KOF 2017 - Foreign Women, Continued

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Description: After the Heirs to Legends' battle against the Rising Dragons, there is much for two Ainu women to discuss: art, life, and the cyclical patterns which they often entwine themselves in.

Two hours ago, this great hall was a hive of activity. Cameras, lights, officials moving about, all the countless moving pieces necessary to make a single event take place relatively smoothly. There was a loud of excitement, the gasps of surprise from the audience, the shouts of the announcer, and the echoing cry of 'HADOUKEN!'... But all that is gone now. The audience cleared out, the mounted recording equipment, carefully situated throughout the grand stage without actually damaging any of the hosting estate's property, have been taken down, and the additional wiring, props, and any trash left behind cleared way. Scuff marks have been polished out, carpets straightened, and all evidence that this hall had hosted a contest of skill and violence has been erased.

The King of Fighters show must go on, and the hard working staff and crew making all the magic happen have no time to linger. The stars of the massive production, on the other hand, have a while yet. Those who's journey in the tournament ended this round will be returning home to the lives they put on hold in order to participate. Those moving on have a week or more before the next bouts - plenty of time to recover, rest, and relax depending on the needs of individuals.

The silent partner of this day's match waits in the hall. Her strength was not necessary this time around, though she had been no doubt ready to lend it throughout the nailbitingly close match. But now she waits in the grand hall, waiting for her teammate to take advantage of the luxurious accommodations elsewhere in the palatial estate to clean up, change, and make ready to depart.

Nakoruru has also changed to clothing more befitting for blending into the modern era. A white blouse is worn beneath a dark azure dress jacket with a short red ribbon-style necktie at her collar. A short pleated skirt of crimson and blue is worn over black leggings and ankle high soft looking boots cover her feet. A simple, cute urban outfit for a living legend just trying to blend in a little.

She stands in solitude, the empty quiet her only company, her hands clasped behind her back as she gazes at the masterwork portrait that spans the length of a massive wall. Even if one stands back, it is difficult to take in the entire image all at once. Move closer, however, and the detailed individual characters portrayed on the aged canvas take on new life. A cast of warriors from all walks of life facing off against a horrific skeletal monstrosity, a beautiful blonde woman of noble bearing situated in the midst of the group, born by a golden chariot drawn by a flaming orange steed.

The portrait is beautiful as it is ominous, the overall background occupied by hellfire orange fog and a black cloud of tormented souls built up around the fearsome demon the legendary heroes face.

There, amidst the champions, front and center, dressed in familiar, distinctive garb and bearing a great bird on her left forearm, is the depiction of a young woman that looks unmistakably like the lone viewer gazing up at the painting now. Back and forth, she walks, face lifted to study the representation of what must surely be some fantastical myth from bygone years, a melancholy look on her face.

Bruises are easy to hide, for the most part; just wear something over top of them and no one will know. A large part of the reasoning for Honoka's concealing combat attire is to deny her martial opponents the pleasure of seeing their battle damage accumulate over the course of the fight. But no matter how much the body can endure, injuries will always be visible in a fighter's face.

A large bandaid criss-crosses the diaboloist's nose as she emerges from the inner sanctum of the de Colde mansion, accompanied by a mildly discomfited frown. As much money has been thrown behind the King of Fighters tournament, they don't have a more fashionable alternative to the flesh-colored bandaid that she was left with. And even though the artificial peach color isn't a -terrible- fit for her fair skin tone, it's not the same, and the image-conscious juggler is, at first, not happy about it and not afraid to show it.

Once she emerges into the sunlit hall, though, color begins to filter back into her cheeks -- as surely as if the young Ainu-Japanese woman were solar powered. A hand is raised; slender fingers sift her unruly locks into order. Her attire has changed as well; no longer garbed in bright blue and purple, she's brought along a more conservative blazer -- just a shade or two darker than Nakoruru's -- worn over a cream-colored, scoop-necked t-shirt. The hint of professionalism is handily offset by her cuffed jeans, in dark grey denim, and a pair of low-heel pumps in a shade matching as the jacket. The muted color palette is somewhat at odds with the bright pink highlights in her hair, but the juggling star is less concerned with that than the garish bandaid.

A small purse dangles from one shoulder.
And out from her right hand slithers a purple yo-yo -- the one and same yo-yo that's been in her hand for much of this worldwide tour.
Said yo-yo is retrieved almost instantly upon observation of Nakoruru's gazing up at the painting. With a light spring to her step, Honoka ambles out to meet her Ainu teammate. The look of frustration from before has vanished, replaced with a curious and amiable smile.

"The English have a saying -- 'A penny for your thoughts?'"
Honoka isn't looking at Nakoruru, immediately -- instead, she gives a moment for the words to set in.

"The idea behind it is innocent: often a person looks to be so trapped in thought that they would need a small bribe to pull them back into the world -- a 'penny,' or coin of some trivial amount."

Once again, her free hand draws the curtain of lightly-curled hair aside.
Giving a better view of her eyes.
And that accursed bandaid.

With a smile to Nakoruru, she asks, "So -- a penny for your thoughts about this painting? Is it accurate? Or did the artist get seriously overimaginative with the skeleton army?"

