She never came back. She never came home.
Every day is the same old tired routine. You wake up, pulling yourself out of bed with more effort than a titan would use to hold up an entire planet. Be it sunlight seeping through the blinds, or clouds shrouding the room in darkness, all you can ever see is the empty space beside you. All you can feel is her absence. The absence of her laugh, of her hair's smell, of her energy, of her livelihood. Of her hope. Each morning, it's you and you alone. No sun or clouds could change that. Nothing could change the fact that she was still gone. Forever gone. Sleep provides a temporary relief from this indisputable fact... but then you wake up; a curse upon your soul where others find joy and comfort. Waking up rushes you back to the truth, reminding you endlessly of your lost friend... and of your failure.
From there, once you find the strength to formally ready yourself for the toiling day ahead, you crawl on out of your chambers and meet up with your goddess. Your friend no longer remains... but your duty does.
"Cave? How was your evening? Are you... well rested?" Vert asks, keeping her voice from dipping too far into hesitation territory... but you know what she's thinking. Behind her innocuous question lies concern. No, worse: PITY. Sure, there's the sadness of her own mourning heart as well, but her woes have taken a backseat to worrying over your demeanor of the past few months. She's afraid for you. She's seen how different you've become; how distant from everyone time has made you. How you'd rather retreat inside and stare out the window than enjoy the company of all your friends.
... But therein perhaps lies the problem: 'ALL' your friends. Everyone, alive and well, joining together for days upon days of fun. The war is over, past sins have been forgiven, and now they all simply wish to enjoy each other's joyous company.
Everyone... except Chika. Except HER.
All this runs through your mind... but naturally, you let not a drop of it seep through your tightly-locked lips and instead put on your blankest face and nod. The same thing every morning, every day. "Yes, I am fine, my Lady. What are your orders for today?"
As usual, she frowns at you, knowing all too well the game you are playing... but you play too well, and she's long since grown savvy enough to not pry. "I-I see! That is... excellent, Cave!" A look of guilt washes over her features; you recognize it like your own reflection. You almost believe that she's finally about to crack and press you for more, but she swallows her doubt and shakes all concern from her blonde head. "As for your... orders, it is another peaceful day. In fact, the other CPUs and I were planning on holding another picnic in the yard! Will you be... joining us?" she asks with hope rising in her tone, but she knows the answer already.
You frown and shyly run your hand through your unkempt hair. "I must apologize, my Lady... b-but, please enjoy yourself."
"... Thank you, Cave. You... too."
And like a program set in its ways, you politely bow your head and escape from the grand throne room... and into the Basilicom's regal halls. Once again, just you, and you alone.
... Well, not entirely accurate: you, and your thoughts. Your memories. Everything... and it all goes back to her.
You think about her innocent face, one most unbefitting a government leader, yet one willing to go to any length to please her CPU. A woman who loved the world, loved her enemies, and loved her 'sister.' Even somehow loved YOU, ever since childhood. No matter how far into madness you descended, she never gave up on you.
Even as she died, you know she still cared. You failed her, and she still believed in you.
... And for what? You did all you could to save the world, and to bring everything back to the way it was, the way it should always be... and she still has yet to come home. She put all her faith in you, and she's the one person you've most let down. Betrayed.
"Cavey, you're doing it again. Just go out and have fun with everyone, will you?"
... No, you can't listen to her. That'll... just make it hurt more when you remember AGAIN that she's not here with you.
But why ISN'T she?! Why CAN'T she be?! Why must SHE stay dead and gone, while everyone else gets a second chance?!
"How could I..." Let her down? Fail her? Fail your deepest and dearest friend?
Well, you don't have the answer... but at least you aren't getting off scot-free. These memories, these tears, are your penance. This PAIN is your just punishment, sent from above by the divine and unfathomable. You should be thanking them.
Thank them for all the images in your head; for the past few months, never to leave your thoughts. Thoughts so vivid, you can taste them. Feel their cold miasma flow through your insides. Hear the shouts and the cries and the pain... and then, the redemption.
