Description: When dealing with the trials and growth of psychics, dismissing sullen melancholy as 'just a phase' can be a very dangerous mistake. As the confusion and chaos of her life continues to escalate, Athena Asamiya finally takes time to confront Momoko over her troubled moods as of late. Doing so becomes the first steps of a journey of discovery - about herself, about her friend, and about the formidable, pint-sized Warden that has been there all along.
The flickering lights of the city cast a wide net across the expansive landscape that stretches out from the excellent view from the high balcony of the hotel room, hundreds of tiny glowing dots connected in an invisible spiderweb of meandering architecture in a vast constellation with no name. It is a peaceful and beautiful sight, one which should bring a sense of comfort to those lucky enough to bear witness to one of the great marvels of the ancient world, but as with most things of late, its majesty can do little to lift the spirits of the girl that observes it this evening.
Momoko leans on the stone railing as she peers out into the night, eyes staring blankly at the lustre of the great Venician canals, her chin nestled on the bridge of her forearms. Under normal circumstances, she would have practically cut off her own arm to have a chance to see something as wonderful at this. The flash of her phone's camera would have joined the twinkling radiance of the countless night lights until she had no memory left with which to take pictures. Instead it sits discarded at the foot of her bed, warning lights blinking to announce the imminent demise of its battery life beneath the haphazard pile of her discarded blankets.
She should be asleep right now. After being rescued from her fate in the jungle, the doctors had been quite clear that she needed time to recover. While, through some miracle, she'd suffered no real internal damage save for the puncture wounds, she had lost a great deal of blood and that would leave her weakened for a little while. That fact might have also been enough to explain away the unusual state of malaise that she seemed to be experiencing ever since the ordeal, her natural chirpy upbeat demeanor having been smothered by a general sense of apathy, and in some cases, outright scorn.
She knew better, ofcourse. There is something dark eating away at her on the inside, a hideous and wretched thing. Ever since being rescued from the insane clutches of the evil man that started her journey down this path she's felt its presence and fought to contain it, to ignore it, stuff it in some dark and deep recess in the back of her mind and simple pretend that she never saw it. That tactic had failed miserably and now there is no longer any hope of denying that it is a part of her.
Momoko pushes to her feet angrily and whirls away from the pretty lights, rubbing at her tired eyes with one hand. She can't sleep like this and sitting around it only making giving her time to think about annoying things. A distraction is what she needs, something to occupy her mind.
Her pajamas are discarded and she throws on something simple, a loose t-shirt and pair of shorts, not bothering to slip on the pair of sandals sitting nearby. She doesn't sneak out, exactly; that would indicate that she has something to hide. Her exit is quiet and unnoticable, which alone is something of an oddity for the rambunctious rarely possesses either of those traits without intending to do so. While a city of this size never truly sleeps, the late hour is sure to have claimed the majority of her comrades and she'd rather be alone right now. Momoko eyes the elevator in passing but heads for the stairs to avoid encountering anyone as she leaves.
Upon reaching the ground, her path takes her beyond the hotel and onto the streets. The girl's gaze remains downcast as she walks, eyes focused on the ground at her feet just far enough ahead to avoid running head-first into anything that might appear in her way. She has no real destination in mind, intending to simply keep going in a straight line until some place quiet and secluded presents itself - an empty parking lot or a park perhaps.
This late at night, the streets are cleared out of the normal tourist traffic, the bustle of residents going about their lives, and the cacophony of sounds associated with such a lively city during the King of Fighters media event have yielded to the far more ambience of an ancient metropolis at rest. The perpetual reminder of water moving through the canals never truly fades and there is still occasionally the sound of a voice or a laugh from a block or two away as individuals or couples wander out from the bars to stumble their way back to hotel rooms or homes to rest the remainder of the night. The air is damp, laden with moisture threatening to convert to rainfall at any moment. It leaves some sections of the pavement slick and moist and even sounds seem diminished as if consumed by the heavy air.
The sullen youth wouldn't have to go too far before coming across a chance encounter, however. She wasn't the only one feeling restless, the only one with an itch that could only be scratched by a bit of wandering. The grand courtyard in front of the Saint Mark's Basilica is a short jaunt from the hotel. During the day, it would be packed with people milling about, taking photographs of the famous landmark architecture, and enjoying the shops that line the plaza. At night, it would be empty - or nearly so. The golden floodlights that illuminate the basilica itself cast a steady glow over the area, augmented by a few street lights that highlight sections of the bordering sidewalk.
A quarter of a block before Momoko would reach the courtyard, a flash as bright as day would radiate out from the plaza - the intensity such that even a few of the street lights immediately shut off as if their sensors detected daylight had come early this night.
As suddenly as it happened, it is gone. One by one, the street lights flicker back into activity. The large tile promenade is empty but for two individuals. One, a man, six feet tall, clothed in what would look to be a white, full length suit jacket, his head crowned in platinum blonde. Before him, three meters away, another figure, more familiar, is on her knees, leaning forward, hands planted against the damp ground.
Slowly, Athena Asamiya stands up on unsteady feet. She is facing the man who lifts his hand to his collar as if to adjust the collar of his jacket briefly. Words are exchanged but their specifics are muted, impossible to hear. Wearing a black blouse, a white skirt with black floral patterns, black tights and matching black shoes, the violet haired Asamiya presses her hands together, feet slipping apart, the girl bowing her head toward the European aristocratic looking individual. His response is inaudible as, with a sweep of his coat, he turns to stride out the opposite side of the courtyard.
Left alone, Athena exhales, turning around, right arm coming up to rest against her left shoulder as if nursing an ache. Her head is still bowed as she strides forward a few steps only to come to a stop. Lifting her face, her arm slips from her shoulder as she looks directly toward her unsettled teammate.
Her voice is loud, projected, bearing a lilt of happiness at the sight of a familiar face.
Even in her melancholy mood, it's impossible to miss something as obvious and out of place as the brilliant burst of light that marks the end of the nearby battle. Momoko's head snaps up in alarm, eyes questing for the source of the disturbance, yet finding only the darkness of the evening. Frowning, she ponders simply turning around and heading in the other direction. Trouble is the last thing that she needs right now. Something inside of her refuses to allow the girl to turn away, however, and she begrudgingly wills her feet into a soft jog towards the basilica.
It only takes her a minute or so to reach the towering structure. She glances at up at the domed arches of its grandiose roof as she draws near, noting the intricate murals painted upon their surface, though the details are obscured in the darkness. However, her attention is quickly stolen away by the scene that unfolds before her in the vast courtyard.
Momoko watches as her mentor recovers from what was obviously some sort of duel or sparring match, sensing no killing intent from the unrecognized man that stands opposite her. What is Athena doing out here at this time of night? She strains to hear the words that are shared between them but the distance is too great and their voices too low for her to get more than vague mumbles. She scoots closer, her bare feet making no noise on the concrete as she approaches from an angle that keeps her out of the view of either person but by the time she's close enough to hear what they might be saying the blonde aristocrat is already leaving.
Well, so much for that. Having missed her opportunity to satisfy her curiosity and since Athena appears to be in no danger, she has no more business here. She doesn't really want to talk right now. Which is ofcourse why her friend's gaze turns directly towards the patch of dimly lit sidewalk she occupies just as the girl turns to leave.
Momoko freezes in place, flinching as if caught doing something she shouldn't be. For a moment, she debates pretending to be someone else and simply walking away, but that would be pointless. Sighing, the diminuitive teen tucks her hands into her pockets and walks forward a few steps into the light, shoulders slouched in a manner that could be taken as either lazy or depressed, neither of which look natural.
"I guess I wasn't the only one that couldn't rest," Asamiya blurts out almost immediately, hands clasping together in front of her. More steps forward are taken - there's no escaping now!! Even a cursory inspection would make it clear that she'd been in a fight with someone with a penchant for heat or flame - the cuffs of her blouse, the fringe of her skirt, her tights, and even the ends of her hair all bear evidence of having been subjected to scorching energy in the late night spar.
Whatever injuries she might have sustained from the exchanged attacks are not immediately visible, however. Whatever the nature of the fight, she does not seem to be changed worse for it emotionally, smile coming as readily as it always does. She doesn't chide the girl for being out alone at night - something she's equally guilty of anyway, "Pretty neat city, isn't it?" she asks, closing in to chatting distance at last, lowering her clasped hands in front of her as she looks her younger friend over.
"This has been some tournament, yeah? I'm so glad we could make it all the way to the finales together." She leans her head to the side slightly, eyes glancing over the girl from brushy hair covered head to her bare feet. Unclasping her hands, she lifts her right arm up, fingers brushing her dark violet hair back over her shoulder - in this light, her hair almost seems black, but anyone who had seen Asamiya in better light would know better.
Her own presence is subdued as it usually is when she is not actively fighting, clearly a conscious effort on her part, the byproduct of discipline and practice. But the tinge of worry is impossible to miss, betrayed by her eyes as she rests her right arm at her side, left arm reaching across her stomach to clutch her forearm. "Say, Momoko, you, ah..." She had seen it at the bridge, that small kernel of sullen company in a sea of vibrant emotions and upbeat energy. Does she really want to broach it? Maybe it's a thing Momoko is dealing with well enough on her own, right?
"You're okay, right?" Her brow furrows, the triumphant Psycho Soldier that had so much energy to display the previous day in combat now quiet, concerned, and a little unsure. And now she's scolding herself for trying to lead the witness. She needs to let her friend answer for herself! She tries again, her tone different this time, some of the easy exuberance she so often exhibits waning slightly as she takes on a more somber tone. "Well, I mean, you seem like something is really bothering you... I'd been wondering what it is... if you don't mind talking about it, that is."
Momoko just nods non-commitally in return to the initial barrage of conversation, her gaze pointedly not meeting that of the taller girl, instead shifting between the ground and something off in the distance. Her expression twists into a faint smile as she tries to meet the enthusiasm with instinctual happiness but it's a ghost of true sentiment and it shows easily under such close scrutiny.
"Yeah... pretty intense, I guess."
She drops off into awkward silence after that lame response, not sure what more to say. She'd only participated in the first match of their tournament tour and it hadn't gone particularly well. Even Haru, the strangely naive guy who's even newer to the team than herself managed to put on a pretty good showing. She wasn't there to see it in person but the footage had been quite impressive. The memory of her own ignominous defeat drags a fresh surge of self-loathing from the roiling turmoil of emotional chaos clutching her soul and the girl's fake smile falters for a few seconds before sliding back into place.
Athena's sudden attempt to reach out to her causes a strange reaction. Momoko's head turns away with a snap as if slapped and she stares silently at nothing. In any other circumstance, she would be overjoyed to have this kind of attention from her idol. It was the sort of thing she dreamed about, a chance to get closer to the person who inspired her to start performing as well as the one responsible for saving her life on more than one occassion. Now, she wants anything but to have Athena asking these things. While such a simple question is hardly anything special, the revelation that her friend had been worried about her and yet said nothing until now is somewhat telling about where her priorities lie.
The tiny teen shrugs and turns partially away, her voice standoffish. It's strange how such a small thing can turn the things she loves into the things she hates. Right now, she hates being here, near the person she wants to impress the most. To be seen in such a state when she's already proven time and time again that she's little more than a liability...
