It was midnight, because all the best things happened at midnight. The moon, however, was not full; it winked crookedly down at the landscape of the city below, and more importantly, at the Tabula Rasa apartment complex and its sleeping inhabitants.
“Rara-chan… Not now… Your breath smells of barbecue sauce…”
Marisugawa Arue sat bolt upright in bed, going so quickly from 180 to 90 degrees that all the ones in-between felt jealous at her passing. Until mere moments ago, she had been peacefully babbling in her sleep – until her finely honed sense of shame, as well as her civic duty to react dramatically to any sufficiently outrageous stimuli, snatched her own words out of the air and ferried them straight to her cerebral cortex. There, they bounced around like a pinball in a game you got free with your desktop PC, destroying brain cells and provoking absolute mortification as they went.
Her first move was to insert her entire hand into her mouth, forcefully stopping any other stupid words from escaping. Upon finding that her mouth was just as full of teeth as it was four hours ago and thus not a sensible home for the precious fingers of an aspiring manga artist, she withdrew it and moved to stage two of Marisugawa Arue’s Foolproof Embarrassment Reduction strategy: roll herself up in the bedsheets and rock rhythmically back and forth until she’d calmed down.
Only after fifteen solid seconds did she realise that this, too, was a massive error in judgement. Because underneath her bed, no more than about thirty centimetres from Arue’s pure and untouched body at any given time, was Fujisaki Arara – or, rather, Rara-chan herself. No doubt she would be aroused from her slumber by all the movement, and the groaning, and the squeaking of bedsprings and so forth, and would slither out her hiding space to find out what all the fuss was about.
Arue froze; the sweat on her back was cold, but her cheeks were burning. She waited another fifteen long seconds for the executioner’s axe to fall.
It is, perhaps, worth examining those seconds. There were, of course, fifteen of them: one for each year of Arue’s current lifespan. Each one felt like a year, which would be strictly hyperbole for a girl who had a normal relationship with time.
She was not such a girl. She had repeated the same week over and over and over again through the world-bending power of the Soul Dispenser, and it had taught her that time truly is precious. Not in the sense that you could exchange it for money, which Arue couldn’t because she was still a chuusotsu with only nascent hopes of any future employment. Or, indeed, in the sense that it should be spent carefully; she tended to spend her time much as she spent their apartment’s communal budget, which was frivolously and on stupid things that made them all happy (but condemned them to hunger at a later date).
No. What she had learned was that you had to savour and enjoy the time you had, because you couldn’t get it back. This was an odd thing for her to learn, considering she’d spent several weeks literally getting her time back right after she spent it – as if she was ordering a cheeseburger with a coupon, eating the cheeseburger right in front of the cashier, and then they gave her another coupon in an endless ouroboros of burgers and marketing. But it was what she had taken away from the situation. Her time with her friends was so valuable that she wanted to luxuriate in every single second of it – bask in it, let it fill the holes that fifteen years of unfulfilled dreams had opened up in her personality.
So, those fifteen seconds? They were fifteen seconds. Nothing could change that, because you couldn’t negotiate with clocks unless you had a hammer, and nobody would trust a chuusotsu with a hammer. But they were fifteen seconds that were bloated with as much hypothetical meaning as Arue was with hypothetical burgers. They did not fly. They crawled. They lumbered like great beasts through the world until they were gone, never to return. Sometimes, a second is not a second. Sometimes it is a woolly mammoth.
Fifteen of these woolly mammoths strolled lazily across the horizon of Arue’s mind, and Arara still did not pop her head out from under the bunk. In fact, Arue suspected she wouldn’t come out at all, which was oddly infuriating. It was unsatisfying, was what it was. She’d very obligingly set herself up as a joke, and the universe (currently represented by her best friend) had not hit her with the punchline.
In a fit of righteous anger, she peeked under the bed.
Very few people in the world knew Arara, and even fewer of them knew that she was not actually a human. She was a cat. People didn’t know about it because it wasn’t actually true, and was in fact just something Arue had decided in her own head. Like most of her delusions, it was harder to dispel than it was to create, and she had convinced herself that sometimes, in the dead of night, she saw Arara’s eyes light up with the familiar yellow of a feline’s.
But there was no glint in the shadows of the bed-frame. There was no quiet, adorable snoring. There wasn’t even an Arara.
