Description: For the past however long, the inscrutable I-No has had former Gear commander and current junk food movie addict Elphelt Valentine in her 'care', which is to say El's being shielded from the many people who want her imprisoned, dead, or worse. But one particular evening finds I-No with questions that can't be asked or answered in a hotel room over cheesecake, and she spirits El away to a location of great significance to ask her a very simple question with some very complicated answers.
Last time on ELPHELT: I'M A MILITARY HARDWARE BRIDE ON THE RUN FROM THE SHADOW GOVERNMENT BUT A METAL WITCH WANTS TO BREAK THEME RATING?!:
"Alright. I like the idea of saving the world. I guess I'm in."
"Welcome to the team. The bad news is that I'm gonna make you shoot people. The good news is you get all the sleepovers your Malibu fuckin' Dreamhouse of a heart can take."
Tonight on E:IAMHBOTRFTSGBAMWWTBTR?!:
Bad news: sleepovers were canceled due to Ramlethal and Jack-O being missing again. Good news: have not been shot yet.
It's not the best good news, because in service of not being shot I-No has shuffled Elphelt around from 'safehouse' to 'safehouse.' Safehouse gets scare quotes because I-No's idea of safe involves identity theft at hotels, breaking into random vacation homes, and generally abusing her teleportation to leave a trail of insurance claims behind her.
To the witch's credit, this has prevented various government and conspiracy groups from dropping tedious miniboss battles into Elphelt's lap. Usually. There were a few times. They may have been intentional, but it's difficult to tell if I-No just has fun every time she gets a chance to beat someone unconscious with her guitar.
I-No prefers to respond with sarcasm rather than facts, but her work -- is work the right word? -- takes her vanishing places for weeks, and so her keenness to keep Elphelt from wandering off like Jack-O' and Ramlethal may be cutting through her typical communication dysfunctions.
From what can be gleaned, a hazy image emerges:
* Something (or somethings) terrible is going to happen in the next few years.
* The list of people responsible is unclear, but I-No seems to have major antipathy for Sol Badguy, Dizzy, some guy named Gill, Sol Badguy, librarians, a maid cafe owner with a giant chin(??), a pirate smuggler with 'the worst fuckin' mustache' who may or may not be named Arr, Sol Badguy, the very concept of demons, one or possibly multiple space station owners, and Sol Badguy.
* I-No really needs to corral Ramlethal and Jack-O' again because there's some kind of fight brewing in Southtown that bizarrely involves a circus and work (or whatever word we decided on earlier) needs to be done.
* The room service at this latest place is decent.
And Elphelt has free run of that last point because I-No left a few credit cards. While being cooped up in a room isn't the most glamorous life, it does avoid getting spotted outside, and I-No has at least attempted to mitigate the ennui by picking suites in tall buildings in hopes that it feels enough like being locked in a picturesque tower to play nice with Elphelt's imagination.
The witch has been gone for three days. She never gives a schedule on when she'll be back. There was a live charge in the air when she left, some electric sting of potential that gave an animated edge to her words and gestures. This hotel is actually /in/ Southtown. It's nicer than usual. There's shops on the public floors down below. Does she have a lead on something?
She's not here to be quizzed. Currently.
It's not entirely clear whose Netflix account she's been using but since Elphelt has literally one set of clothing, which may as well be a billboard reading HELLO PLEASE OPEN FIRE, SNIPERS she has -- much like Ram before her -- been spending a lot of time indoors watching TV. Specifically, she has been alternating between old seasons of Great British Bakeoff, some Korean drama about teen detectives, the first season of Riverdale and, for reasons nobody can discern, a lot of rewatches of The Last Jedi.
In truth all the junk food TV has been in the service of calming her nerves, because an agitated I-No has two critical qualities:
1.) It isn't going to stay contained to I-No
2.) Her typical sangfroid being disturbed is existentially terrifying
Currently she is mouthing along with Rey's 'don't go this way' line to Kylo Ren and gripping a handkerchief in one hand that she is, for the most part, slowly tearing into tiny bits.
She has seen this movie 48 times, by this point, but some part of her believes in the possibility of a redemption arc, Tumblr be damned.
AND YET: when there is a knock at the door, Elphelt's other hand, the one not destroying a handkerchief, whips up to draw a bead on it with her Barbie Dream Handgun with lightning speed. This might account for why it's a little TOO long before she says, loudly: "...yes?"
