2019-04-21 - Syncopation
Two formidable Puella Magi tear up a couple of stages together, preparing for their defining performances.
| OOC - IC Date:|
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
Homura Akemi makes a curt gesture with a handful of steel. The submachine gun barks bullets in an uneven line, the spread of the weapon imprecise even at short range -- still, it is more than enough to perforate the odd patchwork quilt stretched across the back wall of an out-of-business noodle shop.
Its panels shred easily, and the sewn image of a microphone does too, and glitter goes everywhere....
It is more than enough to perforate an opening into that which lies beneath, or behind, or beyond: the twisting dark of a Labyrinth. The lair of a Witch.
The lair of a Puella Magi, just like them.
After the cacophony of bullets, there is a settling of white dust from chewed up drywall. With a level glance to the crimson huntress, and no words, Homura steps in -- steps through. She feels a strange prickling between her shoulderblades as she does so, a vulnerability, despite having sought the other girl out for this hunt.
The grey girl usually walks alone. But... Walpurgisnacht is coming.
LATE NIGHT DUMPLINGS, reads the sign above the stall with its aging creaky wood slats and flickering streetlight illumination. The proprietor has never felt the need to get fancy; she knows her dumplings are the best in the district, and she stays open into the wee hours to catch Electric Town's late night crowd. She does brisk business loading steaming-fresh food into plain white bags.
"One chicken dumpling, please." Cool and quiet and sometimes polite, that's Homura Akemi. It'll be up soon. She doesn't offer to pay for Kyouko's; she knows better than that.
There aren't any benches, but there is a low wall not too far away which is the perfect height for sitting. Neon shop signs blink colored light down onto the spot. Homura walks over to it and... doesn't sit. She just stands there in her Ohtori uniform, looking across the street, arms straight and at her sides. She doesn't look tense, but there is something about her stillness...
"You understand why I asked you, and not Eri." To hunt, she means. It's unclear if that's a statement or a question, from her inflection. But violet eyes slide Kyouko's way.
If grief moves like a tide, Tokyo may be suffering a high water mark. These dark waters carry with them dark creatures, grasping and ravenous. Their hunters have been... busy, and some have fallen; Yamanote and Ueno no longer know the protection of golden bullet and knightly sword. The Witches dance in the night and gather to them their prey, growing fat with despair. They spawn Familiars unchecked, and if a Familiar survives and grows and matures...
...it too becomes a Witch.
Tokyo is heavy with Witches, and thus heavy with bounty. So much grief; so many Seeds.
The harvest has come, enforced by spear and sidearm, to stockpile against the coming storm.
<Pose Tracker> Kyouko Sakura [None] has posed.
Kyouko glances around, leaning on the length of her spear as though she had a third leg to stand on. Has she been to this dive before? If she had, whatever past assessment of its wares didn't go for much anymore. There's a sadness to a shuttered restaurant. A hard struggle for life, all for the sake of feeding the hungry...not good enough to go on.
In a rare display, she visibly startles as Homura sprays lead out along the checkered threshold. Though she's heard gunshots at close range before, the sound is difficult to overstate, and her nerves are typically steeled by the tense readiness of combat or danger.
"Y'know...if you wanted to open 'er up, I've got a box cutter..."
Flicking the broad side of her spear head with a finger, the metal makes a dull peal to sound along with the ringing in her ears. Do bullets come to Homura Akemi so casually that she'd use a gun like a machete? Perceptive Homura is right to tingle between her shoulders. Kyouko is observing her all the while. After all that had transpired between them, the spear fighter still does not feel that she has measured the cut of Homura's cloth. Increasingly, she suspects that she never will.
But a negative can make for a positive of its own, and a persistent absence of communicated information communicates something very distinctive. One of Homura's defining traits is her opacity. She is rigidly disciplined and tightly controlled in the information that she displays in word or in deed. Indeed, the very nature of Homura's magic was only shared with Kyouko quite recently, and only then at Homura's volition. She fights when she has to, hunts on her lonesome, and leaves the rest of the world to wonder.
This hunt, then, is a rare opportunity to observe. Watching Homura step through the gate, Kyouko steps after her.
