Very Hinged Response

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Very Hinged Response
Date of Cutscene: 27 November 2021
Location: Rook Estate; Eastern Seaboard
Synopsis: Real normal.
Thanks to: Go Shijima (and stay go)
Cast of Characters: 6895

PHONE: Go Shijima says, " It's personal."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "It always is with you."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Hah. Yeah, I guess it is."
PHONE: Go Shijima seriously, after a weighty pause, "You scared me."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Beg pardon?"
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "In the decompression chamber."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "And here I assumed you were actually focused on the primary target at the time."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Of course I was. I wanted those files for you."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I had misgivings about that operation from square one. But I knew you would want something tangible, so I got them."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Well, that's a bar of professionalism higher than most."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Would you like a congratulations?"
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I'd like it if we could talk about what I saw. Because it scared me. And you're scaring me right now, and I don't even know if there's anything I can do, because I'm not sure..."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I'm not sure I'm real to you."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I'm worried about you. Not that terrifying force of nature. Or any of the other terrifying things out there."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook transmits the slow tapping of a pen against a tablet screen, growing gradually faster, and then an explosively disappointed sigh. "God I hate her."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "So she got inside your head too."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Inside my head? Lilian..."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "You were completely out of control."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Yes. You. I4. Probably everyone in that room but me. Because even her official files say that's what she does, and I'm the only one with a defense against it."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "It was a mistake not going alone."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "No you're not."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Maybe yours is the strongest, and I'd believe it, with the things you have to fight. But you're not the only person with a defense against it. But I already told you I don't want to talk about her."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "There's no talking about the Decompression Chamber while not talking about its entire context."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Put simply, as much as I happen to like you, you're far from a bastion of psychological surety and stability."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "You know that perfectly well."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I know."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I tore myself apart chasing something I was convinced was an existential threat."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Do you maybe see why you're scaring me?"
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "You're projecting."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "No, I'm really not. I saw you and that double of her.
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "It was a tactical avenue of attack when she walled herself up, and it worked."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "You're irrationally attached if you can't stand to see that."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Lilian, please. Please. You know that's not what I'm talking about. I just want to know if you're okay. I want to know that there's a line--a theoretical point out there that'd satisfy you that exists short of you destroying those people's lives."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I thought I did, but now I have no idea what you're talking about."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "What was it you said? "Are you okay, Kore?""
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "You know perfectly well I had no intent of killing her. Are you attempting to rub it in that she deceived me by swapping out with another clone in the heat of the moment? While I was covering your retreat? Is that what this is about?"
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "No."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "It's about me projecting, I guess."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "You can play all the word games that you want, you can make me look unprofessional, you can frame it in terms of missions and assignments and targets. I know those words and I know the way you're using them. You're trying to sterilize it. But she got into your head the old fashioned way, and you hate that."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I already expressed how I feel about her in plain English five minutes ago."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "And as a base assumption, I can't trust how you feel about her as a benchmark."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "You're the one that keeps making it about her."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I'm trying to find out what it was that got you so upset, and you keep saying how I'm compromised by her."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I'm saying standard operating procedure and basic common sense means at this point I have to professionally assume you are."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Okay."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Me being compromised doesn't mean you aren't also compromised."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I'm angry at her for ruining the operation. Your version of events doesn't match up with reality. We aren't the same."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I knew you'd say that."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "It's so important to you that you're different than everybody else. Above the rest of us."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "You're doing nothing to convince me otherwise, Shijima."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I know what I saw. I've stood in that place. But let's try it this way. If you really don't believe me, talk to Xion."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Ask her what I was like, when I hated someone so much more because I couldn't get rid of them. Because they wouldn't move."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I don't hate Kore."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "And I can make her move."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "But evidently not with you weighing me down."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "It's not me that's weighing you down. Tell the senior staff that I've lost it, if you want."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I'll sit in that cell for however long it takes you to come to your senses."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I won't have to."