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Fatal Heartbeat

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The sound of gunfire echoed off the crumbling walls of the devastated buildings as Shujinko slammed home a fresh magazine into her pistol. While hunting for rare items in the Old City with Zeliska, the duo were ambushed by a team of elite PKers. After clearing the SBC Flügel, Shujinko and her squad became the number-one targets for all the PKers eager to bag a famous kill. All she wanted today was to spend some quality time with Zeliska, who had been online increasingly less often lately. Shujinko heard the familiar rumble of Zeliska's machine gun as she kept the enemy players pinned down. Meanwhile, Shujinko used her UFG to flank the opposing squad. She and Zeliska knew each other so well that they could execute such an intricate plan without words, just a knowing glance and a smile. The wind rushed through Shujinko's hair as she leapt from ruined rooftop to rooftop until she found herself in a prime position to attack.

Zeliska's bullets locked up clouds of dust around the enemy players as they ducked for cover. Peeking over the edge of the rooftop, Shujinko had a clear shot at the PKers’ heads. She squeezed off several rounds with her pistol, getting fat crits with each shot and causing the surprised players to drop like flies. Out of the corner of her eye, Shujinko saw a player fall to one knee and ready a rocket launcher on his shoulder, aiming straight for Zeliska. The scumbag probably thought he could save some face by taking out at least one of his targets before being summarily dispatched. Shujinko knew she would have an easy shot if she waited for the player to fire his rocket, then take him out once he gets temporarily stunned by the backblast. But the thought of allowing Zeliska to be hurt, even in a video game, enraged her. She unholstered her UFG and aimed it at an open area across from where Zeliska was crouching. Shujinko felt the recoil travel up her arm as the grappling hook hit home, then the feeling of her shoulder about to be ripped from its socket as the gun reeled in the line. As she rappelled down from her elevated position, Shujinko felt the pull off gravity tug at her stomach as the facade of shattered buildings passed by in a blur. She saw Zeliska begin to stand up from her crouching position in anticipation of avoiding the rocket, allowing Shujinko to grab her by the belt and pull her close. Zeliska's silver hair brushed against Shujinko's face as their bodies collided. Shujinko braced her legs for impact as she saw that the UFG was rapidly reaching the end of its rope. Her boots skidded against the dirt as she held Zeliska tight against her body. When the two women came to a stop, Shujinko holstered her UFG and wrapped her other arm around Zeliska's waist in a tight hug. Zeliska raised her machine gun to her shoulder and fired at the last remaining PKer. Shujinko felt the recoil vibrate through her body as she looked over Zeliska's shoulder and watched the player fall over and disappear into a cloud of crimson shards.

A peaceful quiet fell over the ruined city, with the only noise being the eerie sound of the wind whistling through broken glass, as well as the gentle pops and pings of Zeliska's cooling machine gun barrel. Shujinko was close enough to smell the gunpowder lingering in the air from their firefight. Zeliska's earring brushed against Shujinko's nose as Shujinko pressed her face against the taller woman's shoulder. She began to kiss the side of Zeliska's neck left uncovered by her hair, tasting the tangy virtual sweat on her tongue. Wordlessly, Zeliska tilted her head to the side and leaned back into Shujinko's embrace, apparently receptive to her squad leader's intimate initiative. Shujinko moved her hand from Zeliska's belt to the base of her breasts as she moved her lips lower down her neck, closer to the collarbone.

“Stop. Hey, sweetie, I'm serious,” Zeliska said, gently grabbing Shujinko's hands and pulling them away. It was only a feather touch, but the intent was unmistakable.

“I'm sorry, I just thought… we were close enough now, you know?” Shujinko said, holding her hands in the air in supplication. Zeliska took a step away and turned her head towards Shujinko, but not enough to look her in the eyes. Even though they've known each other for months now, Shujinko was still as awestruck by Zeliska's beautiful profile as she was the day they first met. A gust of wind howled through the broken city as the gulf between the two girls suddenly felt as wide as the distance from the ground to the top of the towering skyscrapers.

“Your friendship is the most valuable thing in the world to me, really,” Zeliska finally said, breaking a silence more painful than a gunshot. “I'm sorry if I led you on by sleeping with you. That's absolutely my fault, and I'm touched that you're interested in me that way. But I have a lot on my plate right now, and I don't think I'd be able to give you the attention you deserve.”