Straight and to the point. Here's a dive Kyouko is not likely to forget, despite the plainness of its branding. One glance at this place tells you the what, the where, and the when. No more and no less. The why is self explanatory, and the how, by now, is well established.
The proprietor looks to Kyouko, and Kyouko nods. "Yeah." No more and no less. This, too, is by now well established. Herut and down in Tokyo town. Kyouko sighs, and hops onto the wall. "You're so goddamn stiff. You're a tough cookie but one of these days you might just snap. Just sit down and enjoy your food, might as well eat nutrition paste with your attitude." She's stiffened a bit. Although she would never admit it, Eri's a...sensitive subject, lately. Particularly on the topic of hunting, and her recent lack thereof.
"I don't understand why you do anything. But if you're asking if I can come up with a guess, then yeah. I can."
Because not many Puella Magi have proven that they can live through the end of the world.
"Could be risky though. Best way to keep my hide in one piece is to take my share of the grief seeds and hop a plane somewhere to ride off the storm. Why am I the one you think you can rely on?"
The bad times are rarely bad for everyone. Arms dealers, drug peddlers, con artists, coffin makers...most misery is not immune to profit. It was not so long ago that Kyouko would have looked at the present state of the city with relish. Such circumstance comes quite rarely, and begets further opportunities. But mostly, Kyouko is tired. Her thoughts are not of which rival to target or which territory to press, but of the recent troubles and understandings that quietly beset her spirits. But that's all internal.
Her arm cuts as well as ever.
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
Indeed there is all the hard-edged aplomb of a seasoned soldier in how the Akemi girl spews point-blank bullets flinchless. Her hair ripples, her henshin ribbons stream, and her face remains a mask of flat affect. Here is a girl accustomed to percussive destruction. Here, also, is a girl who expends energy on a regular basis to repair her eardrums.
"You're welcome to open up the next one," floats her reply over a grey-clothed shoulder. "There is plenty left to cut inside."
And there is.
Homura doesn't sit when told, which might be expected. "I am what I need to be." She also doesn't bother shrugging when she says that, though there is a sense of the gesture in her tone. Her mild acceptance in no way refutes Kyouko's prediction that she may snap. Secretly, though, she admires and envies the other girl her relish of food, her apparent relish for survival. "You can enjoy it enough for the both of us."
Green neon blinks in a blackened shop window; someone forgot to turn the OPEN sign off. It paints the two girls green, too, wherever the color can catch. It makes Homura's eyes darker than violet, even as they reflect some of the light. They catch that stiffening; she looks away after, but in a rare moment, elaborates.
"It's for her sake. Mine as well, I won't deny it. But it comes to the same thing. She can benefit from this hunt without needing to be here for it." A read between the lines suggests that Homura yet has expectations on Eri Shimanouchi's existence: a concern expressed coldly, a mask over worry.
She wants to say she doesn't rely on Kyouko, wants it to be true. And... beneath that, she /very/ badly wants to rely on the girl she can't bring herself to call friend instead of ally. In the end she inhales through her nose and says, "It is a matter of survival. What comes won't stop with Tokyo, won't satisfy itself with Japan." She does not specify that she means Kriemhild Gretchen, not Walpurgisnacht -- means the tragedy of hope expended which will swallow the storm's aftermath and then the rest of the Earth, if Homura fails and Madoka spends her soul.
"Some things cannot be run from. They can only be faced." Over and over again.
"Maybe by now you've seen enough to believe me." An old bitterness creeps into the words. A reference to the Witch revelation, the things Homura has clearly known all along.
A Labyrinth is a place of darkness, but behind the microphone quilt this only plays out figuratively. Light splashes Homura and Kyouko both, cast by the baleful eyes of a hundred hungry spotlights; they break easily enough when shot or stabbed, but the shards of their shattered regard find new ways to cut the intruding Puella.
The floor is rotten noodles, stinky and squishy. Better footholds can be had by leaping from balcony to balcony -- they protrude from walls at off intervals, and each holds moth-eaten velvet viewing seats and sometimes the bodies of the Witch's victims in those, like so many inert audience members.
