Hello everyone, I've returned for another chapter this summer! Managed to get this one out after many late night sessions dealing with writer's block. It wasn't easy, but what better way to wind down summer vacation than with a beach chapter? Time for sun, fun, and a little character development too!


It had been a solid hour of listening to them. It was just a simple meeting, figured we would get the round table together to maybe get some lifelines attached. Nepgear requested my presence at the table, even though Chika was reluctant to have a mere mortal listening in on the business of the goddesses.

Well on that day, I questioned the title of 'goddess'.

"And you talk to us about creativity and innovation? Ha! Your people only follow you because they're brainwashed into thinking everything's okay!"

"Least they're happy! Your people are just racist and hateful towards anything tainting your 'pristine nation'!"

"They...only bother...people from other nations..."

"Guys, can't we just let bygones be bygones and try working through this?"

Four 'goddesses' bickered back and forth, with only Nepgear being the one to try and interject. That and Chika, but Chika was more on the sideline taking potshots at the other three still sparking arguments. And even then, the others would just brush her aside, sometimes even berating her for siding with Planeptune and its competitive streak. While I wasn't a fan of such a factor, our point of peace was being pointlessly overshadowed by finding every error and issue with each other.

"All your people do is pick fights with each other," Ram called out, "How can we even trust you?"

"Your people...might hurt ours..." Rom continued, wearing a rarely seen angry expression.

"We wouldn't dare!" Nepgear fired back, "At least, we're trying to get things settled down, but we need help here!"

"I can't condone their actions," Chika added, eyes still aimed uncomfortably at Nepgear, "but I can't dismiss their help either."

"Chika, whether they helped or not, Planeptune is a mess. Do you really think it's smart to get involved?" Uni added.

"And you're one to talk?!" Ram fired back at her, "You made our whole clean ocean into a freakin' waste pool! You're as trustworthy as Ms. Civil War over there!"

Uni held a hand to her chest, donning a stern expression. "And I'm trying to clean up the mess! Have you made any efforts to help?!"

"No! We're too busy trying to keep out the zombies and mutants along the Glory Fields!"

"It's...your mess...to begin with," said Rom.

Ram redirected her gaze to Chika and stated with her arms crossed, "And you were supposed to help too. What happened to those super powerful cleaning rocks you were supposed to treat that you never gave back?!"

"In case you haven't noticed, I've been AFK for a couple years!" Chika countered.

"Now who's fault was that?" asked Uni.

Rolling her eyes, Chika replied, "I needed a secretary, I didn't know she was going to turn on me!"

Nepgear shook her head and said with a wavering voice, "Those rocks are sitting in Midway Ruins right now Ram. IF, Compa, even Aksys saw them with our own eyes."

"Plus IF and I found documents proving the shipping manifests for the ocean mining belonged to Leanbox, not Lastation," I added in.

While Uni raised a single brow at my statement, Ram asked, "Oh yeah? Where's your proof?"

"I don't have the documents, ask IF for that," I replied.

Nepgear's eyes stopped meeting Ram's as she said, "And the rocks are still there...and the only one we brought back we gave to IF to report to the Guild..."

"How convenient," Uni retorted, rolling her eyes. The expression Uni wore softened, replying as she looked to Nepgear, "Sorry Gear, but I've got too many problems to deal with right now, and I don't want your people causing any problems for mine."

Nepgear sighed. "Uni..."

"Oh, too high and mighty to accept help? Little miss prissy can't be bothered even when her own city is falling apart?" Chika scoffed.

I could see veins popping out of Uni's forehead, her already nasally voice getting even louder as she shouted back, "Excuse me?! We have had the lead in shares for a good month now! We're fine!"

Ram pointed a finger at Uni, replying fiercely, "Says the one that lost half your city because of your stupid experiment things! We couldn't get near your city if we wanted to, and believe me, we definitely, positively, absolutely don't want to get anywhere near you over there!"

"Good! We don't want you over at Lastation anyways! All you guys do is make the same games over and over again anyways, you wouldn't know creativity if it shot both of you in the foot!"

"At least...they're good games..." Rom replied.

"Your games aren't any better! All you guys make are weird games nobody's ever heard of and remake the same crap over and over saying it looks better! You and Leanbox make games like you make messes, all garbage!"

"Hey, we make classic, original games over here!" Chika fired back, "We even give out games to people loyal to Leanbox!"

"Yeah, crappy games that nobody plays or cares about anymore," Ram fired back, "Just like your prissy little friend there!"

"Oh, by no means are we friends," Uni waved her hands in front of her face, "She can't even hold onto her nation!"

Raising her arms in frustration, Chika replied with her voice now raised, "What do you people not understand about the situation?! I had no control over this! And you're one to talk anyways, you get hacked every other month!"

"We've fixed that issue, thank you very much," Uni fired back.

At that point, Nepgear was holding her head in her hands, mumbling softly, "This isn't how it's supposed to be..."

Rom even gave a saddened glance over at her, hesitantly turning her head away.

I gave her a soft shove, still able to hear the four before me arguing. She looked at me with little drops of sadness forming in the corners of her still-red eyes. I told her with a sharp look, "Speak up."

"But-"

"Speak. Up. Miss Nepgear."

She looked up to the four of them, no longer seated as they pointed fingers at each other, spewing spit and vitriol at each other with abandon.

"The four of you, please! We need to work together here!" Nepgear cried out.

All eyes were on her, all four sharp gazes.

"Why?" asked Ram.

"We've been running all over Gamindustri, and we know why it's struggling like it is. We even have most of the Sparks, and the Sparkholder! I don't see why you wont help us try and fix the problems here!"

Nepgear pulled out the dimly glimmering object, setting it on the table for them to see.

Taking a quick look at it, Rom commented, "How do you...know it's real...?"

"Yeah, it could just be some fake replica or something," added Ram.

"Don't you think we've already ruled that out?" asked Chika, "There's no doubt, Histoire even matched which Sparks they are."

"Even if they are legit," Uni started, crossing her arms with her eyes aimed at Nepgear, "What makes you think it'll make a difference anyways? By the time you get everything put back together, one of us could be dead. And you don't even have them all yet."

"At least we're trying here," Nepgear replied, "and we're not just doing this for us, we're doing this for everyone! But we need to work together if we're going to fix Gamindustri!"

"You really think you're going to fix anything with that?" Uni fired back, making Nepgear wince, "Our sisters said they'd be back, and look what happened. I stopped believing in fairy tales a long time ago, Nepgear. It's time to grow up, and that goes for you two as well."

Ram held a hand to her chest, mimicking what Uni would often do, stating, "We're plenty mature!"

"Yes, your chests speak volumes for that as well," Chika stated with a soft snicker.

"Mina...said we'd grow...soon..." Rom replied.

"We're well aware Chika, yes, you have the largest assets of us all. Give it a break!" Uni cried out.

"Can't we at least set up public transit lines again?" asked Nepgear, "Trade routes? Anything? Uni?"

"It's too dangerous Nepgear. Too much fighting, too many conflicts. We're perfectly fine on our own anyways, we can take care of ourselves."

The drops of water started to go quicker down Nepgear's face, her voice growing softer as she asked with her gaze shifting, "Ram? Rom?"

Shaking her head, Ram replied, "Uh-uh! You're all buddy-buddy with Leanbox, and if you aren't with us, you're against us!"

"Ram...can't we...at least consider it...?" asked Rom.

"Nope! We won't have any big dummies tainting our clean, clear nation anymore!"

Nepgear was broken, crying and mumbling something incomprehensible under her breath.

I swapped glances between Uni, Ram, and Rom, excluding Chika as the only person that still wasn't against Nepgear. "I hope you three are happy. Breaking down the one person trying their damn hardest to make the best out of this crapsack world."

"You don't understand Code. These are the politics of our world, we have nations to run."

"I don't need to understand any politics to tell you this is wrong!" I fired back, "Does friendship mean a damn thing to any of you? We walked across death and hell to get to your nations and for both of you, we helped wherever we could, had fun and talked to you like you were normal people. Like friends. And this is what we get in return?"

The two of them still donned angered expressions, but didn't say a word, the only sound in the room being my words echoing into oblivion.

"Nepgear has a nation to run too, and time upon time she has stuck her neck out for her people, and now she's doing what she can for Gamindustri as a whole! And the rest of its so-called rulers can't even lend a hand?!"

"Code, please, it's alright," Nepgear said, trying to put on an uneasy smile.

"No, it's not alright," I said to her as I locked eyes. Turning back up to the others, I said firmly, "Go ahead and forget us if you're that damned eager to do it, but we aren't giving up on you or Gamindustri."

With that said, Chika chimed in, "Now, if you guys actually have business to discuss other than shouting at each other, I suggest leaving the room."

Ram and Rom were the first ones out, Rom offering Nepgear one final glance before being pulled away by her sister.

Uni however, she turned to Chika and said, "Look, we might be able to get some tech and some supplies back and forth with Leanbox, but I'm gonna have to run the papers through Kei. I can't make any promises."

Venting a pent up sigh, Chika replied, "Good enough for now."

As Uni left the room, it left Nepgear, Chika, and I. I was sitting down next to Nepgear, still a little shaken up from that meeting. Inside, I felt bad about snapping at the goddesses, but something needed to be said, and I knew Nepgear wasn't going to do it. I looked up at Chika and asked, "Chika? Are you going to abandon us too?"

She took a look down at Nepgear, who tried her hardest to keep her head up and her eyes locked with Chika's. Chika started towards Nepgear, the sounds of her boots against the steel floor drowning out her occasional sobs. Looking up to Chika, beads of sorrow falling from her face, Nepgear asked with a quiet, raspy voice, "Chika? Please?"

"While I have to admit, Planeptune and, hell, even Leanbox aren't doing very well right now, and the surrounding areas are getting thick with violence," Chika started, "I can't forget what you've done for us. You gave me back my nation Nepgear. I won't forget that. While we can't offer military help other than the vast majority of those UAVs, and Cave and Lyrica probably won't be able to join you this adventure, we can exchange supplies and tech whenever we can. And know that you'll always have a home here at Leanbox too, Code."

It didn't take Nepgear any time at all to hug onto Chika for dear life, thanking her all the while. A hint of red formed on her face, Chika saying, "You don't have to get all emotional about it."

Seeing and hearing what I did took a great pressure off my chest, and even pushed out some of the anger dwelling in my head. My eyes met Chika's, and with that I told her, "You have my utmost respect for this, Oracle. We won't forget this."

"I would certainly hope not," Chika replied, "Now come here and take your girlfriend before she gets my breasts wet."

"Though, I will kindly ask you to please quit shipping us," I said with a sigh.

Chika started to laugh a little as Nepgear peeled away, and eventually even I had to start laughing what little I could, saying quietly to myself, "I needed that."

As I joined Nepgear, I held out my hand to Chika, who graciously took it, rolling her eyes like she was surprised at me. I told her firmly, "If you need anything at all Oracle, say the word. We'll be here as soon as we can."

"Well, first of all, you can start calling me Chika. You make me feel old when you use that title. And second, well, I could use a massage, maybe get some of my paperwork done..."

With her voice finally back, Nepgear said with a returning, genuine smile, "I'd be careful saying that Chika, he really will do it if you ask."

Once Nepgear released her grip, she started for the door. I could see her still spilling tears from her eyes, giving her a few steps ahead before turning around myself and following. Over my shoulder, I cast a glance at Chika, waving goodbye. I gave her a quick hand wave, heading out the still open doors leading to the rest of the Basilicom. Outside, Aksys was the first to greet Nepgear. Nepgear, wiping her face clear of bittersweet tears, didn't notice Aksys hesitate in reaching a hand out to her. To me, it was refreshing to see a look of concern over her face, that worried look turning to me once Nepgear was out of earshot.

"What's her problem?" asked Aksys, approaching me with scythe in hand.

I closed my eyes and my head hung a little low. "Problems more like it. She's...having a few issues with the others. It's hard to explain."

Aksys furrowed her brow and said, "Well that's kinda crap!"

I was taken aback a little by her saying that so abruptly.

"I'm the only one that gets to give her grief!"

It was hard not to laugh at her, even though I could read on her face how serious she was. With a subtle sigh, I told her, "Then why don't you go over there and tell her that?"

Crossing her arms, she upturned her head and said, "Hmph. Why should I go console the crybaby? She's out of the way and my big bro's all mine!"

That was something I couldn't laugh about. Donning a hint of aggravation on my face, I told her, "If you're gonna pretend to be my sister, than you'd better at least act like it."

"Huh?"

"You keep saying you're my little sister, but you have no respect for your big sister at all. She's gone out of her way more than once for you, I think it's about time you try to act like the sister you claim to be."

She took off just like that, running for the open door leading outside, where Nepgear sat on the stairs leading away from the quiet Basilicom. The girl was knocked down by her scythe getting stuck on the door frame, but she quickly hopped back up and started to drag her weapon along the slick steel floor. I could hear Chika sighing from the hall at the gash the klutz left, and with that, I could see IF approaching from outside.

"You and your cheesy pep-talks. Do I need to put myself up for hire in the future?"

"It doesn't take an award-winning speech to sucker her into doing something. Besides, she's doing all the work for you talking Miss Nepgear back up. Or are you a little jealous that she's taking your place?"

"You'd just love for me to say yes, huh?"

Aksys' loud mouth could be heard all the way inside, Nepgear looking up at the energetic girl spilling her feelings in the weirdest way I could imagine.

"Now why are you crying this time?" Aksys asked.

"I-It's nothing. I'm fine-"

"Like hell you are!" Aksys fired back. While Nepgear was surprised, Aksys continued firmly, "Crying doesn't suit you at all! I'm supposed to be competing with you to be Code's best sister, but if you're just gonna mope, I can't do that! It's pointless!"

I shook my head, reading in mind the words she said. "How in the hell did I get in this mess again?"

"Because the fanservice is calling for you, Code! You cannot escape the events that will pull you into every generic male protagonist's dream of a harem of hotties!" Chika spouted, using a fake scary voice, acting like some kind of doomsayer.

The worst part was that the thought did kinda scare me.

"What happened to that strong big sister that big bro always fawns over for no explainable reason?" Aksys asked.

Now on her feet, Nepgear stood before the slightly taller Aksys, her tears slowing but still glistening in the early morning light. "She got knocked down a little."

"Then you need to stand back up!" Aksys complained.

Wearing an earnest, bashful smile, Nepgear replied, "Uh, Aksys? I'm already standing."

Aksys grew frustrated, her voice elevating. Despite that, there was sincerity in her voice when she said, "Then prove it!"

I raised a brow at her statement. Aksys raised her scythe and pointed it at Nepgear quickly. "Fight me, right out here!"

That was probably the worst thing I could've heard from her at that time. But IF stopped me from getting involved, knocking my chest with a punch. I didn't want Aksys to start acting all cocky and proud, sparking more problems with her little competitive edge, but from IF's focused glare, I could tell she didn't want me to break up what was about to happen.

"I-I really don't want to Aksys-"

"No! I don't care if you want to or not, you aren't gonna prove anything moping around! I can't beat you if you just give up!"

Part of me was concerned about Aksys, but the other part of me couldn't argue with her logic. Or at least, some of her logic, where applicable.

"Ooh, a fight to the death between bitter rivals!" cheered Chika, "I'll get the popcorn."

"I think a good spar would be healthy for the two, get out some of that built-up stress," said IF.

I still didn't quite agree with it, but I'd allow it on one condition.

/+/X\%\\

"Move rat!" Underling commanded, pushing her furry friend up a tight ladder. She'd almost slipped and fell along the way up three or so times.

"Hey, you better be thankful I got you outta jail! Be more appreciative of your savior, chump!"

Underling replied harshly, "You didn't do squat! You just led that strange businesswoman to where I was and she got me out!"

Up at the top of a tall building, Pirachu started to set up a small hidden camera mounted into an awning facing the Basilicom when he saw a small group of people gathering just outside the Basilicom doors. "Oh crap! Heads down, chu!"

"What's your mental malfunction?" Underling shot back.

Pirachu only needed to point down to the crowd below to put all four of them near the awning, crouching out of sight.

"They having a fight down there?" Underling asked.

"Sure looks like it, but who's fighting?"

Underling's expression turned grave, commenting, "It's psycho bitch! Looks like she's going up against the prissy purple CPU."

"No kidding, chump? This oughtta be good!"

"For me," Underling countered, "you get to keep setting up the camera system. I wanna see this go down!"

Trotting back to the satellite dish that still needed to be assembled, he grumbled quietly, "And as usual, I get no say in what I do or see..."

/+/X\%\\

"Rules are simple!" I called out to the two fighters, "Weapons and minor skills are allowed. No CPU forms and no OP sword skills! However, if I think one side has taken too much damage, I will discontinue the fight at once! That rule is absolute!"

"And no spamming! Nobody likes spammers! Or button mashers!" Chika continued.

Proudly holding her scythe with one hand, Aksys gazed at her opponent with a furrowed brow, ready for the fight.

Holding her meager plasma sword, Nepgear looked with uncertainty at her opponent, her face still a little red from crying earlier.

"Do your best Aksys. Good luck!"

"Don't hold back!" Aksys fired back, "Show me how much you really want to wear the title of Code's bestest sister ever!"

I gave a quick facepalm as I raised the flag, counting down loudly, "Three! Two! One!"

Eager, Aksys donned a frightening smile and shouted, "Heaven or hell, let's rock!"

It took only a second for Nepgear to clear the distance between the two of them, swiping rapidly at Aksys. The scythe-wielder would have none of that, keeping her distance before pushing back Nepgear with the butt of her scythe.

"Heltic Nova!" called Aksys, summoning a black orb behind Nepgear that sparked with dark thunder wildly.

That quick move pulled Nepgear close enough for a quick slash with her scythe, followed by a quick launcher that sent Nepgear into the air. Aksys summoned another orb of darkness quickly, damaging Nepgear and flinging her over Aksys head and just far enough away for Aksys to throw her scythe to the downed CPU.

Nepgear rolled out of the way, collecting dirt and debris on her shirt in the process. Aksys' scythe buried itself in the steel of the street, already sought after by its owner. Nepgear took this moment to stun Aksys with three firm punches before using her own move, Mirage Dance.

And all while this happened, I watched with a hint of despair, the two fighting for nearly no reason at all. While I was all for the two of them getting experience, I would've much preferred them to do it in a dungeon. Especially when their little sparring match is out in broad daylight in a heavily populated city street. "Guess it wouldn't be the first time a pair of random people decided to duke it out in the middle of a street like this," I thought to myself.

"You don't seem happy in the slightest at this little match up," Uni commented to me.

I shook my head quietly. "I don't agree with this at all. Teammates shouldn't be warring against each other like this."

Judging from Uni's following sigh and silence afterwards, I could only assume I struck a nerve with my statement.

"Sometimes Code, friends have to fight. It makes their bonds all the stronger in the end."

"The ends don't justify the means," I shot back.

With that said, Uni walked away from the fight, heading back into the Basilicom. I couldn't argue with her logic, but no matter how illogical it was for me to deny a perfect training opportunity, I still disagreed with it happening at all. I could only hope at that point the two wouldn't severely injure each other.

Aksys' scythe almost ended up in the crowd when Nepgear failed to try and toss it away from the wielder, Aksys catching it midair and smashing it into the ground right before Nepgear. Giving a swift swing with her sword, Nepgear cut a gash into the frills lining Aksys' sleeves. Going for another quick swipe, Aksys shoved down the handle of her scythe, making it pop back up and deflect the blow. Butting away Nepgear with her scythe, she gave just enough length to swing down hard with the blade, pushing Nepgear back as the held her sword with both hands, staring directly at Aksys' blood fervid eyes.

"Fight harder!" Aksys commanded, forcing down Nepgear to her knees.

"I'm trying!" countered Nepgear.

"No. You're. Not!"

Jumping up over her scythe and releasing her grip, Aksys gave Nepgear a firm high-kick to the face, knocking the girl away, disarmed. Aksys quickly gripped her scythe and charge forward at the downed Nepgear. Nepgear, her face turning sour, rolled between Aksys' legs at the last second, grabbing her sword as she stood back up. A few slashes into Aksys' back made her spin around quickly, Nepgear quickly reeling back out of reach.

Nepgear raised her sword just right to block Aksys' firm blow, and with the parry leaving her stunned, she followed up with Mirage Dance.

"That's what I was looking for!" Aksys called out, quickly back on her feet and tearing into Nepgear's outfit bit by bit, rip by rip, "Doesn't stop it from pissing me off though!"

Keeping quiet, Nepgear looked again at Aksys' hand motions. Just as her hand was raised to cast Heltic Nova, Nepgear rolled forward, surprising Aksys and earning Nepgear a perfect opportunity for a Gear Knuckle straight to Aksys' exposed mouth.