At the first inquiry, Nakoruru glances to the side, content to listen quietly to Honoka's explanation. This seemed to often be the way the time-lost warrior responded to new information. She would listen, hear it out, then quietly internalize it, trying to mold new experiences, sights, and ideas to the things she knew and understood from so long ago. Only then would she ask questions to try and secure her understanding though at times it seemed she was specifically keeping her confusion to herself, perhaps trying not to be an inconvenience to those who might hope to bring her up to speed with modern day insanity.

Some concepts seemed to come surprisingly easily to her. The idea of robots was accepted without a blink. 'There lived in Edo a clocksmith by the name of Hanma Yagyu, and he engineered the most incredible...' Whereas the idea of the internet, of a digital 'world' that only exists as the boundary between data and ideas, still seemed to confound her. 'So it is like a book that you cannot touch but other people can write in it too?'

Expressions and idioms, however, she always seemed particularly amused by, and though their eyes don't meet, her face lights up a little as Honoka explains the saying to her. When finally Honoka looks toward her, Nakoruru's expression shifts, mouth pursing to the right as she looks at Honoka, "I should very much like to see this penny I am being promised." comes her initial reply.

But the smile that settles in quickly after and slight shake of her head makes it clear the comment was in gest and finally she cranes her neck to look back up at the portrait. "Yes," she states, her voice soft in the grand hall. Though the two may be alone, she speaks as if she would rather not be overheard by anyone else all the same. "And no."

Slowly, she pans her focus from the far left, where the heroes have flocked together to take a final stand, all the way across to the distant right, where the massive skeleton lords over shadow in the trappings of a shrine maiden.

"It was worse. Much worse than any painting can possibly capture... The corruption that took root could be felt throughout the world, from the forests of Shiretoko to the distant lands we didn't even know existed at the time... the infection that would kill us all." She shakes her head, eyes straying back over the champions united to fight, her hand lifting as to reach out and touch the painting in thought before she withdraws it and clasps it behind her back once more.

"Not all of us made it to the end. Every step was a war. Against youkai, oni, and men who had tasted of murder to the point of becoming demons themselves, we fought, day and night, each step forward paid for in blood." Steel-blue eyes flick over the tapestry as she turns to walk along its length, a living history book that lived and breathed the times of which she speaks.

"No... in the end, only Haohmaru and I made it to the very heart of darkness." Her eyes linger on a warrior in white, his hair a black mane draped down his back. She takes more steps over in order to gaze up at the skull-faced wraith. "Where we killed her." There is a grim finality to the statement. She closes her eyes then, a soft sigh escaping through her nose.

"In this, the painter has committed the most egregious error. You see... Her name was Rashoujin Mizuki, a woman of incredible beauty and grace." She opens her eyes to look up at the rictal, howling skull depicted as the center of the corrupting storm, her voice soft and thoughtful.

"And she was my friend."

Honoka has traveled with Nakoruru enough to know that she's apt to take new concepts and phrases at face value, initially. As soon as her hand is done sweeping her hair out of her eyes, she's already, perhaps wisely, started to retrieve a small coin purse from her jeans pocket. She gets as far as to start unzipping the coin purse before the smile shared between the two women moots the issue. Besides, Honoka and Zach had largely funded the trip thus far -- moreso Honoka, once Zach had been urgently summoned away.

Perhaps -less- wisely, the juggler had wandered into darker subject matter than she'd expected. The hushed volume, the softening tones, or the painful recollection, are not signs that would require use of Honoka's psychic abilities.

Honoka's brow knits in concern as she listens. It is not, in her experience, difficult to get Nakoruru to tell a story in epic yukar style, but this manner is different. Personal. And even after hundreds of years, raw -- a clarity made more vivid by memories of the hellish island the two had only recently departed.

A shudder wracks through the juggler's frame as she nods. Losing people -- losses made impersonal through the yukar-tellers' poetic verse, and moreso from told. The tusukur's eyes grow moist at the shifting tide of emotion -- exhaustion from the prior fight lowering her own defenses in such regards.

"I'm... I'm sorry, Nakoruru. I regret that the cost of victory was so high. But I also regret taking it so glibly. I was... I was a child when I was told the tale. What details weren't omitted from years of passage, my foolish mind has forgotten."
Self-deprecation is not uncommon in the Ainu tongue -- if she had spoken in a louder tone, it would seem even more alien from the Ainu-Japanese woman's lips.

A hand raises to her eyes, dabbing them gently as she looks up to the ghastly sight, depicted with such wide breadth of artistic liberty so as to render the figure unrecognizable.

"Rashoujin... Mizuki."
The name is repeated slowly, with reverence.

She takes in a deep breath, steeling herself.
And then she withdraws the yo-yo from her right hand, tucking it away into a pocket.
The hand is extended to Nakoruru -- and if taken, Honoka would clasp her other hand around it. A simple, but emotional gesture of solidarity, as the younger stares into the eyes of Kamui's Avatar.

"Our driver's not going to be here for a few minutes -- would you like to walk around? Fighting here, of all places... must have been so painful for you."
Her expression softens, as she bows her head slightly in deference.
"Would you... like to tell me about your friend? It is fine if you'd rather not, but... I'd prefer to commit her to my memory as she was."
The phrase left unspoken: And not as she is depicted there.