The daughter of the noodle shop owners wanted nothing more than to escape their humble life for her dreams of the idol's stage. She got a wish in exchange for a soul, but her dream did not come true in the end. They so rarely do...
Homura cartwheels midair, and sprays a fine deadly screen of projectiles -- a staccato shatter as they connect -- and she makes thirty impossible shots. Thirty shards of jagged spotlight glass explode in the air before the two Puella, and their way is clear. The submachine gun falls, discarded, and she's reaching into her shield for the first of many grenades as they rush for the Witch's sanctum.
Why does she think she can rely on Kyouko Sakura? Perhaps the answer is in how Homura fights alongside her, with a certain trust -- not explicit but implicit. The way she expects Kyouko to keep up with her, the way she has to work to keep up with Kyouko. That envied and violently expressed relish for survival.
<Pose Tracker> Kyouko Sakura [None] has posed.
Kyouko laughs. Cooler than cool, ice cold. This girl is like a movie monster. She could go further than Mishima if she wanted, go toe to toe with the SDF. Take over the Yakuza if she wanted. Could blow up the Emperor, if she wanted.
Just what is it she wants?
What she needs to be? What the hell does that mean? The only thing somebody needs to be is alive. If that's it, then they're kindred spirits...and after all, here they are together, two loners driving the strands of their lives into a parallel park. But most of the time when somebody says they need to be something, they're not talking about that all. They're talking about what they /feel/ they need to be, and that's a whole other bowl of noodles. Again, the question insists itself.
Just what is it she wants?
What is it she believes in? When Homura looks around her, what world does she see? When she looks searchingly at Kyouko after cryptic statements of ambiguous end punctuation, how does she see her? Kyouko was jabbing with her talk of eating paste, but suspects Homura would be entirely satisfied by doing away with food altogether, if she could. Just what is it she's living for?
But then...what a silly question. To live, to go on...that's as much as any Puella Magi can dream for. To live is an ends in and of itself. To live is enough.
In truth, Kyouko has been starting to wonder.
"I can do plenty. Just don't waste it, that's all it comes down to."
Of course it's open. The dark and the uninviting is open for business all throughout the city. What can one expect from a store that gives no indication of welcome except for the most explicit sign possible? Anything could happen in such a place, so long as one chooses to find out.
Homura is thinking of Eri. That seems...strange, coming from her. Kyouko would never admit it, but Eri has not been herself lately. Or at least...being Eri has worn hard on her, lately. The comment suggests that Homura is to some extent aware of this, and rather than writing her off she's letting her rest. Perhaps she's not so ironhided after all. Perhaps she needs all the help she can get. Kyouko says nothing more of Eri. Her thoughts are her disquiet and that she does not wish to share.
"You seem awfully sure of things I can't imagine anyone could know. But I guess I've never heard you talk so much about anything else, so...good thing you're so mysterious, I suppose."
She shakes her head, but is not so distracted that she fails to note the emotion in Homura's voice. In a still pond every ripple calls attention. "Only death."
Kyouko used to consider dying a violent death to be the worst possible end of a Puella Magi, as well as the only possible end of a Puella Magi. She's spent her current life hedging against that probability. But now she knows there's a worse way to go than the sudden and bloody. She's seen it, and she is far more afraid. All she wants is to die happy...but more and more since Sayaka's deaths, she finds her grip on the all consuming need to survive starting to ease...so she'll stay, and she'll fight. There are worse things that could happen than dying to a dragon with a spear in her hand. And who knows. St. George managed to get by.
Wrinkling her nose, her lip curls in disdain as the heel of her boot sinks slightly into the gelatin yield of decaying food. "What a waste...I know it's not real. It could be fresh as could be and I wouldn't eat it any more than the gum drops and donuts and all the other shit I've seen in a labyrinth. But it's like this place is /trying/ to piss me off..."