I winced just seeing it, nevertheless actually being able to hear it. Lyrica, who sat next to me, rubbed her own jaw with a pained expression. I immediately rushed over to the edge of the ring we'd made out of scrapped UAV parts, looking over to see if Aksys was even still conscious.

"Aksys?!" I shouted.

"Goodness, I'm really sorry! I put way too much force into that!" Nepgear frantically shouted, running over to Aksys to check on her. Casting a long midday shadow over Aksys', Nepgear looked at the large welt formed across Aksys' jaw.

A little pain didn't stop Aksys from using her legs to trip up Nepgear, knocking her backward to the ground. Scythe in hand, Aksys stood over her opponent, Nepgear at her mercy.

With a slightly muffled, broken voice, Aksys declared, "Looks like you've lost this round!"

Taking a step forward, Aksys caught her own feet on Nepgear's, falling face first into the steel of the street. The sound of metal ringing filled the heated air, almost like a frying pan bashed across someone's head.

"Aksys?" Nepgear innocently called, quickly rolling over Aksys.

Her eyes were innocent spirals, drool forming out of her tender mouth, exhibiting every comedic, tell-tale sign of a bitter inevitability.

Aksys knocked her own self out.

"She's alright! Well, kinda alright! She's alive! Just not conscious right now!" Nepgear announced, everyone stepping through the ring to examine further.

IF and Chika were laughing their asses off while I immediately went to check on Aksys, raising her up with my hand hoisting her sweaty head. "Compa, come here!"

Lyrica, Cave, Compa, and the twins all flocked around Aksys, Compa promptly getting Aksys awake again.

"Hey kiddo, you alright?" I asked, still holding her up.

Her eyes almost seemed to sparkle, probably because of me holding her up, no matter how cliche that sounded. She formed a broken smile and said with a groan, "I...think I might've screwed up."

I let out a sigh, eyes closed as I told her, "Just please don't make a habit of it."

"One stands back up, the other gets immediately knocked down," Cave remarked.

"I wouldn't even call that getting knocked down if she did it herself," said IF.

Nepgear dispersed the crowd, taking over my spot of holding up Aksys. Her sweaty hands immediately dropped Aksys, banging her head on the steel again.

"Oww, why?!"

"Goodness, I'm sorry! I'm really really sorry!" Nepgear apologized, hoisting her back up.

Aksys gave a hand wave of dismissal, asking weakly, "Who...won?"

I narrowed my eyes at her and said, "I think somehow think that's the least of our worries right now."

"I'm more concerned about the concussion the patient may be suffering!" Compa declared.

And to that, a sarcastic IF replied, "Don't think you'll have to worry about a concussion if there wasn't a whole lot in there in the first place."

"Iffy! That's mean!"

"And sadly true," Chika added.

With fake tears forming in the corners of her eyes, Aksys wailed, "Why's everybody picking on me? I'm supposed to be the victim here!"

Compa took the aggressive role for once and hastily escorted Aksys back into the Basilicom, Aksys pouting the whole way there once Chika told her that she didn't win. I normally would've expected at least a 'Good Game' from Aksys, especially when Nepgear said it as Aksys departed, but I gave Aksys a break since she roughed up her head a little.

/+/X\%\\

Still watching down below, with her rat partner right beside her, Underling commented, "Well, think we found psycho bitch's weakness."

"I think her INT is in the negatives, chu," Pirachu replied, tweaking a few wires while watching the fight. He shocked his hand by accident, looking away for only a second to keep himself from making the same mistake twice.

"Which one do you think is dumber? Psycho bitch or loudmouth in our clan?"

"Ooh, damn, that's a tough one, chump," Pirachu replied, still fiddling with active wires that slowly got closer and closer to Underling, "Kinda wanna say psycho bitch down there. At least Overkill can make a basic strategy. Kinda, chu."

Underling gave a subtle shrug, checking the aftershow to see if there was gonna be any drama. Pirachu, still holding onto his wires, managed to set Underling's drooping hoodie ablaze. He quickly reeled back, already taping up the frayed wires with some electrical tape.

Wearing a look of confusion, Underling gazed down just in time to see, and finally feel, the fire taking over her clothes, shouting at the top of her lungs, "You dumbass rat! What the hell are you freakin' doing?!"

"I didn't do it on purpose this time! I swear!" Pirachu exclaimed, hunting for something to put the fire out with.

/+/X\%\\

"Okay Aksie, I'm just going to give you a little healing ointment and that should heal your jaw up just fine!"

"Is it gonna sting?" asked Aksys.

Just as she was about to open the tube of ointment, Compa stopped and started to read the label. "Doesn't say if it will or not. Guess we'll just have to find out."

"I'm starting to see why Code's scared of you," Aksys muttered under her breath, moving around a bit on Compa's bed for comfort.

While applying the ointment, Compa replied, "Cody's not scared of me. He likes me!"

Aksys sat quietly while the ointment started to kick in. It numbed her jaw before going to work on reducing the swelling. It worked a lot faster than she'd have thought it would. It was already easier to speak for Aksys.

"Compa?"

"Yes Aksie? Is the ointment starting to hurt?"

Aksys stopped herself for a moment, staring at the pale ceiling above. "Why do you still follow Nepgear everywhere?"

Quickly replying, Compa said firmly, "Ge-Ge's my friend, so it's only right for me to come along and keep her safe! Every party needs a healer!"

Keeping quiet, Aksys tried to comprehend that simple but meaningful reason. Her brain wasn't quite wired to think that much into reasons, but she felt like she could understand.

"Plus Ge-Ge's always working hard for the people she cares about. She's always got our best interests at heart, she's kind, sweet, generous. Lotsa reasons to stick by her side! And Nep-Nep would want me to help her in any way I can."

"Who's Nep-Nep?" asked Aksys.

"Ge-Ge's young-" Compa stopped, thinking for a moment before continuing, "Wait, no, Nep-Nep's the older sister. Nep-Nep is Ge-Ge's older sister. She went away to vanquish the great demon, Arfoire!"

Aksys tilted her head to the side, questioning once more, "Where'd she go? Will she come back?"

"To a far off place, where she can keep the big baddie away. I don't know that she'll ever come back, but Ge-Ge and I still hope that she'll come back someday!"

Getting up off of the bed, Aksys rubbed the side of her face to find that the swelling was gone already for the most part. It was still a little stiff, but it felt better than it did before.

"All better?" asked Compa.

Aksys, with her broken smile fixed, replied, "Much better. Thanks Compa."

"You're welcome," said Compa, with an earnest smile of her own, "You look much better with a proper smile! I think you have a very pretty smile."

"I try!" Aksys replied.

"So are you gonna go play with the others now?"

"Actually," Aksys paused, her head giving a subtle twitch to the left, "Where's your girlfriend at?"

"G-Girlfriend?"

"Yeah, the rude sarcastic one that's always giving me crap," Aksys replied with a dull gaze, confused slightly by Compa's sudden shock.

Compa, still wearing a shocked expression, said, "Oh, you mean Iffy!"

"I thought you two were dating? I always see her doting over you like I do with big bro."

Shaking her head firmly, Compa said, "No, no, no, we aren't dating!"

Yet, under her breath, Compa whispered, "At least, not yet."

"Oh, well, that's a bit of a surprise. I thought this whole series was built on yuri shipping?"

"Well, I won't lie that something's built, but I'm not at liberty to say what. A nurse never reveals her secrets!"

Aksys was indifferent either way, repeating her question, "So where is Iffy?"

Compa pointed toward the main hall, saying, "She should be in the meeting hall with Chika. Just don't disturb them if they're talking about important stuff."

"Thanks again," Aksys said as she walked to the door, stopping just before it to say over her shoulder, "If it means anything, I think you have a pretty cute smile yourself."

Compa giggled, saying once Aksys was gone, "She seems like such a good kid."

/+/X\%\\

"Are you sure you're alright?" I asked Nepgear again, helping her up. At that point, most everyone had dispersed for the Basilicom, Cave and Lyrica being the only ones remaining.

"I'm fine Code. I think I did more damage to myself than she did," Nepgear said, smiling sheepishly while shaking her hand, "I'm more worried about Aksys."

"I'm sure she'll recover. I just worry about her doing something stupid to get revenge," I replied.

Lyrica bore an uneasy expression and said, "I-I think you sh-should have a little more f-faith in her."

I glanced over at the Basilicom, reflecting the midday sun's raise, and thought aloud, "I have been a little hard on her. I just want her to think about others a little more."

"She'll think about others by being around them. Even if that involves fighting," said Cave.

It was just as Uni said. I knew that friendships weren't perfect. Hell, even the things Nepgear did sometimes got on my nerves, and Aksys' reason for fighting wasn't malevolent in the slightest. Well, other than that jealousy thing, but that was just...a part of what Aksys was.

Wasn't going to stop me from trying to persuade her to think a little differently though.

"I'm gonna head in for a restroom break," I announced, leaving Nepgear to Lyrica and Cave. Trotting up the roasting steel of the Basilicom stairs, my phone started to ring loudly. I didn't recognize the sender of the text I just received, opening the message while glancing up on occasion to see where I was walking.

"Hey, this is Chika, just checking to see if you were busy right now."

It was strange to see Chika of all people texting me, which made me question which one of my party members passed her my number. I snapped my phone out to reveal the keyboard, which ended up shorting out the phone again from the shock. While staring at the black screen and holding the power button, I mumbled under my breath, "Little bastard. You better not be dying on me, you've gone six fu-"

I stopped when my body collided with the open entrance to the bathrooms. I stepped back with my eyes raised to the signs, realizing something grim. Wandering with my eyes glued to my phone almost landed me in the girls' restroom. "Well, that could've ended in disaster. Guess it's a good thing my phone shorted itself out."

"Hey Code," Nepgear greeted from behind.

I jumped and hastily reared back from her, responding, "Didn't know you were behind me."

Raising her brow, Nepgear asked, "Can I ask why you're standing in front of the girl's bathroom?"

Normally I'd start stuttering like my cousin did, but I swallowed the Dogoo in my throat and replied, "Wasn't watching where I was walking. Chika texted me for some odd reason, ended up pulling an IF."

"At least you caught yourself before doing that. Not that it would've been that big of a deal anyways."

It was my turn to raise a brow, stating firmly, "I really don't want to incite the wrong ideas from my party members. Peeping on a girl going to the bathroom just sounds like a giant no-no in my book."

"It wouldn't be out of place in this series. Honestly, at this point, the readers are probably waiting for stuff like this to happen."

I donned a look of genuine shock, both at what she said and, more importantly, how she worded it! "Geez, so, is the fourth wall just a little bit of rubble at this point?"

"Goodness, I wouldn't go that far. I'd say it's at least a little sheet of plastic, at the least."

With that said, Nepgear wandered into the correct bathroom while the sudden events made me no longer really need a bathroom break. Looking down at my phone and the message that Chika sent me made thoughts start forming in my head. Bad ones at that. "No, she certainly wouldn't have known I was getting ready to go to the bathroom, and she certainly wouldn't message me knowing I'd screw up like that and almost go in the wrong bathroom. Right? Right."

I started towards the meeting room, hoping to find Chika there. Opening the doors, I found IF and Chika meeting up, and heard from a brief bit of conversation something about the Guild. "Ah, my favorite underdog! You never replied to my message."

"Sorry, phone spazzed out again. What was it you needed?"

IF replied, "The Oracle here has a proposition for the both of us. Still won't tell me what about though."

"Well," Chika started, donning her usual mischievous grin, "now that the two of you are here, I want you two to help with the Guild."

Confused, IF asked, "You do realize I already work for the Guild, right?"

I gave a shrug and said, "Well, my Colosseum permit gives me access to the Guild, and I do quests from there on occasion myself."

"No, you two, I'm thinking on a much more grand scale!"

IF and I both exchanged glances, wondering what strangeness Chika had in mind this time.

Chika continued, "I want the best in Guild Information Gathering and the top Planeptune Colisseum underdog to sponsor Leanbox's fair Guild!"

"While I can't say much for Code here, I'm kinda already obligated to help with something like that. Not like it'll hurt my reputation any. Guild work is Guild work."

I was just as impartial, but I asked, "You sure you want such quick sponsoring from another nation? I mean, I have no problem with it, but I know Planeptune isn't exactly a fan favorite right now."

"We've been over this Code. I don't care what the other nations think of you guys. So can I count on your help with helping people get excited for the Guild?"

The both of us were on board. If anything, I took it with a smile. Seeing Chika trusting us so readily was a real sign of friendship.

With eyes sparkling, Chika said, "This is just great! Now Leanbox's shares will have to go up! And if I can get Lyrica to join in too..."

"Yup, there's the ulterior motive," IF commented, rolling her eyes.

"Didn't take long for that to slip out," I added. Looking over to IF while Chika continued to scheme and dream, I asked her, "Hey, I don't suppose you've seen Aksys around?"

IF nodded. "Yeah, she asked for directions to the Guild after Compa patched her up. Seemed urgent, but who knows with that girl."

That was my cue to make use of my powered-on phone. I found her name on the top of my list and gave it a call, stepping away from IF and Chika. It rang. Rang. Rang. Then stopped. My heart skipped a beat, but was quickly overtaken with grief when the voicemail went off. I hung up quickly, muttering under my breath, "I don't like this. Don't like this at all."

"What's wrong?" asked Chika.

"Yeah, you look like a ghost again. You should probably have Compa check your blood-sugar levels."

"I have this gut feeling that Aksys is doing something really stupid."

IF rested a hand on my shoulder and said, "Come on, you're probably just overreacting again. She probably just wanted to let off steam after losing."

"I doubt it's that simple," I shot back, "Think about it. What does she usually do when she runs off on her own for long?"

Shrugging, IF replied, "I don't know. We've never really...given her a chance..."

With that said, I had bolted out of the door, past the purple blur that tried to question me as I left. People on the street looked no longer looked at me like I was mad, but rather recognized me as a man on a mission. Eyes peered up from their smartphones and graciously stepped aside. Such mannerisms made me start to like Leanbox more and more.

/+/X\%\\

When I finally arrived at the Guild, I bust through the glass doors and ran back to the receptionist's desk. "Excuse me ma'am, but have you seen a tall girl with long silver hair and a scythe take a quest from here recently?"

"Now that you mention it, a girl like that just did drop by here. Do you have business with her?"

"I need to know exactly what kind of quest she just took."

"Sorry sir but that information is-"

The receptionist stopped midsentence as she witnessed someone come in. I peered over my shoulder just in time to see IF, who'd apparently trailed me in.

"He's with me, go ahead and fill us in on what happened."

"IF of Planeptune?" the receptionist proclaimed.

"That's my name, don't wear it out."

"At once," said the receptionist.

What we learned from the receptionist was that Aksys had apparently taken a Grandmaster level quest to kill a Legendary Dragon. Normally the Guild had countermeasures to keep noobies from taking stupid-hard quests like that, but IF and I learned that she had apparently snatched Nepgear's Guild License from her and used it. After IF chewed out the receptionist for not picking up on something so obvious, we both headed out to the Temple of the Queen. It was a fairly high level dungeon, and even I'd be put through the rungs trying to descend it.

"Think she's still alright down there?" asked IF.

"She better be! I'm gonna need to chew somebody's ass out for this whole mess!"

In my mind, I ran every worst-case scenario I could think of. Seeing the grandiose mesh of stone and gold that made up the temple, I questioned how Aksys would even get down to her target in the lower reaches of the temple. The lobby was cleared out, meaning that the mobs had just recently been eradicated. I could only hope that their respawn times would give us enough leeway to get down to wherever Aksys was at. Down flights of stairs illuminated sparsely by meager torches, we scurried through floor after floor, finding tell-tale signs of Aksys renegade rush to the finish line. Blood splatters, gashes in the stonework, there was no doubt she was somewhere nearby.

On a larger floor, I could feel the vibrations of something beneath us, followed by an echoing roar. Something below us was awake and well past aggro'd. "This better be the last floor, 'cause I'm running out of stamina here!"

"Better chug a potion for that, 'cause this isn't going to be an easy fight!" replied IF, following me through the hole in the brickwork that led down into a cave.

"Who the hell said we were staying for a fight?!" I shot back.

Before any words could be said, I stopped at the sight of an aged dragon swiping its claws at a furiously fighting Aksys. With bulging muscles and scars lining it's ancient body, anger and power welled up in its red eyes, ready to swing again at the frantically defending Aksys. One thing was for sure, she was pulling out every trick in her book to keep herself alive. But just a quick glance at her HP bar displayed on my HUD revealed her health almost ready to drop to zero. I rushed forward, drawing out Grindrix just as Aksys was forced on her rear from another attack. Standing right before her, I blocked with one sweaty hand on the backside of Grindrix and another wrapped tight around her hilt.

The dragon's fierce claw blasted me away, inertia flinging me into a nearby wall. I could feel my spine popping repetitively, with my emotions forcing me forward with abandon.

"La Delphinus!" IF called, blinding the dragon for a moment. It was her turn to cause some collateral, swiping with claws of her own at the beast and whittling down a little of its health bar before trying to step back. The dragon would have none of that hit-and-run warfare, picking up IF quickly and flattening her against the ground. With Grindrix in hand, I started chopping at its arm frantically, my muscles aching with every quick swipe. Sweat wandered down my face and my expression turned dire as I forced the beast's hand up and away.

When it swiped again, I stepped back, only to be attacked again. My body felt light as it was flung in the air, my jacket tearing in a few spots as I impacted the dirt. I could see flames starting to leak from the beast's mouth, preparing a flame breath that would make short work of us three.

"Arctic Spear!" Aksys called, unveiling a new move that shot up a pillar of jagged ice. Her saving grace was expended to keep away the breath, the ice soaking the floor quickly with water as it was melted.

"Get out of here!" I shouted to Aksys, starting to crawl desperately to anyone I could.

Once it saw the fire fail, the beast charged up its breath again.

"Spamming bastard!" cursed IF, trying to stand up and falling flat in the process. "La Delphinus!"

It was blinded but certainly not stopping. It had only half of its health left, but we had basically none. There wouldn't be any winning the fight unless we had the goddess' blessing. "Nepgear, if you plan on playing the role of hero today, now would be a really good time to do it."

When the flames started to heat up the already warm dungeon, I could see a single soul clad in white and purple standing with blade before her. Her body was clad in machinery that could only be from her CPU form. She was quick to cast healing spells on all three of us before setting her determined gaze on the beast. "You will not be hurting anyone else! Please submit to defeat!"

"Kick its ass Gear!"

"We're counting on you!"

Aksys, dead silent, started to crawl back with widened eyes, struck by fear, even after gaining some SP and health from our favorite goddess.

"Panzer Blade!" called Nepgear, using another good chunk of her SP on with a strong attack that chewed away at it's health. Despite that, it took one swing of those feral claws to put Nepgear to the wall.

With the ability to fight again, IF shouted to Aksys, "Cast your spell again! The ice one!"

Still frozen with fear, she couldn't call out anything.

"Help us, lil' sis!" I shouted to her at the top of my lungs.

That had Aksys attention, her eyes widening and her body shivering as it stood up.

"Do it for your big sister, Aksys!" Nepgear called out, defending us both from another claw swipe.

The dragon was readying another breath attack, Aksys replying quickly with her ability, "Arctic Spear!"

Stunned, the beast staggered back, it's head aimed elsewhere for the moment with the pillar of sharp ice standing tall before it, still untouched by the fire.

"Gear, slice the pillar at the root! Code, use Pedestal Slam when I give the word!"

"Understood!"

With a firm, clean cut, Nepgear released the pillar from the floor, IF using the last of her strength to kick up the flat end of the pillar towards me. "Now!"

I didn't hesitate, throwing Grindrix as high as the ceiling would allow before kicking her forward, turning the ice pillar into a spearhead that pinned the beast to the back wall.

With IF and I at her back, supporting her with our faith and wishes, Nepgear gripped her sniper blade proudly and called to Celestia high above, "M.P.B.L!"

That final headshot, with a flash of light, ended the Legendary Dragon with a blast of laser fire, leaving only a sum of credits and XP behind. A lasting light left behind by Nepgear letting go of her CPU form also left a lasting impression on the still whimpering Aksys.

While IF went to fish out Grindrix from her icy encasement, I started over to Aksys just in time to see her burst into tears, gasping for air in between sobs. She was curled up on the ground with her head buried in her arms. Heavy heart beating a mile a minute in my chest, I walked to Aksys and asked her, "What in the hell were you thinking?! Running off for a suicide mission like that?"

She merely sobbed in response, like a frightened child.