“But when you said you wanted to sleep together in real life, I thought we could be a couple. Not as roleplay, but, you know… for real…”

Zeliska smiled at this as she turned around to face Shujinko. “You're a sweet girl, you know that? It's no wonder so many players rally to your banner. But I may not act the way you think I might in real life. And besides, I'm probably old enough to be your big sister.”

“That's okay! I'm into that!” Shujinko said with an inappropriate level of enthusiasm, causing Zeliska to chuckle.

“Maybe Kureha would be a better fit for you. I know how fond she is of you. Anyway, I should get going. I have a tight deadline at work, so I won't be on for a while,” Zeliska said, waving her hand in the air as she opened up a menu. That familiar enigmatic smile was the last thing Shujinko saw before Zeliska disappeared in a burst of blue light. Suddenly, Shujinko felt very alone. Had she just ruined her best chance at getting closer to the woman she had a crush on since the first day that they met? Shujinko could clearly recall how her heart skipped a beat the first time Zeliska seemed to take a personal interest in her, and how her fingers trembled with excitement when she accepted Zeliska's friend request. From the way other players talked about her, it seemed that Zeliska was a real enigma, a high-level player that appeared during special events to scoop the top prize, before vanishing into the ether. But Shujinko had only known her for her warmth and compassion, as well as her sharp tongue. When Zeliska had first offered to sleep with her, was overjoyed at the thought. Her enthusiasm was only slightly tempered when she realized that Zeliska was speaking literally. Still, although she has slept with many girls, she loved being cradled in Zeliska's arms the most as she fell asleep. Each morning, she awoke feeling more refreshed than she ever thought possible. Perhaps it was, as Zeliska said, because falling asleep in VR led to more restful sleep. But Shujinko felt it was more due to the woman that she slept with. When Zeliska seemed to suggest that they should sleep together in real life, Shujinko was over the moon. But Zeliska quickly changed the topic, leaving Shujinko unsure if she was embarrassed or just being her typical, impossible-to-read self. Hope that it was the former led Shujinko to her intimate actions today, leaving her crushed that she seemed to have totally misread the situation.

Unwilling to log out just yet, Shujinko fast traveled back to her home to deposit all the items she found together with Zeliska. As she walked through the door, she was greeted by the chipper voice of her ArFa-Sys.

“Hello, Master! Are you back already? Why do you look so sad? Were you unable to find any rare items?” Rei said, rushing over to greet her master. Shujinko told her android what had happened with Zeliska. Rei furrowed her brows as she considered her response.

“I'm sure Zeliska didn't mean to hurt you, Master. But I know how fond you are of her, so I'm sure you're upset. I'll bet she'll be back before you know it!” Rei said, trying to cheer up her master.

“I'm sure you're right. I know she's a kind person at heart. After all, she risked death to help save Kureha and myself, and all our friends,” Shujinko said. “But I also know how much she values her privacy. I hope I didn't mess things up.” She threw her items wholesale into the item box, no longer possessing the will to even go get them appraised.

“I'm sure she'll come around, Master. I can try to talk to Daisy and patch things up!”

Shujinko playfully ruffled her android's hair as she sat down on the bed. “You're too sweet, Rei. I'm lucky to have an ArFa-Sys like you.”

“Aww, thanks Master! But I'm the lucky one! You care about all your friends so much. If it will make you feel better, you can sleep with me tonight!”

Rei always seemed to find a way to say just the right thing to soothe her master's heart. Yawning, Shujinko decided to take her android up on her offer. She changed out of her armor and into more comfortable clothes and slid under the covers. Whereas Zeliska preferred to hold Shujinko when they slept together, Rei liked to be the little spoon. Shujinko slid her arms around the lithe robot, making Rei giggle.

“It always tickles when you do that, Master.”

“That's because you're way too cute, Rei!” Shujinko said, kissing the top of Rei's head.

“Hehe… good night, Master.”

“Goodnight, Rei.” Shujinko closed her eyes. She found herself falling asleep surprising quickly. Her AmuSphere beeped softly, letting her know that she would soon be logged out due to her brain activity falling below a certain threshold.

