Description: Not content with serving up Zach Glenn to Shadaloo on a silver platter, Scarlet Dahlia decides to pay a visit to the monster hunter's isolation tank. Luckily for her, he's unconscious -- and thus able to carry on a conversation with no worries of electronic eavesdropping.
Through the inky blackness, only one sensation remains -- the grip of a sword, forged out of sheer will.
And then, nothing.
How long it had been since then? Seconds? Hours? Weeks? The passage of time is meaningless to someone inflicted by a battery of invasive testing, chemical concoctions, and probing psychic assaults. Every second could stretch out into an infinity -- or it could be nothing. Context is required to form memories. And in the caverns of the mind, only memories can plant guideposts into the black void of subconsciousness.
So here you are, Zach Glenn.
Trapped within an infinite void.
Silent, and alone.
No voices to be heard.
No souls to be sensed.
. . . . . . .
Or perhaps it was only minutes?
How long had that presence been standing there? The warm, familiar presence. The woman, her voice full of rage. The woman, her touch soft as silk. The woman, the warmth of her heart a stark contrast to the chill. How long was it -cold- here ... was it always here too?
The past is irrelevant, Zach Glenn.
Honoka Kawamoto is here now. She is a mere foot away. But her presence is dampened, distant -- as if she were a tourist, separated from the caged beast by a wall of glass half a foot thick.
And though she feels nothing but sorrow... she says nothing, nothing at all.
But after such sensory isolation -- isn't her mere presence enough?
Muscles do not function. The body will not obey. But perhaps... if one were to shout into the void, it might be possible for her to hear.
Zach has been in a place like this before, and it is getting to be more times than he really cares to count. After that fight with the Princess Kitana, against Saiki for a moment, against...
If it were a thought, it would have skittered away from his mind. There is... nothing here. Just him. Nothing to see or hear or smell or touch or even sense through his talents as a psychic. Zach Glenn is not even sure there is a "here."
He has been here before, and it has always come as a direct consequence of the choices he had made for himself, except...
The thought is lost. But at least it is a thought, this time.
The past is irrelevant. The future does not yet exist. There is only "now." "Here" is still questionable. One very big, very VAST "now."
=...should have stayed home...=
=...should have spotted the trap...=
=...the whole thing felt wrong...=
=...ignored my instincts...=
From twelve feet away, the murky form of a face peers into the inky void. Skin, flesh -- no such crude things. This is a -spirit-, as pure white as the driven snow, peerking out through sifting grains of jet-black silt. The nose appears, only to hide as the cheeks well up. And then the forehead, and the lips...
And even -that- is a stretch. Nothing is complete -- no sense of personality, or self, from the -appearance-.
But it is her. Undeniably.
After a few moments, she stops trying to test the barrier.
And a few moments after...?
A noose will tighten about Zach's neck. At least -- that's what it will feel like, at first -- but further resistance will reveal that it's actually the long, distended fingers of a spirit, coiled around him from behind. And the pull is no less severe.
=Stop it! Just stop it now!=
The scream is distant -- distorted from passage through the inky void, as if it were a living body of water.
But he does not have a chance to investigate further as hands snatch for his neck! Zach lurches forward, almost instinctively, to try and escape the grasping finger, his own hands reaching up to try and pry this new sensation away from him. He turns, his right hand grasping out not at the source of the "choke" but at the open void in a familiar movement...
...but not a familiar outcome.
To be specific, nothing happens. No surge of power, no terrible shining claymore, no blade of psychic might comes to Zach's apparent call.
And that is enough to shake him, even in this not-a-place. He thrashes, starts to panic.
The struggle continues for a few moments, with the tendril-like fingers continuing to apply steady, unrelenting pressure to Zach's windpipe. The sinuous creature definitely feels... -similar- to the other figure, on a secondary level...
=Y-yes. Zach. It's me, Honoka...=
... there's something familiar about the creature as well. With Honoka's psychically-conveyed words, the creature's grasp begins to relent, as if it too is responding.
=There, see...? Just let him go...=
The creature relents further, retreating into the silt-like blackness -- its presence little more than a whisper at the edge of Zach's consciousness. The only one left is Honoka: the acrobat whom Zach had fallen in love with, so long ago, as most of her form begins to emerge from the murky depths. Her long hair flutters around loosely, as if she were underwater with Zach. Due to the dark, it would be difficult to make out any sort of color -- but that's where memories can fill in the blanks of her purple jacket, her dark-colored v-neck, her light grey shorts.
