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For Whom the Gong Toils

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The sun is barely rising over the horizon as Maya wakes. Its faint tendrils of light sneak through the drapes of her windows. The morning is cool as the seasons start to change from winter to spring but Maya feels none of the chill. She hasn’t, for a long time. But she does feel warmer than usual right now, perhaps she might have tossed and turned a little more than she thought.

She eases out of her bed, stepping upon the carpet. Shaking her head for a bit, her feet pad upon the tile—a small growl escapes from her as she recoils backward. She might have grown impervious to the chill of the morning air, but she’s found that not even she is immune to the frigid floor.

Maya follows through her morning routine as she has always done, that much hasn't changed through the years. She refreshes herself, changes her clothes, and does her stretches. There is no real need to do these, nor is there any real reason for her to wake up early either, but she has always been a creature of habit.

By the time she steps out of her room, the sun has risen a little higher. The morning chill is still there, but she still doesn't feel much, even more so now after being warmed from her exercises.

The hallway is empty, as it always has been. Maya lumbers down the hall, still sluggish from sleep. Her consciousness has always been a little slow to catch up to her predicament. She doesn’t need to wake early anymore but old habits have always been hard to break for her.

“Good morning!” a cheerful voice chirps from behind her.

“Good morning, Mahiru,” she greets as she turns around. “You’re already awake.” She looks out at one of the windows as she talks. She rubs her eyes, taking her time to be careful. She hasn’t done it yet, but she would rather not try to poke out an eye with such an innocuous act.

“Of course.” Mahiru smiles. “I get up even earlier back home on the farm.”

“Ah.” Maya nods. “But don’t you think you should retur—”

“None of that today!” Mahiru scolds, frowning at Maya. “I already told you my answer!”

Maya shakes her head. “If I had known you would be just as stubborn as your grandma…” she huffs, a low sound. What’s done is already done, and no matter how much she argues, Mahiru has already made up her mind. It won’t stop her from still trying, though. “I’ll be back soon, then,” she says instead.

“What will it be today?”

Maya blinks at her before walking over to one of the windows of the hall. She fidgets with the lock, taking as much care as possible lest she accidentally destroy the whole thing. Once she manages to get it open, though, she rests her hands against the sill as she leans out, sniffing.

Her snout picks up the strongest scent of a living animal, the closest one.

“I can smell a boar nearby.”

Mahiru claps her hands together as she beams. "My family will be excited for that!"

Maya nods and places a foot on the windowsill. While she would have the proper decorum to at least go downstairs and out one of her doors, she’s feeling much too impatient right now to go for a run. The scent of prey’s gone and invigorated herself.

“I’ll be back,” she rumbles, and with a kick of her mighty claw, leaps off into the forest.

If only she had known that today would go much differently than she could ever imagine.

By the time Maya finishes her hunt, the sun’s risen higher. It is a little warmer though the chill still permeates most of the air. It was only just a few weeks ago that they had snow, after all.

The dead boar Maya caught is hefted over her shoulder, an easy weight for her to carry. This time, Maya wanted to take her time going through the forest. The advent of spring means most of the wildlife is coming back to the forest and she hears the chirping of the birds and the buzz of insects through the air once more. Of course, with her form, her senses are even more heightened, and it’s as if she can hear everything amplified.

There are some perks to this form, she thinks.

Like right now, as she heads back to her manor and catches a completely unfamiliar scent. There’s Mahiru’s next to it. She pauses, sniffing the air. It’s… it’s certainly another human, that much she can tell. There’s something… familiar about it, though, something that tugs at the edge of her memory. It’s both familiar, and not. Perhaps she had met this person before transforming?

Whatever it is, though, none of this still bodes well; someone has intruded upon her grounds. She sniffs again, and she can smell a mixture of urgency, and frustration. Not exactly danger, but it alarms her nonetheless. Her hackles rise.

Something is happening to Mahiru.

She drops the carcass down and rushes back as fast as she can.

“Mahiru! Come on! Let’s go!” she hears as she comes closer. The snarl rises to the back of her throat as she leaps forward.

Maya bursts through the trees, slamming down right behind the intruder. She rears up to her full height just as the intruder turns around, their blonde hair fluttering all around—

Maya freezes.

What—

How—

Why—

A scream. Maya snaps out of her daze. The intruder is backed up against Mahiru as if she’s trying to shield Mahiru from her. It would have been an ironic sight, if not for the fact that Maya has not completely moved at all since realizing the identity of her intruder.

“Claudine!” Mahiru says frantically. “It’s okay—”

“I came here to save you, and I don’t intend to back down on my words!” Claudine cries, putting herself firmly in between Maya and Mahiru. Despite her brave words, Maya can see it, can see, smell, and taste the fear in the air.

But she’s not sure if it is her own mixed in there as well.

Claudine.

Claudine Saijou.

A face… she thought she would never see around here.

Why?

Why is she here?

Leave!

She steps closer, and closer, and closer still. She steps closer until she’s right in front of them. From this close, she casts a shadow over them, looms over them like a tower. From the boar she’d hunted earlier, there is blood split upon her clothes, giving her a more gruesome image.

She raises her arm, as thick as a human body, up in the air. She hopes it will work, hopes it will scare Claudine away. No matter how brave she knows Claudine is, Maya knows, that in this moment, she is a huge, lumbering beast, with fearsome fangs, a grotesque body, and claws ready to rend a body apart.

A monster, in every sense of the word.

In the light of the morning sun, her claws gleam dangerously as they drop—

“W-wait!”

It’s Mahiru that shouts, scrambling from behind Claudine to her front. Maya’s claws immediately stop just moments away from Mahiru’s face. It’s all a show, of course, but she sees Claudine’s now pale face, how her red eyes trace the shape of her claws, how they linger on their sharpness.

Honoring the unspoken words in Mahiru’s eyes, Maya slowly takes away her hand. It hangs down her side and were she hunched just a little bit lower, her knuckles would press upon the ground. She looks back and forth between Mahiru and Claudine. Her maw opens as she bares her fangs and snarls. A warning, to Claudine, but a message, to Mahiru. Without another word, she turns away and leaps toward the forest.

She races through the familiar trees, running and leaping seemingly without a care in the world. But, her mind is nothing but a tumultuous tornado, swirling all around.

Why?

Why is she here?

Why is Claudine Saijou here?

She can find no answer to that.

After she’s sure some significant time has passed, with the sun past its peak now, Maya heads back to the manor. She picks up the boar carcass where she had left it and makes her way back, pausing to smell the air. She can’t pick up the scent of Claudine anymore, but she still doesn’t want to take any chances.

Mahiru is waiting at the edge of the manor, sitting underneath a tree with a book in her hands. Maya purposely crunches the foliage under her paws. Mahiru looks up at the sound, and rises immediately once she sees Maya there.

“You’re back!” Mahiru says, breathless. Nervous, Maya can tell without even needing to sniff the air.

“Is she gone?” Maya asks. Just to be safe, she glances all around her.

“Ah, um, yes,” Mahiru answers, laughing awkwardly. “It was, ah, kind of… a misunderstanding?”

Maya doesn’t like the sound of that. “Why was she here?” Her voice is gruff, and she hadn’t intended to take such a rough tone with Mahiru, but she can’t help but be on edge right now. Every sense in her is on high alert, as if Claudine will suddenly be there if she blinks. How awful, this suffocating sense of dread, caused by someone most unexpected.

Mahiru makes a face. “It’s… it’s… ah, complicated,” she says with a nervous laugh. “My younger siblings are still afraid for me staying out here so… they asked Claudine to come ‘save’ me.”

“Save you?” Were Maya not currently a beast, she would have raised a brow.

Mahiru waves a hand. “Um, kind of.”

Maya stares at her for a moment before she lowers her head, sighing. “Perhaps, this means you should go back to your family—”

“A promise is a promise!” Mahiru interrupts. “I keep telling you this!”