Honoka Kawamoto says, "The boards had a minor explosion so we lost a few hundred posts"

The ebony haired woman glances toward her teammate as she speaks, her expression somber to match the melancholy tone of her voice, but at the apology, she smiles just a little, shaking her head. "The victories that really matter... those never come without loss." She glances back up toward the portrait briefly, brow furrowed a little, hands still clasped behind her back as she exhales a soft sigh. "That is part of what it means to be a champion. There is always a price."

She speaks to Honoka in the dying language of the Ainu, and while her vocabulary should be easily understood by the modern champion of a nearly forgotten people, Nakoruru's diction, inflection, and ease of speech sometimes takes on a more colloquial flavor born of a time when the language was heard regularly throughout the island of Hokkaido.

She turns back to face Honoka in time to notice the offered hand and extends her own, bowing her head briefly as her hand is clasped, before looking back up to meet the young woman's eyes. "Don't apologize. No story, even those put to the page, manages to capture the full experience endured by those who lived it. It's..." She glances to the side, pausing for a heartbeat, before nodding slightly, "It's probably better that way."

Her smile warms further, fingers closing around one of Honoka's hands. "But no, it wasn't painful to see you perform here. Who taught you to dance so?" she wonders softly. "I would gladly watch such a striking performance anywhere." She looks back up at the looming portrait again, "Besides, I never did get to see the finished product of Lady Colde's commission." Her closed hand tugs at Honoka, drawing her back over toward the hell-braving champions of old. "For many on this wall, this may be the only image of them that exists." Her eyes linger on one of the figures that seems almost entirely out of place amid history's warriors from the East, a blonde man in blue, a crimson scarf draped around his neck and a fierce canine at his feet. "Normally only great shoguns and wealthy men could afford to have their likeness recorded forever on parchment and even then, the style of the Yamato was never really about capturing an accurate depiction."

She exhales softly, lifting her free hand to point, "Haohmaru, Tachibana Ukyo, Yagyu Jubei, Lady Colde, Wan-Fu, Hattori Hanzo, Senryo Kyoshiro, Tam Tam..." She never makes note of the vaguely depicted face in the clouds on the far left or of the curiously detailed flying green figure in the sky as she points ot the man in blue last, "Galford, and his friend, Poppy."

A deep inhale then soft exhale as she nods, "It would be my honor to speak to you of Mizuki. Let us walk."

The price of a champion.
Honoka cannot help but nod in agreement of the sage wisdom. After all, it was largely due to Nakoruru's guiding influence that the tusukur was able to lead Earthrealm to victory in mortal kombat. There, the penalties for failure had proven to be the most potent motivator available.

The ebony-haired warrior's look and her remarks are enough to calm the worry upon Honoka's face. Her lips parted as if to offer an apology, before the young woman recalls that apologies were warded off just a moment prior. "I suppose that's fair," she admits with a faint smile.

As for the question of where she learned to dance? Fuchsia-tinted locks jaunt about, as a rosy tint floods her cheeks. "Oh, my family did!"

Her Ainu grammar may sound a little off to the native speaker -- a Japanese-inflected word here, a mispronounced word there. Reminiscing about the past has a notable effect, allowing her to loosen up just that little bit more. Here, though, her pause suggests she's trying to search for the proper word to use, as circuses were unheard of in Ainu culture. In the end, she decides to leave it as the Japanese-inflected word.

"-- I mean, my 'circus family.' I'd always wanted to perform for an audience, but I wasn't much good at first. The circus was kind enough to take in this sad little orphan and put her to work as a clown, to make the children laugh -- while teaching her how to dance offstage." She offers a self-deprecating smile. "Eventually she got better."

Upon prompting, Honoka looks back up to the painting. She had not had names for the faces before, but as soon as she receives them, her eyes alight with glimmers of recognition.
"I -did- suspect that realism wasn't the goal of painters like Hokusai," she adds with a lopsided smirk. She'd had plenty of time to glance at the painting from a distance, but up close she's able to see how the lovingly-rendered brushwork seems to leap right off the canvas.

The psion seems to be completely drawn in by the painting, but in actuality, part of her response is that of sensing Nakoruru's admiration for the heroes of centuries past, the bond's strength comparable to that linking Honoka to her extended circus family.
It's possible she could be reading a bit too much into the notoriously unreliable impressions of one's emotions.
It's equally possible she assigns too much significance to the melancholic pause before the name of the blond man with the canine friend.
And yet, these tells are noted, all the same.

"Aww, that's cute, he's got an animal companion, just like you."
An innocent jab, delivered with a seemingly innocent grin.

At the offered prompt, Honoka bobs her head in an agreeable nod, Mizuki, then.
Bowing her head to the painting, she takes her time ambling towards the mansion's exit, releasing the light hold she'd had upon Nakoruru's hand. "I've been told so much about life in an Ainu village, but I feel like I know so little. The old ways were still considered illegal when I was a child -- not that it really stopped anyone from following them anyway. But it did mean Iyomante was nothing more than a farce; most of the people just barely went through the motions, with no passion or care." Once more referring to herself -- as indicated by the hand brushing close to her heart, she continues, "This girl among them. She was unable to appreciate the stories when she needed them most. Everyone knew the dance, and the words -- but so few actually heard the music. She knew something wasn't right. But it wasn't until she found the circus that she could -hear- the music. And now her ears are open, straining to hear the quiet whispers from the past."

