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[09:25] <Sachiko> There was no talking as they exited the Metaverse after the Evokers' disastrous introduction to Point Pleasant. Sachiko tended to lag behind the group at the best of times, so maybe it took a while for somebody to look back and see that she'd disappeared.-
[09:26] <Sachiko> All calls were declined, all texts ignored. She didn't show up at the dorm.-
[09:26] <Sachiko> She walked for a while. When this became untenable, she sat and considered both her options and her bank balance. Ten minutes of dithering later, she dialled Mari's number and asked for a no-questions, no-blabbing favour.
[11:39] <Minaplo> Before long, Sachiko would be let into a no-questions, no-blabbing hotel and given the key to a no-noise, no-disturbances hotel room. Two single beds, a television, chocolate on the pillow, room service, and a paid-for minibar, stocked with soft drinks, chips, crackers, and a small matcha pudding in a wrapper.
[11:39] <Minaplo> Not too long after that- perhaps an hour or more- Sachiko would hear a short rap at the door.
[11:59] <Sachiko> There was a longish pause, with faint sounds of shuffling on the other side of the door. Eventually it opened just a crack and Sachiko craned her head around the gap to observe the interloper, her hair loose and messy. "The sign says Do Not Disturb-"
[12:16] <Minaplo> Mari Kurata stood in the doorway. She was wearing a light blue blouse with cherry blossom tree patterns across them, and a white miniskirt that brushed halfway down her thighs.
[12:16] <Minaplo> She reached in and flicked Sachiko gently between the eyes. "That sign can't stop me because I can't read!"
[12:35] <Sachiko> Sachiko flinched back from the flick, and the door opened wider. She was bundled up in a hotel dressing gown, and cozy as it looked it revealed patches of scar tissue on her legs and arm that her outfits normally kept hidden.-
[12:36] <Sachiko> When she straightened up Mari got a good look at her, she looked… tired would be too small a word. She looked hollowed out, too exhausted to erect any of the defenses she normally wrapped herself in. "Mari-… How are you here?"
[12:40] <Minaplo> Mari took the opening to spring inside the apartment. She lightly kicked the door closed as she went by. "You know how the last time I was here, I was, what was it, forging a mighty dynasty? Well sometimes you have to go on dates when forging a lineage to withstand the test of time. So I was just in the area." She made herself at home, getting herself a glass of water. She grabbed the room service menu and flopped onto one of the beds. She had a little travel bag under an arm, which she tossed onto the ground.
[12:40] <Minaplo> "What a mess of a date, too. The food sucked and the guy was just a liiiittle too skinshippy for my tastes." Mari reached a hand up her blouse, unhooked her bra and threw it over her shoulder.
[03:44] <Sachiko> "I'd like to use sarcasm when I say 'make yourself at home', but you paid for it," Sachiko muttered. The bed she'd been sitting on still had her imprint on an otherwise undisturbed set of bedsheets, and she slumped back into it.-
[03:44] <Sachiko> There was a small pyramid of wrappers in the centre of her bed: The ones from each of the two pillow chocalates and a number of clear wrappers. She added another of the latter to the pile and popped the hard candy it'd been protecting into her mouth. "So who was he?"
[04:05] <Minaplo> "Oh, you wanna hear the whole story?" Mari kicked off her heels and pulled her legs up onto the bed, folding neatly beneath herself. She grabbed a pillow and put it in her lap so she had somewhere soft to rest her pillows.
[04:05] <Minaplo> "There's this company that operates out of Nagoya that mummy and daddy have been hoping to cozy up to for awhile." Said Mari. "They do a lot of dealing in the rare earth markets, especially in China. If we could get a good deal with them, that'd make it cheaper for us to build solar panels. Been doing that for, you know, a few weeks. And Katashiba's always popular for that kind of thing because of how multicultural it is."