A few weeks ago, Arue would have sighed in relief. Arara had become her friend. Maybe her best friend. But before she was Arue’s friend she had been a lunatic, and after they became friends, she was still a lunatic, and she still slept under Arue’s bed.
There had been one incident which almost sparked an international incident. Arue had woken up in the middle of the night, and gotten out of bed for a cup of water. No sooner had her feet touched the carpet than a hand snaked out of the shadows to tap her on the ankle.
“Comrade,” Arara had said in her singsong voice. “In the name of the World Crusaders, please return with a cup of cola.”
‘Comrade’ did not respond, because she had leapt several feet in the air and was hanging from one of the light fixtures. In Comrade’s world, she had not merely been tapped on the ankle; somebody had attacked her from behind and roughly molested her naked feet. She had become very protective of her feet, naked or otherwise, after the middle-aged king of hentai doujinshi threatened to lick them for an hour. As she dangled from the ceiling like a chuusotsu pinata, her grip was strengthened to superhuman levels by her PTSD.
There was screaming, of course, most of it completely incomprehensible. But that went without saying.
“I see. You’re training your grip meter for when we infiltrate the tanker. Good work, Comrade,” Arara had said, crawling out from underneath the bed like a zombie in a light gun arcade game.
In any normal situation, Arue would have quipped something back about sneaking suits, or furiously denied being dummy thicc in any measurement (although she may not have denied being a dummy). However, on this occasion, she had something more important to say. She looked down at her friend, gulped, and said in a small, distant voice:
“I can’t get down.”
“Of course you can. Just release your grip, Comrade.”
“I can’t! I’m telling you, I can’t!” Arue wailed.
As soon as Arara’s hand had touched her ankle, her legs had turned to jelly – the very wibbly-wobbliest, most untrustworthy thing for a pair of legs to be. If she tried to let go now, they’d just collapse in on themselves when she hit the ground. Or worse, worse, they’d splatter, and she’d have to spend the rest of the night cleaning her own leg-jelly off the bookcase and she’d get no sleep and it would be awful.
“Fine, fine… As the World Saviour, Arara will support her comrade. Hold still.”
For a moment, Arue had her doubts that a girl as petite as Arara could support her anyway. Then, all those worries were erased, and replaced with much more urgent ones, as Arara stepped forward and held out her hands to support Arue’s delicate, still naked feet.
Arue stepped on her face.
Arara made a sound that was somewhere between pain, pleasure, and yelling with a stuffed nose. Arue didn’t like it, so she stepped harder.
By the time that Koiro had been roused to deal with the situation, Arara was huddling in a corner clutching her nose, and diplomatic tensions were so high that it took three three whole games of Poppy Pirate for Arue to apologise for stepping on her friend’s face and for Arara to apologise for sounding like she enjoyed it.
Back in the present, Arue had at least learned enough to pull on a pair of socks before getting out of bed. With that accomplished, she strode out timidly into the dark hallways of the apartment to find out where Arara had gone so late at night.
The problem with your best friend being a bed gremlin, Arue mused to herself, was that it became very hard to sleep without a bed gremlin. Her room was not the same if she couldn’t hear Arara breathing softly from under the mattress or scribbling the latest entry into her grimoire. At some point, it had ceased to be Arue’s room and it had become their room, and if she was very honest with herself (which she never was), that was how she liked it.
She remembered, dully, the way that her mother and brother used to leave her meals outside her room. The way the trash piled up with nobody but her to see it. Her own little sanctuary, where nothing human dwelled. Only imaginary figures on the pages of manga, and a speck of debris nestled under her covers. Never again.
Arara and Koiro did more than lounge around and drink cola with her. They kept her honest. They were hungry for more of her manuscripts, asked her how her work was going. They would haul her out of the house to shop for groceries or quiz unfortunate passers-by about Fallen Apostles and the World Dominator. When she felt herself began to fall, they would pull her up.
At this point, they were her biggest fans. And she was their biggest fan. Before, she used to picture herself as heroes in manga to calm herself down; now, very occasionally, she would picture Koiro instead – how calm she was, how strong. When she started to get discouraged about her manga, she would think about Arara’s little black book and how she had kept it going even after losing her seal, and she would find a little spark of determination within herself that hadn’t been there before.
If Arara was out of bed and doing something weird, Arue wanted to be there to dig her out of whatever mess she made. That was what she told herself.
