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    Lilian left Candy beaten, bruised, and broken-boned in Arrivals. Once Staren had recovered enough to coordinate the medevac originally called for herself and talked Candy into consenting to treatment over the radio, she had him taken to Heal Plz Hospital, arriving herself in person partway through the intake process and staying by his side until it's time for him to go to the OR or similar treatment area.

    Those arriving on Afterus find the Arrivals area still under repair, though basically usable. The workers on the cargo side of things seem pretty harried, having to handle the back-up from Doctor Rawbought stopping all shipments for awhile. Leaving the Temple of Public Transportation, visitors get what may be their first look at the city of Home: Where Human shops and apartment buildings are located a few doors down from the golden or obsidian buildings favored by carapacians, while the strange circular hive-style buildings occupy odd lots of property nearby. The exact materials used in construction are varied and sometimes bizarre, including buildings made of planets and trees coaxed into specific shapes, and buildings made of material so black that its various features are made distinct only by contrast of other pieces being darker than others. At a glance, the population is largely made up of humans, trolls, carapacians, and elves, with a significant minority of various reptilian humanoids and here and there natives to elsewhere in the Multiverse.

    Heal Plz, though actually much larger than a single building, still makes sure to have clear directions such that the process of 'asking to visit someone and being directed to their room' is straightforward, although it may involve more walking or use of a shuttle bus or the like than at a smaller facility.

    Since Candy's a human, he's been given a human room, the sort of recognizable thing you would expect from a turn-of-the-millenium hospital on Earth. Bed, TV, chairs for visitors, a window, you know the drill.

    Staren has made sure to get here first, so that she'd be here when Candy regains consciousness. She brought him flowers. She doesn't know what kind, she just flusteredly told a local florist, "For a friend, well maybe more than a friend, I don't know... anyway, he's in the hospital..." Also the shorts are thankfully gone again, though her choice of faded-sea-green long pants is still kind of questionable.

    After Candy has regained consciousness and doctors have come in and talked to him, the room is open to visitors.
Candy      "Aww! Flowers! That's so sweet.~" Candy smiles warmly at Staren, patting the end table by his bed as a nice spot to place them. "Lemme get the clicker and turn this down." Candy's taste in TV is pretty boomer-tier; he'd managed to find the outdoors network and was watching a show about a bumbling old man fishing in the Everglades. The volume is turned down to 'conversational' level.

     "I can laugh without it hurting now, you know," he begins, reaching for her hand to squeeze it gently. "What's the big idea with these assless hospital gowns, anyway? Not that I mind."

     He sets the remote down. More seriously, "So what's happening, ah? You okay?" There are still darkened spots on his skin from the assault, still bandages in some places, a cut on his lip, a darkened eye.
Staren     (While flipping through channels, Candy discovers that TV is about what would be expected but with that Afterus flavor to it. Political debates are much more interesting than on Earth, and political commentators that Candy channelflips past sound more like e-sports commentators in manner and apparent target audience.

    It's currently Horse Week on the Discovery channel, which is talking about famous instances of horses attacking football players in the middle of games; for some reason that makes Staren stare at the screen for a moment, if asked, she shakes her head and explains, "I feel like reality is hitting me with a weird running gag, I've seen a reference to this before..."

    The show Candy landed on is normal enough for Earth except that the main character and his family are all carapacians. Also everglades-ish area fauna somehow includes, besides conventional Earth fare, pokemon, yokai, hybrids of Earth animals, and other Multiversal oddities and it's played as completely normal, because it is.)

    Staren smiles as Candy says he can laugh, and laughs softly in return at Candy's comment about the gown, squeezing his hand in return. "You know it's so that it's easy to get on and off for the doctors. Some patients may not be able to move on their own..."

    As the topic of conversation grows more serious, she looks him over, clearly feeling some sympathy discomfort from seeing him in what must be a painful and uncomfortable state. "..." She takes a breath, lets it out. "Yeah, but... also not yeah. It's not that... it's not that what she did hurt so badly..." Staren looks away, "Although it *did* and I absolutely never want to experience that again..." she briefly tenses up at the memory, grip tightening around his hand and moving a little closer to him.

