In her mind, she stood outside the gates of chaos awaiting the key master who would open them up and allow access into a world of fright. There was no going back now. The die had been cast, and she would confront her destiny behind those doors. Would she survive the coming trial? Or would she be led to oblivion?
The actual scene around her was a lot less dramatic. But the feelings she harbored within her were very much real. Fidgeting out in the hallway, Ranko Kanzaki’s eyes glanced left and right, wondering when Koume would show up. Both agreed to meet right outside the girl’s dorm room on this fine evening. And although a few minutes remained until then, the wait felt more and more unbearable to the fallen angel of the idol world.
“Y-you can do it!” She tried to mentally reassure herself. Many trials came her way since she began to tread down the path of an idol. Yet somehow, something so trivial measured into the most intimidating challenge of her life. What did she have to worry about though? Well, three things actually.
Today was Koume’s birthday. A once a year ritual that commanded the utmost attention from fellow companions far and wide. Where everyone would partake in a grand banquet, to celebrate a joyous occasion that marked the birth of a soul. Indeed, tonight was truly special.
Earlier that day, Koume had undoubtedly been busy having fun with Sachiko, Syoko, and her other companions at the amusement park. Ranko pouted, feeling envious about their celebratory outing (she was filming a promotional video while they were enjoying themselves). But she was grateful Koume made the effort of spending time with her at least.
However, this led to her first concern:
A birthday gift. Or the lack of one... Ranko spent days mulling over what to get her. A small charm befitting her taste? Something homemade, like food or a piece of art? Would that be enough? Her indecision and lack of free time made choosing something almost impossible. Before she knew it, Koume's birthday already came, and still nothing was in hand...
And if that wasn’t proving to be a burden, there was still her second concern:
Koume invited her to watch a film together. Such an activity was cherished by the eerie girl, gathering her friends together to have a blood curdling tale grip their hearts. Ranko had partaken in such viewings at her companion’s insistence before. And each time, her very soul would wither away from whatever fear-inducing pick Koume featured.
In spite of all she had to endure, Ranko immediately said yes when invited. After all, absent her inability to join Koume’s birthday outing, different jobs and projects made it difficult for them to hang out lately. Even when they lived in the same dorm. Koume was a precious friend after all.... She needed to revitalize that friendship. It was one thing to fear a movie, but another to have them drift further apart....
Still, she shuddered at the thought of being in the dark, watching frightful events unfold. Yet surprisingly enough, this wasn’t what necessarily troubled her. The fear of horror was present, but it took a back seat to her ultimate conundrum:
On a normal movie night, Koume would invite a small gathering of people to watch with her. Ryo and Syoko were most commonly present, and even Nono somehow got dragged in from time to time (even if she cowered behind the couch). Tonight was rather different... When Ranko asked who else was going, Koume told her that everyone else said they were too busy later this evening.
That just left the two of them.
Ranko didn’t think about it deeply at first, but doesn't this seem like a--
“D... da....” The accursed four letter word made her cheeks tint red, unable to utter it fully. Her imagination had to be running wild. They’ve hung out in their rooms plenty of times by themselves. No special meaning could be behind this meet up. Even though she didn’t need to stick with a movie... She didn’t need to invite her, someone least qualified to enjoy scary movies with, and yet....
She saw a figure emerge out of the corner of her eye, quickly darting her head to see it was just Emi passing by. The master of jest didn't utter a single word to her, but she did shoot her a knowing smile, giving a thumbs up to signify her blessing. Although it made Ranko blush even more.
“Uwwwah... don't tell me everyone knows....” She thought worriedly to herself. “How embarrassing....”
Just then, a thought came in the form of a lance: striking her mind with blinding speed. “Oh no, no... d-don’t tell me no one else is coming tonight is because they.... Ughhhhh why would they do that!?”
It had to be part of her increasingly chaotic imagination. No way was there some grand conspiracy afoot, aimed at having the two of them together by themselves. As she grappled with her mixed feelings, a familiar voice called out to her.