=We're here, Zach. Together.=
The figure smiles back at him. Just like she always would -- except for the creases of worry in the corners of her eyes.
Zach gasps, and coughs as the grip relents. He curls up into a fetal position, shuddering as he tries to fight down the panic. A part of him recognizes what is going on here. He's in a dream of some kind. Unlike those other times, though, he is not the one in control. He has no power to control or even adjust what is going on in it.
=...why are we here...=
=...where is here...=
Zach's thoughts are sluggish, quiet. The drugs and the experiments and the psychic tortures required for the V Project have battered Zach into this place, this corner. He is weak. Helpless.
Even through all of that, there is a faint stirring, that core of the person that calls itself Zach Glenn. But it is also weak, also helpless. But still there, still trying to assert itself. Still trying to make *sense* of everything that is happening.
The figure resembling Honoka presses its hands upward -- as if there was a glass cylinder around Zach, some four or five feet in diameter. And yet, if Zach were to reach for the boundaries of the cylinder, he wouldn't find them in this impossible space. The other figure's fingers press against the 'glass,' fingers growing large and pale in the process.
She can feel the agony.
And still she keeps up her hollow smile.
=We're in Mexico, Zach.=
A moment's pause...
The wheels are turning. And for a while, the figure stands there, frozen. Its head lowers, shakes side-to-side. A muffled sound can be heard -- but it's unintelligible.
=So we can become stronger, Zach.=
The revelation that "here" is Mexico gets a faint stirring from the curled up man. He raises his head weakly to regard Honoka. His eyes go wide when she supplies the "why," however.
And then there is another Zach, his face inches from hers. This Zach looks hale, healthy, and every bit as stripped down as the man still trying to find his bearings. His hair, normally a pale white, glows with wispy trails of gold and voilet that start at his scalp and travel to the tips before disappearing. Every scar that Zach has earned or received is visible, and Honoka would be intimately familiar with all of them. She'd even know the stories behind the three large scars, the two on his torso and the one over his left eye.
Flecks of gold and violet flicker and dance behind those green irises, and the three significant scars glow as golden energy seeks to escape through them. The man does not look pleased, but neither does he reach for the woman. It's almost as if he knows that such a thing would be futile.
=And so you sold me out,= this strong Zach says, in an impossibly level tone of voice. Honoka might be able to feel the anger, the *rage*, in the man, barely contained. Or did you even sell me?= His eyes narrow dangerously. =Because it sure as hell seems to me like you simply *gave* me to your new master.=
Strong Zach pulls away from Honoka. =I thought we were going to fight him together,= he says in a tone laden with accusation.
The figure of Honoka pulls back from this stronger instance of Zach. Her eyes widen, irises narrowing in apprehension. Hands clasp just in front of her cheeks, scarcely concealing the quailing expression in her face. =I... I...=
The other Zach, though -- the one curled upon the floor -- will receive a swift kick to the backside. =You would think that, wouldn't you... Headstrong and -stupid-, launching into things without even botherin' to think them out.=
Empress Dahlia -- in a torn, oil-stained attush, rests her heel on the ribcage of the fallen Zach. =Let's say you win -- and you got the guts to actually pull the trigger and -end his life?-= She snorts.
While the figure of the terrified acrobat waches on, the oil-stained Dahlia grinds her heel into the fallen Zach's ribs. =Winning the battle, sure, that's a thing. But when he comes back from the dead, it's not gonna be you he sends to hell. It'll be your family. Daddy, Mommy... Cousin, and Niece.=
She twists her heel once more -- and then sharply whips her foot back and -slams- her heel down.
=Knowledge is strength, Glenn. And fightin' someone you've got no chance of beating for good? That's just stupid...!=
Strong Zach winces with each impact, as if he can -feel- each little torment the Empress inflicts upon Weak Zach. His eyes narrow as suddenly Strong is in between the Empress and Weak. A hand snakes out, grabbing the front of the attush and lifts the Empress into the air with no apparent effort.
