It was a typical day in Lastation's Basilicom. Employees were scurrying around and doing the day's work, many people were sitting at desks and found themselves working hard on various kinds of paperwork, monitors across the building displayed various types of information, and all in all, it seemed like a building in which a lot was getting done. Considering Lastation's standing in the world, it wouldn't be that much of a leap to think that even without seeing the inside of the Basilicom.
A closer look at things, however, would reveal some not-so-hidden truths.
Many of those working were actually only trying to look like they were working, filing and unfiling and then refiling the same things over and over again. Some of the monitors that were flashing in front of gathered employees were in fact showing things that were decidedly not even remotely work related. Though some of them certainly were working, most of them seemed to only be appearing to work.
Indeed, it was a typical day in Lastation's Basilicom. Their CPU was nowhere to be seen, naturally, but no one questioned that whatever she was doing, it was for the better of Lastation. Their nation was rising to be the unquestionable top of Cruptindustri, there was certainly no reason to think their leader, their goddess, was doing anything but work in their best interests.
Besides, since they had gotten out of having to join the army and be sent off to the other nations, why not relax while the fine young men and women of Lastation's army pressed onwards around the world? They didn't have to work in any of the "important" facilities that their CPU had insisted on creating, so why act like they were important themselves either?
Yes indeed, just another typical day at the Lastation Basilicom.
It was a redundant building, some said. Little things of importance happened here anymore. Remnants of the ways that were being phased out more and more with every passing day. Even the CPU herself rarely visited these days.
In the midst of all of this, Kei Jinguji received a call.
Kei had been one of the ones working prior to receiving the call. She was almost always working, or so it appeared, though the simple employees rarely understood the things they saw the woman working on... if they were ever so lucky as to see the great Kei Jinguji at work in the first place, that is. She kept to her office most of the time, but none ever questioned her. Like their CPU, Kei worked constantly for the betterment of Lastation.
If anyone had heard the phone calls that took place in Kei's office that afternoon, they might change their tune.
The petite woman raised a curious brow as her phone began to ring. No one should be calling her. She always knew when to expect someone and when not to, and this moment, this whole day in fact, was very much in the "not" category. She thought about ignoring it as she considered who it might be, but then a smirk began to spread across her lips.
No... One person would be calling her, wouldn't they? They were a little early though...
Forcing a laugh down, Kei took a deep breath, put on the most serious expression she could muster, and picked up the phone, clearing her throat as she did. Business face, Kei, business face.
"Uni? I wasn't expecting your call for a few days. Has something changed? What's going on?"
There was an affirmative noise.
"I'm still in Lowee, that hasn't changed. I started right away with sabotaging a supply ship, like you suggested, and then I proceeded to move into..."
Kei swirled around in her chair as she listened to the voice on the other line, unable to fight a grin spreading from ear to ear now. She knew to keep it out of her voice at least, but she just loved hearing when things went her way.
"... spotted one of the CPU Candidates. After following her to a secluded spot, I... 'took her' with me. She's unconscious right now, though she won't be able to fight back even if she wakes up. She's very injured, but I'm keeping her stable enough so it's not life threatening. I need her alive right now."
The voice on the other end paused. When it resumed speaking, the "matter of fact" tone had diminished somewhat. It was still there, as it always was, but in place of the bits that had gone were the faintest traces of accomplishment, excitement, and an unconscious desire for praise.
Kei knew the girl far too well to miss any change in her, and that desire would undoubtedly be Uni's undoing someday. It was what had eventually driven her down this path after all... Oh, silly little Uni thought so highly of herself, but Kei knew the truth. She also knew already that Uni was hiding something from her, but she didn't care. This was too big to care.
"I think this is going to really do something for me... For us, Kei. Noire will never see this coming, and by the time she does, it will be way too late. There's already nothing she can do now!"
At that point, Kei lost it. She covered the phone's mouthpiece and burst into a fit of hysterical laughter. It was just too much! Too much! It was too much, it was too much!
This girl was a complete and total idiot!
"Kei? Are you there?"
It took her a bit, but Kei managed to get herself under control quickly enough. Both of these sisters had given her plenty of chances to practice that particular skill.
"The connection. It was the connection." Kei gave a simple enough answer, not intending to give Uni enough time to think about it. She wanted to know what in the everloving hell this girl was thinking. "What makes you so confident in this? This could backfire on you very easily. All Noire has to do is say she wasn't involved and blame you and Lowee won't care."