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "All I'll do is decline to tell you when I move next."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "And we'll see if you come to your senses after."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Fine by me. But you know, you should do that anyway."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I talked to her. She said you'd be this way. I did this to prove her wrong."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook transmits further scribbling noises, "Oh, so you were already pre-compromised. I see."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I wanted her to be wrong."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Well, I certainly can at least rest easy knowing she's a liar."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "And she certainly was wrong about several things."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Especially if she expected a dressing down and an attempted beating to put me in my place and have me fawn all over her like the rest of you."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Because I don't want to destroy her home and who knows whatever else, I'm fawning over her."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I did nothing close to 'destroying her home' you sycophant."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Lilian..."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "You're three times the fighter I am. You're more determined, and you're definitely more inventive."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "When I wanted to kill someone, I either did it, or someone else was there to stop me. But you..."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Reconnaissance of a Concord-funded installation that is providing weaponized powers to their Elites who have already misused them in the field, injuring no one and damaging nothing, with an attempted negotiation with their director. That's what it is, nothing more or less. And I'm tired of them hiding behind their child subjects as hostages to say that nobody can consider them a supplier."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "It's a research station. A science experiment. An arms manufacturing plant. At least ten percent psychic soldier by volume. It's not someone's apartment."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Get over yourself."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Nobody who produces something like Kore and then allows the Concord to use her as a wrecking ball gets to still claim credit as an orphanage. Nobody."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I'm well aware of what's in the mission briefing. The issue isn't me. It's you. You aren't stopped that easily. As easily as fighting someone and losing--not even a few times, or a lot. You could drag down a lot of people with you, even if you lose. It's not that I don't think you could move her. It's that you'd do anything to do it. That's why you're scaring me."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Well then it's a good thing I won't lose, since I won't bring the dead weight with me next time."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "You can call me whatever you want. I'm not giving up on you. If I can't act proactively, then reactively is just as good."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "You can't do anything at all, Shijima. You've never had the power to help me and you certainly don't have the power to stop me."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "That's where you're mistaken."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I'm not going to stop you. All that does is make you try harder."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Then answer me this, Shijima."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Why is it that all of you so-called heroes are so weak? The shining defenders of justice, the best of the best in the Multiverse, whom everyone relies on to hold back the tide and keep them safe; why are they so pitiful compared to the monsters they claim they're going to stop? Time and time again, at the eleventh hour, those 'heroes' are all flat on the floor, and I'm the last one left standing. Shouldering it by myself. And when everyone comes back to the showers and pats each other on the back for a good effort, I'm still shouldering it by myself."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Why is it that people with real strength keep choosing to be the bad guys? Why is everyone even close to my level our enemy? Why do I have to deal with this? The Paladins; I thought I'd really be able to look up to you, but so far you've mostly been a disappointment. And this time, it's not only losing before you've even tried, but feeling good about it. This is the most disappointed I've ever felt in you."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I don't need useless promises from useless heroes."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "And you wonder why I'm worried, talking like that. Like I've abandoned you..You want to know what a useful hero looks like? So do I. I am weak. I lose as often as I win, and you and I both know that training only takes you so far. You've complained about that yourself. I feel sorry for you..The world you live in is cold and dark and people only exist to hurt you or let you down. Do you think I don't know how weak I am?"
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I know every time I put on that belt. For you this is your first time being so outclassed..It stings, doesn't it? When all of your hard work, all of the pain you weathered, everything that you are, still isn't enough."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "This is my third."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Easily."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "You can either let it break you or you can keep going. I kept going."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook transmits loud, joyless laughter. "Oh! That's it? That's what you think this is about? You think it's resentment. Revenge. You think I feel frustrated and powerless like you do, and so you're trying to counsel me like a kindred spirit."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says coldly, "Adorable."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I'm stronger for it, and you're going to see that."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "What am I supposed to think, when I see you screaming and doing everything in your power to hurt someone? And I don't mean physically. I saw every one of those copies. Don't plaster some stupid tactical advantage over it. You're obsessed."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Shijima, Shijima, I'm a hundred times the fighter you are. And I thought if I reeled it back, to something like an attainable distance, you'd all be motivated to catch up; that you'd rely too much on me otherwise. But now I see you've no interest in even trying. Not even because you'd prefer to rely on me, but because you'd prefer to drag me down to your level."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Whatever you think you saw, whatever she did to your head, I don't really care anymore at this point. It's not your problem anymore. You're relieved of that."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Gerart was right. Aoibheil was right. I'm really going soft and dull, aren't I."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Did you not see what I looked like in that chamber?"