"You had us all worried to death about you! Pulling a stupid stunt like this-"

Nepgear, rushing past me and holding onto Aksys, cut off my words with a simple shake of her head aimed at me. Consoling her with hushed words and a warm hug, Nepgear bore her best smile coupled with tears occasionally rolling down her dirty cheek.

It was then that I realized that Aksys really was just as she acted. A frightened child. And she needed her friends, no, her family with her for comfort. I shook my head and held a pair of dirty hands to my face in dismay, letting them down only when IF brought me my beloved blade.

"Always a handful, ain't she? Neptune used to pull the same stupid crap from time to time," said IF, giving a soft chuckle with her arms crossed and a gaze placed on Aksys, "She almost reminds me of her in a few ways. For better or worse."

"I wonder if Miss Nepgear can see the same thing," I wondered aloud.

As Nepgear released her grip, she helped up Aksys, still wiping away tears from her face. Looking at me with red eyes, Aksys quietly asked, "A-Are you s-still mad at me?"

"Do I have a right to be?!" I asked her honestly, earning a few more tears from her in response, "Of all things you idiot, going in so far over your own head! What on Gamindustri were you hoping to prove?"

"Code..." whispered Nepgear..

I pointed a sharp finger at her, my emotions rushing straight to my head where I could almost feel my blood boiling and steam comically escaping my ears, "You have so many friends willing to back you up at any given moment! We're here for a reason, whether you want us here or not! I don't know about the other two here, but I'll be damned if I sit idly by and watch you off yourself so quickly!"

Part of a smile formed on her face. It was short-lived, but still there.

"Do you realize how worried we were about you?! We were still worried about you getting your jaw caved in earlier! Do you realize what Nepgear and the rest of us would go through if we wandered down here and found your lifeless corpse? Nepgear'd be crying, I'd be crying, hell, even IF might be crying!"

I found my own self tearing up at those words. Part of the hurt came from searing hypocrisy, remembering back when I did the same kind of thing Aksys was just doing.

"We're in this together Aksys. I don't care if you get mad at us or have some sort of vendetta against one of us, we're a party. A family, I guess..." added IF.

It wasn't long after that Aksys came to me to cry, latched on like a child to its parent. Dropping my axe on the ground, I could feel warm tears soaking the parts of my jacket that weren't already soaked in sweat. "Next time, if you're going to do something stupid like this, at least take one of us with you."

I could hear her trying to apologize, crying too much to say anything.

In my heart, I felt a stranger kind of warmth. It wasn't love, nor was it some sick twisted form of pity. Looking down at Aksys, I asked myself in the deep reaches of my shaken mind, "Is this what it feels like? To care about family? I'm not even related to these strange people. But is this something like what Dad felt like when he used to hold me?"

Staring down at my blade below, the soft torchlight reflected in her somber steel, I could almost see the image of that long-lost father of mine before breaking away to see the child I still comforted. I let her soak my jacket for a while before pulling back. Patting the top of her head, I said with a light heart, "You're safe now, so cheer up, alright? You look better with a smile anyways."

In a surprise twist, she departed from me and quickly bounced over to IF, grabbing onto her last. "I'm sorry IF. Please don't let me do anything stupid like this again!"

IF gave a pained smile and an uneasy chuckle, replying, "That seems to be all I'm here for anyways. Seems I'll just have to try a little harder from now on, huh?"

Once Aksys had let go, I could see the tears fading from her face, and her skin gaining back its color. Most importantly, I could see the smile forming on her face again. Once we started back to the end of the cavern, where there was likely to be a convenient path back up to the top, I asked Aksys, "You never did answer my question earlier. What did you hope to gain going on this stupid mission?"

"I-I wanted to be stronger. Even when I tried to help you get back on your feet...you just ended up standing taller than I did. It hurt, a lot. S-So I wanted to build myself back up, prove that I was still just as strong as Neppy-Gear."

"Aww, you called me by nickname! I haven't heard you say that since we met!" Nepgear exclaimed, wearing a big grin.

"That's probably because a certain someone forgot that was even established. You know who you are," IF stated.

"I think you've earned that much, big sis," said Aksys, sharing a warm-hearted smile with Nepgear. She quickly pointed a finger at me, her smile fading fast, and said firmly, "He's still mine though!"

I accepted my fate at that point, for I knew it well. "Besides that, I hope you realize that Nepgear's only strong because she has us to rely on."

Aksys almost looked confused by my statement.

"Not a one of us, and I mean, none of us, would've had the power alone to kill that thing. It took three of us to finish the damned thing off. And it didn't even give that much XP! I need to complain to a certain dungeon master to get this crap fixed..." IF stated coldly.

"She's right about all of that," Nepgear replied, chuckling for a moment, "Including the lack of XP. I get my powers from the people that believe in me. While Planeptune still keeps me able and ready for the most part, my real power comes from my friends, and that they believe in me. Code told me that, and I believe it. And I have the feeling you feel the same way, Aksys."

"Of course I believe in you!" Aksys fired back quickly, "I wouldn't be wasting all my effort on a lost cause."

Aksys grew a little red in the face, illuminated by the approaching light of day. The upward path lead out into the nearby forests, with the path dumping us out where the midday sun highlighted the borders of Trickstar. Looking off to the side, I could still see Leanbox hovering precariously over deep ocean water. It wouldn't be but a few minutes to get back though.

While walking, Nepgear fiddled with her blade, examining a mysteriously loud clicking coming from within it.

With a raised brow, Aksys asked, "Is that thing gonna explode or something?"

"I'm not sure what's going on. Last time this happened, it was the relay servos for the battery getting fried, but I just replaced those last week."

Just as she finished saying that, the shining laser erupting from the blade's hilt suddenly vanished, leaving behind a metallic framework.

"Yup, I'm gonna take a wild guess and say that your battery's shot," said IF.

"Seeing that it blocked a list of attacks from a OP bastard of a dragon, I think it'd be safe to say that it's well past drained," I added.

I saw Aksys avert her gaze, wearing a hint of a pained expression, something Nepgear immediately noticed as well.

"Hey Aksys?"

Aksys moved her head to face Nepgear.

"Wanna help me fix my blade later? I think you could learn a lot from watching at least."

My eyes were glued on Aksys, waiting for another snarky comment. I was pleasantly surprised when Aksys replied, "Sure! Sounds uber fun!"

Back in Leanbox, the streets were littered with many folks getting off of work, heading to home with eyes glued to their smartphones. I could hear the distant singing of Lyrica on a commercial playing from a plaza superscreen meshing with the sounds of quiet conversation passed around the steel sidewalks.

Stopping before an arcade, the sounds of running and childish chimes exiting from the open air doorways, Nepgear asked Aksys, "Think you'd want to play some games?"

I wasn't quite sure how to feel about us diverging off from getting back to the Basilicom. IF shared the same sentiment, from what I could read from her expression anyways. I wanted to see how the preparations were going with Chika getting ready to hunt down that time-travelling island. Dismissing those thoughts, I told myself that I could just text her in a minute to see what was going on. If anything Cave or Lyrica would be able to fill me in later.

"I don't know. I'm really thinking we should be gearing up to go find that secret experimental island Chika kept going on about."

"I think she could use a little pick-me-up," I commented to IF.

"Please Iffy?" asked Nepgear.

Aksys tried her best to don the puppy-dog eyes again, a hint of red still lining the whites of her eyes.

Rolling her eyes, IF replied, "For a little while, I guess."

Aksys cheered and Nepgear helped lead her inside the bustling arcade, weaving through traffic surprised to see the goddess so eagerly browsing arcade cabinets.

"I'll give Chika a text or two seeing how preparations are looking for the next dose of plot advancement. I want to head out as much as you do, but for now, a little more down time won't hurt," I said to IF, heading inside with her in tow.

"At the very least, we should stop by the Guild later to turn in that quest. Have the feeling we won't have to worry about Shares for a while with that quest knocked out."

"Then what better way to celebrate than with a little friendly gaming? What'll it hurt, right?"

IF shook her head with an passing grin, replying calmly, "What the hell. It's been a while since I played a good game or two. Just don't expect me to go easy on you."

Once inside, the chatter from outside dulled to silence, arcade machines chiming nostalgic tunes overriding the sparse communication inside. There wasn't many people wandering inside, and most of them seemed to scatter away from a particular side of the arcade.

IF, looking at the decor and design of the arcade, commented, "I think I remember Otome mentioning this arcade once. Something special about it, but don't remember what."

Once inside, I could see a few arcade cabinets that'd support the four of us playing together, but that would leave us still having to form teams. I already anticipated Aksys wanting the two of us together, so I just submitted while the thought was in my mind.

"Hey guys, let's try this one!" called Aksys, her distant voice bringing us around another four-player cabinet hidden near the back.

Stopping immediately, I looked at the title with wide eyes and started having my brain conjure up escape plans. Not only did the game feature a group of ninjas quickly tearing the clothes off of each other in ways that would make even Neptunians blush, but I was quite a veteran of the series in my youth. I really didn't want three of my closest female friends knowing I was a natural at one of the perviest games I could think of.

"I didn't even know there was an arcade version of this game," commented Nepgear.

"I'll have to pass on this one. I'm no good at hack-'n-slash stuff," I said, attempting a laid-back chuckle.

IF stepped up to one of the control pads and replied, "I'm not the best at them either. Won't hurt to give it a try."

Aksys gave a motioning gesture to me, saying, "Come on big bro, you can be on my team!"

Looking down at the coin slots, I noted to the others, "We'll have to get some arcade tokens first. I'll get them right quick from the desk."

Heading up there, heads would turn occasionally to glance at me, either going back to their games or staring at something else in the background that I was somehow missing. I'd hear scattered conversations mentioning something called "Space". I could only assume it was a game of some sort.

Greeting the burly desk clerk, I requested a few arcade tokens, expending some of my own credits. I had enough that I'd be willing to splurge, especially if it meant a little fun for the others. Once back at the game, I handed everyone their tokens, just slightly smaller than the average credit, all of the girls thanking me one by one.

"I think I've got the controls down. Or, I hope," Nepgear commented.

"I don't think it's too difficult," added IF, taking a last quick glance at the control list.

As I reached down to the coin slot for my side, I dropped in the coin, but never heard the thunk of it hitting the coin detection. Looking up revealed that the game hadn't moved past the request for a coin input.

Aksys and IF both left their machines to check on mine. Nepgear, who gave the coin input a couple of taps, said, "Looks like a credit got mixed in with the arcade coins."

Faking annoyance, I groaned, "Guess I won't be playing this round."

"I'll go get the manager," IF stated.

I stopped her there, getting up quickly and saying upon my departure, "Nah, you guys go ahead and have fun. I'll get everything sorted out."

Walking away, I could hear the sounds of the match starting, Aksys giggling about having a headstart while the others were scrambling back to their controls. I let out a sigh of relief, even if I felt a little bad about leaving Aksys alone for the fight. While I headed back to the front desk, I could see the other gamers gathered around a certain racing game, eyeing what sounded like an epic race. Between who was beyond me.

"Maybe that's that Space thing everyone keeps talking about?"

At the desk, I filled in the clerk with what happened. He said it'd take a bit for that machine to get fixed, as the mechanic was on lunch break. Didn't hurt my feelings any. It'd give me time to find a less fanservice-y game for us to play. I was curious about the one we played earlier, and was about to head to it when I heard a distinct shout from behind me.

"Anyone else care to challenge us?"

I looked back, seeing the crowd disperse and reveal a plain-looking boy, probably about sixteen or seventeen, clad in just a yellow T-shirt and blue jeans. His hair looked like quite a mess, spiking everywhere.

Our eyes locked and he came to me. It was too late to decide to flee, the boy had made his appearance before me, asking, "How about you? Interested in a little game or two?"

"Not much of one for competition, if that's what you're asking."

"Then how about a wager?"

It was then that the others had joined in, Nepgear, Aksys, and IF all at my now-turned back. Sure didn't take long for the match to end, but I expected as such for their first time playing.

"Oh? Important friends?" asked the scraggly teen. It was then that I noticed he had a smaller, quiet girl clad in a sailor outfit standing right next to him.

"One of them being the CPU of Planeptune, so show respect," I quickly fired back.

"I never intended anything but!" he replied.

With Nepgear forming the spearhead of our little gaming group, she greeted the two warmly. "Pleasure to meet you. I'm Nepgear! Are you looking for some new challengers?"

"I think..we've just found them..." said the little one.

The man formed a bitter smile and said, "I'm thinking about making this interesting. Wanna hear?"

IF crossed her arms with an indifferent expression, asking, "What exactly are you scheming? A smile like that could only belong to a rogue."

"No schemes...just a challenge..." said the little one.

"Two on two for the Ghoul Town lightgun game in the back. Winner gets one favor from the goddess. Normally we'd have a good ol' fashioned round of busty ninja slaying, but the machine's broke."

I personally had no interest in a win condition like that, but I questioned what hare-brained idea he had in store. Knowing a shifty person like him, he probably would ask for something stupid like control over Planeptune. Regardless, Nepgear was quick to agree, turning to us as a group and asking, "It's two on two. Who wants to pair up with me?"

The first one to pipe up was Aksys, declaring proudly, "I'll do it!"

"You probably don't even know how to play," added IF.

When IF noted that, Aksys' face soured, looking over at Nepgear and I. "On second thought, I think you should help her Code."

It wasn't any skin off my back, so I agreed, stating, "Nepgear and I are the most experienced with firearms."

"Are the teams settled then?" asked the little girl.

"We're ready! Let's play!" cheered Nepgear, waltzing happily over to the arcade cabinet sitting in the back of the room.

With four lightguns mounted on four pedestals, we each took aim and put in our coins. I made sure that I actually used the right coin that time.

"The one with the most points wins. No holds barred," declared the scraggly one.

It took mere seconds for the little LCD screen to be flooded with hordes of the undead, the main catch-all for the strange fantasy-style shoot-'em-up game. It certainly worked, and with Nepgear working hard right beside me, I cared less and less about my points and focused more on how much fun the game was. It wasn't overbearingly difficult, but yet presented a good challenge, an entertaining one at that.

Nepgear and I would frequently banter back and forth about the enemies, Nepgear pointing out the animation style. "It looks like something off of that old Lastation game."

"Which one?" I asked, racking up another set of kills from a wave of skeletons.

"I think the main character's name was Deathmound. Something like that."

The scores piled up with every digital fiend slain. I could feel Aksys breathing down my neck, twitching on occasion and throwing off my aim. IF stood by idly, glancing at us every now and again while she managed her phone and the numerous emails piling up. All the while, the occupants of the arcade would occasional peer in, eager to see if anyone had finally beat their local legends.

It was the last leg of the game and there wasn't any way to catch up with the rest of us. I was leading by a meager sum of points, overridden time and time again by the short one paired up with scraggly. I could easily tell that scraggly wasn't the best with shooters, but the little one was quite a threat. To keep up with someone that handled a real firearm wasn't a small feat, and I was nothing short of impressed. When the machine finally chimed, our play was over.

IF shook her head at the sight. "Tsk, tsk, you're getting rusty Code."

"You were just a couple points shy! I demand a rematch!" Aksys proclaimed, pointing a sharp finger at the challenging duo.

"Looks like we win," announced the scraggly one. The short one remained faithfully emotionless, despite the little glimmer of victory in her eyes.

Holding out a soft hand, I said, "Good game. It was a close one."

The two seemed a bit confused at first, but scraggly eventually took my hand and beckoned his little follower to do the same with Nepgear. It was refreshing to see a pair of gamers as skilled as them that still had some manners. I couldn't get enough of that.

"That was fun! We should definitely play again soon," said Nepgear.

"I think it was fun enough for another go. But first..."

The scraggly one brought forth his little follower, the small one saying, "I'll...ask for my favor now..."

"Just as long as it isn't too over the top. Or lewd, we try to avoid that one too," replied Nepgear.

Scraggly was about to say something when the little one said, "We want complete control of your nation."

"Denied," I quickly shot back at them.

"I thought we agreed-"

"We agreed that the winner gets a favor. You never said who chose the favor or what the favor would be," said IF with a smirk, "As far as we're concerned, Nepgear can decide what favor you get."

Scraggly hung his head in defeat. I had to laugh about it, same with Nepgear.

"Yup! Yup, we totally planned that from the start!" said Aksys hastily, "Now, how about we get back to playing games?"

The scraggly one wore a look of defeat until I said to him, "Now that I think about it, I don't think we ever exchanged names."

With a head perked up, Scraggly said, "I'm Sky. My little sister here is White."

"It's nice to meet you! I'm Nepgear, CPU of Planeptune." said Nepgear. She looked to White and said, "I really like your outfit. It looks cute!"

"Thank you...it's nice to meet you too."

I looked to Sky, introducing myself calmly, "I'm Code Oprashunal, top Colosseum underdog and guardian of this party."

"Underdog, huh? Not a bad title to have," Sky commented.

Giving a chuckle, I replied, "Glad someone gets it."

Aksys quickly butted in, blurting out randomly, "I wanna face the loli in the game we were playing earlier!"

At the request of Aksys, Sky led us all to the ninja cabinet. I had the feeling Aksys wouldn't last long against White, but seeing that the duo of Space still understood the concept of fun in a game, I trusted them to go up against any of us. While Nepgear and IF watched Aksys, I stood next to Sky and watched the rapid hand movements of White.

"Do your best, beloved little sister!" Sky would occasionally say to his concentrating other half.

"You seem close to her," I commented.

"I could be closer. But, we are inseparable as we are now."

I paused for a second, caught between the conversation and the game I was still watching. Aksys wasn't doing half bad surprisingly.

"Are you an only child?" asked Sky.

Giving a soft laugh, I said, "Kinda. I ended up the adopted big brother of Aksys and Nepgear. It's kinda silly, we're not related by blood at all."

Sky gave a raised brow and asked with a hint of annoyance, "So? Who cares if you're related by blood?"

I was a bit shocked to hear that, turning to face Sky.

He leaned back on an air hockey table, crossing his arms and disarming the fierce expression he wore. "Quiz time! Do you love those two with all of your heart? Care for them like you've known them all your life?"

"Well," I paused again, "I-I don't know."

"Let me restate the rules here, there's only a yes or a no to those questions."

"How about we go with yes then?" I blurted out, earning a glance from Nepgear.

"Then that's all that matters. We have a winner here! You get to be the sole most awesome big brother to two cute girls! Why in the hell would you ever turn that down?"

It was a crude way of putting it, but I had to laugh at how he worded it. The guy had to have had his charisma stat completely maxed out.

"Plus, since you're technically not siblings, they're still legal," he whispered in my ear, leaving for his little sister, who had just won the match.

With that thought in mind, I looked over at the disappointed Aksys, Nepgear comforting her before stepping up for the next round. They both spotted me looking at them, waving casually. I waved back, my eyes starting to descend to other regions of their bodies. I caught myself just in time and stepped away, thinking to myself, "No, no, no impure thoughts. Head out of the gutter. They're not fanservice dolls, they're family."

I stepped over to IF, who just finished a motorcycle race on one of the cabinets. Before confronting her, I made sure to finally message Chika about how close we were gonna be to searching for our fabled island. Phone closed, I asked IF with a thumb pointed over my shoulder, "You, me, air hockey?"

"Hope your agility's good enough to keep up," IF replied.

It was fun to get out and play a game or two with the others. IF and I put up a good fight on the air hockey tables, but she usually had the upper hand. At the end of every game, we'd laugh a little and go again. Until Sky and White proposed a racing tourney, roping together a few locals to go against us as well. For the first time in a long while, I was able to play games calmly, having fun the whole while. A couple hours went by, and it was about time to get back home. Chika said something had happened but wouldn't fill me in on what it was.

Standing at the door to the arcade, Sky and White seeing us off, IF said, "You know, you never came up with what favor you wanted."

With Grindrix over my shoulder, I said stoically, "We could always keep it an IOU if you wanted."

"No, I got just the thing," said Sky, pulling out a smartphone, cased in a bright shell that was a far cry from the other dull-as-dishwater pastels the other Leanboxians had. "How about a group shot?"

"That's it? A photo?" asked IF, to which Aksys quickly closed her mouth with a sweaty hand, agreeing happily to the favor.

With Nepgear and I in the middle, IF and Aksys huddled around us. I hoisted Grindrix proudly, while Nepgear gave a cheery peace sign. The best part was how brightly each of us smiled. When the smartphone set off a bright flash, we disbanded, everyone waving goodbye save for myself.

"What's up?" asked Sky.

"I think for second place in the competition, I should get to request a little favor myself," I said with a disarming smirk.

"And that...would be...?" asked White.

I pulled up my phone's information, displaying my number on the screen before holding it towards them. "You two are cool in my book. Keep in touch, alright? You need anything, just give me a shout."