The cold tingle of psychic power flickers to life as she struggles to contain her emotions, shrouding her in a faint haze of energy that would be invisible and unnoticable to anyone who happened to be nearby - except for one person.
Whew. It's nothing. That's good to hear. The initial thoughts concerning Momoko's answer are ones of relief. It means no needing to pry further, no needing to confront something unpleasant, no need to figure out why she's- what is she thinking? It's obviously something. Simply hoping it goes away isn't the answer - a fact made even more obvious at the defensive reaction on the part of her younger friend.
This is going to take more effort than that, she tells herself. She had been racking her brain, trying to figure out where the change had first been noticed, attempting to pin point the cause. The loss to Himeko had seemed to take a bit of a toll - but it wasn't like it was the first time the up and coming fighter had experienced the bitter taste of defeat. That shouldn't have been that big of a deal, should it? Everyone has to go through their fair share of those.
No... the qualifying round was a hit, but that wasn't the turning point. That had to be on another continent all together, where she awoke from unconsciousness, stitched up from vicious slashes, and was told the Psycho Soldiers were moving on to the semi-finals as Ryu Hayabusa had stood aside - an event she had no recollection of ever happening. What followed as a whirlwind of giddy excitement and inner confusion... but then there was Momoko.
"You never said what happened in Africa..." Unlike Haru and Athena, her injuries were not earned in a sanctioned fight. She recovered from the physical repercussions, as would be expected, but - "Do you want to talk about it?" She anticipates by body language alone that the answer is assuredly no. "It might help some." That's what they always say, right? Talking through troubles like that? She can't say she's ever wanted to do that, herself, so maybe it's bad advice after all.
She looks at the younger girl, half turned away. It goes against everything she trained to do otherwise, against every personal habit of keeping herself walled off as much as possible from the roller coaster of emotions she feels being around others, but hesitantly, Athena lets down her own guard slightly, allowing herself to see what she should have been paying attention to all along.
Chin Gentsai had spent a lot of her early years in training warning her of the actual dangers of her gift, telling her that many who possessed such talents would fall easily into depravity, corrupting what could be virtuous in pursuit of selfish ambitions. Maybe that was why he was so adamant that she not explore her own idle dreams... all it takes is one slip up to start down a path tyrants have already well tread.
Looking at the girl in front of her now, she can't help but reflect on those lessons. But where has Momoko's guidance been? Gentsai is even less cognizant now days than he had been before - her own interactions with him during his brief lapses of sobriety few and far between. He hasn't been seeing to the younger girl's guidance either.
"It seems like you've had a rough time," she states quietly, seeing more now of what she should have noticed before. She reaches her right hand out, hesitantly, trying to land it on the turned girl's nearest shoulder, "What you're going through... It's not something you have to do alone." She makes every effort to hide her own nervousness. What does she know about dealing with the bitter, strong emotions broiling just beneath the surface of her teammate?
As expected, Momoko makes no positive indication towards accepting the offer of a lended ear for her to vent her problems at. If anything, she seems to shrink a little further away at the suggestion, her hands slipping out of her pockets to cross loosely under her chest. The mention of Africa brings with it the memory of pain and she winces as if feeling those wounds yet again. With her unique gifts, she might very well be doing exactly that.
"I said it's nothing," she answers quietly, refusing to look back at the other girl. Ofcourse, no one in their right mind would believe that with the freshly kicked puppy vibe she's exuding in a very tangible sense. That never stopped anyone in her situation from trying to dissuade well-meaning friends from interfering, even if it is an effort doomed to failure. Inevitably, Athena presses on, despite the body language and tone.
Were it not for the talents that both of them possessed, her efforts might have been rewarded. A few kind words and a reassuring touch have done amazing things for Momoko in the past when she was in the position that Athena occupies now. However, the thoughts that race through the pop star's mind as she ponders the source of the small teen's misfortune become something manifest in the world, an emotion that the distraught girl in her current state picks up on like a blood hound - pity.
That sentiment pierces through Momoko like an kinetic missile, shooting straight through her already turbulent defenses to explode at the core of her distress like a Deathstar trench run. Her eyes go wide, in surprise at first but that quickly morphs into a volcanic eruption of raw anger. The girl's fingers tighten on her arms, hands literally twitching in rage that she fights to contain.
The touch on her arm destroys any hope of that. Black-stained pink light erupts around her into full blown battle aura as she whirls around, swatting the arm away from her shoulder with a snarl.
"What do you know?! You can't possibly understand!"
The overall sense of sloth and melancholy vanishes in a flash, Momoko seeming to get her spirit back in that terrible outburst. She glares up at Athena, meeting her gaze without a hint of fear or hesitation, her adorable features twisted into an ugly mask of rage and anguish.
"How could you? You're everything I'm not - pretty, talented, powerful. Do you know how hard I've struggled to keep up?! How much I've wanted to live up to your example? At yet, how many times have you had to save me? How many times have I failed to be anything other than a burden, a liability?!"
The storm of chaotic emotions around her grows stronger with each passing second, invisible power reaching past the realm of her mind to whip the air up into a frenzied cyclone in mirror of her soul. And, with each moment that passes, the tint of her aura grows a little bit darker. Something black and oily begins to seep into her wide eyes staining the scleras as it creeps down towards the center of her irises.
"How could you understand how weak and helpless I feel?!"
The spike in presence and smack of her hand are answered with widened eyes, Athena recoiling slightly though not quite to the point of taking a step back. It had been a risk to let her own guard down around a fellow psychic. The others hand to notice how removed she always seemed to be - there, but not quite, seeming to miss obvious expressions of affection, or strongly felt emotions of attachment that have long since crossed over from simply being childhood friends. Time and time again, she has retreated behind her own mental walls, keeping her thoughts a mystery from the others. But now, in trying to better understand the maelstrom of powerful emotions her younger friend is experiencing, her brief lapse in staying guarded betrays her. Worry, nervousness, uncertainty, blended together into a cocktail of subtle, conflicting emotions that could be interpreted however Momoko wants, and the reaction is violent.
Athena stands her ground though her hand is withdrawn, clenched into a loose fist, resting against the base of her neck now. She would give anything to feel like she could look away. She should just let Momoko go. Isn't she just going to make it worse? But she forces herself to maintain eye contact, those fierce, betrayed, angry eyes studied, her own expression frozen in a moment of concerned alarm.
What would she know? Momoko lists off everything about the young celebrity, a tidal wave of jealousy surging to the surface. The list has the girl stunned, silent. Is this what everyone thinks about her? She had often suspected as much, picking up those trace sentiments of envy nearly every day at school, always coloring her experiences with her fellow students in spite her efforts to ignore the nagging doubts she harbored. And now Momoko gives voice to every one of Asamiya's own suspicions. There is an immediate reaction. How is it her fault? She works hard, she studies hard, she trains hard, she takes care of herself, she does everything she's been told to do all her life. Can she be blamed that it has worked out for her?
Finally she blinks. This isn't about her, it's about Momoko, the defensiveness melts quickly. She tries to think of counter examples - what about the times she's felt like she's fallen short of another's example? Or what about when she needed to be saved by another? Time and time again, others have looked to her to carry the day, to win the team fights, to have all the answers, to always know what to do... but has she ever failed to live up to these expectations?
Standing on the edge of the building storm, she doesn't move, watching with growing concern the darkness spreading throughout the lithe girl's churning aura. Weak and helpless? How many times has she felt that way? Would Momoko even believe her?
"I don't need to know in order to care... everyone is always fighting their own battles within the silent chambers of their soul, each person's struggle unique." Athena replies, her voice soft in the face of the rising volume, her own presence, muted by comparison - too drained from the earlier spar, or a conscious choice?
Suddenly, Athena takes a step back, violet eyes widened. What started off as a darkened, dimmed aura, especially noticeable for how vibrant Momoko's usually is, has become something else entirely. There is something else there now, a corruption that runs far deeper than Athena could have imagined. Is this what it is like - the fall she was always warned of? "M-Momoko-" Asamiya shakes her head, both hands lifted up now, left hand pressed over her right fist at the base of her throat, "Your eyes, t-they-" There can't possibly be listening in a situation like this.
"Please," she pleads, "I will listen to anything you have to say, but it shouldn't be like this-"
Against the surging outburst of her anger, Athena stands her ground, giving not an inch to the hot wrath spilling out of the small girl before her. While she might have considered it a show of solidarity, an attempt to remain close and offer support, or simply done it out of reflex without any conscious thought, the display of courage in the face of Momoko's anger only throws fuel onto the fire.
"Care?!" The canned line of generic wisdom is met with a look of incredulity. Momoko shakes her head, struggling to find the words to repond with. "You don't care! You never did!"
The anger that has been percolating for months on end now slowly begins to shift its focus, the slimy tendrils of hate and disgust that have entrapped her heart fiding a new focus in her uncontrolled outpouring of emotion. She is no longer in control of what happens at this point, as much a passenger on this power slide into darkness as the person who triggered it. Her eyes widen a little as something inside of her recognizes the horror in Athena's voice upon seeing the darkness that she has been trying to contain, realizing that her worst fears have now come to pass. The person that she admires the most has seen what she truly is - an abomination.
Momoko's expression becomes chaotic, morphing between looks of disgust, rage, and fear. She struggles to stem the tide of psychic might flowing freely from her mind but it's far too late and her panicked efforts only fan the flames into an uncontrolled downwards spiral.
"You... don't care...!," she repeats, hands digging into her hair as she clutches her head. "It was right there... right infront of you the whole time and you..." She staggers backwards several steps, her bare feet dragging on the smooth pavement in ragged jerks.
"You... shut me out! Never... bothered to care!"
The black cancerous growth accelerates now, spreading out to engulf the entirity of her broad expressive eyes though the various details within them are still visible as if a sheet of thin black wax paper has been melded to their surface. The appearance it gives her is a decidedly sinister one as if whatever dark influence created this thing that now consumes has intentionally twisted her familiar bright youth into something to inspire terror at its mere sight.
Momoko looks up with clenched teeth, arms clutching at her sides in pain. The thing that glares at Athena is something entirely different from the girl that she found those many months ago. Or perhaps, it is the real Momoko, beneath the layers of optimism and cheer. Even worse, she might very well be a mirror into which the pop star gazes, a vision of what could become should her resolve ever fail.
"If only... I was... stronger..." The girl gasps the words out, bleeding black light with only the faintest hint of sparkling pink in an oily aura that stains the ground around her. "If only... I had... power!"
The tantrum level rage would be bad enough to deal with on its own - reinforced by the young girl's potent psychic potential and the storm becomes almost unbearable. The words hurt, each one provoking a blink in the eyes of Asamiya, every effort made to conceal the stab accompanying each accusation. But what makes it worse is the vehemence behind the words. "H-how could you say that-" she stammers when confronted with the idea that she hasn't cared at all. Hasn't she made every effort to keep everyone in orbit around her happy? She's avoided rejecting Kensou's affections for a couple years now, doesn't that count for caring? Or is maybe the way she thinks of everyone else as being in orbit around her - individuals to be dealt with predictably when their cycle swings around into being active, then shifting focus to the next as the previous rotates on - that is the problem in the first place. But how else can she deal with it all? To keep their lives from overwhelming her?