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I don't recall." She doesn't sound like she can be bothered to lie about it.
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Fair enough. Maybe you weren't looking, out of respect. Do you remember when Strawberry and I went off to fight that Evehime?"
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I remember Strawberry was deemed worthy of respect, and you weren't even worthy of notice."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Which is funny, because that's exactly how I feel."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "That's exactly right. Strawberry cratered her in an instant. Me, I couldn't even get her to look at me."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Do you know what that does to someone who got called a child prodigy? To someone who spent years of his life learning how to fight?"
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I don't know how it felt to Strawberry, no."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "But you know how it felt for me, otherwise you wouldn't have put it that way."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I don't care how it felt to you. If fighting's all your good for, you're not strong enough to matter when people need protecting, then pick up a different job."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "You're badly misreading this if you think it's about self-esteem."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I feel humiliated for holding myself to your level all this time."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I don't think it's about self esteem. But I do think you're trying to hurt me, and I feel sorry for you that it's the only way you can react right now."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I can only tolerate you clinging to my skirt for so long before I need to exercise tough love and hope you grow up."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "That's what this is about."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I didn't want to believe it."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "You're jealous of her."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "You're jealous that she got to have a family that didn't believe in stupid things like "tough love.""
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I don't have stockholm syndrome for having to do difficult things while she's spoiled rotten and handed everything she wants by a cult who uses her power, if that's what you're implying."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "A very normal and hinged response."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Because Kore is so normal."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "If you want a hinge then you can make like one and bend over for her again."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "What, having a family that's not screwed up? No, that's really weird, for sure."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "My family isn't 'screwed up'. You're projecting again."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "You're the only person I know who's Like This."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I'm the only person like me."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Yeah, and that's a good thing. I don't know if you've noticed, but literally everyone that knows and likes you has been trying to get you to be not That Way. It's actually pretty great here at the bottom. With the mud people."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Hah. Maybe that's one more reason you don't like her. You've always gotta be on top, huh?"
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Tamamo hasn't. Strawberry hasn't. Xion hasn't. Even Rita hasn't."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "If I had a controller, I'd be pressing X so hard I'd need a new one. Get real."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Arthur hasn't either."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Do you think none of them see the way you act?"
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I know Tamamo did since day one. And she'll stay by me. I'm fine with that, even if the rest of you let me down."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Do you think when you start talking about real people as "primary targets?""
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Do you think they just don't see it?"
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I think they aren't as intimidated as you. And I think that, deep down, they aren't ashamed of themselves like you are."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I'm sticking by you. Even though you make it so pointlessly hard. There's nothing I can say that will convince you I'm on your side, but that's fine. You're clearly used to this, and you were used to it a long time before you ever met any of us. Yep--totally normal family."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "You don't know anything about what you're talking about. You'd be better spending your time begging Kore to adopt you. Then maybe you'd get over your shitty father and stop making it my problem."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Projecting, right?"
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "It's a pretty useful word when you don't want to admit you're being shitty."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "It's not my fault he taught you nothing, didn't prepare you for anything, and left you with all his problems. And it's not my problem that your complex has made you so utterly entranced by Sapient Heuristics and desperate to believe in them. Don't try to commiserate with me."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "And it's not my fault that your parents mistreated you so badly that you always have to be above someone else."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "You're not any less broken than me just because your parents or siblings or whoever forced you to learn to play word games to keep your guard up."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "I wouldn't care if you were a thousand times the fighter I was. I know that when I see it."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "You're making this up as you go. I know plenty about your family. You know nothing about mine. Is this your convenient assumption so that this all makes sense to you? Or is this something Kore got into your head as well."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "So you're telling me that if I go looking, I'm going to find a white picket fence and a little slice of domestic bliss?"
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I don't expect you to understand what you find."
PHONE: Go Shijima says, "Well, I'm glad the other Paladins have me around to make them feel smarter. Since I'm so stupid, and weak, and useless, you really ought to respect me more, since standing next to you I do so much for your image."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "I prefer my image without you in it."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook says, "Good night, Shijima. And unless it's business, don't talk to me again."
PHONE: Phoning Go Shijima, Lilian Rook clicks off.