=So... /What?/ If you can't beat them, join them?=
=And be a part of whatever that monster does?=
Strong whirls, and throws the Empress at Honoka, mostly to test the limits of this prison he is in. His makeshift projectile stops short of Honoka, but puts the two of them close enough that he can get a good look at both of them. His eyes widen and then narrow again.
=...It was /YOU/ this whole time, and I didn't make the connection?= Strong straightens up from his throw, drawing himself up. =See, /NOW/ I feel stupid. All the dreams, all the scenarios and conversations. That was YOU the whole time.=
His fists close, power crackling around them. =The thing you never seem to have gotten,= he says slowly, =Is that some things, some people HAVE to be fought, no matter your chances of victory, no matter the cost. As much as it hurts, it /has/ to be done. The alternative to letting such people or forces run unchecked is /always/ worse.= He leans forward a little bit, every bit of the motion announcing an intent to start a fight here and now.
But he stops, and looks over his shoulder at Weak. A look of sorrow appears on his face, and stays there. His fists open and the power drains out of them. It's as if he knows that Weak is dead, regardless of the action, regardless of the outcome. That the part of him that has suffered the most from all of this is not going to survive whatever it is Vega has in mind. That the parts of him that in a lot of ways allowed him to exist like this, will not exist after all of this. That the parts of him that make his life's battles worth even considering will no longer be able to motivate him. Even if he wins here, he cannot escape this prison; he has been trying since...
...since what feels like forever. It's not even a remote option. It's not a matter of not giving up hope. Sometimes, you lose, and lose big. Strong turns back to face the paired women.
=If this is what you had planned for me,= he says evenly, =Then you should have just left me for dead on that island.=
And with that, Strong walks back over to Weak, and sits down to offer what aid and comfort that he can to the part of him that makes Zach Glenn who and what he is.
The Empress is swiftly hauled into the air -- and yet, even as the stronger of the two lifts upwards, it seems as if she weighs nothing at all. The Ainu-robed woman simply shrugs with a smug, condescending smirk upon her face. The utter -lack- of an answer being just as damning as the accusation.
As she's flung towards the cowering Honoka, the Empress simply spreads her hands and feet to the side, correcting her flight with the expert balance of an acrobat so that she simply... slows to a stop directly in front of her counterpart. Still, with that smug, overbearing expression.
When a realization is made, though? Her eyebrow arches, her lips purse.
=Always -me?- Of course it's always been =me=.= Her palm is spread wide -- her fingertips thrusting down to indicate the huddled mass of Glenn lying on the floor. =Look at that -- there's two of you. And neither of you is even that warhawk from the other timeline, now. Who do you have to thank for -that?- I'm -unlocking- you, Zach... Unleashing your true self!=
The malevolent Empress leans back -- passing -through- the invisible barrier, and coiling her arm around the trembling Honoka's hips. She starts to speak -- but just -seeing- the fire take hold of Zach, and the rage welling up is enough to give her pause, to fuel another delighted smile.
And then, just as quickly... the fire is snuffed out. And that draws a mock-frustrated pout from the Empress.
This time, it is Honoka who speaks up.
=I love you, Zach -- I always have! I just... I just...=
Empress traces fingertips across Honoka's cheek, that smile insinuating back onto her face.
=... And I would've been more than happy to let you rot, for interfering with each and every -one- of my plans, for spilling knowledge of the other world, the -dark- path, to anyone who would listen. But no, -love- defeats all, she insisted. And wouldn't you know it...=
The Empress waves her hand. And to her side -- a vast battlefield of death and tragedy opens up. Macabre, undead creations stalking through the devastated streets of Yokohama. Burned-out husks of buildings loom tall, their silhouettes barely able to blot out the burning triangle of Mt Fuji far off in the distance. And more death and mayhem spills out, as axes are drawn through defenseless Earthlings in shredded clothing.
=-This- is the future we stopped, Zach -- and don't you ever forget that. -This- is the future that Vega -prevented- by calling together all of the factions -your- shortsightedness would see ended as -treachery-...=
Empress draws in her hand again, sifting her fingers through the frightened Honoka's hair. And as she does so, strands of black filter through the devastated landscape, which shifts and shimmers -- restoring itself into the city both Zach and Honoka know so well.
=I am a 'tusukur'. That is often translated as 'shaman,' and yet, as you well know, it also encompasses the term 'spirit medium.'=
The Empress's smug smile grows, as she tilts her head to the side.
