KOF 2019 - Saddled Up

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Description: Honoka's been informed by a reliable authority -- one on her own payroll, even -- that the Lightning Spangles she knows and cares about is dead. And yet, this year's King of Fighters is not only a Lightning Spangles tournament, but one that rewards winners with a role in the Ainu Spangles spin-off series. This is understandably upsetting to the only actress known to portray this "Ainu Spangles." When Honoka arrives at the site of where they are filming the latest Lightning Spangles movie, she encounters the real Lightning Spangles herself, ratcheting up for a confrontation on her true identity. Things go awry, however, when the real(?) Ainu Spangles also makes an appearance!

"So... what /exactly/... are we doing here?"

Honoka Kawamoto looks back at her reflection in the mirror. It's not even a dress rehearsal, technically, but the performer's been a stickler about rehearsing in costume, as even the slightest changes in weight or balance could have a profound impact on the performance. She fusses with the beaded headband, before turning her gaze to the reflection of the other person beside her.

It's a fantastical -dream-. Despite her public insistences to the contrary, Honoka Kawamoto's alter-ego knows the truth -- that Lightning Spangles' actress, Jezebel Faiblesse, is unquestionably, indubitably -dead-, buried in an Arizona desert with her heart removed as a trophy.

Miss Kawamoto is too good of an actress to let that concern show on her face. She's got a job to do: rehearse, for her second performance as "Ainu Spangles" in a special movie about the darkest tragedy to befall her people. For the Twilight Star Circus -- currently on break from its touring schedule -- is providing space for the off-set rehearsal of 'Ainu Spangles And The Perils of Biwatori Dam'. Circus sets provided for an earlier Ainu performance have been dragged out of storage and repurposed into a makeshift movie set.

And Kawamoto -- no, 'Ainu Spangles' turns around to face her co-star. "I mean, the script is bad enough, but I gotta share top billing with -you?- I thought this was going to be -my- special..." The half-Ainu performer cracks a wry smile back at her friend, crossing her billowy-sleeved arms with a show of false petulance.

The facade drops a moment later, as the performer allows her emotions to catch up. With a joyful smile, she clarifies: "I still can't believe you're -here-. -Real- and -in person-. Like, the rumors of something -terrible- happening were running wild...!"

"Shadows are just left in the dust by the light, pardner!"

The words come out of the woman as easy as the sun rises. She looked like Jezebel, close enough to be her. It had to be her, and yet it couldn't. The tall, mousy-brown haired cowgirl was tall enough, had the right clothing, the rhinestone red-white and blue vest with dazzling jeans, the cowboy boots. But she had both of her blue eyes, she had no scars... at least, from what could be seen from her face. THe mystery laid with the mask; a simple black domino mask that concealed the upper portion of her face, around the eyes. If it was just appearances, it would be a doppleganger, a double, someone who should be dead who was not. But the scary thing was her thoughts, and emotions.

They all were outside.

When Ainu Spangles arrived, everything was starshine and cheer. Because that's what Lightning Spangles said. She never left Honoka, she never left her side, and she kept talking to her, and keeping close to her. Even now, when Miss Kawamoto tells her about the 'surprise' the first words are her thoughts, the cryptic message that expresses just how she feels, all with a bright smile. She gives Honoka a friendly pat on the shoulder, with the pure physical contact. "But don't worry about those billings! You were just fantastic in the Lightning Spangles Christmas Special. The whole Lightning Spangles name is just to remind people about the whole universe! It's all about you in this one, don't worry! Some countries like Ainu Spangles a heck a lot more than the Real Lightning Spangles, and some countries like Lightning Spangles more than the exotic and untamed Ainu Spangles! And I want everyone to see it. I want every to hear you sing, everyone to see Ainu Spangles dance, and most importantly, I want to see a blend of history and important life lessons coming out about being a steward of nature, and not harming this beautiful country, while having hilarious animal companions doing all kinds of zany mischief!" Lighting Spangle's smile turns into a frown, as her eyes soften into a look of concern.

"But I'm not kidding, though, seriously pardner."

Lightning Spangles lowers her voice, looking intently at Honoka. "Sometimes whether you are riding the bronco, or distracting the bull as the clown, you are still part of this rodeo. Don't ever worry about who gets up on top, and who gets on bottom, pardner. The names just don't matter. What matters is what -you- got- right here." She points right her own heart, tapping it with two fingers. "We are what's real. If you are hearing rumors, crazy rumors? Well let me tell you something about rumors, pardner."