A sharp, plastic crack rebounded off the walls like a gunshot. Lilian's eyes slowly lowered to the stylus clenched in her hand. Snapped clean in half between her index finger and thumb. The upper portion rested limply in the crook of her hand, like a dead animal with a broken neck. The sight of her own white-knuckled grip disgusted her, and so she flicked the remains into the wastebasket past the length of the desk.

This kind of thing never used to happen. She didn't keep spares. Now the tablet laid out on the hardwood surface next to her desktop, vital for this level of multitasking, was halfway useless, leaving her no way of finishing the partially completed array she'd been rendering out in bursts of inspiration between bouts of typing. All she could do was save it and resolve to pick it up later. Briefly, Lilian's mind drifted to the lazy hypothetical. She imagined it was homework. What would happen if she tried to use this as an excuse for not having it ready on time. How it would go if she couldn't find Katrina, and had to beg her parents to replace it. How they would react if they found out she was destroying her electronics.

A clap of her hand to her cheek followed. Useless daydreaming. Clearly Shijima's insane rambling had gotten inside her head. And besides, it was his fault she'd broken it in the first place. That thought caused Lilian to finally remove her Paladins earpiece with a sigh, and gently set it down on the desk as well. Clearly one task too many, if she'd forgotten that much. Briefly, she thumbed her smart device, summoned up her trading app, and verified that in the last thirty seconds she'd already made enough to buy a thousand replacements, then waved the window away. It made her feel a little better. A helpful reminder of the present; that she wasn't a child anymore; that she could do whatever she wanted.

After a moment's restless contemplation, she picked up the earpiece again just to turn off her private communications line, whitelisting only Tamamo, Strawberry, and Xion's frequencies. People she could trust not to be distractions. Not to be compromised. People who wouldn't get in the way.

An exhausted sigh was the next thing to echo around her room, and come right back to her ears. All the sounds in here had a funny way of doing it. The size, the empty space, the figurative glass wall out to the balcony, even with the thick red drapes pulled over it. Lilian's thoughts briefly lingered on Strawberry. Where that girl lived. She could fit eight of those in here. For a moment, she pictured the lanky girl obliviously asleep in a bed across the room from hers, or maybe even simply the one she barely ever touched anyways. Maybe waking up from the loud sound, dumbly rubbing her eyes and asking her, in that hoarse-throated and bleary way, if everything was alright. It made her smile. And then, conscious that she was now smiling at thin air, she stopped. Too many old habits creeping back. Another one she'd learned to stop forever ago. It meant being rattled.

"Go to hell Shijima." Lilian muttered to herself. "Why did I even--" She paused to clutch the bridge of her nose instead. Deep breaths. Like she was taught. "No. It's not his fault. She's in his head. She's living in all of their heads. Just because they don't sound like it doesn't mean that they aren't compromised too. You can't trust them for now. It's atrocious, but it is what it is." She tail-ended her self-reassurance with a mental note to prepare something after. Organize her thoughts onto a page, on how she would explain to them that nobody with that kind of power could be their friend like that.

How impossible it is for someone who can one-sidedly make anything she wishes come true to see them as people and not playthings. Especially one who never learned. Never tried. Never struggled. Never even thought of it. It'd be difficult to make them understand that Persephone could only make it seem so easy because she never had any intention of trying to be fair to them; she was merely gratified by how easy it was to play with them instead. But she could do it. She always made them understand eventually. That's why she still . . .

Lilian's stare eventually roved back to the screen. On it, a half-finished after action report. One she intended to submit to the Paladins database tomorrow. On the screen, it read: 'The Messenger class ability (corresponding to her internally documented 'type red' manifestation) appears to be a passive 'de-escalation' field, dulling her opponents' sense of crisis, suppressing their hostility, and reducing their battle cognition to a near-useless playful stupor.' She frowned, and glanced to the earpiece again.

No, this was exactly why this room was better off empty. Why she needed this space alone. 'Immune' was the life she'd chosen. Ultimately, there was a limit to how closely she could surround herself with people who weren't 'safe'.