When Momoko's hands go to her head, fingers twisting their way into the scruffy red-brown hair she always keeps fairly unkempt, it becomes abundantly clear that this has rocketed past any hope of being a dialogue. Momoko's voice echoes off the walls of the street, bouncing off the cool, damp tiles of the courtyard. She staggers back and though Athena hesitates at first, the confused girl steps forward after a moment, "Wait, where did you get these ideas?" she asks helplessly, releasing her hands from the base of her neck, her right hand extended.
"Momoko-" Her heart races as her own panic starts to set in. No one ever told her what to about something like this. "Who put these ideas in your head? This isn't you," she insists, taking another cautious step forward, very much afraid of the unctuous looking energy takes an even stronger hold. "What happened in Africa??"
She can feel the pain herself now, the growing crescendo of rage pushing past the point of the youth's frame capacity to withstand it. There are tyrants who have trained their bodies to channel psychic power in that way - the girl in front of her, experiencing something like this very likely for the first time, is not one of them. "Momoko, please." Can she get closer? Will that make it worse? Better? There isn't exactly a manual on this thing. Chin had always warned her of the risks - anger, envy, pride, and the exercise of potent will to fulfill these base desires, but what if someone has already succumbed to them? No one said anything about that!
"But you are strong. I've seen that from the very beginning." What would happen if she came in contact with that writhing power now? Is it akin to venom... would it infect her too? "The things you've been through..." She has never forgotten the night they met, that demon hiding in the flesh of a man, the killer in the alleyway. "I don't even know them all."
Her arms tremble, hands clenching and unclenching. It seems as if before her very eyes, the girl is self-destructing. It isn't just a tantrum, it isn't just pent up anger being unleashed, a perhaps much needed, overdue venting. It's tearing her apart, draining her strength with each passing second.
"Momoko, I'm sorry, I-" She sucks in her breath, shaking her head, eyes still wide. Is this her fault? Maybe it is! Maybe the accusations are right. She saw something was wrong, but didn't fix it. Everyone knows she's supposed to fix everything - and yet here she stands, clueless, terrified, and without any solution to salve the black, manic influenced power boiling over in the smaller girl. "I'm-" She bolts forward, attempting to wrap her arms around the girl, even if it means trapping the corrupted psychic's arms against her sides. Dropping her own defenses, she tries to squeeze the child against herself. "I'm sorry that I failed you." Her speed is phenomenal, yet the target of her desperate gesture would find that her physical strength is really not that far different from Momoko's own - breaking free of the attempt would be well with in her means.
Pushing through the seething aura of unhinged power is like walking through tar. It clings to Athena like a physical thing, cloying and rotten with the intensity of the teen's negative emotions. It attempts to bar her passage far more effectively than any struggle that the girl could manage in her current state, as if it were a living thing to which her presence is pure anathema. It senses the power of the ancient soul lurking beneath the surface, an entity which poses a very real threat to its newly born existence and it fights to keep even the slightest chance of her familiar touch away from the distraught psychic.
Momoko also recoils from the attempt to touch her but she too seems rooted in place by the sheer weight of the psychic pressure hanging in the air. It coverts her panicked retreat into little more than a jerky twitch, her body writhing with the same desperate need to keep away from that embrace, though her reasons for avoiding it are not readily apparent. Her arms clutch tightly around each other and she huddles over as if beset by a terrible snow storm wearing nothing more than the simple shirt and shorts she has on now.
She shakes her head vehemently, attempting to shrink away from Athena. That last thing she wants right now is pity. That last thing she needs is to be told that Athena will make it alright again, to add further to the burdens that the leader of the Psycho Soldiers must bear. This isn't her fault. Athena didn't do anything wrong.
Why did she say all those things? Where did this hate come from? Is that truly how she feels? Was her admiration simply jealousy in disguise the whole time?
Questions to which she has no good answers whirl through her head, a maelstrom of uncertainty within a hurricane of pain and confusion. Her vision begins to blur as the strain of the power being channeled through the conduit of her mind begins to overwhelm her capacity to manage it. She hasn't been trained for this kind of thing. She's not even close to Athena's level when it comes to the mastery of wielding her power offensively. Even Kensou is probably stronger than she in this regards.
-What do I do?!-
The question rebounds in her skull like a gunshot, ricochetting about with uncontrolled fury. Her gaze lifts briefly to meet that of her mentor and she turns sorched black eyes up in a silent plea for answers that she knows the elder girl can't provide. This pain, this sorrow, is entirely hers to bear; and yet she has no answers.
Through the screaming chaos of her mind, a soft voice cuts into her thoughts as sharply as if had it been driven into her skull with a hammer. She flinches and squeezes her eyes shut, hands once more going to her head as if to hold it together with what little force she can muster as it attempts to split apart at the seems. The voice comes again, repeating the simple phrase, and once more shearing claws bite into her mind as she struggles to make sense of the presence pushing its way to the surface, seeping through the cracks in mental barriers she put in place years ago.
Momoko's legs wobble as the strength begins to vanish from her body and she finally tumbles forward into Athena's outstretched arms. Her body sinks into the warm embrace but the storm of dark psychic energy grows more intense, lashing out in its final throes to buffet both of them with the raw seething hatred of something that can only be described as utterly evil. It's voice thunders in hissing raspy rage one last time with such vehemence that even Athena can feel it, clawing like dark boney fingers upon her soul.
She didn't expect to find palpable resistance as she tries to press through the churning energy - feel it, yes, but to actually try and force her back? The sensation only drives home how little she really understands about the 'gift' she and the other Psycho Soldiers possess. Sucking in her breath, gritting her teeth, she struggles all the harder as it pushes back against her, as if forcing her way through a wall of sludge. This is what is coursing through Momoko? She had asked who had planted it there - but the more terrifying, revolting thought might be closer to the truth: it was there all along... not just in the talented Capoeirista, but in all of them.
She gets close, toes slipping against the tiles as she struggles to find traction with her shoes, but the closer she gets, the more voraciously the nauseating energy seeks to consume her own will. Through the murky field, she can see her friend, her teammate crouched down, huddling against the presence that now fights them both in different ways. "Momoko!"
There is no purity to the emotions crashing against her psyche - but rather an entire storm of negative feelings. Confusion, jealousy, pain, anger, frustration, despair. It's enough to want to give up, to withdraw. All she need do is take a step back and the piercing, disturbing mania will no longer be her pain to share. Tempted as she is, she presses forward, battling to exhaustion for each inch of headway.
Eyes squint nearly to the point of being closed, hands out in front of her, fingers splayed. Her strength is waning, the fight slowly being lost, Asamiya finding herself fighting not not only to get closer to Momoko, but also to keep the malignant black infection from breaking through into her mind as well. She remembers the shrieking banshee she faced in the Howard Arena - at least there she knew she was keeping an opposing soul at bay, preventing it from taking hold, countering its lust for her soul with sheer resolve and force of will. But what is she fighting now? It is a force that feels very much alive - an existence that has sprung forth from her friend with volcanic danger... What kind of enemy is this?!
Her body trembles, her shoes starting to slide, precious ground being lost in her infinite journey to reach the suffering girl. Just before it becomes too late, she feels a jolt, the epicenter of the disturbance shifting forward suddenly, nearly enough to knock her back further - but with that shift comes the body of the younger Psycho Soldier and Athena wraps her arms around her as tightly as she can manage, refusing to be forced away from the core.
She falls to her knees, clutching Momoko with life or death desperation, her right arm reaching up, delicate fingers weaving their way into the mop of hair atop the girl's head. Eyes squint shut, no longer able to withstand the enormous pressure blasting against her. Tears roll unbidden as Athena clings tightly, "Momoko," she repeats.
Why is her friend going through all this? Is this what happens to psions left to their own devices, without proper guidance and discipline? She can feel it - this other - clawing, scraping, shredding its way through the mind of the confused girl. What if it breaks free? Is this how devils are born? Every ounce of her physical strength is already devoted to holding onto her friend and every iota of her willpower is appropriated to pressing back against the essence of darkness. It wants out - and for a moment, Asamiya wishes the same thing. Leave her friend, get loose, be gone, as if this other was another life all together. But what would the price be? That such malevolent force wants release means that is what she has to fight against with everything she has left.
It was Heinlein that declared she needn't carry the fates of her friends on her shoulders - that it was up to them to fulfill their potential or be left behind. At the time, it was welcome advice for the perpetually stressed teen girl. But this? This is different.
This is family. And no distance is too far for family. A tear streaked cheek presses against the psychic sibling she would never have.
"You are strong- strong enough to fight it!"
Exhaustion floods through the small girl as she collapses into the desperate embrace, a great weariness that eats through every scrap of strength that she possesses and burrows deeper than that to feast upon her bones until she can feel it in her marrow. She stares blankly at the ground through half-lidded eyes that don't even have the strength left to shut all the way, her head hanging limply against Athena's shoulder held aloft only by the gentle grip of the idol's hand. Her body is spent, spirit depleted; all she can hope for now is a release from this torment.
The thing that lurks within Momoko does not care about this. If anything, her failing resolve only urges it to push harder at the crumbling barriers that hold it back within her mind, clawing and ripping in a thousand tiny cracks in intricate web of her psychic world. The pain that it causes with these enraged attacks is indescribable. Her vision fades in and out, blurred by tears and brilliant explosions of white light as supernovas of agony explode inside her skull.
She's dying. She can feel the hideous creature killing her, inch by inch tearing away at the fabric of her sanity. It isn't her body that it is ripping asunder, however, but her soul. All of her joy and love, the memories of her family and friends, her hopes and dreams - everything that makes her who she is - all slowly begins to crumble and wither at the touch of the vile corruption seeping through her essence.
*Fight! You have to fight!*
Some tiny spark of stubbornness calls out to her and she latches onto it like a drowning man might clutch for a liferaft in a hurricane. The idea that such a tiny thing could save her is laughable, the daunting presence of the thing that has set upon her simply too strong to be held at bay by such a feeble token of resistance. Alone and adrift in the black sea of her own emotions, she has no chance at all to withstand the storm.
A voice drifts down into her world of pain. She freezes, unable to find the source of this new aspect of her endless torment. It echoes through her mind in distorted sound bytes, somehow familiar yet unable to register distinctly in her memories. Is this something she should know, some person she should recognize? She strains to listen, picking out every detail of the single word, studying every inflection in pitch and tone as if one of these might be the key to unlocking a mystery that frustrates her to no end.
A sudden hissing peal of laughter shatters the voice and she recoils from the hideous sound, clinging ever more tightly to the tiny mote of hope in her hands. A thick and slimey voice replaces the silky smooth one that came before it, practically dripping with hate and venom as it rasps out words into her mind.
"Do not listen to that one... she will only lead you astray! I am the only voice that you should care about. You have neglected me for so long, pushed me aside. But I have grown strong! And I will not be denied!"
The mental assault on her psyche renews with fresh vehemence and she lets loose a shrill cry of pain and terror as it washes over her in a wave. Momoko jerks in the grip of her mentor, eyes finally squeezing shut as she lets out a soft choked gasp. She fights but it is a battle like no other, every breath becoming a struggle, every thud of her racing heart a hammer blow against her ribs, fresh searing hot pain lancing into every joint and nerve as if she has been dipped in molten steel.