[04:05] <Minaplo> "So one day, one of the bosses, a Mr. Fujimura, introduces me to one of his Chinese counterparts, a Mr. Zhang. And Mr. Zhang is this old dude, like in his sixties. He works hard but he's kind of boring. He says he has a son, and that he'd love for me to meet him." Said Mari. "And, you know, maybe he and I could hit it off. I say sure, and voila, tonight. I'm expecting… Well, a certain kind of guy. Young hotshot Chinese kid with more money than common sense who has bought whatever he's wanted since he was four years old. A real Emperor Syndrome kinda guy mixed in with new money."
[04:13] <Sachiko> "You must've been so excited about your catch."
[04:27] <Minaplo> "I mean, there are worse guys to date." Mari sighed.
[04:27] <Minaplo> "This guy was… Much older than I expected. Like, mid forties, hair thin, looked… Fluffy. He was spoiled. Way, way spoiled. Very sweet but he came across like dating a mascot from a children's edutainment anime. He took a childish delight in everything and acted like he'd only just learned what a pretty girl was. I don't even feel like he was horny. I just think he was very very curious to learn more about Girl."
[05:27] <Sachiko> "Wow, that sucks," she said with a wince. "So no second date?"
[05:32] <Minaplo> "Nnnnnope." Said Mari. "So in a way, you saved me some hassle. I was able to make a clean getaway because of you."
[05:32] <Minaplo> "You want something to eat? The food service says they can bring in some karaage, some okonomiyaki… We could even get a pudding for dessert."
[05:48] <Sachiko> "Yeah, ok. Honestly I was planning to have a minibar dinner, but now you're here and I'm obliged to eat like a human," she said, rubbing her face. "Lemme see the menu."
[05:56] <Minaplo> Mari handed Sachiko the menu. The fare was fairly standard Japanese street food with a big of homely delights, like curry or yakisoba. Near the bottom of the list they had more 'exotic' fare, like an inspired seafood take on pizza in the Japanese style.
[05:56] <Minaplo> "Let's order more food than we can eat."
[06:43] <Sachiko> "… yeah, ok."-
[06:43] <Sachiko> She was read in silence for a while. "I'll pay you back for this."
[06:54] <Minaplo> "You wanna do so right now?"
[06:56] <Sachiko> "Against my better judgement."
[07:00] <Minaplo> "Tell me what happened."
[07:08] <Sachiko> Sachiko sighed, more resigned than surprised. "Really gets around the 'no questions' thing, doesn't it?"
[07:09] <Minaplo> "It wasn't a question." Said Mari. She leaned forward a little on her arms.
[07:09] <Minaplo> "You don't need to give me the bone-marrow details, Sacchan. But I need to know that you're alright, what you want to do next, and who I should kill."
[09:29] <Sachiko> Sachiko had dropped the menu by that point. The barrette she always wore - painted lacquer black and disrupted by complex threads of gold - was on the bedside table beside her face-down phone; She picked it up and began turning it over in her hands.-
[09:30] <Sachiko> "I just-" Those missing defences Mari had noticed when she'd arrived made it pretty easy to track what was going on in Sachiko's head: She wanted to tell the truth, but had no idea how to. "I can try, but… Mari, this can't make it back to mum and dad, ok? None of this. They already want me home after what showed up in the news."
[11:22] <Minaplo> "I heard. I told 'em that if they're gonna pull you out just for being kinda adjacent to a scandal, then you're never gonna be able to handle the kind of roles that our family would benefit from." Said Mari. Her eyes fell on the barrette.
[11:22] <Minaplo> For a moment, Mari's own iron mask fell away. She looked for a moment like she was dreaming, a dream that had ended too suddenly. A reminder that the dream had been real, and would never happen again.
[11:22] <Minaplo> For a moment, Mari wiped at her eyes with a makeup pad, cleaning away the eyeshadow there.