“A promise…”

Chase after me, I swear I’ll stand at the top for you—

Maya turns her head, looking out toward the forest. Beyond that, a long walk away, is the town, where the rest of the humans are. Here, Maya is alone, by all her monstrous self. Only Mahiru is here to keep her company.

“Did you tell her to never come back?” she asks, still staring out toward the forest. She doesn’t see the way Mahiru stiffens at her question, looking away from her.

“I… um, yes, I did.” Mahiru still does not meet her eyes.

“Good,” Maya says. She curls her claws and looks down at them. “If she comes again…” her claws flex. Mahiru looks at them.

“You wouldn’t… you wouldn’t really do that, would you?” Mahiru’s voice is quiet, but Maya can hear her breath shaking as she speaks.

Maya looks back down at Mahiru and bares her teeth.

So ends the peace of Maya’s days.


 

 

 

Even from when she is young, there has been only one craving for her: top star.

To stand upon position zero, to gaze upward and find that only stars are higher than her…

Yes, this is what she wants, this is what she wills for, this is what she will get.

A child of Tendou, they call her.

Naturally gifted, hardworking, talented, prestigious pedigree—she has it all.

And yet, for her, she is greedy. Her hunger is ever voracious, she is never sated. Her desire to stand at the top is unparalleled, none may match her.

Come after me.

Fly after me.

Chase after me.

Soar higher than even I can dream of.

Yes, this is what she wills.

For all the eyes upon her back, she cannot fail.

 

 

 


Several days pass. Nothing happens. Maya slowly feels herself start to relax. Her routine returns.

As she leaps through the forest, she allows herself to indulge in the rush of air that flows past her as she runs through the forest. With springtime comes an abundance of fresh game in the forest; there is no need for her to hurry right now.

Maya stops where she is, sniffing the air. There’s a myriad of smells that attack her nose, and she can’t decide what to hunt for today. Perhaps, some deer? Ah, but would Mahiru’s family like that? She tries to recall. Well, if she wants to play it safe, perhaps another boar might suffice—

“Hey!”

Maya blinks and instinctively turns toward the sound—

Wait.

She knows this voice.

Before she can leap away, a figure bursts through the foliage, stumbling forward and about to fall onto the floor before catching herself in time. Maya blinks again before her eyes narrow.

Why…

Why!

Claudine dusts off the dirt on her clothes and turns to look at her. She straightens herself, staring back at Maya with a smirk on her face, defiance all over her body. But Maya can see it, see the way her legs tremble slightly, see how tightly Claudine’s hands are clenched at her side.

Afraid!

Maya draws herself up to her full height and bares open her maw to allow Claudine to glimpse the fangs once more. She snarls ferociously, like a feral wolf about to leap.

“I know you can understand me!”

Maya stills suddenly. Ah, she shouldn’t have done that, knows she’s caught from the way Claudine lights up with realization. “I knew it! You’re intelligent! And, besides…” she gestures to Maya’s body, “what sort of animal would dress themselves up?”

If Maya could frown, she’s sure she would. As it is, all she can do is narrow her eyes and flattened her ears against her head, feeling a little embarrassed to be found out so easily.

This… this is… not going well already.

She turns completely toward Claudine. “You are not wanted here,” she growls out, her voice as low and guttural as possible. “I could have already devoured you without you noticing already. Continue to test my mercy, and you will find I have none left.”

Claudine freezes, her eyes wide with shock. “O-oh! You can talk as well!”

… ah. Maya… has realized her second mistake.

"What matter of beast even are you? I thought you some sort of wolf when I first saw you, but you appear like a lion now… or perhaps even a boar?" Claudine is talking to herself as she squints at Maya.

… this is ridiculous. Maya shakes her head and huffs, about to turn away before Claudine speaks again.

“A-anyway! That doesn’t matter! But!” Even when being threatened, Claudine impressively manages to keep her voice steady. “I get the feeling that you would’ve already done just that if you really wanted to, then!”

… even if it is Claudine, Maya does not appreciate being talked back to like this. She growls again and bares even more of her fangs bared. She steps closer. Claudine only smirks and pulls something out at her side.

Maya blinks again, caught completely off guard as she stares at the sword pointed at her.

“A… a sword?” Maya can’t help but ask, incredulous.

“Did you think I would come here unarmed?!”

“You think a mere knife like that can kill me?” Maya does not even know what to feel about this. That Claudine could… that Claudine could think she could just come here with… with a sword!

How ridiculous! What a farce! Maya leans forward as she settles on her fours, her claws digging into the dirt. She makes a show of tensing her muscles, knowing Claudine can see them coiled. Once more, she snarls. “Leave!”

It’s all a show, of course. She could… she could never… she could never think of hurting Claudine in any way.

Her eyes trail up the length of the sword. She thinks she might be able to grab the sword and break it easily with her brute strength. It won’t be too hard, not for a monster like her. And, hopefully, Claudine will finally be deterred.

“You’ve done something to bewitch Mahiru, haven’t you?!”

Maya nearly startles herself off balance with Claudine’s shout, sudden and surprising as it is.

“Her?” Maya shakes her head. “What she does is of her own volition—”

“I don’t believe that!”

Maya’s ears flatten against her head once more. Her hackles are starting to rise. “Did you not speak with her yesterday? She did not want to go with you—”

“Are you threatening her?” The air changes completely as Claudine’s demeanor transforms. No longer someone trying to test her boundaries, she is… angry, upset. Claudine… has always been someone who’s placed a high value on her friends, Maya remembers. “You’re threatening her family, aren’t you? Holding her hostage, forcing her to be your servant!”

But the words that fall from Claudine’s mouth leave Maya absolutely bewildered, hardly able to believe the words she’s hearing right now. For her to be accused so brazenly, so boldly, so… so wrongly!

Yet, this is very much her reality, as similar as the day she woke up and realized it had been no fever dream when she realized she had transformed.

Servant? Hostage? Mahiru?

Her?

Me?!”

Maya snaps her mouth shut, to stop herself from saying anything harmful. Instead, she growls, a more intimidating tactic given her fangs. It’s all too tempting, to play the part of a feral beast, especially after listening to Claudine’s slander. What would she know? What does she know!? The very thought that someone would think such treacherous thoughts of her—that Claudine could be the one to accuse her so! The very indignity and rage!

The crunch of grass immediately catches Maya’s attention. Claudine has unconsciously taken a step back, her eyes wide as she stares up at Maya. Why is she suddenly so afraid—ah. Maya understands why.

Ever since taking this form, Maya has… found it easier to express herself in different ways impossible for a human. All of her is bristling, her hackles raised, her ears alert and perked up and turned toward Claudine. Even her very claws are fully flexed. Her very body feels tight like a coil, as if she will spring forward and tear apart the source of her frustrations!

… but Maya is not a beast, not like that. Her instincts have become beastly but she still has her wits about her, she will not allow herself to stoop so low to be an unintelligent beast. Instead, she continues to snarl. It helps, a small way to vent her anger. And when she sees Claudine unconsciously take another step back, it shames Maya to realize a smidgen of satisfaction runs through her.

“Believe what you will, it is obvious that you will not listen to me anyway so I’ll take my leave of you now,” Maya says slowly. With a shake of her head, she turns around. Her mood for hunting has been ruined, she wants nothing more than to retreat back into her manor and wallow in frustration. Claudine has always been stubborn, but like this—especially like this!

“How am I supposed to rest knowing my friend is in danger!”

“And you sought to confront me by yourself?” Maya looks over her shoulder at the sword in Claudine’s hand. A broadsword, but she holds it easily with one hand. Even so…

“Not to brag, but I do know my swordplay,” Claudine’s smirk comes back. “I’ve won many a duel!”

A… a duel? A… duel? Maya has never taken Claudine for foolish but—but!

“And you think a monster is the same opponent as a duelist?” Unable to help herself, Maya turns back around and draws to her full height once more. She sees how easily she towers over Claudine, how much Claudine must crane her head to look up at her. She holds out her arms, as thick as logs upon the floor. It is more than obvious what the outcome will be. "Perhaps, but as you've said, I am intelligent, not a mere common animal. You think to outsmart me?"

