Chapter 38: Changing Eternally
"Okay, where to start...?" IF rubbed her chin. "Well, I don't think I've ever said this but I was actually born on Planeptune."
"Huh," said Jacob. "Okay then. What was it like?"
"Not that different from now, actually. 3D ads, holoposters everywhere— Oh right, you're not from here. You wouldn't know."
"We haven't been in Planeptune for a while now. Honestly starting to miss it."
5pb smiled. "I actually had my best concert in Planeptune. The equipment there is incredible! I wish I could've used it in concerts in other landmasses. At least Leanbox has a very classical theatre feel to it."
IF smiled just the same. "I was there for that one. It was the best! I didn't even know you could have the smoke machines move their smoke to make structures like living beings!"
"Yes, absolutely! It surprised me! Then you have the hard light platforms under your feet and it feels like you're flying—"
"Ahem," Red huffed. "Story time?"
"Oh!" IF jolted. "Right, right. Anyway... um..." As the topic went back to IF's backstory, her smile faded. "Er..."
"You alright there?" asked Jacob.
"Ye... N-No... I was ready to tell you, I really was, but..."
"O-Oh, I'm sorry...!" said 5pb, her pupils turning into a horizontal line that jumped slightly. "I-I d-didn't mean t-to throw you off...!"
"5pb, you did nothing wrong." No sooner did Jacob say this than did he stand up and step over to IF's bed before sitting down next to her. "IF, I understand this is a big deal for you and it took all you had just to begin telling us this. But that's exactly why you need to keep going. If not now, then when? You know this can't go on."
"... You're right." IF closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm... gonna do this..."
To start... I... grew up in a normal house.
"Normal for Planeptune?" asked Red.
Yeah, normal for Planeptune. Voice-activated bins and showers and everything. I was an only child with a loving mum and a loving dad and we all loved each other and our CPU... Purple Heart... very much. Mum and Dad taught me a lot about not going into the dungeons because they were very dangerous and all that. But I really liked fighting. I found normal life boring and I wanted to go around the world fighting monsters as a hero. I wanted to slay demons like... like a gust of wind that blows across Gamindustri!
"Cute," quipped Jacob.
Hey, I'm not delusional!
"Who said anything about delusional? You literally live in a world full of demons and dragons. This sort of thing would be delusional back home but, here, it's fair game."
... Oh. W-Well, don't call it cute. It feels weird.
"Okay, Little Miss Badass."
Shut up! Anyway—
"Yeah, stop interrupting her!" added Red.
"E-Everyone, please..." said 5pb. "IF, could you go on?"
Yeah, okay... So...! I took some of our sharpest kitchen knives and went out into the wilderness. I went into a dungeon to fight monsters. It took a while but—
"Hey, hey, hey!" Red cut in. "What kind of dungeon was it?"
Well, it was a—
"Does it really matter?" asked Jacob. "The dungeons are just the same corridors and rooms all day every day. Same gift, different wrapping."
... That's true. And the type of dungeon doesn't really matter, no. Anyway, it took a while but I finally found a monster. It was a small one that was completely on its own. Sounds easy enough but the same could be said for me and I had more to lose from my small size.
"What kind of monster was it?" asked Red.
Doesn't matter. All monsters are the same when they're rushing forward to devour you. I dropped my knives in fright, paralysed by the death knell of the monster's roar. I don't want to die! I... I want to be an adventurer! I thought.
While Red and 5pb kept their eyes wide and locked onto the storyteller with baited breath, Jacob was slouching like always.
IF looked at him.
IF also waited.
Jacob kept waiting.
"Uh..." IF raised an eyebrow. "Are you going to go 'Oh no! What happened?' or something?"
"Why? I was attacked by a monster when I was a kid and you ask 'why' I'm wondering why you're not worried?"
"Well, you're alright now, aren't you?"
"Jacob," 5pb began, and rather sternly at that, "a child being attacked could be very traumatising. The effects could carry over far into adulthood!"
"Okay, fair enough. Is that what happened to you, IF?"
"..." IF narrowed her eyes at him. "No."
"Alright. So what happened next?"
