Chapter 3. Midnight Comforts
It's never been easy to tell how they ever got to the underground stage, or for what purpose. Kaoruko doesn't even remember hearing the tone of the jingle coming from here phone this time around, but she's here nonetheless, already slashing away at the hoard of Korosu swarming the stage.
"Heavens-" She grunts, twisting sharply to avoid another screeching shadow and cleave it into dust. "Just for one night, couldn't we be spared the trouble of all this?!"
Around her, she catches a glimpse of several of her other friends fighting as well. Karen, Maya, Junna…
And even though she hasn't seen her yet, she instinctually knows Futaba is here as well. Though, she does find it a bit odd that she hasn't ended up at her side by this point.
As Kaoruko continues swinging her naginata, she casts her gaze around the battlefield of a stage for her roommate. She can hear her making grunts of effort and shouting at the Korosu.
But it's odd. Every time Kaoruko turns her head, she just misses her. All she ever sees of Futaba is her shadow.
At first, she simply continues fighting, because she thinks nothing of it.
But after it's happened again, and again, and again, she starts to get this churning feeling in her stomach, as though all of her insides are being squeezed and pulled the wrong ways.
As she slices through another Korosu, Kaoruko once again attempts to turn and follow the leap of her best friend's shadow.
"Futaba-han?" She calls for her, expecting an answer. But all she receives is another yell from her roommate as she kills the next monster. Kaoruko pouts. "You know-" she says loudly. "You haven't come to cover my back for me once, tonight, Futaba-han! The least you could do is answer me properly!"
The next swing of her blade is more forceful, but she can't discern if it's more out of anger, frustration, or fear.
She continues trying to look for Futaba throughout the fray, but it becomes impossible with the amount of Korosu filling her vision now. Kaoruko staggers, gritting her teeth as they clamber toward her.
A Korosu charges at her, and she blocks its blade and pushes it back, but another replaces it in seconds. Kaoruko can no longer see nor hear any of her friends. The fear begins to trickle through her, chilling her blood.
"Don't mess around with me-"
Gripping her naginata tightly, she rushes into the swarm of blackness at full-force, spinning and leaping and lashing out. Each one she makes contact with disintegrates in turn. She lets out a battle cry, slicing them apart in whatever way she can.
They are obstacles. Parasites. Ruining her beloved plays and preventing her from standing in that spotlight with her friends.
The clattering of their armor and the hissing of their voices rattles in her ears. With one final war cry, she finishes off the last slew of them with one surefire cut.
At last, the echoes of the fight begin to fade. Kaoruko stands hunched over the remains of the last Korosu, panting for breath as she slowly straightens herself up. As the blackness dissipates, she begins searching for her fellow Stage Girls.
"Where is everyone-?"
Using her blade for support, she turns to gaze at the farthest corner of the stage. Karen and Junna are standing side by side with their backs facing her, pressed together and clearly looking down at something. Kaoruko breathes a sigh of relief to have finally found them. Wiping the sweat from her forehead and smoothing back her hair a little, she begins making her way toward the others.
"What was all that about?" she calls to them. "Karen-han, Hoshimi-han, do either of you recall what play it is we were saving? I feel like I can hardly even remember what we're putting on this week."
She begins striking up casual conversation. But Karen and Junna don't budge. They just continue looking at whatever is in front of them on the stage.
Tilting her head, Kaoruko struts closer.
"Karen-han? Hoshimi-han? Are you listening to me? What is it you're looking at that's so engrossing?"
As Kaoruko approaches, she glances downward at their boots. She can see something colorful on the stage there, white and purple and-
She shakes her head, then takes another step closer. It isn't what she thinks.
"H-Hey. What exactly are you two-?"
But as she draws nearer, Karen suddenly steps back and turns to face her, her eyes wide and distressed.
"K-Kaoruko-chan! It was an accident! We didn't mean to!"
"That's right," Junna mutters. "It was an accident…"
Kaoruko comes to a dead stop, clutching her naginata until her fingers go numb.
"What on earth are you two talking about…? Where is-?"