You'll never forget how, only a little over half a year ago, war broke out in Gamindustri... and soon, friends became foes in a pained heartbeat. Nations turned on each other; every CPU for herself. With warring goddesses came warring subordinates, and you and Chika were no different. You dutifully fulfilled your role as Vert's sworn protector and star soldier... but in the chaos of the times, you allowed yourself to fall into the madness, the fury, the rage. The FEAR of losing everyone you hold dear.
The fighting turned ugly fast, and day-by-day, you'd receive news of yet another friend and former comrade falling. Some were complete surprises, of course, though some were... well, aided by your own hand. But how they fell doesn't matter; nothing could change the fact that Mina, Gust, Compa, Nisa, Falcom, Vert, and countless others lost their lives, never to be reclaimed. Nothing could change the fact that Chika lost hers the very moment you summoned the courage to vow your undying protection of her. Your undying love for her. The moment her eyes went dull as she rested in your cold embrace, and her body vanished into nothingness.
Gone forever... That is, you thought they were gone forever. The war was all part of a sick villain's scheme, the survivors soon found out. Each death was actually a 'transportation' of sorts; souls moved from one cruel world to his twisted one. It took some time to break free from the ethereal strings, but once the remains of each nation managed to do just that, Gamindustri fought back.
Everyone played their parts, uniting under strained relationships... and together, Gamindustri's future was secured as the cretin fell. Furthermore, everyone who had lost their lives... soon found themselves back among the land of the living. Death was but a mere dream; a nightmare. A flimsy illusion they'd progressively forget about with each drop of sand in an hourglass.
The world was back, as were all your friends. All... should've been well.
... But Chika never came back. You did all you could, and saved the day, and brought everyone back... save for her. Days passed, and you, Vert, and all the rest would stand by the door, waiting for the goof to burst through and apologize for getting lost after reviving in a field somewhere. You planned to scold her for making everyone worry, but only while holding her close and kissing her soft cheek. You planned your future together with her, if not as lovers then simply as the best of friends, as you've always been. No, BETTER! You'd hold nothing back from here on out! You've all fought death itself; what could you possibly fear more than that?! Screw your weak mental reservations; as soon as Chika Hakozaki waltzed through your bedroom door, you'd be a brand new Cave!
... You're still waiting, but the hope is gone. The dreams are gone. Chika is gone. You'll never understand why, but it's true. Damn it, it's true.
Did you fail somehow? Forget to save her from some undiscovered spiritual prison? What if she... chose not to come back? What if death was her... new preferred home? What if she'd rather stay dead than be your friend? Did you push her away? Is this entirely your fault?
Perhaps the worst part is, you'll never know. The uncertainty will stick with you for the rest of your pathetic life. Did you fail? Did you lose? Were you simply not needed any longer? Do you not DESERVE her company? Her energy? Her exuberance? Her love? Her everything?
You'll never... know... Even as tears fall down your frozen face, you'll never know for sure; your sad thoughts are the only trustworthy source you can rely on. The only ones who'll tell you anything. And they never tell you what you want to hear.
Thus, with this replaying again and again and AGAIN in your cluttered head, you wander back to your safe-yet-tormenting room, and plop face-first on the mattress. The pillow hides the water that pours from your eyes. Good; can't let anyone see this disgusting display.
"Cavey... We need to talk."
Not... now! You can't... summon the words! There are no words TO summon!
You lost your best friend. Not only that, she's the ONE person you lost! An entire war you essentially retconned, and her death was the only consequence that stuck. You were too weak to save her... No, ARE too weak!
If you couldn't even save the greatest woman you've ever known... then what hope do you have for the future? For a life? A life without Chika? Face it; without Chika, there is no Cave. She was your humanity; the one chain binding you to this planet. The anchor holding you in place. The one thing keeping you sane. You're now stuck floating in purgatory, awaiting an end that teasingly shuffles its feet, delaying the inevitable like this is all some cruel joke. Laugh already; LAUGH! Everyone else already is...
"Grr... Come ON! Stop this, Cave! CAVE!"
... You know, a sick part of you sometimes... wishes that, well, Chika's omission from your round-up of living friends could be replaced by someone else. Anyone else; you can't even be sure who. Maybe you don't even care. Anyone or anything, so long as you could bring her back.