The smirk that forms on Claudine’s face tells everything that Maya needs to know.

Foolish!

Maya has never thought of Claudine Saijou as a fool! To see such defiance, such rebellion, such challenge—

Against her own will, Maya feels a small throb within the cold confines of her heart once more.

No!

No, this—this is—

Foolish!

Maya has no choice left to her.

She lunges forward without a second’s warning. Claudine’s eyes widen for a mere fraction before she steadies herself.

But it is too late, because Maya is already in front of her and her claw is already whipping out. She easily knocks away Claudine’s sword with a single strike with the back of her claw. Her claw stings at the impact but she cares little for it. The sword soars through the air and impales the ground. Claudine gasps and scrambles backward, her eyes wide as she stares up at the beast looming over her.

And yet, even through that fear, Maya can see it, the fires of defiance still being stoked.

It pains her to snuff it out.

Maya’s hand whips out again before Claudine can even react, and now her claws are right in front of Claudine, its sharp tips just barely a hair’s distance away from her throat. Her claw had come so fast that she had even sliced through some of Claudine’s hair that hangs on the side of her hair, its strands flying in the air seemingly in slow motion.

Claudine’s eyes slowly move down from Maya’s face to the claws. It would be all to easy for Maya to just push forward a little bit, to rip the soft flesh in front of her as if it were mere paper. Claudine knows this, and this is why Maya can hear her suck in a breath, not even daring to let herself swallow lest her throat accidentally move against the claws.

“Do you understand now?” Maya snarls out. “Before me, you are nothing!

She keeps her claw there for several more seconds. Maya thinks about letting herself draw blood, but she cannot trust Claudine to not panic even further. That is absolutely the very last thing she would ever want. To spill Claudine’s blood herself—how could she ever forgive herself for a travesty!

And just as quickly, she pulls her hand back in one motion. Claudine collapses to her knees, her hands whipping up to her own neck as if to make sure it is still whole. She slowly looks up at Maya, and she can smell it, the fear, the terror that had gripped Claudine while she was at the mercy of a monster.

She… had no choice! To save Claudine’s life, she had no choice but to intimidate her away like this! What else was Maya to do! No other choice for a foolish girl!

Maya growls once more before she turns around. "Leave! I want no sight of you ever again!” she roars and leaps away without even waiting to hear Claudine’s response.

No other choice!

She really is nothing but a beast, Maya thinks.


 

 

 

The tacks and pins in her shoes fall onto the floor. She stares down at them. They’re a little fewer than usual today, which means they’re running out. Perhaps the next time, there might be more. She will only just be more careful.

When she comes into the room, all noise stops. She pretends not to notice, how all the other girls immediately stop whispering to stare at her. No matter what they do to her, they cannot bring her down; they will never knock out a star from the sky. She does not care for them; no, she only cares about one thing, for she is—

Her feet take her to her natural spot. All noise seems to stop as she arrives here.

Position zero. This is where she lives, where she stands to come alive. If she is not here, where else must she stand? To have all the eyes of the audience seared upon her front, to have the burning glares of her peers upon her back—

It is for this moment that she lives for, in this moment that she craves. Nothing else matters. Stare upon her back, become inspired to rise for even greater heights, watch how she captivates the audience!

This is what she wants to do, for she is—

Burn her name deep into their own beings, burn her name so deep that she becomes one of the stars in the sky at unreachable heights, burn her name so she can shine so brightly and radiantly that all they can do is chase after her for she is the one that will stand at the top, the one to stand at the very peak, the one to stand above all others, for she is—

 

 


Bonjour!

Maya freezes at the sound of an all too familiar voice. Her eyes narrow as she sweeps them across the room she’d been about to step into, her prized library.

An ornate table runs down the length of her archives, gilded chairs adorning it on each side. Her parents, especially her mother, have always had tastes that run on the more lavish side, she thinks. Once, a long time ago, it had nothing but dust coating over it, a testament to how much Maya used it. Now, with Mahiru’s boarding and Maya’s newfound boredom, Maya thinks it might not have even seen a speck of dust in all that time Mahiru has been here.

And, now, here, lie the source of all of Maya’s new troubles. They sit not at the edge of the table but on chairs that are close to the side of the door. In front of them are various books, pulled from the bookshelves behind them. Mahiru has always enjoyed a book herself after cleaning and chores. So… to think that even she would…

In her seat, Mahiru cowers with a small yelp. The smirk Claudine had on falls as her hand whips out, to lay upon Mahiru’s arm as she glares at Maya. “Don’t you even dare think of hurting her!” she says in a most scathing tone.

Seeing as Maya herself is nothing but a monster and few things can hardly faze her at this point, Maya ignores Claudine to instead turn her attention solely on the girl next to her. “Mahiru,” she starts, waits as Mahiru squeaks and flinches in her seat. Claudine’s glare deepens. “I thought I said I wanted no visitors here.”

“T-that—”

“I pushed my way in. Don’t blame Mahiru for this!” Claudine answers for Mahiru. Her chair screeches as it slides backward when she abruptly stands up. Maya finally flickers her eyes over to Claudine. It isn’t hard not to notice the way the fires of defiance blaze so brightly upon Claudine right now. Maya has to resist the urge to roll her eyes; it would no doubt send Claudine into a storm of retorts.

Maya had not been prepared for this, so to say. Her eyes sweep over the room once more.

Her archives have always felt a little bit too big… a little bit… too grandiose for even someone like her. But, now, with two people occupying the table in the middle with piles of books scattered across them, it feels…

Against Maya’s own wishes again, there is a small throb from her chest. She does not understand, nor does she want to find out what it means right now. What is important right now is…

Her eyes roam back down to Claudine’s, who hasn’t stopped glaring at her. “I will not shed blood in Mahiru’s presence. Do as you will,” she only says tiredly and turns on her heels. She can hear Mahiru shouting for her and she feels guilty for not answering her but she… she cannot deal with this right now. Claudine is…

Before she realizes, she’s made her way outside. Going for a run has always cleared her head but she thinks it might just be harder to do that in this moment. She recognizes that to push the matter would be to put Mahiru on the spot, and she would rather not do that. Claudine has always been argumentative to a fault, and once pushed, Maya knows she herself is as well. But, she finds herself too tired for that. There are so many things she needs to figure out, so many questions she needs to ask.

Especially why Claudine Saijou is here!

The last Maya had heard, Claudine had been off traveling the land, performing for the troupe she had chosen to travel with. Even from here, she’s heard all the exploits of Claudine Saijou, one of the very best actors anyone on the land has ever seen. Tickets to any show featuring her are always sold out!

”Claudine Saijou! What a wonderful girl! I almost want to go back to see her show again tomorrow!”

”She was very good, wasn’t she? To think, she’s risen even higher then… then… say, who was that other girl who used to compete with her? Her rival?”

”Who? Claudine Saijou has always been the best!”

”No! There was someone else—ah, must not have been very important if I can’t recall. But what a shame, I wonder what happened to her—”

What a shame indeed, Maya thinks.

Nothing… but a shame, that they’d both—

Maya shakes her head. No use dwelling on that.

She leaps off into the forest. Might as well go for a run, maybe hunt food for dinner. What else can she do?

What else can she do, the way she is?

By the time she comes back, the stars are starting to show in the sky. It’s late, later than usual, but Maya thinks this is appropriate. Claudine will most likely be gone, and it will just be her and Mahiru by themselves. Yes, this is fine. She heads to her courtyard, to the side entrance of her manor and kicks open the door.

Both Claudine and Mahiru jolt from where they are, Claudine staring up at Maya in horror, Mahiru in pleasant surprise. For the most part, Maya blinks back at them. She wonders how she must look, a boar carcass slung over her shoulder, its blood dripping down her clothes to drop upon the floor. Maya… had been a little too distracted to care about the details of that.