    "It's that... it's that..." she hesitates, words hard to get out for some reason. Her eyes meet Candy's again. "You... You know what she's doing, right? She's *using* me" Staren winces a bit "to hurt Phony, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it." Staren looks away. "I hate it..."
Rita Ma      Rita the perfectly ordinary girl knocks anxiously on the door, even though it's already a sliver open, and peeks through the crack to give Staren a little wave. Redundantly: "It's me! Can I come in?"

     Only when given the invitation, vampire-like, does she enter carrying a cute little lunchbox in both hands. It's a deep crimson with dark gray accents, strongly hinting that she got it from Liza.

     When she actually lays eyes on Candy, with his injuries and all, she stops cold. Averting her eyes, she stifles a little noise before it can escape her throat. "Um, I brought something for you, Mr. Candy." The lunchbox is set on a table within his arm's reach: it's got strips of pickled radish, something that's almost-but-not-quite a sushi roll, and a nice scoop of kimchi.

     I knew he was hurt. But seeing it in person is something different. Of course Dr. Rawbought had to be stopped, but if I'd gone back, or let Hibiki go...

     Staren gets a polite little nod of acknowledgement, even though she's clearly lost in her own thoughts. When she looks back at Candy, she's braced as if something might cause her to flinch at any moment. "How are you feeling now? Are you in any pain? I brought some medicine, just in case there's anything more I can give you..."
Hibiki Tachibana     After making sure her godDAMN mail was in one piece and made it back safely after all that mess, and letting everyone at home know she'd be out for a little bit, Hibiki has returned to Afterus. She didn't really get a good opportunity to see the surrounding city in general after last time, but she finds it to be sufficiently...well, weird. Kind of like a blend of a lot of other places she's seen but also not. Must be the mix-in of fantastical races.

    She's not here for that though. She's here to visit Heal Plz, which is a name she's savvy enough to squint at while nonetheless being a little surprised at just how big it is. As long as it's not difficult to find where she needs to go though, she doesn't care about any amount of walking. Honestly, the longer it takes to get there, the more time she has to get her thoughts together.

    Hibiki gives a couple knocks on the frame of the door before she actually opens up the door to step inside. She looks like any rest she got was pretty crappy, if the slight bags under her eyes are any indication, but she's not going to complain about that. Candy and Staren both had it way worse. "...Yo. Sorry I'm the only one who didn't bring anything. I couldn', think of anything good on short notice." She holds up both empty hands before letting them fall back loose at her sides. "You'll just have to make do with me."

    That is possibly her idea of a dry joke, but she's not particularly smiling at it. She is, however, doing so just a bit from relief when she gets a better look at Candy. "Looks like they patched you up really well though, Candy. The doctors here must be something else." Her expression falls back into something more tense as she looks between both him and Staren.

    "I just thought I' know. Also come and visit and..." She finds a seat to fall into heavily. "...If there's anything I can do..."
Candy      "Yeah," says Candy, nodding. He adjusts the controls for the bed so that he can sit in an upright position. "Fuck, this son of a bitch is slow! ...neat, though."

     "Now..." He reaches out and caresses her cheek, guiding her gaze back to him. His thumb strokes gingerly across it. "About 'not being able to do nothing.' Sometimes, you gotta give up a little ground, in order to come out ahead in the long run." Candy smiles weakly.

     "I'm still mad as hell," he admits. "Still gonna knock her ass over. You might not have liked her, but me... I thought we was friends. Or at least that we coulda been. I've seen and heard of her doing some pretty big-hearted shit, so..." He sighs, his hand dipping to squeeze her shoulder.

     "I dunno what this is--hey, Rita! Hey, Bikki! Come on in." He waves them both in with the other hand, a cheerful smile on his face. "...or what's gotten into her. But even if you and me can't do shit right now, we got friends who can."

     He accepts the lunchbox with eyes gleaming, opening it up. "Ey! Shit, look at that. Now Rita brings -me- food, ah? Wonders never cease. Hahaha." Candy grins impishly, and helps himself to some pickled radish.

     "They've got me on some good shit, don't you worry," he reassures her. And for Hibiki, "You brought yourself, Ms. Battering Ram! That's enough for me. You wanna know what you can do, you can pull up a chair and we can talk, now I'm not so pissed off I can't think straight!"

