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Death Loses in a Beauty Contest

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Kindred had been busy. It was hard to say when, but some time following the Noxian invasion, the once isolationist Ionia had finally, and irrevocably, broken. Beneath its veneer of pacifism showed the unwelcome face of warring factions, secret cabals, and political turmoil. In a place that boasted the greatest level of spiritual enlightenment in the world, asassinations were now fashionable. Such was the power the Noxian war machine, whose efforts required Lamb to keep the knowledge of countless half lives. Now more than ever, their fleeting names and faces could share only a moment of her consciousness before falling back into the obscure reaches of memory, and then nothingness. Only an unusual few managed to, through certain peculariaties, persist.

Killers came and went, and died, but Lamb would be lying to say that Khada Jhin, among them, was not remarkable.

The Virtuoso had long stood at the edge of Kindred's awareness. They both were able to admire his work, which was practiced and violent at once, sometimes at intervals. Most of those he killed met their ends between Wolf's waiting teeth, but in those rare cases when Jhin's victims preferred the arrow, when they were collected about themselves and able to say "this is you, killing me," she remembered why it was the man was so despised. The work was not merely carnage; the work was stolen lives, taking everything someone ever was and could ever hope to be and turning it into an almost.

Tonight seemed to be one of those occasions. Wolf was growling low in his throat, not eager like he usually was catching the scent of fear. The victim in question, a human girl, met his gaze slowly, her wide, hopeless eyes wet at the lashes. His quarry would often cry at the end of the hunt, yes, that was good, but the rhythm of her heart, which Lamb and Wolf both heard very clearly, was only slightly nervous, a mild fluttering; it did not suggest someone who was tired and bleeding out on an empty stage.

The human closed its eyes before them slowly. If it had been scared it might've flinched or kept them open. It was supposed to be scared! Instead it wore the faintest of smiles. A knowing look that asked them, "Well? What will you do?"

No, it wasn't a girl, Lamb supposed. The curve of her back as she sat perched on the piano bench, fingers sliding off the keys and legs pressed together with one foot numbly on the sustain, suggested a woman. A few notes still lingered in the air, their sound fading and blurring as though through the depths of dark water. She had been singing and was now finished. It was a sad song. Lamb understood the words but not the feeling behind them. Wolf didn't know the words but was profoundly unhappy for reasons he could not explain.

Jhin was somewhere in the middle.

About an hour ago he had expected this to be easy. This was a sort of performance-between-performances, nothing special about it, just the usual routine: fire the first three bullets and let them bleed beautifully, watch as his work tried to escape, make his grand re-entrance, relishing the moment despair claimed their features, and establish the finale.

But this one hadn't struggled, nor had she looked for an exit. She seemed to be going wildly off the script. The woman had the sort of figure that'd look nice dead and draped over a piano, so he'd shot her in the shoulder, calf, and upper thigh and hoped she had enough instinct — admittedly he might have been expecting a little much here as most people are idiots — to lean against the one behind her on stage.

By the time he came back for her final scene she was instead poking at the keys carefully.

"How quaint," he had thought, humming softly to himself, "a little music for the show." Amateurs often improvised on his stage, which was a nuisance, though not something he couldn't handle. But it had been no use; her song was in triple meter (terrible, terrible) and no matter how hard he tapped or hummed he had not been able to reset the music in his head which had been startled into silence.

So instead he'd listened, walking quietly towards that stage, without even raising his weapon, and he'd sat in the front row, and he'd heard her strange words, and that's when he'd realized she was singing a love song to her killer.

In the silence that followed the final measure, Jhin noted with some interest the sound of his heart hammering in his chest. He longed to sit there and let the feeling wash over him — in the cold glow of the stage, a woman bleeding there, dying, loving him, a woman he could kill at his leisure, whose heart he would make literally and figuratively burst, the inevitable fourth act hanging over their heads like a heavy blade. He could make love to that picture.