Ranko yelped, head jerking to her left, seeing a long sleeve flapping in the air at a distance. The sleeve belonged to a familiar girl, one of shorter stature, with an eye obscured by long bangs. As she trotted closer, Ranko tried to calm down, taking in a deep breath to strengthen her resolve. Best to focus on what was in front of her.
“Aah, Koume!” She greeted her friend bombastically, fitting of a denizen of the dark world. “It appears that you have come for the promised hour.”
The usually quiet girl nodded happily. “Mmm! Thank you for waiting. Now... should we go inside...?”
“Huh? Oh, y-yeah....” Ranko stepped aside and allowed Koume to unlock her door. Entering the room, she flicked on the lightswitch with her sleeved hand, illuminating her “chamber of the undead” (as Ranko called it). The actual room didn’t live up to the dramatic name however, save for some creepy items on display.
“S-so...” Ranko began as Koume closed the door behind them. “Did you all have fun today...?”
“Yeah!” Koume said as she nodded happily. “We all rode the teacups together... Sachiko-chan got really, really dizzy... hehe~ And I went on the rollercoaster with Ryo-san and Mirei-chan...!”
“Ahh... I’m glad you had fun,” Ranko said with a smile. Koume continued to recount her exciting day, but Ranko’s thoughts grew distant from the conversation. A lot of people spent time with Koume today, yet somehow they all became busy.... The fallen angel groaned quietly, fidgeting as she tried to prevent her imagination from running wild again.
As Koume kept talking about her fun outing, Ranko couldn’t help but notice how happy she was.... Seeing her smile warmly like that wasn’t something she saw all the time, and somehow, happily talking about her day with everyone made Ranko a little forlorn. When was the last time she smiled like that because of her?
Rather than a heart pounding scenario, another possibility popped up in her head:
For all she knew, Koume might have just invited her out of pity... maybe there was nothing special behind this, and just an obligation as a friend to spend more time together. That last thought exchanged fluster for gloom, her heart sinking a little at the possibility.
“Ranko-chan... are you okay?” Koume asked her, her lips curling into a small frown of concern. “Did you need to use the bathroom...?”
Snapping back to reality, Ranko scrambled to her herself together.
“Ah? N-not at all! I-it brings me joy to hear of your grand adventures! Now w-we may b-begin the night of festivities! Ahahahaha.... “ she posed dramatically, albeit slightly shaky. Her laugh faltered towards the end. “S-so... what movie did you want to watch...?”
Koume began to rummage through her hoodie pocket, and like the flick of a switch, Ranko’s emotions shifted into one of dread. She overheard her horror-loving companion talk about a movie called Murder Squid the other today. Could that be tonight’s film of choice? It may not be zombies, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying! Ranko’s face grew pale at the horrid imagery of a monstrous giant squid, grabbing a hold of her and dragging her into the dark ocean depths.... She shut her eyes terror, whimpering at the developing nightmare she manifested.
“Here it is...!”
Drawing herself away from her fears, Ranko’s eyes slowly opened, seeing Koume happily holding a DVD case. Rather than the imagery of a fiendish squid, a squad of men in colorful uniforms were assembled amidst a greenish background, something far less intimidating and frightening than she anticipated. Ranko looked at the title (which had a cute ghost on it) slowly.
“Mmm!” Koume nodded happily. “It’s a remake of that old movie... the DVD just came out, so I thought it would be fun to watch. Is that okay...?”
It took a second for Ranko to reply. “Um... of course!” She could tell from the shine in Koume’s eyes that she really wanted to watch this one. It was just a little surprising, that’s all. She never watched the original, but Ranko knew enough about it to know that this was a lighthearted adventure with ghost hunters. It had that spooky element Koume coveted so much... but nothing intense and graphic.
“Go ahead and take a seat, Ranko-chan...” Koume said as she began to set up the DVD player.