=It also means 'seer', as in being able to see the future. That's something you don't ever seem to consider...'
Honoka gulps, still trapped within the half-embrace of her more sinister doppleganger. And nervously, she adds in a meek whisper...
=... Fighting him head-on is... not going to work. He's ready for that, Zach.=
Strong looks up at the pair with a smirk.
=Seems I'm not alone in that, the whole being two thing,= he says, confidence and controlled fire in his voice. =And you seem to be missing a lot of things,= he says as he lets Weak relax a bit. The prone man seems to be hurting less, some of the fear and discomfort gone from him. =Even Glenn was not what you want to make us out to be. He was no destroyer, no warhawk. He was just a man who found himself in impossible situations and managed to rise to overcome them,= he says as he pulls himself fully upright. He watches the moments, hears the declaration.
=And yet,= he says after a moment, =Look at who you brought to your side in that mess. You didn't connect with the crime lords and the gangsters, or even the psychopaths when you were there. For any talk of unity, Vega struck out on his own. He did not summon anyone to his side, and you didn't gather to him either. You sided with a pair of defenders, one of which,= He jerks a thumb towards himself, =Could be considered fairly broken. The other one bearing his own deep wounds. Vega was killed by the Demon of the Fist. You survived. The Earth won.=
Strong shrugs, =So really, he didn't do -shit,- other than make you aware of a threat you already knew about.= Then Honoka offers her comment about how fighting head-on will not work. He sneers at this.
=And you *REALLY THINK* that he will not see an attempt deceit coming?= Strong asks rhetorically. =That's how he *WORKS*. He's all stealth and shadow and secrecy right up until he isn't... and he's been at this longer than either of us have been alive.= Strong stops, and takes a deep breath, as if reminding himself to think.
=So we've established that because he's unwholesomely strong, we cannot go toe-to-toe with him,= he summarizes. =And we've established that the knife in the shadows won't work either because he will see that coming, turning it into a head-to-head fight. You'll have to excuse me if my grasp of Ainu language is comparably pathetic, because I had only an inkling that the word covered so many concepts.= He looks at the pair.
=Plan C had better be a doozy,= he says after another long moment. =Because otherwise? We're both pretty fucked.=
No destroyer, no warhawk? Empress smirks, shaking her head.
=You're the very definition of a biased source. You do know that there's more ways out of a situation than simply -fighting-, right?=
Empress disengages from her counterpart, letting her fingers trail through the tinted locks before crossing both her arms. Her long, unruly hair floats along behind her weightlessly, perfectly in sync with the swishing of her attush robe. Zach's words only serve to instigate that smirk into an even more cruel and condescending pitch...
Until she whirls back to face him, face alight with manic glee.
=The -hell- I didn't work with madmen and criminals on that island! Who the hell do you think served you breakfast? Who nursed you back to health? Did you forget all about how your dream date from the Twilight Star Circus begged you to listen as she admitted the truth -- that she was in charge of the Akatsuki?=
She breaks into a fit of howling, hysterical laughter.
The shade of Honoka looks down, gripping one elbow and shuffling her feet in embarassment.
And Empress swoops in, clutching onto her from the side.
=Ohhh!!! You still think she's -unimpeachable!- Oh, that is so rich! That it's just -me- whispering into her ear, instead of us being co-conspirators?=
Another round of manic cackling -- bubbles of silt spilling out from her mouth.
=And you think Vega had nothing to do with it... consider this! If it weren't for Vega, we would have -never gone-...=
Empress releases her hold on Honoka, and pirouettes around. As Honoka slowly lifts her chin in search of Zach's eyes, Empress wheels about to his side, seeking to walk her first two fingers up his centerline, starting at the belt and ending at the base of his neck.
=We're both pretty fucked, you think? Ahahaha... that's adorable. You're still -doubting- me! Plan C as you call it... it's -perfect-, Zach... but knowing your tendency to babble, you'd spoil it all... So you'll just have to trust me a little longer...!=
Strong watchs. He listens. He even allows the Empress to get close, but takes a half step back to prevent the actual touch. He regards her for a moment.
And then he laughs. It's a rich thing, full of life, an alien sound in this landscape of nothingness. There is no scorn in it, no hate, just pure amusement. It continues for a moment as he brings it back under control.