     He grins... then glances towards Rita. "I did wanna ask you--the other day you sounded like you was gonna give a serious answer. When I asked how come Limey's gotta make shit so hard." Chew, chew, swallow. "Any chance I get that answer now?"
Rita Ma      Rita's eyebrows briefly lift in response to something Hibiki said, but she soon coughs lightly and nods. "No, it's okay, Hibiki! I promise. I'm sorry I brought something, I didn't want to make that expected!" Her hands are folded low, fingers fretting and fidgeting. It's a silly thing to worry about, but she's in the mood to look for ways to worry.

     I'm just glad I thought to use cooked meat in the kimbap. It wouldn't have survived the trip over, otherwise...

     "I'm sorry for taking so long with Dr. Rawbought, too," she says softly to Hibiki, leaning in towards the magical girl for a moment. "I keep thinking things could have gone different. ... But it wasn't your fault at all."

     Candy's question makes her stop dead still for a second. When she moves finally, it's to rub at her arm uncomfortably and turn her face down to the floor. "Yeah. I think I can give you that answer, Mr. Candy. Just... give me a second to think about how to say it, okay?"
Staren     Staren jumps slightly at the contact, looking back at Candy with... a lot of emotions all swimming around in her head. She nods slightly. "That's why I'm not gonna try to hide it from Phony... I just wish I could blunt the impact somehow at least... do *something* to not just... be a pawn in Lilian's plan..." She looks concerned for him as he says they were friends. That must have really hurt... "Phony said she's someone who 'chooses good for no reason', too..."

    Visitors arrive! Staren's ears turn first, then her face, and she sits up straighter and smiles. "Heeey! Rita, Hibiki..." She nods vaguely at the comment about the doctors being good. "I think... it means a lot, to realize that you care this much.

    She nods at Candy. "Talking... would be good." His question to Rita has Staren looking curiously at the Perfectly Ordinary Girl.
Hibiki Tachibana     "That makes one of us," Hibiki says back towards Candy, and she's only half joking about that one. Right after, she's blinking at Rita and bringing both hands up a bit to wave in a hasty 'don't worry about it' manner. "I-It's okay. I was just thinking about all the stuff I got from other people before..."

    And then she's pursing her lips at what comes right after that, glancing away and a bit down towards the floor. It actually takes her a second to find what to say, her own voice kept low. "It's not...your fault either. You don't have anything to apologize just..." She trails off into mumbling even as Rita is answering back to Candy.

    She doesn't blame Rita for any of it. She doesn't. She did the right thing. Even if she went back, she's almost sure there's nothing she could have done to help. Even so, she still feels...

    "...Yeah. Talking'd be nice," Hibiki finally replies back towards the room at large, with a half-smile towards Staren at her words of kindness. That does make her feel a tiny bit better. She also looks very attentive for Rita's answer, but to help give her some time to get her way to phrase it in order...

    "...I'm really sorry, Staren. I never thought she'd try and do something like that." And then, as if suddenly remembering something, her eyes turn off to the side again. "...Or maybe I didn't want to think she would."
Rita Ma      Rita shuts her eyes and exhales softly, steadying herself. Candy's looking at her, and now Staren's looking at her, and probably Hibiki too. She needs to pretend for a moment that there's nobody else in the universe, that she can't feel those expectant eyes drilling into her.

     Anxieties flurry through her mind, flowing quick and circular like snow in a snowglobe: What if they think I'm just as bad as Lilian? What if they think I'm taking her side? What if I remind them on accident that I'm not a good person? What if they think I'm just as-

     She pulls the plug on those worries by opening her mouth to speak: "She's..." That first word seals her fate. For better or worse, whatever fears she still has, she can't be silent now. Her eyes open.

     "... got something wrong with her, deep down. Almost like I do. Something in her heart that wants to do bad things. She said so after that day on the train, when she saw me trying real hard to not... do things. And I think she's always been that way."

     "She said she has rules and lines to follow, to make it easier to be good even without a good heart. And for a little while I think that was true. But I heard her voice now, I looked in her eyes, and I know whatever rules she had she's not keeping them anymore. Whatever bad thing there is in her heart, she's not putting the brakes on it."