Muffled by the door, at last a voice that drips pimply young male croaks, "Room service, ma'am, with your triple turtle cheesecake." A brief pause. "Again."
Breathing out, El drops the gun and trills "Coming~" before waltzing to the door and, standing directly BEHIND it, opening it. The result is that the bellboy and his silver platter of cheesecake see an otherwise unremarkable hotel room and, at floor level, a Hello Kitty bedroom slipper.
With a heavy sigh that says 'no tip this time either,' he puts the platter on the ground and waits as Cinderella's be-slippered foot curves around the far side, slides it past the arc of the door, says "Thank you!" and then promptly slams the door in his face.
A LONG, LONG TIME AGO, IN A TIMELINE FAR, FAR AWAY
I-No sits in the back of a theater. She wears oversized sunglasses and everyone within three seats can estimate how much whisky is in her coke.
"Don't do this, Ben. Please, don't go this way."
"No, no, you're still--"
"THIS IS WHERE SHE FUCKING GOT IT FROM?"
I-No, now standing, is a prime target to receive popcorn and hisses hurled at her. She swats her hand through the air and then, in immediate escalation, hurls her drink into the darkness. "Oh, who gives a dirty fuck! You're all getting nuked by sad girls tomorrow anyway!"
IN THIS TIMELINE
The door slams shut. As Elphelt collects her cake, she may notice two things when she turns around: the closet door in the bedroom is open, and there's a red dress thrown across the couch in front of the TV. Both these things mean...
"Hey, Lady Diabetes, you ever think about buying new clothes?"
I-No walks into view of the hallway's vantage point. Well, 'walks.' She's hopping as she's trying to slide into a pair of black skinny jeans.
"Or are the garters welded to your thighs or something? Shit, I fuckin' hate Japanese sizes."
I-No stops hopping for a moment to reach up and whip off her sunglasses and throw them into a corner. She turns her head sharply, her irises sliding through a kaleidoscope of colors.
"Gulp your feelings down and get ready, I'm taking you on a depressing field trip of destiny. Bring your Playmobil-lookin'-ass guns."
Cut to the porter walking down the hallway, about halfway to the elevator, when he suddenly hears a muffled but entirely audible "aaaaaaAAAAAAA WHAT" from the direction of room 1205, where he was just left -- for the sixth time in two days -- without a tip on a $15 slice of cheesecake.
"Honestly, lady," he mutters, stepping into the elevator, "it's not even that good. We get it from Cheesecake Factory."
ABOUT FORTY SECONDS AGO:
That $15 slice of cheesecake is now entirely wasted because turning around to find a witch trying to get dressed in a room that, until about a minute ago, contained you, a TV, and your fanfic ideas, is: Distressing.
To wit: "aaaaaaaaaAAAAAAA WHAT" as the platter falls to the ground, spilling an elegant slice of caramel and pecan-topped cheesecake onto the hotel carpet.
This is not the 'Behind the Music'-style hotel room trashing one might expect this pair could produce but it's absolutely the one they deserve.
"It's NOT welded on! I just... like this dress!" El fires back defensively, which is a fancy way of saying 'they might be'. "I was going to be married in this dress! I may well die in this dress!!!!!" That last sentence probably needed some workshopping, El.
On the other hand, this feels qualitatively different than the last few times I-No demanded they head out together, so rather than argue, Elphelt just huffily strides into the room, arms swinging exaggeratedly at her sides as she does so, past I-No and to the closet, which she throws open, revealing... uh. 'A bazooka' is on that list but it's not even the weirdest thing in the collection, which she begins slowly removing from the clothes racks and secreting on her person.
Yes, even the bazooka.
"Am I going to have to shoot something? Or did you just want to take the opportunity to make fun of these things," she adds, turning and gesturing in a non-OSHA-compliant way with one of her pink pistols, "which by the way I DIDN'T make."
I-No has moved on from jeans to studded leather belt to slipping on a tank top by the time Elphelt turns around with her guns. It's difficult to say where the witch is getting all this clothing from, but every time she's out of view is a time that a continuity error may magically insert itself.
I-No puts her hands on her hips and smiles a crooked little smile.
