Honoka - The Knife In Plain Sight

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Description: Lee Chaolan asks the Scarlet Dahlia for a few moments of her time. The meeting does not go entirely according to plan.

Hundreds of cities along the coasts of Japan look practically identical to Kushiro City. Most of the city is low to the ground, only the occasional ten-story building daring to rise above a sea of two- and three-story buildings.

Looking southward from a rented third-story office in one such office building, the Scarlet Dahlia looks out upon a lazily setting sun. A knife glints in the light, a gleaming arc cleaved through the air as it falls back to Dahlia's slender fingertips, only to be hurled into the air for a return flight a moment later. The dancing blade reflects on the pale blue contact lenses of the Akatsuki advisor, as waves crash upon the shore in the distance.

So much to consider. And yet, the future has never seemed so clear.

The rented office of the Ezo Development Group is thinly staffed; a nondescript receptionist, hired more for her cordial attention to detail than her looks, would be there to welcome the one guest on the day's appointment list. Two nattily-dressed security guards would be by the door; one of them would be more than happy to escort said guest past the open office plan, past the private window offices, into the Dahlia's corner office.

Of course, Lee Chaolan rarely found himself in this part of the country.

Nothing against the locals, but Lee Chaolan just felt more comfortable in his sorts of cities... or at beachside resorts. Still, is arrival was low key. Lee Chaolan had -considered- showing up in an alias of Violet. But after hemming and hawwing and staring far too long in the mirror, it ultimately came to that he would be arriving in a white tuxedo. Time was of the essence. The man was facing problems, and frankly, he needed to stay ahead. Even the plain looking receptionist would receive a spare rose and a flirtatious smile from Lee Chaolan upon his arrival, and as his escort comes, he would certainly make sure the guards get the gentle respect from the executive. And as he enters, well. His host would receive all the respect and more of her underlings.

And The Scarlet Dahlia time was valuable.

"Ah, The Scarlet Dahlia~" Lee Chaolan says lightly, as he emerges into the room, almost gliding in with the air of elegance. "It is so good you could meet with me on such short notice. I would have a rose for you, but unfortunately your receptionist was a bit too charming and, well, it is my fault I only brought one flower~" He doesn't approach her yet, but he takes a glimpse at the guards steadily. "Will we be alone, or shall we be enjoying the company of these fine young security guards?"

There is a twinkle in his eye as he winks at them.

As the door clicks open, the spinning knife is caught securely by the handle. No larger than a letter opener, the blade would be easily concealed within the yakuza advisor's left sleeve -- if she hadn't made a show of placing the weapon on the surface of her desk, plain to see. Also upon her desk are a trio of tablet computers of various sizes, propped up like easels and displaying video footage from different parts of the country.

"We meet again, Lee Chaolan," is the Dahlia's answer, presented with a slight dip of her chin and a playfully enigmatic half-smile upon her lips. He used her 'full' nom de plume, why should she not address him with his own? Her blue-hued gaze welcomes Lee to the corner office long enough for her to shake her head side-to-side: "It's quite all right. The sentiment is appreciated."

The gaze is broken just long enough for make eye contact with her guards, who click their heels smartly and backpedal out of the room, followed by the sound of the door clicking shut. (For what it's worth, the only response to the executive's winking is a curt nod.)

Her smile and attention return fully to Lee Chaolan as she takes her seat. Before her desk are two executive swivel chairs -- nothing -extravagant- but more than fancy enough for an office setting. "It's safe to say they can miss this meeting. Please, make yourself at home...."

Dahlia's fingertips steeple casually, as she tilts her head slightly to the side. "... Inasmuch as a busy man like yourself can ever truly relax.. What brings you to this end of the country?"

Of course, Lee Chaolan COULD just be ignored.

It was part of the burden of being an executive. As the guards leave, he practically dances towards the plush chairs, striding with careful steps in a ballet of his own mind. "Fantastic, simply fantastic~" He coos, as he works his way to the chair, he spins it around once, before delicately, dramatically makes his move.

And eases himself right in.

Lee Chaolan takes his time to make sure he is comfortable, as the guards are gone. He gives a customary look around, before turning back towards the Scarlet Dahlia. "Oh, believe me, with the V-Gage going live, the ICP already getting in trouble, getting a reputation for kidnapping at the worst possible time, AND the King of Fighters ramping up, I've been so busy! But not too busy~" He intensifies his smirk. "As to why I've come out here, well, I will be blunt." He steeples his own fingers in mirror to the Scarlet Dahlia's own, as he leans back.

"I would like to help out with that Ainu project you're working on as Honoka!"

If the guards weren't obeying Dahlia's mental compulsions, they may have had the leeway to give Lee Chaolan a more personable response. Next time, perhaps.

The Ainu executive cannot help but be amused at the spinning of the chair. Lee's flair for the dramatic is only one of the many reasons the Akatsuki advisor prefers dealing with him, rather than any of the rest of those attending the Shadow Council's meeting so many eons ago. But she is perfectly content allowing him to set the pace and tone of the meeting he's called forth, here -- with her own project crawling uphill, the time of the Violet Systems head is more of a pressing concern.

The name of her public alter-ego is left upon the table just as casually as her knife was, moments earlier. And, for a moment, it doesn't faze her.

And then she flinches, as the true import of the statement hits home -- as it shows that Lee is making no attempt to disguise his knowledge of a fact that she's kept hidden for quite some time. The advisor's steeple tightens, as she draws back in her chair, the fine white silk of her formal attire pressing into the warming embrace of a black leather seatback.

Her discomfiture only lasts a moment. As color returns to her momentarily pale cheeks, she downplays her own ambitious project in lieu of Lee's own.