IF? Vert? Nisa? It suffocates you each time—as it happens on a daily basis—but you can't help but fantasize about worlds where they're gone instead, and Chika still walks by your side. Still sleeps in your arms. Still smiles when she says your name.
Why couldn't it be someone else?
But no, these are just fantasies; you could never seriously wish ill-will on any of your allies... you think. You hope. It's that doubt that makes you feel worse; lower than the mud you used to trod through back during the war.
... Funny enough, it's rare when you visualize YOURSELF taking her role. Chika would gladly sacrifice herself for any of her loved ones... but deep down, you are too selfish to do the same. Too weak. You don't even dream of giving yourself up to allow her to live; how VILE! How selfish! You vile, selfish monster. Monster!
"Okay, this is NOT funny, Cave! Open your dang ears before I do it for you!"
The tears flow like a cascading waterfall, your sadness spilling out over the sheets yet not emptying a single ounce of despair from your coil, and you barely feel the soft embrace of a gentle hand press against the small of your back.
"Cave! Listen to me! You know how mad I get when you ignore me!"
The voice's irritated grunts force your weak face up, and you wipe away the telling trails on your cheeks with a clumsy gloved thumb. "Wh-What, Chika?"
"Why are you doing this to yourself? You think this is what I want to see?"
"... I-I'm sorry, Chika, but... I-I—"
"Here it comes, ANOTHER excuse! How'd you become a soldier again, Cavey? All you ever do is complain about yourself! Everything you do is all 'Oh, woe is me' this, or 'I screwed up' that! You need to start taking it easy! Like, start thinking of puppies, or something. Or Vert's chest; that always helps me!"
It always makes you laugh when THIS girl questions you. Scolds you. Chastises you. Yet it makes you feel so... alive. This unconventional easy-going 'professional' telling YOU how to live?! Ha, it's so... absurd. Absolutely absurd... and she knows it. Completely. Almost as if it's all a show, just for your sake. Just to calm you down; force you to see a world you're too blind to see on your own.
... You need this in your life; the perfect foil to your far-too-serious nature. A secret guardian angel.
When you're down, Chika brings you up! When the world is on your shoulders, Chika shrinks everything down and helps pick up the slack! When you can't stop obsessing over every minor imperfection in your life, Chika gleefully shows you all that IS perfect! And if there happens to be no good examples at the moment, then she would MAKE some, right on the spot!
When you're lost... she always finds you. Chika... is always right. Strange as it seems, she's never wrong. At least, not when it comes to you.
... And yet, she trusted you with all her heart. Trusted you to keep her safe.
She was wrong about that. About you. Chika CAN be wrong. Your 'humanity' can be wrong! Your 'anchor' can be wrong! Your guardian angel CAN! BE! WRONG!
"I'm sorry, Chika. I'm not... who you think I am. No matter how much you believe, I... am not strong. Not like you. All these years, you... put your faith into someone so... worthless."
Now, more than ever, it's impossible to pretend that you have anything left. Not even rose-tinted memories can sate the darkness; fill the void. You've not only lost a part of you, but you've lost THE only worthwhile aspect of who you are. Of who you've ever been. Worse yet, you've tarnished her memory; have you no shame?
The gentle touch on your back moves up to your neck, and you nudge it away like a pesky fly. "Cavey, don't talk like that, please. It's... making me sad. You're not worthle—"
"Just GO, Chika! Leave me! I don't—" Say it; what choice do you have? "—deserve your faith. I don't deserve you."
"I am NOT lea—"
"GO! Get OUT!"
Your shout catches the 'touch' off-guard, and the soft flesh makes no further attempts to soothe you. Instead, the 'voice' simply stands off the bed and slowly saunters off, getting the message loud and clear. "... Fine, Cavey, but... just never give up hope, alright? No matter what. Hope is what... keeps us going sometimes."
Ha, hope! What good is hope? Hope can't bring your friend back.
Only fools rely on hope.
The room falls silent, save for the ticking of the cuckoo clock on the back wall, and you prepare for yet another full day of simply wallowing in your sorrows and gazing helplessly out the window. Watching the world outside of your bubble; your manufactured womb. Fall into the routine, the rut. The safe rut. The reliable rut.