“... you’re still here,” Maya can’t help but find herself saying. Ah, no, that’s the worst, Claudine will surely take offense, and while that might make her leave faster, that isn’t to say Maya has lost all of her manners since turning into her bestial form. But, thankfully, it seems like neither of them hear her. Claudine looks disgusted while Mahiru is sparkling, clapping her hands together with glee.

“Exactly what I wanted!” Mahiru says, moving aside and gesturing to the kitchen. Maya dutifully makes her way over, brushing past Claudine’s incredulous stare. She lays it down on the cloth Mahiru has already prepared. At her side, Mahiru readies the pot that’ll make tonight’s dinner.

Claudine remains standing at the doorway, perhaps knowing she’ll only be in the way if she comes in. She doesn’t say anything at all, only watches the two of them work together with an efficiency that can only be gained from time and experience. Before long, Mahiru has the pot on the stove and she’s carefully packaging the rest of the meat.

“What… what are you doing that for?” Claudine asks, sounding faint as if she’s in awe. “Storing it for later?”

“For my family,” Mahiru answers cheerfully. Claudine nods, not that either of them can see, focused as they are on preserving the rest of the meat.

Finally, they finish. Mahiru stands back, looking worn and tired but more than satisfied. Her hands are so bloody that it seems as if she’s committed a grisly crime instead. Maya can hear Claudine gasp before it turns into a small gag as Mahiru turns to a bucket that’d been set aside earlier by Mahiru herself, and scrubs her hands free. The water turns disgusting and murky. Claudine makes another sound. Maya moves from her position and takes it, walking toward Claudine. She gestures outward.

“Come. We will only get in Mahiru’s way now if we stay around,” she says. But Claudine continues to stand still at the doorway, staring as Mahiru bustles around, chopping up vegetables and the like as she prepares a stew for their dinner. Maya reaches out, to nudge Claudine—

Claudine immediately recoils backward, her eyes wide as she stares at Maya’s claw.

… ah.

Maya lets her hand fall down. “Let us go,” she only says before walking past her. Soon, Claudine’s footsteps join hers as well. Claudine’s boots clack against the marble of the floor compared to the quiet thuds of Maya’s paws. It is… a different sound. Maya’s ears twitch, the sharp sounds seemingly ringing through both her ears.

They come outside. Maya empties the bucket nearby onto the brown grass. She crouches down and closes her eyes, letting herself enjoy the cool air of the night ruffle her fur.

“So you don’t know how to cook?”

Maya opens one eye to look at her unwilling companion. “Does it look as if I would need to consume cooked meat?”

“For a beast that chooses to dress itself, I wouldn’t know.”

Maya closes her eyes with a sigh. Claudine is clearly too hostile to banter with, not that Maya has any wish to. Already, she feels as if she’s aged more than several years with Claudine’s sudden appearance. She feels very weary and would much rather curl up and sleep the rest of the night away, or until she wakes up and Claudine is gone.

They continue to stand in silence. A sudden draft of air blows through. Maya enjoys the feeling of it against her fur, basking in it. But she hears a small gasp coming from Claudine. When she opens her eyes, she sees the other girl with her arms wrapped around herself, trying to warm herself up.

“... cold?” Maya asks. There isn’t much she can do for Claudine, though, not when it is Maya’s own fur that keeps her warm and the clothes she’s wearing can hardly provide much warmth for Claudine herself.

“N-no!” Claudine stubbornly shakes her head but Maya’s eyes, honed and sharpened in the darkness moreso than a mere human’s eyes, can see the slight shivers that wrack Claudine’s body.

“If it is too cold, you may go inside.”

“W-what?!” Claudine shakes her head again. “I’m fine! More than fine!”

There’s something about the way Claudine refuses and insists she is fine that makes Maya want to frown if she could. Claudine has always been a stubborn girl, that much Maya has known, but she also knows that there is something off about the way she’s acting. She opens her eyes and looks at Claudine out of her peripheral again. The other girl is adamant about facing forward, looking out toward the trees where the moon illuminates. Maya looks behind at her home, dark and foreboding.

… ah, wait. Maya is starting to recall something. Once, in what feels like decades ago, she remembers a Harvest festival they’d happen to be together for.

”Futaba helped some of the little kids put up a haunted house exhibit and she made me promise to help them out, and you’re coming with me, Maya Tendou!”

In remembrance, she rubs her arm, remembering where Claudine had clung so tightly to it, her hands clenched so tightly that her nails were almost digging into Maya’s once soft arm. She hadn’t minded, in fact invited the pain; it was a welcome distraction to her own terror.

Thus, Maya now realizes what must be the source of Claudine’s ill-being.

“Are you scared of the dark?” Maya asks.

Claudine freezes up. “O-of course not!” she says in a huff. She’s scowling now, staring up at Maya as if daring to challenge her. “I’m…” she makes a sound, crossing her arms as she looks away. “I’m stuck out here with a giant talking beast. What am I supposed to do?”

“...oh.” That… makes sense, Maya supposes. “But you were still the one who made the decision to travel out here knowing there was a beast dwelling here,” she points out. “And, I had already given you warnings about returning—”

“Sh—I know that!” Claudine snaps. “You don’t have to tell me!”

Maya almost laughs. Deep down, she’d known Claudine wouldn’t have listened to her. As if she could be intimidated into submission so easily! She has always met Maya head on no matter the circumstances, even with the way Maya is right now. It doesn’t even surprise her a bit.

In a way, this banter, Claudine’s presence at her side… it is familiar. Even though she still would rather wish for Claudine to be elsewhere right now, there is a small part inside of her that feels… warm. It is nice to see another familiar face again, especially Claudine’s. Maya has never thought she would be able to see her again, never thought that under these strange circumstances, they’d see each other. How strange fate works sometimes, she thinks.

Unable to help herself, Maya studies Claudine out of the corner of her eyes. She… does not know how much time has passed since the last time she’s seen Claudine. It must be… how many years? Several years? More than five? When had she become cursed? All the years have rolled into each other and Maya has lost track of time.

Claudine has obviously grown from their years of adolescence. Maya has always thought of Claudine as beautiful, but to see her right now, after the years have matured her into a young woman… she’s even more beautiful. In this moment, Maya is glad that she is in this form, for if she would not be able to look upon Claudine without a blush, would not be able to stop staring at her long past what would be considered appropriate.

“... are you staring at me?” Claudine shuffles back, away from Maya. “I refuse to be your meal!”

Maya blinks. Ah, she’d been caught staring anyway. Claudine’s words sting her, though. She quickly looks away, turning her eyes up to the moon instead. As long as she remains in this form…

A faint sound from inside her manor has Maya’s ears perking up. “Mahiru has finished. Let us join her,” she says, about to rush off before she pauses and turns to Claudine, who hasn’t moved at all. “Well?” She gestures ahead of her with her hand.

“How… did you hear that? I’ve heard nothing!” Claudine looks at her suspiciously. “Is this a ploy?”

Maya sucks in a breath, and releases it slowly. Claudine grows irate, Maya can smell her anger. She is too, but her patience has not reached its end. Instead, she turns fully toward Claudine and points up at the furry ears that sit up atop her head. They twitch. Understanding dawns on Claudine’s face, but still, she remains suspicious.

“If you’d like to stay outside here, then be my guest. Let it be said that I at least tried to be a gracious host,” Maya says, trying her hardest to keep from snapping, and walks off. She’s feeling even more tired than before this entire fiasco had started.

“W-wait!” Claudine is running up to her now. “I… I’ll believe you. And I want to see Mahiru,” she grumbles.

They walk back through the manor in silence. There’s very little for them to converse about. Of course, Maya has many questions she wishes to talk about with Claudine.

How have you been?

What have you been performing?

Why, too, did you also disappear?

But, as it is now, especially as she is now, it is… an impossible wish.

Mahiru greets them with a smile at the dining table. It helps them both relax for the moment, though Maya can feel herself tensing up as soon as she takes a seat.

Dinner goes exactly the way Maya expects.

“Delicious, Mahiru! I don’t think I’ve ever had your cooking before, and it’s so—” here, Claudine stops to swallow down the rest of her food before a look of sheer bliss appears on her face. “Superb! Incredible! It’s…” And a small smile forms on her face. “It tastes like home.”