"Did you ever hear the story of the Lil Scruff Rat?"

Not -everyone- in the Twilight Star Circus is okay with this arrangement, for a number of reasons. Financial difficulties are first and foremost on the cast and crew's minds. And the motivations of the mysterious booking company run a close second -- everyone is being held in a precarious financial position if the company were to run out of money. Layered on top of that is the idea that Lightning Spangles' name is usually associated with chaotic acts of destruction and financial ruin, coupled with the general unease surrounding Honoka's spur-of-the-moment return to the circus.

In short, the cast and crew have been keeping their distance, affording the two Spangles a wide berth as they continue to gossip amongst themselves. The raven-haired Spangles nods with a detached smile to the mousy-brown-haired Spangles, her eyes happening to fall upon a pair of gossiping stagehands -- and almost immediately, the red-handed stagehands look away.

"W-wow, that's.. that's -nice- and all, but y'know, you don't have to be in character -all- the time, right?" The Ainu star sifts her fingers through her hair, brushing it back over her shoulders. Her eyes twinkle with mischievousness as she glances past the mask to the pristine blue eyes of her partner. She teases with the barest hints of a smile, "I mean, you're actin' a bit funny today. Normally you're all about bein' on top."

The Ainu star glances past her domino-masked co-star, managing to catch the eyes of another trio of stagehands before they can look away. She reaches for her copy of the script, pulling it close to her. Her head shakes, raven locks fluttering to either side. "But nah, I haven't. What's up with this rat?"

"In character?"

The question comes out so pure and innocent, that Lightning SPangles actually shakes her head. "I'm not in character yet, we're not on the camera yet! I'm just being me, your good friend and long-time collaborator Lightning Spangles!" She gives a wink. "Those rumors must be turning your head screwier than an Oklahoma Twister!" Not even a flinch at the innuendo. Not even a spasm. But when she asks about the story, she takes the script, and folds it over, to look her companion right in the eye.

"So this is the story about the Lil' Scruff Rat!"

"Once upon a time, there was a little kangaroo rat that lived waaaaaay out on the Mojave. Her name was 'Lil' Scruff Rat,' because she had a great dirty mane of fur around her neck, very unbecoming of a kangaroo rat. Lil' Scruff Rat dreamed of nothing better than to be like all the big critters that would roam over the desert. But being a little kangaroo rat, she had no chance to be any bigger than her little patch of land between the sargaro and the sand.

"One day, a great big herd of cattle came in, along with their cowboys and horses. All of them were doing the big drive to Boulder. The Lil' Scruff Rat hated how all these big critters were stomping around her home, so she came up with a little plan. The kangaroo rat snuck up by an old cowboy's ear, and muttered a little whisper:

'Why I heard that there was a big pool of water down by Coyote Pass.'

"Now that Cowboy took a rise. He didn't see anybody, but he knew he heard it. While the rest of the camp griped and groaned, he snuck out with his horse Boston, to scout out and see whether what he heard was true. The other cowboys didn't notice, but a drifter, trailing the cattle drive, saw someone was leaving the camp, and took to follow.

"As the old cowboy reached, just as the rumors said, there was a pool of clear, sparkling water, clean as clean could be. As he went down, all he could think about was whether there was enough water for the cows, or just the people, and how his pardners in the camp would feel once they found the hole. But then, the drifter called out, to put his hands in the air. A robbery, you see, by a poor lone drifter. And guns were drawn, and pow, pow, down went both the Cowboy and the Drifter. All that was left was old Boston, the loyal horse, and just as he was before, he was just as thirsty as he could be. Without a thief or a master, he finally went over to the lake, and took a long, deep drink to cool his throat.
"And then, he fell over, stone dead."

"Because Lil' Scruff Rat was right, there was a pool of water. Course, she left out the part where it was an ol' alkaline spring, poisoning to men as well as animals. Now Lil Scruff Rat ain't no bigger nor smaller than she was before, but once she saw how much she made a fool out of everyone, dead or alive, somehow, she made himself feel bigger." Lightning Spangles leans in, the smile practically burning through the Ainu superstar.

"You get what I'm saying about those rumors, pardner?"