In a world where you have not even hope, a reliable prison is good enough. You can trust your prison always being there, more than any person. Really, when you think of it like that, who needs hope?
You lay back down and relax, or at least the closest you'll ever come to the concept... until a loud slam far down the hall forces your ears to perk. A... door?! No, the Basilicom's FRONT DOOR! Slamming carelessly! Almost as if...
Almost as if a carefree goof returned home! Some woman who preferred to wear outfits that barely constituted anything wearable, let alone professional attire! A goofball who probably kicked open the door, not caring about the repercussions until either you or Lady Vert chastise her for it!
It... It HAS to be! There's no doubt in your mind now!
"Ch-Chika?! Chika!" Yes, YES! You know it must be her! This knowledge propels you upwards, and you soar down the hall with an energy you haven't exuded in over six months. "I-I'm coming, Chika! W-Wait for me!"
Just a bit more! The halls stretch on, extending further and further the faster you glide. The portraits on the wall—a combination of your allies and complete strangers—watch you with anticipation, their faces cheering this fated reunion like it was a treaty to end a terrible war! No, that's not good enough of a comparison; this is MUCH more important!
You round one final corner, aaaaaaaand— "Chi...ka?" Time stops as you find yourself staring at the closed Basilicom front doors. The lock is turned, preventing any outside intruder from sneaking in.
Most importantly, though: no sign of Chika Hakozaki. No excited young woman, no dirt tracks on the ground, no air seeping in from the slammed-open door.
Lady Vert must've stepped out for her picnic arrangements. Of... course. That's the answer that makes... sense. Too much sense.
"... Ch-Chika..." Is gone. Chika is never coming back. She's left you behind, as did... the rest of the world.
You don't even feel the pain in your knees as you collapse on the spot, crashing into a kneeling position on the cruel elegant marble. No one is around, so you don't bother with holding back more tears... but frankly, you don't think you'd even notice if the entire universe was watching you. Even care.
... But wait?! They... all ARE watching! All your friends, all the souls you saved, all your enemies; they're all here, WATCHING you! All those souls you saved, and not one of them HER!
Eyes watching you! Pitying you! Judging you! Misunderstanding you! Praising you! Glorifying you! Fearing you! Studying you! So many eyes! So many minds! Y-You can't... ward them off!
"Ch-Chika, h-help me! P-Please!" you cry as the eyes inch closer, but Chika doesn't respond. She's gone, remember? She's abandoned you... or maybe, you abandoned her. No help's coming; you're on your own. As you were always fated to be.
Alone, alone, alone. Poor little Cave is all alone. Pathetic Cave is all alone. The only one who understood her, gone. Her best friend, her lover, her everything: gone. Gone gone gone gone gone. GONE! Gone... Gone!
"H-Help me, Cave! Cavey! CAVEY!"
"Chika, please! I-I'm sorry! What do I do?! I-I need you, b-but I don't know ho—!"
Her screams! You can *feel* her torment! I-It's all your fault! What have you DONE?! YOU MONSTER!
MONSTER MONSTER MONSTER MONSTER! CHIKA! CHIKA!
CAVE! CHIKA! CAVE CAVE CAVECAVECAVECAVECAV—
You wake with nary a lurch nor a gasp; simply a frightened hazy lift of your crusted-over eyelids. The room is dark, and you instinctively gaze over at the alarm clock on the stand to your right. 3:15 AM... Still the middle of the damn night.
Stomach in knots, you sigh and slowly sit up, moving mechanically due to both your rigid nature and the early-morning drowsiness. "Damn..." you mumble beneath your breath before, just as easily as you rose upright, crashing right back down into your set of pillows. Silver dots dance about the dark ceiling above; seems your eyes are joining your mind in playing tricks.
Just have to... relax. Damn, but it's so hard to do when your arms are shaking like you're trapped in a blizzard. Your heart thumps and cries in pain, and a wet liquid trickles from your tear ducts. N-Now you're crying?! What's gotten into y—
"Hmm...? Cavey...? The hell, it's—" A groggy voice tickles your eardrums, and a weight to your left lifts slightly off the mattress. Before you can emote, a click sends a jolt down your sweaty spine, and the room becomes immersed in a bright yellow light! The... lamp? Yeah, the lamp's now on! "—holy crap, 3 in the morning? Get to bed, babe!"