“O-oh! You’re overdoing it!” Mahiru laughs in embarrassment, blushing as Claudine continues to shower her in compliments. Maya growls softly in agreement but she’s sure neither of them heard.

The meat Mahiru prepares for them is seared perfectly, moist and juicy. Of course, given one of Maya’s... being, it says very little. But although her current form gives her an even more voracious hunger for redder meats, that isn’t to say she still can’t enjoy and taste delicious cooking. And, as Claudine has said, there is a certain quality about Mahiru’s cooking that makes Maya think of… think of something homemade, warm, as if she’s with a family.

It brings a little stab through her, how Mahiru continues to insist to stay here even despite Maya trying to tell her to go home. And, she sees it, how Mahiru stares out a window sometimes, a forlorn expression upon her face, how Maya knows the direction she stares in is her family’s home.

But after Claudine’s initial exclaimments, dinner descends into silence. Mahiru glances back and forth between them, and when Mahiru returns her attention to her food, Maya pretends not to notice the way Claudine looks up and tries to watch her carefully, as if Maya will make any sudden moves. Maya is sorely tempted, but she knows that is too distasteful even for her.

This might just be the most stressful dinner Maya has had in quite a long time, she thinks.

After dinner doesn’t help either, after they finish cleaning up and end up loitering outside in the hallway. Usually, Maya and Mahiru will make for her archives, to pick out a book and relax in each other’s company until Mahiru, early sleeper that she is, retires to bed, whereas Maya, a true beast of the night, stays up to unfortunately stew in her thoughts.

With the addition of Claudine on this night, it seems as if neither of them are unsure of what to do.

“Well,” Claudine starts, clearing her throat. “It is getting rather late, I suppose I’ll have to take my leave now.”

“What?!” Mahiru whirls to her and takes her arm. “You can’t possibly want to travel through the woods in such darkness?”

“... the woods are dangerous at night, especially for humans,” Maya murmurs.

“If it is, it must be because you’re wandering through them,” Claudine retorts with a snort.

“... I suppose you may have a facet of truth within there.” Maya has long been used to one a many harsh word from Claudine, but it doesn’t mean it eases the sting of them when they come.

Claudine looks over at her, sets her jaw, and looks away. “I’m… sorry, that was uncalled for.”

Maya’s ears perk forward as if hardly able to believe what she’s hearing. “No offense taken. It helps me remember how I appear,” she replies.

For a reason indiscernible to Maya, Claudine gives her a strange look. It is… an odd mixture of bewilderment, and pity. Maya cannot decipher that look, can only wonder why Claudine is giving her that look. Is she being patronized? Maya does not need that.

“Anyway!” Claudine turns away from them and gently pries Mahiru’s hand off of her. “I’ll be fine! I have my sword, remember?”

“N-no!” Mahiru is shaking her head. “I’m worried for you, Claudine. I would rather you not return home alone…”

And, somehow, it looks as if Mahiru’s pleading has worked. Claudine sighs, and crosses her arms. “I can’t exactly stay here…”

Ah. Maya understands, then, what must be done.

“I will accompany you back, then,” she speaks. “Come, follow me.” Maya makes for her entrance.

“H-huh!? Wait, hold on—don’t just decide that by yourself!”

Maya stops in her tracks and spins around. Claudine freezes up but Maya’s eyes roam over to Mahiru. “You’ve prepared the food for your family already, yes? If I will accompany her, we will be able to take those packages with us. Claudine will give them to your family.”

Mahiru’s eyes widen. “O-oh! Um, yes! Ah, I mean, if that’s… if that’s fine with you, Claudine?”

“If it’s a request from Mahiru, how am I supposed to refuse?” Claudine shakes her head in exasperation but there’s a small smile on her face. She’s always had a soft spot for Mahiru. Maya supposes she might have one herself.

Mahiru waves at them from the door, seeing them off as they prepare their journey back through the woods. Maya hefts the bags with the gifts Mahiru is sending back to her family over her shoulder and gestures for Claudine to walk ahead. But Claudine doesn’t, standing still and looking at her suspiciously.

“... are you afraid I will try something?” Maya asks. “If I were, I would have already—”

“No!” Claudine shakes her head and looks away. “I mean… never mind.” She sighs and walks down the path. Maya follows after her, putting all her senses on high alert. She might be the most dangerous things in these woods, but it wouldn’t hurt to be safe from anything else.

There isn’t really quite a path that leads to her manor, off in the middle of the forest as it is and so out of the way. Nonetheless, there is a certain route that’s a little more worn than the ground around it. Maya leads Claudine through the path. It’ll be easier for Claudine at night.

Just as before, silence permeates the air between them. Save for Claudine’s breaths that slowly increase in intensity from the walk, there is no other word spoken between them.

Somehow, they fall into step next to each other. Or, rather, Maya slows down her pace to allow herself to match Claudine, because she has a feeling that Claudine seems to be trying to push herself to walk faster is to catch up to Maya’s large strides. It makes no sense to Maya for Claudine to do so given the way Maya is, but Claudine has always acted this way. And if Claudine notices, she makes no mention of it.

They continue walking until new scents hit Maya’s nose. “Here,” she announces, stopping in her tracks. Claudine, who’s walked a little ahead of her, freezes in place, and turns around.

“Hm? What is it?” she asks, impatient. The night and darkness must be agitating her, along with Maya’s own presence, Maya thinks.

“I can smell the humans. The village is not for much longer,” Maya says. She stops to sniff the air once more just to make sure. Yes, the stench of the village strikes her nose, and she struggles not to growl in response. “This is as far as I can go.”

“What?” Claudine looks at her incredulously.

“... you forget what I am?” Maya gestures to herself. “There are guardsmen who patrol the perimeter as well—”

“I-I know that!” Claudine looks away. Maya is surprised to find she looks embarrassed. “I… uh, had expected you to walk me the rest of the way.”

“... ah.” Maya looks out toward the path. Perhaps… if she can find out where one of the night watch is, she can figure out their route and avoid—

“You don’t need to do that!” Claudine interrupts Maya out of her thoughts. “I was just, ah, mistaken. I’ll find my way back, don’t worry.” And here she holds out her hands. Maya blinks at her. “The packages?” Claudine asks with a raised brow.

Maya blinks again before it finally hits her, and she quickly nods. “Ah, yes.” She hands them over to Claudine. “They’re a bit heavy, please take care—”

Claudine easily lifts them up, smirking up at Maya. “Don’t worry about that. I’ve got it.”

… had Claudine always been this strong? Maya doesn’t remember—but it must make sense, given how Claudine could easily carry her sword around.

“Please make sure to get them to Mahiru’s family. It would be a great boon to both Mahiru and me if you can bring it to them.”

“Of course!” Claudine shakes her head. “But I’ll have to deliver them in the morning, it might just be too late.”

“Yes…” Maya nods. “Then, I shall take my leave. I bid you a good night. Please be careful on your way back.” She turns around. Maya doesn’t intend to go back right away, not until she can tell Claudine is back in the village, but she can’t be too close for the guardsmen to discover her.

“Hey!”

Maya turns back around, and finds Claudine still standing in the same spot, staring at her curiously. “Yes?” she asks. Claudine doesn’t answer her, only continues to stare at her. She looks as if she wants to speak but cannot decide what to say. That… is strange, Claudine has always been rather straightforward. So Maya waits, looking down at Claudine as her form towers over her.

“You’re…” Claudine tilts her head, frowning as she tries to think out her thoughts. “Despite what you might seem, you’re… rather kind, aren’t you?”

Of all the things Maya had expected to hear, this had not been it. She can hardly believe it. Her ears are fluttering, twitching. She misses how Claudine’s eyes glance up at them.

“I…” Claudine clears her throat, looking away with a scowl before she smooths her expression and meets Maya’s eyes. “I’m sorry about how I acted today. I wasn’t… being a proper guest.”