As she crossed into the living room, she found herself tiptoeing. The Soul Dispenser, the machine that seemed to tower over their lives and also conveniently paid their rent, hummed quietly in the corner. She felt like she absolutely shouldn’t disturb it. And more importantly, she didn’t want Holo to come out, since the big-busted AI seemed to charge per appearance.
She had a brief moral crisis over whether to slide across the polished wooden floor in her socks or not. She resisted the temptation only with great difficulty. Even in the wee hours of the morning, it was tough for a budding chuusotsu to resist the lure of fun.
As she was ambivalating, she saw it.
Outside, on the living room balcony. A pink-haired girl in a black chemise, her familiar bandage-wrapped bear dangling from her arm, staring balefully out at the city under the light of the moon. Her shoulders were slim, but her back was straight and her head held high; she cut an imposing figure, despite her petite frame.
In her mind’s eye, Arue constructed it as a manga panel – framing, screentone, the shape of the lines. How would she capture this moment, if she could? She didn’t know, but she knew that it deserved to be captured. That, on some level, it provoked the artist inside of her.
A little hesitantly, she slid open the balcony door and stepped out into the scene.
Arara turned her head a little. Not much. Just an acknowledgement. “Oh, Comrade. Did you get up to go to the bathroom? This isn’t the toilet, you know.”
Whatever art or magic there had been was instantly dispelled. “Ehh?! Just what kind of idiot do you think I am, Rara-chan?”
“So you knew it wasn’t the bathroom, but you came out here to do it anyway? Hm. Comrade, ever since you started going on Tweeter, you’ve developed some odd proclivities,” Arara said darkly. “Submitting to the internet hivemind is rotting your brain.”
“Aren’t you accusing me of something heinous right now?”
They fell quickly into the familiar rhythm – call and response, joke and retort. The unusual time of night seemed to make no difference, at least until Arue felt herself trying not to yawn.
“You weren’t in… I mean, under the bed, so I came to see where you were. Why are you standing out here all alone?” Arue asked.
Probably just posing, a voice inside her head whispered. She shook it away and ignored it. She could be judgemental. She had spiteful thoughts. But she’d realised that not only were they unhelpful, they were often just plain wrong. Who posed if nobody was around to see them? It didn’t make any sense. Come on, Marisugawa Arue. Give Rara-chan some credit.
“Arara is never alone,” the pink-haired girl replied, instantly destroying her hypothetical stock of Arue credit. “The World Dominator is always looming from beyond the unseen horizon.”
“Yeah, yeah. The World Dominator.”
Arue found herself shuffling uncomfortably. She still didn’t know what to make of the so-called ‘World Dominator’, even after seeing brief snatches of Arara’s research notes. There was something to it, and whatever it was, Arara valued her quest to destroy it above almost anything. She valued Arue’s participation in that quest almost as highly. Things had been said and promises had been made, but the fine details had yet be sorted out.
Now, the World Dominator loomed over Arue as well – not as a nascent force of evil, but as an obligation that would come to her in the future.
It was worth it. Without a question of a shadow of a doubt, it was worth it. Arara had rescued Arue more than once. She had her back, even when they were fighting with each other, even when she didn’t really deserve the help. She had… well, the specifics were hazy. But from what Arue could gather, Arara had been willing to sacrifice everything to help her.
The bunny, wrapped carefully in bandages, swayed in the breeze. Arara was never alone.
According to Koiro, she hadn’t hesitated. For all her bratty quips and bouts of spite, for all her mumbled curses and outlandish proclamations, the so-called World Saviour had laid down her life for Arue’s – without expecting to survive, without expecting to be thanked. On some level, this outrageous girl had started to earn the title she bestowed herself.
They hadn’t spoken about it since. They couldn’t. The things and the feelings were just too big to tackle head on; they had to wait for time to break them down, make them more manageable. Or so Arue thought, anyway. You drew a manga bit by bit, one panel at a time. A lot of things were like that.
For no reason she could put her finger on, Arue found herself smiling. “Well then, Rara-chan. I get that you’re not alone, but aren’t you cold? It’s windy out here.”
The thin, filmy fabric of Arara’s chemise had not been designed to protect her from the elements. Or anything at all, really, even prying eyes. Any way Arue looked at it, and she really tried her hardest not to look at it, wasn’t it a bit revealing for nightwear? You could see bits of shoulders, and legs, and everything. Much too stimulating for a poor chuusotsu brain to handle.
