High above the floor, a single tightrope stretched across the length of Kaleido Stage’s center ring. Only a few feet beneath it were two more tightropes, each two feet to the left and right of the main rope above. Far below a safety net lay in wait as a small figure leaped and danced high above, oblivious to everything besides her and the tightropes.
Sora, hard at work practicing a new routine, had her mind focused on every move, every turn that she had programmed into the show. She, Anna and Mia had carefully choreographed every move to make the most out of Sora’s talent. Even after her final performance with Layla, Sora still needed a lot of practice, so when the new program had been approved, she had spent many of her waking hours practicing. It’s what Layla would do, she told herself.
Stopping on the platform at the end of the highest rope, Sora stared wistfully out over the Kaleido Stage. It was only a month ago that she and Layla had performed in front of a sold out house. Only a month since Layla had confessed after that performance she could never perform again. After months of trying to gain Layla’s friendship, Sora had been devastated to find that they would only be partners for that one shining night.
Staring across the empty rows of seats, Sora could still hear the cheering of the crowd that night. She could still feel how her entire body had tingled and thrummed as she and Layla had floated high above the crowd. Sora shivered from the memory and wrapped her arms around her shoulders.
The cry from below brought Sora from her thoughts back to the present. Down below, Marion and Jonathan, the tiny seal who had become something of a mascot, cavorted around. Actually, it seemed as if Jonathan was doing the cavorting and Marion was doing the chasing. The two of them scampered beneath the safety net, causing Sora to suck in a frightened breath and then bite back a sharp warning. However, as soon as they had come, they had gone.
"I wonder what that was all about?" Sora mused aloud to herself. She stretched a bit and got ready to continue with her practice.
As Sora prepared to continue with her practice, she didn’t notice that Jonathan’s flipper had tangled in and pulled loose one of the safety net’s ropes. The baby seal, knowing nothing more than something was pulling at his flipper, had yanked the rope hard with his teeth and scampered away, leaving the safety net teetering precariously to one side.
Unaware of this danger, Sora stepped to the edge of the platform and gingerly slid one foot onto the main tightrope. She began her routine again, leaping between the three ropes, going over the music and timing in her mind, all the while, unknowing of the potential danger below her. As she landed on one of the bottom ropes, Sora turned to leap to the higher one again when a sudden clank from below caused her foot to slip.
"Aah!!" Sora cried out in surprise as she leaned backwards and her remaining foot slid from the rope beneath it.
Looking below her, Sora tried to position herself toward the center of the net, which is when she saw the support pole in one corner of the safety net had fallen to the sawdust strewn floor below. Her blood froze as the hard floor came at her at dizzying speed. Sora was sure she would impact at any second when she suddenly felt a pair of strong arms wrap around her just before she hit the floor. The pair was jarred to the floor by Sora’s speed and they let out a chorused ‘oof’.
The fallen safety net lay around the pair on the floor. Sora was almost afraid to open her eyes and see who had broken her fall. Perhaps Ken? But the arms that had so carefully caught her did not feel like his. She slowly opened her eyes and found herself staring into the crystal blue eyes of Layla. In order to catch Sora, the former star of Kaleido Stage had freed her wounded right arm from its sling, which now hung limply around her neck. The pair sat in a heap on the floor of the stage; Layla’s face twisted in pain and Sora somewhere between shock and relief.
"Layla!" Sora got to her feet as soon as her senses allowed. She kneeled beside the former star and bowed her head. "Thank you so much. You saved me! I didn’t know. . .The net. . ." She looked up and saw Layla gingerly setting her arm back in the sling.
Although it had been a month since Layla’s injury had ended her career, her shoulder had not healed enough for her to go without the sling for very long. Sora realized Layla may have just re-injured her shoulder for her sake. She blushed, embarrassed, and looked up at Layla shyly from under her bangs.
"Are you okay?" Sora asked hesitantly.
Layla rocked forward onto her knees and nodded. A drop of sweat crept down her temple and Sora knew she was holding her pain in again. Adjusting her wounded arm in the sling, Layla carefully got to her feet. She reached down with her uninjured arm and pulled Sora to her feet.