     Rita's voice has gotten quieter and quieter throughout her explanation, and her hands tighter and tighter, until her fingernails started digging into her palms. A few seconds after finishing, the tension in her starts to abate with a little shiver; a similar resigned, bit-the-bullet-already uncomforting relief.

     "I don't know what made that happen. Even though I feel like I should. There's no pulling her out of it unless she wants to come back, and I don't even know if she does."
Candy      Candy nods. "Sure, Rita. Take your time." Staren's flustered reaction is enough to make him giggle. "It's okay," he says, taking her hand in both of his, a brief repast from pickled radishes to do so. "Phony has a really, really strong heart. She has to. You gotta, if you're that strong and wanting to help people--because the people that *don't* want you helping other people, for whatever reason, they start going after you there when they realize they can't outfight you."

     "Trust in her! I might wanna knock Limey's brains back into working right, but I at least trust Phony to know how to handle it her way."

     There's a sympathetic frown pointed Hibiki's way. *Yeah. I didn't wanna think she would, neither. Talking about how patient she was being, while she walked all over me and Star just to try and hurt Phony. Asshole.*

     "Xion mentioned the rules, too," he says in response to Rita, chewing his lip. He releases Staren's hand and finishes off the pickled radishes. "So what it sounds like to me is a couple of things. She maybe feels like people are changing the rules on her and she's done with it--and the whole reason she had them rules in the first place... we gotta get to the bottom of why if we want her to want that."
Staren     "You don't have anything to be sorry for." Staren answers Hibiki. "I always... kinda f... part of me always kind of feared she would do something like that, but obviously if I really thought she would, I wouldn't have gone into the field with her without precautions." Staren looks distant for a moment. What kind of precautions can you possibly take against Lilian? Actually, she can just say that out loud: "What kind of precautions can you possibly take against Lilian?"

    Rita speaks. 'Almost like I do'? What? Staren concentrates, bringing up the Ocean of Stars in her mind without having to close her eyes, and focuses on Rita at a surface level. Oh.

    Staren listens with interest.

    "But... why would you care about trying to be good... unless you already care about being good...? Even if you don't know how..." Staren's had her own moral-philosophical struggles, eventually determining that a certain kind of mind could never be good... and then literally being broken in two when she realized she'd always had that kind of mind herself. She hasn't really tried to formalize 'good' since...

    Staren nods sadly at Rita's final analysis. "'You can't argue morality into something that doesn't have it'..." She nods at Candy, when he lets go of her hand she goes over to Rita to give the poor imouto a hug.

    Candy brings up the idea of delving into Lilian's past. "I don't know if Phony's psychometry would work on Lilian, but I don't see how I can safely try it, even if it does. Maybe she already tried it, though..."
Hibiki Tachibana     "...Yeah. Even after what happened between her and me, I didn't think she'd go that far. In front of everyone, out of nowhere, right there." Even with Staren's reassurance, Hibiki can't help but still feel a knot in her chest. It doesn't unravel as she takes in a deep breath and lets it out to listen to Rita. She listens in complete silence, aside from a dry swallow halfway through. She's not too surprised and it shows, but more contemplative.

    Because she knows Rita well enough to pick up on some of the other girl's own worries in the way she says that. And because her words make way for others she's heard before all coming together in her head, one after another.

'She's...not a good person. But she tries to be, most of the time.'
    'There's something really wrong with Lilian. Deep, deep down.'
        'Something in her heart that wants to do bad things.'

    Hibiki's hands clutch hard onto the bottom of her jacket. "Not like a sense in her heart, but like a promise she made a long time ago..." She says that in the vein of someone repeating something she heard before. After a moment, the magical girl lifts her head up to speak normally, if somewhat tensely.

    "...I think Candy is--right. I don't know what made her stop bothering to try holding back the darkness in her heart, but if we can learn why she even did in the first place...maybe we can get one step closer to doing something about it. She was right...about a couple things she told me, but especially one thing. I really hardly understand her."