"Can't a girl appreciate seeing another girl stuff phallic objects down her neckline?" she says, affecting a very un-her innocence. She holds her hand out. A fur-collared jacket gets thrown at her from the hallway by, well, who the fuck knows what's going on, it's magic.
The witch twirls it around to slide it on. She rolls her shoulders several times afterward.
"Rule number whatever-the-fuck of being a global menace. You come back to the room, you change outfits. Or don't. Maybe you stay locked in here watching Darth Doublewide pout until I sell you on some heroism."
Her smile turns wider, sharklike. The subtle leaning in doesn't help the imagery.
"Who'd you get married to then, anyway? The bellboy? Your hubby-to-be is gonna be someone you run into. Right?"
I-No turns and walks away, crouching down to pick up a pair of boots as she passes them. She's heading to the closet, which seems to be her preferred method of entrance and egress. The gesture over her shoulder indicates that she wants Elphelt to follow.
The witch pauses at the threshold, draping her hand on the doorframe and leaning back with luxurious framing to bat her eyes in mock coyness.
"Oh, but... I'm the only one you're getting close to these days, aren't I?"
She hops into the darkness.
Due to the laws of narrative causality, the second I-No uses the word 'phallic,' El is currently attempting to secret on her person a cake slicer the size of a golf club, which is just the way things go in this world sometimes. This makes her ripe to fall, embarassment-wise, when the red witch asks who she was going to marry. "IN POINT OF FACT," El fires back, clearly going red in the face and speaking maybe a little over 'inside voice' spec, "he was a ROCK STAR." That bit, at least, is true.
"Well I'm not... marrying... you," she says convincingly, stepping aside to let I-No past her to the closet. "No matter how nicely you ask." This is a bit like a dog trying to dance, vis-a-vis sass, but she is at least trying.
"What do you mean, 'depressing date with destiny' anyway?" the former Gear commander asks, trying and failing to sound non-chalant. "Where are we even going?" She wants to believe that I-No wouldn't do something bananas like sell her out to the UN.
"Anyhow how am I supposed to go shopping if I'm on a global watchlist?!"
The closet holds all answers.
That's because the closet also holds the Backyard, a disorienting realm of pure white that I-No can somehow set up just so that Elphelt tumbles through the right way to fall out again.
Maybe I-No's high level of bisexuality has given her mastery over closets. It's possible.
The jaunt ends in a haunted land of blasted earth. Anyone who has had access to the internet in recent history can guess what this place is. Anyone who was here when it happened could do the same. The disaster zone barricades will be further out in the distance. The blasting area was wide.
The night sky isn't quite so choked by light pollution here. It creeps in at the edges where the urban sprawl lies, but here, here enough has been devoured that some of the stars can shine on the black. The moon, full and sickly-pale, is the chief source of illumination.
I-No is standing on the crest of a debris pile. She reaches into her jacket pocket and withdraws a golden flask, and has gone about unscrewing it while Elphelt gets first look at the new surroundings.
"Don't worry, this is a different point in the timeline," she says, regardless of what Elphelt is worrying about. The magic excuse only goes so far. "There's no aerial surveillance right now."
Ting. I-No flips the cap open.
"You know where you're at?"
Any further attempts at putative sass die on the vine once El stumbles out of the disorienting special effects vortex that is the Backyard. Her blue eyes go very wide indeed at the surroundings, which -- even if they weren't on a billion reddit conspiracy threads and a recurring series of news investigations -- are hauntingly familiar to her anyway.
The appropriately dramatic response here is to whisper "This is where she died" and get pale and maudlin and some internal bit of Elphelt is horrified to find herself thinking that bizarrely detached thought, planning out a carefully-calculated response which would almost certainly be lost on I-No.
The Gears were all connected, after all, to Justice. Not in a 'we see what she sees' sense, but at that moment when it all came crashing down, the Valentines just... knew. That's all. Maybe Ram or Jack-O had a different reaction but El, drifting as she was through the Tsushima Strait after being beaten badly by a bunch of ragtag mercenary jerkwads, felt it in the same way someone notices a white noise that suddenly vanishes: you didn't see it when it was present but without it, the absence is like a gaping black hole.
"Why bring me *here*?" El demands, staring at I-No with a mix of defiant demand and horrified anticipation. "We know what happened!"
I-No drinks. Elphelt understands.