But seeing the words, Lilian was reminded of what she was going to write next. A dire warning of Persephone's favoured strategy. That was it. The malicious method of preying on people's traumas and insecurities. Prying open their minds, letting them bare their weaknesses to her, and then finally have them beg for her touch, simply by claiming she could fix them. Lilian debated for a few moments whether it should qualify as a Supplicant-type psychic ability, or whether it might simply be a natural extension of her ability to artificially instil trust --that Persephone might be aware of her sterile, laboratory-grade utopian upbringing, and consciously dangling that vague promise of paradise before people's eyes. She hadn't struck Lilian as all that smart at any time they'd met, but this was a basic, universal weakness of human nature. Even the girl's name was straight out of an ancient myth about trying to break the rules and wipe away tragedy from one's life.

Lilian decided it must be on purpose. After all, why would Persephone keep trying it on her, knowing she couldn't get into her mind, if it were a psychic power, rather than a learned social behaviour? The girl had figured out immediately that Lilian was immune to her primary weapon, but the fact that she still couldn't figure out she was immune to this strategy fell in line with her projections of her intelligence. It felt right. Sensible. Persephone was dumbly trying the method that always worked for her since manifesting her 'type orange' abilities, and had become agitated upon realizing that Lilian could see right through it; that she couldn't be opened up and exploited by simply cold reading, like even Shijima had tried to do in her place. That lined up just right.

Instead, she wrote: 'After three engagements with subject Kore, I remain the only Paladins Chevalier to encounter her multiple times and not believe she is ultimately well-meaning and harmless.'

' I strongly urge command to consider the implications of this fact.'

The soft sound of tapping keys was interrupted by a gentle knock at the door. Lilian recognized it by the tempo alone, and habitually replied "It's open." The door was not, in fact, unlocked, but it took her all of ten seconds to get up, unlock it manually, and return to her chair, and the person on the other side wouldn't know the difference when the latch turned. There came only the customary "Excuse me then." before it opened.

There was a woman, ostensibly in her late thirties, unmistakable for anything other than a maid by the dress she wore, with deep black hair she'd once gotten away with dyeing the slightest bit violet, and never stopped. The lady of the house had politely overlooked it at the time, for the suspicion that those hairs must be going grey; after all, the head maid was even older than Alison Rook, and had much less the benefit of magic.

"What is it, Cecilia? I'm a little busy." said Lilian, eyes still fixed in concentration on the screen.

"Begging your pardon then Miss Rook. I've been told to inform you that your father is being kept some ninety minutes late, and your mother will be home some two hours after her estimation. However, they will still be expecting your weekly progress report, once they are in the house together." said Cecilia.

"What's keeping Matthew?" asked Lilian.

"A Concordat meeting regarding the expiration of agreements on taxation rates of Multiversal import and export trade and the allocation of resources between the main rights-holders of the Eastern and Western Seaboard and Dublin Urban Centres, if I recall." replies Cecilia.

'Of course he would drag it out that long to argue about his utterly ancient ideas of British nationalism' thought Lilian to herself. "And what's keeping Alison?" she asked next.

"She plans to stay overtime at the HTO facility to write Miss Anna's--" Cecilia began, but Lilian interrupted. "Onyx Witch." Her firm tone did nothing to dissuade Cecilia from continuing. "--apologies, Miss Onyx Witch's full release and file a guardian sponsorship. I believe she is also doing something to celebrate her graduation from the program."

There was a pause. "Why do you ask, Miss Rook? You typically aren't interested."

"No particular reason." Lilian lied. She glanced sideways to get a look at Cecilia's face. The head maid's lips wouldn't even twitch at that, but she could read in her eyes that she knew she was lying too. They'd been together for twenty two years. It wasn't that easy. "Rather, I had only wondered if it might have saved me some time with the report." she added.

"You aren't finished?" Cecilia replied, slightly surprised. Her eyes roamed to the monitor, but from the door, she couldn't read the text. "Well, you do have two additional hours to prepare. Shall I help you get presentable?"

"You haven't needed to do that since I was twelve, Cecilia." said Lilian, and then immediately felt a little twinge, processing that note of hope in Cecilia's voice too late. But she pushed on anyways. "Back when you still used to call me Lilian, remember? It'll be faster if I get myself ready."

She reached across the desk and picked up her pocket mirror. Spot check. Hair and makeup, mainly; how much she'd have to do to keep them happy. Her fingers wandered to the white gold lily hairpin that Tamamo had given her, but drifted off. Matthew hated it, but she could leave it in until the last minute. Instead, they touched the bruise on the side of her face. It'd take a while to cover it up. And she'd never get away with showing it. "I was nearly finished anyways. I'll have plenty of time." Lilian finally added. When she glanced back at Cecilia, the head maid was openly frowning. She hardly ever did that.