What a garish thing this poor girl had become, whoever she had been. The Witch's hair in its long looping lengths looks painted with lipstick, its face caked with white lipstick, its oversized bow tied from more rotting noodles, draped in a tattered apron whose blurry logo seems drawn from burst ketchup packets. It is as if the girl's every thought of stardom, of performance, of idols and geishas and vocaloids and shojo and the mundane life she reviled but could not escape had all coalesced into a single pathetic monstrosity..but on its stage she shines. Accompanied by a retinue of familiars...backup dancers, it would seem...this girl who was, who had always wanted a stage, was intent on defending the one she had found.
Kyouko does not hesitate. She wades in, stabbing and cutting and slashing like a frenzied wildcat. Kyouko doesn't fear Homura's guns or grenades, even from her place in the melee. She trusts her to aim true, and to kill with her in harmony.
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed. <SoundTracker> Portugal. The Man - Heavy Games https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgGkKlDtlfE
Each girl considers the other over dumplings and uncomfortable conversation. Homura is not wondering what Kyouko wants; she thinks she knows, and in her arrogance and her silent desperation does not question experience gained over a cheater's hand of lifetimes. It does not occur to her that Kyouko might herself be in a questioning state.
Because she is, for her part, considering the other girl's capacity for philosophical -- and not so philosophical -- savagery. This is not the only timeline Homura has known Kyouko Sakura to be a consummate veteran among Puella Magi, a notorious short-lived breed. When a girl with big soft braids and a poor estimation of her own bravery and worth needed inspiration for becoming a different and worthier girl, she found herself drawn to the tenaciously blazing example set by the spearmaiden.
"Good thing," she echoes drily. This may be what passes for a joke, for her, these days.
Even now, Homura cannot imagine Kyouko as anything other than a ferocious and charismatic survivor -- even now, she looks up to the red magi, feels like she could never equal the other, though she conceals that as well as she conceals the rest. If Kyouko knew what a weak thing lurks beneath the practiced mystery... Homura is sure she'd be repelled. After all, Homura is.
She folds her empty white bag and packs it away in her satchel--
--she reaches into her shield and pulls out a grenade, and another, and another, and each punches another jagged hole in the edge of the stage, until the whole thing collapses to reveal the bottom half of the Witch. She'd been pinched to a waspwaist by the stage's trap door. Below, she has not legs but a bristling of microphones, and each and every one screams with her screechy feedback rage. The backup dancers burble and slice up readily beneath Kyouko's pikes. As they die in droves, they transmute into cardboard cutouts of girls and then sink into the rotten noodle swamp.
And her trust is well placed, at least to this point. No grenade lands near enough to menace the fire-haired warrior, though their detonations wash her in sound and light. Bullets whiz in like hornets, but only to pierce the Witch beyond.
Still. Still, Homura does not extend her hand to Kyouko again, not like she did at Haneda. When she stops time to launch an eyeblink offensive, she does so in monochromatic solitude.
Between two savage Puella it does not take much time for the Microphone Witch to fall, and they're out again before Tokyo's finest can respond to the rare report of gunshots fired in the city. There's an arcade on the same block as the permanently closed noodle shop, a natural waystop for two girls to take a break without either needing to say they want to.
Police cars go by outside, but flashing lights and sirens can't compete with blinking gachapon signs and arcade game screens and the high-bpm j-pop madness pouring out of the various bemani machines.
Homura leans a hand on the back bar of the DDR machine while Kyouko plays. It's a breach of unspoken etiquette, kind of rude... and a vote of absolute confidence. Homura wouldn't put her hand on that back bar if she thought the other girl was going to need it.
She watches Kyouko play, and if she blinks it's impossible to catch her at it. "You're the most effective person I know," she says in the middle of a song, unprompted. "The hardest to frighten. I would not want to face you in a fight, Kyouko Sakura." Said smoothly, calmly, the implication is that she would if she had to. A thing can be true and bluff all at once. "You accused me once of flattering you, but you asked: why you." Homura has a strange way with compliments.
"If you stay... we can take this thing." Steel in her quiet voice. Because she is a good liar, Homura does not sound like she's trying to convince herself.
