Lament watched from his perch, leaning casually against a wall, recorder in one hand, audio player in the other- in his pocket, as unseen as he was. His thumb rested on the button, waiting for the right moment to drag this man back into lucidity, to make him realise what he had done. Not yet, he knew, not yet; her wounds were severe, but she'd likely survive an ambulance ride and die in hospital. He wanted her dead on the scene. He wanted him to watch her die, right then and there. That should be enough to make him listen, to make him accept the suggestion that he kill himself where he stood. All Lament would have to do was give him his gun back.
For now, he was content to observe.
More than content, actually; he was transfixed. As soon as the man had learned Hazel was a metahuman--the hard way--that became the only cognizable throughline to his maddened rambles. She was a weapon, a danger, she can't just do this to people and get away with it! What was she? What the fuck was she, and what did she do to his face- oh, god, his face!
And Hazel would struggle and claw, frantically trying to find out how much flesh she had to melt away before he left her alone, before the agony was too much to push through- an answer she'd find in minutes, were the scales not weighted, but one that would take her up until her death in the place she found herself in.
She was screaming, but it was unremarkable.
He was making more noise than her; shrill and primal and hoarse.
After a while, he stopped being able to rant. Whether that was because of the pain, or the deterioration of the muscles in his jaw, he was no longer able to form anything resembling a word. He was a mess, a horror. His face was almost entirely free of skin, by now; burned-red, slick with blood and pitted with open sores. His shirt was just barely clinging to his body, the plastic having melted and fused with the skin of his shoulders a long time ago- perhaps when she tried to push him off her, or when she tried to stop him punching her, or when she tried to grab him to calm him down. His hands, his weapons... you could see bone- bleached-white bone, sticking right through the knuckles, threatening to snap with every feral strike. It was nauseating, even to look at. He'd likely die of infection, if the fight were to last much longer.
But, still, he kept going.