Okay, how do I start this again...? The monster attacked me with a leap as fierce as its roar. Disarmed by its voice alone, I was paralysed by my impending death. I couldn't shut my eyes or turn away; I could only watch as the creature's maw opened up to drag me inside...
And then a flash of green shot across the room, right through the monster, shooting it away and saving my life! The monster was defeated in but a single blow! My breath had frozen without me realising it but, once I knew I was saved, I rushed to catch up on lost air and breathed heavily. I turned to my left, desperate to know what had spared my life.
"You're really getting into this storytelling thing," said Jacob.
Can I please go for maybe three minutes without a stupid interruption, please?
Thank you. Anyway, it was not a 'what' that saved my life, but a 'who', and as it turned out, it was none other... than Lady Green Heart herself! In the flesh!
"Oh, cool," went Red, Jacob, and 5pb.
... That's it? A CPU of all people appears out of nowhere to save me of all people, which is even rarer than lightning striking an attacking monster, and all you have to say is 'Oh, cool'?
"Who else was it going to be?" asked Jacob. "This makes the most narrative sense."
Red giggled. "Imagine if it was Fivey."
"It'd fit the lightning simile."
You guys really suck the fun out of storytelling. Anyway, yeah, Vert saved my life and, I won't lie, it was one of the best damn moments of my life. Not that I knew it at the time. I was confused. Who was this lady? I thought, since I had seen her image from time to time but I couldn't recall it. My house was pretty much Purple Heart to the bone.
The woman of mystery smiled at me. "Goodness," she said, "what is a girl so little doing here on her own?"
I found myself at a loss for words, overwhelmed by the mysterious beauty this woman exuded and humbled by the necessity of her to rescue me from my own ineptitude.
Even so, she walked up to me and bent down to my level. "Are you alright?" she asked.
So overwhelmed by her presence was I that I could only stammer out a "Y-Yeah..."
In spite of its delivery, she smiled warmly at the content of the message. "I'm glad to hear it. I can only imagine how many children wander into dungeons just as you have, only no one is there to rescue them in the heat of danger."
"That's not a pleasant thing to think about..." murmured 5pb.
Indeed. It was a message that would stick with me for many years to come, much like the memory of this meeting.
As she stood, she extended a hand to me, for I had fallen down earlier from the monster's leap. "My name is Vert. And you are?"
There it was! The name that had been plaguing the peripheral vision of my memory! This woman was Lady Green Heart, CPU of the landmass of Leanbox! I could not answer her with my name, only a gasp in recognition. "Whaaaaaaaaa?"
Such a reply seemed to plex her but, at the same time, she seemed to expect it. "You weren't expecting to see a CPU in the flesh, were you? Well, today is your lucky day. Might I have your name, girl?"
For as familiar as she was acting, no less intense was my stammer, which clung to me like a nasty stain. "I-I-IF..."
She seemed amused. "Oh? That's a curious name. How do you spell that?"
I told her honestly. "I-F. Just IF. 'If' but in upper case."
"Wait, seriously?" asked Red.
Yes, seriously. It's not that odd.
"It is, actually," said Jacob. "We do have a 5pb here, though, so it's understandable."
That's her radio name.
"U-Um, actually..." muttered the idol.
... You're kidding.
"Now if we could get on with the story?" Jacob asked.
Yeah, let's... get on with it... Anyway, that was pretty much how he responded. "How... unique..." she opined in that dishonest way I'm sure you're all familiar with. "Can you stand?"
"Ah, y-yeah..." Only now did I take her hand, clad in a soft silk fitting for a master's craft in Leanbox, so that she may help me on my feet. "Thank... you..." I shared with her my gratitude for saving me, naturally, before I asked her a question. "What are you doing here...?"
She answered in detail. "I mentioned children in dungeons, didn't I? Sometimes I explore low-level dungeons just in case someone's gotten into trouble there. You're actually the first person I've ever rescued in that way."
As much as I had been raised to revere Purple Heart as our true goddess, I couldn't help but admire Vert for her selfless bravery and generosity. And I was to benefit from it! It felt like a dream come true!
Perhaps she saw the sparkling in my eyes, since she giggled. "Well, IF, since this place is run-down and dangerous, what say we go out and enjoy a small meal together? Don't worry, I'll pay."