[11:22] <Minaplo> "Kiddo. I know you're mature enough to look after yourself. But I also know that everyone has blind spots and that they can fuck themselves up. I'll do my best to keep this from mum and dad, but if it's something I seriously think might be endangering your life…"
[11:22] <Minaplo> Mari sighed and tossed the pad in the bin. "For now, though, this'll stay with me. I promise."
[10:52] <Sachiko> Sachiko kept her eyes down while Mari spoke, but once she'd finished she took a deep breath and nodded. "Ok. That'll have to do."-
[10:53] <Sachiko> "Most everything they said about Asaka in the reports was true, I guess that's where to start," she said carefully. "He particularly hated women and foreigners, and he got off on hurting students that fit that bill."-
[10:53] <Sachiko> "So fourth period of day one he comes into class mad and takes it out on me and some other girls. Makes us stand up in front of the class so he can draw attention to skirts being too short in one case and too long in another, or the colour of our bras. I was the only one who even did anything that supposedly warranted a detention."
[11:05] <Minaplo> "Too long? That's old fashioned." Said Mari. "There were girls who were busted for long skirts back in my day, but they were all, like… Sukeban."
[11:05] <Minaplo> "So what'd you do? I'm gonna guess you fought back somehow."
[11:43] <Sachiko> "Yeah. If he'd just let me wear what I needed to, the rest of it might not have happened," she said. It took her a second to realize she was crying, and she looked momentarily furious as she wiped the tears away.-
[11:43] <Sachiko> "A-anyway, I pushed back but gently at first. He dug in his heels. Another of the girls started crying, and he was going on about the surgeries that I'd need to've had to make pants acceptable…"-
[11:43] <Sachiko> "I lost my temper. I wanted to take the authority he was using as a cudgel and beat him to death with it," she said icily. "So I gave him the option of giving me a lower infraction, or cancelling his class to drag me down to admin for appeal. Lose-lose."
[11:51] <Minaplo> Mari's expression was serious as Sachiko began to cry, but she didn't move.
[11:51] <Minaplo> "And he took you up on that."
[12:47] <Sachiko> "Yeah. I didn't really care at that point," she said.-
[12:48] <Sachiko> "Asaka's been doing this sort of thing for years, but my run-in along with a few similar ones over that first week had people wanting something done. So the council president - Choi - had decided to put out an open call for anyone who'd been affected to come and give an account, and he asked if I'd help take them."-
[12:49] <Sachiko> "And… I felt like that was my responsibility, and I thought I could help push that project in a healthier direction, so I said yes. So I've spent weeks wading through people's trauma, thinking that when we were done the world would be a little better."-
[12:49] <Sachiko> "Now he's gone and everything's somehow worse. The school's a mess, and some of the people I was trying to help have joined in with it." She stared down at the hair clip. "Maybe this has all been a waste of time, you know? Maybe mum and dad are right, and I should just go home before I get hurt."
[01:01] <Minaplo> "So you put in a lot of effort with a lot of emotional cost and you can't see the payoff?"
[01:50] <Sachiko> "Basically."
[06:45] <Minaplo> "I see what you mean." Said Mari.
[06:45] <Minaplo> "But you had to be hoping he'd go." Said Mari. "What was your preconception of what that'd look like?"
[12:51] <Sachiko> "Of course I wanted him gone. The problem isn't that things didn't go how I wanted them to, not exactly."-
[12:51] <Sachiko> "All that got me through the last year was thinking that when I was done, my life would finally be my own." Sachiko spoke slowly, trying to discover the sensation and describe it at the same time. "Fighting Asaka was a choice I made, and one I don't regret."-
[12:51] <Sachiko> "Everything that came after, though… I just felt like it was my responsibility, and I couldn't back away from it. And now I'm hitched to something big, and the things I 'need' to do are getting messier and messier and I still can't stop. There's no choice in that."
[12:52] <Sachiko> "I think the world's hungry for responsibility like fire's hungry for fuel, and I don't want to burn again."