Honoka lets out an almost musical sigh, upon reaching the boundary to the outdoors. Fresh air and rays of waning sunshine are the remedy to being cooped up inside.

"The yukar-singers might be rubbing off on me, a bit," she apologizes in a self-effacing manner. "So tell me... what was she like?"

When Honoka speaks of her 'circus' family, she has Nakoruru's full attention, a faint smile of unconcealed interest at the glimpse into the tusukur's humble beginnings. "Mn," she muses softly, "And look where she is now." She looks back toward the grand tapestry, continuing her narration, making observations about the period of time that she knew for most of her awake life.

"Hokusai..." the young seeming woman murmurs, free hand lifting to rest at her chin lightly as she bows her head in thought. "Katsushika Hokusai? So..." she smiles then, a slight nod, a distant expression overtaking her features, "His true name is remembered." She nods her head a few more times before turning her focus back to the vast painting, "That is good." There are hints of another story to be told there, though she seems inclined to stay on topic rather than dwell overly long on whatever memory Honoka's casual remark appears to have sparked.

She lists off her brothers and sister in battle, one after another. A few of them hold names legendary to this day - Hattori Hanzo, likely a title rather than a name, considering the number of elite ninjas that have born it, and the exploits of the Yagyu clans' fearless, cunning samurai have been the source of countless legends and modern fiction. Other names she mentions are perhaps less known, warriors who left a quiet trace on the course of history but who's names may have been forgotten but to students of the past.

Honoka is accurate in sensing the bonds touched upon just in the naming of those long gone companions. Even among the oral traditions of the Ainu, it was not just a single time Kamui's Chosen moved to save the land from destruction, and she almost never acted entirely alone. While the details about which allies stood shoulder to shoulder with her on her incredible journies will vary between the few storytellers who still remember, there could be no doubt in hearing the reverence with which she utters their names of the importance they held to her.

When Honoka points out that one of the ancient warriors faced the end of the world with a trusted canine at his side, Nakoruru blinks, steel-blue eyes glancing to the side as she looks toward the gifted sensate, the faintest hint of blush on her features, "Y-yes," she stammers, looking away, her face briefly concealed by her hair, "He was a reliable warrior and loyal friend." There is a brief pause before she quickly adds, "Like all of them."

The two move away at last, Nakoruru's freed hand lifting to rest lightly against her cheek as she listens, glancing toward her teammate periodically as she speaks of the conditions she grew up in, her expression somber before she musters a faint smile, "But you're helping remind them, yes? Of what they've lost, of their identity. By small steps that conceal great strides... in the years to come, the echoes of your efforts will be felt, the music heard. This I believe, if you can stay the course, if you can live as one our people can be proud of."

She pauses at the threshold before stepping out into the light of day, crossing her hands over her chest and breathing in deeply before releasing a contented sigh. The Colde estate is situated on a large enough property as to be removed from the more urbanized aspects of Paris though the ever-busy city streets are certainly bustling just beyond its perimeter. Surrounding the lavish doors is an extensive flower garden maintained to perfection. Trees and sculpted plants provide shade over the walkways and a sea of colors and scents exist to delight the senses.

Pausing on the steps, Nakoruru's eyes trace over the distant skyline accompanied by a slow shake of her head, "So much has changed, so much is the same. Sometimes it feels like I have missed everything, but... other times I feel like I've missed little that truly matters." Her tone is, as before, wistful but not morose, as she walks beside Honoka down the steps.

She glances to the side, eyes coming to rest on a small stone basin pond surrounded by benches, white painted metalwork, and flowers of all colors. A white stone fountain of a woman in a gown emptying a vase of ever-running water into the pool creates gentle ripples on its surface and colorful fish can be seen swimming below its surface. "Mizuki would have loved to see something like this," she murmurs softly, finally returning to the earlier topic as promised. "She loved to walk the garden paths of the shrine where she served as High Priestess. Her connection with life was such that the animals would pay her homage in greeting when she walked and the flowers would bloom just a little more vibrantly."

Her focus becomes distant, "A beautiful maiden, a fearless spiritualist, and a kind soul, she was beloved by all who encountered her gentle spirit. I met her on my first journey to Japan. I was fourteen at the time... she was," her brow furrows thoughtfully, "Sixteen, I believe, just growing into her power, her potential." She folds her arms loosely over her stomach, a soft exhale before she glances up to look at Honoka again, "We were so happy then."

The star performer lives for the adoration and praise of others. Had her divine mandate not been handed down so recently, Honoka would surely be back on stage, soaking up the accolades from circus audiences all across Japan.
And yet, Nakoruru's gentle words seem to have nearly the same effect, filling her heart with pride and positivity; first in acknowledging her progress, second in finding common ground with the artist best known for the series of prints entitled '36 Views of Mount Fuji'

"Oh yes. Even when the camera came out, and it was able to copy reality in exacting detail, Hokusai served as an inspiration for artists both East and West as a -rejection- of reality in favor of the ideal form, the perfection no human could dare to reach. While photographs soon became the norm, artists plumbed the past -- Hokusai and his stylized eye -- to keep their path true and honest."