'This is where she died.'
I-No reaches out and briefly upends her flask. The smell of gin on the wind as she pours a measure for the ground. Only a measure. She has more drinking to do.
"Yeah, you know what /happened./"
I-No, where she stands, has her back to Elphelt. She takes another drink and then, dropping her flask-wielding hand to her side, tilts her head back to look up toward the sky.
"This one part. Single dot. You know what happened before that? You know what happens next? Tell me, Elly, who the fuck was Ms. Justice Forall?"
Of all the gin joints, etc. etc.
As if the location itself didn't appear to be having enough of an affect on her, that question stops El dead in a pretty real way: for a fraction of a second she is just *motionless*, before looking away and off at the ground to the side, not meeting I-No's gaze. Her gloved hands go slack at her sides, but the fingers on her left hand curl in and out erratically, and when she does speak, her voice is pretty subdued, given her typical upbeat, no-inside-voice demeanor.
"She was, uh... the end goal, probably," El responds, finally, still looking away, but now steadily tilting her head to the charred remnants of ground zero. "I mean... look. I'm not stupid, right?" And here, she does turn to look at I-No with, of all things, an embarrassed smile on her face. "I know that's something's like, not right with me, though. And think about Ram. Doesn't take long to realize there's something off about her too, right? Never mind Jack-O who I love, OF COURSE, but who is kind of a runaway truck with broken brakes to say the least."
There's a pause, as El breathes out a loud sigh, and then looks at the ground for a moment. "I don't KNOW this, for certain, but I'm pretty sure we were... an attempt to get 'her' right. They had a pretty specific person in mind for Justice and Ram, Jack-O, and I all have something 'that person' had, probably."
Elphelt may be stopped dead, but that only means she's caught up to I-No. In body, at least. The two of them are, for this long and lonely moment, transfixed to their spots and robbed on the usual grandeur of their physicalities.
Is I-No stopped more than that? More than her gestures and little movements becoming human, mundane? Is she stopped inside? Was her question to Elphelt rhetorical or investigative? Is she taken aback? Is she capable of being taken aback? I-No's eyes hold all the colors of the world and not a single one gives a clue to who she really is.
It also doesn't help that her face is currently obscured, seeing as how her back is turned and she's looking at the moon.
The enormity of the dead zone has a way of making the silences aggressive. They fill the quiet times eagerly, like the silence after Elphelt finishes and before I-No answers. The best reprieve the land can give right now is an unkind wind rattling erratically along the barrens.
The red witch tilts her head down and forward. Her shoulders slump as she leans into her slouch.
"'Her.' Our bloody valentine. They're the real fuckin' lunatic romantics, y'know. Not you."
I-No twists on her heel, spinning aboutface. In the same motion, she takes another swig of her flask, and then hurls it without a care off into the distance. The metal flickers as it twirls through the half-lit night and is then lost in the matte of the dirt.
"Well then, Ellycakes."
The witch's smile is wide and sharp. Her irises, caught between shades of red and white with pink caught between, catch the brightness of the moonlight.
"What does that mean for you? Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. You envious? Wanna kill 'em all? Maybe leave your own big crater to take your rightful spot on the buster chart? You said you liked the sound of saving the world. You even know what that means?"
I-No spreads her arms wide, as if to say: what was this?
Well... does she?
When in doubt, try honesty.
Nobody's saying her name, but it becomes very clear that I-No and Elphelt both know who is meant by 'Her'. Justice was just a name, after all; somewhere inside the perfected Command Gear was a 'base', a template, an original... SOMETHING. If El -- or Ram, or Jack-O -- were made to that end then some part of 'Her' lives in them. Maybe not EVERY part, after all, but SOME part.
Her pink eyebrows furrow at the question posed to her, Elphelt cocking her head to the side slightly and looking askance at I-No, the witch who reveals nothing in the process of revealing everything. There's no hardness in the blue eyes, no spark, but her gaze is still searching I-No's face, her exaggerated body language, for some kind of clue as to what it is she WANTS.
I-No might be doing the same, but she has the good sense to just... ask.
"Heh... you almost said something nice," El fires back, a sharp non-sequitur thrown into the grinding cogs of the tension.