“You… did not need to apologize for that.” Maya shakes her head. “I can tell, you were only worried for Mahiru. I would not begrudge you for that.”

“Still!” Ah, and there it is, the stubborn way Claudine sets her jaw, the way she meets Maya’s eyes with defiance. “It was as if I forgot all my manners!”

“... did that really bother you?” Maya asks, her voice soft.

“I…” and Claudine looks away, huffing. “What if it did!?”

“It is… unexpected. Forgive me if I confess that I had not been expecting that tonight.” Maya tilts her head. “I find that rather endearing.”

Claudine’s face turns red. A scowl comes over her mouth now. If Maya could smile, she’s sure she would. There is something about this banter that feels familiar. She’s missed this, being able to talk to Claudine. It’s been far too long. She is endlessly grateful for Mahiru’s companionship, but it is… decidedly much different than when she talks to Claudine.

“I know when I’m acting in the wrong!” Claudine mutters.

“I never said you did not. But, understand that…” and here, Maya gestures to herself with her claw, “I have no hard feelings given how I am. I would have been more surprised if I had been treated with less hostility.”

“That still doesn’t make it right of me!”

… a stubborn girl, Claudine is. Maya shakes her head. Still, she finds it… touching that Claudine is going out of her way to apologize, even in a roundabout way.

“... very well. If it will make you feel better.” Claudine looks as if she still wants to protests but Maya turns around. “I can hear the patrol coming closer. I’ll take my leave. Safe travels.” She turns around, about to leap off before Claudine calls out once more.

“Wait!”

Maya pauses, closes her eyes, takes a deep sigh, and turns around. “Yes?” she asks, trying her best not to appear impatient.

“I…” and for some reason, Claudine seems hesitant, uncertain. But she shakes her head, meeting Maya’s eyes with a determined expression. “My name is Claudine! Claudine Saijou!”

“I know—” and Maya snaps her mouth shut just as Claudine’s eyes narrow into a glare.

“You know?! How?!” Claudine demands. Maya’s mind is in a flurry; she hadn’t meant to get that out. What does she say? What can she say—ah.

“Mahiru,” she blurts out.

Claudine’s eyes widen. “Oh. Yes, right.” She nods, satisfied. “Of course.” She crosses her arms, looking up at Maya expectantly. “Well? I’ve told you my name, what’s yours?”

Mine?” Maya can’t help how surprised she sounds.

“Yes! I…” Claudine looks as if she’s struggling within herself again before she shakes her head. “Your name,” she reiterates.

“My name…” Their eyes meet for a split moment. She quickly looks away, misses the way Claudine blinks rapidly and starts to look at her strangely. “I have no name. There is no need for it.” She takes a step backward, hoping for the darkness to hide her.

“What?!” Except Claudine ahead until she’s standing right in front of Maya now. “What do you mean? What am I supposed to call you, then? Shall I simply call you a beast?” Claudine’s tone is entirely sarcastic, but—

“Yes,” Maya says much to Claudine’s ire. “Pick your favorite animal, then. Call me a giraffe if it so pleases you.” Despite the look of obvious displeasure on Claudine’s face, Maya takes another step back.

“No! I’m not doing that!”

And Maya blinks, looking down at her arm where Claudine’s grabbed it. She meets Claudine’s face, who doesn’t seem to realize what she’s done, as she angrily looks up at Maya. “Come on! Don’t be like that!”

How bold of her! Her heart pounds, but out of apprehension and dread instead. Maya sighs, and closes her eyes as she pretends to think.

“Beast is satisfactory,” Maya says. She gently pries off Claudine’s hand, whose eyes widen as she stares at her hand in shock. It almost makes Maya laugh, seeing Claudine’s impulsiveness once more.

“You truly have no real name you wish for me to call you?” Claudine tries one more time.

Of course there is, Maya wants to say. You, who had always called my name—

“No.” Maya turns away from her, sighing. “It is… not important, nor do I think it ever will be again,” she finishes, her voice so quiet that the darkness should have just as well have swallowed it up.

“It is getting late, please allow me to be off. It will be more dangerous for you if you continue to out here,” Maya says. She reaches out with her claw. Claudine is too busy staring at her, her expression undecipherable to Maya, to notice Maya’s claw reaching for her. Maya feels a bit presumption to do this, but she gently nudges Claudine toward the village.

“Enjoy the rest of your night,” Maya says, and before Claudine can get another word in, she leaps backward, and leaps off.

As per Maya’s original plan, she sticks around by slinking through the trees, honing her senses on what she hopes is Claudine’s footsteps. Claudine steps heavy, a girl used to having attention on her presence. Maya’s has already memorized the sound of her steps from their walk. Her scent is much easier to track; it’s decidedly much nicer than the rest of the human village at this time of the night. Strangely, though, it takes a moment for Claudine to actually move, but she finally does, heading further away from Maya.

When the village swallows Claudine’s scent and Maya can no longer track her, she heads back to her home, leaping through the trees.

Mahiru is asleep in the foyer, curled up against the arm of one of the couches when Maya comes back. Maya raps her knuckles against the door. Mahiru startles upright, yelping.

“O-oh! You’re back!” Mahiru stumbles to her feet.

“You didn’t have to stay up,” Maya chides.

“I know, but…” Mahiru looks at her curiously. “It was nice to see Claudine today.”

“... did you bring her in on purpose?” Maya frowns, or she tries. She growls lowly to express her displeasure instead. Mahiru quickly looks away, a small smile on her face.

“I just thought it’d be nice to have some more company here,” she answers with a small laugh, and there Maya feels it, a pang of guilt that shoots through her. “Ah! No, not what I meant, but—” Mahiru waves her hands but she knows she’s unconvincing when Maya only sighs.

“Is that fine?” Mahiru asks, voice soft and uncertain. “I think this might be good for us. She… she might help you with your curse, and—”

Maya lets out a bark of laughter. “Help? With what? What can Claudine do? How can she help me if even I don’t know?”

“But—”

“I appreciate your concerns, Mahiru, but they are…” and Maya closes her eyes, sighing. “Forgive me, I do not mean to speak so harshly… but even I have long become resigned to my fate.”

“Does that mean you won’t tell her, then?”

Maya takes only but a second to consider. “No! Of course not. What could I even say? How would she even believe me?” Lower, she says, “And what right would I have to ask her of that?”

Mahiru doesn’t speak, at least, not at first. When she finally does, she asks, “Is that what you want, though?”

Maya opens her eyes and meets Mahiru’s eyes. Her eyes are sad, full of pity. Once, Maya would have felt her pride become stung at such an expression. Pity? For her? The indignity!

Now, she is… only tired. How can she be prideful, when she looks like this, cursed by her own hubris?! She understands why Mahiru tries, but…

“It had never been about what I want,” Maya only says, her shoulders slumping.


 

 

 

Something has changed.

It creeps upon her, at the edges of her mind. When she is left alone to her own time, it beats even stronger.

Sometimes, when she closes her eyes, no longer can she see the brilliance of the stars that she once used to chase. Behind her eyes, there is only darkness abound, as far as she can see, as far as a dawnless horizon.

Here, in this darkness, it feels as if she is… floating. Everywhere she looks, there is darkness. There is nothing. She opens her mouth, but no sound comes out of it.

In this darkness, she is nothing.

No, this is… this is… familiar. She’s already experienced this. When she stands upon the peak of the mountain, when she stares upward at the night sky and sees the stars up there, when she thinks of all the eyes staring upon her back, when she remembers all the expectations upon her, when she walks forward on her path and all she can hear are the echoes of her own footsteps—

She is already more than familiar with this feeling. She knows exactly what this is. This darkness is already as intimate to her like a childhood blanket.

Yet, why does it affect her so strongly here?

The path in front of her is dark. When she reaches out with her hand, she does not know what it is she wants to grasp. When she stands upon position zero, she does not feel the same thrill as she once used to. Why? Why does she feel like this? She looks off to her side—

“I haven’t lost yet!”

There is no one there.

Her hand falls back down.

It is… lonely.