It might seem unusual for a girl from the sticks to share such a broad appreciation of art history, but the fact remains that the various techniques of artwork served as an inspiration for her performing arts. Even as she sails along the glassy seas of Nakoruru's gentle emotions, her eyes silently trace the path of the larger brushstrokes, studiously examining the forms she'd only seen in prior glances. The vibrance of the colors was unmatched by photography until the recent era, and even then, it proves to be a pale imitation of the vivid colors of memory.
Colors like the pink in Nakoruru's cheeks -- colors that the psion notes in her periphery, committing to memory for later.

Honoka once more finds herself lost in the song of positive reinforcement, as Kamui's Chosen emphasizes all of the powerful work Honoka has dedicated herself to. And yet, even as her shoulders are uplifted by Nakoruru's encouragement, one note of discord rings out -- a subtle, barely noticeable qualification.
-If- you can stay the course.
Honoka responds with a sober nod.
The kamui are watching her -- always.

"The core identity of what it means to be human has not changed. In the old times, scholars hid behind their studies, and artisans hide behind their crafts. We collect the arts of old in buildings called museums; when we were not performing, it was in art museums that I found my inspiration. The works of Hokusai, of Beardsley and Mucha, of Vermeer and Raphael." Artists from beyond Nakoruru's knowledge, to be sure -- but dear to Honoka's heart.

Honoka steps closer to the artistic fountain, tilting her head at the careful craftstmanship, taking careful note of the excellent condition of the stone. "A good artist can capture the form of his subject. But a truly great artist can capture the -vitality-, the tiny minutiae that give the form -life-. In a garden like this, even the stone thrives, flourishes as a living being, vitalized." She draws in her breath, a revitalized smile lighting up her face. "Just from how you talk about her, I can agree that she'd love it here. An oasis of life -- the counterpart to a the metropolis of meaningless hustle and bustle around us."

Honoka extends her hands out to either side, closing her eyes and basking in the rays of sunlight. "She loved life itself. I want to believe that we all do. But then something happens -- the illusion breaks."

The cellphone at her waist gives one quiet chirp, before falling silent. She gives it no heed.
"Something... somehow, inevitably tugs us into facing the dull grey of reality. Most panic, flail around within the depths -- struggling to keep our head above the surface. And yet, there are the few who stand strong, who rise above. Who clothe themselves in vivid colors, who inspire the masses. Those with a bright red scarf, those with shining armor, those who flap their wings high above."

She twirls, her arms flapping gently like the wings of a falcon.

"I'm glad you decided to come with us, Nakoruru. I... I doubt I'd have slowed down to appreciate the beauty here without you to share it with."

"Beardsley, Mucha, Vermeer, Raphael..." Nakoruru repeats back, her annunciation of the foreign names comfortable. Whether her ease with syllables that would normally prove troublesome for native speakers of the island nation they came from is a byproduct of studies in the past or some fringe benefit of her present circumstances in life would be hard to guess.

"Perhaps someday you might introduce me to them."

Her voice is gentle, born of tranquil calm, like one not really aware of all the reasons the modern world has provided to be in a hurry. The young woman's smile brightens as Honoka gives voice to her observations about the garden, a certain pleased look in her eyes as she nods ever so slightly.

As the eloquent performer continues, her audience of one seems very much caught up in what she has to say, eyes focused on her, hands clasped loosely behind her back. Only when she is thanked for being a part of the team does she nod slightly, turning away to look back at the pond, eyes becoming distant once more.

"It is interesting to hear of what young Hokusai grew to become. You see... his earliest works were sometimes stunningly accurate in capturing reality. A master artisan's gift in the hand of a young man... He wasn't so famous then, when I met him in Edo. From what you tell me, it sounds like he was inspired to change the course he was on... and from what I gather, in that he aligned with his true purpose." She glances up from the pond, eyes straying on the statue then finally turning to the sky above. "May we all be so blessed to discover that..."

She starts as if surprised by something, turning around to face Honoka directly, her right hand lifting from behind back, pointing finger raised, "That reminds me! The time we met, he did ask Mamahaha to pose for one of his works and she so graciously obliged. I wonder if that work survived even to this day." A certain youthful wonder fills her face as she considers the possibility briefly before shaking her head as if to dismiss the idea as a bit too silly to even consider further.

Lowering her hand behind her back once more, she considers Honoka for a long moment before continuing, "Mizuki loved life, it's true. And she was gifted with power... power she used to work good for her people." She glances away then, eyes toward the horizon, "But with that power came pride, the thought that she could face a danger alone rather than trust in those who would have gladly helped her."

A soft breath, her eyes closing, "A lifetime of right decisions undone by a single moment of hubris..." Opening her eyes again, she hugs her arms over her stomach, expression thoughtful now. "But you know the stories, the old women tell it close enough. Only five years after I met her, those portrayed in that painting were left with no choice but to confront the demon that had infected her heart. In the end..." Her voice trails off, eyes distant once more, unfocused, expression troubled.

Then another shake of her head and she seems to come back to the present, continuing as her tone shifts, losing the hint of melancholy that tainted it moments prior. "We all face the same risk... it is a balancing act. Some may make it look easier than others, but the risk of falling is quite real even for the most agile of acrobats."