But then, Karen and Junna each step aside.
Lying there behind them is Futaba, crumpled and motionless, run through by a sword and multiple arrows. Dark crimson pools from all around her and stains deep into the stage.
Kaoruko screams, dropping her weapon with a loud clatter.
"We're sorry," Karen hums. "It was just an accident."
"That's right," Junna smiles. "An accident."
Before Kaoruko's eyes, the two of them suddenly crackle with blackness, warping into deformed shapes with burning red eyes.
She screams again, tears blurring her vision as she collapses to her knees. The blood has pooled out to reach her, staining her clothes and skin.
Kaoruko throws herself up out of bed with the gruesome image still burned behind her eyes. She moves so quickly and so suddenly it's too much for her body, which has been dormant with slumber until now.
As she pitches her weight forward, throwing the blankets off herself, her legs get tangled. With the panic and confusion still gripping every inch of her, she can't react quickly enough to prevent herself from tumbling over the edge.
With a thud, she crashes to the floor and lets out a whimpering sob, taking half the covers with her. Pain registers in her shoulder, arm, and head from landing hard on her side. But though the ache of her fall is jarring enough to make her realize what is reality, the nightmare still grips her with icy talons.
She blurts the name, trying to push herself up off from the floor and onto her aching elbows. With her body temporarily stunned from the impact, every inch of her feels numb and burning at the same time. Tears and sobs and pain and panic prevent her from moving, so she only trembles there.
Of course, Futaba had woken in an instant from her own bed the second she'd heard Kaoruko wake with a short cry of her name. But she hadn't been able to make sense of what was going on in time to get up and help her before she'd crashed to the floor.
Now, eyes wide with alarm, Futaba throws the covers off herself and jumps out of bed.
It's the middle of the night, and the room is dark, but even though she can't see her right away, the rest of Futaba's senses hone in on her immediately. She drops to the floor between their beds and crawls to her partner's side, placing one hand over hers.
"O-Oy, Kaoruko? What the hell happened-?" Futaba doesn't even know where to begin, but as the shock of the moment finally begins to settle, her brain kicks into action and logic resurfaces.
Kaoruko is clearly too distraught and in pain to make sense of anything at the moment, so Futaba crouches forward to lie down beside her, draping one arm across her back and curling the other across her collar. Kaoruko continues sobbing uncontrollably, unable to fathom any of it just yet. Futaba rubs her back firmly, trying to untangle her and wrap the blankets around her more comfortably.
"Oy, oy, oy…" She still has no idea what's going on, and not knowing is killing her. Futaba can already feel tears welling up in her own eyes, but she tries to keep them down and stay focused. "Kaoruko, Kaoruko! Just take it easy, okay? Hey… I'm here, okay? I'm right here."
Kaoruko continues to wail, choking out gasps in between as more tears drip onto the carpet.
Futaba's known and been with Kaoruko all her life. But she's never seen her like this before. She's seen her cry before, heard all of her most pitiful sobs when she was scared and upset and dejected.
But this is different. It's as though Kaoruko has lost all control over herself. Whatever had frightened her tonight has shaken her to her core, to the point where she still can't comprehend reality yet. Her voice that is usually so haughty and refined, or playful and cutesy, is now in shambles.
Futaba can't bear it. Slowly, she sits herself up, holding Kaoruko in her arms as she tries to right her as well. Kaoruko is shaking so much, and the tears just keep coming. Futaba barely has her up for a second before Kaoruko slumps against her chest, limp all except for how roughly she's crying. Futaba is startled as she catches her, locking both arms around her tightly.
"Kaoruko- oy, oy-" Now she can feel just how badly she's shaking. Though her sobs have becomes stifled as she buries her face into Futaba's shoulder, Kaoruko still weeps with her whole body. Her heart is pounding so hard Futaba can feel it through her back, and it beats wildly against the front of her chest, like a drum being relentlessly bashed. Futaba is at a loss.
