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Staren                                  EARLIER TODAY                                  
    "Hey, uh, Persephone? What's kind of place is good to deliver bad news in, according to Sapient Heuristics guidelines?"
    "Someplace nice, with chocolate and stress relief, but where you never have to visit again, so the bad memories don't taint a good place."

    A few minutes later, Staren sends coordinates. "I guess it will do. ...First thing's first: I'm okay. Physically, I mean. So is Candy... Um, right, let me give you a chance to get on the move, I just... I want to tell you in words before your powers find out. To blunt the impact. Let me know when you're a couple of minutes out."

    Once Persephone responds, Staren contiunues: "Lilian... hurt me. She wanted to hurt you through me, I guess. Candy tried to stop her so she hurt him too. I'm sorry I couldn't do more, but... hiding it wasn't an option. Marc said it's best to just rip off the bandaid."

                                  Chicago, IL                                  

    This is the city of modern Chicago only with a twist: magic exists and an old friend's ex is the only thing standing in the way of what goes bump in the night and Chicago's unassuming citizens.

    Toss in demons, sorcerers, angry cops, paladins, werewolves, and a mob boss trying to muscle in on every piece of action he can get, and you end up with with a lot of noses being tweaked the wrong way. And in the middle of it all, one man who advertises himself as a "Wizard" in the phone book, trying to keep the whole kettle from blowing over.

    But none of that matters right now. Staren has, in fact, absolutely no reason to come here, and that is the entire point: Per Persephone's own advice, if it becomes associated with a bad memory, it shouldn't become a problem.

    It's winter in Chicago. It's cold, but not freezing. Staren has picked some random cafe that isn't too crowded on a Friday afternoon, and has some (currently empty except for Staren) outdoor tables. Staren's wearing her Assassin cloak and a long, sea-green scarf with some logo and the letters GU on it, over the imitation bomber jacket she wore to the mountain climb, a matching below-the-knee skirt, faux fur-lined boots, and black knitted mittens with a detachable finger cover.

    At the table are two fresh cups of hot chocolate and a box of pizza from a chain. (The pizza turns out to be crap, but at least it's hot food on a cold day.) One of the slices of pizza is out of the box and being nibbled on by a black rabbit.

    No, wait... upon closer examination, it has the face of a cat, and a tiny red gem embedded in its forehead. Also, it's intelligent, in that smarter-than-animal-but-not-as-smart-as-human magical beast way. It... she? Gender isn't really a part of its experience--it hasn't seen another of its kind since before New Washington's destruction--is mostly preoccupied with the smells and sounds of this new place. It's a little concerned that Staren is feeling kind of down, but there has already been much nuzzling and cuddling and right now there is FOOD.

    And then there is PERSEPHONE. She's a smell that's been on Staren before, so once she sits down or talks, the cabbit looks at her, greets with a curious "Myaa?" and hops over to sniff at her--like getting a clear, close-up look at something seen only from a distance briefly. All people it's met are nice and friendly so this one probably is too, especially since Staren's body language is that of meeting a familiar friend--and rub against her, mewing and myaa-ing because that makes people pay it more attention and pet it. According to Staren's mind, her (Staren calls pets him/her/them, not it) name is Rabi ("Robbie") and she's here as stress relief.
Staren     When Persephone comes in range, Staren is mostly worrying about how this will hurt Persephone -- regardless of how invincible she says she is, how can this NOT hurt? -- with some thoughts mixed in about will this hurt more because she saw good in Lilian and now so many people (Candy and Hibiki flash through Staren's mind) are ready to kick Lilian's ass, although they also want to pull Lilian back from whatever this is; Staren thinks that's the better outcome too of course but isn't personally attached to Lilian.

    Staren's actual feelings about the situation are... well, the torture sucked, of course. Being in intense pain, suffocating, lost, and cold, with no sense of time, not knowing if she would ever see her friends and family again or know comfort or kind words or human touch once more or if she would die like this, worn down until all she can think about is wanting this to stop (and to live again, at least with the Archetype dominating her thoughts death is just not an option) -- she never wants to feel like that again!

    But that's over now. As is the discomfort of Lilian talking about Staren's good times with Persephone. Although now the memory of that moment, as with the torture, is there forever. But no, what really eats at her is not only has Lilian *used* her, to hurt a friend (whether Persephone is hurt or not, the intent is there,) and she can't do anything about it except stay away from Persephone forever, which would hurt both of them and also play into Lilian's hands.