Neither of them hesitated to register me in their phonebooks, Sky commenting, "Strange request, but, hey, why not?"

"Strange...indeed..." said White.

"Just consider it thanks. For reminding me that this world isn't all bad."

I said my farewells and quickly caught up with the others, running down the heated steel sidewalk with Grindrix. A couple bystanders would wave hello, recognizing me from Lyrica's concert, while others steered clear from Grindrix. Caught up with the others, a sweat bead falling down my slowly tanning face, Aksys already lamenting my disappearance.

Still clutching her sword, Nepgear fiddled with some of the connectors, not paying attention to where she was going. IF mimicked that, playing with her phones and occasionally bumping into bystanders. Aksys and I helped guide the two through the slowly dimming streets of Leanbox, on a short-lived quest to the Guild before it closed. No flying eyes, no pissed off clan members, just four friends enjoying a warm night illuminated by the descending sun.

"That was a lot of fun. Really hope we can do that again soon," commented Nepgear.

"It'll be nice if we do, but how about we spend the next few days focused on the task at hand?" said IF.

Sadly, I had to agree with her, but it wasn't all bad to me. "We can still have fun in the future I imagine. But how about we cut down on the spontaneous running-amuck?"

Aksys shied away, still refusing to let go of my arm.

Looking at IF, Nepgear said to the still-distracted IF, "I'm happy with that, just as long as IF admits she had fun."

"Never denied it. I just appreciate getting down to business."

"And, Aksys?"

Aksys quickly turned to face Nepgear, almost scared that she was going to steal me away from her. I personally could've done without her clinging onto me like a lost child, but I accepted them as the repercussions of snapping at her earlier.

"Can I have my Guild license back?"

Returning the piece of plastic to Nepgear, she said not a word in apology, instead retreating deeper into my arm. Whatever was going on with her didn't sit well with me, but as usual, I chose not to say anything.

The Guild doors were still open, a sparse amount of light bleeding out from its crystal clear windows. Only a sole attendant remained, Nepgear approaching her to turn in the request still registered on her account. Using her HUD, Nepgear showed her most recent combat history, the attendant glad to have such a difficult quest knocked out.

"There it is," said IF.

I looked down at her phone, Aksys doing the same and asking her, "What?"

"That quest alone made Leanbox's shares jump fifteen percent. Lastation's officially been knocked out of first place."

That fact surprised me, and also disturbed me. I was glad to see Leanbox prosper, but at what cost? Uni probably wouldn't be happy about that, and I could only hope she wouldn't go about pushing herself even harder to keep going. I could tell already that Uni was past her breaking point. She didn't need any more pressure.

"Yeah! Good ol' Leanbox is on the rise!" Aksys shouted, disturbing my nearby ear and making me flinch.

"For how long though?" I asked aloud.

"I don't care how long myself," said IF, finally putting away her phone, "Just as long as nobody's sitting in the red, it's smooth sailing for our mission."

Eyes narrowed and head lowered, I told her, "I'd keep those numbers up soon in the future. Share shifts get me nervous."

"You aren't the only one."

A random Nepgear had appeared!

Her appearance and sudden voice made me jump, but once she was back with us, we could continue onwards to the Basilicom. She showed us a hefty payday from the quest, certainly more than we got from the boss drop. IF wanted to immediately spend it all on provisions from the trip, but Nepgear split the sum amongst the four of us. It felt good to have something lining my pockets, but I had the feeling we'd all be coming together to pay for something for the road ahead.

Along the way home, I noticed a strange pair of black masses pulled by a certain redhead. I took the lead, rounding about the strange sidewalk obstruction to find Lyrica and Cave.

"Oh!" shouted Lyrica, rearing back from my sudden appearance.

"Hello to you too," I said with a slight smile, "Decide to do a little late night shopping?"

The large black masses that Cave still pulled looked like speakers from what I could see that the nearby streetlights illuminated.

"M-My old Boss sp-speakers finally burnt o-out. So I bought s-some Rose ones to re-replace them," said Lyrica.

"Hey Cave! And Lyrica! It's nice to see you two," greeted Nepgear.

"Hello Nepgear. Care to assist?" asked Cave.

"Sure!" said Nepgear.

I stopped her hand as it reached for the string tied to the wheeled speaker, telling her, "I'll get it. You've overworked yourself today anyways."

And to that, Aksys butted in and snatched the string from me. "You both worked hard for my sake. I'll take care of the heavy lifting from here on out!"

IF followed behind Aksys and even taking a seat atop the speaker that Aksys pulled.

"Isn't this the part where you offer to take up the lifting in my stead too?" Aksys moaned, grunting as she pulled the significantly heavier speakers through the sidewalk, avoiding the occasional passer-by, drifting off into the street on occasion.

Shaking her head and staring at her phone, IF replied, "You said it yourself, we worked for your sake. You get the heavy lifting."

All of us shared a laugh, IF at least getting off the speaker for Aksys. The music makers weren't that heavy on their own, about thirty pounds each.

"I saw Leanbox's Shares spike recently. I don't suppose you all had a play in that?"

Aksys hung her head a little, avoiding eye contact with Cave for that moment.

"Wild child decided to take that Grandmaster quest for a spin," said IF, "Nearly took the rest of us to the grave in the process too."

"You certainly can't mean the quest involving the Legendary Dragon?" asked Cave.

IF gave a swift nod of her head, barely illuminated by the passing street light.

"E-even Cave wouldn't t-touch that quest. What compelled y-you to try it?"

Looking down for a minute, Aksys was about to answer when Nepgear butted in, saying, "She wanted to prove to us how strong she was."

"Oh?" Cave raised a brow, "And what did you deduce?"

"Still need work," Nepgear and IF replied in unison.

I gave a soft chuckle and said, "Easy on the kid. She's learnin'."

Lyrica, approaching Aksys, who raised her head to meet hers, said with a gentle smile, "I think it's brave for you to have taken that challenge. Not a lot of people can stand up so confidently against things bigger than them."

Nodding firmly, Aksys sharply replied, "Just you wait! I'll be stronger than all of you combined!"

I rolled my eyes and groaned, "It's still not a competition, even if you want to make it one."

The Basilicom was just before us, the light of day disappearing with only the nearby streetlights left around to illuminate the stairs and a sole drone that Nepgear left outside by accident. While IF and Cave offered to get the speakers, and Nepgear booted up her drone, I took the moment to examine Grindrix for any imperfections in the blade.

"It's still amazing how you got something like that from your old controller," said Lyrica.

"Yup, had to replace every part in it, but I got it," I replied.

Aksys, looking intently at my blade, pointed a finger at it and asked, "If you had to replace every part in it, doesn't that mean it's not really your original axe?"

By that logic she wasn't wrong, but to that, I replied, "It still retains the shape and design I'm familiar with, so I'd say it's still the original axe."

"But nothing in it remains from the original. It's the same as building a brand new one, which would make it different from the original one."

"But I still identify it as my original axe, it's identity never changed upon me changing the parts of it."

"Even at that, it's not the original anymore!"

At this point, the drone Nepgear was working with shorted out, a small explosion blowing out the upper part of its head.

"Not again!" shouted Nepgear, quickly trying to fix the issue with her N-Gear.

Before she could get the machine fixed, Chika called to us, stating that Chika wanted us in the meeting room. Nepgear settled for letting IF and I move her defunct drone back into the Basilicom for the night. Chika and Nepgear already had most of the other drones moved to a Basilicom-owned garage for the time being.

In the meeting room, where Uni and Chika waited, I could feel a bit of tension.

"Where's Ram and Rom?" asked Nepgear.

Still wearing a stoic expression, Chika was about to answer when Uni blurted out, "They left. Nothing left for them to do here."

The news stung Nepgear, mumbling under her breath, "They didn't even say goodbye."

I rested a hand on her warm head, telling her softly, "We'll see them again soon enough."

"Probably for the best," said Chika, pulling up a few holograms on the computer nestled on the table, "They hadn't checked up with Mina once the whole trip. Best to make sure she's not gonna end up like Histoire."

Raising a brow, Nepgear asked, "Wh-what happened to Histoire?"

I was a bit curious myself. IF, however, was frantically making gestures to Chika to keep quiet, all in vain. Chika's eyes were glued on her holographic monitor, her fingers flicking rapidly through various screens.

"You didn't hear? Histoire almost got axed in Planeptune by a bunch of radicals. Of course, we didn't hear about it, having been held against our will for the latter part of that day."

I could hear IF immediately facepalm next to me. I was shocked that I hadn't heard that news sooner, thinking to myself, "I really hope Overdrive and Histoire are alright..."

Nepgear was quick to whip out her N-Gear, tapping frequently on the buttons with little signal to go by.

And during all of this, Uni, taking a seat next to Chika, commented, "Sheesh, Nepgear. Shouldn't you of all people be informed of this stuff?"

"If you knew, why didn't you say anything?" asked Aksys.

"I figured she already knew."

While the connection was still being established, I tapped on IF's shoulder. With her attention seized from her phone, I told her, "Don't suppose you still have those papers we found in Aether? If we can get Uni to make up with the twins, that'd be one less thing for Miss Nepgear to worry about."

Pulled from her deep pockets, the documents IF still had would be instrumental in making relationships right again. While she went to go appease Uni with the information, I thought to myself, "I hope IF remembers to tell her that Leanbox was ruled by Restrict when the whole mining thing happened. If anyone's to blame, it's the dictator."

Nepgear asked Chika to pull up the feed on the large holographic screen looming in the middle of the Meeting Room. The regular physical screens were still smashed thanks to Overkill's rampage before. It took a quick second for us to see Histoire alone in the meeting room.

"Nepgear? It's good to see you again."

I could hear Histoire's voice over the static speaker mounted in the table, hushed but present.

"It's good to see you too," Nepgear replied, "Is everything alright over there?"

Histoire gave a firm nod and said, "We had a slight problem with the radicals, but all is well and the situation is diffused."

"That's a relief," said Compa, "You have to really take care of yourselves without a medic around!"

From beyond the screen came another figure, one I only vaguely remembered. With electronic ribbons following closely behind her, Key made an appearance to inform Histoire that the annual budgets had been received by the Planeptune treasury.

"Key!" exclaimed Nepgear, her eyes sparkling.

The subtle robot gifted a warm smile and a wave, saying, "Hello, CPU of Planeptune! It's wonderful to see you again."

"I take it Histoire fixed you?"

Histoire gave a sigh and said, "I did, and I must say, when you get back I simply must teach you how to take better notes. It certainly wasn't easy repairing her. Lastation's defenses really made a mess of her."

Over in the corner, I could see Uni averting her gaze.

Nepgear had seen this as well, saying hastily to her friend, "N-Not that we blame Lastation for what happened! It was an accident."

"Next time, send us a warning if you decide to send her over!" Uni replied, mumbling right afterwards, "I kinda felt bad about what happened..."

Compa gifted a sweet smile, saying, "At least she's alright now."

I didn't quite want to ruin the warm reunion, but I had to ask Histoire, "Is Overdrive around?"

"Oh, yes," replied Histoire, directing Key to go fetch him.

It took a moment for the former Faith Breaker to make his sheepish appearance, hesitant to stand before the camera, but holding his head up firmly. Not saying a word, he almost looked like he was awaiting his punishment.

"I imagine you know what we have to say regarding what happened there, right?" I voiced firmly to him.

With a voice as rigid as steel, he replied with a somber tone and his head now hung low, "Yes, sir."

I gave Nepgear and Compa a nudge and a smirk, practically transmitting my thoughts to the two. In unison, the three of us asked, "Are you still alright?"

He popped his head up immediately, unable to hide his eyes of shock. He allieved his face of that dishonorable expression, smiling even, when he said, "Yes, sir! Never better!"

"You better not be lying to us," I said to him with a disarming smirk.

Compa added, "We need you in tip-top shape if you're going to protect Planeptune!"

Nepgear giggled and continued, "We'll know right away if something's really wrong."

Just barely within earshot, I could hear Uni mumble, "Says the one that didn't even know her capital was seized."

And to that, I thought to myself, "Says the one that almost lost her entire city had we not stepped in."

"I've been ordering him breaks from here on out," said Histoire.

Aksys, leaning closer to me, asked, "Who are these weird people?"

Overdrive pointed to the elephant in the room, and asked, "We could ask you the same thing. Who's she?"

Smiling, Nepgear moved Aksys forward by the shoulders and said, "This is our newest party member! We met her in Castlescape. Go ahead and say 'hello'!"

It didn't take much to get Aksys to pipe up, greeting warmly, "Nice to meet ya! I'm Aksys!"

Once Histoire and the others greeted Aksys, Histoire asked, "How's the mission going? Will you be able to restore the corrupted Spark?"

"We have ideas, but that's all our actions are gonna be based on for a while," I replied.

"Sorry Histoire. We're going as fast as we can with this," Nepgear added.

"Please do hurry, Nepgear. Your nation needs you now more than ever," said Histoire.

With everyone okay and accounted for, it was time to close the call. Chika was getting annoyed, head resting in one hand with her free hand lazily browsing the holograms before her.

"Take care of yourself soldier. And keep Planeptune safe for us," I said to Overdrive.

"Sir, yes, sir!"

"Don't forget that Key need to be oiled every other week. And check her southbridge every so often, it gets loose if she moves around too much," Nepgear instructed, Histoire diligently writing the notes down on a sheet of paper.

With that said and done, the call ended and the screen vanished into empty air. Chika perked her head up and said, "Finally!"

IF was done talking with Uni, but what became of the situation was beyond me. "Let's get down to business then, shall we?"

"We need to find the island you talked about before, right?" asked Nepgear.

Giving a nod, Chika said, "Not much finding left to do. The coordinates are still there. Thing is, we have no boat or plane to get out there with, unless you all want to swim."

"Restrict probably had a hand in that. Wouldn't be surprised if she was preparing some OP anti-CPU weapon on that island and didn't want anyone else popping out there to say 'hi'." added IF.

Aksys' face twisted into a look of concern. She was either feeling guilty or she was thinking of something to help.

"No," Uni butted in, "if anything, she has something stored there to help her regain control of Leanbox should something go wrong. A failsafe."

"Then we just need to make sure we get to that island before she does," said Aksys.

Unfortunately, that just looped back to the same problem we had before.

IF popped open one of her cell phones, texting someone briefly. "First thing we need is some way to get over there. I tried to see if any Guildmates had a spare we could use, but either they ended up losing their property to Restrict or it'd take a month for one to get here."

"Restrict had all boats and aquatic vessels dismantled and repurposed for her surveillance crap. Same with the trains that used to lead out of Leanbox," Chika explained, pulling up pictures of the harbor. The holographic screen reappeared once more in the middle of the meeting room, floating effortlessly while displaying everything Chika was seeing on her little terminal.

The harbors were empty of ships, but not deserted. The primary harbor was right next to a large beach resort, so some people would appear in the shot. The only thing remaining in the harbors was a couple of rows of missile batteries prepared for if someone tried invading by sea. Whether those were already there or of Restrict's making couldn't be said, but I was going to go out on a limb and say they were made by Restrict to keep out unauthorized immigrants.

"So it looks like we'll have to get some parts together and put together a ship ourselves," I commented, "It's not likely there are any factories in functioning order right now."

Again, Chika nodded. "I imagine there's still some parts around the harbors though. Enough to put together a searching boat."

"But, it would take a full beach episode to get the thing put together!" Compa pointed out, hinting that she wasn't all that opposed to spending the day at the beach.

"Even at that, you have one boat," said Uni, "and you don't even know if it'll work or not."

Looking at her N-Gear, Nepgear quietly said, "And the UAV's can only go so far out."

I gave her a nudge and whispered in her ear, "Get Lady Black Heart to help us."

"I-I don't think she'd be willing to help us," replied Nepgear.

"Whether she's willing to or not doesn't matter. Ask anyways," added IF, listening in on the both of us.

Nepgear hesitated, locking eyes with Uni for a moment. She stepped forward only a step or two, taking a hasty breath before asking firmly, "Would you please offer us some of your ships to help search?"

"I'm afraid not," Uni replied, "I've got too many problems scattered around the coast of Ruination. I need all the troops I can get."

"Even after we settled the problem of who polluted that whole ocean in the first place?" said IF, "Face it, you owe us at least a helping hand for the day."

"C'mon, can't you stop being a tsundere for five minutes and just lend us a hand?" asked Aksys, earning a sharp glare from Uni.

"I'm not a tsundere! If anything, you're a yandere!"

"Tsundere!"

"Yandere!"

"Both of you, cut the archetype war!" IF exclaimed, the both of them ceasing at once. IF cleared her throat, directed her gaze at Uni, and said, "It doesn't have to be anything extensive. Just help."

"Please Uni? I know it's asking a lot from you right now, but could you at least do it for me?" asked Nepgear.

Giving a sigh that could cause wind damage, Uni replied hesitantly, "Fine, I guess I can help out tomorrow. I doubt you guys would even know how to assemble a boat in the first place."

Nepgear and Aksys both started thanking her repetitively.

"I'm only doing this for Leanbox, so keep that in mind!" Uni continued.

"Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that," IF commented with a smirk. She was saying exactly what I was thinking.

Chika clasped her hands together with an almost humorous grin, stating with cheer, "Then it's settled! Tomorrow, we head to-"

"The beach!" Aksys interrupted with abundant joy.

"No, wild child. We're going to the harbor to get a boat prepared," said IF.

Nepgear moved closer to Aksys and told her quietly, "We'll make time afterward to play on the beach. I promise."

IF and Compa started to move out of the meeting room, same with Uni. Their business there was concluded, and mine was too.

Just about ready to leave with Nepgear and Aksys at my side, Chika called my attention. "By the way, Code? You got a message from Valve that I'd appreciate if you would come and get. It has nasty blood on it."

I raised an eyebrow, Nepgear stopping in interest with Aksys doing the same. Walking over to the terminal Chika sat at, there was a large package rather than just a letter that I had anticipated. Like Chika said, there were some bloody streaks on it, Aksys commenting, "Was that, like, her dying message to Code or something?"

"Not quite," Nepgear replied.

Plucking Grindrix from her holster and making short work of the package's sparse sealing, I told Aksys, "That girl goes into some sketchy places. Weird places. A little blood's no surprise to me."

As I pulled open the flaps, Nepgear and Aksys crowded around in interest. Without any bubble wrap to conceal the contents, I looked inside to see the warm, blue glow of a Digitarium's Hand! My eyes widened, quickly putting the thing into my inventory to hide.

"What was that?" asked Aksys.

Nepgear smiled and said, "It was a Digitarium's Hand. They're very, very rare drops from Glitches, and they're said to be made with the programming of our world. Why would she send you that though? N-Not that I'm trying to be nosy or anything."

I had to think fast. Valve should've known how risky it was to just send me a package with something like that. I knew it was for my secret project, but I had to come up with a convenient lie on the spot. "I-I was gonna use it for a future mod! Top-secret, wanna keep it a surprise."

"Aww, can't I help with it too?" asked Nepgear, "I bet it unlocks some kind of super-secret ultimate move for you! Maybe it's for your EXE drive?"

I nodded in response with a lie that anyone other than Nepgear or Aksys could see through quite clearly. "Yeah! So, let's move on from that, shall we?"

"There's more in here," said Chika, pulling out another smaller package from the bottom of the box.

I didn't see why Valve needed to package it separately, or why she went through the hassle of putting this in a couple of layers of duct tape. I could open the package on my own, holstering Grindrix as I cautiously dug into the second package. My fingers fumbled around the bubble wrap for a moment before I could feel something small inside. It felt like a little square, thick and metallic. I pulled it out carefully, holding it to the light and gasping in response to what it was.

"What the goodness?! Is that what I think it is?"

I formed a wide grin, my heart speeding up in joy and cheer as I shouted, "Valve, where in the fuckdid you find this at?!"

In a cute fashion, Aksys tilted her head to the side as she asked, "I don't get it. What is it?"

"Yeah, dump some exposition here!" Chika commanded, "Even though I could swear I've seen something like that thing before."

As I read the name for myself on the little CPU chip, I started to explain quickly, "You of all people should know what this is Oracle. It's a Lagorithm chip! Used to be super popular over here in Leanbox! Things were broken as hell too, people'd put them in weapons and cause all kinds of problems in the Colosseum. Went extinct once they were banned, you cannot find these things anymore!"

Nepgear was quick to snatch the chip from me, looking at the darkened bottoms, commenting with glee, "I think it's custom-made too! These pins are x24, not x12, and the soldering looks different."

I let out another gasp, my grin still widely apparent. "Custom? Oh this just gets better and better!"

Both Nepgear and I shared sparkling eyes and wide smiles, Nepgear commenting, "I wonder if it's overclocked?"

"One way to find out!"