A soft sigh, a shake of her head, sending ebony hair waving along her shoulders and back as she whirls back around to face Honoka, expression a quiet smile once more, focus back in her eyes, "Thank you for putting up with my rambling... and for having me on this adventure, Honoka. When I took my journey from the great island to see much of the world before, it took half a year alone just to get this far." Her hand sweeps toward the horizon, "I wonder if those alive today can truly appreciate how small the world has become since then. I want to see so much more of it now."

"As luck would have it... " Honoka answers with a faint grin, "... we're in the perfect country for an introduction. One of the finest art museums in the world is here in France: the Louvre." While Honoka is not aware of how many of those four would have their works on display at the museum, she's confident that there would be enough samples to demonstrate just how far Hokusai's influence had spread -- or at least a way of exhibiting similar artwork that wouldn't otherwise be available in Japan.

The juggler finds herself drawn to stare blankly at the same pond, her listening quietly to the words. With the epic Ainu sagas, only the storyteller can supply the details, but with Hokusai, it is she who holds the ending, while the teller of tales knows the beginning. Her grin remains steady as the additional information is supplied.

She seems about to speak, when Nakoruru turns to her all of a sudden, her gaze returning to Nakoruru's eyes. Did the work survive? Honoka's face will not hold the answer to that question, nor will her shrugged shoulders. "There's always hope, sure! Once we get back to Japan we'll have to swing by the Hokusai Museum. I'm sure you'd enjoy it!" So while she may not hold an answer per se, Honoka is happy to aid and abet Nakoruru's dream for reconnecting with a familiar face from her past.

And yet, as Nakoruru returns to the topic of Mizuki, the juggler's smile begins to fade, out of respect for Nakoruru's wayward friend. Kamui's Chosen may be looking away, but the Twilight Star continues to study her expressions, noting the series of minute changes taking place.

A balancing act. The risk of falling.
By the time Nakoruru turns back to Honoka, the smile has vanished; instead, her lips have parted into a gasp for breath.

That faith -- once as strong as iron -- lies in question.
The juggler's confidence wavers -- her eyes trembling for that one moment of silence, before a head is shaken.

Nakoruru had refused to be champion herself.
She had convinced Kenshi to place his hopes for Earth in her. In Honoka -- the Scarlet Dahlia.
The words come back to her, vividly as the day they were spoken.
Comparison and contrast.

Her lips press together, as she shakes her head. "It's not rambling. It's enlightening. Ever since I was a little girl, Nakoruru -- I've looked up to you. Your strength inspired me to be better at everything I did. Your courage allowed me to believe that anything, no matter how intimidating, was attainable."

The risk of falling.
The thought echoes in her mind, even as her eyes close, her chin drops. She focuses on the hope, rather than the discordant -doubt-.

"Just as Hokusai changed the world, bringing light and inspiration to those who followed him, it was you who showed me the path to greatness." There is a waver in her voice -- barely noticeable, but still present. "It was -- it =is= -- your path which I hope to follow. To see people from all backgrounds, all faiths, cooperating without heed for cultural differences, towards a shared goal."

That yo-yo's back in her hand, somehow.
Her hand curls around it, middle finger searching for the loop of string which would make it right.

Her eyes open, damp with raw emotion.
"The world -is- small now, Nakoruru. So many people... so many clashing ideas. But we can reach them -- the grand stage is just a little further."

The yo-yo falls from her hand, shuttling one quick path, before leaping back into her hand. The pressure relieves -- and Honoka allows her arm to fall again, clasped loosely around the toy.

"It's not rambling," she reiterates, "I... I need to hear it. I've felt so alone until now, Nakoruru -- like I've been the only one who follows the path. It has been so tempting to forget that the kamui have been with us all along -- listening, watching, even when we don't see them around all the time. That even when we are far from the hearth, Apasam Kamui is right alongside us, shielding us from dangers we might never see."

Knuckles turn white as she tightens her grip on the yo-yo.
Her head shakes, as she looks towards the horizon.

Once was a coincidence. The second time was a message, and demands inquiry.
"... But I have to know, sister."
A breath is drawn in, as she focuses on that horizon.
"Do you think I will fall?"

There is an almost imperceptible recoil of surprise as Honoka speaks openly of the inspiration Nakoruru's example provided her in life. It can't be the first time she has heard it, yet there is a certain human-like bashfulness at being so openly lauded for her own example. Looking at the two standing side by side in the tranquil gardens of the old estate, it would be difficult for the idle observer to discern that there could possibly be such difference between them.

With her modern clothing, the crimson beribboned warrior from the past looks like one who could have walked very similar paths with the charismatic young woman with fetching highlights standing across from her. It would be difficult to imagine the world of bloodshed and violence Nakoruru hails from, where living or dying by the sword was a literal daily concern, when juxtaposed adjacent to such a peaceful, modern scene. But it is those differences, not just time, but experience, the trials by blood and fire endured in an era long dead that perhaps qualifies the swordswoman for such consideration.

Nakoruru smiles, dipping her head into a slight nod at mention of pulling together people from diverse backgrounds to stand together, to make the world a better place, "It is tragic that it seems to require world threatening calamity for all people to unite as one..."