"The offer is a gracious one, but humor me if you will -- what would any of these initiatives have to do with the revival of a society on life support? One cannot just spontaneously undo a hundred-fifty years of oppression with the wave of a techno-sorcerous wand."

Dahlia's expression is not defensive, or belittling -- anything but. Her lips may have flattened into a thin line, but her eyes shimmer with curiosity -- after all, he would not come out this far from Southtown without a plan in mind.

"Oh, don't feel so nervous about me figuring it out."

A moment to place Honoka on the back foot, and then just as quickly retreat, pull away. A feint? A threat? Or a moment of common ground. "I would have come to Honoka as myself, made the introductions, and pretended not to know. But really, we're professionals. I'd much rather meet behind closed doors and lay the cards out, so to speak, than do the kabuki play out in public.

"You aren't the first person to use an alias, after all, in this line of work~"

"I too had an alias I used in the past... for Violet Systems. I still use it in fact; I almost brought it here to make the point, but, honestly that's a little too crass. I remember how I felt when I was outed; so embarrassing. The truth of the matter is that, well, when you reach a certain level of public profile, you can't truly hide who you are consistently. That's what happens when you become so high profile, so important, so... big!" He spreads his arms out, showing just how big Honoka has gotten. Twirling in his chair once, he leans forward, eyes sparkling. "When millions of eyes are on you, you can only have so many facades before they connect the dots. Of course, I have my sources, but it's only a matter of time before some troublemaker comes bursting in your office and threatening you! Don't worry too much about it. It's part of being one of the strongest in Japan~" He gives the wink, before leaning back in the chair.

"But yes, business~"

"I must confess, those are less initiatives in your favor, and more headaches in mine. I had intended to just come, and work out how to funnel money into your delightful pet project without having that lingering 'Lee Chaolan' over it. Believe me, it is more trouble than it is worth. Someone reads in the news that Lee Chaolan has donated money to these schools, and suddenly you have some bullish Spaniard assaulting your students declaring revenge against me. Under the table seems... less trouble for you. But goodness, those initiatives, maybe I really could just wave my wand and magically have centuries of culture undo itself... or rebuild itself. Maybe we could work something out. I had some plans blueprinted out..." Spontaneous? Or planned from the beginning.

"... Maybe you would be interested in some... side effects we've found with the V-Gage~"

The Dahlia is pleased to allow someone more loquacious than herself to dominate the conversation -- a tacit acknowledgment of the mute performances of her juggler alter-ego. While it is true that Honoka had some trepidation about Lee knowing her identity, the truth is that it hardly matters any more. Her sabbatical from the Twilight Star Circus was as much for their benefit as her own -- she had no way of knowing who would draw the line between the professional seated in the leather chair in Kushiro City and the raven-haired Ainu tusukur who slaughtered the Outworld Champion. As Lee says -- it is difficult to hide, and she simply opted to reframe the matter for the public. To distract in a conscious fashion, rather than remain in the spotlight for an inevitable challenger.

"Indeed," agrees the Ainu executive, resting her elbows on the arms of her seat. "You are not the first, and you will not be the last." A warm smile returns, as she confides, "I am glad that the mask can be allowed to fall among certain company."

She has amassed quite a bit of power, she understands. And as Lee elucidates, she nods in quiet assent -- the need to create shell companies to donate to favorable causes is a tedium she knows all about.

Her eyebrows lower at the casual intimation that he could wipe out or rebuild centuries of culture. In a way, she plans to pull off a transformation, with more subtlety and artifice than a simple technological cure-all. But the way in which he suggests and summarily dismisses the vectors of change concerns her.

A moment later, her concern lifts into a lopsided smile. Didn't he say he was going to be blunt? "Lee, the HitBit systems had 'unforeseen side effects.' You've figured out some sort of chi technology for your shiny new robots. And you're magnanimously helping the improverished with the ICP lark you've mentioned. I find it hard to write off any V-Gage feature as a mere 'side effect...'"

Eyebrows lower once again, as her elbows press into the armrests of her chair.

"You mentioned bluntness, hmm? How are people -really- affected by this harmless video game console?"

Lee Chaolan closes his eyes, and nods his head. Of course, all valid points. The disbelief was well known. Even Lee himself didn't believe it. Until he saw the results. As she identifies just how... evasive Lee could be about his words, well, Lee cannot reject it. She wanted the hard truth. Well, Lee just nods his head, and goes ahead to be blunt.

"Oh, they are responding well to the chi draining!"

"There was some concern about leeching away chi energy, but it seems that. Fatigue, hyperfocus, general ennui. But then again, that might just be the video games themselves! Of course, the chi is transferred over to my Combots, and eventually people will figure out their precious body energy is taken away, we'll have the dog and pony show, the V-Gage will take a massive hit, and people will start demanding that they be compensated for their chi energy. That's not the side effect, and how to put this delicately." And Lee gasps.

"Oh, but bluntness"

The weight keeps coming as Lee Chaolan had continued. "What we've seen as an unintended side effect is related to the HitBit side of things, of course. As you might know, we've toyed with the feedback mechanics of the HitBit; it's already easy enough to collect data on the HitBit, but did you know it's possible to provide feedback as well to the nervous system? There were some brilliant ideas of empowering and modifying fighters using HitBit technology right in the middle of the fights. But, well, we just never had the chance."

"And then the V-Gage happened."

"People get addicted to the V-Gage. Quickly, surprisingly enough. And with the chi drain and the neuro-feedback on the HitBit, there is a profoundly hypnotic effect. Add in some light medication, and a -very- extended use of the device, we've found some quite profound results from suggestions. The V-Gage already has it in the form of advertising; you play the game, and you get some suggestions to order pizza with a pepsi product! It's delightful! And it's not just marketing. If you were, say, a homeless man with a drinking problem, we've found it is surprisingly easy to place the suggestion of drinking liquor with thousands of spiders burrowing under your skin, into your eyes, laying their eggs and biting and just biting! Why, we've even trained a college student to be a rather competent piano player, and another, we've trained to speak tourist-level Spanish, a new language for them. This might not seem much, but this is in the -open- testing. The results are incredible!" And Lee Chaolan gets a devilish smile across his lips, as he leans forward.