"What happened?" Layla demanded.
Sora shrugged. "I. . .I don’t know. The safety net just came loose. I’m sorry."
Layla lay her free hand on Sora’s shoulder and a faint smile broke through her pain. She looked up at the three ropes, nostalgia passing across her eyes like a cloud. She tore her eyes away from her former playground and looked back at Sora. "New act?"
"Yes." Sora nodded with a grin. "I’m still practicing. But I hope you’ll see the show when it’s ready."
No sooner had she said that, then Sora realized how dumb it sounded. Of course Layla would watch the show. She always watched the shows, even though she could no longer participate. Sora groaned at her own ignorance and leaned over to grab her towel from a nearby barrel. Draping it over her shoulders, Sora dried her damp forehead quickly. It was then she noticed Layla still gazing up at the tightropes.
"Um. . Layla?" Sora began, hesitantly. For some reason, she always became tongue-tied in the woman’s presence. The blush in her cheeks grew and Sora averted her eyes.
"Hmm?" Layla looked away from the stage with a sigh. As she turned toward Sora, a shock of pain shot up her shoulder and she was nearly brought to her knees. Only Sora’s quickly lent arm gave the older woman the support she needed to stay on her feet.
"Oh, you’ve hurt your shoulder again," Sora worried. "It’s my fault, Layla. I’m so sorry.
"I’m okay," Layla lied around another wave of pain.
Sora took Layla’s free arm and guided her out of the arena. "No, you’re not. Come on, you need to rest."
Providing no resistance, Layla followed Sora from the arena. "Fine. But not here. There are too many people who would fawn over me right now. I want to get both me and my injury away from here."
Sora nodded, bit her lip and decided on the dorms. She walked Layla back to the area where most of the cast members of Kaleido Stage lived and helped her up the stairs to the room where Sora lived. Upon entering, Sora set Layla in a chair and hastily scoured the small apartment until she found Fool, lounging in the bathroom, no doubt awaiting Sora’s return.
"Ah, Sora, you have retur-."
Fool didn’t have time to finish as Sora scooped him up in one hand and bound him with a roll of dental floss that had been peeking out of the medicine cabinet. Protesting, Fool soon found himself tossed under the sink to land ungracefully between a sponge and a bottle of cleaner. The cabinet door closed and Fool could only wonder what had prompted Sora’s sudden actions against him.
Returning to Layla, Sora smiled innocently, hoping the older woman had forgotten about the pesky spirit of the stage. Layla had barely noticed Sora’s absence as she leaned back in the chair Sora had placed her in. She had untied the sling and now rested her right arm on the table. Moving beside Layla, Sora looked at the discarded sling.
"Um. . .I’m sorry," was all Sora could bring herself to say. She cursed inwardly at her cowardice. She had Layla in her room and all she could do was apologize? These two had shared one of the most intense training regimes ever seen in Kaleido Stage and Sora still acted as if Layla was some unreachable goddess. Hadn’t they trained side by side for those long months? What couldn’t Sora get out anything but apologies, then?
Sora’s answer came when Layla turned her blue eyes to her. Suddenly lost in those crystalline depths, Sora felt herself falling forward, wanting with all her being to be closer to the blonde woman. She caught herself staring and averted her eyes in shame again. Some things never changed, she though bitterly. Sora would always turn into a weaker version of herself when caught in the even gaze of those strong eyes.
"Sora." Layla’s soft voice brought the younger of the two back to the present. "You can relax."
"But-" Sora protested.
Layla held up a hand, a faint smile playing across her face. "I’m fine."
"Well, at least come sit on the couch. It’s more comfortable."
Sora helped Layla to her feet and helped settle her on the couch. It was a new addition to her small room; Anna and Mia had helped Sora drag it into the room a few days ago. Now Layla sat on it and Sora didn’t know if she should join her or not.