    She sounds a bit guilty at that for some reason, before her grip tenses up tight again. "She's seriously an asshole," she says in a more level if clearly angry tone, agreeing with what Candy had said. "I hate the way she does everything. The way she hurt me, you, a bunch of people I care about, the way she makes me feel, and a million other things. I already had enough reason to want to lay into her, and I want to do it even more now." Then, some of the tension is gone, making way for some conflict in her expression.

    "...But I still...want to try to pull her out of it. I know there's people she cares about, and people who care about her. can't be a lost cause." She takes a second steadying inhale-exhale at the mention of psychometry. "I don't think there's going to be 'safely' anything when it comes to figuring her out. Getting answers out of her at this point..."

    She trails off, glancing down at her fist.
Rita Ma      Rita's eyes follow Hibiki's down to the magical girl's fist. Her arms cross anxiously over her abdomen; her gaze flinches away.

     "I don't know," Rita says softly, though nobody really expected her to. "I don't know why she tried to be good in the first place." Even I always *wanted* to be good, however bad my heart has gotten. "I don't know if fighting her will fix anything, either. Maybe it'd push her further down what she's doing."

     She slips between Staren and Hibiki to land in one of the visitor chairs, landing with legs crossed and hands folded tightly in her lap. Her gaze drifts to the window.

     "I thought I understood her better. But I guess a lot of details were missing all along. I'm sorry, for not... finding out more when I had the chance."
Candy      "Phony's brain stuff is what it is," says Candy. "But we don't need that to find out about Lilian. All we gotta do is find where she stays and hit the place when she's not there. Safe as houses, like them yankees like to say. Well..."

     "Safe except for whatever bullshit she's got there that makes -her- feel safe. But that is where I come in, ah? Me, I am real used to going after people who think they are safe."

     "I want to understand her," he says wistfully to Hibiki. "Real bad. And I don't want her to have to fight so hard to do the right thing. That's not fair." His expression hardens as he look away, and other, less charitable thoughts dance through his mind.

*But I also wanna give her a red ass. The fuck do you think you're talking about, Limey, when you talk about 'my place?' You're gonna get real familiar with 'my place.' And not in the fun way neither.*

     The last thought, at least, makes him chuckle. "We're gonna have that chance. I'll make sure of it, Rita."
Staren     Staren listens to Hibiki now (and maybe accidentally picks up some surface thoughts.) She nods at the idea of trying to pull Lilian out of it and not seeing a safe way to. however bad my heart has gotten. Staren gives Rita a squeeze in the hug before letting go so Rita can sit.

    As brain stuff is mentioned, Staren chimes in, "I can't read her mind, so Phony probably can't either. It's like there's a... rip in psychic space, a crack or a tear, instead of the little stars everyone else shows up as." Blink. "Wait, why does Persephone call *her* 'little star', then? Is it an ironic nickname?"

    Staren turns back to Candy, seriously alarmed at his suggestion! "We can't do that! She'll come up with something even *worse* to do to us! Hit our families! Our friends! Our pets! Who knows what awful things I'm not even *thinking* of that she can come up with?!"

    Talk of understanding makes her hang her head. "...I want that too. Understanding people is what I wanted all my life..." She hugs herself. "So badly... and Ph-Persephone finally gave it to me... But if even she can't understand Lilian..."
Hibiki Tachibana     "I dunno if it will either," Hibiki replies to Rita with something of a grimace. "...I just don't know any other way to do things. I hate that it's like that, but if I never ended up fighting her..." She'd never have gotten to vent her own emotions at Lilian, or heard all the words flung back at her. She'd have never gotten to feel the raw anger behind each blow thrown at her face. And she'd never have an idea of just how deep that darkness really goes.

    Maybe she's taking after Chase and Xion more than she thinks.

    ...Or maybe she's making excuses for herself to fight her again.

    That question hangs in her mind even after she speaks back up again. "...You don't have to apologize for that, Rita. He's right. We'll get there, someway or another." Her eyes close, briefly, and she pipes up towards Candy. "It's not fair at all. I've sort of been there, you know? 'Why is everything so much easier for some people than others?' 'Why do they get to be happy when I'm not?' ...Stuff like that." She says that lowly, as if it was hard to say out loud. "But that doesn't give her an excuse for all the crap she does."