"Are you beginning to see how my magic wand works now, Honoka?"

Dahlia had asked the question with some preconceptions of what the answers might be -- after all, it only makes sense that a corporation like Violet Systems would seek synergies in their initiatives. But that doesn't stop her from arching an eyebrow when Lee comes right out and admits that the "harmless" video game system siphons away the chi from its players.

Dahlia presses her thumbs together firmly. The master puppeteer has enough of a rein on her emotions to keep her face from showing undue concern, but her muscles are quite taut against the chair. The urge to strike Lee Chaolan is rising -- kept in check only by her curiosity for how deep the rabbit hole is going to turn out.

Her attitude changes when the homeless are mentioned. Those who fall through the cracks. Those who cannot function as cogs in the grand machine of capitalism, of production. Those whose lives are effectively forfeit anyway -- for without education, without the will to contribute, there can only be unproductivity. Sloth.

Her expression does not change.
But her muscles release their tension.
"You can help educate them for the betterment of society. Doctors. Teachers. Craftsmen. Soldiers. No longer burdens on the social support net, but posts to support it higher."

But why stop there? Already, the mind of the Dahlia is hard at work considering alternatives.

And yet --
She exhales.
"I can attest to the skill of your ComBot 1.0 revisions. But as you seem eager to -gift- a trillion-yen development program to three to five talented martial artists, you certainly seem confident in the market potential of this V-Gage system."

Her hands spread apart, as she finally lifts her shoulders from the seatback.
"I suppose I should be direct, then. Are you seeking to make a customer of me, or a partner?"

"If I was looking for a customer, I already have plenty, Honoka."

Lee Chaolan could see what Honoka wanted to feel comfortable with. He intended a partner, but what was a partner but a customer you share profits with? "The governments of the world are more than simply interested, and are well justifying the trillion yen costs." Lee Chaolan crosses his legs. "The Japanese government seems especially delighted by the prospects of further optimizing their educational plans. We're already lined up for a limited experimental release on the 'V-Gage Educator', starting with Gedo High over in Southtown. They are interested in using the V-Gage's suggestibility to help educate and modify troublesome students. I told them they should start at Seijyun High, but no, they want to have a success story against delinquents." Lee Chaolan just rolls his eyes. "The announcement will given once the King of Fighters dominates the headlines as it it launched. They expect that it will be a suggest. I expect some plucky teenagers will revolt, we will have to send some people willing to fight with children to get a problem, and something something Daigo shows up and beats me up." Lee Chaolan lets out an audible sigh.

"... Which is why I am talking to you right now, Honoka."

Lee Chaolan gives a bright smile. his melancholy faded. "Partners have always been more valuable to me than customers. And my customers are... fools. You know what the Japanese government will do once they get their claws in that technology, Honoka. They can change the minds of the youths to whatever they wish. And their future of Japan has no Ainu people in it, no other culture than the culture -they- want. And they want to start with the school with students that will literally set the Imperial Palace on fire with corner store cigarettes."

Another eyeroll.

"So why introduce a prototype educational model in a school that -I- know will fail, when I can sneak it into a venue where I know it will succeed. And if you had control over the direction of the syllabus? I know you would make it succeed well and beyond the Japanese government's wildest dreams... even if it isn't the lesson they want. Think about it, Honoka. What if the suggestions, the knowledge, the thoughts burned into the mind are what -you- wanted? The entire Ainu culture being installed and refreshed in the students of Japan. You can choose the Ainu, but why stop there?" Lee Chaolan rises from his chair into a stand. "You can take the entire legacy of the Ainu people, and... make it standard. Rebuild an entire civilization's worth of culture, with their beloved Honoka, the headmistress, as a single focal point of greatest! And, well, you certainly you could take the suggestions further, replacing memories and even rewriting personalities but... well. " Lee Chaolan furrows his brow, and he lowers back into his seat.

"Well, the human constitution doesn't seem to -take- to it very well."

In prior meetings, Dahlia's various personas have been passive, allowing other more fiery personalities to take the reins of conversation. But here, on her turf, with subject matter she's well-versed in, she is at ease controlling the negotiating pace. Lee may hold some of the cards, but it is ultimately his job to convince Dahlia that his path is the right way forward.

The Dahlia leans forward, resting her elbows on the lip of her desk, and steepling her fingertips once more, giving the Violet Systems executive her full attention. The suggestion of a partnership is a good one. And the mention of educating the youth of Japan definitely earns some points, as suggested by a brief nod of her head.

It's the mention of Gedo High that heralds the return of her lopsided smirk. Gedo High -- a foundation of control for which the Shadow Advisor is well acquainted. She considers an interjection, allaying any potential fears that Gedo would be any problem at all for the mind-altering technology -- but the entire point becomes more-or-less moot as Lee communicates his underlying focus.

And what a devious focus that is...
It's here that Dahlia's smirk fades, her expression becoming inscrutable. Lee's talking about mind control -- and suggesting that the Japanese government has already talked about engaging in it.

...And then, the sell.
The Ainu advisor listens, quietly and intently. And even lets him talk himself into a hesitant corner.
Only then does she crack a smile. "Laying it on a bit thick, aren't you? It's all very interesting conjecture that you raise, and in all honesty -- it does sound attractive. Shaping young minds is certainly an area of interest for me."

A slow intake of breath -- and her expression becomes more casual, almost matronly.
"But why dam a river when you can simply redirect it to your own benefit? Overwhelm a young mind with a hammer and it will shatter into unusable pieces -- guide it with an open hand, and you will reap a lifelong benefit."