Ainu Spangles casts a sidelong glance at her domino-masked pardner, with a fair look of skepticism. It's been documented fairly extensively in fan circles that there is a wide gulf between how Lightning Spangles is portrayed on-screen and how Jezebel Faiblesse acts off-screen. So the very notion that Lightning Spangles is -not- in character brings a smile to the Ainu's face. A very, very funny in-joke, to be sure. Because it's -perfectly- in-character to brush off innuendo like that -- no doubt that Jezebel would have had to endure any number of lascivious 'dads' and 'grandpas' who might have had interests in the lady that go well beyond that of a beloved family-friendly cowgirl.

But no -- it's story time now. And Ainu Spangles is nothing if not perfectly attentive -- so long as she's allowed to reach for a yo-yo. She does so, plucking her prized purple yo-yo off the make-up counter, and absent-mindedly threading it around a finger. By the time Lighting Spangles starts mentions the drifter, the Ainu woman catches sight of a trio of circus crew -- a different group, incredibly -- that happened to have been staring at the couple as well! With a glimmer of irritation, the yo-yo snaps out of the juggler's hand -- and by the time it recoils back, she's staring instead at the -backs- of three circus workers.

None of the cicus crew used to stare at Honoka. Not when she was alone. Not when she was talking with Interpol investigators. Not when she was talking with longtime friends -- even the somewhat disruptive ones like Zach Glenn.

The Ainu's tongue darts out, moistening her lips. And she turns back to Jezebel with an attentive nod -- having only glanced away for maybe a couple of seconds. She flashes an amiable smile to the longtime friend -- her yo-yo taking a more lackadaisical shuttle path as she maintains her focus.

"I do, " she agrees once the story is done, and the question asked. "Yeah." She smiles, flipping the yo-yo around until it's suspended from a cradle of string.

"Reminds me of a song the Ainu sing about rumors, as well." The yo-yo rocks back and forth in its cradle, as she muses about the story. "Though, in that story, the hero, Okikirmui, heard whispers from a rat. When he heard the rumor, he brought two of his brothers as backup, for travelin' alone in the dark's kinda reckless. And when his dog -- not his horse -- drank from the tainted spring and fell over dead."

The yo-yo swings out of its cradle -- and snaps right back into the Ainu woman's palm.

"And right after that, he shot the rat in the head with a wormwood arrow for lyin' to 'im."

The din, the ruckus of gossip... falls eerily still, at that.

And Ainu Spangles laughs. "My grandma also told me that rats used to be, like, -so- huge, too, and that's why they got so tiny. So it's kinda on you to figure out the meanin' of all that, yeah?"

Lightning Spangles' smile does not fade.

At best, it can be generously described as being endured. Her smile endures throughout Ainu Spangles' story. She knows this story, she does. She was all too familiar with this story. And yet, she doesn't let it show as it cuts her. And when it was time to response, she opens her mouth immediately. "I-I-I.. I-I-I" Sputtering. She shuts her mouth, eyes wide.

And Lightning Spangles pinches the tip of her nose.

There it was now, the flash of terror. "Well, I gotta say, those Ainu folks sure can be intense sometimes." She quickly states out, sounding bright and cheery and alive. "I guess that's why you went and teamed up with that Nakoruru lady! I just wonder how come she ended up with a hawk, and you get to come along with a bear!" Lightning Spangles releases her nose, and puts it over her heart. "But everything's good. Everything's real good, y'all!" She says brightly, the smile burning away the fear. "Gosh golly though, pardner, those Ainu songs sure are purty!"

"That's why you are such a good singer, right?"

Ainu Spangles smiles faintly in response to her counterpart's reaction. It's always seemed like every one of Lightning Spangles' stories had an equivalent counterpart in the Ainu culture, but spun in a completely different way with a vastly different message, the yang to her yin or vice-versa. Equal, but in many ways, opposite. Perhaps that's the kind of opposites-attract chemistry that's launched a thousand fan fictions...

But then comes the tales of giant rats, and the pivot towards Nakoruru and her noble companion Mamahaha. "Oh, that's simple, silly. Nakoruru's role was to push outside the ancient borders, to seek out new life and new horizons. She needed a friend who could be her eyes in the skies, who could spot trouble from miles away, and then assist her whenever she's needed. But me... instead of bein' an explorer, I tend to stay closer to Apehuchi and the hearth. And since it's good luck for every village to have a bear, that's why I get to walk around with one!"

