A hill caressed by the pale moonlight. Two silhouettes half covered by the shadow of the crooked tree, half illuminated by the stars. Not a soul in sight far around them. The low chirping of crickets and cicadas in the night was creating a crescendo of unease. The black haired girl who was desperately clutching her fists. Her opposite standing there rigid with an irregular heartbeat.
Their eyes were interlocked into a contest of forceful gazes.
Neptune: "You aren't going to stab me repeatedly with a knife now, are you?"
And the brooding atmosphere shattered in an instant as K-sha tilted her head in confusion.
Neptune: "You know… saying something about losing everything, giving me the demon eyes and then swing slash splurt! My neck is one nep shorter. Yandere 101!"
She illustrated the motions with her hands to mimic a deranged serial killer. K-sha stared at her as if she was a pink unicorn.
K-sha: "I don't want to hurt you Miss Neptune."
She stretched the 'd', despite physical impossibilities.
Neptune: "So uh… you lost everything?"
Somehow K-sha managed to focus again and returned to the important life-changing conversation. She took a deep breath to prepare herself.
Neptune: "Wait just a sec! Is this going to be a monologue or am I supposed to reply? Because I have no idea what you lost and where to find it. I am sure the police can help you with that."
K-sha: "Miss Neptune… stop running away."
K-sha's voice was not giving off her usual emotions or even desires. She seemed… incredibly tired. As if she had resigned herself already.
K-sha: "I have been ignoring my heart and my mind all this time… And I don't want to delude myself any longer."
Neptune: "Y-your heart…? Is this going to be a confession?! I thought you loved the head of the lonely sisters club herself, Noire Lonely Heart!"
K-sha: "This is what I mean… your attitude towards serious feelings. You don't want to confront it."
She sighed and looked up at the stars.
K-sha: "When this thing started I called you a bully Miss Neptune."
Neptune: "I vaguely remember such slander."
She crossed her arms and nodded exaggeratedly. K-sha's head sank down and she stared at Neptune with cold eyes. Neptune took a step back instinctively.
K-sha: "You have been mean to Noire for all this time, for all these games…"
Neptune: "Hey, 4th wall breaking is my thingy! You do your obsessed love struck thingy instead."
K-sha: "You have been leading her on all this time. It was really cruel."
The high school girl didn't even bother to react to Neptune's jokes anymore.
K-sha: "You already knew that you were friends. But you kept acting as if that wasn't the case. Noire is too prideful to make the first step. So you always kept her one step away from crossing the line… completely at your mercy."
Another joke got stuck in Neptune's throat. She felt strangely nervous. It wasn't like her to get overpowered in a conversation. But K-sha's eyes were so pitiful. Her voice was so completely devoid of warmth. It just felt wrong to not take her seriously.
She forced a smile and half closed her eyes.
Neptune: "You're… not wrong. Maybe. I kinda wanted to keep the status quo… because Noire is fun to tease."
What was she saying? Admitting these things was already tantamount to losing the battle! But who was she fighting?
K-sha: "Is that all? You have been acting this way, because it was fun?"
Neptune: "D-don't give me that look. It's not like Noire couldn't take a few jokes at her expense."
There was no doubt in Neptune's mind that Noire wasn't going to be affected by such banal banter…. There was no way.
K-sha: "Miss Neptune, why are you keeping this contest going?"
The conversation had done an unexpected U-turn on the road of dangerous cliffs. Neptune had barely any time to react.
K-sha: "You insist on continuing this farce… but you don't try to win. Why?"
Neptune: "Time out! Are you saying I'm slacking off? I tried pretty hard to win!"
K-sha: "You have been trying hard, yes. To keep us tied. To never have a clear winner. For the struggle to go on."
With each word K-sha stepped closer to Neptune. And with each step K-sha took Neptune backed away.
K-sha: "You have been using me to keep your precious status quo."
The former assassin's hands stopped right in front Neptune's face.
K-sha: "But I am not mad at you."
Her hands sank down.