She slides her chair forward, raising her shoulders while leaving her elbows and steepled fingertips intact.
"Please excuse the flowery language. I certainly don't think the Japanese government is capable of keeping their isolationist, nationalistic rhetoric out of the minds of our youth. Youth -- particularly that of Gedo -- reject authority. But they respect their peers. And they respect individuality. This is where the V-Gage concept can succeed, and excel. And by playing our cards right, V-Gage will be the cure to all their maladies. The gateway to the future."

A warmer, more personable smile supplants the prior airs. "I'm listening, Chaolan. Consider my interest piqued."

Well, there was another problem with the hammer approach.

It tended to -kill- the people on the other end of it. But of course, it wasn't designed for PEOPLE. And the fact it was working against its proper target... but Lee Chaolan wouldn't need to say anything. Just a smile, and a nod. "Oh, you won't hear any complaints from me about beautiful language." He says sweetly, enjoying that she was enjoying this. It was a bit thick, but Lee Chaolan had to lay it thick to hide any concealments he might have. As she slides her chair forward, it was time for the conspiracy.

And it wasn't much of one, in the end.

"I think I can give you the same prototype API for education that we gave to various A-List game companies and also Obsidian, as well as the government contractors we've networked with internally. It's not too difficulty, I've managed to make an excellent course on ballroom dancing which I've put to good effect recently. It's very intuitive, and barely uses any consoles. Just remember to use dot forward slash instead of dot back slash! Ha ha ha! I can then put in a good word in directing them in your direction, and, well, I believe at that point you just work that voodoo that you do so well." Lee Chaolan gives a wink... before letting out another gasp.

"Ah, but of course, I would ask for a very, very small, tiny favor."

"That wouldn't be too bold to ask from you, is it?"

Dahlia has some... reservations about the casual manner in which Lee had tossed out the ideas of reprogramming humans from scratch in practically the same breath as educating them. Slightly narrowed eyes may suggest that the psychic is aware that not -all- the cards are on the table yet. A woman of her power would not have gotten far in the world if she trusted the words of every smooth-talking salesman, after all.

"Perhaps not. But the point remains that minds can be fragile -- and as you've likely learned, it is best to keep behavioral suggestions limited in scope."

As Lee describes such arcane constructs as APIs and dot-slash notation, Dahlia makes no attempt to hide her unfamiliarity. She's certainly -dealt- with such matters in regards to the HitBit project, but never on a particularly deep level. With a pleasant and tolerant smile, she notes simply, "I'm sure it will make more sense once I get involved with it. I'll defer to your team's judgment for now."

But... alas, the pleasantries and tentative talk of the future could not last forever. The price of the bargain is raised. Her lips press into a thin, faintly amused line.
"You're welcome to ask, of course."

The price of service.

Maybe she was a customer. Maybe Lee Chaolan was up to an even more sisinster scheme. As Lee Chaolan is invited to ask, he brings the back of his hand to his brow. "Oh, it's so embarassing though. It's like I am in High School again." He laughs a bit, and then sighs. For a moment, he almost seemed insecure. And then, he just says it.

"It's Ayame Ichijo."

"Oh, I've messed things up so terribly" Lee Chaolan continues, averting his gaze. He actually has a sheepish smile. "I wanted to see her groomed into becoming a great fighter that the world would adore, and... well, after her performance at the last King of Fighters, I think I might have overreacted. I was only going to take her to a private villa, to rebuild her self-esteem, and well, one thing has led to another, and now she probably thinks I'm a ruthless kidnapper! I have not seen ANY public fights with her since, and well..."

"I've ruined her life, Honoka!"

Lee finally returns eye contact. "Her fighting life, that is. I want to let her have another chance with this King of Fighters, but how will she come? She doesn't trust me, and for very justifiable reasons! She won't listen to me; there is nothing -I- can do to convince her. If I even showed my face, or sent one of my people to plead on my behalf, she will just give me that cold shoulder and terrible scowl. The girl just has no patience for fools! And what a fool I've been. She has such an incredible will, you know. And well..." And Lee Chaolan gives Honoka the puppy eyes.

"I would like to see her in my King of Fighters tournament, Honoka."

"The favor, I ask, is if you could convince her to join this tournament. I mean, you -are- joining my tournament, aren't you?" Lee Chaolan waggles his eyebrows. "You certainly have the talent to win this time. Much better than those Interpol buffoons and... I would say even better than the Psycho Soldiers." Flattery. "In any case, what I would plead with you is to try and convince Ayame to join the tournament, and if you can't, at least tell me if there is -anything- I could do to convince her to trust me again." And then Lee Chaolan rubs his chin.

"Well, I mean, I hardly think she trusted me to first time, come to think of it."

Just like in high school, he says. Dahlia isn't buying the melodramatic overture -- and she makes sure that her arched eyebrow and pursed lips communicate that clearly.

"You made a garish copy of her and used it to spice up a final battle in the Rumble tournament, then you tried to kidnap her." To say nothing of the garish copy performing more effectively than Honoka herself had. With a renewed smirk, she adds, "I can't say I'm surprised at the reaction, but from everything I've heard of the woman, she's in it for some sense of personal improvement. The spectacle bores her, and now that she's got a tournament win under her belt... eh."

Dahlia shrugs faintly, fingertips tapping lightly against one another as her eyes drift to one of the displays on her desk. Musing aloud, she notes distractedly, "Honestly, it depends on the teams she has available to draft her. If she can't find one of those, you'd need to allow someone to enter solo..."

Eyebrows lower, and she reaches over to slide a second tablet closer to her. After a few moments of tapping and swiping, she retrieves a news article clipping, squinting at the words.