Of course I agreed to go with her. Which, in retrospect, was a really dangerous idea. What if she was involved in some child slavery ring? What if she saved me only to abduct me for her own sinister designs?
"Or what if she took you for a walk around the whole world and you constantly had to pull her out of trouble?" Jacob spoke up.
Yeah, that's a thing that happens. Anyway, the moral of the story is that you should never go anywhere alone with a stranger. Or go out into dungeons alone filled with terrible monsters. Always bring a friend or someone dependable.
Now watch as I turn this moral on its head by demonstrating that doing the wrong thing turned out for the best in the end. I went to the café with Vert and... look, if I could turn back time, I would go back to those hours again and again. I'd never been with someone so awesome before! Someone I enjoyed talking to so much! I stopped stammering in good time and the conversations were so natural, so wholesome. The food was delicious but I think I'd have been okay with talking to her while tied to a chair in a dark room.
Red hummed. "If you're into that sort of thing, I could always—"
I'm not. I was joking.
"Okay. Just saying the option's there."
"By the way," Jacob cut in, "this sounds like a pretty big deal and something that doesn't happen often. How does Vert not remember you?"
It was a long time ago. Maybe she forgot, maybe she doesn't recognise me. I do look pretty different from then to now. So Vert was, to say the least, amazing. She treated me like an equal, like an amazing friend. It was really weird but really... breath-taking, I guess, that I was talking to a CPU so casually. They're goddesses but they're so much like normal people. Even after we went our separate ways, I felt like I'd sleep well for a whole week. I'm serious, that day was just the best... So anyway, I went home...
IF hung her head. "I'm... getting to the hard part of the story."
"Oh, Iffy..." whimpered Red, petting the head of her dragon.
"You're doing well so far," said Jacob. "You can do it."
"I know, I know..." the Moderatist replied with a nod.
So after that amazing day, I head on home... I really didn't feel like the day could be in any way bad after all that.
I imagine my mum felt the same way. As soon as I chirped "I'm home" from the door, she raced through the house to see me. Dad must've been out somewhere. She looked really messy from all the worrying she'd done for me. "Where have you been?" she demanded. "You've been gone for so long! I was wondering what happened!"
Before I could say anything, Mum then bent down and hugged me tight. "I'm so happy to see you... Are you alright?"
"Yeah!" I told her, still in high spirits. "I had the best day ever! I went out in a dungeon again and I nearly died—"
My mum's eyes shot wide open as she gasped, understandably, but I continued.
"—but then I was saved! A lady came in and FWOOSH stabbed the monster in the side!"
"Oh honey...!" My mum began to tear up. Again, didn't stop me. "If only I could thank that woman now!"
"You're not going to believe this! The lady was Lady Green Heart!"
And she froze. "R-Really? That's great, honey..." You know how, when you're out with your parents and you're both talking with someone and you start going on about something stupid or embarrassing and your parents are trying to be civil but they really want you to stop talking? That's what my mum was acting like.
I really should have stopped there but I didn't. I just kept going. "It was the best day ever! She took me to a café and we talked and it was like she was my best friend! She was amazing; I've never met anyone like her before!"
"Iffy, I think that's enough..." said my mum, her smile getting more strained.
"Mum, I want to go to Leanbox! I want to visit her again! We can talk, and she can meet you and Dad, and we'd all have fun!"
"IF, please, that's enough." My mum was more stern this time but her smile remained.
"She's so cool, mum!" I... said... "I should pray to her!"
IF looked down at her hand for a moment. She lifted it up, slowly and timidly, to her face. Her hand hovered over her cheek but never touched it, like it would burn her if she did.
"Even now I can still hear that moment... and feel it..."
Jacob's fists clenched in his lap.
5pb's hands covered her mouth as she looked at IF with trembling eyes.
Red was completely still. Her dragon looked at Red before nestling against her.
IF lowered her hand back onto her lap. She overlapped it with her other hand. "My mum sent me to my room... and locked the door..."
Jacob breathed in and out through his nose. His hands relaxed. "So. What did you do?"
IF shut her eyes. "I left. I opened the window, jumped out, and ran. I held back the tears I hadn't gotten out yet."
"You ran away...?" 5pb breathed.