K-sha: "I have used you to further my own goals as well. This contest was just an excuse for me… to get closer to Noire. To make her happy. But that was just my own self-important desire."
K-sha: "No! I know what you want to say! I truly felt like I was having fun. I really, really like you Miss Neptune, despite all the things you did. Despite how you treated Noire."
She gritted her teeth in pain.
K-sha: "In a way I even admired you. You found your way into Noire's heart so easily… It seemed so effortless. Why has it to be you? I have been asking myself over and over…"
Her voice got so low that Neptune couldn't hear her anymore.
K-sha: "Tell me right now. Why did you want to become Noire's best friend?"
Now Neptune really didn't manage to keep up any longer. This question seemed so disconnected from the rest of the conversation.
Neptune: "W-what else? You said I couldn't be her friend so-"
K-sha: "So you did it to spite me?"
K-sha: "That's not it at all."
She shook her head strongly.
K-sha: "You were afraid! Because I became part of the equation! Now Noire has a friend… that ruins everything doesn't it?"
Neptune: "Some jokes won't work anymore, but that's not such a big deal."
K-sha: "Noire was drifting away. You couldn't keep her in that comfortable zone anymore. You wanted to prove that you were closer to her than anyone else… but that meant casting away your current relationship."
Neptune's heart skipped a beat. Such a strong response… but she didn't know why.
K-sha: "Was it so horrible to admit that she is your friend?"
Neptune: "…I don't…"
No, no, no. This was going completely the wrong way. But what could she… Aha!
Her face became softer again and she calmed down.
Neptune: "I guess it wasn't so bad. Even if it's just for the contest, being that big tsundere's best friend isn't-"
K-sha: "Just for the contest?"
Neptune: "W-wait I meant…!"
K-sha: "No, it's really obvious. You don't want to realize it. Once this contest is over, you will have lost your status quo. Whether you will win or lose, in the end you have already passed the threshold. There is no turning back."
K-sha's body language told her that she knew that this was her fault as well.
K-sha: "You kept this contest going without any will to face the end result. You are running away by competing with me. I am your biggest hurdle and your only safety line. But this ends now."
She turned her back to Neptune.
Neptune: "What are you tryin' to say?!"
A confused voice escaped her mouth. She felt agitated, but also afraid for some reason.
K-sha: "It's okay Miss Neptune. Commitment isn't as scary as you believe. Fun isn't the only part of a relationship."
Her voice shivered a little. Neptune realized that whatever she did she was not allowed to look at K-sha's face right now.
K-sha: "You aren't Noire's best friend…. You never were. That's… my role."
Something glistening - like a liquid diamond - hit the grass below her.
Neptune: "T-that's what the contest is about! I haven't lost yet!"
K-sha: "You are so much more to her than just a friend!"
She yelled into the night with her shoulders raised.
Thump! Thump thump.
Neptune's heartbeat increased. K-sha was so desperate. But she still couldn't face Neptune directly.
K-sha: "I know… hicc… that you are trying to ignore your feelings… B-but that's so horrible!"
She sank to her knees and leaned on her hands in the cold grass.
K-sha: "Why are you giving me this chance? Why are you trying so hard to keep everyone happy?!"
Neptune: "…I am not!"
Now she raised her voice as well.
Neptune: "I am selfish! I'm lazy and I got no common sense!"
K-sha: "But you are not trying to stop me… not even once. Every time I confessed to Noire… every time I tried to get closer to her, you just stood there and watched. And when I tripped, you helped me up… Do you not see how wrong that is?"
Neptune: "There is nothing wrong about it…"
Neptune closed her eyes tightly.
Neptune: "How could it be wrong? Your feelings are the real deal! How could I…"
K-sha: "How could you crush my love? That's not what you should be asking."
She wiped her tears with her sleeves.
K-sha: "I told you already. I have lost everything. As soon as I entered this contest I lost what I wanted the most…"
Now it clicked inside Neptune's head. The big mistake she had committed.