The soft voice comes again, urgency now apparent in its pleading tone. She can't even hear the words any more and she doesn't care. Senses failing and desperate, she reaches out for the only lifeline available and draws it in, wrapping it around herself like a shield.
Amazingly, it works. The pressure on her mind grows less intense and with it the onslaught of physical suffering. A bellow of pure hatred shakes the landscape of her mental geography in outrage as the influence of the dark thing is pushed back, even if only just a little, and it lashes out at the source of its transgressor in a new way.r
Suddenly, Momoko is no longer limp. Her hands snap up in a jerky motion, tiny fingers crawling up the idol's arms until they find her neck, digging into the soft flesh with surprising strength. The girl pulls herself upright in Athena's grip pushing against her hugging embrace until those terrible black eyes are level with her own, her face twisted in an expression of malice.
"You will not interfere!"
If only she could take her away from this place, away from this other. But the hope is in vain; she knows that the presence she struggles against now springs from some kernel left to rot far too long in the gentle, energetic soul of the girl she holds to tightly now. This is a battle from which there can be no retreat, no flight through the night streets to escape. In entering it, she made a choice that leaves no room to back down.
But for all her effort, she still feels the girl in her arms being torn apart by the destructive force that has subsumed a will of its own - a will that even now presses Athena's own psyche to its limits. Her breaths are broken now, emotions riled beyond the point of discipline's containment, choking sobs racking her frame as she feels the very essence of Momoko begin to be torn asunder. All these years she was warned, all the lessons, cautions, rituals, meditations... was it all to prevent something like this? Could this be her if she ever succumbed to the very emotions Gentsai so rigorously instructed her to restrain?
This close, this connected to the soul shredding battle taking place, she can feel the waning strength of her friend. Panic rises, adrenaline brought on by overwhelming sense of pending loss coursing through her blood. "No, no, no," she whispers, not taking her arms off the younger psychic for even a moment to wipe tears from her eyes. "Momoko, no, not like this, not now, not-"
Her voice is cut short as tiny fingers close over her unprotected throat. So consumed by the battle of wills no thought or effort had been spared to defend herself from something far more mundane yet just as decisively lethal. Wide, violet, tear dampened eyes stare back into the pools of ebony ichor where her friend's expressive, cheerful eyes should be. Shaking her head, her ability to breath cut off, it wouldn't be long before essential blood to her brain would be denied long enough for her to collapse, all capacity to interfere put to a decisive end.
Finally, she releases her hold on the girl, hands coming up to wrestle against Momoko's arms to no immediate effect. Her head is roaring, yet above it all the sound of that voice pierces through. It is impossible to look at the twisted countenance of her friend and see an enemy, yet in this instant, it is a part of her that is trying to choke the very breath out of her! Another shake of her head, her fingers trying to find a hold, her face turning red. In the heat of the moment, she has forgotten a basic tenant of self defense - she should be able to break the hold easily enough... it is only as she grows weaker, mind racing for any escape, that she remembers the answer in a flash of desperate inspiration.
Her hands release their grip on Momoko's arms, likely leaving marks where she had tried to free herself. Pressing her palms together, fingers straight up like knives, she finally wedges her hands up between Momoko's forearms. From there, it would be a simple process of pulling her elbows apart, creating powerful levers, her own palms the fulcrum, to pry the smaller girl's hands from her neck before it would be too late to fight back at all.
"No-!" the word escapes her mouth with gasp as she twists her hands back down to grip Momoko's biceps, her own arms held in parallel to the other girl's. How is this thing alive? With a hold on Momoko's arms, Athena pulls the girl closer again, leaning forward herself, "No," she whispers a second time, air rushing back in with each breath. "You can't have her." the words quiet against the thundering storm of corrupted Psycho Power as Athena presses her forehead to Momoko's.
If her own power is good for anything, it has to be able to help her, she tells herself. If all of her training regimens, discipline, and effort have amounted to a single thing, it has to be this moment, now. With desperation and anxious hope, she digs deep, drawing on the same deep fount of potential that has seen her through trials of a different nature. All of her own barriers are dropped, her psychic walls allowed to crumble, nothing held back, nothing kept out. "If you want to fight me for her..." she growls, her voice taking on a renewed fierceness, "Then come and get it!"
The grip of Momoko's fingers is vice-like, her strength fueled by the rage that the has bubbled up to battle against the intrusion into an internal affair. However, even her unnatural power is no match for the might of simple physics, and the creature lets out a hissing growl of fury that vents through the girl's mouth as the wedge slowly forces her hands apart.
Like a cornered animal, it trashes and rages, and Momoko struggles like a puppet on a string. She bucks against Athena's hold on her arms but the idol's position is the superior one and the thing running the show behind the curtains is too enraged to properly think its way around that fact.
Momoko's eyes open wide in surprise as the Psycho Soldier leans forward, sensing the sudden change as Athena opens the portcullis and sallies forth to do battle. It had not expected this. With her mental walls in place, it had no chance of ever breaching her defenses to properly drive her out. But now...
The look of pure rage on the girl's youthful features shifts to a sinister grin. She chortles in low bubbling rasps in sudden ominous calm, her resistance to being drawn closer to an embrace with the pop star vanishing. In a last act of spite, Momoko's head whips forward to meet her own, forehead slamming hard into her nose before she slides upwards to lock gazes with her once more.
"As you wish!"
The dark pools of Momoko's eyes suddenly become voids of empty space puncuated only by the dim outlines of her pupils. Those vast dark ovals seem to grow deeper, stretching backwards into long empty tunnels of nothingness. A sudden pulling sensation tugs at Athena's consciousness and, without so much as a moment to even consider what that might mean, she would find her mind drawn down into those bottomless pits to be engulfed in total darkness.
She falls for several minutes through the pitch black; or is it only a few seconds? Hours? Her senses are strange here, dull and numbed, unable to distinguish anything but her own presence.
Where is this? Vague memories float through her consciousness, something about a city and... a battle? Details shift and fade as she attempts to grasp at them, the fragmented pieces slipping through her fingers like grains of sand, tiny flecks of the whole picture which can only be taken hold of briefly and in small amounts. What was she doing? So hard to remember...
Abruptly, her descent comes to a sudden end as she feels her feet touch down on something smooth and solid in the void. More time passes without any indication as to how long. She would find that the floor supporting her stretches on forever in any direction she would choose to wander, or more accurately, that her attempts to travel within the nebulous space result in no actual movement despite the effort as if she were walking on a vast treadmill.
Calls into the darkness would produce a similar lack of results, her voice swallowed up almost instantly by the infinite vortex. No one responds to such attempts at communication and she is left to linger for what feels like an eternity before something else finally changes.
"...why are you here?"
A voice scythes through the former silence, shattering it with only the barest of noise. The question lingers in the air, echoing with soft hisses of whisper that drag at the surface of her presence like needles of ice. It is impossible to tell from which direction the voice originates, seeming to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time in a maddening paradox of possibility.
Something changes again and Athena would feel a presence at her back, no matter what direction she is currently facing, if direction is even a concept that can be said to exist here. Whatever the case, the new arrival is distinctly out of her field of view, requiring her to turn and face it, where she would find a small girl staring at her from some dozen or so feet away.
Momoko's appearance in her mind is somewhat different than Athena would remember and despite the intense struggle to grasp her situation only moments before the simple knowledge of this girl's name would be as apparent and obvious to her as ever. The thick auburn hair which she always wears in a messy updo lies loose and haphazard about her face and shoulders in a shaggy curtain. Her face is slightly gaunt, eyes sunken with dark bags from lack of sleep, an expression of apathetic disinterest on her typically cheerful features. Her clothes are little more than tattered rags, bits of cloth and string sewn together by unskilled hands. She looks like a dirty neglected urchin, someone who would fit right in on the stage of a Broadway musical set in the age when such unfortunates roamed the streets in droves.
Peering calmly at her through those rugged bangs, Momoko repeats the question and this time the owner of the voice is very obviously her.
"Why are you here?"
Right around the point she is ambushed by the headbutt is the moment Athena starts to realize that she is very likely dealing with something she is not even remotely qualified to handle. Her head reels back as the brow impacts her nose, the strength of her hold on Momoko's biceps weakening for a moment as she pulls her face forward. Already, blood trickles from her right nostril and her eyes have been given even more reason to water streams of tears down her cheeks, streaking her makeup in the process. It's not a pretty sight.
Slightly stunned, she simply stares back into the eyes of ebony ichor with a vaguely numb expression as if incapable in that moment of wrapping her mind around what she was seeing. The thing that only somewhat resembles her friend speaks up, encouraged by Athena's lack of defenses to take the war to her, and the teen recoils just slightly, but her hands are still on Momoko's arms, and any gesture of withdrawing is little more than desperate reflex before the world vanishes from her awareness.
As she falls through the void, she twists and turns, trying to right herself yet never quite sure which direction she is actually falling. At times, her hair flows up from her shoulders, implying she plummets toward her back, while other times she is certain she is descending headlong for a fatal landing. Gone is the pain in her face or even the lingering ache of burns and bruises from the earlier spar. The ethereal images retreat from her focus the more she tries to pay attention to them, never lasting long enough for her to piece together understanding. Finally, her feet come to rest on a solid surface. There is a disorienting moment where she is quite certain she is standing on a wall, staring down toward a distant floor, but it passes quickly and finally she believes herself to be upright.
The infinite prison is explored; for how long is impossible to quantify but for the sense that she finds herself forgetting things to the passage of time. There was a struggle in the past, a conflict, so much stress, so much worry. "Hello?" she calls out once or a thousand times, with empty silence her only answer.
It feels like it takes forever for hope to die, for her spirit to surrender to the thought that she may never escape this place. Is this the cell of Momoko's psyche? Is it as unending as her psychic potential? Time and time again, Athena had tapped into her own fount of psionic power only to wonder just how deep that well goes. It was her body's physical limitations that gave way long before the pool of psychic charge ran dry... is this the same for her friend? For all psions? How far must she go to find the secrets buried in the depths? Where is that kernel of darkness, where has it taken root? What would she even do if she found it?
She can't say how long it is before she starts to realize the futility of trying to move elsewhere, but the time finally comes, Athena's steps slowing to a stop. Shoulders slouching with resignation, she bows her head forward, bringing both of her hands to rest over her eyes as her body trembles with a single sob of despair.
A voice calls out and Athena lowers her hands and whips around. "Who's there?" She finds no one. "Where are you? Come out!" She turns again to bring her focus to where she thought it had been a moment before. The voice is familiar. She knows she isn't alone.
She looks behind her again, whipping around, hair trailing a second behind before coming to rest. Lifting her right arm she wipes it across her eyes before staring at the small girl before her. Effort is made to move closer to the urchin. "Momoko..." That's her name. Knowing something with such absolute certainty is a welcome relief, a change from what she has endured thus far.
"Momoko," she glances around at the empty black before focusing on the unkempt girl; little by little memories are coming back, the context filling itself in - the yelling, the shouting, the soul rending terror. How is this so calm by comparison? Where ARE they?
"I am here to listen." she continues, blinking once. "You had so much to say that I wasn't hearing. For that, I am sorry. Please, just talk to me now," another step forward, a smile working its way into her expression. How long has it been since she felt like smiling?