"To the workbench!" Nepgear and I declared in unison.

Aksys, lost in the whole commotion, stated simply, "I'm coming too!"

While I felt bad just leaving Chika outside of the loop and event for the most part, I was dying to get that chip put in Grindrix. It'd finally give her a good debuff! The room Uni and Nepgear used to work on my blade was still reserved for a work room, Aksys and Nepgear following me inside. The first thing that Nepgear did was stick the chip in a motherboard, connecting that to her N-Gear.

"Goodness, the motherboard isn't even identifying it! I can only imagine it's overclocked."

"I hope that won't interfere with Grindrix's internal architecture. Just gonna have to roll the dice here, but it should work," I commented.

Aksys, sitting at the other end of the table, pouted a little, uttering quietly, "I wanna help too."

I gave her a stern glance and said, "I will let you help take Grindrix apart, but you listen to every single word I tell you. Got it?!"

She smiled and nodded. After having her fetch me the screwdrivers and circuitry kits, I hesitantly pried open Grindrix's inner casing. I was lucky that the adamantium screws hadn't broken yet, seeing how much damage she gets put through. I handed Aksys the casing, instructing her to keep an eye on the screws at all times. The CPU was the first thing I saw, still safe and sound. It was just a quad-core Info Xenon, but that would soon be a donation to Nepgear's mechanical myriad.

"Alright Aksys, time to learn how to take a CPU chip out of a custom motherboard."

With her at my side, I showed her carefully how to take it out, keeping in mind that there different kinds of CPUs and slots to put them in. She didn't seem like she completely understood, but she was at least listening. Of course, I wouldn't even let her touch the Lagorithm chip, Nepgear and I debating on who should get the honors of putting it in.

"I dunno, I've got a pretty steady hand, but I do fear making a mistake," I stated, looking at the complacently waiting CPU. Not the one sitting before me, the little one on the table.

"It'd be my luck I'd be the one to break it though," said Nepgear, "Your motherboard looks like it'd take an x24, but I'm not entirely sure."

"Just try it!" said Aksys, "You'll end up taking a chance anyways. May as well do it with no regrets."

I couldn't argue with her, no matter how blunt her logic was. Hesitantly taking the little block, I made sure it was facing the right way before beginning her risky descent. I made sure I felt every little pin click in place before applying force, Nepgear and I both sweating profusely, the tense air absent from our lungs as we held our breath. When I felt it click into place, I let up and instructed Aksys on how to bolt the casing back on. Just in case, I tightened the bolts myself.

Grindrix was equipped, and then came the moment of truth.

"Skill added: Lag Spike"

I shouted to Celestia up high, "It works! It works! I have my very first debuff!"

Staring with bright eyes, Aksys asked, "What does it do?"

"Lowers enemy evasion and accuracy. When the blade strikes, it sends out a field that distorts the area around it to make it look like we're lagging around," I briefly described, checking over Grindrix for any mistakes I might've made.

Nepgear eyes over my old chip, thinking aloud, "I wonder if I'd be able to squeeze this into my sword."

"Well, right now your sword's defunct. You won't be doing anything with it until you fix the battery," I replied.

Aksys immediately looked to her blade and said, "Oh yeah! You said you'd let me help you fix that!"

Already tearing into the casing of her sword with a precision screwdriver and a torque wrench, Nepgear asked, "Did you have something in mind?"

"I think I have a great idea on how to fix your battery!"

/%/X\+\\

Lyrica had finished the last of setting up her speakers just in time for her to start getting ready for her radio show. "I wonder who to bring on the show today."

"I'd imagine Code would be a good candidate. If anything else, bring Chika or Nepgear," Cave recommended, standing idly by and out of the way of Lyrica's wiring.

Putting a hand to her chin, Lyrica replied, "I-I don't know if Code w-would wanna do that. He's pretty quiet, even with other people around."

"Plus he probably would accidentally start talking about the stupid things I've done in the past. He knows about as much as Cave does!" Lyrica thought to herself.

Stepping outside of her room with Cave right behind her, Lyrica noticed Uni walking towards them. "Maybe Uni might make an interesting guest for the show?"

It was when Uni got near that Lyrica noticed from her doorway that she was using her handheld for something. Not wanting to interfere, Lyrica watched as Uni slowed down, grumbling aloud as she furiously tapped on her handheld's screen.

"If you intend on having Uni as a guest, I don't think spying is the best way to go about asking," Cave commented.

"Hello? Kei?" Uni asked on her handheld, wearing a look of concern.

Lyrica leaned out a little more, interested but confused of what was going on.

"What?!"

"Eep!" Lyrica shouted, ducking back into her room and slamming the door shut. Her little rocker heart was beating like a double-bass drum, moved away from the door in fear. Cave, just getting ready to leave, was able to catch a clip of Uni's succeeding conversation.

"I'll just...Just hold on Kei, I'll be over there in a minute! Don't you die on me! That's an order!"

With that said, Uni bolted from the door, and judging from the flash of light that poured from the open Basilicom doors, she was fully transformed and well on her way home.

"Well, this certainly won't sit well with Nepgear," Cave said to herself, "I do question what could've happened though."

Peering cautiously from Cave's shoulder, Lyrica said, "Maybe it'll be on the news tonight."

"Boo!"

Again, Lyrica yelped and crawled away from the still-open door, IF revealing herself with a smirk. "Never gets old. You almost make it too easy."

"That's mean!" Lyrica replied, her head hung low in a fake pout.

Cave immediately asked IF, "I don't suppose you know if there's something going on in Lastation."

IF gave a nervous chuckle, asking, "Do you really wanna know?"

Curious, Lyrica asked as she stood up, "Did something bad happen?"

"Well, I just got done talking with Valve and it seems Lastation's got a good ol' fashioned zombie outbreak in their city. Looks like it's a bad one."

"That does bode ill. Very unfavorable situation to go home to," said Cave.

Lyrica gasped and reared back a little. "That's terrible! We gotta do something!"

Giving a nonchalant shrug, IF said, "Uni doesn't really want a thing to do with us. As nice as she can be, if she doesn't want our help, I say focus on the task at hand. It'll only get worse from here if we don't try to change something here."

Neither Cave nor Lyrica felt that as a proper course of action. Lyrica furrowed her brows and quickly stormed off for her room, saying, "I don't know about you two, but I'm going to radio out for help!"

The door shut swiftly before the two, IF giving a subtle shake of her head. Crossing her arms, she said, "I can only hope this news doesn't reach Nepgear anytime soon. I guess I'll just have to place a few calls. I hope I still have Vice's number. Or at least Sledge's."

Cave watched as IF wandered down the hall with mutliple cell phones flocking to her hands, all of them reaching out to different people. Cave only saw one course of action she could perform, and as much as she didn't want to call Monty from his wine-tasting party, she figured a little help would be in order for Lastation. No matter how much they didn't want help...

/%/X\o\\

"I'm telling you Aksys, this is a really bad idea," I reiterated for the hundredth time, still helping her set up her "science experiment" despite the safety hazards it presented.

Helping set up a small barricade of boxes in the chilly storage room, Nepgear thought the same as I, despite Aksys convincing her not to back out. "Aksys, I understand the use of the empty wooden boxes as safety precautions, but why do we need all the tin foil? Will that really help protect us against the radiation?"

Nodding her head towards me, Aksys said, "Don't ask me, that one was Code's idea."

"They're to protect my nuts! Because nobody likes roasted nuts!" I rapidly replied.

"Cashews though...they're a different story," Aksys continued.

With the microwave resting top a cobbled-together stand with fans focused on blowing the fumes into a custom dehumidifier that Nepgear put together, Aksys was almost ready to begin the most idiotic idea that she'd come up with yet.

I stepped over the barrier, with the intent on going to the restroom while the girls got the experiment ready. It was a short walk across the halls, where I thoroughly checked the signs before entering. Once I had relieved myself, I headed back, stopping at the open door just in time to hear a distant conversation inside.

"Hey, Nepgear? Look, I suck with these kinds of things, so I'm just gonna be super blunt about it."

"Aksys? Wh-what are you saying? What's wrong?"

"This is something I've been wanting to tell you for a while, and it's kinda been bugging me. It's been sitting in my heart just waiting to spit it out and, well..."

My eyes widened, with unfortunate thoughts circling my brain. "I mean, it's none of my business if some kind of awkward yuri pairing sprouts up. If anything, certain people might get some fun out of it, and as long as their happy-"

"I'm sorry about going out on my own. I didn't think about how much I meant to other people and-"

"It's okay Aksys. You've already made up with the rest of us enough. We all do stupid things, but we forgive each other."

"Thank goddesses that went somewhere else!" I thought to myself. "Wait, why the hell was I thinking that at all?"

"Eavesdropping? I didn't know you had that skill unlocked."

I jumped backward, accidentally shutting the door I was standing near. Gathering myself, I said quickly, "I'll fess up to it, but just know that I've learned my lesson not to ever do it again. You saw nothing today."

"Good to hear. There only needs to be one rogue in this party. Don't want someone stealing my thunder," IF replied with a casual smirk, "Now, what are you guys doing in the storage room? Chika want Vert's old BL games again?"

Eyes widened once more like flying saucers, I asked, "BL games? Doesn't that stand for-"

"Yes, and we're going to pretend I didn't mention that aloud, lest Chika ban me from Leanbox again."

With that said, IF ducked into the room Aksys and Nepgear were still talking in, leaving me outside to the horrific thought that Chika may have corrupted Miss Nepgear with something quite vulgar. I could only hope and pray that she was still untainted.

Walking inside, IF's voice was the first thing I hear, asking the timeless question of, "What are you guys doing now?"

"Neppy-Gear's battery shorted out, so I thought we could use this old microwave to give it a jumpstart!" said Aksys.

Not even so much as flinching, IF asked, "You're not kidding are you? Do you realize how stupid this idea is?"

"By Neptunia logic, there's at least a fifteen percent chance this might work," said Nepgear.

Joining them and shutting the door behind me, I examined the two of them crouching behind cover, Nepgear managing the power strip and Aksys using an array of rulers taped together to start the microwave.

"You know, this is gonna make one helluva headline," said IF, earning the attention of the others, myself included. "We've taken down dictators ruling nations, we've killed Legendary Dragons, we've survived intercontinental travel through some of the most dangerous places Gamindustry has to offer, but no, our lives will instead be ended by this. We will finally be killed in the fiery flames of a radioactive explosion because three idiots thought they could jumpstart a battery with a freakin' microwave!"

"Hey, don't rope me into this," I stated, holding my hands up before me, "I just did the heavy lifting."

"You're guilty by association!" IF countered.

Aksys formed a wide grin and said, "And now you are too, Iffy!"

She didn't even wait for us to finish talking before starting the experiment. While the machine was already turned on, IF calmly walked over to the far end of the room, announcing with a moan, "I'll go get the fire extinguisher."

Ducking behind the wooden boxes, I could barely see a little light coming from inside the microwave. The battery was stuck still, but already started arcing electricity wildly.

"Pretty!" said Aksys.

"It's like a light show!" Nepgear added.

"We're all gonna die," I thought aloud.

Aksys leaned up against me with a twisted smile, saying cheerfully, "Lighten up a little and enjoy the show!"

Looking up at her, I asked, "You just wanted to do this for the lights, didn't you?"

"Yup!"

"At least she's honest," said Nepgear.

The electricity was growing out of control, arcs or deep blue melting the screen door and already starting to find their way around the outside. The boxes around us were illuminated by the bright colors, none of us ready to kill the experiment just yet. At the last second, where even Nepgear grew concerned, IF returned just in time for the explosion. Or rather, it was just a very powerful release of energy that flung the door open, the three of us ducking. Behind us though, IF was smacked square in the face with the door to the microwave.

"Only ten points of damage? I was expecting more!" Aksys declared, looking down at the toppled IF, still hoisting the fire extinguisher and now rubbing her jaw.

"IF!"

Nepgear immediately looked over her friend, IF only moaning in response, "One of these days I'll quit getting myself involved with your crazy ideas."

"Come on, it wouldn't be as fun without your dry wit and sarcasm!" Aksys replied in response, killing the power on the microwave.

All while that was going on, I could already smell toxic fumes starting to waft around the room, the fans unable to capture every radioactive scent coming from our smoldering mess. With IF up again, we all stood at the edge of the barrier, watching the fires consume whatever was left of the small, rectangular battery.

"I'm thinking this experiment ended in failure," said Nepgear.

"Well, if anything, I think the fumes are going to lower our life expectancy by a couple years," I replied, contemplating on whether I should try putting out the fire.

IF was already steps ahead of me, putting out the fire with the extinguisher, leaving an even bigger mess of melted plastic, charred microwave, and white foam. I went ahead and grabbed the paper towels and got started on cleaning, leaving Nepgear's device on in hopes that it'll purify the room over time. It didn't take long for us to clean up, but I still could've imagined that whole mess being even worse had we not stopped when we did.

With our mess cleaned up and the evidence disposed of, we started down the halls, aiming for the meeting room. At that point, it was too late to go for a dungeon run, not that I was eager to do that with what happened earlier in the day.

Nepgear looked around, behind and in front, then asked, "Where'd Uni go? I thought her room was back, there, but it was empty."

"Oh, uh, she had to get back home. Kei had work for her to do," said IF.

Nepgear hung her head a little, replying meekly, "Oh. Well, I guess it can't be helped."

"You don't need her anyways!" said Aksys firmly.

Nepgear looked at Aksys, seeing her fierce expression lighten.

"You have us!"

Giving a chuckle, Nepgear raised her head. "You're right."

Up ahead, I saw a black and blue figure exiting a room to the right. "Hey Lyrica," I beckoned.

As usual, she jumped, relaxing when she saw it was just us. "He-hey guys."

Once we were closer, I could see that her eyes were a little puffy. "What's wrong?"

"Oh, i-it's nothing..."

"It's probably not. Just spill," I commanded quickly. Behind me I could sense someone making movements behind me, but when I looked back, I saw IF playing on her phone as usual.

Lyrica donned a hasty smile and repeated, "It's really nothing! Don't worry about me."

I rested my hand on her head, rolled my eyes, and told her, "I worry about you regardless. Anyways, what're you up to?"

"I was going to see if there was anything to eat."

On cue, Nepgear and Aksys both let out beckoning grumbles from their stomachs.

"I imagine Compa's probably cooking supper by now," said IF.

"Then I say we help her," I stated quickly.

Lyrica's eyes widened, stating rapidly, "B-but I do-don't know how to c-cook..."

"Then you learn," I countered.

Nepgear was all for it, saying, "She's always cooking on her own and helping us. I say we make a nice, big meal for everyone tonight!"

Aksys, on the other hand, was more interested in just eating. I questioned the dangers of letting Aksys near the kitchen, but seeing how long she lasted in Castlescape, I figured she'd probably know how to cook as well.

"Sure, I don't see why we can't give it a shot," said IF. After pointing a finger at Aksys, she continued, "Just keep her away from the microwave."

Wearing a quizzical look, Lyrica asked, "Did I miss something?"

I laughed and said, "I'll explain it to you later."

Once we were at the kitchen, a sole Compa was preparing the cookware for the meal, looking over her shoulder just in time to see us enter. "Hello everyone! The food will be ready in an hour or so, so you can wait in the waiting room for now."

"Or we could stay in here and help you," IF replied.

Compa turned around, wearing a gleaming smile as she said, "Oh, you don't have to do that! I can get it."

"We never said you couldn't," I shot back.

"I think it'd be a good idea to all work together tonight," said Nepgear, "Plus one day we might not have you around to cook for us."

To my surprise, Compa looked on the verge of tears. "I'd be happy to teach you all how to cook yummy food! Except my special recipes, those are Compa exclusives!"

"Guess we had to preorder her to get those," I commented, shedding my jacket and placing it on the nearby coat hangers. Being the first to get the apron on, I stood at Compa's side, ready to lead the group to a victory banquet. Just as I looked over the group of girls ready to cook, with me ready to lead, I saw another face pop in from the hallway.

"Chika wishes to ask if the food is almost complete," said Cave quietly.

Compa was about to speak when I cut her off, telling Cave, "Yes, in fact, she can go ahead and come in."

To our surprise, Chika was waiting just behind Cave, popping in with a decadent smile and proclaiming, "I've been starvin-"

Looking at us still lined up to even start cooking, Chika asked, "Where's the food?"

"You're gonna help make it!" Aksys declared happily.

Waving her hands in front of herself, Chika slowly started to back up, stating, "No, no, no, I'm not fit for cooking..."

"B-but Chika, I-I'm not either! I'm st-still doing it though," said Lyrica.

As she quickly started to slink away, Cave stood in front of the doorway, saying, "While I'm no chef myself, I do believe that if everyone else is pitching in, we certainly can."

Chika slumped to the floor, holding a hand on her head as she melodramatically swayed her body. "Ooh, I don't think I can do it, dearest Cave. I'm sorry, but I'll have to pass. I feel a fever approaching fast!"

Aksys pointed a sharp finger at her and declared loudly, "You lie! You lieeeee!"

I could see Chika's face contort, her scheme quickly derailed. Nearing Compa, I asked, "Does she always act like this?"

"It's just drama. I think she watches too many soap operas."

"Might I ask what we intend to make?" asked Cave, prying her master up from the floor.

Compa stepped aside and displayed the rack of ribs and pork loin she had ready, saying to the group, "I found some noodles to make pasta with in the cabinets, and in the fridge are some veggies for a salad. Oh, and I found some ingredients for lemon cake and pudding too."

The stage was set, and with an even number of people, it would be easier to make teams of two for everything. Looking to Nepgear and Aksys, I commanded firmly, "Aksys and Nepgear, you'll be in charge of the sweets. I recall hearing Compa talk about how you used to make sweets for Neptune before. I imagine Aksys has never made sweets before, so you'll be in charge of that."

Giving a pout, Aksys grumbled, "I wanted to cook with big bro..."

"Be happy he doesn't dump dish duty on you," IF replied back to her.

"Iffy, you can help me with the ribs," said Compa.

"You're really going to trust me around fresh ribs?"

Gifting a smile, Compa replied, "Of course I trust you, Iffy! As for Miss Oracle and Cave, you can work on the salads."

"We'll do our best," Cave firmly replied, already heading to the fridge.

I aimed my eyes to Lyrica, saying, "That leaves you and me on the pork loin and pasta. Let's hop to it people!"

"Y-You'll have to show me w-what to do," Lyrica quietly said.

With a smirk of confidence plastered on my still-warm face, I told her, "Just listen to my instructions and you'll be fine. Now, first thing we do is preheat the oven..."

The seasonings only took a short period to put together, grabbing a small bowl to put the spices in. Compa was already doing the same, grabbing bottles and jars from nearby shelves. "Mix these ingredients together to get our seasoning. Put in the dry stuff first..." I trailed off, my eyes wandering over to watch Compa. When I saw her reach for the lemon extract instead of the lemon pepper extract, I immediately stepped over to her, firmly saying, "Compa! Stop! That's not the right thing!"

Once I had corrected the mistake, I looked over to Lyrica just in time to see her rearing her head back with a contorted face. Before I could stop her, she sneezed a quick, cute sneeze into the bowl of spices, the powder inside flying up in the air and splashing all over her face.

Unable to keep from laughing, I reached for a nearby towel and started wiping down her hair where it had powder left over, saying in between laughs, "Still adorable when you do that."

"P-Please don't say stuff like that..." Lyrica replied, taking the towel I offered her and wiping down her face.

"I remember the first time you did that at Mom's wedding. Ended up getting your cake all over your face," I continued with a laugh.

Lyrica started to pout, relieving her expression when I gave her a quick pat on the head.

"Come on, let's try this again. And keep your face away from the spices. As adorable as your sneeze is, let's spare the ingredients."

Once the pork loin was in the oven, I started teaching Lyrica how to make pasta. It was a staple food for meals and pretty easy to make too. We let the water in the pan boil, and all the while we waited, I kept an eye on the others. IF and Compa practically looked like a couple together, while Cave interrogated Chika on what documents had been taken care of as of late.

As I was showing Lyrica how to put in the pasta, I saw Nepgear reaching for something in a cabinet way above her, standing on her tip-toes. The item in particular was a simple white bag, leading me to abruptly go over and help her. Reaching high above me, my arm knocking against the holstered Grindrix tethered to my back, I grabbed the bag of sugar just in time for Aksys to do the same, her hand resting on mine. Pulling down the bag, Aksys still refused to let go, even as I gave Nepgear the bag.

"Aksys, please let go of my hand," I commanded.

Her hand fled to her side, a hint of blush on her face as she complied. Chika, watching the whole thing, snickered. I pretended to ignore the both of them, going back to Nepgear thanking me for the help.