K-sha: "No matter what I do… whether I win or lose this contest… I already lost it all. Noire sees me as a friend. I wanted to 'start out as friends'. B-but… such a convenient thing doesn't exist, right?"
Finally she turned her face towards Neptune… she was smiling. A horribly vulnerable smile. Her eyes were red from crying.
K-sha: "I am Noire's Best Friend! Just saying that fills me with pride and happiness!"
Her smile was beaming.
K-sha: "And just saying it… fills me with crushing regret…"
And it turned downwards into a desperate frown.
K-sha: "But I can't be her best friend forever. I can't even reach that level. It's completely impossible."
Neptune: "H-how could that-?"
K-sha: "I am human!"
She declared into the freezing cold night with all her emotions.
Neptune's lips quivered. She wanted to say something, but she couldn't.
K-sha: "No matter what I do, I cannot stay at her side forever. Even with all my love… with all my strength… I can never match her."
She raised one hand to her heart and sighed.
K-sha: "I cannot be her lover. I cannot be her best friend forever. But I am her friend. I… accept it. I accept it against all my hopes and dreams."
Neptune: "Noire wouldn't care!"
There was no time to fool around anymore. Neptune had to step in before K-sha shut her own feelings down to the point of no recovery.
Neptune: "She isn't so petty that she would care about these kinds of details! Love doesn't care about such small details!"
She clenched her fist and raised it in front her chest.
K-sha: "You are kind… and you are cruel."
She shook her head ever so softly.
K-sha: "You talk about love, but you can't even understand it."
Neptune: "Don't make light of the main character! I know all about love and the feelz. There is no hurdle that can't be overcome, no mountain you can't climb in the name of love, righto?"
K-sha: "You are the protagonist."
Without any hesitation she repeated that fact.
K-sha: "That's it right… you can never do it… as long as you are the protagonist."
She laughed self-derisively.
K-sha: "You have to stay neutral. If you were committing to anyone it would create problems for the franchise… hahaha… hahahah!"
An uncharacteristic laugh escaped K-sha's mouth.
Neptune: "Woah, she is losing it."
K-sha: "That's all! That's really all there is to it! The answer is so obvious, but so painful…"
She sluggishly stood up and faced Neptune again.
K-sha: "You are the protagonist. You can't fall in love. You can never allow yourself to do it. If you did you would hurt those people that don't want you to do it. You would ruin the feelings of so many."
She squinted her eyes in cold anger.
K-sha: "Admit it."
K-sha: "Admit it!"
She grabbed Neptune by the collar of her hoodie dress and pulled her up until her feet were not touching the ground anymore. They glared at each other with heat that would dispel the night's coldness.
K-sha: "A protagonist in a franchise with sequels can't have a lover, right? You need to keep up the status quo… the options. The interest! The subtext!"
K-sha: "What is it? Huh?!"
Neptune: "I don't want… to hurt you…"
She knew that Neptune wasn't talking about physical pain. No, her words cut much deeper. This was worse than she had ever thought. It was almost more than she could take. She wanted to slam Neptune into the tree and hit her over and over… But she just let go of her collar and watched her fall on her behind.
K-sha: "You have trapped yourself. Psychologically you are already trapped in a cage."
Neptune: "Stop saying such stupid-"
K-sha: "I know how it feels. I really do. When I was trained and conditioned to fight by the Order… I know what it is like to not be yourself… to create a space in your mind where you lock away the feelings."
Her voice turned cold. A shadow was covering her face.
K-sha: "Miss Neptune. You love her right? You have loved her all this time. At first you told yourself that it was just friendship. But even that was too scary. You had to distance yourself from even that first step. Just joking and laughing it all away."
Neptune: "S-stop it…"
K-sha: "And then I came along. I ruined it. I forced your world to move again. Now you declared your friendship to the whole world. And you lost."
Neptune: "I already told you-!"
K-sha: "And the consequences… you will have to either give Noire up forever and stay as her friend… or to break out of the cage."
Neptune: "Shut up already!"