“Right...” Ranko acknowledged as she got on the couch. It felt as if the fear gripping her had eased, although part of her was still on guard. This was a remake after all... sometimes they would make it more intense and edgy. As the lights flicked off, she couldn’t help but consider that this might be scarier than she imagined.... Ranko gulped, hoping that wasn’t the case.
With a soft squeak, Koume sat down right next to her. While she stuck out the remote and hit the play button, Ranko felt a little relieved by one fact: even if this movie did turn out to be scary, at least she had someone to cling to. Although....
Ranko shook her head furiously, hoping the TV screen’s glow wouldn’t reveal her blushing face. If this movie didn’t scare her to death, then her own embarrassment might do the trick.
As hard as she tried, Ranko was unable to stifle a laugh as she watched the Ghost Sniper Ooba throw an absurd amount of salt on the possessed Waku. The ghost groaned in comedic agony as he released his control of their hapless comrade. Even Koume was giggling at such a silly scene.
While laughter reverberated around the room, Ranko couldn’t help but be a little surprised at herself. Normally, an ordinary horror film felt like a nightmare in slow motion; she would be paralyzied in terror, wondering when everything would come to an end. But Ghost Snipers was a completely different beast (or... ghost maybe?). There might have been a few jump scares sprinkled here and there, but for all the usual fears she experienced on Koume’s movie nights, this was the most fun she ever had.
So fun that the movie was nearing its climax.
Ranko’s eyes glittered in awe, watching as Ooba and the Hasuda brothers stared down the spectral menace in Akihabara, a giant ghost acting as the boss. Her mouth dropped open as Taishi Hasuda hefted his gadget. “Now then…” he said with a confident grin. “Why don’t we go and save the world now♪”
“So cool...!” Ranko whispered in admiration. The excitement of this film was off the charts! As the Ghost Snipers set out to defeat the opposing legions of ghosts, a small nudge from Koume brought her out of the moment.
“Umm... Ranko-chan...” she spoke up. “Not too tight, please...?”
“Huh...?” It took a moment, but Ranko to her own surprise, she had been gripping Koume’s hand this entire time. Immediately she withdrew it and put it on her lap tensely. “Waaaah! S-sorry!”
Koume merely giggled. “It’s okay... you’re really into it, aren’t you?”
“Ah- Y-yeah!” Ranko said excitedly. Without another word, they continued to watch the action unfold. Subconsciously, Ranko considered moving her hand back toward Koume's, but abruptly hesitated. “Hmmmmm what if she doesn’t like that...?” Her thoughts were split between being enamored by the movie, and the apprehension of physical contact with her friend. It wasn’t like she hadn't held onto Koume before (it happened a lot when shrieking in terror) but her own confused thoughts made the tiny things amplified to a hundred.
Just before she could finally resolve her own indecision however, Koume moved her own hand back onto Ranko’s, causing the bewildered girl to squeak. Sending a glance beside her, Ranko saw Koume was still focused on the movie. Taking in a small breath, she tried to follow suit and watch the final scene. Still... she couldn’t help but notice how light Koume’s grip was. How cold her skin was. Part unnatural, part wondrous. A touch that could only belong to Koume Shirasaka.
“Does Koume-chan also... think this is...?”
“Wherever you are, don’t hesitate to call us! The world awaits! Ghost Snipers!”
And with Ooba’s last lines, the movie ended and the credits began to roll. And just like that, Koume withdrew her hand and grabbed the remote, shutting off the DVD player and TV. A pang of disappointment was felt, but Ranko let it pass.
“Waaah...! That was such a fun movie... hehe!” Koume said happily, walking up to retrieve the disc. “You really enjoyed it too, huh Ranko-chan?”
“I-indeed!” She said, ignoring that she was... distracted at the very end. “Such a flurry of supernatural action that stirs the soul and makes the heart pound with excitement! Koume, you picked a splendid tale to share!”
“Heh... I’m glad!” Koume said happily. “I knew you’d enjoy something like this... so that’s why I chose it. It’s good to know I made the right choice.”
“Wait...” Ranko said, trying to process what was just said. “You said you... picked this film for me?”