While the water was still boiling, I went over to Cave and Chika to check up on them, asking, "Salad coming along nicely?"

"Yes Code. We don't need guardian supervision, do we?" asked Chika.

"I imagine there aren't many ways to mess up a salad," Cave commented.

I crossed my arms and said, "I'd believe it for us to find a way."

Leaning over the cutting board, sprawled out in a weary tangent, Chika proclaimed, "This kind of work is too exhausting for me! I feel it sapping away my very energy!"

I'd normally give a sigh and a witty remark, but I just wanted to get the cutting done. Taking the cucumber that Chika was cutting, I unsheathed Grindrix and went to town, slicing up the greens quickly.

Chika quickly got up and reared back, asking, "Eww, don't you cut up monsters and dirty floors with that thing?"

"Well, not that you'd know any better, but I clean this thing more than you clean your Lady Green Heart posters."

"You mean serious business," Chika replied.

With the veggies cut, all that was left was some fruits for them to cut up.

"I always do, Oracle."

"Code! H-Help!"

I had to go rush to Lyrica and help her turn down the heat on the burner. The water started trying to boil over and almost soaked and scalded Lyrica. After instructing her how to handle the pasta, I focused on tending to the pork loin. It had been around an hour of cooking and everything was coming together nicely. Chika and Cave got off easy, but were put to work setting up the tables, while the rest of us finished what we were doing. While I checked the temperature of the pork loin, I could hear Aksys talking with Chika, Nepgear joining in as well. I feared what they could possibly be talking about.

By the time I had peered over there, Chika was gone and Nepgear had something white in her hands. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was icing for their lemon cake. Thing was, she was trying to squeeze it out but nothing would happen, leading Aksys to take it and try even harder. The more she tried, the more the nozzle started aiming towards the two of them, leading me to quickly step in.

Snatching it from her, I twisted off the nozzle to find an almost broken seal of plastic on it. After peeling that off, I handed it back to Nepgear, saying, "That would've been a right good mess. Next time you have a problem, tell me."

I could hear Chika mutter something harsh under her breath, and turning to face her, I could see her quickly glance away from me. Looking back to Aksys, who eyed the icing closely with an eerie smile, I told her, "Don't you even think about it. I don't need any awkward scenarios made from your shenanigans."

After enforcing that Nepgear keep an eye on Aksys, I resumed putting the finishing touches on the pork loin, while Lyrica finished up the pasta, wearing a genuine smile as she finished cooking. "Good work kiddo. You did great."

"Th-thanks to you! You did m-most of the work!"

I shook my head and told her, "You did just as much as I did. And you learned from the experience, that's all that matters."

"Cody?" asked Compa from behind, "Could you help me with the sauce on the ribs?"

I turned around just in time to see IF munching on a piece of rib behind Compa's back, commenting, "Think you have flies nomming on your food there."

Compa whipped around, finding IF before she could stop. "Bad Iffy! Wait until it's done!"

"You can go ahead and sit down with Cave and the others in the meeting room, we'll finish up," I said to IF, dismissing her form duty before she devoured the rest of the ribs.

I helped decorate the succulent meat with some 'OMGWTFBBQ' brand sauce, the smell almost convincing me to repeat what IF just did. Interrupted from my work, I had to pull out the other rack of ribs staying warm in the oven.

"I forget that you can cook," said Compa with a giggle.

"Well, hopefully by the end of this more of us will be able to do the same."

"Big bro!" called Aksys, forcing me from my position. It was a miracle that the two weren't coated in icing.

Compa assured me that she'd be okay, so I wandered over with the other two and asked, "What is it?"

"We're done!" cheered Nepgear.

The pudding sat in proper bowls, one for everyone, while the cake sat delicately on a raised platform. It was a bright yellow designed in the shape of a D-pad, with white icing around the borders, and in the middle, written in icing, was the words, "We leveled up our friendship!"

Smiling, I said, "That's sweet. Here's hoping it tastes the same."

Compa, looming over Nepgear's shoulder, grappled onto her and Aksys. "I'm so proud of you two! Good job!"

All of our efforts put together a great meal, and a well deserved one. It would be a fine feast for the night, and certainly one to remember. At the very least, their cooking skills leveled up a few notches.

/%/X\o\\

"You about got that thing working?" asked Underling with a hushed voice.

Shrouded under night, Pirachu almost became invisible while he worked on a little laptop, configuring a satellite feed. "It's almost done, chu!"

Underling watched with a pair of steely binoculars her most hated enemies dining with cheer and delight. Thinking aloud, Underling said, "I wonder where those clan morons are at."

"Couldn't say, chu," replied Pirachu, "I don't particularly care for them myself, but I'd at least like to know where in the hell they are."

"No kidding. As bossy as they were, they could get around places we couldn't. Now we're stuck making a home out of an alleyway."

Pirachu finished up the last touches on their satellite feed, able to tap into the UAVs that Nepgear still had lingering around outside. "We're in, chump!"

"Sweet! Now, can you make it go into the Basilicom and break some shit?"

Shaking his head, Pirachu replied sharply, "No! The dealer even said, 'No Remote Control', chump!"

"Yeah, yeah. Well, at least we can tail those dumb broads if they decide to mobilize. Maybe they'll lead us to another old ASIC factory."

"I wouldn't get your hopes up, chu. We don't even know if they'll be here much longer. Not after that one weird chick that put us in prison let the zombies into Lastation."

In a mocking voice, Underling said, "'We gotta save my friend, Uni!', and she'll be off like that. Least that'll give us time to raid their inventories when they leave."

"Taken you still have that tool the weird girl gave us, chu. Still can't believe she coughed that up just for snatching her a boat from some random broad."

"Of course," Underling said with a smile, fiddling with a bright orange device in her hands, "wouldn't want this to go to waste."

/%/X\o\\

It was about time for bed, as the sun had set long ago and food was well past devoured. I could almost feel my bloated stomach sloshing its contents around. There wasn't a speck of food left, not that I was bitching. Less work Compa and I had to do for cleaning. Sitting in the comfy guest bed, illuminated only by a sharp lamplight, I stared into the depths of Grindrix, my neck comforted by my loose headphones.

Inside those depths was a bright image of Nepgear and Uni, taking up separate sides with smiles on their faces. "Is this my reason? Or am I still looking?"

Staring back up with my head growing weary, I set Grindrix down beside my bed. Almost ready to start shedding my clothes, I laid down my jacket when I decided to go check the door. There was just one lock, a chain lock mounted on the wall. Paranoia put a little more energy in my body to consider the possibility of a certain 'little sister' deciding she needed a sleeping buddy.

"No, why stop there? I'm pretty sure she's still awake, but I'm going to check on her to make sure she didn't sneak in here without me being aware. I'll go to bed when I know where she is."

Stepping out into the harsh light of the still-lit hallways, my eyes adjusted as I walked to the middlemost room of the hallway, a faint light visible from the crack of the door. Twisting the cold, steel doorknob, I peered in quietly, about to call for Aksys when I saw her silhouette at the desk. Quietly stepping inside, my HUD announcing without a sound that I was in stealth mode.

I walked over to the silhouette, a rough noise escaping my target as a sign that she was already well and asleep. I turned off my stealth and just cautiously walked up to her. With her head buried in her arms, she was napping peacefully on the desk with a book right next to her. Curiosity bidding my movement, I slowly closed the book, reading the cover that said in big letters, "How to work well with a party."

Unable to keep from smiling, I gave the girl a soft pat on the back, my hands sliding through her soft, silver hair. It was hard not to see something cute in her sleeping like that. I snuck over to her bed and pulled off the covers, draping them gently over the sleeping Aksys, saying as I got ready to make my leave, "Good night kiddo. Sweet dreams."

On my way out, I could hear her say faintly, "Big bro...take me big bro...I'll never...let anyone near you again..."

My face twisted to disappointment, my mood ruined as I thought to myself, "Not those kinds of dreams!"

As I left, I made sure to shut the door quietly. Once I turned around, I came face to face with a still-awake Chika, something that made me jump backwards. "What are you doing up this late?"

With a hushed voice, Chika asked with a sly smile, "So? What were you doing in there? Taking pictures of her while she sleeps? Touching her? Anything lewd?"

My face formed a stone-still expression, with my voice growing firm as I whispered to her, "I was taking care of my party. Take that as you will."

Chika, pouting, replied as I walked away, "Seriously, you are no fun at all."

I pretended not to hear, and did that well enough to catch one last phrase she thought I couldn't.

"And yet, he somehow has a heart as big as Nepgear's. Still think those two should go out..."

She'd be sorely disappointed if she thought Nepgear and I would ever do such a thing. Whether I had a "big heart" or not, it was my duty to keep my party safe.

Once in my room, I let out a long sigh, almost ready to go to bed when a thought hit me. "She's asleep now, but that doesn't mean she won't wander in here later. Best lock the door anyways."

I could sleep soundly knowing I wouldn't wake up to a random event.

/%/X\o\\

Abruptly awoken, I could hear the sound of the chain lock being forced to it's limit, the door stuck slightly cracked open. With my aloof gaze aiming right to the crack, I could see a deep blue eye peering in.

"Big bro...big bro...come on out big bro...I know you're there..."

Sticking my back to the wall, disturbed and confused with Grindrix in hand, I shouted in response, "What is it?"

Dismissing her quiet, foreboding voice, Aksys replied cheerfully, "Get ready to go, big bro! We're heading to the harbor today!"

She fled from the crack, her footsteps echoing down the hallway faintly.

I stretched my arms and legs, letting out a big yawn. With a hand wiping my crusty eyes, I moaned softly, "What the hell, Aksys? I really gotta get her to quit doing that creepy shit."

Stowing away Grindrix in her holster, I grabbed my headphones and cell phone before hesitantly undoing the wall-mounted lock. Forced to greet the bright hallway lightbars, my eyes adjusted slowly while I trudged down the hallway. Just outside of the meeting room, I could make out Chika and IF, and I could faintly hear them talking about something in a hushed tone.

"'Bout time you woke up!" said Chika.

I pointed a finger at her and asked, "You're the one that sent wild child to wake me up, aren't you?"

Proudly, she replied, "Yup! And she did her job well."

"Never do that again," I commanded, heading inside the meeting room, where everyone was gathered around the table with an array of stuff ranging from tools to lounge chairs. Out of our group, I think only three of us were actually ready to work.

"Ge-Ge, where's my first aid kit?" asked Compa, picking up a few bottles of disinfectant and setting them in her inventory.

"You already put that in your inventory," Cave stated, passing behind little Compa.

Nepgear, sitting next to Lyrica, sorted through a list of tool boxes, mumbling longer lists of jargon in the process.

"We're building a boat, not a mech," I commented.

She continued to diligently pack her stuff without even passing a gaze my way.

Next to her, tuning her guitar, Lyrica said, "She's been like this all morning."

Looking over her guitar, I asked, "Plan on playing a little show for the beach dwellers?"

She giggled softly and said, "Every little bit helps towards our Shares."

When Cave passed nearby, I beckoned her attention. Once she was stopped from her rush to assure our preparation, I asked her, "Do we have any sort of schematic for the boat design?"

"Got one right here Code! It's basic but it shouldn't be hard to put together," said Nepgear.

With the blueprints passed to me, my HUD informed me that the note had been added to my database that I rarely used. Handing it back, Chika finally made the declaration that we were ready to get going. All of us stored what we could in our inventories and started for the little trolley that'd lead us to the beachside.

The sun glared down and roasted the steel we walked on, clouds occasionally shielding us from sharp sunlight. One could almost taste the heat sweltering from the ground, the day molded perfectly for a day at the beach. I could only hope one of us would be able to keep the troop on track.

We were only a few blocks in when Chika complained, "It's too hot out to be doing this kind of work."

"We're not even close to the trolley yet!" IF replied, "And you aren't even working either!"

Holding a hand up to her head, she continued with a forced waver in her voice, "I feel myself getting weak. I think...I might just pass out..."

"And we will leave you here if you do," Cave coldly shot back.

"Spoilsport..." Chika mumbled. After that, I could hear her whisper something, but I couldn't make out what she said, nor did I really care.

It was after that Aksys approached me, sweat drops gliding down her bright skin, saying, "I'm getting a bit tired too, big bro. Carry me?"

I looked at her with a completely dead expression, then turned to Chika and said firmly, yet calmly, "Oracle, your bullshit is contagious. Do you have a debuff or something?"

Chika scoffed and said with faux shock, "Certainly not."

Then my gaze went back to Aksys, stating to her firmly, "I advise you stop listening to her, lest you be the next person we leave behind."

And then to my rear. Lyrica, donning her guitar, was starting to earn us a small train of followers thinking they were being stealthy. I let myself back down to Lyrica, hoisting Grindrix proudly over my shoulder before initiating idle chit-chat. It was that alone that dissuaded more people from bothering us. As much as I respected my cousin, I hoped that she'd be pulling her weight as well when we built the boat.

"How did your radio show go?"

"I-It was good. I th-think my fans are excited for my new CD. I-I was thinking about having an exclusive duet between the both of us f-for the bonus song," Lyrica replied, earning Aksys' immediate, grim attention.

I returned Aksys death stare with one of my own, speaking only once the coast was clear again. "I think that'd be interesting. Maybe you could do one with Nepgear too?"

"Yeah, and maybe we could get Aksys in on one too."

That I questioned. "You might have to improve your Lily rank with her before she agrees to that. I don't think singing's in her skill selection anyways."

"I'm sure she'd be fine. Even Cave can sing a little."

"Yes, I do recall you coercing me into performing. I suppose I should be fortunate my debut wasn't live like Code's was," said Cave.

I took a quick look at Cave, examining her hairstyle most of all. With an idea in mind, I commented with a giggle, "You know, I think you'd transition very well to an idol."

"See, Cave?" asked Lyrica, "Even Code agrees!"

"I-I certainly don't believe in that. I'd appreciate if you two would drop this absurd subject."

Abruptly, I pointed to her pigtails and said, "She even looks like that popular anime idol, can't remember the show name. Always did that...oh, what was it? 'Miko Miko Mii'?"

Lyrica started to smile, not even trying to hide it. "She does. I can really see it."

Joining into our conversation, Chika commanded with a devious grin, "Say the catchphrase!"

"I will do no such thing!" Cave shot back.

"It's not like one of us would record it to post all over the internet," added IF, pointing her cell phone towards Cave.

By that point, we were at the trolley, everyone packing inside the cramped interior, soaked in heat waves. Taking a window seat was like sitting underneath a magnifying glass, the sun hitting hard enough to almost do fire damage. The heated air dispersed much better near the shorelines, just a short walk from the harbor. I could already taste the sea salt hidden amongst the faint heat waves.

Chika took the lead, using her key to get us into the abandoned harbor, a blast of heat and dust escaping the now-open door.

"Eww, smells like dictatorship," Aksys commented.

"I have the feeling that's not dictatorship you smell," Nepgear commented, already working her way back to where the parts were.

There was a good amount of pieces, most of them looking like they were in decent enough shape.

Fanning the fumes away from her face, Compa said, "You're right Ge-Ge. That's not dictatorship, that's black mold!"

"Lovely, well there goes a few more years off my life expectancy," I stated, not even bothering to hide the annoyance I had for our lethal situation.

IF stowed away her phone, careful not to lose any in the nearby water dock inside the harbor warehouse. The water didn't look too healthy being pent up without use for so long. "I have the feeling nature's gonna off us by our thirties at this rate."

Looking on my HUD, I could see a little icon up in the top left, commenting with an almost shocked laugh, "Yup, there it is! We've got debuffs!"

"Dispersing the fumes into the environment should end the debuff soon. The spores will carry better in open air and scatter," Cave stated firmly, already moving back with Nepgear to gather parts. The boat pieces suggested that we'd end up with a pretty basic boat, but we'd at least have a lower cabin to sit in.

Nepgear stood at the back, beckoning us all before her with a loudness that startled her when it started echoing in the warehouse. "Alright everyone. I've spotted around twelve pieces to the boat. Each of us will have to take one, inspect it, repair any issues, and then move it to the loading pad for assembly. The teams can be of any order, but have at least two people with you at all times. Let's do our best!"

I smiled warmly, proud to see her taking charge like that. I wanted to see more of that, the Nepgear that I used to look up to so much.

Once everyone had dismissed for duty, I noticed Aksys staring willfully out the nearby windows, her eyes watching the beach with intent. I was about to make a step towards her when Nepgear took off for her instead.

"What's wrong?"

"Neppy-Gear, I really wanna go to the beach!"

Nepgear gave a giggle and replied, "You and me both. I promise we'll have time once we're done to play on the beach. We even packed our swimsuits, didn't we?"

Aksys reluctantly nodded.

"It'll be hard work, but if we keep our heads up and power through, we'll be done in a couple hours," said Nepgear, putting a soft hand on Aksys' back, "Normally this'd be the part where we had a really cool building montage, but since this is all text, we'll just have to do things the old fashioned way."

"You're just saying that because you want to tinker."

"Ehehe...that easy to tell, huh?"

They'd be up and ready to work soon enough. Til then, it was time for work to get done, and I had an eye on the bottom framework. "Cave? Wanna pair up and get the framework there?"

"Affirmative. Let us participate in jolly cooperation," she replied, wearing her usual stoic appearance.

With two primary workhorses at the helm of the heavy lifting, we both assumed it would be easy to get the lower framework moved around. There were occasionally bits of rust on the bottom, ruining the otherwise perfect white paintjob. My muscles bulged pulling up the buoyant metal, forcing my breathing to relax as I pulled it up so Cave could check the bottom. Aksys joined in to help once she saw that I was lifting alone. Much to my surprise, she reduced a lot of strain I had to deal with.

"See...anything?" I asked, pushing myself hard to keep the framework aloft.

"I believe the coast is clear."

Setting down the framework, I dusted off my hands and asked, "Was that a water pun?"

"I suppose it was, wasn't it?"

"So there is a sense of humor in there,"I commented, getting myself in place for us to lift up the framework and move it.

"Could've fooled me" said Aksys.

Three of us together had no problem moving the lower framework, making sure to steer clear of the others working on various parts. The loading dock was a strange metal plate where water waves were painted on in a uniform design. We had Nepgear make sure we were properly aligned, and once we did, I noticed a strange hologram pop up on my HUD. Interacting with it made a translucent barrier around the work zone, levitating the piece slightly in the air and showing a list of parts.

"The hell? What kind of screwy building interface is this? Did Leanbox always build like this?"

"Oh, that?" asked Chika, pointing to the HUD interface that hovered around the building space near me, "My dearest Vert came up with that design! It was always her favorite, and the both of us know it by heart. Too bad the people never really got into it quite like we did."

"And it just magically puts the pieces together when we add them to it?"

With a grin and nod, Chika replied, "Yup! Vert came up with the idea to use a magic epoxy made of Dogoo jelly and herbs. It's enchanted by a witch doctor too!"

I questioned the witch doctor part, but that was all the information I needed. I'd more than likely leave her to figure out that mess. Just looking at the HUD interface made my head spin. I exited out of that mess to see Nepgear frantically tinkering with the motor still hooked up to a rusted engine puller. Compa and IF both got together the other bits and pieces of the interior, while Cave and Lyrica hunted down the rotor.

And that left Aksys and Chika, dealing with the fuel lines. After dealing with my business, I approached the two to hear possibly one of the worst conversations I could've walked into.

"I dunno, maybe blow it out?"

"Where would it blow to? I'm telling you, sucking it out will fix the problem."

Raising an eyebrow, I questioned what the two idiots could possibly be talking about while staring at a small fuel tank.

"Oh, Code!" Aksys greeted, "Do you know where a vacuum or something like that is?"

"Why?"

She pointed a finger to the fuel tank and said, "Well, there's fuel already in there, but I think that stuff's as old as mouthy over there is. We wanna get it out of there, but we don't know how to open the tank up, so I figure we could just get a vacuum and suck it out!"

I stood in dead silence for a good minute, trying to wrap my head around what idiocy just came out of her mouth. "I'm pretty sure that thought alone just debuffed her own INT."

Instructing her to hold that thought, I went beckoned over Nepgear and had Aksys repeat the exact same statement to Nepgear.

Nepgear stood in dead silence for a good minute as well, saying with a nervous chuckle, "You know, I think Compa and IF need help with the interior. It'd be great if you helped them!"

"I don't think I trust you two to work together," said Aksys, a dark visor appearing over her face as her eyes seemed to glow red.

"And I don't think I trust you with anything more complicated than a hammer," I shot back, "Get over there!"

She was quick to depart, leaving behind only a single dark stare that I could feel through my spine.

"I thought it was a good idea," said Chika with a shrug.

With a sigh and a delay to fixing the engine, Nepgear and I worked with Chika to get the fuel drained out.