She jumped up from the ground held K-sha's mouth shut with both her hands. The high school girl's eyes widened for a second, but then she looked at Neptune in pity. Without force or any martial arts she loosened Neptune's hands and pulled them away.
K-sha: "Please consider how Noire feels too. You don't want to hurt anyone. I understand. But you are giving her too much credit. Even though she is so sublime… she can't take it all. And please consider your own feelings too. You are hurting yourself. You can't shoulder this weight forever."
…she hugged Neptune.
It was an awkward, almost childish gesture. It didn't seem like she had much experience with it either. She had grabbed Neptune's back a little too tightly and was currently cutting off her air circulation by accident.
K-sha: "I lost everything already. And I caused a lot of trouble. So please don't hold back for me. Don't rely on your duty as the protagonist to run away any longer."
She whispered into Neptune's ear.
The purple haired CPU wasn't reciprocating the hug. She was frozen stiff.
Was it… okay?
Could she be even more selfish?
Neptune: "You said it over and over… that I am more to Noire than a friend… that I love her."
She looked over K-sha's shoulder with a solemn expression.
Neptune: "Don't be so melodramatic!"
She pushed K-sha off and caught her by the shoulders. Then she turned around with a grin.
Neptune: "I will give you that I haven't been super honest with her all this time. Maybe I am actually best friend material if I really tried."
K-sha: "Even now…?"
Neptune: "Love is a pretty strong word though. You can't just throw that into people's faces like pie during a clown convention."
She tilted her head at her own analogy.
Neptune: "You already got that far with your love. Like, wowsers, you confessed to her. Twice! And Noire couldn't even be honest with herself if she was a lie detector. So don't get stuck on the whole 'She only sees me as a friend' thing."
Neptune put both hands on her waist and winked.
Neptune: "You still got plenty of time. Don't worry about being human, a goddess or even a demon lord. I think Noire already accepted you either way."
K-sha: "…are you done now?"
She was hunched over. The moonlight covered her from above, but only cast a shadow over her front.
Neptune: "Yep. All done."
She nodded energetically.
K-sha: "If that's your final resistance…"
Her eyes were turning dull. Her hand went to her skirt and from out of seemingly nowhere she pulled her Uzi.
K-sha: "…then I will beat some sense into you."
Neptune: "Technically you're shooting holes into me with that."
She quipped and didn't go into any defensive stance.
K-sha: "Fine. You won. I will face you in one last contest. This has been a long time coming."
Neptune: "Nothing beats a good old beatdown for the climax~"
K-sha: "Tomorrow at noon in the 'Final Frontier Plains'."
Neptune: "Sandwiched right between Planeptune and Lastation in a natural arena. You really know what gets a videogame enthusiasts' heart fluttering."
K-sha: "I will throw everything I got at you. And if I defeat you… Noire will be mine. You no longer deserve to be close to her. I can't let your callous self-righteousness hurt her any longer."
Her killing intent was so strong that it could have made a normal person faint on the spot. Her trigger finger was ever so close to unleashing a torrent of death on her opponent.
Neptune: "Got it. And if I win… well then I'll win the contest and be Noire's BFF. No takesies backsies."
She waved her finger back and forth as if to lecture a kid. Now she almost sounded like Uzume in Orange Heart mode. Her relaxed aura was clashing with K-sha's dark killing intent until it almost created visible sparks.
K-sha: "I don't care if you are a CPU or anyone else. If you hurt my Noire, I will defeat you at the cost of my life."
She repeated the line that she had said at the very beginning of this contest.
Neptune: "And I told you to bring it on!"
There wasn't any hesitation in Neptune's actions anymore. It made K-sha even angrier. Without another word she left the hill and strutted towards Lastation. At this speed she would make it in about a minute.
Neptune: "High schoolers these days sure are scary."
It was a more than accurate assessment if I do say so myself.
And after speaking those final words... Neptune sunk against the tree and slid down like an empty sack of potatoes. Her breathing got heavy and she held her face in both hands.
She just wanted to sleep and eat pudding and maybe play some video-games. Why did it have to turn out this way?
Uni: "What is going on?!"