=Tools. Pawns. Your fodder and your foot soldiers, sure. Probably the next best thing to lobotomized to prevent them from betraying you. But your choice of lieutenants, the people who were there with you and for you at the very end? Not so much. As for your claim that you wouldn't have come? I'm going to have to call bullshit on that one.=
He steps back in to the Empress' personal space, there is a certain amount of unintentional looming; it cannot be helped. Zach has a height and size advantage on the woman.
=All of your stuff is on Earth. Everything that you have worked to build, large and small, is there. And as your pointless fight with Burkoff illustrated, it's not /in you/ to back down from such a thing. That's what tipped me off that things were wrong with the cruise. It's one thing to back off and regroup, but simply quitting the field is something else entirely. If it were in you to do that, Your Highness,= this address is absolutely soaked in sarcasm, =Duke would not have destroyed your leg, wouldn't have /crippled you/, and we both know it.=
Then Strong starts to circle the Empress, seeming to size her up now that she's out of the shadows and in the open, almost like a guard dog trying to suss out a new visitor.
=You and I,= he says with total, implaccable conviction, =Are not all that different at the end of the day. We're both someone else's masks, different facets of a single person, brought forth to face something that we otherwise couldn't. Maybe you're a mask for Honoka,= he jerks his chin toward the acrobat, =Or maybe she's a mask for you. Or maybe you're both masks for someone else entirely. Both of us, though, serve a function. A /purpose/.=
He stops in front of the woman, meeting her gaze firmly. Then colors and sights flood the empty space around them, showing a multitude of scenes from Zach's prospective. Scenes as far as they eye can see in every direction. His brief clash with Duke, his fight against Kitana, Nagase, his brawl with Daniel Little before the Detective travelled the path into darkness, with Howard Rust, with Rock Howard, Zach holding a gun to Jade's head while a ghostly Frei provides translation. His ill-fated fight against Vega.
And then hundreds of fights Honoka would not know about, too many to share, against people and monsters and fangs and fur and blood and tentacles and things from beyond the Boundary and gods from another time. In every one of them Zach is afraid, terrorfied because he is smart enough to recognize the dangers he is facing, but standing his ground anyway because the alternatives are unacceptable to him.
=*I* exist,= he says evenly, =To protect him.= He points back to Weak Zach, =So that he can be the person that he wants to be.=
With that, the images change. Honoka will recognize some of them: Zach returning from Yet Another Trip with a new plushie in hand for her. Zach handing the entirety of his fight winnings to one charity or another, his whole share from the King of Fighters going to the Ainu Renewal Academy. Zach helping some lost kid find their parents at the mall, or returning stolen children to their homes. The psion helping someone recover from a minor injury gained in an accident. Zach walking into Honoka's hospital room in Hokkaido bearing a stack of tankobon about a young Ainu girl and a seemingly unkillable former soldier, positively excited to read and share with the woman.
=We don't always agree on everything,= he says after a moment, taking it all in himself. Pangs of pride, sorrow, elation, and a tumult of other emotions flow from Strong Zach. =We don't agree on you, for instance. And I don't know that I exist without him. But I *do* know that I don't really care to to find out if I can.=
He turns to walk back towards Weak Zach.
=It'd be a pretty empty existence, otherwise.=
Empress may have missed with her attempt to touch Zach, but that doesn't stop her from walking her fingertips a few inches away from her target. It's more about the proximity than the contact, after all.
The laugh comes as a bit of a shock though, causing her to draw her hand back, and fold long-sleeved arms over her chest. She listens with an amused smirk on her lips. The image of Honoka Kawamoto listens as well, hooking her thumbs into her shorts pockets, ribcage rising and falling with each breath.
Empress flinches -- but only barely -- as the stronger Zach steps into her personal space. If anything, she seems -more- amused that he's using his height as leverage against her.
She's less amused when he brings up Duke, her eyebrows lowering in outrage. Her face breaks into a snarl -- and her hands start to lunge forward as if to choke the very life out of Zach.
Those hands don't seal the deal, though. Honoka lifts one hand out to Empress -- and she whispers.
=Let him speak.=
Cowed, Empress shakes her head, thrusting her hands down to her sides. Her form seems very... gaunt and frail, as Zach inscribes a circle around her. And when Zach circles in front again, Empress glares daggers back at him -- fiery determination to just tear his head off, hand stayed only by the exhortations of the diminutive Heart.