After the last three circus staff had turned away, things had started to grow a little quiet. But by the time Ainu Spangles has concluded her explanation of the bears' importance, it seems the other workers have started to disperse -- either wandering off to the mess hall, or just generally finding something else to do. Accordingly, it's a lot easier to hear...

Ainu Spangles' chest swells with pride -- and after pulling the yo-yo into her palm, she, too, places her hand over her heart. "I haven't -always- been a good singer, Lightning Spangles. In our village, we have a few throat-singers, but I've never been much good at that -- it takes some really powerful lungs for that! But after seein' how powerful your songs have been in getting people to get along an' do the right thing, I was inspired to follow your example! And one day, maybe I will be better at throat-singing like my auntie is!"

Ainu Spangles places her yo-yo off to the side, and leans close to her counterpart with an eager smile. "Lightning Spangles... I sure did miss singin' with you. Did you get a chance to look over the new song we'll be performin'?"

Lightning Spangles was getting anxious.

She was trying not to be. But she could feel it, the tells. She was Lightning Spangles. She was always Lightning Spangles, as long as she could remember. And nobody could take that away from her. That wasn't true. Some bodies could, especially if she kept making those little mistakes. But not like her counterpart. Ainu Spangles never made mistakes. And neither should Lightning Spangles. So as Ainu Spangles plays off her, with the yoyo, Lightning Spangles giggles, rolling her neck as the crowd disperses a bit, to give more space.

She needed more space.

"I did look over it; it's like nothing I've seen before! Or heard, it's- I've never been very close to Ainu culture." Lightning Spangles babbles on, an intensity over her. Maybe the panic? Maybe the fear. "I thought it was like Japanese? And the Native American- the Injuns, I mean. Like a cross between the two. But it's really a distinct culture, completely unbound by the Japanese!" Lightning Spangels was building into a cacophonic, the stress building higher and higher on her. "And the dance number..."

Lightning Spangles gets a faraway look, before she suddenly gasps, and starts laughing.

"I am sorry." She sputters out. "I am so sorry. It's just so wonderful and real to be working with you, Ainu Spangles! Being Lighting Spangles, and Ainu Spangles, and being part of the wonderful Lightning Spangles expanded universe!" She adjusts her mask. "Everything is so real, and has to be real. That's why we need this, pardner. The show, the tournament, everything. To be part of something so real and wonderful, and for a better, brighter world. We can do the singing together, and then, the dancing! You won't need to worry about the dancing though, we won't need you to do it." Lightning Spangles gestures to a general direction, barely even glancing at it.

"We got that stunt double to be the dancin' Ainu Spangles!"

If Ainu Spangles recognizes her counterpart's anxiety, she doesn't seem to be showing it much at all -- she's just as casual as can be. And maybe a -little- bit starstruck, considering how much the Ainu star has to learn from the studio professional.

Fortunately for that sense of anxiety, the rest of the crew has pretty much dispersed, with only a few stragglers visible in the distance as they make their way to the mess hall.

Ainu Spangles -does- show a bit more of a reaction to the compliments, bowing her head and making an 'aww, shucks' sort of wave -- a light dismissal to the complimentary barrage.

Lightning Spangles mentions a dance number, and the shorter star chirps in with: "Yeah, don't worry about that, it's gonna be awesome. I've run the script by lots of authentic Ainu elders and they all kinda gave me the thumbs up on it. It'll be great!" If there was emphasis on 'kinda', it seems like it was unintended.

But when Lightning Spangles starts laughing? How -awkward- this got...! Talking about what's -real- and what needs to be -real?- The Ainu star seems... crestfallen. Maybe even... disappointed? "Wh-what... what do you mean?"

A -stunt double?- To replace a trained dancer?

"What stunt double?" she stammers.

Enter said stunt double.
She has a name.
And, a moment later, she has a yo-yo.


Almost simultaneously, the stunt double nods in acknowledgement, but directs her attention to Lightning Spangles.

"Reika, ma'am. It's nice to meet'cha."

It seems like she'd come out of nowhere -- though, in reality, she'd slipped in from just around that tent, almost as if she was waiting for the perfect moment. Reika -could- very well pass for Ainu Spangles -- she's the same height, with a lean build that's practically a mirror image. The only thing different is her face; flatter features, slightly more olive skin tone.

Even her oolongcha-brown eyes are the same.
Aside from the light veins of amber in them.