"Wasn't... the private detective on her team still ticked off about the likeness rights?" She extends a finger, squinting again: "Brendan Mahone... no, wait, Brandon Malone. I'd be surprised if the ComBots aren't incentive enough for them to make another pass at it." Sliding the tablet away, she looks back up to Lee, smirk growing even more. "Of course, if Malone and Ichijo team up, and manage to -win-, I can't imagine they'd be able to separate their emotions from an obvious profit center. To say the least."

The smirk falls from her face, replaced with raised eyebrows and a look of mock concern. "Why is she so important to you? Are you seeking a rematch? Surely you're not motivated by petty vengeance, Chaolan..."

"Me? Petty vengeance? Ha ha ha!"

Lee Chaolan hardly considered his feelings of vengeance petty.

"I should have beaten her when I had the chance, Honoka, if that would have kept her growth going. But I blame her teammates ultimately. I suspect that she would pair up with that tedious private detective, along with that miserable little cracker that sold our secrets. I don't want it, though. They would only hold her back. Just like before, when that uncultured brute Miguel humiliated both her and myself. As to why she's important..."

And Lee Chaolan gives a sigh.

"It's why you are so important, Honoka. There are just certain people you meet, you see, and you know, that you can just capture their unlimited potential, and see that with guidance and direction, with that spark of ambition, that they could become greatness. Great people should be given the opportunity to be great! I can see the likes of Ayame surpassing even me! If she can keep challenging herself. I have a certain responsibility I feel towards the world. And what the world needs now isn't just machines and mind control."

"It needs great people like you and I~"

A smirk slides back onto the psychic Ainu's face as she observes his laughter. He talks about Ayame's 'growth', but Dahlia's hold on her suspicions is stronger than any hollow laughter can sweep away. She can psionically badger many into following her whims -- but she harbors a latent distrust for anyone immune to her charms. Lee Chaolan fits in the second category, and he's plenty dangerous even aside from that.

She listens, as before. Flattery does not pass unnoticed; it tugs the corners of her lips into an appreciative smile, curving her lower eyelids into complementary arcs. And yet, it would be hard to miss the restraint practiced by the tusukur -- her body hardly budges at all, remaining just as she was, casual and relaxed as compliment after compliment floats her way.

"Flattery will get you somewhere with me, Lee Chaolan -- but not everywhere. Miss Ichijo, though..." Dahlia shrugs faintly, lacing her fingers together once more. "The current prize is... sufficient for some. But if she's even half as distrustful as I suspect, simple 'access' to the chi and ComBot technology will not be enough of a carrot for her. So you may have to choose whether to increase the size of the carrot, or to wield a stick instead."

Her smile approaches the 'sinister' edge of the scale by a few degrees, as she rests her chin upon her laced fingers. "What does she love more than anything else, I wonder... What on earth would she fight -for?-"

"But what stick could I even use?"

Lee Chaolan actually looks flustered at the end of it, his cool exterior chipping away. "Kidnap her parents? That's so passe. And I don't even think she has a sister or brother I can snatch. Wealth? Power? A boyfriend? I can offer so much to her, and take away anything, and I suspect she knows that all too well. But what that is, what it is that is most important to her that I can steal away... I don't know!" Lee Chaolan actually looks defeated, for a moment, a spark of light leaving him. "I must say, I am concerned I am not quite as smart as I think I am.... and to be confounded by a young lady like that." He flashes a smirk.

"And it's just so fascinating!"

He sweeps his hand around. "I have all this wealth, and power, and I can't even muster what a teenage girl motivations are! If I use the wrong stick, she is driven away, and if I bring the wrong carrots, she turns up her nose! My experts are useless, Honoka! And that leaves an outside consultant. Tell me, if you were me, with my vast resources..."

"What would you give the girl to lure her to my tournament?"

The Scarlet Dahlia may pretend to act as someone older and wiser, but the truth remains that she is not far from being a teenager herself. Young enough to pass for a highschooler, but removed enough to not be suckered in by all the latest trends. Lee's desperation -- feigned or not, the tusukur is not sure -- is amusing enough to draw a more honest smile upon her face.

"Kidnapping? That sort of dime-store villainy's right up there with buying out her family's ancestral property and threatening to build a mini-mall in its place."

Yeah, the Ainu woman is almost certain that Chaolan is messing with her. Somehow. So she's going to have fun with that.

"That said... Stop thinking of her as a teenage girl, for one. She is what folks might call an 'old soul' -- wise beyond her years, like she's carrying the burden of other lifetimes around with her. She's not concerned with concerts, or 'boys,' or any of that nonsense -- she's focused on her job. And her job is serious stuff -- warding the world from evil spirits and such."

Reminded of the similarity between Ayame and Zach Glenn, the Dahlia's smile grows grim.

"So you will have to bear that in mind. She is dedicated towards defending humanity. Stopping the supernatural. It should have been her in this 'Mortal Kombat' tournament, but for whatever reason..." The Akatsuki advisor shrugs limply, spending a brief moment glancing at the knife on the desk.

"So, just before I proceed -- do you happen to have any of the so-called 'darkstalkers' among your vast collection of resources? Or, failing that... would any of these... " It's at this point that the Dahlia's eyes dart back to Lee's, and the Machiavellan smile returns. "... creatures of the night be in contention for the grand prize of chi technology? I'm sure if Miss Ichijo caught even a whiff of the odor of darkstalkers entering the tournament she would likely be all over it."

Honoka might notice the change.

Oh, as she brings up buying out her family's ancestral property, Lee Chaolan could hardly keep back his chuckle. And as she explains Ayame to him, he realizes his mistake. Of course, she wasn't like a teenager. That was the mistake right there. But these only provoke nodding his head, the smile, the understanding. That wasn't the change. The change comes when Honoka mentions Darkstalkers. Palms begin to sweat. Lee Chaolan gets a faraway look of clarity. And then it happens. Deep within, like a baritone, before building into a crescendo.