"It's... I don't know, like a photocopier? She's like a copy of a copy." A pause, then El shakes her head. "No, that's not even right, she's a RANSOM NOTE made of copies of copies. We never really talked to her. I have no idea what she wanted, really. They set us loose and told us to," and here she adopts an overwrought and extremely bad Dalek impression, "ex-ter-min-ate all humans which you'll notice we *weren't all that good at* and then she blew up and now they want us back and/or they want to just kill us!"
As she says this little monologue, her cadence gets steadily faster, her face increasingly and almost exaggeratedly animated, her voice louder, until that very climax that brings us to current events.
But surprisingly, she shrugs anticlimactically. "I suppose I could wade into the UN with a rocket launcher and a manifesto but I kinda feel like that's what they want? So why should I do that? Humans are way, way more interesting, which... is a sentiment I feel like you're probably on board with?"
I-No's expression fades into something approaching normal first: her slasher's grin becomes a pointed smirk. Only after that does her body relax, her arms dropping to her sides and stance shifting out of supporting a dramatic poise.
"I say nice things to you all the time," she replies, cool and detached. "And you still won't fuck me. But I won't hold that against you."
The red witch hops down off the small debris dune she's on, sliding the last foot or so before finding solid ground. She moseys off in a direction, not going very far very fast, which keeps her within conversational distance.
"This is what I never got about you, sugarbun." Presumably she means a larger topic than indicated by her aside. "Rammy always does the same fuckin' thing. The little general survives her suicide mission, or doesn't, and then becomes a real girl. Jackie -- well, Jackie's a goddamn special case in every fucked-up way, isn't she? But you..."
I-No stops her path. She's somewhere lateral from Elphelt now, enough that she has to turn to look to her left to see the other woman. Her sidelong look shows only a hint of blue in her eyes.
"...you're a time bomb who can't decide when to go off."
I-No lifts her shoulders in a brief shrug. She resumes walking nowhere in particular, which is incidentally a kind of circle around Elphelt.
"S'alright, though. The unknown makes me tingly. You like humans. You got a world filled with wild Gears eager to eat them humans up. Nice lil' redemption arc set out for you, huh? Might even be a cute boy somewhere along the way if he can be assed to start existing."
"Yeah, well," Elphelt grumps visibly, at the end of I-No's foray, "maybe it's because you keep ruining the good moments." Sulk, sulk, sulk. Was this whole teen girl thing part of Justice's make up too, one wonders? Was she just super yandere for Sol? Is that the grimdark Bad End dating sim future for Elphelt?
One imagines that would amuse I-No to no end.
Seen from above, El's slow turns to watch I-No circle her looks like a music box, the flounces of her gown swishing along in the path. "You say that like you're happy that Ram is so consistent," she offers, raising an eyebrow. "and that doesn't seem like you at all. I mean... you spent more time with her than I did in the past year, didn't you? Did she ever seem... I dunno," and here, El shrugs. "Happy? To you?"
I-No makes an exaggerated noise of disbelief. "Meee? Happy?" Her face turns just enough to show a hint of her wolfish (and humorless) smile. The source of her sarcastic amusement may not be immediately apparent.
The witch looks away with enough drama in the gesture to show that she is immensely aware of how much of her face she is showing at any point in time. In more ways than one, to be sure.
"Rammy, though -- maybe you should see for yourself. Bring some food, though. Not what you eat. Meat. On a bun."
I-No stops walking. She tilts her head forward, kicks at the ground, and then bends over. The glint in the light as she stands again makes it clear that she's retrieved her flask.
"'Cause I can tell you one thing, girly: if not properly cared for, Rammy's gonna die. Lot of murder perverts are gonna come her way. A few already have. You girls are hot commodities."
I-No holds her flask up to the light. With the moon on her face again, it is possible to discern her smile.
"Aren't you lucky I found you first?"
There's so much production in her default tone that it's hard to tell when she's on the borderline of being sincere or sarcastic.
By this point in the conversation, Elphelt has given up on trying to discern I-No's intentions or mood. You'd have an easier time trying to do a complicated word problem in a foreign language written in Braille. On the other hand, this means she's slowly figured out the best way -- or at least, the way with any chance of real success -- to do that.
Which is to say...
"So why did you?"