“Here,” Arue said. She took off the tracksuit jacket that was serving as her impromptu pajamas, and draped it over Arara’s shoulders. It was a little too big for her, but it worked. “Don’t do anything weird.”
Having been given a direct instruction, Arara immediately rebelled by sniffing the fabric. “Oh-hohoho. Arara will gladly accept this legendary armour. As expected of Comrade, its frost resistance is incredible.”
“This isn’t a role playing game! And anyway, why is that ‘expected of me’?!”
“Because Comrade–” Arara halted, but realised that stopping mid-sentence only made her more suspicious. “Comrade is… a warm person. That’s all.”
With that, she pulled the jacket tighter around her and resumed staring meaningfully off into the distance. Was she blushing? She was definitely blushing. Arue sighed, but couldn’t suppress a smile.
“You’re so much cuter when you’re meek like this,” she said.
She could almost see the steam curling from the World Saviour’s ears as her brain overheated. Normal people weren’t manga characters, but honestly, Arara was the next best thing sometimes.
“Well. I don’t know if you’re looking for the World Dominator or whatever,” she said, sitting down with her back against the wall of the apartment, “but I guess I’ll can keep you company until you’re done looking.”
Arara kept staring at the horizon. Hiding her face. “My thanks, Comrade.”
The World Dominator. Kirara. The Poison Pulse. There were all sorts of things about Arara, about Arara’s world, that Arue simply didn’t understand. But just because she didn’t get them, didn’t mean she couldn’t be there for her. That was what friends did – no matter whether they were chuusotsu or not.
After a minute more of looking, Arara sat down beside her, shoulder to shoulder. Her eyes were still on the skyline – the safest place to look, no matter what lay beyond it. Without really meaning to, Arue began to lean against her; it was a little cold, after all.
One by one, breath by breath, theoretical woolly mammoths meandered over the horizon – much more enjoyably than the ones before. At some point, they seemed to become sheep; and when they became sheep, Arue found herself counting them. And then, because maths were a proven sedative for chuusotsu, she found her eyelids drooping.
Beside her, Arara had begun to snore gently. That, really, was the killing blow; with a yawn, Arue gave in too.
Sleeping alone had become something strange and lonely to her. But being awake and alone was lonelier still.
“Ahaha… Thanks, Koiro.”
She took the bowl of rice porridge gratefully, and pulled down her mask to start eating. With a carefree smile, Koiro knelt to put a bowl on the floor near the bed, where it was snatched away into the darkness underneath.
Arara and Arue had spent the night outside as a duo, but they awoke as a trio. At some point after finishing her morning training, Koiro had happened across them and inducted herself into the newly formed Tabula Rasa Napping Society.
Rather than, of course, realising that her best friends were idiots who’d carelessly slept outside for the entire night, with no sleeping bags or duvets or anything. Just huddling together for warmth on a cold evening was a romantic thought in the pages of a manga, but in real life, you paid for it.
So, in summary, all three of them were idiots. But only Koiro had managed to avoid catching a cold. Arue didn’t know if that meant Koiro was more of an idiot or less of one, but it was a stroke of luck – with two of them down for the count, they had to rely on Koiro’s sturdiness to nurse them back to health. It involved making and taste-testing a lot of rice porridge, so the girl in the souvenir jacket wasn’t complaining. She’d make a fantastic wife someday.
Underneath the bed, Arara sneezed, then followed it up with a barrage of curses. It seemed the World Dominator had bested her once again. She had yet to return Arue’s jacket, but it sounded like she needed it.
“Hah… I still can’t believe you just sat down and took a nap with us, Koiro,” Arue said wanly. The rice porridge was getting better as the day went on, but still a little bland.
“You were both smiling like you were having fun, so I couldn’t resist joining in,” Koiro replied.
Arue fought the urge to hide her head under a pillow. “Don’t say embarrassing stuff like that!”
“I don’t think it’s embarrassing. It’s just what friends do.”
She wanted to retort that sleeping together was not something friends usually did, but she felt like that would raise unnecessary questions about her relationship with the girl under her bed. She’d already had to gently educate Arara about the specifics of lesbians. She didn’t want to be responsible for that girl’s sexual awakening any more than she already was.
“I was a little surprised, though.” Koiro looked at her, with a soft, amused smile. As if praising her for some achievement. “Arue, did you know that you talk in your sleep?”
After a moment of deliberation, Arue decided that she was going to hide her head under a pillow after all. Many, many mammoths departed before she came out again.