    After another heavy breath taken in, she lifts her head up at Staren raising her voice. Her argument to Candy's solution--actually gets some pause out of her, getting her to swallow again and look away. You almost don't even need to be able to read her surface thoughts to know it's because Lilian knows where she lives and she's scared.

    "Going to where she really think there might be answers if we go there?" It's a genuine question.
Candy      "That's not a game she wants to play with us, Star," Candy says with... uncharacteristically unsettling certainty. "People who talk about being 'above' other people have a lot more to lose than they think they do."

     "Besides. We're not -gonna- get found out," he says, the coldness melting away. "Rita's real good at staying hidden. And I can show you bumblefoots what to do so you're good at it, too," he says to Bikki and Staren.

     "There's gonna be /something/ there, I know it. It don't gotta be as literal as finding her diary, ah? But a person's habits say a lot about them."
Staren     'Why is everything so much easier for some people than others?' 'Why do they get to be happy when I'm not?' Staren's ears splay and she hangs her head at that. "Even a real magical girl feels that way, huh...? Does it... does it just *seem* easier for other people? The grass is always greener?"

    Hibiki is worried about her home. "Maybe... maybe Tsubasa could go on a vacation far away? I guess she can't with a concert to keep, huh... I could make you immortal? I don't think Lilian's figured out how to permakill me..."

    She looks at Candy, tilting her head. "You know I'm an awful liar. If Lilian even *suspects*... All she has to do is ask the right questions and watch my reactions." The catgirl looks down at the floor, gripping her upper arm with her hand. "Maybe it's better if I don't go... Except, now you've told me you *plan* to... I really need to find someone who can erase memories, huh... Or at least temporarily remove them..."
Hibiki Tachibana     "Probably," Hibiki responds slowly and a little carefully to Staren, on the subject of grass being greener. "Being a 'magical girl' doesn't have anything to do with it. If it did, me...or anyone like Strawberry...wouldn't have nearly as many problems as we do. We're still just people. There was even a long time I thought this power was a curse more than anything else." She gives a little scoff, and makes a somewhat dry remark to herself softly. "...It'd be nice if things were as simple in one of those shows, though."

    Followed by her shaking her head. "...Thanks, Staren. But I'll be alright. I won't die that easily even if it does come down to a fight, but I'm not the one I'm worried about. And if she ever did try something to anyone else where I live..." Her fists clench. On top of the natural worry, there's something dark of her own behind her voice, low and quiet. Something raw and buried deep down. Something destructive.

    "...She wouldn't get away with it."

    Then she shakes her head, and it's gone. "...If Candy says she won't know...I'll trust in him again. Or at least I'll hear out the plan. If you already know, Staren, you're not gonna get anywhere staying out now. But for what it's worth, I don't think she'll go after you again so soon...she did what she wanted to do," she adds on a bit bitterly.

    And then, like a delayed reaction, she squints at Candy. "...Who are you callin' a bumblefoot?"
Staren     Staren listens curiously to Hibiki's explanation that being meguka can in fact be suffering. "...I'd like to hear more sometime, if you don't mind. Maybe... maybe it'd help me understand others' struggles, that I can't see."

    Game recognizes game. The Dark part of Staren's mind stirs, and pushes for Staren to provide advice. Staren tilts her head, looking at Hibiki distantly, like someone looking at an alien unaware of its social customs and body language. Staren's words are cold, tinged with sadness: "Just like she wouldn't get away with using me to hurt Persephone? Nothing you do to her after the fact will undo anything she does to Tsubasa. You have to take precautions. Preventative action. Don't make the mistake I did countless times, assuming it will always work out alright as long as heroes are involved."

    She shakes her head, and it's gone. "Sorry, but..." Staren looks away. "Nnh... it's true. We thought Lilian wouldn't... do what she did. You can't trust her. I already let my parents know it's time to find some adventure to go on."
Hibiki Tachibana     "...Yeah. Maybe." Hibiki's tone is pretty noncommital to Staren's request, but with the underlying vibe that she'd probably be okay with it. It's what comes after that that gets her to stop, tense up all the muscles in her body, and find her hands clenching into tight fists again.