She was leaning against the windowsill in shock. Right now she was inside her own room inside the Basilicom. Her room was always clean and well decorated with carpets and all kinds of guns hanging on the walls. It had a very unique homely feel to it.
Now Uni was holding one of those weapons in her hands. To be more exact, it was the prototype weapon that she and Nepgear had tinkered with for weeks. Steamax had retrieved it for her after K-sha lost it at the festival.
Now that she had finally tuned it and performed maintenance she had intended to test out the performance. But when she looked through the aiming reticule… Her crosshair hit an unexpected scene.
Uni: "K-sha and… Neptune?"
They were standing really close to each other on a hill far away. There was no sign of Nepgear who had departed together with Neptune.
But the weirdest part was how they acted. K-sha was… crying?! Uni felt her heart sink at seeing such a sad thing. Just what was going on?!
Should she call her big sister? Or maybe Nepgear?
No that wasn't a good idea at all. If she dragged them into it then it might become an even bigger fuss. Right now she didn't even know why they were arguing. Even though they were competing against each other they seemed to be on good terms this entire time.
Uni nibbled on her lip for a second and then took out her own N-Gear. Nepgear had created one for all of the CPU candidates. And as far as she knew there was one more…
She gulped and pressed her slender finger on the screen. It lit up and showed off all the Apps. Uni connected to the direct conversation App. It was supposed to make a call to the specified N-Gear without relying on any phone network. Even with no connection on a normal cell-phone this would work as long as she wasn't in a deep underground cavern or something.
That is if one was in range. But the range was pretty long.
She pressed 'call'. If she could just get K-sha to pick up, maybe she could talk it out with her? Uni had to at least try to calm her down. She knew K-sha had a tendency to do things she regretted when she got too emotional. And they were f-friends too right? It was normal to help a friend in need!
It connected almost immediately, but K-sha didn't reply. What was going on? She could hear their voices, but when she looked through the visor of the sniper rifle she didn't see K-sha pick her N-Gear up.
Uni: "Did she accidentally press the accept button with her leg?"
These things happened sometimes. Touch screens had many advantages, but they weren't perfect. Of course K-sha was the type of person who would put her cell-phone to silent at all times to be better at sneaking around…
K-sha: "…then I will beat some sense into you."
Eh? Uni looked at them from the distance and noticed that her friend had pulled out a weapon. Argh! She couldn't just attack someone if they disagreed!
Even if she flew over at top speed right now she would probably not be able to stop them from fighting.
But their conversation continued. Instead of massacring each other right then and there… they were going to fight each other at a special location tomorrow.
Uni: "Is this still for that contest? K-sha you dummy… you will only get hurt."
K-sha left the hill in a rush all of a sudden and the N-Gear just delivered rustling sounds from inside her skirt pocket.
Uni: "Is she going back to the dorms?"
Right now Uni was tied between going after her and letting it go. It wasn't really her business what those two did in the contest. And they wouldn't go so far as to critically injure each other… d-defintiely!
But what if they did? And nobody was there to help them?
Uni: "Honestly! Why do you need to make me worry so much?"
She grumbled and stood up. If she went out immediately she would be able to intercept K-sha yet.
Curfew was strict in the dorms. K-sha had told the dorm mother that she would be staying over at a friend's place tonight. But after what she had just gone through she didn't feel like going back to the Basilicom. If she faced Noire right now it would probably have turned out worse than it already had.
The streets were devoid of life around this area. The school had been built close to the residential area, but nobody except students and teachers was allowed anywhere near campus. It would be an easy task to sneak past the security guard like she did every night.
How did she slip past her senses? She rubbed her tired face and scolded herself for slipping up. But now that Uni was so close… wait why was Uni around this area anyway?
Uni: "W-what a surprise to s-see you around here so late."
She stuttered. There was definitely something up with her.
K-sha: "Hi… what are you doing here so late Uni?"
For now she kept her face straight and acted as normal as she could.