 

 

 


Somehow, even with all of Maya’s quiet protestations and huffs, Claudine starts to become a regular occurence in her days. When Maya comes back after exercising herself by running through the forest, sometimes Claudine is there, chatting with Mahiru. All of the hostility isn’t quite gone from Claudine yet, but she… is much more relaxed compared to the first time, Maya supposes.

A mistake, for Claudine to let down her guard, Maya thinks.

On one particular day, after Maya comes back from her run, Claudine is visiting, conversing with Mahiru while they’re in the archives. She moves to the kitchen and boils some water, to be used for tea. She’s had a craving for a cup after leaping all about, and she might as well make some for the other two. The days of spring are starting to become longer as the sun burns even brighter, and hotter.

When she comes to them with a tray of their cups, Claudine is visibly shocked, and even Mahiru looks surprised. Maya’s a little sullen to see them looking at her.

“I thought, perhaps, you two might like some nourishment,” Maya says when no one else has spoken.

“O-oh! How… thoughtful of you,” Claudine says slowly, nodding her thanks as Maya sets down the cup in front of her. “I wasn’t expecting that from you.”

“I may have the appearance of a beast, but I hope I don’t have the manners of one.”

That manages a crack of a smile out of both of them, even a small laugh from Mahiru. And in spite of herself, even Maya finds herself slightly humored as well.

“For a beast, you’re surprisingly… very human,” Claudine says suddenly. Both Mahiru and Maya freeze at her comment. Maya slowly blinks at Claudine, who looks as if she’s studying Maya more carefully. “What sort of beast would partake in tea?”

“Hm,” Maya only grunts in response, contrary to the way her heart starts to pound faster and faster.

Mahiru claps her hands together, drawing both their attentions. "Oh, the Midsummer festival is coming! I've heard there's going to be a play performed in the village!"

"A play?"

Both Claudine and Maya speak but it is Claudine's voice that rings through the room.

Mahiru puts a finger to her chin. "I heard it was one of those new groups of actors. From… ah, Frontier? It's a new school of acting, isn't it?"

“Oh!” Claudine nods her head. “Yes, I’ve heard of them. I’ve even been invited to see one of their practices before. They're very…” Claudine pauses to gesture and wave her hands in vague notion as she thinks. “Flashy. Their action scenes are good. They might be just as good as Futaba!”

As good as Futaba? Unconsciously, Maya’s ears perk up. She doesn’t notice how both Mahiru and Claudine’s eyes move over to her ears as they twitch.

“Oh…” Mahiru smiles. “They must be very good then! I’m sure my family will be excited to watch!”

"Yes! I suppose I'll have to watch then," Claudine says as she crosses her arms. She has a smile on her face, but Maya has long learned what that smile means; she wants to scope them out, no doubt. “They’re very fun shows, much different from what we’ve used to do.”

“Ah…” and here Mahiru’s mood turns a little somber. “Sometimes, I can hardly believe that we’re all not acting together anymore.”

Claudine leans back in her chair and shrugs her shoulders. “It’s only inevitable, isn’t it? We’ve grown up, and some of us have…” and here, Claudine stops, as if she is afraid to continue by the way she keeps glancing between Mahiru and averting her gaze. Mahiru pretends not to notice as she looks down at her tea.

“You still haven’t heard anything, have you?” she asks, her voice soft. Claudine shakes her head.

“If Karen hasn’t found anything, and even if I, too, haven’t heard anything, then…” she trails off.

Maya, already silent as she listens to their conversation, also falls into thought, reminiscing about their time together. Some of them had taken predictable turns after graduating from their school, but there… have been some surprising turns.

For one, in particular—

“I just have to keep hoping then!” Mahiru says with a small pump of her fists. “We all do! Hikari isn’t someone who’ll just… who’ll just…” and she stops again, her eyes seemingly faraway. Claudine’s brow furrows in worry, and she glances over at Maya, who startles at the sudden attention.

The air is thick, heavy. Maya can smell the apprehension off of both of them. Claudine is struggling to find something to say, while Maya knows Mahiru is trying to keep from stewing on her bad thoughts but unable to find another topic to broach. Thus, what can Maya say here? She wants to speak as well—

But, here, in this moment, she cannot.

She cannot speak, because she is Maya Tendou.

She stands up abruptly. The chair she’d been sitting in scrapes across the floor. Both Mahiru and Claudine stare at her.

“Dinner,” Maya only announces. “I will go hunting now. Any requests?”

They both continue to stare at her, Mahiru in stunned silence, and Claudine with a grimace she can barely hold back. Maya wonders if she was too abrupt, if there might have been something better for her to do as a distraction.

“... shall I dig up the potatoes growing in the garden?” she asks after no one has spoken after a time. They continue to stare at her. Maya shifts uncomfortably from one paw to another.

“Fish!” Claudine shouts out suddenly. Maya blinks at her.

“What would you l—”

“Any kind!”

“How?”

Claudine looks at her strangely. “Don’t you know how to fish? Or,” she gestures to Maya’s claws, “have you seen a bear catch fish? Try that!”

If Maya could frown, she would. “Are you telling me to emulate a bear—"

There’s a snort, and before long Mahiru is laughing, bringing a hand up to hide her mouth behind. Both Claudine and Maya share a look and shrug their shoulders, the tension in them releasing.

“Fishing,” Mahiru says as she stands up. “Let’s get some fish. That’s Claudine’s favorite,” she adds with a wink.

“Wh—why did you have to mention that?!” Claudine seems a bit appalled. Mahiru laughs at her too before she looks over at Maya. There’s something in her smile, something in her expression that makes Maya think she’s planning something, but she says nothing else as she brushes past her.

Maya is not sure why Mahiru’s looking at her like that, but if Claudine enjoys the taste of fish that much…

Then she will not fail in this task.

In the end, it’s Mahiru who catches most of the fish.

“You tried, and you only managed to catch only one fish,” Claudine says with a snicker.

“... forgive me for being unaccustomed to this,” Maya mutters as she looks down at her claws. She clenches them in a fist before opening them again. She’ll need to practice, then, if she wishes to procure more fish in the future. The thought makes her want to both laugh and sigh. Practice, being an even better beast? The notion is so silly—

And, yet, here she is. She looks up, to where Mahiru and Claudine are in front of her, conversing with each other. If Maya were to focus a little bit, she could catch their conversation with little trouble. Instead, she focuses on how much she towers over them in her hulking form. Her claws could easily separate their flesh from their bones, her nose can pick apart their individual scents, and her fangs!

Once more, after so many years, it starts up again, the small sliver of dissent in her heart as she thinks of her current predicament.

The rest of the day passes. Maya calms herself down. Or, rather, she allows herself to be distracted by Mahiru and Claudine, who continue to talk as if they’re nothing but old friends who haven’t seen each other in so many years even though it’s only been…

A few months? For some reason, it feels as if Claudine has already been here for years. Even though she does not come everyday, her presence already feels so natural to both Maya and Mahiru that it feels strange to remember a time that Claudine had not been there. It will be sad, then, when Claudine parts from them.

The thought, wayward as it is, makes Maya feel a little lonely.

“Oh! I didn’t realize it was already so late!” Claudine rises from where she’d been sitting on the sofa with Mahiru, looking at the antique clock that hangs on the wall. Maya glances over at it just as Mahiru yawns.

“I’ll be outside,” Maya says as she also rises from her seat and makes for the door. Nothing has happened yet, but Maya could never, in good faith, leave Claudine to walk back to the village alone by herself in this darkness.

Claudine arrives outside with a package in her hand. It must be some of the fish Mahiru had set aside for her family.

“Well, ready?” Maya asks.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Claudine answers back as she already starts walking ahead into the forest. Maya easily meets her stride and soon, they fall into step with each other.

Save for the chirping of the crickets and the sound of their footsteps, silence reigns between them. Most conversation they’ve had with each other, Mahiru has been there as well. Maya does not know exactly what to say, and she gets the feeling that Claudine does not know what to say either. There’s very little in common between a beast and a human, she thinks.