"Is the engine still good?"

"It's got a few rust spots, but nothing major," said Nepgear with a nod, turning her head towards the partially-assembled boat, "I wonder if we should add a couple of gun batteries on it though. Some missile racks would fit nicely along the sides."

Shaking my head, I said, "No, Miss Nepgear. We're using it to go looking for an island, not to go to war. You can't turn it into a war machine, or a giant mech, or-"

"Ooh, I could make it transform into a cool robot! Wouldn't be too hard with a few-"

"No Gear, you aren't making a mech of the recon boat. We don't have the time or the materials to make something absurd like that," IF added from afar, her voice echoing over to us from the rear of the warehouse."

Nepgear shook her head and submitted sorrowfully. "Perhaps another time."

Part by part, we hoisted the pieces over to the loading bay. Chika would take over from there, assuming that spot as her duty. I had no qualms with it, seeing that we were quickly getting the boat put back together.

A while later, we were down to the last piece where IF found an interesting problem.

"Seems someone got a little too comfy," IF commented, eyes aimed at a napping Aksys sitting in the captain's seat.

"Aww, she probably wore herself out today with all the work," added Compa.

"Work? She helped lift one thing out of twelve. I have the feeling she's just waiting out the rest of her duty til beach time," IF said, arms crossed. She looked to Nepgear and asked, "What shall we do with her leader?"

Holding her hands together in front of her, Nepgear wore a meek smile, stating, "Well, we're going to need her out if we're gonna move it. I'd feel bad waking her though."

"I wouldn't," I quickly replied. "Lyrica!"

"Wh-what is it?" asked Lyrica, appearing before us with her guitar still dragged around behind her.

I pointed to Aksys and said, "Play the loudest chord you have right next to her."

"C-Code, that's kinda mean!"

"I think it'll be pretty funny. It'll serve her right for slacking on the job," IF stated.

Chika and Compa both waited on the sidelines, waiting to see what happened. As they saw Lyrica hesitantly move closer to Aksys with guitar drawn, they were the first to close their ears.

Nepgear was about to close her ears when I handed her my headphones, smiling as she pushed them closer to her ears. The volume wouldn't be anything out of the normal for me.

With anticipation, everyone watched Lyrica fling down the pick, creating a vibrating noise that rattled the whole warehouse, spilling age-old dust from the ceiling and cracking glass windows high above us. Aksys jumped immediately, dropped to the floor of the captain's helm, shouting, "What the hell is going on?!"

"I-I-I'm s-so sorry! I really didn't w-w-want to do that."

"Nap-time's over kiddo," I called to her once the noise died down, "You get to lift the whole captain's quarters on your own now."

"Whaaaaat?!" Aksys shouted. Once she saw Nepgear, bobbing her head to music I had playing out of the headphones, she pointed a quick finger to Nepgear and loudly asked, "Hey! Why does she get to use your stuff? You never let me wear those!"

"I imagine it has something to do with how much work she does compared to yourself," Cave added.

Aksys did as we asked, lifting, or rather, dragging the steel portion over to Chika for assembly. Once Chika picked up the piece, the HUD hovering silently around where she was moving the pieces, we all focused our eyes on something blue shifting around the captain's quarters.

"Keep the HUD up," I commanded to Chika, unsheathing Grindrix. My hands gripped the side of the levitating boat, pulling myself up and dusting off the hint of rust gathered along the boat's edge. Blade at the ready, I stopped and let my arms down in disappointment. Sheathing Grindrix, I picked up the hopping ball of blue and shouted out to the others, "It was just a Dogoo! Guess it made a nest here."

"Well, what do we do with it now?" asked Lyrica.

"Kill it," Aksys declared.

I held it up for the others to see, the creature eclipsed by some of the HUD interface. Wearing a sheepish grin, I said, "Hey, Miss Nepgear! Look! It's a GUI!"

"I think that pun went over quite a few heads," Nepgear replied, "But I get it. You're leveling up your pun-making!"

"For better or worse," sighed Chika, "Would you kindly dispose of the blue thing so we can finish this up?"

Aksys' eyes sparkled brightly, shouting, "Someone turn on the rotors! Let's make a mess of it!"

The Dogoo reared away in my hand.

"No!" shouted the others in unison, myself included.

I made quick work of it, slicing the critter up for quick XP as I hopped down. Taking a look at our boat, rusted and hastily patched in a few spots, I couldn't help but see satisfaction in the green and white vessel, primed and ready sans a few gallons of fuel.

"I've seen better, but it'll get the job done," said IF.

"If we have time, I'll make a few upgrades to it later," Nepgear commented.

Aksys, standing next to me, loudly shouted, "Guys, we're missing something important!"

Everyone looked at her, confused.

"It needs a name!"

I suppose it did. The one it had before was just a military designation number, and that was almost worn off completely.

"How about the SS Apharmd?" asked Nepgear.

"The Planeptune/Leanbox Coalition Vessel seems most appropriate," said Cave.

Looking to Chika, I said, "This boat's technically your property. Not only that, but we wouldn't have it if you weren't here. You name it."

"I believe," Chika started, pausing while everyone focused on her, "that it shall be name after the glory of Lady Vert!"

"Should've seen that coming," said IF.

"Cool, with that settled, let's get over to the beach!" Aksys declared, already running out of the harbor and towards the shoreline.

Nepgear chased her as far as the door to the garage, shouting, "Aksys! We still have to move the boat into the water!"

"Let her go, Gear. We've got more than enough people to handle this anyways," said IF, already getting a grip on the boat.

Everyone save for Chika put their all into moving the large vessel, Chika helping guide us into the water.

"C-cold!" Lyrica cried, stepping into the water on the boat's journey to the deep blue.

With Lyrica and Cave almost halfway submerged, the boat was finally ready to be dropped. On the count of three, all of us let the rust bucket reunite with it's proper environment, the water mingling with the sweat wandering down our collective faces.

Walking back up the entry ramp, I asked IF next to me, "So why aren't we heading out today for searching?"

IF made sure that Nepgear was out of hearing range before saying, "Purely because Aksys wants to play at the beach. Nepgear agreed and eventually everyone caved in."

The idea certainly wasn't ran by me, and personally, I would've liked to get going that day, but without the crew, there wouldn't be any water travel. And I couldn't stand by the boat to do maintenance because, to be honest, I worked on electrical works, not engineering.

"It needs fuel anyways, something we can't get until the workers here get back and reconnect the lines," Chika replied.

"Couldn't we just buy some fuel from a gas station and-"

"Uh-uh!" Chika interrupted, "There you go trying to derail the fanservice again! Shame on you!"

I threw my hands up in the air, Grindrix following in my hand, submitting with a moan, "Fine. Guess we can say this is a job well done for today."

"It'd probably be better to get going tomorrow anyway," said Compa, "we can get going bright and early that way!"

With IF passing me, I asked, "You certainly can't be intending to swim."

"Nope," IF replied, "but I am gonna grill up some more ribs."

"Cave?"

"I shall partake in such shoreline activities. I did bring a change of equipment after all."

Which left me little of my own interest to do. At the most, I could sharpen Grindrix. My portable sharpener wasn't as precise as the one back in Planeptune, but it'd give me something to do for the day. Walking out of the stuffy air left over in the warehouse, I made my way to the beach, dead last in the group. Compa had already set up a beach umbrella and some towels to sit on next to the changing rooms.

The closer I got to the ocean, the clearer it was to hear the ocean drifting up and down the shoreline, accompanied by the occasional shout or cheer from the sparse beach-goers down the way.

"Code, we're gonna go change right quick," said Chika.

I nodded in response.

"Did you hear? We're gonna go get our clothes changed."

"Yeah, I heard you. Go right ahead," I replied, thinking to myself, "You aren't going to get me to play Peeping Tom, if that's what you're going for."

"Well, alright," Chika hesitantly replied.

I sat down on the nearest beach towel, the sand's heat bleeding through the soft fabric. It was a warm day with warmer sands, but I had no intention of stripping down for it. I took my jacket off and laid it next to me while I worked, withdrawing the blade sharpener from my cluttered inventory. Scrape by scrape, I'd work the gadget up and down the blade, clearing any imperfections from her stainless, goddess-refined steel.

"Code?"

Startled, I looked up to see Aksys, again wearing revealing clothing that I wasn't a fan of. It was a tight, black and frilly top with a frilled lower section that looked a little too small. Despite that, her long silver hair reflected warmly from the sun, swaying with the gentle breeze in a way that would definitely turn a few guys' heads.

"Aren't you going to get changed?"

"I have nothing to change into. I don't go swimming," I replied firmly, my grinder resting complacently in my hand still.

There was a strong disappointment in her eyes, replying softly, "Alright. Well, just tell me if you want company."

I tried to form a smile, somewhat failing, as I told her with a wave of dismissal, "Go on and have fun kiddo. Don't worry about me."

As I expected, she went off to the beachside, making comical movements as she hopped around the hot sand. I assumed Castlescape didn't teach her much about the beach. I hoped that she at least knew how to swim.

One by one, the others poured out of the changing booth, Chika casting a longways glance towards me while I went about sharpening my blade. I kept my eyes out for them, just in case something were to happen. I didn't have perverted intent towards a harem of beach hotties, but the same couldn't be said for the other generic NPCs that lounged about further away.

While Compa and Cave started setting up a volleyball court, Nepgear approached me with a bottle of something in hand.

"Hey Code, think you can put some suntan lotion on for me?"

I shook my head immediately, stuttering as I responded, "No, n-no, I c-couldn't do that. Chika!"

The absent-minded Oracle popped over, asking with an annoyed look, "What is it?"

"Nepgear needs some suntan lotion put on."

"And can't you do it?!"

"I'm certainly not the kind of person that should be doing that. She's a goddess."

Chika completely dismissed my request, but in return, Lyrica came over asking, "What's going on?"

I wasn't expecting Lyrica to end up having to do work I refused to do. If anything, I would've called for Aksys next. "I hate to ask Lyrica, but Nepgear's needing some suntan lotion and I...well..."

"I get it," said Lyrica, her smile setting me at ease. "Go ahead and lay on the towel and I'll start."

It was different seeing Lyrica in a swimsuit. It basically looked just like her regular outfit, but smaller. Even growing up, I only saw her once in a swimsuit during one of her concerts at the Near Harbor by Lastation.

"Sorry to make you do this," said Nepgear.

"It's fine. I know my cousin can be m-modest with this stuff," said Lyrica.

That was a little blunt for my liking, but she wasn't wrong. "I'm sorry you two. There's just some things I won't do."

Nepgear sprawled out on the beach towel, head near my hand, said, "Don't worry about it. We don't want you to feel uncomfortable."

"Besides, it wasn't even our idea to come out to the beach like this. N-not that I'm c-complaining," added Lyrica.

Once Lyrica had her hands lathered in lotion, she started to gently go up and down Nepgear. Lyrica stayed far away from the areas she shouldn't get close to, only nearing them at Nepgear's request.

With my eyes averted, I asked, "So, how come this idea didn't quite make it to me? As far as I was concerned, we were just going to get the boat going and do some recon today."

Nepgear and Lyrica both kept quiet for a moment, Nepgear choosing to speak up. "Aksys was supposed to tell you about it today, but I guess she got sidetracked."

"Please don't g-get mad at her," Lyrica requested meekly.

I shook my head a little bit in frustration. "I'm not mad. Looking at it, I guess she could use more of these kinds of things. She certainly seems to be enjoying herself."

"She's finally around friends," said Nepgear, sitting up, "So of course she wants to spend time with them."

"You included, Code," added Lyrica.

It was Lyrica's turn, undoing part of her top to let Nepgear rub lotion on. I still refused to gander at something provocative like that, questioning if Chika's intent was to put me next to two people I held so close to my heart. The trials of a male protagonist have never felt so real.

"Hey Lyrica, Miss Nepgear?"

The both of them answered in conjunction, Nepgear still going about lathering up Lyrica.

My eyes watched Aksys out in the distance, playing with Cave in the water. "Why do you think she's so attached to me?"

"Well, you're the only guy she's had proper interaction with. Neither of us even know if she had parents before, so the only guys she interacted with are wanderers in Castlescape, and there aren't many of those," said Nepgear.

"And you w-won't admit it, but y-you're really sweet. You're protective and helpful too. She n-needs someone like that."

With my motions halted, the scraping noise of my sharpener deadened, I thought about what they said. Still gazing out and watching the spacecase, I asked further, "Nepgear, do you like the thought of her acting like your little sister?"

"Of course!" Nepgear abruptly said, much to my surprise.

"She acts like you in a...really weird way."

I raised an eyebrow at that statement, but I let Nepgear continue.

"She's protective, and she has our best interests at heart. A-And she's very determined and, most of all, she smiles so bright."

Nepgear trailed off, her lathering of Lyrica grinding to a halt as she looked out to where I did, watching Aksys at play.

"She reminds you of Neptune, doesn't she?" asked Lyrica.

I glanced away for a moment, seeing a single tear down Nepgear's face.

And after that was a warm smile, Nepgear shaking off that tear with a firm nod as she said, "She really does. It's kinda silly, but there's a lot about her that reminds me of Neptune."

"Guess that's all the more reason for you to be a good role model for her, huh?" I asked.

"Don't think you're off the hook," Nepgear replied.

The three of us laughed, and I chose to drop the topic at that. The two were done lathering each other anyways, the two of them getting up and getting ready to go to the water. It was then that I saw Lyrica's swimsuit not tied properly, jostled loose when she stood up. As I shielded my eyes, I could only utter the inevitable, "Oh no..."

Lyrica let out another one of those ear-piercing shrieks that tore through the heat-haze.

"I'm sorry! I thought I tied it!"

Of course, Chika had to be the one to point it out. "You saw, didn't you?"

"For one, she was facing away from me, for two, it wouldn't be the first time I've witnessed this," I shot back, immediately regretting my choice of words.

"C-Code!" Lyrica shouted in response.

Before I could hear Chika rant on about fanservice or some nonsense like that, I pulled up my headphones and turned them on, going back to cleaning Grindrix, eyes closed as I tuned into my favorite music. It was a good hour of just doing that, in a trance of clearing my blade. Sitting out in the sweltering heat, music blasting and knowing my team was enjoying their day to the fullest was more than enough.

"Take me down to the paradise city, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty...take me home..."

"So is this your paradise city?"

The voice beckoning me was just barely audible under my headphones. I dropped my Titan's and replied, "It's close enough for now, I suppose."

I looked up to see Aksys, a little soaked with her hair dripping wet like a tensile sponge. It was still hard to believe that was still the same person clad in that strange outfit of belts and frills. She was honestly stunning, if not a little blunt in a couple areas.

"I was wondering if you'd want to cut up the watermelon."

And it was even stranger to see her being honestly polite. Scary even.

With my blade renewed to an extent, I had no reason to say no. Packing up my sharpener in my inventory, I said, "Show me there."

"Right!"

Next to the grill that emitted a fragrant scent of ribs, was a compacted table, making a perfect cutting board. And atop that was a firm, large watermelon. With Grindrix in hand, I motioned for everyone to back away before hoisting my blade to the azure skies. A firm cut later, the watermelon was split in two, baring it's reddish-pink insides for all to see. I gave it a few more precise cuts, making it an even eight pieces for everyone. Just in time for IF to get done grilling the ribs.

Proudly wearing an apron that said, "Pyromancer at work", IF moved platters of food over to a nearby picnic table, saying, "Food's ready, just don't get sand in it!"

With melon in hand, I was heading to the picnic table when I saw someone creeping around the warehouse in the distance. The glaring sun made it too hard to see who it was, but when I saw something orange from the window, I assumed it was just a worker setting up the fuel lines.

"Don't eat too many seeds," Compa said to Aksys, "You'll grow a watermelon in your tummy!"

"Compa, I think she's old enough to know that's a rumor," said IF.

Biting into another rib, I said with a mouth full of meat, "You really need to show me how you do these. Best ribs I've had yet."

"Cody, chew your food before talking," said Compa.

Delicately picking her nails clear of food, Chika asked, "Lyrica, weren't you going to perform here?"

"I'll probably do that once we eat," Lyrica replied.

While eating, beyond the sounds of idle waves and far-off cheers, I could hear a strange sound coming from somewhere around the beach. It almost sounded like a slurping, squishing sound, but I knew it wasn't anyone eating or the waves. I checked my headphones, holding them up to my ear.

"Is something wrong?" asked Nepgear.

"Yeah, you're face is doing that weird twisty thing you make when something's wrong," added Aksys.

Putting down the cup of my headphones, I asked, "Anyone else hearing a squishing noise? Sounds like someone slapping a pair of sponges together?"

"I was going to ask if anyone felt the slight rumbling," said Cave.

"Rumbling?"

When the rumbling worsened to a near earthquake, our attentions turned to the ocean, where an enormous mound of deep, ocean blue surfaced from the briny depths.

"Dogoo!" bellowed the beast.

Covered in seaweed and coral, the beast looked both terrifying and utterly ridiculous, towering over the shoreline,

"What the goodness?! Where did that thing come from?"

"I didn't know they could get that big!" said Chika.

Summoning her scissors, Cave stated, "I imagine it has something to do with the deep water. Regardless, the foe needs to be dispatched."

The creature turned slightly, towards the warehouse before making a mighty bounce towards it. The waves scattered in response, pushing the water further up the shoreline and washing away anyone caught too close to the waters.

I immediately summoned Shredrix and opened fire, stating between bursts, "It's going for the warehouse!"

With a flash of light, Nepgear transformed and took off for the creature in the near distance.

"Compa, help me get the NPCs outta the water!" IF called behind her, running down the shoreline at full speed.

With every leap towards the warehouse, our boat resting inside, I pushed myself to fire faster. The heat of the day meshed with the radiant red forming around Shredrix's barrel. I'd have to rest frequently, my hands cooking as I held onto the trigger.

And at the middle of the beach were Cave and Lyrica, using long range magic to wear down the beast's health. All the while, jump by jump, the oversized Dogoo came closer and closer to the warehouse, fully intent on ravaging our boat. While waiting for Shredrix to cool down, I took off for said warehouse.

"Code! Where are you going?" asked Aksys, still pelting the beast with her dark magic.

"Gonna look for something!" I replied, taking off in a dead sprint for our boat. The taste of sea salt and ocean air filled my lungs with every gasp I took, holding the warm Shredrix in hand all the while. The garage door was still open, and inside, I could hear the once-faint echo of squishing turn into a loud noise akin that could only be described as the sound of a typical hentai, minus the female moans. Just as I had suspected, there was a little orange box hanging out atop our boat, bellowing its nasty noise for all to hear. I immediately hopped up on the boat, and as I stood on the deck, I could see out of the warehouse window a sheer wall of blue quickly approaching.

Running out of the warehouse with the recorder still playing in one hand and Shredrix in the other, I shouted to the beast, "Here's what you're looking for! Come after this!"

On cue, the beast turned slowly, following the sound almost to the shore, Nepgear following in suit to both damage it and help pull it away from the boat.

"Nepgear, get it further out to sea!" I shouted, throwing the recorder to her.

After fumbling with the device for a moment, she used it to lure the beast further out. All the while it happily marched out to sea, scattering waves and expelling chunks of seaweed back into the ocean, the beast would moan, "Dogoo! Dogoo!"

Once IF and Compa returned, I asked, "Are all of the randoms gathered away from the water?"

"Yeah, they're safe and sound!" Compa replied.

"Good," I said in between gasps of air, "I want you to use an INT Booster on Lyrica."

IF raised an eyebrow at me, asking, "Why just her?"

"You'll see," I replied.

Compa followed my directions, the debuff active immediately.

Before Lyrica could even question what was going on, I shouted to her, "Lyrica, use Plasma Range! Give it all you got!"

I could see Cave say quietly, "Clever."

With a rapid solo played on her guitar, she summoned forth large balls of electricity, sparking wildly and already starting to cling to the ocean. Nepgear, seeing the spell at the ready, moved far out of the way. Once launched, it took a mere second to charge the ocean with searing electricity. Two types of currents mixed together, frying the giant Dogoo for massive damage.

"Certainly no enemy crab, but I think you'll get a level up out of that one," I commented to Lyrica, approaching cautiously. The water was still creeping up the shoreline from wave to wave. I certainly didn't want to end up one of the victims of such a powerful attack.

"That certainly could've ended badly," Nepgear commented, landing and reverting back to her normal form.

"What brought that nasty thing out in the first place?" asked Aksys.

Nepgear brought up the little recorder, playing it briefly before shutting off. "This sound must've attracted it."

"What is it?" asked Cave.

Before Nepgear could reply, more rumbling ensued, the dead Dogoo shaking rapidly.