When she opened her eyes again, Shujinko found herself back in Itsuki's death arena. But his plans were foiled! Did he return to take his revenge? Rei, Kureha, and Zeliska were fighting at her side, all firing desperately at the GM. Shujinko fired her pistol with reckless abandon, but a near miss caused her HP to drop dangerously low. Fear gripped her heart as she knew that the NerveGear on her head would kill her if her HP dropped to zero in a disgusting rendition of the original death game. Pain wracked her body, far in excess of the AmuSphere's safety limits, causing her to stumble as she tried to move to a more advantageous position. Lifting her head up, she saw the GM staring directly at her with its burning eyes, opening its maw for a final, fatal attack. She thought of her family, and how sad Zeliska and Kureha would be at her funeral. Before she could accept her fate, she saw a blue outfit flash across her hazy vision. Zeliska stepped directly in front of the blast, its crimson glow backlighting her beautiful features. Just before being incinerated, Zeliska turned back and offered Shujinko one last smile. But unlike her trademark smiles that were always laced with a sense of mystery, this one was filled with crushing sadness, the look of a woman who died with unfulfilled dreams. Shujinko reached out her hand to try and grab Zeliska, but her savior was engulfed by the fireball. Flinching, Shujinko opened her eyes only to see a cloud of ruby shards slipping through her fingers like a smashed gem.

Startled, Shujinko sat bolt upright in bed. Her AmuSphere felt like it was crushing her head in a vice grip. She tore off the chin strap and threw the infernal device on the bed. Cold, clammy sweat covered her body, soaking her clothes. She had heard that dreams experienced while falling asleep in VR could be extremely vivid, but that felt more like an unrealized alternate universe. She even ran her hands over her AmuSphere to see if someone didn't switch it with another NerveGear while she was unconscious. The familiar scrapes told her that it was indeed her own AmuSphere. Shujinko read that people killed by NerveGears looked peaceful in death, almost angelic after the magnetic pulse fried their brains. She imagined Zeliska lying in bed, NerveGear on her head, her enigmatic smile frozen on lips that would never speak again. They all knew the risks they were talking when they put on the NerveGears to stop what they thought was Death Gun's plans, but Shujinko had faith that she and her friends would find a way to defy fate and make it out alive. Her vision blurred as tears welled up in her eyes as thought of losing Zeliska for good frightened her deeply. She cursed herself again for overstepping her bounds and possibly pushing Zeliska away. Still, as the sun's morning rays began to illuminate her curtains, Shujinko wiped her eyes and began to get ready for her day despite her heavy heart.

Days passed and Shujinko hadn't seen hide nor hair of Zeliska in GGO. She tried asking around Glocken, but it seemed that she was just as much of a ghost as she ever was. Even Daisy said her master hasn't logged in for days, but she was keeping busy by selling the cute dresses that Zeliska designed. Shujinko couldn't shake the mental image of Zeliska lying in bed, porcelain skin cold to the touch. She trudged half-heartedly though the daily quests, but she just couldn't focus, even when she was shooting mobs in the face. Kureha asked her if anything was wrong, but Shujinko just shook her head and said that everything was fine. At the end of the day, she was sitting on her bed in her personal room in Glocken, debating on whether or not she should try sleeping in VR again. She really didn't want to have another terrible dream, but she didn't want to look at the dark, barren walls of her apartment, either. Rei was off prowling the back streets for rare items to buy, so Shujinko was currently alone. Bored, she began aimlessly tapping through her inventory when she heard a knock on her door. Figuring it was just Rei returning, Shujinko quickly tapped the button on the message window to open the door without bothering to check the identity of her visitor.

“Hello there, sweetie.”

Shujinko's heart leapt at that voice. Her spirits rose immediately as Zeliska walked over and sat down next to her on the bed. “Zeliska! I'm sorry about what I did. I thought I scared you off for good,” Shujinko said, which caused Zeliska to chuckle.

“You could never do that, sweetie. I'm the one who should apologize. I ran away from my feelings, and from you. Plus, Kureha found me moping around in a dungeon and told me how depressed you've been lately. That girl really cares about you, even if it's hard for her to show it sometimes.”

“So… do you want to sleep together again? It's just not the same with anyone else.”