Honoka might pick up the sensation of fear.

A troubled expression had passed on Lee Chaolan, as his mental defenses seem to weaken. The iron clad wall of a seasoned fighter was softening. She is dedicated towards defending humanity. Stopping the supernatural. And Lee... well, he had information well within those lines. Secrets that he would not even share with Honoka under the pain of death or... under the pain of immortality. It was a palpable fear that was building.

And Lee Chaolan gives a smirk, the sensation of fear still present.

"If she wishes to stop Darkstalkers," Lee Chaolan begins, his mental defenses rebuilding. "Then I will give them to her. I just received the registration of a beautiful vampire and a lovely catgirl as the first official King Of Fighters team." Lee Chaolan steeples his fingers. "Mostly harmless, to a point; the catgirl is only a Risk Level of C now, while the vampire is quite low for its class at a Risk Level of B+; considering how some of her kind can reach S+ I am quite wary of those types." He tilts his head. "Don't worry about the ratings, they are a new thing that's been provided to me by some of our... specialists."

Lee Chaolan's smile seems forced.

"Now, if that isn't enough for her, I can simply telegraph more about Lord Dohma, the mysterious figure who made Metro City disappear. We have Saturday Night Fights coming up, it won't be hard to feed those subtle hints. I don't even know if he is putting forward a team this go around, but I think it will be easy enough to jostle something forward. He just needs a push, you know." Lee Chaolan gets the strangest expression across his face. "And I did hear that Interpol has had another agent go rogue. Our infamous Ladykiller from last year, Daniel Little. I assumed he had died, in fact, I heard that -you- did the deed, and I believed it since we have some of remains in a warehouse, tagged and bagged, along with others." He leans in with an aside. "We had a special arrangement with the organizers, you understand. Part of doing business."

He winks as the fear within him builds.

Lee Chaolan's hands were trembling. "I know for a fact that several groups like that has shown interest in what the chi technology can do, as a result of our... well, some of our side projects with the United Nations." Lee Chaolan wipes the sweat from his brow. "They even suggested letting them come out to demonstrate their strength in public! Just the thought of that makes me... dizzy." Lee Chaolan forces a cheerless laugh. "I expect our little vampire lady won't be the only Darkstalker team. It's open registration after all! I'm sure that Ayame won't be able to control herself if it comes to stopping them. And if they win, well, what can else I can do, but hand over the keys to our new future? At the very least, we will be the last to be eaten... or perhaps, more fortunately, the first." Lee Chaolan shrugs, before shaking his head.

"Do you think that will be enough to inspire our little friend, Honoka?"

The Ainu woman takes careful note of the reactions to her words. Notable is the way Lee chuckles -- perhaps he's placing that offhanded comment into his suggestions folder instead of the trash bin. Despite her self-mockery of the concept, Honoka isn't against using such underhanded means to hassle a rival.

Ayame already distrusts -both- of them, after all.

The Ainu had picked up on the silver-haired executive's fear.
His reaction seems out of place -- why darkstalkers?
The fact that he speaks openly about an association with both darkstalkers -- the very topic which seemed to inspire such dread -- makes it worth paying doubly as much attention to his following words.

Sometimes, though, the Dahlia's words are not fettered at all, slipping right out of her mouth before she can restrain herself. "It's amusing how saying 'don't worry' tends to invoke the opposite effect." She pauses for a beat, with a sardonic smile. "That said, I trust you to handle the details." Perhaps she placed one slight degree too much emphasis on the word 'trust' there.

As Lee Chaolan mentions Jedah Dohma, her smile fades, as she nods her head to show mute interest. She had wondered if he had any real connections -- and perhaps his simple mention of such doesn't suggest one.
But then Lee mentions Daniel -- and a vein begins to become obvious on the Dahlia's forehead from that, despite the rest of her expression holding constant. An eyebrow raises at the mention of his remains. And -both- eyebrows lower once he mentions a special arrangement with the organizers of that foul tournament.

But she remains quiet, instead paying special attention to Lee Chaolan's words -- and his tells.

Her eyes close for a moment, as the question is asked -- and the intoxicating, heady aroma of Lee Chaolan's dissonant moods begins to stabilize. "... I get the sense that you enjoyed tormenting insects and forest creatures as a child."

She exhales quietly as her eyelids part once more. "It should be sufficient, yes. But now I have a question of my own to ask you, Chaolan." Her sardonic smile is nowhere to be found, as she folds her hands together, firmly. "As a potential partner, I would like to know more about this 'special business arrangement' you have brokered with the organizers of the Mortal Kombat tournament. I would like to know how far it extends beyond the disposition of corpses I may or may not have had a prior hand in dealing with."

The Dahlia mentally files away the executive's trepidation. It will, undoubtedly, become pertinent later.

"Some children are the insects and forest creatures growing up, Honoka."

A faraway comment, a specific one. There is no tell on Lee Chaolan's face when he says that, no tell behind the mask. For a moment, there -was- a mask. A full concealment of his emotions. But that was gone as he drifted to the next topic. "I can be a bit cruel myself, though, I must admit. But yes, yes, you have a very good question. I am certain I should have shared some of my extended relations to the council; but you know how that Kira can be. Always showing up and shooting guns and making a scene. I'd rather not have her band of mercenaries knocking on my door and holding my employees hostage. As for the nature of my relationships with those organizations." And he waves his hand dismissively.

"It was nothing too drastic."

Already, he was beginning to not give the whole story. "I just made sure to network the top fighters of the King of Fighters tournament towards the Mortal Kombat tournament, so there wouldn't be an... ugly preliminary tournament. Could you imagine the ethos of Mortal Kombat on a wider scale? Simply barbaric. No, no, it was an opportunity of convenience; Darkstalkers are people just like you and me, you know; they have needs, demands you can say, and capitalism is well suited in meeting those needs."