"Get behind me!" I commanded to IF and Compa. I didn't even wait for them before triggering Shieldspin, arcing it slightly upwards.

"I gotcha!" Aksys shouted to Nepgear, pulling up a icy spear from the ground in front of the two.

The beast detonated and spewed its disgusting slime everywhere, Shieldspin catching the brunt of the mess and flinging it away. Unfortunately, not everyone was able to get to safety.

"And not a soul dared to care about your poor Oracle!" Chika shouted as the sand settled.

I struggled to keep back a laugh, hoisting the stopped Grindrix over my shoulder.

Aksys, however, completely burst out in laughter. "You look like a hentai reject!"

A few assorted snickers passed around the group, but the real offender had Chika's immediate attention.

"Come here Aksys, give your favorite Oracle a hug!" said Chika, chasing after Aksys.

Taking off, Aksys shouted, "This is your problem, don't make it mine!"

"Then maybe you should think about who you insult next time!"

"I knew there was a reason I didn't like you!"

With that commotion going on, I took off back to where the towels were, washed up slightly by the waves. What Aksys and Chika were doing was a little too ecchi for me, so I figure I'd ignore it for the time being. Once I had everything reset, I went back to calmly grinding on my blade. I was fortunate that I had already finished eating. "Here's hoping that's the last of the shenanigans for today. Guess it wasn't such a bad idea to stop by the beach."

After a few minutes had passed, and the Dogoo remains had dematerialized, the girls started to reset the volleyball net that had been knocked down. With my headphones off, I could hear them going on about something, but I wasn't attentive enough to really listen. The calm sound of water scrubbing the shoreline was enough for me at the moment, able to breathe calmly with the brief ocean breeze ruffling up my dirty hair. Looking up for a moment, I could see how long my hair was starting to get.

"'Bout time for a quick hair cut."

I gathered up all my shoulder-length hair towards the back, and with Grindrix resting just above my hand, I said with a hint of hesitation, "TEC don't fail me now..."

With a quick cut, a gathering of hair dropped behind me. It was good enough for me. The sun was starting to descend the blue horizon, and sunset would follow shortly. While the day came to a close, the girls were having fun and still safe, if not one of them being a little sticky.

And speaking of sticky, Chika came up to me with a not-so-humble request. "Hey, since you aren't doing much, how about you fetch us some ice cream?"

Seeing that I didn't have much of a reason to say no, I asked, "Any specific kind?"

"I don't know about the others, but I like the vanilla-colored ones."

A simple job, but it would keep me busy for the moment. Sheathing Grindrix along my back, I started walking to the little beachside shack set up further down the coastline.

/%/X\o\\

While Lyrica set up a group of wires for her speakers, a certain silver-haired girl approached from behind, wearing a look of concern and confusion that was unbecoming of her.

"Hey, Lyrica?" asked Aksys.

Lyrica yelped in response, startled as she stood back up. "What is it?"

"Can I ask you something?"

"S-sure."

Fidgiting quietly, with both hands behind herself and a tinge of blush hidden by the shadowy sunset, Aksys asked, "Can you tell me about Code?"

"Wh-what do you mean?"

"Well, I mean...how do I get to understand him more? You're his cousin, and you've spent a lot more time with him than Neppy-Gear and I put together."

Lyrica bore a grin and said, "W-well, I won't tell you everything. That's for him to do. But if you really want to get closer, you'll have to listen to me."

Giving a firm nod, Aksys listened intently.

"First off, t-talk to him like a normal person. Not like you're his s-sister or anything. Not that I mind that!" Lyrica hastily added, waving her hands in front of her, "But he really appreciates someone just talking with him. Don't dote on him or try to be super-close. Treat him like a friend and he'll open up a lot more."

"Does he have something against being all lovey-dovey or romantic stuff?"

Standing still for a moment, Lyrica thought in a hushed whisper to herself before saying, "It's not that he hates it, he just doesn't understand it. He went without it so long that he kinda stopped caring about that stuff."

Raising an eyebrow, Aksys asked, "Did he have a bad childhood or something?"

Lyrica's eyes widened, muttering under her breath, "That's right, you weren't around for that conversation."

Aksys was still well and confused.

"His parents left him when he was very little. Both of them are dead and buried at Aether. He has no bloodline family other than me."

That one little tale hit Aksys harder than any enemy ever could, and she hung her head, thinking aloud, "And here I was trying to force my way into being like his little sister..."

"No, no, no! You've done nothing wrong, in fact, for him to be letting you do that is a sign he's trying to get over it!"

Aksys looked up and asked, "Is that really true? It just always feels like the stuff I do annoys him, and I don't want it to be because I'm hurting him."

"If anything, he needs you around much more than he lets on. He looks out for you. Just be open when you talk to him and he'll start opening up to you. He's not as much of a stone wall as he puts himself up to be."

Giving a nod, Aksys felt a little closer to understand, if not hurt a little in the process. "Thanks. And, thank you for looking out for him like you used to."

"It's no problem, really," said Lyrica.

From the volleyball net, Nepgear beckoned Aksys, shouting, "Hey! We're gonna start playing volleyball soon!"

"Coming!" Aksys replied, departing from Lyrica.

Looking behind her speakers to the mess of tangled cords, Lyrica said to herself, "And now back to my battle. I need to invest in wireless..."

/%/X\o\\

Hasty feet moved the sand effortlessly as the girls took part in a heated game of volleyball. It was a battle of STR and END, two sides vigorously fighting for victory.

As she spiked a well-passed ball, Aksys cheered, "Incoming!"

The ball was cushioned by the soft sand, battered from Aksys' heavy hits.

Standing where the ball had made a deep dent in the beach, Nepgear stared in concern. "Goodness Aksys, you're going to knock one of us out with that much force."

Meanwhile, the absent-minded Chika looked off towards where the sole male of the group once was, paying no attention to their game. "Six girls in revealing swimwear playing volleyball and he probably wouldn't even bat an eyelash. I'm beginning to wonder if he plays for the other team..."

"Heads up Chika!"

IF's turn to spike ended in a twist of failure, the ball landing between Chika's twin peaks, suction cupped firmly within the drenched cleavage.

With the breath knocked out of her, Chika wheezed, "That...did not feel good..."

"Are you okay, Oracle?" asked Cave, coming to her immediate aid.

"Gonna need a drill to pop that out," commented IF.

Aksys, as per the usual, was laughing again at Chika's expense. "You wanted fanservice, and boy did you get it!"

Clutching the released volleyball in hand, Chika faced Aksys and shouted, "You're next!"

Aksys watched the ball with wide eyes, stepping out of the way just in time. "Hey! Who turned Friendly Fire off?!"

"Now Oracle, friendly fire will not be tolerated. Let's get back to the game," said Cave.

With her focus re-established, Chika did better than most of them, despite having a lower STR than most of the others. Every play got a little better, Chika and Cave outshining poor Aksys.

"I don't get it, how're you so good at this?" Aksys asked.

"Don't you know?" said Chika, "Leanbox boasts one of the best volleyball games to date! My dear Vert and I used to play it all the time!"

"I think I remember that," said Nepgear, "I remember there being two rival ninjas."

In the midst of a play, passing the ball to Compa, IF asked, "Wasn't that a spin-off of a fighting game or something?"

"Whoops!" Compa uttered, not putting enough power in her next move to get the ball further over the net.

With a game-winning spike, Chika replied with a smirk, "I do believe that's game."

/%/X\o\\

Along the beachside, a list of generic NPCs gathered around the waves and water, playing with one another while some of the others soaked up sun on assorted beach towels. While it was good to see cheerful faces and playful laughter, most of the NPCs were generic and didn't even have distinct facial features. It was a bit creepy, but I didn't come to stare at the randoms.

It was still strange to walk around with my hoodie on, but it was a bit warm even for me. Plus my skin needed to get some sunlight anyways, even though I still had long jeans on. Surprisingly enough, nobody dared comment or pick a fight over my "Planeptune FTW" T-Shirt I wore. Purple wasn't my favorite color, but Lyrica got it for me long ago, and I was quite loyal to the nation.

Stepping inside the shack, where the floor was warm to the touch and radiant heat still wafted inside, I went straight to the freezer in the back. Looking inside, i saw the popsicles that Chika mentioned, a long vanilla color that screamed "phallic symbol" to me.

"Nope, that ain't happening. That has 'lewd thoughts' written all over it," I thought aloud, reaching instead for the sea-salt ice cream next to it. In the humble shack was a sole worker manning the register, her face being the only one of several that actually had detail to it. Something about her pale skin and green hair reminded me of someone, but that someone was in jail as far as I was aware.

Flinching as she saw me, she asked hesitantly, "I-Is that all?"

"Yup."

"Are you sure you don't want to try our vanilla-flavored popsicles instead? They've been selling like crazy for the past few hours!"

Shaking my head, I told her, "Too lewd for me. I know too many people in my party that'd make eating those into a scene."

Raising an eyebrow, she asked, "Aren't boys supposed to like that sort of thing?!"

"Not me," I replied, handing her the needed credits, "Trying to break that mold. Gotta keep it simple and clean."

"W-Well h-how about I give them to you for half-off?"

"Ehh, I think I'm still gonna pass."

Abruptly, with voice raised, she said, "Oh, come on! Don't be such a freakin' wuss! Some people like that kinda weird shit, so freakin' let 'em enjoy it!"

I questioned what kind of manager let their employees speak with such vulgarity, but regardless, she wasn't entirely wrong. I sighed and said, "Add those onto the tab. Just gonna have to make sure Aksys doesn't get one of those."

The girl running the cash register gulped loudly, something I found odd. She still performed the transaction as needed, taking the credits I gave her and the extra that I added on for the porn pops Chika wanted.

"Enjoy your purchase, dude!"

I gave a disturbed laugh and said, "I ain't gonna be eating one of these, that's for sure."

"There's probably some people that wouldn't mind seeing that! Don't knock it 'til you try it!"

As I walked out with the two packages of popsicles, I shuddered at the thought of that phrase, uttering to myself as I entered the sun-soaked air, "All of my nope."

Just as I passed back into the rigid heat, someone passed by with more detail with than the others. Sporting a cat tail and cat ears, she smiled towards me as she passed. "That's odd. Thought all these were NPCs? Guess she'll be plot important later or something."

The sun was resting casually on the horizon, making any NPCs just silhouettes. Shadows danced on the sand that started to cool down. The breeze settled, and it was honestly the perfect temperature for some ice cream. With the bags stored in my inventory, I wondered if I should even let Chika know that had the things. The girl working the register was oddly insistent that I get them, and that raised a few unwanted flags to me.

"I'll feel bad about this, but I'll just leave them in the freezer back at the Basilicom with an apology note. Just tell her that the shack only had the sea-salt and you bought these at the store."

Growing closer and closer with my story in hand, I could hear Aksys and Chika going on about something in the distance, their voices almost eclipsed by Lyrica's, singing to her heart's delight and strumming on her six-string like a punk-rock siren of the sea.

Chika noticed my arrival immediately, asking, "Did you get them?"

I held up the sea-salt ice cream and said, "I had to get these instead. Clerk there said the kind you wanted were selling like crazy."

By that logic, I technically did not lie, and that appeased the guilt troll sitting in my stomach for the moment. In latter news, I leveled up my bullshitting.

Chika moaned in response, but accepted that fate and was the first to get one of the bars of sea-salt ice cream.

"Thanks Code!" the girls said one by one as they piled over for some ice cream. I took mine and sat back down at my designated beach towel, taking in the sunset with the sounds of waves and music drifting around still air.

And coming to end the peace was Aksys, still eating like I was.

"Mind if I sit here?"

"You really don't have to ask," I replied, prompting her to sit, "and what's going on with this polite stuff? It's a little odd."

Aksys paused for a second, speaking abruptly, "I just...thought I was annoying you when I acted all strange."

"When you acted like, I don't know, yourself?" I asked, my expression contorting in confusion, "It'd be more annoying if you didn't act like you."

Aksys giggled and replied, "Sowwy, big bro."

"That's better. Now, what brings you over here?"

"Do I need a reason?" asked Aksys, "I just wanted to talk with you. Maybe about some important stuff."

"I hope like hell you didn't come for a confession of some sort," I accidentally thought aloud.

In a rare sight, Aksys blushed and replied quickly, "No! I-I wouldn't do anything like that!"

"Good."

"But, I do want to ask you something. What do you think about love?"

Giving a subtle shrug, I said, "It's a great thing, but not quite for me. I'm better at protecting everyone, not just one person."

After a lengthy pause, letting the air sink in, Aksys asked, "Is that why you won't go out with Neppy-Gear?"

"There's a list of reasons behind that kiddo."

"Then can you tell me one of them?"

Raising a brow, I looked at her with confusion and a bit of surprise.

"I-I mean, you don't h-have to say if you don't want to."

I let out a pent-up sigh and said, "It's simple if you look at it. Think about it Aksys, what is Nepgear?"

"Weak-willed, timid, a bit cowardly sometimes," replied Aksys.

While her descriptions were a bit brutal, I couldn't quite disagree that she needed a little more motivation. I tried to ask again, "What kind of being is she?"

"A CPU?"

"Yes, and what comes with being a CPU?"

"A crap-ton of political bullshit."

I was starting to remember why it was hard to talk to Aksys seriously. It made it even harder that she wasn't wrong. "CPUs have a weird kind of immortality. As long as they have shares, they do not age, and, as far as I know, they don't die."

"You make it sound like that's a bad thing."

"Well, look at it this way. How would you like to watch the one person that made you feel alive, the one person that kept you safe and sound slowly age and die, unable to do anything but watch?"

Aksys kept silent, and that pressed me to continue.

"I'm just a human. I have no secret god powers that grant me eternal life. I have no cheat codes that give me infinite lives. I'm just a normal human. I will eventually grow old and die, taken that some random OP mob doesn't finish me off beforehand."

Still, Aksys said nothing in response, and, if anything, almost looked depressed.

"And that's just one reason. To me, that's not love. To me, I'm happy with her being like a sister to me, just like you are. I can come to terms with death and live a happy life knowing the people closest to me are safe and happy."

With that said, I finally broke down and put my hand atop hers. She was stunned, but smiled regardless.

"I'm here for a reason after all."

Aksys giggled and replied, "And I think that's a perfect reason."

"Now that I think about it, why did you join up with Nepgear? She do something sweet and kind for you or something?"

Aksys replied flatly, "Nope, I just did it 'cause I was bored."

"Blunt as usual."

The both of us laughed. In all honesty, it was the first time I really enjoyed talking with her. Of course, I wouldn't tell her that, lest she let her ego swell.

When I noticed that the music nearby stopped, I heard Lyrica say to us, "Everyone's getting ready to pack up and leave."

With that said, I saw it as my duty to help pack up the stuff while the others changed. Donning my hoodie, I sheathed Grindrix and got to work.

"Hey Code?"

I turned my head to face Aksys.

"Thanks for talking with me."

"Don't need to thank me for that kiddo," I replied, "Just keep smiling, alright?"

She nodded firmly and took off for the changing rooms. Bit by bit, with darkness quickly approaching, our messes were cleaned up and the girls were changed. With a day well-spent, we headed to the trolley, where, inside, I could already see a change in skin tone amongst the party.

"What are you snickering about? Someone still got goo on them?" asked IF.

"You guys spent the whole day barely clothed in broad daylight. I know at least a few of you are gonna be feeling that in the morning."

One by one, they looked down at their exposed skins, some of them contorting their faces in distress. Nepgear and Lyrica had nothing to worry about, being the only sensible ones and putting sun-tan lotion on.

"Then won't you end up the same way?" asked Aksys.

I shrugged, holding out my arms. "I only had my arms exposed. I'll get a little red on the arms and maybe the face, but the rest of you are screwed."

It was gonna be a fun day tomorrow. Venturing out into the open blue with the sun sinking into everyone. Taken no more surprise vacations popped up at least.

Along the way, Nepgear pulled out her N-Gear to check her messages, finding nothing waiting for her. "I do hope that Uni's still alright."

Chika gave a chuckle and replied, "She's gonna be busy for quite a while with that nation of hers."

"Why's that? Did something happen?"

IF's head raised and she was about to say something when Chika said, "Her nation's overrun with zombies right now. Got the Basilicom on lockdown as we speak from last I heard."

"Dammit Chika!" IF harshly whispered.

I thought about what she'd said, then felt like an idiot for not noticing something earlier. I'd thought Valve's bloody package wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Figured it was just her running around carelessly again. "Looks like I was dead wrong on that. You better still be alive over there," I thought to myself.

Nepgear's eyes widened, and, as per the usual, the first thing out of her mouth was, "We have to go help her!"

"Gear, it's late at night and we'd still be traveling for a while to get there. Besides, she said she didn't want help anyways, and her whole nation's gonna be on FedCon 1," said IF.

Nepgear stopped dead in the street, donning a despairing look as she stared into her N-Gear's blank screen. "I-I guess you're right. She said she could handle whatever happened anyways."

It was odd to me that she'd be that willing to give up. I worried that her friendship really had deteriorated that far, but to see it firsthand shocked me a little.

Nobody else was willing to say a word, leaving only the crickets and cicadas of a hot summer night for noise.

"I'm sure she'll be fine. She's strong, a lot stronger than I am," Nepgear replied, wearing an unbecoming smile for such a situation.

/%/X\o\\

Wearing the blood of sacrificed lives, Uni danced with death every time she wandered out of the Basilicom. Soldiers donning signature battleaxes cut through an advancing horde, their leader shouting to their destined commander, "Hurry and get the survivors!"

Uni couldn't even remember how many runs she'd made around town, eagerly pushing herself to the limit to bring what was left of her nation's survivors to the Basilicom for safety."

"You'll be safe with me, come on!" Uni beckoned to a trio of children, huddled around their mother in the shadows of an alley. Turning around, Uni's face was greeted with another flesh-torn foe, injecting a trio of bullets into its rotting brain. The survivors didn't take but a minute to flood out of the alley, following Uni down desolate streets, weaving through a maze of abandoned traffic. Her frantic motions ended up leaving one little boy behind, Uni cursing to herself before moving in to carry the boy herself.

In a fit of speed, she barreled into the Basilicom, saying to the escorts, "Go, go, go!"

Uni aimed her rifle and gunned down some following stragglers. Slamming shut the door, Valve helped her barricade it, commenting between gasps, "I hate escort missions."

"Least we're making progress. Told ya my methods would work," replied Valve.

"I'd like to know where all the freakin' zombies came from in the first place!" added Beth.

To that, Kei asked with a dull expression, "They'd come from Ruination, correct?"

Shaking her head, Valve was quick to correct her. "These aren't normal zombies. Pre-existing decay, quick and sporadic movements, divided attention, they aren't acting like typical Ruination zombies. Something else spawned them in."

"That still doesn't help anything!" Uni shot back, "Shares are down, my people are dying, it's gonna take a miracle to get this place together again."

"Come on, Lady Black Heart! We aren't gonna get anywhere complaining," said Beth.

"Hopefully IF can send someone in soon. I was lucky to have my phone on hand."

Uni shook her head in disbelief. "I still question how you knew something like this was going to happen."

"Call it intuition," Valve replied, "I wouldn't have gotten your sister's Share Crystal otherwise."

Uni looked at the Share Crystal still centered on the meeting room table, longing for a solution for the issue, or at least some answers. Time was running out and Uni's temptation started to persuade her into using such a bittersweet memory of her sister.

/%/X\o\\

It was late at night when my eyes peered open at the motion of someone moving my bed. My first thought was that Aksys had crept into my bed, but when I sat up, I saw Nepgear's silhouette before me.

"Miss Nepgear, what are you doing up? Couldn't sleep?"

She paused, looking away for a moment. With a firm expression, illuminated by lamplight, she said, "Code, I need you to come with me."

Rubbing my eyes, I asked, "For what?"

"I'm going to take the boat to Lastation."

I was wide awake hearing that statement. "I somehow don't think IF or the others would think highly of you running off like that."

"I know that. Still, I can't sit around while my friend's in danger!"

The panicked look on her face was difficult to say 'no' to. Still, we had a mission to tend to. Not to mention that Uni didn't want our help anyways, even though that wouldn't keep me from helping anyways. I worried that delaying our mission would just end up compromising it. I didn't even know if we'd be able to get over there quick enough anyways.

To go help and let Lastation live a little longer, or to continue the mission in hopes that things will brighten up once the Sparks are back in order.

I wouldn't dare leave Nepgear alone, but if I could convince her to stay, it'd keep her safe while we searched.

In the end, I knew what my decision would be.


Will he go with Nepgear, or stay behind with the others to finish the mission? The momentum's here, and the struggle is real! It can only go forward from here folks! See you next time!