    It's kind of *worse* than if Lilian tricked her into being a willing pawn. Whether she's willing or not *doesn't matter* to the outcome. To reality. And it's worse than failing to stop an enemy due to being powerless; Even if reduced to an obstacle, at least a speed bump gave a speed bump's all and didn't help. (Somehow, it's different than being thrown bodily as a weapon, she can't articulate it.)

    Who Staren is, and her friendship with Persephone, was reduced to a tool in Lilian's eyes, and Lilian proved that there was at least some objective truth to that view. She feels violated and dirty. It sucks. Time, and hanging out with Candy, and silly radio conversations, have taken her mind off it but now Staren has to face it again.

    Psychometrically, this body has been in a healing tank between then and now.

    Staren has a mental plan of how this encounter is going to go: Persephone shows up, concerned but ever-positive, even if this DOES hurt her she doesn't let it show and insists she can't be hurt. Perhaps negative emotion flickers on her face too briefly for Staren to actually notice. Rabi is introduced at some point. After the memories and psychometry are felt, Staren tells her she's already done some work on healing emotionally, and pulls out from her bag the pair of pants she wore while visiting Candy in the hospital so Phony can see good memories of talking, comforting eachother, and bonding watching Afterus TV (mostly some show about an old Carapacian who just wants to enjoy retirement fishing and doesn't understand today's world and his more hip-and-with-it children, but the jokes don't all land since neither Staren nor Candy is familiar with Dersian culture or Afterus memes and cultural movements.)

    When Persephone actually comes into view, Staren looks at her, happy to see her: Persephone! But the thought stops just short of her mouth as she realizes Persephone senses the thought anyway. And then she realizes that Persephone has ALSO sensed her entire mental outline of how this encounter is going to go, leaving her flustered, thoughts jumbled. What does she say now? What does she *think* now? What a dummy she is, not taking that into account...
Persephone Kore      "I want to tell you in words before your powers find out. To blunt the impact. Let me know when you're a couple of minutes out."

     Those words rattle around in Persephone's skull with every step she takes down Chicago's streets. Her usual outfit lacks its keyhole cutout today- maybe that's symbolic, maybe it's practical for the weather. Her aura brings smiles to the faces of passersby, gets drivers to ease off the gas and the horn a little, and prompts pigeons into sweet crooning. But Phony isn't smiling.

     How could I smile about this? Ugh, I can't stand it at all. On the station I've never had to deal with anyone hiding anything! I wish she'd just tell me!! ... But if she's tying herself in knots like this, it really must be bad. And that makes it even sadder she's worried about me first.

     You'll be in range soon, she types back while flagging down a taxi. (Of course one stops for her.) Be there in thirty.

     Oh. Right. The aura's bigger than a space station. Of course its edge would hit Staren a long time before Persephone did.

     "Lilian... hurt me. She wanted to hurt you through me, I guess. Candy tried to stop her so she hurt him too. I'm sorry I couldn't do more, but... hiding it wasn't an option. Marc said it's best to just rip off the bandaid."

     Phony's hand balls up into a fist, digging nails into her palm even through her arm-warmer. A breath catches in her throat. She can't pull her eyes away from her phone.

     My fault. Staren's hurt and it's my fault. No, it's Lilian's. No, it's both. How could she do this? Was it because of what happened on the station?! Some kind of bullshit power play but she won't open up to me and I can't beat it out of her and I don't know how to fix this-

     Somewhere in there is a wish of "I don't want to see that message", and her phone's screen starts to crack before she catches herself. Then all the tension leaves her body with a slow, resigned sigh. Her eyes shift to look out the window. "Sorry," she says to the cab driver, but he hadn't even noticed.
Persephone Kore      Persephone Kore stands on the sidewalk outside the cafe, half an hour of jumbled feelings later, and wipes her face with the back of her arm-warmer. From here, Staren can already feel a blizzard of her feelings: guilt, frustration, concern. Anxiety and anger aren't among them, but a good few close cousins are. One more breath to steel herself, and then she opens the doors.

     She ignores the pizza, the cocoa, and even the rabbit for now. Once she's inside, she heads straight for Staren, grabs her hand gently but firmly, pulls Staren up to her feet, and engulfs her in a tight, wordless hug. A lot of heartbeats, and not a lot of breaths, pass in that embrace.

     "I'm so sorry I let you get hurt," is the first thing she says out loud. She rocks slowly from side to side, oblivious to anyone else in the cafe staring. "I'm so sorry I got you hurt. I don't want that to ever, ever happen."