The abruptness of the question caught Koume off guard. “Eh? Well... I know you get scared of the other movies I usually watch... so I thought this one would be fun for the both of us. Huh...? Ranko-chan...?”
Ranko didn’t respond, instead she remained seated on the couch in silence. Before she became an idol, it was never an easy task to properly express herself. Her current self had more courage to wield words to convey how she felt. But at this moment, such a thing was hard to pull together.
Still, she tried anyway.
“K-Koume-chan... you didn’t have to....”
“Do this... for me...” Ranko looked down at her lap, a melancholic expression prominent on her face. “You don’t have to force yourself... to have me along if you don’t want to. Today is your birthday. I’m sure you had more fun with Ryo-san, or Syoko-san.... Or anyone else.....”
She tried to figure out what else to say at this point. “Thank you,” or “You don’t need to worry about me,” but the available vocabulary was getting narrower and narrower to utilize. Ranko didn’t believe that this was the end of their friendship. But she couldn’t help feel that the possibility of something more was out of reach...
Ranko was surprised when Koume sat back on the couch beside her, shaking her head. “I have lots and lots of fun when I’m with you, Ranko-chan.... Time with you is never a waste.”
“B-but-!” Ranko stopped, noticing a smile was on Koume’s face. That warm, genuine smile she loved so much.
“I had a big wish today, you know,” Koume continued, fidgeting a little. “And that was to spend time with you some more.”
“W-waah!?” Ranko felt her face heating up. “B-but I’m always... s-scared doing scary things with you....”
Koume shook her head again. “You’re a lot braver than you think, Ranko-chan. You’ll watch horror movies with me... come with me to haunted spots... and no matter how scared you are....”
She leaned her small body against Ranko, causing the imaginative girl to yelp in surprise. Her mouth quivering, she noticed Koume didn’t feel heavy against her. Then in a quiet, sincere tone, the spooky idol continued.
“You’re willing to be by my side....”
She was unable to see it, but Ranko’s face was beet red at this point. The contained chaos of emotions burst out in full force, making her unable to form a comprehensive thought. “Haaaaah.... Uwah! Ah, t-thank you! Koume-chan! I-I like b-b-being with you too! A lot! Thank you! B-but I didn’t even get you a present you know.... I’ve been busy, and ahhhh--”
As she continued to babble, Ranko left herself wide open as Koume craned her head up and did the boldest thing in her life: she kissed the flustered girl on the cheek. The instant her lips made contact, Ranko ceased all noises, save for one long, high pitch squeak that continued even after Koume ended the kiss.
“UWAAAAAAH! K-K-KOUME-CHAN! H-HOW MEAN! W-WHY DID YOU!? UGHHH HAAAA.....”
As bold as the act was, Koume brought up a sleeved hand over her mouth, trying to conceal her own blushing face. “T-there... t-that can be... your present to me.... Uhhhhm.... I-I might explode now...."
Despite Koume's own embarrassment, Ranko pouted at the explanation, still trying to calm herself down from such a surprise attack. “Not fair..... T-that... doesn’t count.....”
Summoning all the accumulated courage she gained as an idol, Ranko gave Koume her own kiss on the cheek. It was brief, hardly lasting a second. But that fleeting moment felt like eternity. And what a wonderful eternity that was.
Afterwards, an awkward silence hung in the air. Neither of them could look at the other in the eye after what happened. But Koume was the first to recover, once again taking Ranko by the hand and smiling warmly.
“Thank you, Ranko-chan... for such a wonderful gift.”
“Syoko, can you hear anything?”
“Uh.... not really....”
Mirei squinted in concentration, pressing her ear against Koume’s door as she tried to figure out what was going on.
“Ummm... do you really think we should be doing this?” Nono hesitantly asked, merely watching them continue to eavesdrop on their friends.
"Honestly..." Sachiko whispered, letting out a small sigh of disapproval. Still, she couldn't help but grin. "You really need to respect their privacy~"