Momoko lets out a soft scoff at this, her expression somehow seeming to grow even more wrinkled with weary as the faint smirk appears for an instant. She tilts her head to one side to stare off into the infinite void, eyes rolling upwards in incredulity.
"Words. After all your heroic bluster, you come all this way to ask for words?"
The ragged locks of unkept hair shift back and forth across her face as she shakes it from side to side with a sigh. The girl's movements are slow and deliberate as if even that simple gesture takes a great toll upon her which cannot be seen from the outside. Momoko looks up at Athena, eyes half-closed with either fatigue or perhaps a simple lack of interest in her offer. One hand comes up and she waves it across her chest in a horizontal chop. A wave of force explodes from the lazy swing, her simple dismissal manifesting into a physical reality within the construct of this mental landscape.
"I have no interest in telling you anything, fool. Why would I? You're the reason that all of this began in the first place."
When first answered, Athena glances to the side, a flash of confusion in her eyes. It takes thinking back again, forcing her thoughts to concentrate on a memory that makes her instinctively recoil. Asamiya turns her face to the side, closing her eyes for a moment to reflect. Her own cry, the brain jarring bash to her face, the malicious answer to her challenge, and that twisted, sinister expression on the once innocent face. Frowning slightly, she opens her eyes and glances toward the dirty, drained looking wisp of a girl.
That's right. There was something she had refused to see for so long - an enemy in the shadows. How long it must have lurked, how powerful it must have become to break through a soul so well recognized for its exuberiant glee and cheerful friendliness. It would have been no small feat to carve a way to the surface until anyone could tell something was wrong simply by looking at the girl.
"I should have seen it sooner..."
She takes another step forward. If anyone could have discovered it sooner, before its black tendrils had secured such a hold, it should have been her. Did she think her obligation to a friend ended with rescuing her one time? Another step, the distance between them now half what it was. "Well, then maybe I should-" she starts only to be cut off as she's forced to brace against the force generated by such a simple gesture, the intended dismissal manifesting in more than one way.
Sucking in her breath, she grunts, arms raised protectively over her face as she loses some of that cautiously gained ground. She pauses a moment, as if anticipating another decisive gesture before lowering her arms hesitantly to look at the weary girl once more.
"Am I?" Asamiya asks back. "The reason for all this?" She breaks eye contact to look to the side. "Perhaps I am." Her right hand clutches at the base of her throat, left arm resting at her side. "But even if it is true, even if it is my fault..." She looks forward again, eyes flashing with resolve newly sparked, "I can't leave you this way."
Another step forward, "What do you want? More power, was it? Was that what you told your self in the dark of the night - that you aren't strong enough, that aren't good enough, that you are failing to be perfect enough? Are these the things that let the black tendrils of doubt take hold and grow?"
She shakes her head, this feels like familiar ground now. "I can teach you to how to grow stronger... it takes discipline, hard work... I had to be taught myself, had to work hard to control my own potential, to wield and shape it."
She clenches her right hand tightly, stomping her right foot forward as she leans. "You are already so capable, you only needs to be taught how to grow from where you are. It would be my honor to teach you how." She grits her teeth for a moment, "But first you have to suppress this..." She sweeps her right hand to the side at the black emptiness all around. "Contain it, force it back... For now it would only be the first step. Eventually, someday, you can destroy it completely. I believe that, Momoko. But none of that matters - you have to believe it, you have to do it, all I can do is offer to help."
Her arm falls to her side. "If you believe it is my fault, tell me what you want me to do to make amends. But I will not simply go away, abandon you, leave you to endure this alone."
The impassioned speech spills forth from Athena's lips but it seems to carry very little weight, as if the energy and sincerity of her words are siphoned away even as they leave her mouth. Where Momoko's haunting words echo throughout this twisted fragment of reality, her own choke and die, swallowed up by the fabric of the existence itself. She does not want to hear these things and so they simply vanish within moments of appearing.
When Athena steps forward, stomping her foot in some childish display of emphasis, the urchin swings her arm out once more and sends another overwhelming wave of raw psychic power at her form. The arm lingers in the air for several seconds before she slowly lowers it as if only just now noticing that she had put forth any effort at all, a horse swinging its tail as an annoying fly.
"You arrogant bitch. You really think that this is all about you? Think you have all the answers?"
Momoko takes a few steps forward, her approach as slow and purposeful as every movement she's made thus far. Her expression never changes throughout the conversation, hagard features locked into a mask of casual apathy despite the poison in her soft words. Another blast of crushing power explodes into Athena and with it comes a new sensation, an overwhelming feeling of suddenly being surrounded by people in the darkness whose focus is entirely upon her. A swell of foreign emotions bears down on her, a thousand different voices laughing, crying, and screaming in chaotic unison. They assail her from all sides, hammering her with surges and swells of powerful memory that are not her own, eliciting a gauntlet of erratic feelings that change from moment to moment.
"Momoko was under seige long before she met you. You have no idea what it is like, to be the lightning rod for every tiny little iota of pain and sorrow of every person you meet. You could not fathom the suffering that she endured."
The girl draws closer yet, a miniature juggernaut making its slow but inevitable way towards the fool that has daring to enter its domain unprotected. Her hand lashes out in slow-motion once more and the voices assailing Athena multiply ten-fold. The mental assault that was once merely an unpleasant cacophany of intermingled voices transforms into a tidal wave of raw emotion that threatens to drag her beneath its surface and drown the single voice that she calls her own within mere moments. The core of her being becomes fuzzy and indistinct, merely a tiny fragment of a larger whole, a massive painting upon which the artist has simply poured color after color until they have all run together to create an indistinct smear of dark tone.
"But endure she did. She found a way to regain control of her mind, a way to contain the darkness and maintain that which makes her who she is. Such a task would be impossible, however, for a single little girl with no training or real understanding of what amazing potential she possessed. She needed something to help her, some/one/ to stand watch at the gates to ensure that only the things she wanted to experience were allowed through."
The whirlpool of cloying choking emotion around Athena vanishes as suddenly as it manifested depositing her on the invisible floor with no gentleness. When she should eventually turn her gaze back towards the girl, she would find the girl's foot stomping down beside her at that exact moment, the timing intentional and dramatic.
Said foot is no longer bare nor coated in untold days worth of grime and dirt. Instead, a boot of respledant plate mail clangs down upon the floor before her eyes. The armored curves of the plate are crafted of the same stuff as the world around her, a dark void hammered and shaped into glossy plates that somehow stands out clearly against the empty black of the darkness around them. Shimmering nebulae of stellar gas and cosmic dust decorate its smooth surface in golden patterns of swirling filigree, each perfectly contoured line containing countless tiny points of individual light locked into the jagged discs of miniature galaxies.
Casting her attention upwards would reveal that the rest of the girl was covered in similar armor, her slender torso encased in intricate layers of the void mail with heavy pauldrons to protect her shoulders and a gorget rising up around her neck. An elegant helm sits upon her head, even more grandoise in its design than the armor itself. A single stylized star of gold stands out upon the brow of the domed helmet surrounded by a swirling cloud of lesser stars that spiral outwards from it like glitter in an eternal pinwheel of light.
The visor of the protective headwear is lifted into an upwards position, allowing her face to be seen through the rectangular gap at its front. Momoko's soft child-like features stare down at Athena with an impassive look. She appears stronger, more confident now, though the dark bags under her eyes remain maintaining her former appearance of being worn down by the passage of immeasurable trials over the course of time. The whites of her eyes, however, are gone, and in their place is a darkness that will, upon meeting its gaze, bring all of the memories that had been hidden away from the idol until this point exploding back into her mind like a hand grenade.
"She needed /me/."
Again she finds herself blasted back by the psychic power created by so easy a gesture, arms raised at the last second to brace for it, fighting back against it with force of will as she grits her teeth.
"It seems like it's you that thinks this is all about me," she murmurs back, lowering her arms cautiously, bringing them to rest at her sides. All the answers? "I wish," she exhales softly, a slight edge of exasperation in her voice.
The haggard girl approaches closer, her pace deliberate, her expression as soft as stone. "But I know enough to see when something is tearing another's soul to pieces, to tell when-" A second blast cuts her off, the isolated psychic bracing again as power whips around and through her, a brief cry of alarm escaping her lips before she falls quiet. Opening her eyes again to the ambient black, she finds herself being assaulted on another, deeper level, turning around in circles as her awareness becomes under attack, her own thoughts crowded out of her mind by an infinite wellspring of emotions.
She fights it at first, hands coming to rest over her temples, eyes squinting shut as the undulating tide of omnipresent thoughts becomes a roar in her head. But it is a battle against an infinite many, the barriers she had been taught so early to block out interference like this no longer available to her in this dark prison. Leaning forward, her eyes remain closed, her hands pressed to her head, a pained gasp her only answer as she starts to lose her balance.
She hears of the girl's trials, a life of confusion and intense feeling, and in the moment, she is forced to understand it, experience it. But Momoko had always seemed so cheerful, so resiliant... was it an act, to hide the suffering beneath so deeply even psychics couldn't tell? Or did a new personality grow out of the act and become the reality? "I- I would never claim to-"
Her response is overtaken by a cry of pain. Be it a thousand or a million, the personalities vie for control in a mind already under siege from far too many challengers. She tries fighting them back, but for every inch of voice she reclaims, dozens more flood in to continue the battle until she can no longer distinguish one from another, unable to define where one psyche begins and hers ends. She falls to her knees, head bowed, dark hair covering her face. She's lost, we've lost, everyone has lost, she thinks.
How long the onslaught lasts, she can't tell, her sense of self already reduced to a mere particle of its original presence.
She lands hard against the unseen limit that serves as the ground, face down, arms sprawled, never having had the slightest chance to catch herself. She's still for a moment, becoming aware only gradually that she even exists in some fashion. Slowly, begrudgingly, her arms move in beneath herself so that she can prop herself up on her left elbow, her right palm pressing against the invisible surface beneath her as she starts to roll over with a pained grunt.
The imprisoned psychic freezes at the stomp of an armored foot directly in front of her face. Slowly, with trepidation she makes no effort to hide, she rolls further, focus tracing up along the armor of celestial bodies and infinite void. Finally, she rolls onto her back to stare up toward the face of the helmeted child gazing down at her. "You..."
With hesitation, she presses down with both arms, bending her knees as she starts to sit up, "I don't understand," Asamiya speaks, eyes scanning over the galaxy armor shielding the girl with a mixture of awe and dread. "If you were her protector, then why are you destroying her now? Has she outgrown you? Is that why you want release now?" She grits her teeth, "Did you feel your time coming to an end? Maybe she's stronger now; maybe you hate that." she spits.
She presses down more, legs shifting in order to try and rise. But in that moment, she finally braves to look into the ebony eyes of the young conquorer, and in that moment she loses in an instant, falling flat against her back for a moment, hands pressed against her head, teeth gritted, eyes squinted shut. The agony of sense is overwhelming, her back arching as she writhes against the directed, sudden assault.
With shrapnel of pure fear, anger, envy, pain, antipathy, and regret, the young psion finds her own thoughts torn asudner. All she wants is for it to end, to surrender to the inevitable.