     A little pause. Then, as she finally relaxes the hug to look down into Staren's face with her own slightly-teary eyes: "And I'm sorry you felt like you needed to protect me from it. At a time like this, you should only have to worry about yourself. That burden shouldn't be yours to carry." Her hand lays itself, tenderly, on Staren's cheek.
Staren     Half an hour?! Staren was expecting a few minutes. She... hadn't really thought about just how far away she can see the 'stars'. She gets concerned and texts for an ETA, and acknowledges it. Oh wow, Persephone's range is *long*. Staren wonders if it reaches all the way across the lake...

    Eventually, Persephone is there... and she is, clearly, hurt. At least, having to feel bad feelings. Staren is concerned.

    And then she's hugged. Persephone's aura dulls her worries, even if it can't push them away. (By their feet, Rabi *would* keep meowing for attention, but the aura calms her too, and she just rubs ankles affectionately and sits nearby)

    Staren's needed this since it happened. When she was lying/sitting on that random floating island with her legs broken, part of her wished Persephone were there, making it all better.

    Persephone is soothing and caring. It's so nice... how much she needed this while operating as the Dark half her life has sort of hit her again with Lilian forcing her mental defenses back into survival mode. "You..." It's not your fault. You didn't let it happen, you can't be everywhere and everywhen. If you were... the thought becomes wordless at that point, imagining another broken Decompression Chamber, and Phony as a caring but disembodied and mentally-distant force, and being sad that Persephone-the-person/friend is gone.

    Oh no, seeing Persephone *sad* makes her feel sad too. It just does, she's not conscious of blaming herself or empathy or anything and she's too emotionally tired to pick it apart, so she just is. "I can't... do that to you." She chokes out. "I like you... too much..." There is a wordless sense that it would be wrong, to only take and take from Phony. That's not friendship or love, it's taking advantage. Phony is strong, but to not even consider her would be wrong. Although perhaps Staren's concept of 'what Persephone can withstand without emotional harm' needs to be recalibrated. Then again... Persephone seems hurt right now, doesn't that mean Staren was right to be concerned?
Persephone Kore      A complex series of feelings and concepts play in the back of Persephone's mind. The awareness that "you can never hurt me" is *almost* true, but also a polite fiction; a way of saying "worrying about me is simply not allowed". The real and sincere desire to be able to hold the world in her hands, to absorb and soothe everyone's pain, to nurture and comfort everyone who could ever need it- and the dull toothache-like awareness of how far she still is from being that.

     Ahaha, and this is exactly why. Look, I'm making you sad too, because I wasn't invulnerable enough. I don't ever want to make you sad, Staren. ... I'll be okay. I promise. Please don't be sad.

     Effortlessly, Phony picks Staren up by the waist, sits down at the table, and places her friend firmly in her lap. Her chin rests nestled against Staren's shoulder; her arms are crossed over the smaller girl's waist. A gossamer-soft telekinetic force picks Rabi up too, setting her down on the table and stroking her head.

     "You make me feel so happy just by existing as yourself," Persephone murmurs. "And even if it hurts to see you so sad, it makes me happy to help you feel better. So being guilty is really, utterly not allowed!"

     I know you needed this. I needed it too, I think. I just wish I'd been able to help you sooner, Staren... Phony squeezes her tight, then reaches around Staren to pick up her own mug of hot cocoa and take a little sip. A little exhalation escapes her, then she shuts her eyes and concentrates for just a moment.

     This is how humans fight, isn't it Kore? To communicate. To grow. Don't bother with the others; I know how you bent their minds and poisoned them against me. I'm done with all of them. It's just us. And I'm not scared of you. So how's this for 'punishment'?
Persephone Kore      Why are you like this, Lilian? ... No, I already asked that. And I have as good of an answer as I'm going to get.

     "I read her story before, you know," Persephone says gently. "Haha, I'm *almost* offended you didn't think I could. I read the Paladins reports she wrote about me, too, when I4 came to visit me."

     A little pause- for silence, for closeness, for contemplation. It is nice to just relax together like this, even if it's in the middle of all kinds of scary things.

     "She hates feeling powerless. She's scared to not be the one in control. It's eating her up, how to get one over on me. She hurt you to prove that she could hurt me, but she hurt Candy just to feel bigger than someone else; just to reassure herself that she's in charge. ... I don't know how to fix that. Even if I fight her again, even if I win, it'd just make her more scared, and more angry, and more violent. But she won't open up to let me help, either... so I don't know how to stop this from happening again."
Staren     They both don't want the other to be hurt! Kind of an impasse in this situation... perhaps the stress of that is also Lilian's plan... Although it seems incidental...

    Being picked up like that is associated with a memory of being a small child, maybe 5, and starting to drift off during a cozy holiday at home, and then-catboy-mom picking her up and carrying her to bed. This is similarly calming and cozy. Maybe it's that she's finally able to relax from a tenseness she wasn't conscious that she was holding all week.