<Pose Tracker> Kyouko Sakura [None] has posed. <SoundTracker> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OLgG1eAg0E
Poor little Homura. Would that Kyouko could see into her heart...she might ask why the raven girl was so certain she had already gleaned every insight to be found from her repetitions, considering the fact that every single one she embarks on is born from a prayer of hope that this time, something will be unlike it has ever been before.
Homura does not fully understand Kyouko. Not this Kyouko, at least. The Kyouko that could see into her heart could not speak for the other Kyoukos, and would not presume to try. But this Kyouko is not repelled by weak things. If anything repels her it is a lack of perspective, and even then it is the lack itself which evokes her distaste, moreso than the person afflicted by it.
It's a hard thing to live.
Not that the Kyouko that could see into her heart would find Homura weak. That Kyouko would rather agree with this Kyouko's assessment. Homura is not weak, but she is certainly unyielding. That which cannot bend can only break, and even cast iron can be called brittle when subjected to sufficient force. Homura pursues an unprecedented and possibly impossible goal with a clear eyed and unsentimental perspective of the world. That much is not beyond that Kyouko's understanding. She would not castigate Homura for not being stronger. But she might encourage her to take a few loops to try to relax, and regain her strength. She wouldn't expect that advice to be heeded, of course, and it's a key distinction between them. Kyouko's goal is a long term avoidance of failure. Homura's is an urgent accomplishment of success.
But Kyouko cannot see into Homura's heart. She cannot see what she is to a girl who still thinks of herself as something quite mousey and small, who at her core beneath the trauma and determination had been quite shy and gentle. She cannot see Homura's anguish or her yearning, cannot see where she has been or where she wants to go.
But Homura is not entirely unseen, nor completely alone. Kyouko eats with her, looks to her, listens to her. Perfect understanding is not required, and Kyouko senses something quite kindred in her, maybe not with the similarity of siblings, but cousins. The finer details are not strictly necessary.
"Funny...I think I've decided. One of these days I'm gonna get something outta you. Maybe some food that makes you forget yourself, or a rise that gets you steaming. An honest laugh or a gasp...something you're not expecting, something you're not ready for.
One of these days I'ma get you."
There's not much to romanticize about Kyouko's fight in that little pocket plane. She is certainly athletic, but her performance can hardly be called a performance at all. She simply hacks her enemies apart, driving spikes through them to make confetti of them. It is a grisly and workmanlike display. She is not showing off to anyone, certainly not herself. Just going about the business of extermination, much as Homura does behind her.
The microphones, at least, inspire a reaction out of her. Hissing with irritation at their piercing, insistent wails, she lops off their wire-meshed heads with broad sweeps of her spear, splintering more with a spray of needleblades bleeding the soundwaves dry.
Kyouko knows now what happens when Homura blinks from one spot to another. It is well that she does not take Kyouko's hand. Kyouko does not need saving. She does not compete with Homura for kills, or strive to beat her to the punch in felling the Witch once and for all. She works alongside her, as the partner of her labors. When the final blow lands, she could not say for certain who was responsible for it.
Kyouko's focus is absolute. This province of light and sound is as much her domain as the darkened corners of the city where she lays down her head, and of all of its outlets for her to demonstrate her prowess, this one has long been her favorite. Her feet move with rapid precision, her mind given over almost completely to the music, responding quicker than conscious intent could prosecute. She is conscious that Homura observes her, but here she is used to being observed. Kyouko does not feel self conscious, just because it is Homura.
Well..maybe a little.
And she is perfect, perfect in a way that can only be attained by an endeavor that holds out perfection as its highest expectation, landing every step on every beat. Kyouko is familiar with this dance, and has long since learned its steps. But then she hears a note that she didn't expect. She doesn't hesitate or start or mis-step. She simply stops dancing altogether, and turns around.
It isn't much of a dais, but Kyouko stands raised up over Homura all the same, looking slightly down upon her from the stage. The bright colors of the big screen behind her form a backlit corona around her silhouette. She watches Homura say, and if she blinks it's impossible to catch her at it.
Kyouko is quiet for a spell after Homura speaks, not once taking her eyes off of the other Puella Magi's face. At last, she nods a little nod, a subtle gesture laden with significance.