"Oy, oy, Kaoruko! Seriously! C'mon, you gotta tell me what's wrong-" She chokes a little, still trying to fight back her own tears. She knows for a fact Kaoruko doesn't have any medical conditions that could've been the cause of this, so her safest bet is an awful nightmare that spooked her really badly.
Futaba rubs up and down her back and her sides, hugging her close so her heart won't burst clean out of her chest.
"Take it easy, okay? It wasn't real, Kaoruko. None of it was real. Promise."
Of course, Kaoruko had suffered nightmares just like anyone else. But they've never had such a strong after-effect on her before. If anything, she would catch her breath, shed a few tears, and then call for Futaba until she woke and plead until she came to sleep with her, or she would climb out of her bed and into Futaba's without a word and just hug her for the remainder of the night.
More often than not they slept together in the same bed anyway. Tonight had been a fluke where they'd each flopped onto their own mattresses just to have some space for a moment, but had ended up falling asleep before one or the other could get up to move together.
When Futaba remembers that Kaoruko had fallen clean off the bed, she grits her teeth and hugs her tighter.
"Sorry. I should've been with you… Damn it…"
It was rare for either of them to suffer such bad night terrors, but Kaoruko was a bit more prone than Futaba herself was. Whenever Futaba had nightmares, she'd try to keep it to herself. But Kaoruko always woke some way, somehow and offered to let her talk about them. In spite of how she whined about getting her beauty sleep, Kaoruko was always serious in listening to Futaba rid her mind of the bad thoughts. She would always hum and cradle her close afterward, and let Futaba fall asleep to the soothing sound of her heartbeat.
That was the Kaoruko other people rarely - if ever - got to see.
Futaba is ridden with guilt that she hadn't been able to help her sooner through this tonight.
As the minutes pass, Kaoruko continues sobbing, but eventually her voice begins to dwindle. Her choked breathing soon eases into deeper, but slower gasps, ones that fill her lungs a bit better. Her pulse is still racing, though, so Futaba is sure to keep her close as she continues rubbing her sides and her back.
"Easy," she murmurs. "Breathe, Kaoruko. I'm right here. I've gotcha."
And then, the first attempt at words from her since all of this had started.
"F-Futaba-haaan-" Kaoruko's voice trails off in a genuine whine, scared and hurt and disbelieving.
Futaba squeezes her tighter, but remembers she'd fallen out of bed. She doesn't want to hurt her anymore than she already might be, but she fears anything less secure and Kaoruko will begin falling to pieces.
"Easy-" she says, trying to keep her voice steady. "Just take it easy, Kaoruko. It's all right."
Though she's been saying such things all this time, Kaoruko only actually seems to hear her now. She lets out a low, moaning sort of sob and finally manages to clutch at her in return.
Futaba holds her up as best she can like this. She reaches for the blanket that Kaoruko had taken with her to the floor and yanks it the rest of the way off the bed, then proceeds to wrap it around her partner's shoulders before resuming the embrace.
"Easy," she murmurs. "Just breathe. You're okay, Kaoruko. I'm here and I'm not goin' anywhere. I promise." She makes the vow again, hoping to get through enough to help her calm down.
Kaoruko nods against her shoulder, trying to get ahold of herself. The images that had stuck to the back of her mind are finally fading away as Futaba fills her senses. She's right here with her now, talking to her, holding her. Futaba is alive and well, and she's with her.
Kaoruko blurts out another sob, one more of relief this time, and hugs her as much as she can. Futaba pats the back of her head and continues rubbing her back soothingly.
"Easy," she repeats. "Easy. Breathe."
Finally, a few moments later, she can feel Kaoruko starting to reel herself in. The sobs quiet down a little, the tears slow, and though her pulse is still fast and flustered, it isn't slamming quite so hard anymore. Futaba finally cracks a little smile.
"Atta girl. Just take it easy. I'm stayin' right here with you, Kaoruko."
Kaoruko whimpers again, nodding into her shoulder. Her side and shoulder and head still hurt from the fall, and her jaw is heavy with ache from all the crying. But the fear and the panic have subsided, and she'd much rather have aches and pains over those any day.