Her eyes idly trace the flick of the yo-yo before wandering back up to study Honoka's face. She is quiet, listening more than speaking for now, perhaps picking up those clues, the subtle hints that there is something pressing on her teammate's thoughts that demands to be voiced, even if at risk of disturbing this peaceful reprieve. As Honoka turns toward the horizon, Nakoruru's focus lingers on her, the question introduced then held back if but for a moment.

When it is finally heard, Nakoruru doesn't seem to react but to unfold her arms and let them rest against her sides. The moment of quiet stretches out, seconds ticking past without a reply, her expression, if discovered, nearly unreadable.

Half a minute passes before her voice would be heard again.

"Through a vast desert I once travelled, in hopes of seeking enlightenment from a wise eremite rumored to dwell among its dunes," Nakoruru states softly. "I found him there, near an oasis, his humble tent pitched to ward off the cold, sandy winds that blew throughout the region. Thin, emaciated, he lived a simple existence of prayer, fasting, and meditation."

She turns to look to the horizon now, eyes distant, focused on visions of the past rather than the scenes of the present, "He shared his rug with me; we sat and spoke. There was, not so far in the distance, a steep range of mountains and over it a storm lingered, a grey gloom that blotted out the sky in that direction. He told me that the storm never abated, never moved on."

She pauses for a breath, continuing readily, "He posed a question to me, his eyes on that endless rainfall. He asked how is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as rain upon the mountains? How is it that the gods can weep, seeing as they are almighty, and have existed for eternity, and have seen all? Their wonders are without end and their power will last for all time. What could possibly draw forth such grieving without end?"

She sighs softly, shaking her head, "I am afraid I could not give him an answer worth putting to words. So he answered for me." She pauses, eyes wandering, memories filling her thoughts, fresh to her even if centuries had passed them by.

"He said to consider mankind, the workmanship of the hands of gods... unto man all gifts have been given, blessings bestowed, guidance offered, knowledge conveyed. Yet, the old man told me, look at what we have done with it? Instead of rejoicing, we war, instead of showing love and compassion, we are, as a whole, without affection, bearing hatred for our own blood. Not the blood of a single culture, of a single land, but the blood that flows through every person that ever lived. He warned me that the fires of divine anger would someday be kindled and the wrath of the gods would descend upon the world for the sins of their ungrateful creations."

Another pause as she closes her eyes, her voice slightly choked as she continues, "How then, the wise man asked of me, can the heavens not weep, and the gods not grieve for the ruin their creations invite upon them?"

Nakoruru exhales, eyes opening, damp at the corners as she returns to studying the horizon. "He sent me away then, telling me that in that brief time we had spoken, he had shared the worries that consumed his thoughts and drove him to a life in isolation and that he had no more to offer."

Nakoruru folds her arms over her stomach again, "I often find myself reflecting on his warning. Who can steer mankind away from invoking the fury of the gods but those who rise up as our leaders? As I learn of the events of the decades that passed me by, it seems most of them have done very little to guide us to a better way, a way free of the hatred that wounds the hearts of the gods and brings them to anger. I cannot see the future, Honoka... I can only see the precarious path you walk - a path taken by so many before you, and I worry for the pitfalls that exist along the way. The greater the potential, the greater the catastrophe always lying in wait."

She glances to the side then, folded arms tightening, hands closing over opposite elbows, "And I think of myself... if the anguish of the gods can someday cause them to give up on their workmanship and turn to ruin, who am I to think that my own heart can stand the test of such sorrow? Will I become but a tool of their desolation?" Eyes closing, she turns her face toward the sun, "Our only defenses... compassion, empathy, and understanding that leadership is a call to serve, not conquor."

She falls quiet for a moment, face tilting back toward the pool, eyes open once more, expression calm.

"That is what I think."

The vast majority of the world sees Honoka as she wants to be seen -- as a slender young woman parlaying a successful circus career into a run for becoming a world-famous martial arts legend. Her saccharine-saturated attire appeals to the youth demographic. Her presence blends a cool and casual attitude with that girl-next-door charm. Her brilliant, calculating mind is obscured beneath a humble, personable semblance. When the young Ainu-Japanese woman is on stage, her dynamic performance draws the audience past the boring banality of everyday life into a transcendent realm where anything -- even juggling four diabolos at once -- is not only possible, but effortlessly easy.

A small subset of people, though, have met the tempestuous Scarlet Dahlia. In stark contrast to the look of the country bumpkin who made it big in the city, the Dahlia makes her style savviness dreadfully obvious. Hemlines are tailored to exact specifications. Makeup is applied artfully, giving the razor-sharp appearance of someone much older, much more professional than the twenty-year-old girl from Hokkaido. Even on the hellish island, the tusukur had devoted substantial effort towards maintaining a pristine, regal appearance. And her subordinates would know well that her disaffected appearance appearance is only skin deep -- that beneath the thin, cultured veneer thrums a tempestuous anger, just waiting for a slip-up or miscalculation to lash out with indignant rage.

The Scarlet Dahlia guides the ebbs and tides of a secret society.
Honoka of the Dancing Flames coaxes out the passions of youth.
But the girl standing before Nakoruru now is neither of those.

To Zach Glenn, and to Nakoruru, the lines are blurred. Just as her dark-toned blazer adds a touch of professionalism to the otherwise casual look of a t-shirt and jeans, so too do formal inflections -- sometimes imperious, sometimes introspective -- overlay her humble colloquialisms. At times she may seem confident, such as when Nakoruru suggests that it takes a tragedy for people to work together. And then, there's the long silence brought on by Honoka's unease -- a silence intruded upon by the twang of a yo-yo string reaching its extent, followed by the same string coiling around the central spindle.