To Kei's surprise, Uni didn't falter. In fact, as she continued, she sounded even more confident.
Kei... Kei didn't like that. She didn't like not being ahead of the game. She didn't like that at all.
"If she does any of that, she'll just be hurting herself. Lowee won't care what she says, if I can convince them Lastation was involved, it won't matter to them if it was me or her. They'll be out for Lastation blood, and right now, with her in charge... Lastation blood means her." Uni paused on the other end. Kei wasn't sure if she was thinking something or checking something, but Kei didn't think that was all. Even if it was, it was good reasoning.
Uni might have been seriously overestimating how much Lowee (or at least those running it) would really care about one of their Candidates going missing, potentially dying even, but other than that, the logic was sound. Politically speaking, they would probably have to care to save face anyway. And what's more... Kei got the feeling there was more to it too. She felt like Uni had put even more thought into this.
Kei already knew Uni was hiding something though, so who's to say she wasn't hiding more here?
Since when had this punk grown a spine like this...?
"You know, Uni..." Kei started, putting on her tried and true "genuine" voice. It had never failed her before, especially not with Uni, and she doubted it would now just because Uni was starting to act out of line, outside of Kei's plans and expectations. "I'm impressed with how much thought you've put into this. You've really come a long way."
As true as it was that Kei was only actually saying this to try to ease more information out of Uni, it bugged the hell out of her that it actually was true. She was still used to being able to read Uni like a book.
Kei paused to let her words sink in, let Uni start feeling guilty for keeping things from the only person she had left, and then... Time for the clincher.
"I'm proud of you."
Just as Kei hoped, that did the trick. Whatever reservations Uni had had about speaking had been quashed with ease, and Uni was speaking even more earnestly now.
Kei couldn't help but sneer happily as Uni spoke. She hadn't grown that much after all.
"Think about it, Kei. What will everyone in Lastation think if she starts giving the credit away for something like this? If they think she isn't capable of striking out against Lastation's enemies herself? They'll start losing faith in her, of course! And that's just what I want. So let her tell everyone I did it. Let her act like she doesn't want to be associated with it. They'll just start seeing which of us they want to be behind more."
Kei nodded, both to Uni's points and to herself. She was starting to be in a good mood again.
Uni probably wouldn't be soon though.
"You're absolutely right. Sharp as always, Uni."
Kei could almost see the smile on Uni's face as they exchanged farewells. Uni would be trying to hide it, trying to look tough and serious and grown up, like she was better than feeling proud of herself, like she was this mission oriented robot, but she would still have this tiny smile on her face as she celebrated this little victory she thought she had earned. She would really believe she had gotten somewhere in her quest.
What a moron.
Once she hung the phone up, Kei found she could barely contain her laughter. Tears began to escape from her eyes she was laughing so hard. Her stomach actually started to hurt she was laughing with such pure mirth, but even that couldn't stop her just yet.
She enjoyed the moment for as long as she possibly could, but as soon as it started to fade, she cleared her throat once more and picked up her phone, dialing a very familiar number. It was time for the next move, and it wasn't going to be Uni making it.
"Hello, Noire? I hope you're sitting down right now. Uni's really done it this time..."
This feud these two had going was really something else, but what was really something else was that neither of them had realized Kei had been feeding information back and forth since before it had even started.
The Oracle smiled happily as she listened to Noire, already planning on her own next move.
No matter which one of these idiot sisters lost this thing, Kei was going to be the real winner here.
Why was it that every time she woke up lately, she was in an incredible amount of pain?
Neptune let out a groan as she slowly sat up. Everything hurt. It wasn't just a matter of having been taken off guard; whatever the heck had gotten her and Ram like that had been strong. Crazy strong. Stronger than Neptune had had to deal with in a long time, and clearly the same went for Ram as well.
"Hey. Wait a minute..." Neptune went over that thought again. The pain made it a bit hard to process, but luckily she had been getting practice dealing with that kind of thing lately. Her eyes widened as she recalled fully what had happened. "Ram... Ram! Ram!"
Letting out worried cries for the Candidate, Neptune grabbed her sword, still laying where she had dropped it, and used it to help steady herself as she stood up. She kept yelling and yelling, but to no avail. There was no response.
In her worry for Ram, she hadn't paid it any mind initially. As she spun around calling the girl's name during those first few moments, she paid no mind to it. It was a sight that not only was she used to, but a sight that she often caused on occasion. Compared to the missing CPU Candidate, it wasn't noteworthy at all.