She swallows a few times, gulping down all the wet grossness dripping down the back of her throat as she dips her face into the fabric of Futaba's night shirt to dry her eyes.
"Right here," she answers readily. "I'm not going anywhere, Kaoruko."
The more she hears Futaba say those words, the more easily Kaoruko finds her breath. She inhales just a few more times, deeply and slowly. Futaba hugs her softly, sharing her support and her body heat with her.
"You're all right, Kaoruko. Whatever nightmare it was, it wasn't real." Slowly, Futaba eases away, just so she can finally see her face again.
Kaoruko is a mess, her hair frazzled and her bangs sticking to her forehead which is smeared with sweat, and the rest of her face is still damp and dripping with tears. Her eyes are all puffy and her cheeks are paler than usual in the darkness.
Futaba reaches one hand up to cup her face. It just so happens to be the sore side Kaoruko had landed on. She leans her cheek against Futaba's hand, and the small aching pulse in her temple begins to dissipate. She closes her eyes for a moment and simply leans against her, letting it serve as proof that the nightmare was just that - a bad dream.
Futaba is relieved that she's calmed down from the height of her panic at last. She sits up on her knees a bit and presses a long kiss to her partner's forehead. Kaoruko hugs her in turn, biting back another little sob.
"Futaba-han-" She tries to say more than just her name, but the words cut off when more sniffles start up. Futaba curls one arm around her shoulders, then lets the other run gently up and down over her sore arm and shoulder.
"Take your time. There's no rush, Kaoruko. Just tell me about it when you're ready. But first-" Futaba inches back and looks up at her again. Kaoruko is clearly struggling against a fresh onslaught of tears. Futaba moves down to kiss the bridge of her nose. "That was a nasty fall. You okay? What hurts?"
Kaoruko can't answer. She just breaks down all over again and slumps against her.
It isn't fair. How can Futaba be so sweet? So supportive? So wonderful? It just makes her want to keep crying until morning. She feels so pitifully helpless. But as long as she's with Futaba, she doesn't care about anything else.
She cries a bit more softly now, but Futaba is still at a loss for what she can do to help her. So she just keeps petting her hair and all up and down her back and her sides, occasionally leaving a kiss here or there on her temple or her cheek.
"Geez, Kaoruko… C'mon, deep breaths."
Kaoruko does her best, breathing deeply until her chest doesn't feel quite so tight. By now, Futaba has assuaged away most of the pain from her fall, as well as most of the panic from the nightmare. Kaoruko wants to at least thank her properly.
"You good?" Futaba eases back again to seek her eyes. "You can tell me about it if you think it'll help. Whatever you need, Kaoruko. Ah, but first, let's get you back someplace comfy. Here, hold onto me. I've got ya."
Futaba slowly helps her to her feet. Kaoruko clings to her shoulders and tries to remember how to use her legs, while Futaba supports as much of her weight as possible.
Together, they ease back onto Kaoruko's bed. Futaba props up her pillows and helps her lean back against the headboard, draping the blanket over her back and shoulders and bundling it up at her chest to keep her warm. She kneels beside her, keeping one arm around her, and the other hand over hers in her lap.
By now a bit of moonlight has shone through, making the room less scary, chasing some of the shadows away. Futaba leans over to the night stand to pick up a bottle of water and hand it to her.
"Here. Take it slow."
Kaoruko even fumbles with the task of uncapping the bottle, which makes her feel horribly pathetic. But Futaba gently uncaps it for her, keeping her hand over hers to support her as she drinks.
Kaoruko downs a few sips, thankful for the cleansing sensation after so much thickness in her throat. When she's finished, Futaba takes a drink for herself and puts the bottle aside.
It isn't long before Kaoruko has slumped against her side again, resting her head on Futaba's shoulder. Futaba hugs her close, brushing her head against hers.
"You wanna tell me about it?" she offers. "If not, that's okay, too. Just know you're fine now, Kaoruko. None of it can hurt you."
Kaoruko sniffles again. She hadn't really felt all that inclined to speak on account of how pitiful she would probably sound if she did. But now she has no choice.