"I'll stay. I'll fight with you."
Kyouko turns back around, unconcerned with the big lettered Failure goading her from the game. She still has more markers to play. Cocking her head to the side, she indicates the other side of the platform, and the place it proclaims for another to join her.
"Dance with me."
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
Homura has a problem with seeing people clearly through her assumptions and plans. Perhaps she did not fix her eyes well enough; but no, this particular myopia has its roots in a hospital-raised girl's unfulfilled need for socialization, and if the grey girl could fix that with a bit of soul magic things would have gone very differently indeed. She instead relies on her hard-won statistics, logical and quantifiable and utterly inadequate to the task of predicting human nature.
Her statistics certainly cannot hope to describe the sharp and lambent spirit of Kyouko Sakura. Homura's calculations are off; they always are, in the end.
In esteeming Kyouko's prowess and ferocity so highly, she has underestimated the red magi's subtleties. She cannot see that there is kindness beneath the spearblades for her. She might not understand it, if she could. Even though their souls are on full display, chips of violet and crimson exposed to air and to eye, neither girl can see the other's heart.
But there is something about Kyouko that draws her back, each time. For a girl who swore angrily to never rely on others, Homura has come perilously close to something like reliance. Each time she tells herself it is expedience, that she is trying different methods and eliminating possibilities. She is gathering resources, that is all; this is no different from stuffing military hardware into her shield. And yet.
Timelines in which Homura ruled out the aid of Kyouko, when available, are hard to find. For reasons the time mage declines to examine, the spearmaiden is one variable she shows little interest in varying.
"I am not fond of surprises..."
This wasn't always the case. Once upon a long lost timeline, it was possible to delight Homura Akemi with the right surprise, or even with the wrong one. Violet eyes flicker to the side; an absence of challenge can, for her, be something like assent.
"But if it amuses you to try, I won't stop you." It has the shape of a rebuff, but Homura is known to be a liar.
When Homura fights, it is always a performance. Even when hunting alone she puts herself through the same rigorous paces, holds herself to the same exacting standard. The performance isn't just for others, isn't even primarily for others. With Kyouko at her side...
She doesn't let on that she's showing off, but Homura Akemi absolutely is.
Shotgun shells wallop with precision, and pipe bombs fly and bloom in arcs which call to mind planned pyrotechnic displays -- a ballet of spitfire destruction drawn in brilliant color and light with a dark mote of a girl always at its center. In the end Homura races to strike in time with Kyouko, and an annihilation so absolute leaves no evidence of whether speartip or bullet draw last blood.
Would either girl believe that such mutual self consciousness could exist between them, two renowned predators? Homura wouldn't, that's for certain, even as she masks her own. She knows exactly how hard that song is that Kyouko's Perfecting, for one thing.
When the mistress of the arrows stops mid-song, Homura peers up into her neon halo without squinting, and the affectation means that backlighting flares to brilliance in her unhooded eyes. Such an aura suits her, Homura thinks, even as she delivers the rest of her words.
They look upon each other for a span. Lights blink and songs play; the too-cheerful DDR announcer repeats his disappointment as rapidfire arrows turn red behind Kyouko, one after another. Homura doesn't let herself look away, doesn't let herself swallow, quashes all the other nervous urges like bugs. Then -- the nod from the firehaired girl, the agreement.
Nothing seems to change on Homura's face, but there is this subtle easing, something to the way the slender girl holds her shoulders. Even her control is not perfect. She would not be pleased to know that Kyouko can see her relief, can perceive that this means something to her. Her chin dips, too.
Maybe this is why, when that last invitation goes out, it draws a long and owlish blink from the girl who is normally made of stillness. A ripple across becalmed waters. A reaction, fractional but undeniable.
But it is given to Kyouko's back, and so the other girl cannot see that she has done something unexpected, and Homura has the margin she requires to quash that like all the rest.
Only then does she grace the metal arrows with a dainty step, the sable swallowtail of her hair floating in her wake as she takes her second stage of the night alongside Kyouko. Every step after is just as dainty, just as precise, just as consciously Perfect, all the way to the end of the song.