Both Empress and Honoka watch the scenes unfold in silence, bright colors scintillating off the grains of silky-smooth silt, falling in curtains.
Honoka, and not Empress, is the one to speak.
=You're wrong about one thing. I'm all about saving my hide for another day, Zach.=
The pink-haired performer turns away for a moment, raising a hand to tearful eyes. =I.. I'd -love- to just run away from every single problem that could ever exist. I'd ... I'd -love- to just find an island where we can just live in peace, reading manga about the life we -could- have had, banging each other's brains out. We'd never have to hear about Jezebel Faiblesse failing to kill herself, we'd never have to hear about four hundred thirty of -my people- getting killed because one of our gods pitched a tantrum over mankind's overreach.=
Tears glimmer, frozen in mid-fall, as she slings her hand downward. A yo-yo dangles from her hand. She turns back to Zach.
And when she speaks again, both Empress and Honoka speak as one voice, in stereo.
=We don't get to relax.=
The yo-yo string trembles -- the blurred afterimages of its vibration gestalting to gray. Honoka sweeps the yo-yo around in a wide circle, and just like the arms of a clock, the gray vibration extends outward, stretching to infinity -- a wall of vibration cutting the room in half.
And when the image resolves again, a moment later, four hundred and thirty-two pair of eyes are looking back at Zach: those of Honoka, Empress, and the lost citizens of Nibutani Village.
=Listen to yourself. It's not about me... it's not about -you-.=
In stereo, where available.
Strong listens for a moment, not moving, not disagreeing.
=You... know that's not your fault, right? Raiden made his decision. Those consequences are on him, not you.= He narrows his eyes, brushing the thought aside with an impatient gesture. Then... something happens. The images, all of them, the eyes and the memories alike simply snap off, their surroundings going back to that infinite blackness. Strong looks around, his eyes narrowed as if looking for something. There is a startled gasp, and he whirls to see Weak Zach in chains, bound at the wrists and ankles. The chains stretch the man's limbs viciously and he lets out a startled cry.
As soon as the cry leaves his lips, the blackness goes to television static, then grey. And an insignia.
Well, that winged skull and lightning bolt is hard to be confused for anything else. Strong turns to face Honoka and the Empress, anger and concern warring for attention.
=We're running out of time,= he snarls. He collects himself as his counterpart struggles fruitlessly against the chains. =You two should go. I don't know if you'll be affected by what's about to happen, but there's really no point in finding out, either.=
He jabs a finger at the two women. =Despite everything, he still wants to trust you.= He looms, then grows a bit, protective drives giving him a certain amount of increased presence. =Fix. This.= He snarls between grated teeth. =Or you have my word you will not enjoy what follows.=
Empress takes a step closer, her eyes narrowing in petulant rage.
=How quickly you forget that you and Aranha freed 'Raiden' from his nice little pris--=
The thought is interrupted by oscillating curtains of silt, the images erased into black void once again. Empress takes a step back. And Honoka just hangs back, raising her hands defensively as she watches the bound Zach writhe about on the ground. For all either of the two know, they could be next...
And then the mental space erupts into static -- loud enough that both Empress and Honoka have to clap their hands over their ears. Not that they're really -using- their mouths and ears to communicate.
The image of Honoka frowns back at the sight, as she begrudgingly starts to heed the advice. The yo-yo snaps out, orbiting about as she gives the Zachs a nod.
Empress, though... raises a hand to her mouth and -laughs-.
=What a hollow threat! Haha -- you ought to know exactly how we react to pain by now, little man!=
She lowers her hand, blowing Zach a kiss.
=We'll be in touch, lover boy...=
And then she steps backwards, allowing her form to be consumed by the white-and-black grains of static.
The yo-yoing image of Honoka, though, remains just a few moments longer. Several more times, the yo-yo snaps out and back to her palm; nothing fancy, just impotent rage -- an expression mirrored by the disgruntled look on her face. The anger isn't directed to Zach, but to the fading Empress.
Her eyes turn to the stronger Zach's. And she nods once again.
=Be strong, Zach.=
And then... her form, too, is consumed in snowy static.
Log created on 12:07:05 06/30/2018 by Honoka, and last modified on 13:31:28 07/12/2018.