The stunt double smiles, and glances over to Ainu Spangles while winding the yo-yo string around a finger. "H-hey, Wardrobe was lookin' for you. Said something about a tick infestation..."

"Ticks?!" Ainu Spangles' eyes grow wide like saucers, in alarm.

Reika raises her hands in a sign of surrender. "Hey, don't kill me, ah'm just the messenger!" The Hokkaido native smiles back at Lightning Spangles. "Ah heard you were talkin' about the dance number?"

There were more than one.

"That's right, pardner!" Lightning Spangles says brightly, slapping Ainu Spangles on the back. "See, Ainu Spangles here needs to be one hundred and ten dedicated to being the singin' and talkin' Spangles! But we need a hot to trot dancin' Spangles! And that's you!" She waves at Reika, eyes bright and bushy, as she steps on up. She watches the exchange back and forth, like tennis.

But then, Reika brings up the ticks!"

Lightning Spangles slaps her forehead. "Ticks are a real big trouble! That's one of the hardest things going out in the wilderness, you know. You gotta check for ticks right after every big hike or exploration where you go near trees, scrubbush, or even grass! Especially those moon ticks! They like to get into every nook and cranny, so you need to check in your armpits, netherregions, and knees!" Lightning Spangles looks at Ainu Spangles, and gives a great big thumbs up.

And then there is something very, very chilling in the air.

It cuts like a knife, hanging heavy over the air. Her face is the same, but the voice, something sounds wrong in the voice. Something goes to break character. Is it breaking character? It is something heavy and insidious, something wrong, something that sends ripples through the illusion.

"Make sure you go with Angie and Sylvie when you do?"

The obessive, precise statement burns, as that smile remains benign and sweet.

"They are always great big helpers!"

She looks back at Reika. "Now you wanna talk about dance numbers?!"

With the weather entering late spring, the mercury is starting to climb. Professionals used to working under heat lamps might not think eighty-degree weather with a light breeze would feel all that hot, at first. But once an elaborate costume and a thorough dusting of camera-ready makeup are added... it tends to build up.

Ainu Spangles stares back at Reika, the new source of her frustration. It'd be downright rude to glare down her mentor, her friend, her -inspiration-, but Reika? A co-worker she's known for -years-, her partner in crime on stage...? For someone so close to be upstaging her in her own movie?

And then to -grab her yo-yo?-

And then to have the nerve to talk about -ticks?-

Insecurity shudders through her, as knuckles are clenched so hard they turn white, hands thrust downward at her sides. Pores fill with sweat. The urge to -scream- is rising...

Reika, meanwhile, has already shifted her focus back to Lightning Spangles, who has plenty more wisdom to share about ticks. She nods enthusiastically, flicking the yo-yo through its paces. She walks the dog, she goes around the moon... almost, -almost- as well as Honoka Kawamoto herself, save for a very tell-tale wobble.

Lightning Spangles' voice is eerily... comforting to Ainu Spangles. In fact, it's already working; Ainu Spangles' fear is dissipating almost as quickly as it arrived, each breath of air flaring the Ainu woman's nostrils less and less. Such that when the suggestion is made to go visit Angie and Sylvie... The Ainu woman nods her head, biting her lower lip. "Ah... yeah." And she starts to take step backward, so that she can bow herself away...

That almost-summertime weather. A wave of warm air rushes past, stirring the billowy sleeves of the Ainu women's garments into motion. Heat waves roll off the ground, distorting Ainu Spangles' features for a moment.

And Reika reiterates the words with a reassuring smile. "Yes. Go see Angie and Sylvie."

Ainu Spangles looks straight back at Reika. And then to Lightning Spangles. Then back to Ainu, blinking in confusion.

And then suddenly convulses, slapping her left side as if she's been bitten. "OW! OW!" She staggers backwards, rubbing at her sore side before reason returns. "Ah, ah-- Ah'll be right back, okay?"

Reika covers her hand with a mouth, gasping in surprise. But as the moment passes, she nods her enthusiasm, waving her longtime friend off. As soon as the star is rushed away, Reika tilts her head to get a better look at Lightning Spangles.

"... Dance numbers? I haven't gotten the time to rehearse a whole lot for it, d'ya think you could walk me through it? I'm not... not as -good- as Ho-- As Ainu Spangles, but the more I try, the better I pick it up, yeah...?"

That stab of pain catches Lightning Spangles eye.