Yet as Neptune's yells became less frequent, in the hopes that she might hear a response from Ram somewhere, she realized that, right before her very eyes, something terrible was happening.
Ram may have been nowhere to be seen, but those monst... No, Ram's monsters were still here.
They were dying.
Neptune didn't know what she was thinking, but, with the help of her sword, she was limping over to them before she knew it.
What was she doing?
She saw monsters all the time, and that included dying ones. She had been in more dungeons over the years than she would ever be able to count. She beat them herself, dashed past them to complete quests as they fought each other; she was so used to it that if she didn't see monsters moving, they were practically just more trees in the background. It was why she hadn't noticed these this time... And yet...!
Neptune tossed her sword aside and fell to her knees next to the pair of them. They were huge, of course, and they were clearly strong offshoots of the fenrir and dragon races, but they couldn't be less threatening if they tried. The wolf's chest went up and down in a slow, painful manner, whereas the dragon was gasping for breath, clinging to life with what little it had left. Unlike the wolf, which was weakly looking at Neptune now, the dragon didn't even seem able to recognize that she had approached them.
They weren't going to last the next few minutes.
Neptune wasn't sure what she should do. Ram was the priority, right? But Ram cared about these monsters and she wanted to show Ram she was good, so...? But was now the time to try to do things like this...?!
"Oh forget it!"
Confused and knowing she just didn't have nearly enough time to be, Neptune whipped out some items and got to work. She could fix herself up later, but right now, these two needed more help than she did. She didn't know how effective the items would be on monsters or if they would even work at all, but she just knew she would never forgive herself if she didn't try.
And who knew? Maybe in this world monsters weren't even bad things in the first place, in which case she would have let Ram's pets die with even less justification. And letting them die already would have had pretty flimsy justification as it was!
Glad that Arfoire had let her stock up on everything she could need, Neptune found herself with more than enough to restore the monsters back to full health. She wasn't sure how they would react to this, and to be quite honest, she had yet to think that far ahead yet. All that she was thinking about was how Ram valued these monsters and, therefore, it would be wrong to let them die. Simple as that.
"Whew..." After what seemed like a great deal of effort (monsters were a lot bigger when you weren't just randomly slashing at them), Neptune found herself falling backwards onto the ground, the monsters no longer appearing to be in any danger. She let out a sigh of relief as she wiped some sweat from her brow, closing her eyes and breathing in deeply. "That takes care of that problem... But I still don't know where Ram is..."
Had she made the wrong call? Should she have left them to die and started looking immediately?
Even as she wondered that, she knew the answer.
She had no idea how long it had been. Whoever had taken Ram (because Ram certainly wouldn't have left her friends like that) might be long gone. Leaving the monsters to die wouldn't have accomplished anything except that the person who attacked Ram might find themselves suddenly getting more experience points and Ram might have another reason to hate Neptune.
Basically, no victories to be had there.
"Still... No reason to stick around now though..." Neptune stretched her arms out behind her, groaning in pain as she did so. It was about time to heal herself now, huh? Hopefully she had enough items left over for herself... "Let's see here... Huh?"
As Neptune sat up to look over herself and get to fixing up her own injuries, she saw the strangest sight... since the last strange sight she saw here, anyway, which wasn't that long ago considering just about everything here was strange.
So it wasn't technically that strange, but right then it seemed to be the strange icing on the strange cake.
The wolf-like monster was sitting down in front of Neptune, much like a well trained dog would sit before their master. Next to it, the dragon was standing at attention, like some kind of... dragon butler or something. Unless it was a girl, then it was a dragon maid, maybe...?
"Um..." Neptune blinked a few times, rubbing one of her eyes as if to confirm that she was seeing straight. It seemed like she was indeed. The monsters that had been so wary of her before now seemed positively welcoming. She supposed saving lives did that kind of thing. "Can I... do something for you...?"
Neptune almost passed out again when the dragon actually nodded at her question. The wolf, meanwhile, got up and began walking away.
"What? I don't speak monster- Or quiet! I definitely don't speak quiet! I can't translate your dog ellipses here, okay...? Hey!" Though Neptune continued to call after the wolf, stomping her foot a few times for good measure, it continued to move on ahead, as if... Neptune's eyes widened in recognition, and she turned to the dragon, who had yet to budge. "Oh, I get it! You want me to come with you guys? Is that it?"