"I’ll, uh, get you a drink." With that, Sora busied herself with glasses and ice. Anything to keep her mind from wandering back to the radiant beauty sitting in her room that moment. When she returned with two drinks, she passed one to Layla and then took hers to stand by the window.
Layla looked up at Sora, slightly confused. "Sora?" She smiled and patted the couch cushion beside her. "Why don’t you join me?"
Gazing back at her idol, Sora’s throat went dry and she gulped. Her body began to shake despite every attempt to make it stop. She moved slowly over to the couch and lowered herself to Layla’s left. Silence prevailed for a tense moment until Layla spoke up.
"So, are you ready to do it?"
Sora jumped and jerked her head toward Layla. "What?!"
"The show?" Layla quirked an eyebrow at Sora’s reaction. "Are you ready to do the new show?"
Once Sora’s heart settled back in her chest, she managed to nod. "Uh, yes, I think so." She paused and noticed a sad expression cross Layla’s face. "You really miss performing, don’t you?"
"Hmm. . ." Layla closed her eyes momentarily before looking back at Sora. "I do. At first, it really hurt to watch the shows going on and realize I was no longer a part of them."
Sora lowered her eyes. "I’m sorry."
"Don’t be," Layla said. Her left hand trailed to Sora’s knee and her eyes softened. "It doesn’t hurt as much as it used to."
"Layla. . .if it hurts so much to watch the shows, why do it?"
The gentle hand on Sora’s knee tightened briefly. "One reason." Layla’s blue eyes caught Sora’s amber ones and conveyed the answer wordlessly. Layla took her hand from Sora’s knee and gently caressed the girl’s cheek.
"Layla. . ."
"You’re so much like I was when I first started out," Layla said, resting her hand on Sora’s cheek. "And I can see the potential in you to become the next star of Kaleido Stage. That’s why I still watch."
Sora blinked. Feeling Layla’s hand on her cheek made her flush and her heart pound in her chest. "Because. . .of me? Layla. . .I. . ."
"Shh." Layla laid her finger over Sora’s lips and smiled, her eyes holding Sora’s gaze firmly. "You were never just my partner. You were always so much more to me. I just never told you because of my stubborn pride."
"Told me what?" Sora managed to whisper from her dry throat.
Layla’s hand slid back to Sora’s cheek and she tilted the girl’s face up toward hers. Slowly moving forward to gauge Sora’s reaction, Layla let her lips brush gently against Sora's. "Told you that I loved you."
In that instant, it seemed that everything Sora had ever wanted had just been handed to her on a silver platter. She stared at Layla for a moment, hoping this was not some kind of cruel dream. When she found the look in Layla’s eyes to be nothing but sincere, Sora felt a tear escape her defenses and trace its way down her cheek. The more she tried to hold back her joy, the more the tears came. Finally, Sora threw herself forward into Layla, wrapping her arms around the older woman tightly.
A little unsure of Sora’s reaction, Layla sighed and rolled her eyes patiently before laying her left arm across Sora’s back to sooth her. As much as her right shoulder was bothering her, Layla refused to give into the pain at the moment. It had taken her so long to realize her feelings for Sora, she was not going to let physical pain interfere with the moment she had chosen to confess. She gently stroked Sora’s back as Sora sobbed with relief against Layla’s chest. It wasn’t long before Sora’s crying subsided enough for her to regulate her breathing again. Sora hiccuped once and laid her head on Layla’s chest while Layla continued to stroke her back and hair.
"You’re serious?" Sora ventured in a quaking voice. "This isn’t some kind of joke?"
"No joke," Layla said. She leaned down to kiss Sora on the top of her head. It was then that her shoulder twinged and she drew in a sharp breath.
"Oh." Sora sat up, realizing Layla had been putting weight on her injured shoulder. "Your shoulder."
Layla shifted on the couch until her shoulder relented and the pain died to a dull throb. "It’ll be fine." She drew the back of her hand down Sora’s cheek and smiled. "Nothing can hurt me now."
Sora took Layla’s hand in her own and held it against her cheek. "Me too."
To Be Continued in "Stage 2: Walk"