    It's a very visceral reaction. She doesn't say anything right away, with her expression having become something more like a pained wince. Because she knows she can't argue with anything coming 'after the fact' fixing anything that happened. There's a single moment where she looks like she's going to work herself up into some kind of emotional lashback.

    But it doesn't come, in favor of her just collapsing back in her seat and digging her fingers through her hair with a hard exhale. The kind that comes with some heavy mental exhaustion. "...I know that," she mutters. "Don't even pretend you know how much time I spend worrying about everything." That comes out harsher than she means it, but she doesn't hold herself back from saying it either. Then, she shakes her head, pulling her palm a bit further down over her forehead.

    "...I'm sorry, too. Don't worry about it. I'm just sick of letting her hurt other people." There's a vague-ish gesture in the direction of Candy's bed with her free hand. "...I'm not gonna let it happen again."
Staren     Don't even pretend you know how much time I spend worrying about everything.

    "Shit, you too?!" Staren sounds genuinely surprised, and then gives the sort of sad chuckle of someone noticing how ridiculously fucked up something is, not because it's funny but just... how do you even respond??

    She steps forward to attempt a comforting hug. "You have to stop. I don't know how, and maybe right now isn't the time, but after Lilian is dealt with, you have to stop. Doing that all the time... did you hear the other me on the radio? Did you see what it was turning me into? I-if not, maybe I should take you to the mountain..."

    "But you know, confronting myself and accepting that part of me was only part of the healing process. I've been able to rest... to be happy... to not *worry* all the time... Because I can trust the Concord. And there are people to protect me, even if... they can't always do so..."

    She hugs tighter, words becoming a ramble as her eyes get wet. "It hurt so much. I was stretching myself so much to be that person. M-maybe I could have done it until I died, but I was miserable. I hate it. No one... no one should have to live like that... There has to be something we can do for you... I can't stand the thought of someone... nice and caring... having to live like that..."
Hibiki Tachibana     "...Eh? S-Staren?" Hibiki drops her forehead grabbing to look at the catgirl clearly, blinking a couple times as she's pulled into the hug. At first it's because she's just not sure how to react at all, but even after the initial surprise fades, she doesn't actually try to pull off. She just...listens.

    Somewhere along the line, when Staren starts tearing up, she purses her lips together and returns the gesture by resting her hands on her sides. "H-Hey, you don't have to get's fine, seriously, it's not that bad...what are you getting all worked up over me for...?" At this point, she's not sure if she's the one being comforted or if it's the other way around, slowly shifting one hand further back to lightly pat at Staren's back.

    "Look, I'm...I'm not miserable. I'm not." It's the truth...but only mostly. Whenever she's living her day-to-day with the people she cares about, she's as happy as can be. The happiest she's ever been. That's what keeps her level. "I know...I know I can trust all my friends. That's a lesson I learned the hard way. I wouldn't even be here without them. Or a lot of you guys! I'm...I'm okay, okay?"

    ...But she still can't help worrying, so much of the time. About the people she cares about getting hurt. About being unable to protect the 'normal' everyday existence she has. About being too weak to do that, and the worst coming to pass. Just like the situation they're in now. She's /already/ learned about trust and relying on others, and how to start letting herself be happy. In a way, she has it a bit backwards.

    Hibiki isn't worried about turning into or becoming anything. She's already happy. She's already healed.

    It's the scars. She's worried about losing that happiness. About going /back/ to the person she was before she found any of that, the one that rears her head in all of her angry outbursts. That's the fear she can never fully shake. And maybe part of the reason she cares so much about Rita...and Lilian. She relates to them both.

    A bad person trying to be good.
    And a good person who doesn't want to be bad.

    How much of that Staren might pick up depends on how much she really wants to sift through the utter mess of emotions that's currently roiling through her head. Which makes it a little weird how tensely neutral she's able to keep her face when she slowly pulls away from Staren enough to look her in the eyes.

    "...It's fine. It's totally fine. Okay? So stop cryin' before I start doing it too. Seriously, I did enough of that in my own hospital room, thanks."
Staren     Oh. Oh. Hibiki didn't try to take on the duty to save the Multiverse. She has a different worry than Staren. Not one that Staren's *never* considered, but one that's so terrible Staren's mind flinches away from it whenever she gets close. Staren stares unfocused at the wall, wide-eyed, then at Hibiki when the other girl releases the hug, looking into those eyes.