A pillow playfully swats the left side of your face, and the other denizen of the bed compresses back into the soft cushiony rectangle. Warm fingers wrap around your forearm, providing your pumping heart some gentle relief.
"Woah, were you standing outside or something?" the woman asks, before she shifts onto her side to get a good look at your troubled face. "You're freakin' freezing! And, er, kinda sweaty. How'd you manage that?"
Forgetting about everything, you turn yourself over and take in the true splendid glory of Chika Hakozaki's face! Her stunning crimson eyes, her eternally-youthful face, her... eh, concerned eyebrows?!
"Cave? Hey, are you crying?" she questions, the revelation snapping her awake faster than any dousing bucket of ice water. The warm fingers around your forearm instantly turn into a warm palm on your soaked cheek. "Oh no, another... dream?"
You gulp. "Yes. A real... nightmare."
"Dang... Well, do you wanna talk about it? I'm— O-Oomph?!" You can't help yourself; you pull this perfect woman in for a tight hug right then and there! And this time, you're never letting her go! Nuzzle her cheek, caress her hair, hold her close; anything to make sure this is still real... and always shall be.
... No, hold on, you're still neglecting to do one thing: you're not unleashing this intensity upon her! Instead of keeping it all inside, storing the brilliant radiance for your own self, you need to share it with her! Hold nothing back!
"Chika," you cry, allowing tears to wash over her cheeks, "never... l-leave me, please. I-I... NEED you."
Friend, lover, whatever; you need this woman. She's more than any of those simple things combined: she's Chika Hakozaki. She's Chika Hakozaki, and you're Cave. That's the one truth you never get tired of knowing. The one reality no one in this world or the next can ever complain about.
"C-Cavey," you hear her gasp with surprise at your tone, but she never lets go. In fact, the thought never crosses her mind. Maybe she truly does... think of you the same way you do her. She collects her sleepy thoughts, before continuing with "Yikes, must've been some dream! Heh, well, you know my answer already, but alright. Let's do this!"
Arms still around you, protecting you in the way you vowed to protect her, the "Cave-expert" pulls her face away just enough so you both can look each other straight in the eyes. Green to red, red to green; perfectly natural.
"I'll never leave you, Cave, even if you get completely sick of me."
"I... That can never happen. Haha, much as it perhaps should."
"Hey, watch it!" she laughs, and your noses touch delicately by the tips.
Close your eyes; become one with this moment. This life. This shining star of eternal hope. "The... same goes to you. I-I couldn't stand to lose you, in any way. I really do mean it: you're... my everything."
"Heh, got that flipped there: you're MY everything, Cave! I'm not going anywhere without you." A beam befitting an angel more than an oracle, and you find yourself smiling right back. "Never again."
And Chika is never wrong.
She is home. YOU are home.
Before you ask, yes the next chapter of Hyperdimension Neptunia is Real! is in progress and half finished. Not the best record after three months but don't fret your pretty heads.
I got this urge to do something a bit different, y'see. This one-shot here is the more introspective sort. I wanted to get inside a character's head and lay all their thoughts on the table. Three actions, maybe two locations, but a whole lot of mental baggage lies in here. Why is it in second person? The style is commonly used to drag the reader into the story through an audience surrogate, yes, but this was an experiment to try and merge the mental states of the reader and main character. Empathy and sympathy are essential tools of any writer and I wanted to see if I could drag you guys in. I hope you liked the story not because you felt like Cave but because you understood her. That said, this takes place in an AU universe of sorts so do be forgiven if some traits felt a bit off; they were developed from prior works of my private design. The reason I'm uploading this is because I felt it worked well on its own.
If you have any feedback, I implore you to give it. I'd love to hear how the thoughts and machinations of Cave's mind were portrayed. Were they delivered well enough to you? Did it feel natural to read them? Did the second person perspective work? Come up with your own questions and your answers, of course. This is a heavily experimental piece and I could do with the feedback. I might write something like this again.