Uni: "Haha… You won't believe it…"
With each passing second more sweat drops were gathering on Uni's face. She was lost for words. Then she clapped her hands and exclaimed.
Uni: "I was just taking a walk!"
Uwaaah! That was one of the lamest excuses she had ever heard. It even took some weight of her brooding mind.
K-sha: "I-I see."
Uni: "Moonlight cardio is supposed to be super effective!"
K-sha: "Are you trying to lose weight?"
Uni: "No! You think I want to be flatter- Er…. Hehehe yeah that's it! All the good food from before got me worried a little."
K-sha: "There is no need to worry Uni. You have a great figure."
Now she managed a genuine smile. Uni was cute. She should be more confident.
Uni seemed depressed somehow as she lowered her shoulders.
Uni: "Anyway… I thought you would stay the night with us. How come you are going to the dorm?"
K-sha: "I… don't feel so good. I want to sleep in my own bed if I can."
Uni: "You do look sorta pale. Is there something bothering you?"
Was it that obvious? K-sha felt bad for making Uni worry. Maybe she had just become so good at telling because they were friends.
K-sha: "It will be over soon."
At least that was a guarantee.
Uni: "If... if you have something you need to share… I'll be there to lend you an ear, you know?"
So insistent. It almost made K-sha want to tell her. But there was no use in getting anyone else involved.
K-sha: "I will definitely come to you first when it happens!"
She said with a cutesy giggle.
Uni: "W-well I know you'd probably go to my big sister first. I am not even angry if you did."
K-sha: "Haha… I don't think I will… bother Noire… so much… anymore."
The words got stuck in her throat. This was really hard.
And her hesitation wasn't going unnoticed either. Uni definitely picked up on it.
Uni: "Is there a reason you won't be able to?"
Uni's red eyes were piercing her soul. Just like her sister's did.
A big part of her wanted to rely on this sweet girl in front of her right now. But she knew that this weight wasn't supposed to be shared. Using her left hand to wave it off she softly denied her.
Uni: "Really? That's good then. You are coming by again tomorrow?"
K-sha: "W-well I'm not sure yet. There are some things I need to take care of… for school."
Uni: "Must be tough. I never got to go to school."
K-sha: "It's not all work. There are a lot fun things to do."
Uni: "Every time I go to your room I see some school girls having fun on campus."
Uni put her hands behind her back and hopped on her toes towards K-sha.
Uni: "Maybe I can go to your school for a day?"
K-sha: "There is a Visitors Day at the end of this month."
Uni: "Ehehe perfect timing then. Maybe I'll get big sis to come along too."
K-sha: "That would be fun. Although Noire is probably busy with work."
Uni: "If it's for you I'm sure she will take a day off. And I am here to help lighten her load as well!"
K-sha: "Thanks Uni."
Uni: "Hm? W-why are you thanking me?"
K-sha: "For being a good friend."
She laughed at Uni's perplexed expression and then jumped on top of the academy's wall. From here she could slip into the dorms without passing the gate.
Uni: "Hey! Don't say something so embarrassing and then leave!"
K-sha: "Give my regards to Noire, okay?"
She said with a distant voice and then jumped off the wall to the other side.
The young CPU candidate kept standing by herself for a while.
Uni: "You are a big fat liar. But it's not like I mind or anything! You will see how stubborn friends can be!"
A decision had been made by the black clad girl as she ran back to her home in the Basilicom.
Noire had come to a conclusion of her own now. She was pushing her coffee mug in circles almost subconsciously. There had been a lot of stray thoughts going through her mind this whole evening, but there was one dominating everything else.
A decision had to be made. This couldn't go on forever. And she was the last person who would allow people's time to get wasted.
Noire: "Tomorrow I will tell them for sure."
She declared with a decisive voice to the empty office.
Close to her lay a note that she didn't remember writing. Picking it up roughly, she read the contents out loud.
Noire: "Next time: The Finale! Don't miss it for the world! Same Nep hour, same Nep channel!"
Noire: "Is this some dumb TV show slogan? Who would want to tune in to something so cheesy?"
(To be continued)