The actress behind Lightning Spangles was never renowned for her perception. She just seemed to ignore things, or let them slip by. But the nuance to make sure she goes through Angie and Sylvie. And then, when Reika repeats the words, the flicker of concern. But the stab, the stab is caught well. A bug? A mosquito? A biting fly? All could be possible. But Lightning Spangles' smile doesn't break, as she waves at Ainu Spangles as she goes out. "Are you sure you are okay? You make sure you get well taken care of!"

And then she looks back at Reika.

The question comes from Reika, the response. And Lightning Spangles cocks her head, looking straight at Reika. And then it comes, the very faint shaking of her head, as her penetrates. There it was, the overwhelming waves of confidence. The real Lightning Spangles sense of self. No uncertainty. No hestiation. It is hot, but Lightning Spangles was not breaking a sweat. The next question comes with the faintest of drawls.

"Who are you?"

That stab? Oh, Ainu Spangles is fine. That was just a little psychic jolt. A fake bite, to instill some true panic into the poor girl. To really drive home the message that -ticks- are -bad news, pardner-.

"Ah'll be fiiiiine!" calls out Ainu Spangles as she flees, ever mindful of her friends' needs.

Reika, though, is a blank slate, right? Just a plain, Japanese face, wearing a threadbare copy of Ainu Spangles' costume that happened to juuuust fit her. She's the same height, same weight -- and even knows how to flip the yo-yo around in similar fashion.

The yo-yo snaps back into Reika's palm. She offers a musical laugh in response, her eyes twinkling with faint veins of amber. "Now, Miss Lightning Spangles, what a silly question! I'm -Reika-, from acrobatics -- and I play Honoka's stunt double. Did you hit yer head or somethin'?"

Reika steps closer to Lightning Spangles, her good-natured smile fading into a look of concern. "Hmm... one of the first -symptoms- of tick bites is delirium... We really ought to check -you- for ticks too. You never can be too sure..."

The curious doppleganger of Honoka Kawamoto holds out her hands, as if to lead Lightning Spangles by the waist for further examination...


Lightning Spangles could feel the tick bites, even though they weren't there. ALmost mindlessly, Lightning Spangles touches on her own waist. It wasn't even the pure psionic force. There were ticks, after all. ANd she could feel them. Little tingles, little pricks. Maybe Lightning Spangles hit her head. Maybe she was confused. It should be enough to distract her.

But something -blocks- it.

Something resists it. Not necessarily Lightning Spangles herself; she seems to be writhing around the suggestion. But a hard block drives in like a concrete barrier. Enough to stop it, enough to lock it in. "No, the dancing Ainu Spangles knows her part. Reika knows her part. We all know our parts. So I'm asking again." Lightning Spangles puts her hands on her hips, transitioning from the 'inspection' to one of authority.

"Who are you?"

The subtle tells are ones that would go unnoticed by most people. Really, how would any normal member of the Twilight Star Circus be able to notice someone's consciousness debating with, and even -surpassing- the limitations of her own body?

But Reika -- or at least the person wearing her face -- offers a saccharine-sweet smile back in reply. Her right hand remains extended, fingers splayed apart, yet tense, not unlike those of a conductor in front of an orchestra.

"I'm -Reika-, I told you. I was feeling a bit -sick- earlier -- maybe from a tick bite. But I'm all better now..."

Her fingertips fold inward like raptor claws. The psychic impression of pain intensifies -- as if the ticks themselves were growing in size, their jaws now large and sharp enough to rend flesh from bone. What's more, their bite delivers a powerful venom, scalding its way throughout the domino-masked figure's veins.

Licking her lips in enjoyment, Reika steps closer, looking up at the taller woman with curiosity. "Are you... feeling okay? Tick bites aren't really a laughing matter, Lightning Spangles. Why, you said it yourself..." She looks back at the cowgirl's domino-masked face. If anyone else were to look -- and circus staff likely -won't- with 'Reika's' innate psychic influence in full swing -- they'd just see a curiously tick-free Lightning Spangles writhing about for no bloody reason. And Reika, for her part... sees a suffering most exquisite indeed.


"You're right though... I seem to have -forgotten- my part. Remind me, then... what's -Reika's- role in this dance?"

The suggestion was cutting through.

The mental bulwarks in place on the real Lightning Spangles were enough against the core stuff. But what was expendable at the cost of reliably was these little nicks and cuts. Suggestions. It was just Reika, it was just Reika.