Of course, the bride-to-be-eventually doesn't actually give I-No time to answer before continuing to babble on, but the question gets asked, with a totally straight face, regardless. "I mean it's not that I'm not grateful and I'm sure Ram is too in her own... uh... Ram kinda way," she mutters, trailing off on that one. Sisters are sisters but she has a very hard time imagining Ramlethal Valentine uttering the words 'thank you' without them sounding like a threat, basically.
"But you put yourself to a lot of trouble and I don't exactly know what it is we have that you want," she finishes, a little hurriedly, and her tone suggests that there's no point in saying 'I don't want anything' because she doesn't believe that for an instant.
"I mean, if you ask and it's reasonable I could just GIVE it to you," El says, her mouth running faster than her brain, before she adds at some speed, "EXCEPT THE OBVIOUS, OBVIOUSLY."
I-No turns her flask upside down. Nothing comes out. She shakes it. Still nothing. Elphelt asks a question. I-No turns her head to look over at the other woman, her expression blank.
This blank staring continues for several moments into Elphelt's babbling. Eventually, after a brief encore involving raised eyebrows, I-No changes things by shoving the flask back into her jacket pocket and facing Elphelt completely. Her wide stance is aggressive, but fortunately she isn't in the other woman's immediate personal space.
EXCEPT THE OBVIOUS, OBVIOUSLY
oh no she's walking over
"The obvious," I-No exhales, all the abrasion in her voice melted away to reveal the raw velvety purr underneath. It's a passing pleasantry, gone in a moment.
"If you could give me what I wanted right now, I'd have it already," she says. "You can't give it to me because it isn't here yet. The only thing you can give me is a promise."
Very close now. Unsure when she's stopping. Maybe -- yes, of course, directly in Elphelt's personal space. There we go.
This close, you can't miss the eyes. All the colors, sliding through with every little motion just like that purr that is no longer in her tone.
"I want your future."
No, let's rewind that a couple seconds.
"My f-f-f-f-" SHE IS ACTUALLY STUTTERING, YOU HAVE DONE IT, I-NO. YOU PLACED YOUR HAND ON THE LOCKER OF THE COSMOS AND STUNNED KOUHAI INTO SILENCE.
At least she's wearing white so the sudden burst of rouge to her cheeks from sheer stupid embarrassment and fluster at least looks appealing rather than nonsensical.
"I don't know what that means!" El snaps, too loudly in that way that people get too loud when someone is just Way Too Close physically or otherwise. "You are so WEIRD. Why are you so WEIRD." The period rather than question mark at the end of the second sentence is entirely audible in Elphelt's tone.
"I dunno what it is you want me to promise! BUT! If it's 'hey don't become a genocidal maniac with an anime laser you fire from your bouquet' then I can probably give you that without any problems."
There's a typical pattern. I-No says something that throws Elphelt off balance, I-No smiles like she just won something. Or, to be more accurate to I-No's personality type, probably more like she just stabbed someone.
Not here. Throughout the stuttering, I-No doesn't veer away from her serious expression. This may not help the stuttering. It's not like the witch would be one to care; not even the screamy-snaps phase her. It's half-lidded eyes all the way.
"No problems?" she breathes, quiet and smooth. "That's a big order, bunny."
Then, abruptly, I-No turns, steps away, and raises her hand above her head to snap her fingers. She's moving on without regard to the doki doki genocide concern wall-slamming incident, which is how it will be filed in the after-action report.
"Fuckin' fantastic. Remember what this place looks like. If it works out for you someday, maybe I won't ruin the good moments for once."
It takes a few more steps on her journey before she adds: "C'mon, the door out is over there."
There are still no firmly-established rules to how her magic works, despite observation.
Remember the big nuclear devastation crater? Sure. Why not. Elphelt feels like she can do that. But one has to wonder what she hasn't told I-No that not even El herself might consciously know. After all, the Valentines are in many ways a black box even to someone like the Rock Witch on a few levels, so it stands to reason there might be something deep down that even they don't know.
She DID promise not to kill everyone though so, that's on record.
"Yeah yeah, coming..." is all El says, before falling in to I-No's wake. Every trip through the Backyard has been weird but, so far at least, they haven't been *bad*. There's a 50/50 chance they're either about to hit up another hotel, or end up in a buddy cop movie.
Either is fine.
Log created on 20:37:30 06/06/2019 by Elphelt, and last modified on 09:13:24 06/16/2019.