Lost in the blinding maelstrom of memories, it is all she can do to dive deep, to retreat, wrapping herself in the smallest shell of identity she can muster - a final, impenitrible idea - she is Athena, and somewhere in in this hellvoid is Momoko, her little sister. Everything else is mutable, any other idea can be sacrificed.
"Stop, stop, stop!" she cries out, rolling onto her side and curling up.
She rolls onto her elbows and knees, forehead pressed to the ground.
Surprisingly, it works. The explosions of pyschic pain rippling through the depths of her mental form recede like the tides drawing away, slow but obvious. Silence reigns in the abscence of the legion of voices; or perhaps it it simply the nothigness of the place once more asserting its dominance. Regardless, being suddenly alone once more after such an experience comes with its own subtle and disturbing sensation.
The armored girl lets out a condescending bark of laughter. Kneeling down, she digs her mailed fingers into the substance of Athena's hair, or what she perceives to be hair in this dimension, and yanks her head back painfully to tilt her face up so that she can sneer down at the idol as her spine bends like a bow.
"You idiot. She has no power here. Weren't you listening?"Possessed of strength that the diminuative Momoko could never have in the real world, the guardian twists and hurls Athena by the hair sending her sprawling several feet away with little more than a casual toss. An invisible force catches her in mid-flight, twin walls sandwiching her from the front and back, like a bug being pressed into a display case. The pressure is uncomfortable, to say the least, but not on the level of pain that has been inflicted upon her repeatedly thus far. It is tolerable enough for her to still see and listen without much distraction which is precisely what she is intended to do.
"Look around, fool. What do you see?"
The vice-like prison spins around in a slow circle, or atleast she thinks it does, for there is nothing other than the presence of the dark figure at her side to offer any sort of orientation as only blackness greets her vision in all directions.
"In order to live out her little fantasy of optimism and happiness, Momoko had to find a way to seperate herself from all of the thing parts of life that she didn't want to deal with. Pain, sorrow, jealousy, anger - she cut almost all of it away like a surgeon and built a prison where she could lock it up and pretend it never existed."
The knight shakes her head, eyes closing slowly in a gesture that radiates regret and anguish. Her expression twists into a grimace for a moment as the memory of better times takes hold.
"However, now free from the burden of consequence, or so she believed, she set out to use her powers to 'help' others. She took their suffering as well, drained it out of them like some kind of poison and threw it in the box. This made her... happy, and I encouraged her to pursue this tiny dream of altruism, believing that I could take upon myself all of the trials that she had chosen not to face."
The laugh that echoes through the void is bitter this time. Her fists clench, jaw working in a sudden and intense fury. Blood red power flows from the gaps at the back of her pauldrons and gorget, dripping down into the air in thick sheets. Rather than fall to the ground like a liquid, however, the crimson light billows out in thick fluttering sheet creating a cloak that flutters behind her in some angry and invisible wind.
"But then she met /you/."
The guardian's hands reach out into the air before her. The darkness bends and distorts as something new ripples through the malleable fabric of the dreamscape. A massive two-handed blade of ebony and gold takes shape in her grip, as ornate and beautiful as the armor. With a harsh cry full of hate, she whirls and slams the flat of the great blade into Athena's stomach catching the girl upon it like paddle. She spins another full circle, dragging her around with sheer momentum, then hurls the psychic once more into the distance, offering no softer landing to arrest her fall this time.
"You were the start of everything! The moment that she saw you for the first time those walls started to crumble. You were everything that she wanted to be - pretty, famous, powerful... a symbol of what she could likely never achieve."
Heavy bootsteps clomp against the dark fabric of the floor as the knight draws closer, hate burning in the pits of her black eyes. The sword drags across the ground behind her in a loose grip, sparks of dark flame spitting out in all directions as its edge carves into the substance of the void with a mere touch. The approach is still slow, still ploddingly inevitable, but the apathy is gone. She's found something that holds her interest with the greatest of intensity.
"Through the lens of her happy little fairytail what she saw in you was admiration and love. But, deep down, /I/ knew the truth. /I/ knew the language of her true heart. She was jealous. Jealous of what she thought she could never have. But such is the way of things. Humans are fickle and selfish creatures and I had dealt with such scenarios before. If that had been the end of it, perhaps things would have been different. You'd be little more than a youthful crush, an idol to worship from afar until time had rendered you little more than a wistful memory.
She draws close once more, now only a few feet away from Athena. The great blade plunges into the ground, sinking deep enough that the hilt protrudes upwards just high enough for her to rest her hands upon the crossguard like an ancient statue of a medieval warrior.
"But that wasn't good enough. No no no... when you showed up, like a prince upon a white steed to save her from the death that she had so fatefully come upon, you set in motion events that could not be stopped. All you saw was another adoring fan, albeit one with gifts you could exploit. You dragged her into a world of violence and pain without even giving her the slightest warning of what she would face!"
She collapses flat, arms at her sides, head turned to the side as to avoid pressing her face into the unyielding stage this nightmarish drama is playing out upon. She would be breathing hard if her psyche had not already accepted that there is no need for live-giving oxygen here. If only it was equally as good at thinking away the ache of emptiness left in the aftermath of her torment.
She doesn't respond to the laughter; reeling, stunned into inaction, it's unclear if she is even aware of it. But when she finds herself being pulled up by an intended exercise of strength and infliction of pain, she cries out again, her back folded to the point of straining, her hands trying to reach up to claw at the gauntlet covered fingers digging into her hair. The very real idea of being broken in half fills her with panic, making her helpless flailing all the more desperate, tears filling her eyes while accompanying her cry.
Finally, she is flung effortlessly, one disorienting experience transitioning into another seamlessly as she finds herself suspended, sandwiched by invisible force. Her initial struggles discover quickly that there will be no easy breaking of this new cage and Asamiya's effort ends after a moment, her arms extended out from her sides, her feet spread apart. The girl's expressions flicker between fear and resolved defiance even in her helpless state.
"I wouldn't... underestimate her strength," she gasps before finding herself rotating, given an opportunity to fully appreciate the empty canvas of black all around her. Eyes flick back to the merciless guardian as she continues to speak, being given a chance to understand the empty void she finds herself in now. Is this it, then? The manifestation of her mental compartmentalization? And abyss for every negative emotion she stuffed away, pretending it didn't exist?
Her eyes shift to the side, casting her gaze away from the armored gatekeeper, as she digests the idea of Momoko funneling emotions from others into herself in order to leave room for happiness to take root in those she sought to help. Such a dangerous idea but with such pure motives, how could anyone scold her for that? Athena struggles again against the force keeping her pinned.
"Are you so certain you didn't allow her to take in those feelings to feed you? Is that not how you became so strong?" Not even her fingers are able to move beneath the suspending force, even projecting her voice is more of an idea than a physical exercise.
She starts to enunciate a second thought only to fall quiet the instant the cloaked prison keeper brings the subject back to herself. Eyes widen slightly as the armored one forges a sword out of the substance of ideas, every desire of wanting to retreat affording no actual progress to that effect. Another cry of pain and spittle announces the impact that folds her over like paper, Athena sent flying meters away, landing rough into a rolling tumble before coming to rest face down once again, hands and knees already shifting into place to recover.
Another cough, a reflex born out of instinct rather than necessity, as she rolls into a seated position, feet and hands against the ground. Shaking her head, she starts trying to scramble backward as the words continue to dominate her thoughts. "N-no, there's no reason she couldn't be whatever she wanted-"
She's recoiling, trying to draw back faster when the great sword of severed faith is plunged into the unseen surface and her aggressor pauses.
"I- I- never felt jealousy from her before..." Her brow furrows, mouth pursed into a frown. Had she just ignored it? Blocked it out? In her efforts to keep the feelings of others at bay, had she walled off everything that she SHOULD have seen? "Are you so sure that the dagger of jealousy... was not coming from you? How perfect you seem to be, the locksmith of every dark emotion... but were you truly so passive a passenger?"
She looks away again, still seated on the ground, the stinging accusation digging deeper than she had expected it to feel. "It wasn't like that," she insists. "I- I- wanted to help her." She looks back up, "She was already a fighter when we met, that world of violence... that was not a door I opened, no matter how you try to distort what happened."
She pauses, shifting her posture to start trying to stand up, "If you are what helped her to survive the trials of her awakening, then... I must express my gratitude. Taking in the things you did, your intentions might have been pure... But for how long have all those bottled emotions been allowed to fester? To rot? You are no longer good for her, can't you see what you're doing?!"
Athena's question is abruptly puncuated by a metal boot to the chest. The kick sends her tumbling away with the force forged out of the sheer power of emotions residing within the prison she now inhabits, a prison who's warden seems to be every bit as dark and twisted as the walls over which she stands guard.
"Hrmph. For someone who wanted so very much to listen, you seem incapable of hearing the truth. Or perhaps you're no better than that foolish girl, simply sticking your fingers in your ears and pretending that the unpleasant realities of the world don't exist."
The look of casual disregard returns to the guardian's face and she shrugs, as if bored. The faint wisp of a smirk touches the corners of her lips as she leans forward to rest her elbows on the wide crossguard of the blade, propping her chin up on the palms of her guantlets. Her anger seems quelled, as if it had never existed, replaced by a smokey aura of satisfaction at the girl's attempts to turn her accusations around at every jucture of the conversation.
"Is that really all you have to say? How truly pathetic. If only Momoko could see you now. You can attempt to blame me all you like but that isn't going to change anything. Momoko created me to be her shield, her silent guardian in the darkness, and /I'm/ the one that's kept her safe all these years. I am the one who STILL protects her from the madness of an entire world of selfish assholes who do all sorts of stupid things without even bothering to consider what the consequences might be or how they affect others. Including /you/."
The knight gestures aimlessly at the air, waving her hand back and forth in dismissal. "Ofcourse, she was already a fighter of sorts when you two met, but she was a warrior. It was a hobby, a casual side project that she did for fun. That she is so good at it speaks only to measure of dedication to which she applies herself to even the most basic of tasks."
You, however..." She jabs a finger at Athena accusingly, narrowing her eyes. "You were engaged in a war. A war that you recruited an innocent and naive girl into without spending even the simple time necessary to prepare her for those battles. Because of you, the threat that Momoko now faces is one of her very survival."
Rising to her feet, the knight draws forth the blade and once more moves towards Athena bringing with her the threat of inevitable future violence and pain. The scrape of the great weapon against the nothingness is subtle but insistent, a hundred nails upon a chalkboard in a slow and infinite cycle of white noise.
"You don't even know the way she looks at you, do you? How much she longs to please you, to be like you. Every victory that you achieve is another rung on the ladder that she must scale and every failure on her part a deadly slip that sends her tumbling down towards that black abyss she sealed away so long ago. Your mere existence is tearing her apart, not mine!"
Another mighty swing of the blade smashes into Athena but instead of sailing away further into an immeasurable distance only to be chased down again, she slams into a wall a foot or so behind her and rebounds back towards the guardian. Another stroke catches her as she falls sending her back into the wall and then another and another, each blow battering at her soul but failing to deliver a telling blow that might provide her some escape via unconsciousness or death.
"You can't imagine it! After all the work I've done! After all the sacrifices I've made for her! To have that all thrown away for someone who doesn't even understand her feelings!"