But the Virtuoso would not miss his cue.

He gave her polite applause, the sharp sound of his hands coming together punctuating the musty silence. "Such a lovely performance," he said, rising from his seat, but quickly amended: "Though it was hindered by the clumsy use of 6/8 time."

The woman hardly stirred, though a smile pulled at her features. "The two of us have not been entirely honest with each other," she said, unable to divert her gaze from the pictures she saw on the piano keys. "Do you plan to kill me?" It was a stupid question to ask. Meeting the gaze of his unseen guests was like staring into an endless winter sky.

"My plans have not changed, my dear." Jhin approached the small set of stairs leading up to the apron, running his hand along Whisper's loaded barrel. He gracefully mounted the steps, pausing on each one for dramatic effect.

Wolf snorted and bared his large teeth. "The girl thing is playing a boring game. I want a chase!"

"She is sad, dear wolf," Lamb observed. "She is in love, but this love is not returned." It was an unusual case to be sure, but Lamb recognized the gentle reverence in her gaze as Khada Jhin tilted the woman's face towards his own, wiping a tear with his thumb, as some kind of love. He pointed the gun at her chest as though it were a delicate offering.

Lamb wondered about this man, and what he did in his spare time. Slept, traveled. Convserations, none. Relationships, purely transactional. He too would know the loneliness of death in a place that feared it. Yes, that was the word. His compulsions had forced him to be lonely.

The woman laughed. "Meeting you is so much worse than I'd imagined," she said with fresh tears. "It was so much nicer to think you would care nothing for me than to die knowing it." Jhin was looming over her.

"But I do care for you," he said. "I had thought this would be an ordinary performance but you — your feelings — have inspired me." His fingers moved up her face. "Your unrequited love will be spelled out in blood." She closed her eyes. Unrequited was as much a threat to her as anything else.

How strange this woman was to love such a person, to have placed herself so obviously in harm's way for reasons beyond Lamb's cold, logical approach. Compelling, in its way. Whatever she was feeling had caused Wolf, ordinarily thrilled by the thought of imminent bloodshed, to become sullen and impatient. These were two of the unusual few in the same room.

"No, I suppose not unrequited," Jhin conceded quietly. "In a way, I do love you. Your potential has seduced me, my little pet. And now, together we will perform a masterpiece."

"A magnum opus," the woman said dryly.

"Perhaps even that."

Lamb, who was perched atop the piano, felt the delicate curve of her wooden bow. She met the woman's eyes and wondered if she might be a little spontaneous today. She said, "Beautiful one, this man intends to kill you, just as he has killed countless others. Your own death is at hand. Still you would forgive him?" The woman who sat on the piano bench behind that gun gave an incline of the head, exhaling so softly only the dust in the room was disturbed by it.

"It is stupid," said Wolf.

Lamb glared at him. "Hush." Then, returning: "He has heard your cries and yet rejects you. It is likely he does not understand your feelings and they will not be returned, not as you would like them to be. Still you would pursue him?"

Jhin saw the woman nodding. Desperate little pet, he thought, or perhaps she understood, after all, her purpose in the grand scheme of things, in his work. Such was unlikely — very few truly knew the depths and nature of his genius — but let her think what she likes. It was better this way. Some worrying part of him was relieved to see her at ease.

With the thought of her gentle smile to console him, Jhin let go of her face and pulled the trigger. He tried to imagine what the bullet looked like as it tore through her heart, rearranging the pieces, layer after layer after layer. Normally evidence of a kill on his costume was an annoyance, but at that moment he regretted not getting blood on her hands, her actual hands, so he might keep the two red stains of her desperately reaching out and clinging to him.

"He shot her, Lamb! Strike now!" cried Wolf, circling the scene, the sight of fresh blood reminding him of what he was. But Lamb made no move for her weapon. Instead, with a movement of her fist, the stage flooded with life.

"Not here," said Lamb. "Not yet."