The Moderatist nodded. "I knew I wasn't welcome there anymore. I thought I was only going to get hurt if I stayed. So I left. I ran as far as my legs could take me. I lived on my own, going from place to place ever since. I did a lot of missions to scrape by."
"Wow..." Red gasped. "That's... That's heavy. Whoa..."
Jacob bent forward to look at IF's face. "Is this why you don't like Neptune?"
The brunette girl turned to Jacob. "Yeah, actually. I thought, stupidly... that Purple Heart had done something to my mum... Like, she and my dad worshipped her so much, like I did with Green Heart... but I rejected them, because Green Heart was so nice and loving and warm and Purple Heart j-just... hurt people... I didn't understand it... I've held it against her ever since..."
Jacob waited for a moment. "So what do you think now?"
IF clenched her eyes shut. "I think I'm an idiot...! Neptune's amazing and selfless and people aren't defined by the goddess they worship...! I hated her for all the wrong reasons and blamed her for everything she didn't do...!" With a start, IF stood up. "And I held onto that stupid poison because I thought of it like a ticket to Leanbox, where I could be near Vert! I hate jumping from place to place like a rat! I want to settle down and meet my hero again! I didn't want to use it on Neptune! I couldn't use it on Neptune ever! I just... I just..."
IF tilted her head back and looked at the roof. Her tears trickled down the sides of her face as her hands hung limply by her sides. "I just want to go home... and I don't know what that is..."
5pb leapt forward at IF, almost pushing the Moderatist back down to her bed, and wrapped her arms around her. She pressed her face into the shoulder of IF's jacket as she sobbed. "I-IF... I-I'm so s-sorry... I w-wish I knew, wish I could d-do something about it... I'm, I'm s-so sorryyyyyyyyyy...!"
"Iffyyyyyyyyyy!" Red was next to tackle IF with a hug of her own, pressing her wailing face against IF's waist. Her dragon uncoiled from her body and wrapped around IF, nuzzling her like it did Red. "That's so horrible...! You didn't deserve any of that...! WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"
It was hard for the brunette to form an answer, or any response at all, as she was hugged by the two other girls of her party and dragon. She stood frozen, her arms raised to accommodate the hugs, as she digested the situation she was in.
After a moment of hesitation, she wrapped her arms around her party members. A long moment passed as they all cried together.
IF, feeling a shadow behind her, turned her head and saw Jacob. He looked down at her with moist eyes. Red, her dragon, and 5pb nodded and broke away from IF so she could turn to face him.
He instantly bent down and embraced her. "You have no idea how angry I am right now..." he told her.
IF tensely returned his embrace. "I'm s-sor—"
"Not you... Your parents... I really, really want to punch them..."
"Don't worry about that." She stepped back from him. "I've cut them out of my life. I don't care about them anymore and they don't matter to me."
Jacob sat back down on the bed, spraying his arms behind him to support himself. "So, um... are you going to tell Neptune about this?"
The mention of the CPU's name made the Moderatist flinch. "I..."
"Maybe not the whole backstory deal," Jacob assured, "but how you really feel. Just tell her that."
With a sigh, IF walked towards the wall. "Why should I? What makes you think I deserve to be around her?"
"Because she wants you to be. She wants it more than you do."
"IF, listen to me. Neptune doesn't hate you, and neither does anyone else. We know you better than to think you're a hateful brat. They're waiting for an answer and they know you have it. Anything you can do couldn't possibly be any worse than being silent. That's what's hurting them. They want to help you, Neptune especially, and they can't do that if you don't reach them halfway."
Red and 5pb looked at IF with bated breath.
IF's hand formed a fist against the wall. "... Yeah. Of course she does. That's just like her, isn't it?"
"So," said Jacob, "what will you do?"
IF lightly thumped the wall. After a moment of waiting from everyone, she opened her hand and pushed off from the wall to face the other three. "I'll reach them halfway."
"That's the best thing you can do in this situation," said 5pb.
Red stretched her arms above her head. "Mmnnnnnnnnnnnnghaaaaa...!" she sighed in relief as she felt the popping in her shoulders and arms. "Well, I dunno about you guys but I'm feeling beat and busted. I think I'm gonna sleep for the next week."