    Rabi is confused, trying to see/hear/smell the mysterious force petting her, but eventually decides that being petted is more important than understanding how.

    You make me feel so happy just by existing as yourself

    Some part of Staren knows that's unfair. Some people treat her this way now and she's not doing anything to deserve it... she gets this just for *existing*? Other people exist and don't get this, including her past self. She remembers what that's like. On the other hand, this is so nice, and after spending nearly half her life so stressed, she sorely needs the break. She can just accept this kindness, today.

    Staren wishes Phony had been able to help sooner, too, though that thought isn't in words.

    "Hmm?" Staren's thoughts clarify: She assumed Persephone couldn't read Lilian until Candy pointed out the psychometry, or was it Marc? Either way, then she suspected Persephone *might* have read her story, but hasn't thought about it since the hospital visit.

    I4 came to visit? That brings up how happy Staren is for I4 finally getting to be himself and discover who he is outside of being Indus's tool. It's so wonderful Persephone could do that for him!

    Staren reaches into her bag and retrieves the pants so Persephone can 'read' about the visit if she needs a happier thought (although, crying with Hibiki is in there too.)

    I would have felt the same way if I'd heard about you before I met you.
    I felt the same way when I heard about you. You were terrifying. I thought you'd erase me.

    Split memories of that first night after the mountain hit at the same time. I had to hit rock bottom. To be reduced to defenselessness, to have no chance to worry, and I met you before I knew what you could do, and when I learned I was too tired and weary to care. Perhaps you need to get her defenses down similarly... and to let her feel your aura, somehow.

    But if I knew then what you could do, I'd have been terrified. Worried you would change my mind, corrupt my goals, suborn my agency to your own. I would fight tooth and nail with everything I have to stop it. Lilian will do the same. And even if you get her completely at your mercy. and show her mercy, she is not me. She might react differently.
Persephone Kore      It is a little selfish of me, isn't it? To value your wishes over anyone else's, just because I like you better. But I'm not strong enough to love everyone just yet. Until then, it's okay if I at least love you, isn't it?

     Phony's hands fall from her mug of cocoa to rest around Staren's waist again. A long, slow sigh escapes her, but she's feeling a little better; it doesn't catch in her chest or hitch in her throat.

     "But it was different with you," she finally says. "If we hadn't met at your low point, it's true, we might not have become so close... but I wasn't the reason you were helpless. If I'd put you in that situation in the first place just to offer you 'mercy', you'd hate me, wouldn't you? And I think you'd be right to."

     There's another short pause. Absentmindedly, Phony does something a little strange: she picks up Staren's mug of cocoa, and brings it to the other girl's lips, expecting her to take a sip. It's as if she's momentarily forgotten that Staren can help herself.

     "... I don't want to do that to Lilian. I don't know if it would help. And even if I *did* want to, and it *would* help, I don't know for sure if I could. Marc told you already, didn't he, that she has the same kind of power as mine? Until now, we've just been play-fighting with each other."

     "If I really wanted to, I could make her stop existing. And if she really wanted to, I think she could make me stop existing. And we know who's closer to being able to make that awful wish."

     Phony glances out the window, looking at the passersby. Their vivid, pretty, precious inner worlds distract her for a moment. I wish she could see what I do when she looks at them. "... So there has to be a way to fix her that doesn't take breaking her first."
Staren     To value your wishes over anyone else's
    it's okay if I at least love you, isn't it?

    A rush of feelings. Staren is valued this much by someone, and loved? How does... how can she feel about that?! Candy said he decided to love me, too. There is a bit of internal struggle. Staren wants to reciprocate but her honesty makes her feel that she must be very careful about throwing the L-word around and be absolutely sure, and with everything going on is she even sure what love feels like for her? There is similar sentiment there. She can't not worry about Phony...

    You'd hate me, wouldn't you?

    It's hard for Staren to imagine. That part doesn't want to, either. Together she settles on: I guess...

    Staren sips the cocoa. It's odd, but she's not thinking about that or reading into it right now.

    The thought of Phony being erased is alarming! Terrible! Staren's facing the wrong way to hug but she sure is thinking huggy thoughts at Persephone really hard! Also alarm/sadness/don't let that happen / we can't let that happen.

    As Phony muses, Staren gets a moment to catch up on the whole thing. Maybe someone else could break her, she's sure pissed off a lot of people. I don't know how to fix her. But if her powers are like yours, I wonder if sharing or inducing the right powers could allow people to resist her better and buy time...?"