Except it wasn't.

Except it was.

The blood-sucking ticks draw more and more as the visage of Lightning Spangles endures, even as the flesh doubles over, fingernails clawing in the arms the hip. Abnormal actions, even from the infamous Lightning Spangles. Sick from a tick bite.

And the voice is so quiet.

"You're not Reika." Lightning Spangles groans, teeth gritted. She begins to shiver. as the bulwark endures. Lightning Spangles herself had nothing left, the venom, the illusion had already cut through what she had left. But the bulwark endures. "This isn't... real..." She mutters. Something, something clinging on. "You're not Reika, you need to- leave- take away." Lightning Spangles's soft voice rises up, feeble and weak, as she looks around, eyes wide behind the mask. "Help... help..." So weak, like a kitten's purr. Ainu Spangles was getting help for herself, never to be alone.

But Lightning Spangles was alone right now.

Once upon a time, mankind had relied on gods to shape their world. Gods created the heavens and the earth, the rivers and the trees, the mountains and the sky. Mankind soon learned that there was an order to things -- elements and compounds, molecules and atoms. Suns, solar systems, and stars. Before long, there seemed to be no mysteries left, save for one: the human psyche. For all its vaunted ideals, science has never been able to document what inspires a collection of neurons to transcend the leap from raw electrical circuitry into a sentient consciousness.

Faith transcends science. Faith does not need to know -why- a gift is granted to simply accept the gift. And the person wearing Reika's face can certainly accept this gift of Lightning Spangles to her, on this very day, writhing about in such a fashion it's a miracle she hasn't fallen over yet.

But even the sturdiest toy can break. And as the leering Reika leans closer, she can tell she's approaching that soft limit. Whatever she had hoped to find inside Lightning Spangles? She won't find it this way, no...

She remains resolute against the struggling, overriding will within. She never confirms nor denies her identity. She never gives affirmation that the ticks are anything but real. But upon the insistence that the tormenter should leave?

Reika shakes her head briskly, a cruel smile upon her face.

"I'm afraid not."

And the plaintive cry for help, too, garners a different reaction.

"You've been up for far too long, Lightning Spangles..." Reika steps close, encircling the masked cowgirl with her right hand, while raising the fingertips of her left to her forehead.

"I -will- help. But you need to let us help you -- and rest."

As Reika's fingers press down lightly, just above Lightning Spangles' eyelids, the suggestions begin to fade away. The ticks, the enlarged monstrosities lose interest, and hop downto the ground. Reika's fingers begin to ease those eyelids down.

"Sleep." The voice comes as a firm, maternal whisper.

And Reika's arm is right there to catch her, should the compulsion take root.

Lightning Spangles is -not- alone. Not at all.

Layers after layers, peeled and rotted away.

The weakest of Lightning Spangles is almost too much now, a toy batted around. She need Angie and Sylvie and Ainu Spangles and her showup animal friends. The last of the powers drive deep in. How could she sleep when she was covered by ticks? Why wouldn't she sleep, if she was covered in ticks? The suggestion builds heavier and heavier, her mind growing more and more distant. Finally, her eyelids are shut, and she falls asleep. The last vestiges of defense are gone from her. Lightning SPangles is asleep.


The bulwark is not.

The reaction comes unconsciously, blindly, programmically. A forever stare comes out, as Lightning Spangles snaps her eyes open, and -shoves- back at Reika. A flare of red, white, and blue energy cascades over her. It wasn't a kick, it wasn't attack. But she -was- asleep. Something inside her was propelling her forward, blindly. More emphasis on the second, as she thrusts a finger... slightly off-centered from Reika. And there, the blazing American spirit announces out loud, all for the circus to hear.

"I don't need -your- help, pardner!"

Thus comes the bellow, as the deepest bulwark of Lightning Spangles comes out. "I didn't need it in the hotel room, I didn't need it in the forest, I didn't need it from Baby Bonnie Hood, and I don't need it from -you!- I am Lightning Spangles, the All-American Hero!" Words without feeling, without any passion within. Only a programmed passion. A- familiar, programming, possibly for Reika. The closest comparison being... the countless students protesting against Japanese aggression and nationalism within our schools. The blind, sleeping Spangles cries out once more.

"And Heroes Never Die!"

