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Joker rouses herself from the couch and lets out a loud yawn. 

"You don't know the half of it. Julie and I have been maintaining the place and wouldn't you know what we found..."

She looks over at Julie. "Bedrooms first, or show her now?"

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Julie hums, then nods. "Show her first, I think."

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Joker nods. She gets up and gestures to the teak door. "After you," she says. "Don't touch anything, though."

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Akira gets up and goes over to the teak door. 

It opens smoothly to her hand, revealing a narrow flight of stairs that descend into the earth. 

She looks back at Julie just once, then descends.

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At the bottom is large room with a bare cement floor, dimly lit by bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling. At the center of the room sits an enormous pool of slowly-churning black tar. Easily twenty feet across or more, and of indeterminate depth, the pool seems to have drained a ways from its peak levels, with a foot or so of cement basin revealed, though globs of tar seem to be congealing on the sides above the "waterline". Sitting on the rim of the pool, in little obsidian receptacles with channels open to the pool, are a number of small objects: cups of coffee, plates of curry, and in one case a large bento box decorated with an image of a familiar tree. Around the outside of that is a ring of rusted, twisted, spiked iron. The very air in this place feels toxic and oppressive, as though life is not meant to come down here. 

As the girls walk down, one of the questing tendrils of the pool reaches up into an obsidian receptacle and starts corroding a cup of coffee, eating away at it gradually, and then receding.

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Julie follows close behind Joker and Akira, and wraps an arm around each when they reach the bottom.

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Akira looks at the pool. 

She knows what this is, deep in her gut. It's — everything. All the hurts that have been piling up for so long. Her family. The system. The students at school. Kobayakawa and his "perverted horseplay." Everyone who doesn't understand her. Everything that sucks. 

She can feel it seethe. There's an oily weight in the air that threatens to choke her. To touch it would be beyond foolish. 

"... You didn't ask for this, did you?" 

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"It came on its own," Joker confirms. "All I can say is told you so."

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"It has its uses, chérie. I believe we can make things from it, from the globs that get left behind when it drains. Look at your dagger, mes chéries. What is it made of?"

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Joker nods. "This. A part of it, anyway."

She comes over to the side of the pool and looks down at the globs of tar that have collected on its edges. 

"I can sense the potential in these leftover pieces. They're... Pains that have resolved, that are over now, that we can make something good of. The level's receded a lot since yesterday."

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Akira approaches as well, cautious step by step. 

"I can sense it too. But it's not simple. It's still toxic, even if it's not... alive anymore."

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"Peut-être... we should name the pains. There is a power in names, beloveds, and we can use that to reclaim the leftovers of the hurts you've worked so hard to resolve."

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Akira nods, and sits by the edge of the pool, outside the circle of barbed iron. She can feel its hostility redouble, being approached so closely like this. 

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Joker sits down next to her, and takes her hand. 

"You have to say it," she says. "It's your hurt to resolve."

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Akira nods, and squeezes Joker's hand. She offers her free hand to Julie.

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Julie smiles encouragingly and squeezes Akira's hand. 

"You can do this, moitié. We're with you."

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"... things that have improved, recently..." 

Akira squeezes both her moitiés' hands, and breathes. 

"... Kamoshida, first and foremost. He confessed. He'll be going to jail. He certainly won't be harming anyone else, with the number we did on him. I still... wish I could have fixed it sooner... but watching him grovel was honestly really satisfying. It felt right. He deserves to feel like that for everything he's done."

She exhales. "Atop that... there's explaining you to the friend group, Joker. I was worried they wouldn't accept you. It's still a little awkward, which hurts a bit, but... It's still better than I imagined. They're good to me."

She squeezes Julie and Joker's hands. "And last... there's asking Ryuji out, and everyone deciding to date everyone... And that feels... It feels like a huge release. I didn't realize how worried I was that I'd be rejected, but instead I get to have all of them, and that — that's amazing. That's the best outcome. And I'm so happy to get to try it."

Akira takes another deep breath of the oily air. It seems to have receded a little, become slightly less oppressive. 

"I think that's everything. It's a lot and yet not so much, you know?"

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Joker nods. "You've done well. I think the safest one to work with would be the dating one. Asking Ryuji out, the group all deciding to date. It's the one you've most resolved."

She gestures to the pool with her free hand. "Take another look."

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Akira leans over and looks into the pool.

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A group of tar globs have solidified into smooth, egg-shaped geodes of slightly-sparkly black stone in varying sizes. The biggest is perhaps a bit smaller than a melon, and they no longer exude a toxic aura.

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Reaching in there would be foolish. 

"Julie, could you conjure some nice sturdy tongs for me?"

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Julie looks thoughtful for a moment, then clasps her hands together. A flicker of cursefire blossoms between them, and then she spreads them apart, a pair of tongs of blue-black metal appearing between them.

"Aha. Merveilleux."

She flips the tongs over in her hand, grabbing them by the tip, and offers the handle to Akira with a smile.

"Will this suffice, chérie?"

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"Yes, thank you."

Akira takes the tongs and looks into the pool. She holds Joker's hand firmly. 

"Be ready to pull me back if it grabs me. I don't know how alive this stuff is."

She leans over the pool, and lowers the tongs to grab the smallest of the geodes and pull it from the pool's side.

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The tar slowly oozes toward her, but doesn't get close enough to reach before she's grabbed the geode and leaned back. It gradually recedes over the next minute or two.

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Yeah, it definitely wants to get her. She's lucky it's slow. 

She examines the geode, making sure there's no more goo on it. 

"Beautiful," she says. "For all that it's solidified hurt."

Her instincts say touching it is safe...

"I'm going to grab it." 

She rests the geode in her other hand and gently releases the tongs, dropping the stone into her palm. 

It's comfortably cool. She can feel vitality in it, a strength that wants to be unleashed. Slow waves of red light wash through the scattered crystals on its outside as she holds it, in time with her heartbeat.

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