"They really ought to have better care. The Paladins. It's a disgrace that you'd have to bear such a mark on a face like yours." Cecilia said, without prompting.

"Their facilities are fine." said Lilian, distractedly. "After they examined it, they said that it was 'inconsistent with any form of physical traumatic injury', and that they couldn't heal it off. It'll have to go away on its own." She expected that to be reassuring, but Cecilia looked only more intense.

"I'd like it if it went away soon. It reminds me too much of when . . ." Cecilia began, but didn't dare finish.

"It's just a bruise, Cecilia. Dwelling on the past like that isn't good for you. You'll get old." replied Lilian.

"Very well." sighed Cecilia. "Please be sure that you're ready, though. I suspect your father will be irritable after a long debate, but your mother still insists on the full hour length report time. I suggested that she might want to try cutting it down to a half hour summary, in light of how many she must have no doubt already over-absorbed from seeing to Miss Onyx Witch, but--"

That was the point at which Lilian stopped listening. She knew exactly how it would be. Matthew would be tired and angry and looking for an opportunity to go off about throwing his hard-earned fortune away to please the Extras, and Alison would be impatient and nosey and spend the entire time tapping away on her tablet PC to enter it in besides Onyx Witch, comparing her two subjects for the purposes of gathering data. She already felt dread and distaste knotting up her stomach. But she reassured herself as usual.

It was just an hour. Her grades are perfect, she'd broken no schedules, and she was being skipped ahead by that massive amount at Arx Zenith. Gerart was offering her a huge promotion; that should impress them. They didn't care much about the Paladins, but she could at least go over Sapient Heuristics in a way Alison would be quiet and try to absorb. That could fill time. All she had to do was just keep talking, play up the right parts, trim out anything that might be a landmine today, make as little eye contact as possible, and if they asked about work, lie. Then they'd dismiss her, go to bed, and she probably wouldn't see them for another week. She was a master at this. They couldn't read her. They wouldn't know what was going on. They wouldn't care to pry about it. She hadn't done anything wrong; there'd be nothing to complain about. Then she'd have an entire week to herself again. One hour. Just one.

She'd personally fought the Mother of Pain in New York last week. And after teaching Loki her magic for an entire year, she must have plenty of credit left over. Even if Strange's departure was still raw, that in of itself was much, much more difficult than this. Today would be easy. It was just an hour. Any other parents would kill to see reports like hers from their children. Anyone. Hell, Sapient Heuristics, that hellish little floating laboratory, with hundreds of parents hovering over thirty odd children, poking and prodding them for science; Carpathia was happy with crayon drawings. She hung them up on her office wall, near her doctorate. Even if Anna was special to Alison now, she'd eventually--

"Are you . . . quite alright, Miss rook?" Cecilia's voice interrupted Lilian's train of thought.

"What? I'm fine. Obviously. Why?" replied Lilian.

"My mistake then. I thought you looked rather ill for a moment. I hadn't realized your injury had . . . well, it looks as if the swelling has irritated your eye a bit." said Cecilia.

Lilian raised her hand to the purple mark on her cheekbone, and felt her fingertip come away wet. She wiped her eye on the back of her hand. "Aha, sorry. I do see how that would look. Don't worry about it." she replied. Cecilia went silent, chewing faintly on her lower lip, then asked "Is Lady Tamamo no Mae in?"

"She isn't." Lilian replied. Of course she wasn't. Otherwise she wouldn't be sitting in front of her computer writing something the miserable little ingrates dancing in the palm of Persephone's hand wouldn't even read. Or worse, would just argue about.

"I see." said Cecilia, as if she saw something else entirely. A tense silence followed, and then, affecting a softer tone, she added, "Will it interfere with your artwork? I saw that you began drawing again, after you returned from Kamar-Taj. Like you used to. It made me very happy to see, so it'd be--"

"Don't, Cecilia."

"I meant that if you need to patch up some time in your report, you could show--"

"Don't . . ."

"You could still let me see them again, just to be certain--"

"I said STOP!"

Lilian flinched immediately in regret. Cecilia didn't move at all, but that was her job. Instead, she only murmured.