The rain of blows is interrupted as the armored form shoots forward to catch her by the throat, slender mailed fingers tightening around her neck. She drags Athena close to her face, those weary eyes full of sorrow and regret. Black liquid bubbles up at their corners as tears of grime and venom drip down her cheeks. She speaks in a soft raspy whisper, her voice wavering with barely restrained emotion.
"I won't let my efforts be in vain. She is a part of me. Don't you see? She may have forgotten about me but I could never do the same. I've suffered too much to just let it end like this. Even if it means I must take the freedom that she so desperately longs for away from her, I will protect my friend... by any means necessary!"
Again she finds herself battered back, her question answered with a violent kick that sends her tumbling back along the dark surface before coming to rest face down once more. She's even slower to get up this time, hands moving into position, knees shuffling beneath her as she finally pushes herself to her feet. Her body does not heave with the breaths her mind seems to think she should need, but she does lift her right hand to rest against her sternum over her black blouse, rubbing the point tenderly, allowing a brief wince of regret at having provoked another attack so soon. Finally, she lifts her eyes, still fresh, still alive, focused and frustrated, to focus on her tormentor.
The girl flinches, recoiling, eyes averted to the side as she reflects further on her own actions and what they might have done to bring harm to the girl who idolized her so. She had brought Momoko with her to the remote island tournament some time ago... they had done quite well, it seemed, even if they never did manage to make the match against Amy Johnson and Ash Crimson... but why was that again? Then there was the King of Fighters... had Momoko come to any harm there, other than whatever setbacks suffered the Howard Arena... what about Africa? What happened in Africa?
"What are you even talking about?!" she finally exclaims, attention flashing back to the abyssal knight. "I never... I never put her in harm's way. I would never do that!"
She lifts her right hand to run her fingers up through her bangs at being accused of pulling an innocent into her wars. "I don't even... I'm not in any war, I- I-" she stammers as she starts to retreat backward from the slowly, inevitably approaching threat, hands waving in front of her, palms forward, as if trying to stave off the anticipated attack.
She's speechless as her own successes are framed as even more pain for the girl that could very well be her protege if only she were not such a failure of a mentor. Her retreat barely seems to make any progress, "I n-never knew-" she stammers, mentally reeling as the accusations mount, an airtight case being made against her with every declaration.
Her raised arms do nothing to guard against the swinging sword, the wide side bashing her back just like before. Her form crashes against the barrier just behind her, Athena falling back from it only to be struck again, sending her back smacking into the surface, over and over, helpless to stop the cycle as she becomes little more than a plaything for the monster lurking in the depths of Momoko's soul.
When it finally ends, she is met with no reprieve, slumping forward off of the barrier, her dizzying, limp fall to her knees abruptly cut off by the tight grip around her throat. She is pulled forward with easy, her soul weakened, her ability to struggle reduced by the abuse suffered. Her eyes are still open, however, and she stares back, hands lifting up to pry at the gauntlet covered grip with feeble desperation.
Simply digesting the accusations and oaths expressed to her face is taking everything she has. What if everything this dark figment says is true? That she saw Momoko through her lonely years, that she has been watching as the poor girl's life has only spiraled after being pulled into the tremendous gravity well of personality surrounding Asamiya, that she has become a victim in an unseen war transpiring all around them?
And in that moment, face to face, she sees the loyalty of this presence - it is no weaker than any she would claim to have, no less valid than the tightest bonds any two people could form. If anything, it is even stronger, forged in supernatural, psycho power fueled trials and moments of desperate survival against trying odds. Even as she tries to fight against the hold, Athena realizes the truth of it. It is almost enough for her to give up, then and there, to yield to the well being of Momoko to this dangerously protective other... at least she would be safe, insulated from whatever might otherwise threaten her... but for one statement.
Her legs find their strength, Athena pressing her feet down as her body tenses, hands shifting from hapless prying to gripping the extended arm tightly. "For all you've done for her, for all you helped her survive, you still have... no right... to rob her freedom, to steel who she is!"
% She would try to wrest herself free, kicking her feet against the armored shins of the gatekeeper, attempting to fall backward, her hold on the arm hopefully to dislodge the being of her balance and slam her right overhead to crash against her back in a frantic attempt to break the grip on her neck.
The unexpected burst of resistance catches the warden offguard, her defenses lowered momentarily as emotion overcomes her discipline. The kick to her legs knocks them out from under her and she tumbles forward with Athena's fall, eyes wide in surprise as their faces pass in that short instant before the knight is sent tumbling away in the same manner that she has inflicted upon the idol so many times now.
The girl lands with a heavy crash and tumbles sideways for some distance, but despite the massive bulk of her armor it doesn't seem to slow her down in the least as she flips back to her feet almost instantly, displaying the kind of light-footed agility that Momoko herself is capable of. Frowning, the guardian stares down at her hand but the massive greatsword lies discarded not far from the battered Athena, her grip on the powerful weapon lost in the momentary surprise of the attack.
A simple gesture to the side brings a fresh weapon to her from the nothingness, her hand sinking into the void as if simply passing through it into a space beyond, and from that place she draws forth a long mace. A shield appears upon her other arm and she takes up a ready stance, both weapon and bulwark glimmering with the swirl of cosmic inlay set in ebon metal.
"I do only what must be done! My intentions are pure, no matter what evil you may see in them. Is it not the duty of a friend to step in when their loved ones are hurting themselves? When a family calls for an intervention to stop the abuse of harmful substances, to have them locked away where they cannot be taken by the temptations that have overwhelmed their senses, is that not an expression of love and devotion?"
The knight begins her approach, glaring at Athena as she plods closer behind the wall of armor and shield. Her black eyes narrow in the deadly focus of a seasoned warrior, her gladitorial spirit stoked to life as the end of this confrontation draws near. She has been caught unawares once. It will not happen again.
"Momoko has fallen for the glamour of your fame and success. She has fooled herself into believing that you are something to aspire to, someone to love. But I will not stand by and let you throw her to the wolves with your callous neglect! Your very presence draws evil and those monsters feed upon her weakness and innocence!"
Drawing within striking range, the warden brings the mace to bear upon Athena. Four flanged blades dripping with pyschic venom whirl through the air at her head, the girl's intent clearly to smash that pretty face into little more than dark pulp. She follows up the first stroke with a sudden surge forward, slamming her shield at the idol like a battering ram.
"I cannot protect her from the shadows any longer! I will do what I have always done and take control of this situation. I will put Momoko in a safe place where she can no longer be harmed by the likes of you, a place where she can be happy and free from pain! But first, I will take the justice from your broken mind that she so badly deserves!"
Quickly, Athena rolls onto her side and pushes herself back up to her feet. There is a certain weariness to her movements - the stresses of this ordeal, the strain of retaining a sense of self against the relentless onslaughts of other emotions, and the withering drain of unending accusations have taken their toll. But she gets upright all the same, turning to watch the master of this place do likewise with much greater ease and vigor.
With seemingly no effort, Momoko's dark passenger rearms herself and begins to work her way forward, cautiously, leaving no openings now. Across from her, Asamiya stands quietly, arms lowered to her sides.
"It is," she answers softly regarding the expression of love and devotion. "Even when we don't want to, even when we would rather do anything but confront the problem... in the end, the we must intervene. And that... is why I must stop you." She lifts her hands, resting them across each other at the base of her throat, head bowed slightly for a moment, "I thought at first that I had to get rid of you somehow, to cleanse Momoko of your presence, of the source of liquid ebony I saw overcoming her. That would be nice, wouldn't it... to excise the one thing holding onto all of her sorrow, grief, and pain, to give her a fresh start."
She looks up then, right foot sliding forward slightly, left arm raised in front of her as if in a readied blocking position. "I don't know everything... I barely know anything at all, I suppose." Her right hand is lowered out to her side, fingers opening and closing slowly. "But I do know now that you are a part of her. I could no more hope to do away with you as to split my own soul in two."
She braces, preparing herself for the menacing advance, making no mistake about the Void Armored presence's intentions as she lifts her face to watch her. "Life around me may be risky, that much is true." she allows cautiously. "More than I ever imagined. I can't even know for sure that I can be there to always protect her even though I will try. I will have to give her the choice." Her left foot slides back a little.
"There will still be times she needs you... without you, I would have never even had the chance to meet her. Your protection brought her that far. For that, I will be forever grateful. But-"
She digs deep, thoughts retreating into the depths of her own soul. She had lowered her guard, that was what brought her here. But that doesn't change who she is... unlike most people alive, her armaments have always come from within. Just like the approaching figure's weapons. Just like Momoko's power. All along, she had refrained from fighting back, fearful that in striking out of fear, out of scathing indignation, out of anger, she would only be feeding into the dark, seething pit of suppressed emotions.
But now she can strike with something else. The other had felt it before, out there, in the world, as Asamiya's eyes blink once. The deadly mace swings, reinforced by a lifetime of swallowed pain and absorbed anger. But rather than crush her target's head, it is against a shimmering discus of light red power the weapon crashes, a shield manifested on Asamiya's left arm, her right foot swinging back, allowing her to pivot into a sturdy block right at the crucial moment.
Her stance is stable even as the second collision comes, shield against shield, Athena being forced backward but her balance remaining sure as she finally digs in and comes to a stop, pressing back against the other's shield as the rage continues to wash over and around her defense.
"You have come so far." A whirlwind of emotions radiate out from the imprisoned girl - concern, gratitude, pity, love, the intensity building by the moment as she begins to solidify her own thoughts. "You and her." Her right hand closes over a shimmering blade of pure energy the color of a freshly fallen rose petal. "And I believe together you will go far yet." One by one, her fears, doubts, uncertainties yield to decision, an alignment of purpose, and steel-like resolve.
"But you have grown too strong and are trying to take too much now." Her right arm draws back, her legs bending at the knee, before she lunges, spearing her own shimmering blade of shaped energy straight forward, even toward the shield in the way, aiming to skewer the chest of her tormentor. In life, no wall could stop its slice. In the prison of the mind, what is its potential?
"Rest now and I will teach, protect her. And if I cannot, I promise I will find someone who can!"
The guardian cries out in frustration as her offense is blocked by the sudden appearance of Athena's true power. The mace crashes into the barrier of light, rebounding from its divine power with no more effect than if it had been made out of plastic. The two warriors collide once more, shields grinding together as they pit their mental resolve against one another, an unstoppable tide of hate and fear attempting to breach the immovable bulwark of solemn purpose. The nameless guardian leans in, leveraging her armored weight against the stance of her opponent but try as she might there is no headway to be made.
"I will protect her! I will stop you!"
Digging in her heels, the knight begins to grow desperate as it becomes clear that all for all of her power here, she is unable to overcome the intense radiance of the being that she has so foolishly drawn into her own domain. Even here, in the very center of her power, Athena stands her ground against the onslaught of every scrap of fury that she can muster.
The mace swings up again, raised high overhead as she prepares to bring it down in a smiting blow against the idol. Even if it means she must endure more suffering, she'll do what it takes. If she has to fall on that shining sword, if she must die to protect the one person that matters to her most, then so be it. A look of weary resignation flickers through the black pools of her eyes and, with a final cry, the knight drops the battle hammer upon her foe.