He leans forward a bit.

"I'm surprised if you haven't started working with Darkstalkers yourself, knowing or otherwise." Lee Chaolan gives a smirk. "They are excellent employees, as a heads up. They will work long hours, take low pay, and you only have to account for their special needs. And best of all, if they become too much trouble? Just turn them over to the local authorities, and they cease being a problem." He gives a playful wink.

"But as for the partners."

He furrows his brow. "As partners, you have to be able to handle working with them from a position of weakness. I had hoped for much more than simply the bodies of the fighters; I had special interests who were very, very disappointed that it was all I could get before the island sank into the sea. I had hoped for remains for some of our secondary research dealing with HitBit technology. But some of the remains, well, most of the remains are in an unworkable state until we can sort them out." He sighs. "IF we had only captured some of the locals before the island went under, I could have had exactly what they needed. Of course, the Earthrealm is saved, the future is secured, and everything is bright and dandy thanks to people like you! So Excellent~" He pauses a moment.

"Oh, and I am selling Combots of various monster hunters to them for training purposes."

As with his earlier turn of phrase, Chaolan's attempt to appease the Dahlia's concerns only ends up fueling her ire. For once -- the Ainu woman's lips curl into a distasteful frown, as she makes no attempt to hide her dismay at being effectively brushed off with a shroud of placating words and corporate euphemisms. She sits up fully within her seat but remains silent while he speaks -- cruel or otherwise, it is still super rude to interrupt -- even if she has such a strong opinion to state.

When she senses an opening, she releases a sigh, and begins the process of unpacking the silver-haired executive's statements. Each sentence paints a more vivid picture of the man behind the silver-tongued words.

"I work with all sorts of people, supernatural and otherwise. And I reward each person appropriately for the amount of work they contribute." She pauses for a moment to clear her throat, sapphire-tinted eyes seeking out their silver counterparts.

"If I'm taking your meaning correctly, you are making the most of rare opportunities. Fine, I do not question that act in itself. 'Drastic' or otherwise. And I further surmise that you are working with darkstalkers -- providing them with the means to systematically learn the manners in which to kill vanguards of humanity such as our dear Miss Ichijo."

She pauses again, allowing her statement to hang in the air. Partly for her own benefit.

The frown fades, momentarily. "That's fine too. The Shadow Council may pitch a fit about this, but it's logically consistent with arms trading as far as I'm concerned."

But then the frown returns. "Thank you for recognizing the sacrifices I and others have made on behalf of Earthrealm -- as it is for these -sacrifices- which I ask the following. I will be needing an answer completely free of bullshit, because you're already wading in it up to your ankles."

Fingertips press together firmly enough to turn the skin an alabaster white.
"Mr. Chaolan, do you have a working relationship with Shang Tsung or anyone else from Outworld?"

The Dahlia may be perfectly still -- the very picture of tension. But the knife with which she was playing earlier begins to shudder, rocking back and forth as if responding to an unseen tremor.

"Yes, well, I have to remain independent in my line of work."

Lee Chaolan was being rather open, while not, while is, while is not. As for the Shadow Council, well, if the Shadow Council DID bring it up, he would take the penalties, and give what he could to appease them. Neutrality was an expensive lifestyle. But Honoka actually asks the direct question, the single question, the piercing question. And Lee Chaolan's smile was fading. His eyes drift aside a moment. And he shuts his eyes. Even selling the secrets of monster hunters, well, it was just business. But this was... well, it was very important to answer.

Terminally important.

"I will be very precise, Honoka." He flattens his hand across in a crossing motion. "None of that bullshit, as you say." His eyes don't drift to the knife. But the faintest shudder... he could hear it. "My contract, with a representative, who was very likely representing Shang Tsung, has ended. It was a bad deal, I don't think I'll do business with the Outworld again personally. No leverage, little respect for local laws in lieu of 'Outworld Law'" He makes a dismissive gesture. "But yes, I do not have any active contracts with the Outworld, as represented by the territory owned by Shao Kahn, nor do I have any contracts with subsidiaries of Shao Kahn." Lee Chaolan does lose the cool smile as the fear boils up within. "I cannot say the same for future contracts, and we have some current contracts with non-Outworld non-human subsidiaries. Now, Honoka." Lee Chaolan scoots forward, at the edge of his seat. The smile was gone. And he was looking at her directly in the eye, with a penetrating stare.

"I need you to listen very, very carefully, Honoka."

"Listen carefully, Honoka. I will not answer any questions on the follow." Sweat forms over his brow, as that same terror from before was rising. "I am minimizing the bullshit here. I cannot eliminate it, so listen very carefully." He pauses, and draws in a breath. He exhales. And then, he begins the next section.

"There are subsidiaries of my holdings that have interest. These subsidiaries are not publically traded. These subsidiaries are outside the scope of my authority, I am only a shareholder." He pauses. "I am only a shareholder." He repeats, a volume quieter, nodding his head for emphasis. "These subsidiaries have less scruples than me, Honoka. They are seperate from my direct business holdings. Separate from my direct business holdings. I have strong reason to believe they have connections to Outworld. ANd non-outworld entities. There are past, current, and future contracts." Lee Chaolan's voice was a whisper now. His expression was grim, as his pupils tremble. "Now listen carefully, Honoka. This King of Fighters tournament has nothing directly tied to any Darkstalker activity related to my direct business. Do you understand, Honoka?"

"Nothing directly tied to any Darkstalker activity, related to my direct business holdings."

"Do you understand?"