"Lilian . . ."

The desk rattled as Lilian slammed her hands down on it. "It's fine! I'm fine! It's the same thing as usual! What are you getting so worked up about?! School is perfect! My career path is perfect! I'm skipping years! I'm about to reach the Crown Station! The Paladins respect me! I got sloppy once and got hit in the face, that's all! It was a bad guy! Those two have nothing to do with it! It was combat and I am an adult and this is what happens now and not what happened then!"

". . . My apologies, Miss Rook. I understand. I'll see myself out."

The door gently clicked shut.

Lilian remained hunched over her desk for a while longer, fingers trembling hard enough to cause her pens to rattle in their case, the old varnish only saved from her nails by deeply ingrained habit. Then a deep breath. Hold. Tense every muscle at once. Reset heart rate. Exhale. Sit down. Back at the keys. Like nothing happened.

The Paladins report disappeared. Lilian conjured a flurry of new windows, using the holographic emitter to fill her space with them completely. Left side. Old data. Specifications she already knows. Immunes procedure and equipment manuals. Her measurements of her own abilities, kept in an inscrutable private cipher. Right side. New data .She'd had all of her footage from the station deconstructed and professionally studied. It'd cost her half a million credits. She began writing.

-Schema: "Thou shalt never heed the words of that which abides not adversity nor attainment."
-Poor reaction time and situational awareness. Target shows no precognitive abilities or extrasensory perceptivity. Responds only to audible and visual stimuli. Preferred low cost opening and perfunctory attack option:
-Base velocity SRS-I99C 3258.5 m/s 42744J Lorentz P load.
-Personal average grouping 2.5cm 300m 3.5cm 500m.
-F=1/pu^2cA standard 1a retains hypersonic dynamics to 1150m est.
-Audible profile at 343m/s 20C av. catch up at 3-5 second window.
-Major organs non-viable targets; headshot required.
-Post psychokinetic barrier strategy; close for 9+ seconds then relocate.
-600m minimum relocate boundary unless flash suppressed or distracted.
-Time to cover 600m PB 4.2s § constant burn ~12 s round trip.
-SR-AP/HE loads, 4x4 'dead drop' magazine positioning.
-Psychometric ability requires conscious focus of acquired target. Inanimate objects do not register as non-visual targets (ctrl+f note ref. "Stars" "Ocean" "Hearts"). Sensory profile limitation preferred secondary susceptible:
-C8(NO2)8 compound det. vel. 10,100m/s viable at shock loss of 45kg solid.
-Ability influence on EM transceiver unknown. Remote det. signal will not § transfer.
-Shock insensitive=manual fuze. Utilize KENAZ-type rune array.
-Reaction time est. 320ms conscious, spinal reflex unknown.
-Presume shrapnel injuries irrelevant beyond lower half-cone.
-Leg and torso injuries irrelevant to target movement; repeat for regenerate tax.
-Large profile (>25m^2) of designate QiV; idealized vector for reducing ablative function.
-Minimum est. mass for optimal carpet repeat: 200kg
-Optimal substrate dense sand, stone, brittle metal (high shear value counteractive).
-Target possesses no ability to sense magical energy or distinguish type or pattern. Is magically illiterate. No enhanced visual acuity. High-impact options available in secondary misrepresentation-of-effect strike arrays.
-Reserve 3.5 days est. prep for 124% byload of sacred geometric charge tension.
-Min. five stage alternation, element pattern A-B-A-C-B prevent dispersal.
-Undirected damage-type rune air exposure necessary. See C8(NO2)8 else.
-Time for 12x4 multiplication of exalted stone substrate at fracture sample removal.
-Optimal usage when already caught in psychokinetic barrier (guard lower, aim upper).
-Time allowing: temporal projections of stress fracture patterns post C8(NO2)8 det.
-Replacements available in § factor ~19.8 sec pair.
-Adjoining runes on inside surfaces of three-way fractures; fire-catalyzed, KENAZ neutral.
-Target is a stupid fucking bitch who thinks she can turn everyone against me
-Target expresses professed familiarity with §-type dynamics but displays no conscious understanding of mechanical execution. Rank unfamiliarity with combat means θ-level §-type tactics will work with abnormally high returns.
-Reserve α-level §-type tactics for |