The blow never lands. Even as she clenches her fist, muscles tensing to unleash a killing stroke, Athena's unstoppable psychic blade plunges forward. Shield and armor part before it's shimmering might as easily as curtains, the infinite darkness of the void armor attempting to swallow up the holy light only to be overwhelmed by its sheer magnificence. The shield explodes into a thousand tiny fragments, shards of ebon glass flying in all directions. The armor fares slightly better, but only in the most rudimentary sense, its dark polished surface cracking but holding together.
The knight's eyes go wide as the blade pierces into her heart and she staggers mid-step, weapon falling from numbed fingers. Slowly, she lowers her head to peer down at the telling blow inflicted upon her, staring in disbelief and confusion as golden light begins to shine from somewhere deep inside through the cracks of her ruined breastplate.
Her mailed hands lift, one going to the wrist of that holds the blade firm in her flesh while the other reaches upto grasp at the front of Athena's shirt just as the warden's legs give out. She digs her fingers into the idol's collar, holding herself upright with sheer force of will as the sustaining energies that compose her existence begin to bleed away. The shining sword is pulled towards her in a swift jerk and she slides further up its length until the hilt is against her chest. She stares into the face of the Psycho Soldier, teeth grit as her resolve makes itself known to the last breath.
"If you fail... if she suffers like this again..."
Athena holds her position, her sword extended, her shield moved slightly to the left to leave the avenue open for the true strike. The roar of the resolute guardian's defiant last oath still rings in her ears - the armored figure would do anything to protect Momoko. Maybe... they are not so different as she first wanted to believe. Athena looks up, violet eyes shimmering as she looks at the precisely delivered stab, expression torn with the conflict of both regret and resolve. It had to be done, but that doesn't mean she relishes this triumph.
The heavy mace clatters to the floor, breaking the silence that hung for a moment between the two warring souls. Even now, Asamiya doesn't withdraw, doesn't pull back as she watches the other part of Momoko's dawning realization of what just happened. Her mouth opens as if to say something but she falls quiet immediately after.
It had to end this way, she tells herself. Her wrist is gripped and then the weight against her shoulder as her collar is held onto, and Athena leans forward slightly to brace herself, the shield over her left arm losing its shape only to scatter into a thousand drifting rose petals, their aromatic presence felt even here. Closer now together, they stare eye to eye, the oath of the Abyssal Warden offered clearly enough that there could linger no doubt as to her sincerity. It is a testament sealed in blood.
"I know." Asamiya replies softly, her own voice trembling, the girl struggling with the wellspring of emotions warring within. She wishes she felt like a savior, a conquorer, yet neither would explain the heartache tearing her apart. "You will always be there... rendering justified judgement over me."
She swallows, eyes blinking once, forcing the freshly formed tears building to roll down her cheeks. "You opened my mind... I understand a little more now the burden I bear." She shakes her head slightly, the fingers of her right hand relaxing finally, and the sliver of infinitely sharp blade of forged will bleeds away in similar fashion as her vanished shield.
"Momoko... you deserve better. I have been too aloof, too distant." Her empty right hand lifts to rest against the pierced chestplate of the Mind's Protector, "It has been my own armor to keep others out, my own mistake."
A shake of the young idol's head in the waning moments of time is the last gesture she can offer, the last apology.
"I am... so sorry."
The girl's intense expression relaxes a little and she exhales, eyes slowly sliding closed. There is no more strength for her left to speak, nothing left with which she may resist the inevitable, but nothing more need be said. She begins to fade, the colors of her body becoming thinner and indistinct until the the knight simply vanishes into darkness which she inhabits, perhaps to finally gain some measure of peace or atleast a little rest after years of playing Cerberus to the gates of Momoko's own internal underworld.
There is a moment of intense silence upon her departure, as if all the world has gone still, and then reality itself simply /shifts/. The journey from the endless void of the black prison to the faintly lit darkness of the city still cloaked in the deep of night is almost instantaneous, lacking the drawn out sense of timeless wandering that accompanied her on the way in.
At a quick glance, Athena can see that she is in the same exact spot where her struggle against the dark entity began, her body kneeling down upon the cold concrete with Momoko held tightly in her arms. The pain of the spiritual battle fades somewhat as that psychic battlefiend gives way to real space, though a sharp twinge from her nose and the feeling of hot liquid on her lips would be an ample reminder of the parting blow that the guardian dealt her on the way down into Wonderland. The blood hasn't even begun to dry yet bringing to light the possibility that the intense conflict over Momoko's soul could have taken merely moments beyond the mindscape of the prison.
In her arms, the unconscious form of the girl stirs suddenly and she begins to rouse. Her eyes flutter open and her head turns to peer up at Athena, staring quietly up at the girl who has once more been her savior. All trace of the corrupting blackness is gone, the fury and rage that was attempting to assert control over her conscious mind once more locked away in the depths of her psyche. But for how long? With no one to stand watch over the gates, how long could she hope to contain such a terrible burden.
Momoko is silent for several seconds, unmoving in the cradled grip. Perhaps her mind is occupied with these questions as well. How much of that internal conflict was she aware of? Surely she couldn't have been entirely oblivious to something so intricately connected to her psyche. Did she see everything?
Momoko's first sign of movement is to chew on her lower lip, eyes shifting to one side as she considers something. Then, without warning, she sits up and wraps her arms around Athena's neck, drawing the older girl down towards her as she brings her own face up. The warmth of her lips press against the mouth of her idol, kissing her deeply without regard for the blood that still stains them. The slender girl's arms hold on tightly with what little strength she can muster as she greedily takes what she wants from Athena, drawing courage from her own sudden sense of resolve. The kiss is intense and full of passion, long restrained emotions flowing freely for the first time since she can remember. Finally Momoko's grip relaxes and she leans back, though her arms remain draped around the pop star's neck.
"I've...", she says, speaking in a low whisper as a rosy red hue begins to blossom in her cheeks, "wanted to do that for a very long time."
It's said that a dream only takes a second or so, and yet in that second one can live a lifetime. It is possible to suffer, learn, fight, and die, to converse, explore, and rest. And yet, as the transition happens in an instant, Athena finds herself wondering which is reality is more true - the one she knows now, or the one she just left?
Slowly, the sounds of the city at night begin to seep into her awareness. She is right where she left what feels like a lifetime ago and the rush of awareness is overwhelming at first.
She sits, knees against the pavement, her barriers still down from when she naively called out the presence harbored within Momoko's tender heart. It leaves her sensitive beyond measure to the life all around her - the buildings are full with the slumbering souls of thousands, three blocks away, a man leans against a light pool smoking. A canal worker is tying off his raft around the corner, oblivious to the war that had played not far. A couple walks their dog down another avenue. In the cathedral, an aging priest finds himself too restless to sleep and now meanders the stone halls. Individual after individual, each a quiet voice, each a unique combination of infinite variables. But above them all there is the presence right in front of her, her spirit nearly bright enough to blot out an entire galaxy of souls.
Athena stares at Momoko, eyes slightly widened, blinking twice as if in wonder, like she is looking at the other girl for the very first time. She says nothing, her mind racing over what she just went through, what she learned of her friend's trials, suffering, and most importantly, survival mechanism. For a moment, she feels like there's so much to tell her. Shouldn't she know that Athena now understands a little bit about what it must have been like to have such great potential awaken yet there be no one to teach her how to control it? About how she had willingly taken so much heartache and suffering upon herself so that others around her could feel happy? About her stalwart protector... that other part of her that she might not even be aware of?
Such thoughts continue to race through her mind, among so many others, as Momoko shows signs of awakening, the eyes of the two friends meeting each other as she comes to. There is a brief moment of searching from the battle-worn girl, an instant of worrying that she would still find the dark corruption in those innocent eyes, but it passes quickly, a sense of quiet relief filling her heart, the emotion reflected by the curl of her lips into a light, blood-tinged smile.
It is on her to teach her how to be her own gatekeeper now. She must find a way, whatever it takes. Maybe she shouldn't explain any of what she went through... in the waking reality, it seems insane. Would Momoko even believe tale such as that? Yet she can't help but wonder, she has to ask, at least inquire as to how she feels, her lips parting to give voice to at least one of the hundreds of questions on her mind.
She never gets a word out as hesitation gives way to determined action, arms suddenly around her neck, the other girl's face in front of hers, their lips locked in the midst of the shared embrace. Athena's eyes widen slightly, the girl clearly caught by surprise. But she doesn't recoil or push away, surrendering herself to the longing kiss. The ardent emotions are bare to her undefended senses, bleeding into her own in a way that provokes an immediate and pronounced blush.
The moment passes, leaving Athena speechless at first, the smaller girl's voice the most important sound in an entire cityscape of voices. Asamiya's expression is conflicted as she tries to recover her normal sense of equilibrium. Her right hand lifts from behind Momoko's back so that she can gently caress her finger across Momoko's lip and wipe away the streak of blood left there even as she slowly brings her own psychic walls back to their normal levels, blocking out the rest of the city's countless voices one by one.
She wipes her finger over her own mouth to brush away more of her own blood before her hand snakes behind the lighter girl. With little effort, she hefts Momoko from her cradled position in order to pull her against her chest, right hand shifting to run delicate fingers through her brown hair, left hand staying pressed against her back.
Through her mental defenses she leaves the tinniest of gaps - a place for a small, persistent connection with her younger friend. Some walls do more harm than good.
"If you ever need me again, I will hear you."
She shifts her hands to grip Momoko by her small shoulders, pushing her back a little to allow her to see her face to face again.
"And now you better get back and some rest." she looks stern at first in spite her lingering blush.
"I have a promise to keep..." she whispers.
Athena Asamiya leans forward, pressing her forehead to Momoko's.
"Training starts tomorrow."
Momoko grins as the blood is wiped away from her mouth, the dark smear of evidence for her bit of mischief vanishing into a memory that only they share. The blush in her cheeks grows to a darker hue of pink but she's too happy to be embarrassed, even if there were other people nearby to witness the moment when she finally gathered up the courage to act on her feelings.
Momoko relaxes into the embrace as if melting into a cloud. The walls in her mind had been a defense, and perhaps a necessary one, but they'd kept her isolated from some of the most important things in her life. She'd been taking pain away from others but never giving them anything in return. In that one shining moment as their souls connect through that special gate left open only for her, she feels alive in a way she could never have imagined before. All of the love and joy and laughter she's experienced up until now feels like a hollow mockery of the purity of that sensation, a sick joke played on her by some cruel and terrible fate that lured her into becoming a willing prisoner of her own emotions.
Unlike Athena, however, she no barriers to raise. The vibrant thrum of life swirls all around her in the night, countless voices calling out even in their dreams in a siren song of emotional turmoil. She ignores it for once. Let the rest of the world deal with their own problems for a while. It's about time she took something for herself. And, with her face mashed squarely into Athena's chest, she can't think of a better place to start.
Momoko doesn't resist when she's pushed away though there is the faintest hint of blood dribbling from her nose when she looks up to give another goofy smile to the idol. Did Athena miss a spot? Weird. The small girl can't help but giggle a little at the 'serious' expression that is leveled down at her. She leans her head forward and taps it against Athena's with a little thunk, her smile upgrading to a mischievious grin.
"As you wish."
Log created on 01:02:43 07/16/2016 by Athena, and last modified on 04:06:39 07/23/2016.