    She sniffles and wipes her nose and eyes on her coat sleeve.

    Dead. The people she's closest to in the Dreamers, dead. Even though it was fake, believing it was so... world-shaking, she became determined to conquer death. But no matter what she did, she couldn't protect everyone. People were still lost...

    Her eyes start to water again. "I don't know what to do... I don't know how to answer that... I-it can't be... to only make friends with people like Candy and Phony... th-that are strong... that isn't..." she sobs. What is happening?! This was supposed to be... helping her and Candy heal, and Staren's mucked it up somehow. "I don'know..." She chokes back another sob and looks at her hands.

    What is happening?! She never allowed herself to really *feel* these kinds of things around other people before. When she had to be strong, never show vulnerability. The habit has finally eroded after months of being around people she can trust, but...

    Tears have welled up in her eyes again. Oh no, she'll make Hibiki cry too, that's not fair to Hibiki! "I'm sorry!" She steps back, shaking her head. She turns away, hiding her face and muttering to herself. "I don't know how to fix it... how do I fix it...????"
Hibiki Tachibana     "H-Hey..." Just when she thinks Staren might be calming down a bit, the tears start threatening to flow again. She wasn't kidding about being on the verge of it herself if she let it slip, but when this is happening right in front of her--she can't do that. She just can't.

    Though she doesn't really know what to do, either. She can't even say she understands all the pain that Staren is carrying herself, even if a lot of it sure being let out all at once right now. She's not...good with this. She's the one who needs an emotional pillar, not the one qualified to be one for anyone else. Even so, when the other girl pulls away, she forces another swallow, closes her eyes briefly...and then stands up out of her seat.

    She steps around Staren, takes one of the hands she's staring at with both of her own, and tightly grips it while holding it up a bit. "Hey. Look at me." Her voice is level again, and she's working to keep her expression steady too. Once again, she's trying to get Staren to look her in the eyes.

    "...It's okay to not know what to do. Whatever the answer is, you're a hell of a lot smarter than me, so you'll find it before I do. But you wanna know something? ...Making friends is worth a lot more than you think. Doesn't matter if they're strong in the way you're thinking or not."

    She glances off to the side, despite being the one trying to force an eye-to-eye. It's a double-edged sword. The more people you care about, the more chances you have to be hurt, the more you have to worry about. That's how she used to think. By not having or needing anyone like that, she'd never be vulnerable either. After breathing in deep, she looks to Staren again.

    "Don't worry about fixing anything right now, okay? ...If you really wanna cry, just cry. I'll be fine." She actually has no idea how to do this for someone else in a situation like this. But if Miku were here, or maybe Strawberry...

    Closing her eyes, Hibiki adjusts her hands to try and be the one to initiate a hug this time. And just kind of guide Staren's head towards her shoulder. They're about the same height so it won't be hard to do.

    "...Sorry. I dunno what else to do either. But it'll be fine. Totally fine," she murmurs, repeating the same words from before.
Staren     Staren looks up at Hibiki when asked, and takes a slow breath. She'll find it? I'm smart but how often do I really find good answers to real problems? I'll never find it... She tries to keep breathing calmly.

    She hugs Hibiki back and sniffles a little. ...But Phony or Candy will. She sniffles a bit and nods, trying to speak a few times before finally saying, "Thanks."
Hibiki Tachibana     "Good." Hibiki lets that sit for a moment before letting out a breath she didn't know she was holding it. It's mostly relief, and also a way for her to keep herself steady. That was a lot of emotion all at once, on both fronts. "...Good."

She pulls back when Staren is fine, rubbing a bit awkwardly at the back of her neck. "I think enough 'sorries' have gone around all of today and before, more of that. 'Thanks' sure sounds a lot better. I should say it too."
Staren     Staren nods, sniffles. Pulls a kleenex from her bag to blow her nose. "Thanks. Oh wait, I already said it... ha..." She smiles, laughing nervously, then goes to sit in one of the chairs by Candy. "So... how are you liking Afterus TV? What's this show about? Did that guy catch the biggest fish in the swamp yet?"