“I feel the same way,” Zeliska said, lifting Shujinko's chin with a slender finger. She leaned closer and kissed Shujinko on the lips. Thrilled that her feelings have been reciprocated, Shujinko returned the kiss with passion. When their lips parted, Zeliska took Shujinko's hand in one of her own.

“I know you want to meet in real life, but I have to warn you that I'm a bit different outside of here,” Zeliska said.

“I don't mind! When you put on that NerveGear and fought alongside me, I knew you were willing to put your life on the line for your friends, and that's how I know you're a kind and caring person. There's nothing you could show me in real life that could change that.”

“Even if I'm an overworked and underappreciated programmer who drinks too much?”

“Of course. I will always love everything you do, Zeliska, because I love you,” Shujinko said. She surprised herself with how serious she sounded.

“Alright, alright. Here, do you know this station? We can meet there when I get off work and we can walk to my apartment.” Zeliska typed into a message window and flipped it around for Shujinko to see. The name of the station was indeed familiar to her, because, in a fit of creepy stalkerness, she had once googled the closest stations to Zaskar's Japanese headquarters in a fleeting fantasy of meeting Zeliska on her way home from work before quickly discarding the idea as way too disturbing.

“Yes, I know where that is,” Shujinko said, neglecting to mention that she'd have to change trains three times in order to get there.

“Great! So, can we meet tomorrow at, say, seven?”

Thankfully, Shujinko's schedule was free that day. She had no classes and didn't have to be at her part-time job; if anything, the hardest part would be the wait. She answered in the affirmative.

“Then we better get some sleep,” Zeliska said, opening a menu and changing into her pajamas. The twin pillows on Zeliska's chest always captivated Shujinko and put her in the mood for something that a bed is used for besides sleeping. She laid her head on Zeliska's arm as she was pulled closer into a tight embrace. She once again experienced the feeling of warmth and security that she only found in Zeliska's arms. Pressing her head into her partner's chest, Shujinko quickly fell into a peaceful sleep.

The next day, Shujinko puttered around the station, nervously checking the time on her phone. It had been over an hour since the agreed-upon meeting time, and she still hasn't seen Zeliska among the crowd. When asked how Shujinko would know it was her, Zeliska simply smiled and said, “Oh, you'll know.” Typical Zeliska. Just as Shujinko was thinking about sleeping at the station, she saw a exhausted-looking office lady exit a train. She had black hair tied in a ponytail resting on her shoulder, and a familiar beauty mark on her face. Just in case her eyes were playing tricks on her, Shujinko let the crowd disperse a little so she could get a better look at the woman. Long, pantyhose-covered legs led into a purple skirt. A blue blouse completed the outfit, but it was the size of the woman's breasts that really identified the woman as Zeliska. Shujinko made her way through the crowd, brushing against people's shoulders in her excitement. The sea of salarymen seemed to part as she reached Zeliska, and she threw her arms around the taller woman in a tight hug. Zeliska squeezed her back, and they were close enough that Shujinko could smell the faint traces of perfume on Zeliska's skin, as well as the shampoo in her hair. These were sensations that were impossible to create virtually. When they finally released each other, Zeliska gave Shujinko a once-over.

“You're just as adorable here as you are ingame,” Zeliska said, running her fingers through Shujinko's hair.

“And you're just as beautiful. Oh, and you're hair doesn't clip through your clothes in real life,” Shujinko said. She felt strangely nervous standing in front of Zeliska, despite everything they've been through together.

“C'mon, let's go home. I'm dying for a drink,” Zeliska said, taking Shujinko by the hand and leading her through the station. Zeliska's hand was soft and warm, not what Shujinko expected from a woman so deadly with a machine gun. They chatted about how Zeliska was saddled with more responsibilities at Zaskar after Taipan was fired. Now, she had to perform his managerial functions as well as her programming duties, all with no bump in pay. She said it took Herculean effort just to get out of the office before the last train. Zeliska's apartment was clean and modern, with tasteful furniture. Zeliska immediately kicked off her pumps and opened the refrigerator. She grabbed two beers and handed one to Shujinko before hesitating.

“Um… you are of legal age, right? I don't want to commit a crime on our first meeting,” Zeliska said.