Sleep would certainly be a good way for 'Reika' to get in and take control of the figure standing before her. But there's eyes that snap open -- enough to still her advance. And a flare of the All-American colors, enough to singe her skin and force an actual withdrawal. The jabbed finger is easy enough for Reika to avoid with a light pivot, but it's all good and well; Reika gives the half-asleep Spangles some breathing room.

The -shouting-, though. That's enough to change her teasing smile into more of an irritated glower. And one statement in particular earns a hard glare and an immediate blurt: "... -What- hotel room?!" She stares back, incredulous as she folds her arms in a haughty stance. It's... operating off a -script- of some kind. And there's a droning quality to the brain patterns that... really doesn't seem to be driven by any -conscious- process.

Reika grinds her teeth as she steps backm shaking her head. "Lazy-ass -fucks-... Tell me I'm not -dreaming- this." she blurts out, her fingertips pressing whiteness into her reddened forearms.

"Admin mode, authorization sequence forward plus one, two, two, one, three, three, three, four, three, four. Disengage current process and standby."

Everyone involved in a shared hallucination needs a safeword. And this one is a code only Shizue Murano and one other person had access to use.

When the code is put in?

The bulwark suddenly -stops-

It's like a rush, Lightning SPangles shudders, and eyes go shut. The mask, the fake one, not the real one, goes dead. The override seems to have -worked.- She doesn't fall down. She should, but she doesn't. There is silence.

"Hello Lee."

Lightning Spangles has no affect on her face.

"Surprised? You should know who it is. Only one other person knows this code, other than you. You think I wouldn't have planned for this? I bet you're not even alone, showing off how you know who the real Lightning Spangles was. Well guess what. You just have a shitty Spangles, not the true, pure Spangles. You probably get it now, with the Gears, this is the next logical breakthrough."

It's not Combots anymore."

"It's so much more now. That's what you get for abandoning me. You never -really- respected my genius. That's why you fired me, humilated me, left me to fend for myself while you profited! You hear that?" Lightning Spangles was shouting now, making the gestures to turn her head. "Now I'm part of something bigger than Violet Systems. With money, and respect, and authority. And other perks." Lightning Spangles smooths her vest a bit. "But that doesn't matter. You're meddling in things you can't handle. This is all -your- fault. ANd now, you're gonna reap what you are gonna sow, again." Lightning Spangles rubs the front of her throat a bit.

"Lets see you thumbs up out of this one."

There is a jolt. No brain activity. Lightning Spangles collapses on the ground, in the middle of the Twilight Circus. Perfectly still.

Reika stands there watching Lightning Spangles with arms crossed and nostrils flaring. At first, she's not sure -what's- happening, just sure that something has, indeed, happened.

And then there is silence.

And then ... a pre-recorded message. The name 'Lee' strikes her as a bit curious, evoking a faint smirk but no other change in her stance. She weathers the lunatic shouting -- an expression of rage that truly seems "off" without the physical responses to complement it.

Oh, but then -those- kick in. Typical of a non-actor to mistime the overblown theatrics. Reika even rolls her eyes, at the artificial manner in which Lightning Spangles marks off each checkbox on the maniacal denouement crib sheet.

There is a -slight- shudder from Reika; the jolt was not -quite- expected, even if it was appropriately timed. But when Lightning Spangles starts to slump over... Reika's able to catch her, the instant before shoulders and head tumble down. Even if Lightning Spangles -is- a shitty Spangles... well. A doll is still more valuable than nothing at all.

With Lightning Spangles apparently unconscious in her arms, Reika casts her eyes over to the assorted vehicles in the parking area. A message is sent... and sunlight glints off the opening door of a passenger van. Sudo -- former chief of security for the circus, now on indefinite leave -- starts to rush over. Everyone else in the circus? Peculiarly -busy-.

Reika narrows her eyes, staring at the mousy brown hair of Honoka Kawamoto's dearest, dearest rival, locked in a light embrace. An irritated huff is forced through her teeth. If ticks -were- involved, well, she'd be covered in them by now.

/ Let's go, Sudo. We need to figure this out. /

There's problems for Honoka Kawamoto to resolve here... problems that might require the shedding of her Reika disguise. But those are concerns are secondary to the apparent abduction of one of the most famous people on the planet -- an abduction that -- at least for the moment -- goes off without a hitch.

Log created on 08:31:54 05/28/2019 by Honoka, and last modified on 11:14:51 06/18/2019.