Twice, the yo-yo shuttles outward. The third time, the yo-yo's return is obstructed by the juggler's finger, forcing the squat cylindrical form to whirl around her hand for a moment before returning to its home.

Honoka curls the yo-yo to her chest. She knows the motions are not... exactly polite. But she's not putting on airs now. Scarlet Dahlia and Honoka seem to have both stepped out for the moment, leaving the insecure orphan to stare into the horizon while Nakoruru -- her heroine, her very =inspiration= -- considers the best approach vector with which to answer.

Fingers smear lightly across the polished surface of the yo-yo's anodized metal surface as Nakoruru speaks. Here, the toy can be a reassuring totem, rather than a symbol of impotent frustration. She hangs on each word, treasuring the tale as surely as the speaker treasured the words of the tale's sage.

She does not question the veracity of the tale -- she does not ask whether it is any more than a parable.
Faith, after all, does not require evidence.

But it is not a tale told simply for the orphan's benefit. After a moment of introspective contemplation, Honoka realizes something else entirely -- that there are more emotions in play than just her own. That Nakoruru might not be simply seeking to illuminate her -- but rather, to verbalize the anguish she felt at Mizuki's wayward path.

For Mizuki was a marshal, leading the hordes of evil.
And Nakoruru lacked the knowledge then that she imparts to Honoka now.

The orphan draws in her breath. The bandage upon her nose flexes, straining the simple self-adhesive. And she considers the advice of Kamui's Chosen.

The yo-yo is squeezed once again. Moments pass, where she considers the true import of the message.
And then, finally.

"Ever since I left the Living Forest, the pathway had seemed so clear to me. I could walk -- but for reasons we both know, I had found it better to run. And until now, I had not had reason to question -why- the path had been hewn so cleanly. What -sacrifices- were necessary to blaze the path, so that I might have such an easy time of it."

Silently, the yo-yo is placed back into her blazer pocket, as she slowly turns to face Nakoruru. Her eyes tremble slightly, responding in kind to Nakoruru's introspective journey. A faint smile lights her features as she continues.

"The path has never been so clear as it is now, with you and the Kamui to light the way. The Earth is saved from the Outworld menace -- and through technology, we now have the means to illustrate the gravity of war without needing to actually wage it. We--"

Her message is cut short with another insistent beep.
Her brow furrows; she plucks the cellphone from her belt and swipes a finger across the screen.

Her look of hopefulness falls into one of disbelieving shock -- and then descends into a pallor of grief.

Nibutani, the current geopoltical center of the Ainu people.
Her breath catches in her throat, as she closes her eyes.
Her knuckles turn white as she clenches the phone in one hand.
Her other hand snakes back into her blazer, presumably to clasp the yo-yo as well.

It takes a moment for her to gather the strength to continue.

"Nibutani... has been devastated by a freak storm. The Nibutani Dam has collapsed -- and hundreds of people, hundreds of =Ainu= are believed... dead."

Her thoughts shared, Nakoruru's eyes have lingered on the pool, as if to afford Honoka all the time in the world to digest what she had to share without the pressure of being scrutinized as well. But when the young woman speaks, the quiet witness from the past glances up from her silent melancholy to focus entirely on what there is not just hear but also see in the face of one who asks her such difficult questions.

There is a slight nod, a gentle encouragement to continue once the rising star from Hokkaido gets going, an echo of some satisfaction discernable in her eyes and a flicker of a pleased smile at her lips. At the mention of technology and the role it has to play in her future's potential path, Nakoruru nods lightly again, only for the thoughts being shared to be cut off by a piece of that very same technology.

Lips pursed, the swordswoman lifts her right hand to brush some of her lengthy hair back behind her ear, head canting slightly as she waits patiently for Honoka to attend to the demands of her device, only for her to freeze in the middle of the subconscious gesture as the other's expression falls. Eyes widen slightly, her hand resting near her temple, "Honoka...?" she speaks, giving voice to the name she seems to utter out loud very rarely. Slowly, her right hand lowers, reaching out as if of its own volition, to try and rest on the forearm of the suddenly stricken hopeful leader.

She is quiet as the location of concern is announced, eyes blinking at the mention of Nibutani, then moving a half step closer, her left hand lifting to join her right in offering support by resting against Honoka's shoulder.

A soft intake of breath would be audible followed by a choked silence, the fingers of both hands tightening where they rest.

"But why would Kamuy Kanna-..." she starts to protest before cutting herself off. Ten seconds pass before she moves even closer, her left hand trying to tug the devastated tusukur against her, her right hand reaching around to embrace her. The Time Lost girl's own emotions are maelstrom of horror, grief, and a palpable kernel of fury as she finally speaks again.

"I have felt it in my heart for some time. The possibility that..." she whispers, her voice soft, "The Long Lament has ended... and the Age of Ruin is upon us." A breath is caught before continuing.

"It may be our burden... to live in such a time."

Log created on 20:18:52 09/03/2017 by Honoka, and last modified on 20:13:17 09/17/2017.