Once again, the dragon nodded. Neptune half-expected it to follow after the other monster, but it made no such movements. Apparently it was waiting for her.
"At least one of you is polite..." The goddess grumbled to herself, getting some healing items for herself out as she began following after the wolf monster.
Obviously, the walk with the monsters wasn't the most... engaging. Neptune tried on no less than four occasions to start a conversation, but obviously, responses were somewhat limited. She knew that, even more than her, these monsters cared about Ram though, and therefore they wouldn't take her somewhere when she could be looking around if they didn't think it was going to be helpful.
At long last, they arrived. Or at least Neptune figured they had. No longer was the wolf traveling down empty streets, instead it was going inside a hollow looking skyscraper. A hole had been blasted in the side of it, though from the looks of things, it wasn't a new hole.
"This must be Ram's 'hideout.'" Neptune mused to herself, and when the dragon next to her nodded in confirmation, she immediately picked up her speed. She didn't know what to expect inside, she doubted Ram had gotten away and made her way here, but...! Something surely important must be here waiting for her...!
... and yet...
Upon actually entering the building, Neptune found herself feeling let down. She wasn't even sure what she had been hoping for, but...
The walls were all painted with childish graffiti. It was like looking at large-scale versions of the drawings she had seen the twins make in her world. Where there weren't large drawings on the walls, other things were stuck there. Pictures, either taken or also drawn, were taped messily around the vicinity (it looked like other walls and even the ceiling had been destroyed to accomodate the monsters), and there were shelves with toys and games on them around as well. Further back, there were shelves packed more nearly that seemed to have different kinds of supplies on them, but...
While it was certainly what a child might consider a hideout, that didn't tell Neptune why she was here. It didn't seem like anything was hidden either, though obviously if it was hidden she would need to look harder for it, yet if the monsters had brought her here for something, it probably wouldn't be hidden, right?
Neptune looked around. The wolf-monster (apparently named "Princess Fenrietta" if a nearby drawing was to be believed, meaning the huge thing was a girl on top of everything else) had settled down in what was presumably it-her spot and wasn't doing much of anything now, while the dragon ("Sir Burnsalot") was standing dutifully by the hole that was this little hideout's "entrance." The way he was gazing outside made it seem as though he was either making sure nothing was coming, or perhaps... Keeping an eye out in case something did?
"Are we here to wait for something?" Neptune offered finally. It seemed like the only sensible conclusion. The monsters were no longer trying to do anything with her now that she was here, so it must have been their goal to just get her here, right? Looking from one monster to the other, she frowned. "Is that what you brought me here for, guys?"
The dragon, "Sir Burnsalot," nodded once more, before stepping outside completely. Apparently that meant the conversation was over.
"Okay then. I guess... We can wait a little." Sighing, Neptune stuffed her hands in the pockets of her hoodie and began walking around. The empty building had a very... dry feeling to it for some reason, so she didn't really want to touch anything she didn't have to. When she happened upon some of Ram's games, however, she quickly found she just couldn't help herself.
As Neptune turned the portable device on, she wondered what they were even waiting for. There was no way this world's Rom would care what happened to Ram, assuming she even knew about it, so she was out. What about their Oracle then, Mina?
In her world, that would have gone without question, but here... What was Mina like? If Arfoire had gone from bad to good, then... Neptune suddenly got the mental image of Mina turning into someone like that Trick guy and promptly shuddered. The quick distraction caused her to lose, and Neptune was just about to turn the game off when she caught sight of the top names on the list of high scores.
NEP. NEP. NEP. RAM. ROM.
Neptune nearly dropped the game in shock as she realized the significance of what she was holding.
This game... Whoever it belonged to, Neptune couldn't say, but this game... It was a direct connection to the Neptune of this world! It was almost like she could communicate with the other Neptune now, albeit through a video game!
Neptune found herself grinning.
"Let's do this!"
No longer set on turning off the game, Neptune found herself filled with a surge of motivation. She could totally compete with some goody two shoes version of herself, right? Especially in a video game! If she couldn't do that, then what kind of person did that make her?!
Neptune had been sure it would be over quickly. She was a goddess, after all. This would be a cinch. Maybe she could beat it fast enough to beat all her doppelgänger's high scores here! It would only take a second or two, then she'd be right at the top of the scoreboard where she belonged!