The Scarlet Dahlia could become quite imposing under certain circumstances. Without saying a word, or moving a muscle, the Ainu shaman's psychic aura can inspire terror, awe, infatuation, wonder -- any number of emotional responses, that can trigger any range of psychosomatic side effects. In this case, the Dahlia intends none of those to be transmitted: she wants a straight answer. The psychic pressure manifests in a more physical fashion -- the mild tremor causing the knife blade to shudder.

Motionless, the shaman stares into Chaolan's soul, only peripherally noting his fading smile, his flattening hands. The pressure of her focus bears down upon the silver-haired executive from all angles. Lee can answer in any number of ways, but the answer he actually chooses to deliver will set the focus of the negotiations from that point forward.

He says will be precise.
The Ainu does not waver.
He explains the nature of the representative of Outworld.
The Ainu does not waver.
Fear boils within the executive as he edges forward, reciprocating her intense gaze.

Irises narrow as she focuses into those silvered wells, wavering only with the lift and fall of each spoken word.

And then...
The answer is unclear for a moment, even as the knife continues to shudder.

And then, it stops.

An eyeblink later...
"I understand."
The irises dilate back to normal.
Nostrils flare, releasing their held breath.

And the fingertips finally unclasp.

"I understand -enough-..." she clarifies, after a moment, settling into the chairback. She does not elucidate -- but perhaps more than anyone else in the yakuza underworld, she knows the measure of a man. Lee Chaolan may be an opportunist, but there is little doubt in the Dahlia's mind that he speaks the truth as plainly as he can. Increasing the pressure any further might cause terror or awe, but it would bring her no closer to an answer.

Tension ebbs away as she presses her palms lightly into the armrests of her chair. Her voice, similarly, effuses calm and rationality. "I hope you will share your wisdom with your fellow subsidiaries and shareholders whenever the opportunities present themselves. The powers of Outworld are orders of magnitude more ruthless than any force I have encountered here -- even moreso than the Lord of Majigen -- and they would do well to heed your advice."

She draws in her breath, and then exhales lightly as she finally casts her eyes downward, breaking the intense gaze. "I apologize for my line of questioning. Recent... challenges weigh heavily on my mind, as you can surely understand." Looking up, she adds with a note of finality: "That said, I'm game. I am sure that Miss Ichijo will join your tournament if you are able to meet those goals. And just in case..."

The Dahlia's half-smile returns after its long absence. "I'll be doing some light reading. Who knows, maybe I will even join Ayame's team myself..."
All things considered, maybe her smile is a bit -too- bright now.

"Do we have any other matters to discuss?"

Lee Chaolan felt a vague tingling.

But as clarity reaches over Honoka, he lets out a sigh of relief. The burden on his shoulders were lifted. And yet, he shakes his head. "The wisdom is not as simple as that anymore." He says lightly. "Humanity's capabilities in ruthlessness may very well challenge the extremes of the Outworld. As you have proven. As I have..." He trails off. "Wisdom has fallen of deaf ears, seeking the newest extreme of power. But that is just how the gears of the world turn." A suggestion? An idiom?

A warning?

Lee Chaolan rises from the chair, clapping his hands together. "But yes, I should be the one apologizing! This was supposed to be a simple way of me giving you money and resources in exchange for you charming a young lady into fighting people! I think that is enough for now! If I ask anymore, then you might not enjoy my company again!" He gestures in the air, walking around his chair. "I'll arrange for the special V-Gage Educational systems for your Ainu projects; I'll throw in a donation as well for the trouble I've caused you. Is 100 million yen enough? I better make it 500 million, I must have taken a few years of your life off!" That grin was back. The fear remained. Lee Chaolan was still fighting with the spectre of something over him, a spectre that might never truly leave. Lee Chaolan approaches the exit... but pauses. "Oh, Honoka. A last question." He looks over his shoulder, fluttering his eyelashes.

"Do you truly believe in justice?"

Lee's disclaimers of responsibility for any agreements with Darkstalkers or Outworld suggests one of two things. The most obvious idea -- that Lee could simply suggest other shareholders to take part in the activities -- is discounted by both his earlier admission that he has no authority in the matter, -and- the presence of unabiding fear in the executive. If he made a decision, he wouldn't lack the power to just -con- people into doing it. In this case, why would someone of his forceful personality be -afraid- of doing so?

As Dahlia watches the silver-haired executive's reactions, she can understand the doubt on his face. Perhaps it is misdirection -- perhaps a warning. Dahlia can surmise that someone with more influence than Lee Chaolan could be involved in these dark negotiations, if not now, then in the near future. And that... is a problem for later.

Right now, Lee Chaolan is rising from his chair, and indirectly apologizing. Dahlia opts not to give an uplifting response to his pessimistic comments; as the moment passes, it hardly seems necessary in light of his uplifting mood. Scarlet Dahlia responds with a half-smile, and a nod of her head -- she, too, is eager to return the conversation to less foreboding topics.

When Chaolan mentions the V-Gage Educational systems, though, she expresses hesitation. The V-Gage programming was intended to help youths all around Japan, and beyond -- and that's the initiative she would be helping with.

The thought is, for the moment, sidelined, in favor of the 500 million yen promise. The Ainu matches Lee's grin in magnitude, nodding quietly: "It's for a worthy cause. Your help is very much appreciated." Rising from her chair, she claps her hands to her side and offers a formal bow.

"I do look forward to testing the capabilities of your learning programs. I'm sure it will be exactly what this country needs to advance into the next millennium." The Dahlia may have her own doubts and concerns, but she knows enough to show gratitude for an enormous boon.

As for the last question, though...
"Justice? Chaolan, I live and -breathe- for justice."

And at that answer, Lee Chaolan can only give two responses.

A singular thumbs up.


Log created on 13:25:05 07/11/2017 by Honoka, and last modified on 18:39:56 07/18/2017.