[12:56] <Minaplo> "I… Think I see what you mean." Said Mari. "You acted in the first place because you felt responsible. And now the price has… Inflated, I guess, way beyond what you were expecting. And now it feels like everything's out of control and you aren't sure when it'll stop and what you'll have paid by the time that happens."
[12:56] <Minaplo> "I don't know the exacts here, Sacchan, but I know the… Feelings you're putting out, if that makes sense." Said Mari.
[12:56] <Minaplo> "And it sucks when you tie yourself to a responsibility and then you realise you can't control it despite the fact that you really should."
[01:01] <Sachiko> "Yeah." She sounded exhausted. "I don't know what to do about that, but yeah."
[01:03] <Minaplo> Mari was silent for almost a minute.
[01:03] <Minaplo> "I… Can't really give you any answers." She said. "I can give you ideas. And…"
[01:03] <Minaplo> Mari patted the spot on the bed next to her own. She didn't really make a big fuss of it.
[01:14] <Sachiko> Sachiko only hesitated for a heartbeat. When that had passed she came to sit with her sister and, with uncommon tenderness, laid her head on Mari's shoulder.
[09:58] <Minaplo> Mari wrapped her arm around Sachiko's shoulder. Up close, Sachiko caught the scent of peach blossom perfume on Mari's wrists.
[09:58] <Minaplo> "I'm proud of you for taking this on." She said. "But we both know that when responsibilities get too big, it's probably because you're taking on someone else's share. Your independent streak is a wonderful trait, it's honestly something I'm a little envious of, but don't let others have a free ride. Make 'em help you."
[11:34] <Sachiko> "But everyone else sucks and is terrible at their jobs," Sachiko muttered. It sounded like she might've meant it as a joke, but it was a close call.
[11:38] <Minaplo> "Whyzat?"
[12:34] <Sachiko> She sighed. "They're not, I guess."-
[12:36] <Sachiko> "I just… feel older sometimes, and not in the sense that everyone around me's a dumbass kid. Pain fucks with the way you perceive threats - your body's always on high alert, nothing is calm or safe. I can't treat stuff like it's a joke."
[01:12] <Minaplo> "So if people react less intensely than you do, or with the wrong kind of intensity, it triggers your threat alarms."
[01:12] <Sachiko> "Mhmm."
[02:32] <Minaplo> "And I guess between all this responsibility you're carrying and the feeling that the others are falling short… It's all becoming kinda much, huh?"
[02:37] <Sachiko> "Pretty much. I needed some space to work out what to do, and whether I needed to cut my losses."
[02:39] <Minaplo> Mari pulled Sachiko just a tiny bit closer, and rested her head against Sachiko's own.
[02:39] <Minaplo> "Then I can be a sounding board."
[03:05] <Sachiko> "I'm not sure if you can. I'm already worried I'm saying too much…"
[03:05] <Minaplo> "Meaning… What?"
[03:10] <Sachiko> "Most of it's sensitive. Or personal."
[03:15] <Minaplo> "Ah. I'm not… Involved enough."
[04:09] <Sachiko> "Yeah," she said quietly. "Sorry."
[04:13] <Minaplo> "It's okay, I get it. Our lives are like venn diagrams, right? I can only really cover the parts where we overlap." Said Mari.
[04:13] <Minaplo> "I'm not gonna tell you to stay, or go home. Going home will have its own challenges and I think you'll find them pretty… Overwhelming. But the best thing you can do is try and talk to as many people who touch your circle as you can. I'm hoping one of them overlaps enough in the sensitive parts, but not in the dumbass parts, if you get me."
[05:08] <Sachiko> "I think dad would be mad if they knew they were advising me to find people people to touch my circle."
[05:31] <Minaplo> Mari started for a moment; she stared down at Sachiko, her eyes wide.
[05:31] <Minaplo> Then they closed as Sachiko's big sister shook with laughter.