A yawn crawled out of Jacob before he fell over on the mattress. "Great idea. Shame we have to go to the Basilicom tomorrow. Also, I'm using a bed tonight."
"Uh, no." The red-haired girl crossed her arms. "Into the sleeping bag you go. Us wifeys need beauty sleep."
"Guys," IF spoke up, "the beds can fit two people. Just share."
Jacob and Red redirected their disapproving glares at this new idea. "I don't share beds," said the male.
"Likewise! I don't share beds with ugly alien boys!" Red protested.
IF cupped her soon-to-be-aching forehead with her hand. She then dragged her palm down her face like using a rolling pin for cooking. "Fine. Whatever. You hate each other. Jacob, I'll share with you."
"Whoa whoa whoa! I cannot accept that!" Red protested again. "There's a chance he might steal your energy! As the sole protector of my wifeys, I must protect them with my lifey!"
"Enough, please! Look, you two are good people. Red, Jacob, you both like other people and want what's best for them. Red's affectionate, Jacob's... well, he's also affectionate but in his quiet way. Kind of. It's hard to tell but I know you two are just as kind and supportive as each other, no matter how much or little you show it. Just look for what's similar between you two rather than what's different."
A blush painted Jacob's smiling face. "Aw, IF, that's sweet... Just gonna say, though, that I'm not against sharing with Red because I have something against her, although it certainly doesn't hurt my case; I'm just not comfortable sharing a bed with little girls."
"Get over it. You're not a kid anymore. You can handle something as petty as this."
Jacob pouted. "It's about—"
The room was briefly illuminated by a small instance of light from 5pb. The three others turned to see the idol had brought out her guitar. "Maybe I can play a lullaby for everyone?"
"Ooh, that sounds good," said IF.
"I agree!" chirped Red.
Jacob shrugged. "Couldn't hurt."
"Hee hee." 5pb detached the pick from her collar. "Make sure you're all seated and comfortable."
The following morning, Neptune, Nisa, Compa, and Gust were waiting at the edge of the main landmass closest to the Basilicom. IF, Jacob, Red, and 5pb arrived soon after. The male waved at the other party of four but only Compa weakly raised her hand in return. Neptune saw IF and managed an anxious smile.
"Couldn't sleep?" asked Jacob.
"The whole manor was depressed," said Compa. "All the servants and Turquoise were so drained, they couldn't do anything at all. And then there's Neptune..."
The CPU yawned. "Uh? I'm all up and at 'em. I've got my get up and go right here."
Jacob glanced at IF. IF looked away.
Compa tilted her head as she looked at Jacob. "What about you?"
"It was alright. Can't really complain."
"I wonder what Lady Green Heart wants to speak to us about?" asked Nisa. "I can't imagine what could possibly be worthy to share with us at this point."
"Hopefully something to do with CPUs or Celestia," answered Gust. "Useful information to fight Momus, maybe."
Compa turned to Neptune. "Nep-Nep, we need you and Jake to carry us to the Basilicom. Are you ready to transform?"
"Yeah, yeah, easy peasy." Neptune walked off for some space. "Nep nep nep nep nep nep nep nep nep nep nep nep nep nep nep nep Neptuuuune, or whatever."
Cue the usual column of light engulfing Neptune's body upon her transformation.
Normally, Purple Heart looked like the definition of dignified. In this exceptional moment, her eyes drooped slightly and she yawned. She brought up her hand to wipe her eyes—
which opened up sharply upon coming into rough contact with her mistake. She reflexively thrust her clawed hand far away from her, keeping her left eye closed.
"Careful," said Jacob.
Purple Heart glared with her unharmed right eye at the ridges that covered her fingers, ending in a point. "I hate these things."
"At least you're more awake now," said Jacob. "It'd suck if we suddenly fell asleep mid-air."
Purple Heart shuddered.
"Same as before," said Gust. "Jacob, take Gust. Neptune, take Red."
As instructed, Purple Heart and Jacob lifted Gust and Red from under their arms before taking off towards the Basilicom.
IF turned to Nisa. "How much do you want to bet they fall asleep when they get there and forget to come back for us?"
"Don't even..." the heroine yawned, "joke about that..."