“Yes, it's fine. I know, I look younger than I really am,” Shujinko said, accepting the beer. She didn't know much about alcohol, but the ice-cold can looked like an upmarket brand. She popped open the can and took a swig. The beer was surprisingly smooth and helped calm her nerves. Zeliska had already finished her first beer and began draining her second can when they decided to order take out. The beer went well with the greasy food that Zeliska apparently preferred. Zeliska spent most of the meal complaining about her co-workers, and Shujinko was content to simply listen to her talk about her daily life; a life that could've been cut short if anything went wrong during the climactic battle.

The night wore on quicker than Shujinko realized, and when Zeliska let out a dainty yawn, she suggested that they head to bed. Shujinko came prepared, as she brought her toothbrush and a change of clothes in her backpack. As she waited for Zeliska to do her business in the bathroom, Shujinko sat down on her bed and looked around the bedroom. She saw Zeliska's AmuSphere sitting in a shelf. It reminded her of the dream she had where she watched Zeliska's life be snuffed out right before her eyes. Now that she knew what Zeliska looked like in real life, Shujinko couldn't shake the image of Zeliska's lifeless body lying right on the very bed she was sitting on. She tried to think of all the day's happy moments and the fact that spending time together like this was proof that they had triumphed over evil, but she still felt tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

Zeliska looked as radiant as ever in her nightgown. Her black hair, worn loose for bed, added a new dimension to her elegant appearance. Plus, Zeliska's in-game model was true to life where her bust size was concerned. Despite herself, Shujinko felt hot tears rolling down her cheeks. She heard the bed creak as Zeliska sat down beside her and put her arm around her waist.

“Sweetie, what's wrong? Did you have too much to drink?” Zeliska asked, her voice tinged with concern. Shujinko shook her head and, choking back tears, told Zeliska about the nightmare she had that portrayed her death. Throughout it all, Zeliska listened silently while rubbing Shujinko's back and wiping away her tears with a tissue.

“Oh my. That's quite a frightening dream,” Zeliska said. “I'll tell you what. Let's sleep together, and you'll see that I'm still perfectly fine in the morning, okay?”

“Y-Yeah. I'm sorry I ruined your night. I didn't mean to bring you down.”

“You don't have to apologize, sweetie. If anything, I'm happy that you worry about me that much. Come here, I want you to hear something,” Zeliska said, gently guiding Shujinko's head to her bosom. Shujinko's blushing face sank into Zeliska's deep cleavage. She wondered if Zeliska was just being overly affectionate, until she heard a distinct booming sound in her ear. It took her a moment to realize that she was listening to the sound of Zeliska's heartbeat, a sound that proved that she woman she loved was still alive.

“Hear that?” Zeliska asked, gently running her fingers through Shujinko’s hair. “If you hear my heart still beating in the morning, then you'll know I'll always be here with you.” Shujinko could both hear Zeliska's words as well as feel them vibrating through her skin.

Shujinko nodded, raising her face away from Zeliska's chest even though she wanted nothing more than to bury her face deeper into those twin cushions. They kissed again, Shujinko tasting the remnants of the alcohol on Zeliska's tongue as it entered her mouth. It was a passionate kiss between lovers, one that made all of Shujinko's struggles worth every bit of pain and misery. This touch was everything she had ever fought for. Zeliska held Shujinko close to her breast as they lay together in bed. It felt even more peaceful than even when they slept together in VR, despite the sounds of traffic outside the window and the gentle mutter of the building's AC. Shujinko listened to Zeliska's gentle breathing settle into a slow rhythm, and wondered what she was dreaming about. For Shujinko, no dream could possibly be better than her reality in this very moment.

Shujinko felt something warm and soft under her cheek when she woke up in the morning. Not remembering her pillow to be so soft and warm, she opened her eyes and realized that she had moved during the night until she was lying completely on top of Zeliska's body, with the woman's large breasts cushioning Shujinko's head. The slow rise and fall of her head told her that Zeliska was still sound asleep. Remembering what Zeliska had told her last night, Shujinko placed her ear right above Zeliska's breast and listened. Just as she hoped, she heard the reassuring sound of Zeliska's heartbeat. As if on cue, Zeliska yawned and opened her eyes. Shujinko lifted her head and kissed Zeliska good morning, a wonderful way to start the rest of their lives together.