[05:31] <Minaplo> "You trash panda." Breathed Mari. "You absolute disaster. What a stupid joke. No one even calls it a circle! Idiot."
[06:01] <Sachiko> Sachiko had folded over double, shaking with helpless laughter.-
[06:01] <Sachiko> "I-I don't even know what I wanted that to be," she eventually managed.
[06:08] <Minaplo> "It sounds like an ecchi written by a six year old. 'N-No, not my circle! It feels so woozy-toozy, diddly-doo!'"
[06:10] <Sachiko> "I hate it so much, why did my brain do this?"
[06:11] <Minaplo> "Brain thirsty." Said Mari; she nodded sagely, like a science teacher patiently informing her charges about the mitochrondria being the powerhouse of the cell. "In periods of high stress, we want to woozy-toozy diddly-doo. It's just natural."
[06:23] <Sachiko> "God," she wiped the tears out of her eyes with the heel of her hand. "What a day."
[06:23] <Minaplo> "'Pull up a rock and make yourself comfortable.'" Said Mari in a broad Louisianan accent.
[06:26] <Sachiko> "Wait, what is this. What are we doing?"
[06:31] <Minaplo> Mari began laughing again, her ribs quailing with the force of her laughs.
[06:31] <Minaplo> "When… I was a kid…" She coughed, ran out of breath and tried to suck in some precious air. "I had a dinosaur phase. Someone, I think Aunt Jihyun, bought me a little toy triceratops. But when you squeezed its belly, it'd say in this accent…"
[06:31] <Minaplo> "'Whoa daddy, what a day! Pull up a rock and make yourself comfortable!'"
[06:37] <Sachiko> Sachiko seemed to be working really hard to process this. "Wait- … why would-… was it a triceratops bartender?"
[06:38] <Minaplo> "Wait, what? Do you associate Louisianan accents with bartending?"
[06:41] <Sachiko> "Isn't that like old-timey bartender talk? Like in cowboy movies or something?" Sachiko had seen, at most, two cowboy movies. "I'm just trying to make sense of it!"
[06:48] <Minaplo> Mari frowned. "That sounds like bullshit, but… Unless…?"
[06:50] <Sachiko> "Unless!"
[06:53] <Minaplo> Mari's eyes fell on a list of cable channels offered by the hotel television.
[06:53] <Minaplo> Quite visible, in bold Wild West font, was the name Cowboy Times: The Western Movies Channel.
[07:22] <Sachiko> Sachiko followed the look. "What, you're gonna fact-check me?"
[07:29] <Minaplo> "I mean… Room service'll be here soon, and I did pay extra for cable. We could stay in, do some, uh, research."
[07:33] <Sachiko> "…" She bobbed her head, mulling this over. "Yeah, why not? That sounds kinda fun."
[07:33] <Sachiko> "… wait, will room service be here soon? Did we order? I'll be honest, everything before the circle thing is kind of a blur."
[07:37] <Minaplo> "'Yes, father, it seems she was drunk when she woozy-toozy diddly-dooed.'"
[07:38] <Sachiko> Sachiko covered her face with her hands to hide another fit of laughter.
[07:42] <Minaplo> Mari leaned in and whispered in Sachiko's ear, "'Father, he tinkily-winkilied her circle with his rectangle.'"
[07:50] <Sachiko> Sachiko reached across to her bed and threw the menu at Mari. "Order our food, you awful harpy!"
[07:51] <Minaplo> "Gyah!" Mari fell backwards onto the bed. "You trash panda!"
[07:51] <Minaplo> She grasped around, grabbed her pillow and whapped Sachiko across the face with it. "Take this, Cowgirl Jill!"
[08:01] <Sachiko> This continued for some time. Eventually the food arrived, and they found a ridiculous western already in progress. They spent as much time sniping at each other as watching the movie. It was terrible, they were terrible, but for a while the world was a bit brighter.

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