Thoroughly distracted by the prospect of competing with the person she had heard so darn much about ever since she had arrived, Neptune let herself get absorbed into the game. Those first few seconds turned into a minute, and that minute became many minutes. The minutes added up to an hour and they kept on piling on, until the sun had set outside.
A fact Neptune only realized when the pictures on the game's screen faded into nothing, giving in to the cold reality of a lack of power.
"Awww! I was so close!" Neptune declared indignantly, despite this being quite untrue. Scowling at the game, Neptune looked around once again, stretching her arms as far as they could go as she let out a loud yawn. Princess Fenrietta was fast asleep, whereas Sir Burnsalot was still at his post at the door. "I wonder if they even know for sure if anyone is even coming at all..."
Sighing, Neptune stood. She was slow at first, letting blood flow resume its normal routine after all that intense sitting and hardcore not moving she had been doing, before heading back to the shelf she had gotten the game and system from to see if there was a charger of some kind.
As Neptune walked, she paid a little more attention to the smaller things this time. She had only given the giant pictures any real looks, as they were much easier to look at without having to get close, but just as she had observed earlier, there were also photographs taped onto the walls as well. Most of them appeared to be of Ram's monster friends growing up (they even had ages marked), and while cute in a way, it wasn't that exciting to Neptune.
But just as Neptune was about to dismiss looking at the pictures entirely, one caught her eye. It was surrounded by other pictures and drawings, as if it was either being hidden or maybe being... enshrined, maybe? It was a strange set up for sure, but this picture... Even at a glance, Neptune could tell.
There was something... familiar about it...
Stuffing the game in her pocket for the time being, Neptune made her way over to the picture to get a better look at it.
Unfortunately for her, the closer she got, the more she found herself feeling like things made even less sense here. This picture, the clearer it became, began to make her question many of the things she thought she knew about this world. Even things she had witnessed herself. Silently, mouth slightly agape, Neptune gently reached for the picture and pulled it off of the wall.
She didn't understand this.
It was a picture of five people. That wasn't that weird, was it?
One of them was Ram.
That wasn't weird either. This was Ram's place, so why wouldn't there be pictures with her and other people here?
It was who those people were that threatened to shatter Neptune's trust in everything and everyone she had met up until now.
The first problems were raised when Neptune looked at the people on either immediate side of Ram.
On one side was... herself. There were differences in things, but Neptune knew what her own face looked like.
Forget playing a game against her. Right now, Neptune was actually looking straight at the person she'd been hearing so much about. For a moment, time seemed to stand still as Neptune took that in. She didn't pay any immediate attention to her clothes or hair, for it was her face, her expression, that pulled Neptune in and made her feel very small.
Even though it was just an old picture, Neptune could see it clearly on her other self's face. The person in this picture was kind. She was kind and sweet and downright serene. If Noire or one of the others could see this picture, one look and they would think this Neptune was everything Neptune herself was not.
Neptune was inclined to agree, for better or for worse, and with that upsetting thought in mind, she moved on the next major problem the picture raised.
So on one side of Ram was Neptune. That still wasn't that strange, was it? After all, Ram had already confirmed they knew each other.
The problem was, while on one side of Ram stood Neptune, on the other side... was Rom.
That didn't make sense.
That just didn't make any sense.
Neptune didn't have to base this on anything she had been told to know it didn't make sense. She knew herself it didn't make sense.
Why would the two of them ever be in a picture like this together when it was very clear this afternoon that the last thing Rom would ever want to do with Ram would be get close enough to her for a picture? And if Rom had ever been close enough to this Neptune to get a picture with her, why wasn't Neptune recognized this afternoon?
What was going on here?
Was this a picture from yet another alternate universe...?!
That wasn't even the worst of it.
The icing on this mind blowing cake was still yet to come.
Behind the trio was another pair. A pair, given everything Neptune had been told about certain things that had taken place in this world, Neptune would never expect to see in anything together. Certainly not this. Yet here they were, posing for a picture with another pair that shouldn't be willing to take a picture together given everything Neptune knew about this world.
Who were the two people behind Neptune, Ram, and Rom?
Though their attire was quite different from what Neptune knew them to wear, those two people standing there in the picture were without a doubt Nepgear and...
"Neptune!? Neptune, is that you?!"
Eyes wide, like an animal caught in the headlights, Neptune stashed the picture away into her inventory and spun around, only to meet the worried gaze of the final person that had been shown in the mysterious picture, now standing before her completely in the flesh.
Swallowing, Neptune tried desperately to find her voice.