"Eh?" Even that much is a rasp. She sits up a bit and looks at Futaba, then shakes her head. "You've got it all wrong, Futaba-han…"
"Hah?" Puzzled, Futaba quirks an eyebrow. "Then what the heck had you all in a panic like that? I've never seen you like that before Kaoruko. You scared the hell outta me."
In spite of everything, Kaoruko is still happy that Futaba would be so concerned about her. But she can't even crack a smile for a second before the images of blood flash back into her mind.
"You've got it wrong…" Kaoruko lets out a shaky breath. "It wasn't me who got hurt, Futaba-han."
"Huh? Oh…" Futaba falls quiet. Somehow, that thought hadn't even crossed her mind - that it has been her that had been hurt in Kaoruko's nightmare. She'd only assumed otherwise because that was typically how her own nightmares went; she would wake just before something horrible happened to her, just before she should've died one way or another.
She'd assumed Kaoruko's nightmare had been similar, and she'd woken just before her dream self had met a certain doom.
But for it to have been Futaba as the one who had suffered an ill fate…
Suddenly Kaoruko's devastated reaction made perfect sense. After all, if she'd just dreamt of herself getting hurt, the dread would've faded shortly after she'd woken and realized she was fine.
But since she'd dreamt of Futaba, she'd had no way of knowing right away if she was really all right, hence her all-consuming panic.
With this realization, Futaba asks it quietly, with her eyes.
Kaoruko's lip wobbles, and she gives a tiny nod to confirm it.
"All right." Futaba pulls her in again as Kaoruko starts to cry once more. "I get it. You don't have to give me the details if you don't wanna."
Kaoruko shakes her head. She'd voiced enough of it. She doesn't want to say the rest or risk speaking it into reality somehow.
And even though this incident tonight had been far too stressful for the both of them, Futaba feels a warmth in her chest. What had thrown Kaoruko into such a state of upset had been the thought of losing her.
Even though Futaba would much prefer it if nothing like this ever happened again, and she never had to see or hear Kaoruko so hurt…
It still makes her glad to know just how deeply Kaoruko cares about her.
All of what Kaoruko had expressed tonight had been absolutely genuine. Only now that Futaba is sure she's all right can she let herself smile about it.
"Kao~ru~ko~" She sings her name softly, hugging her tight. In return, Kaoruko nuzzles into her shoulder.
"Don't worry. I'll sleep here now, 'kay?"
For Kaoruko to just say that so honestly, without even pretending to huff or be stubborn about it, really says just how exhausted she is from all this. Futaba peppers a few more kisses across her face and through her hair, moving her hands in slow circles across her back. Kaoruko sighs, sinking against her.
"My head hurts…"
"Oh, right! Crap, you should lie down. Here."
Futaba eases back and gathers Kaoruko into her arms, then gradually helps her lie down onto her back. Kaoruko winces a few times, already knowing that any workout and dance practice tomorrow is going to aggravate her soreness.
But knowing that she'll have Futaba through it all doesn't let it seem all that bad.
Once they've both settled, Futaba ensures the blankets are pulled snugly over her partner. Kaoruko cuddles close, then does the same for her, giving Futaba half the covers.
Futaba rests her head on the pillow beside her, easing her into another embrace.
"You all right now, Kaoruko?"
"Yes. Just fine." Kaoruko slips her hand up to cup her cheek, then kisses Futaba's lips softly. "Thank you, Futaba-han."
Futaba blushes and grins.
"Of course. I'm just glad you're okay."
"Only because I have you, I'm sure."
Kaoruko kisses her again to convey her appreciation. Futaba chuckles and returns it.
After a moment, they share a mutual sigh. Futaba clears away the final tear trails from Kaoruko's cheek, and in turn Kaoruko brushes her fingers through her bangs.
"Night, Kaoruko. Sleep well."
"You as well."
They close their eyes together and curl up closely, wrapping themselves in each other's arms.
The aches and fears drift away in the warm softness of the night, and both girls sleep soundly together until dawn.