But, if Maya does have to say, this silence between them is much more comfortable than the very first night.

They continue walking, but it isn’t until they reach what Maya guesses to be the halfway point of their journey that the silence gets broken.

“Hey, Beast.”

So used to the silence that it takes Maya a moment to realize that Claudine has spoken, and that she’s addressing her now. “Yes?” she asks, her voice rumbling.

“You are human, aren’t you?” Claudine asks. Maya’s paw, in the motions of taking a step, freezes in mid-air. Claudine has also stopped walking to stare at her.

Maya swallows. “Why do you ask?”

The look Claudine gives her is flat. “I mean…” she pauses to gesture to all of Maya. “You dress yourself up, you live in this manor, you keep an archive! And…” and here, Claudine looks as if she’s trying not to laugh again. “You were really awful with trying to catch fish earlier. I was watching, you know. It seemed like you didn’t know how to use your body.”

“Ah,” Maya says. “How observant of you.”

The hint of a smirk forms on Claudine’s face, a corner of her mouth twitching. She’s displeased at Maya’s remark, that much Maya knows. It’s a habit she’s very familiar with.

“Anyway! You’re a human, aren’t you?”

How… how is she to answer this? What is Claudine to gain from this question? Maya does not know, but she knows she needs to tread carefully.

The absolute last thing she wants is for Claudine to figure out her identity.

“What are the answers you seek?” Maya asks instead. “Have you been talking to Mahiru about me?”

“Of course I have!” Claudine cries out. “She’s one of my dear friends, but she’s been spending her time away from her family whom I know she cherishes. What is she doing, all the way out here in the place in the middle of nowhere, to live with a beast?”

“Pray, if you find the answer, please allow me to hear it as well,” Maya says with a small shake of her head. “I tell her often that she is free to leave, and, yet…”

“That’s what I don’t understand,” Claudine says. “Why would Mahiru go to such lengths for you?”

“Mahiru is, simply, too kind for her own good.”

“That she is. That’s why I don’t want her kindness to be taken advantage of.”

Maya hears the insinuation that hangs in the air after Claudine’s words. Her hackles rise. “You dare to think that I am taking advantage of her kindness—”

Claudine quickly waves her hand. “No! I meant, broadly speaking. After… seeing you and Mahiru for these past few months… I can see, now, that deceit is the farthest thing from your character.”

Maya can’t help the bark of laughter that escapes. Claudine raises a brow at her. “You wish to contest my assessment?”

There already is one big facade right in front of you, Maya almost wants to say. Instead, she shakes her head.

“No, I was… merely surprised, that you would say this of me. I thank you for a high compliment.” To be judged so favorably from Claudine, how the gods must smile upon her today.

“But, I still haven’t given up. You will not tell me your real name, but I do know that you are a human!”

“Is that why you’ve been coming often? You wish to solve…” Maya gestures to herself as she stares down Claudine, “me?”

Claudine doesn’t even flinch away from her gaze. “Yes! From what I gather, you must have been cursed into that form. Then, how can you remove the curse, and why have you not done it yet? Is there something else to be gained from this unsightly form?”

“... you think there is something for me to gain from this form?”

“Well…” Claudine pauses meaningfully. “That would depend on who resides within, does it not?”

Her words strike something within Maya. What has she gained from being trapped in this image? When she thinks about it, she has… what purpose would there for her to be trapped…

Nothing.

She has gained—

She has become

Nothing.

“You may be thinking too highly of me,” Maya says. “There is no grand purpose for me here… or anywhere. I am merely…”

There is no radiance within you! It is all gone!

“... cursed for my own pride and arrogance.”

Maya shakes her head and takes a step. “Let us go. The night only continues to grow later, and—”

“Wait.”

Maya looks over her shoulder. Claudine hasn’t moved at all. She’s staring intently at Maya. Her expression is blank, unreadable. She does not know what Claudine is thinking of right now.

“Can you at least tell me how you and Mahiru met?” Claudine asks. Her tone isn’t prying, but she’s curious, inquisitive. Maya turns to her, studies Claudine.

When we were acting together at Seisho, she wishes to say. Of course, she cannot. Instead, she mulls over her answer. It… will not do any harm to her if she tells her tale, she supposes.

“It had been…” Maya starts before she pauses. “Forgive me, two years ago, perhaps? Her grandma had been wandering through the forest but she had tripped and gotten hurt. I stumbled upon her and took her back to nurse her.”

Maya lets out another bark of laughter. “But, as you can see, I am in this form. Imagine her shock when she realized she was rescued by a monster!”

“... but just as Mahiru herself, she was… very kind, even as afraid as she was. Once she recovered, I bade her on her way, but she refused to leave me alone.” And here, Maya sighs, recalling her mistake. “To get her to leave, I had told her she could send another person. And, if she could not honor that wish, then to never appear in front of me, lest I forget her broken promise and take my rage out upon her.”

“It’d been a joke. I had no real intention of honoring that promise.” Maya brings a hand to her face, pinching the bridge of her snout. “Imagine my surprise when Mahiru had come.”

“Then, why does she stay?” Claudine asked.

“I wish I knew.” Maya shrugs her shoulders. “Perhaps she feels as if she owes a debt to me after I rescued her grandmother. I do not understand, nor will she tell me.”

Claudine’s expression turns thoughtful. Maya waits for her to speak, but Claudine continues to keep silent, as if she is still ruminating over something that Maya cannot figure out. In either case…

“I suppose since you have been coming around, Mahiru has another companion to keep her company. I must admit that I myself make poor company for her. If she cannot be convinced to go home, then this might as well be the best alternative for her.” Maya glances off to the side, to steel herself as she speaks her next words. "So I must thank you, then, for coming to visit as you do.”

Claudine startles, blinking at Maya as if she’s spoken something wild. Perhaps she has. Maya… does not understand why she has revealed all of this to Claudine. There is a small pang inside of her, as if her chest feels heavy, yet, at the same time, it also feels as if a weight has been lifted off of her. She’s not been able to tell anyone else about her concerns, and… perhaps, all she needed is an ear. When was the last time she talked to anyone that wasn’t Mahiru?

“... forgive me, I did not mean to burden you so much with my thoughts,” Maya says, sighing. When she looks at Claudine, though, Claudine is still looking at her strangely.

“Have you considered, that, just maybe, Mahiru wants to help you in your dilemma?” Claudine replies.

“... but why?” That is simply what Maya cannot understand.

“Because that’s how she is. That’s how kind she is. Perhaps, she is…” and here, Claudine casts her eyes away, slightly forlorn as she whispers, “trying to do what she did not do for Hikari.”

“Hikari…” Her name leaves Maya’s lips. Claudine startles at that sound, waving her hands.

“Ah, sorry. I hadn’t meant to say that. Don’t pay any mind to that, you wouldn’t know who she is,” she says, but the gears are already turning in Maya’s mind.

Of course Maya knows who she is, but Claudine has no knowledge of that. But, now that Claudine has brought this knowledge to light, Maya begins to think, and it puts many of Mahiru’s actions into perspective.

Is Mahiru afraid that Maya, too, will also disappear?

Maya looks upward, at the moon that shines over them, at the stars that shine so brightly in the sky above them.

Underneath them, she feels so… insignificant. Once, she had reached out her hand toward the stars and swore that she would reach their radiance.

To reach for the top, to go as high as I can—

That is why, I think it is you that can help me reach even greater heights—

Only you—!

Her hand falls back down. Underneath these stars… she feels insignificant. Once, she thought she’d been able to reach them, but now, they seem so far away. All of her problems… all of her worries… all of her troubles…

Underneath the very same stars she swore a promise to, they might as well be nothing. Underneath the very same stars she swore she would chase, she suffocates under their brilliance. Underneath the very same stars she swore she would shine just as brightly as, she is nothing.

“... it is getting late. Mahiru will worry for both of us if we continue to stay out longer,” Maya finally says. Claudine doesn’t make a remark, only nods, and they continue on their way. Once they reach the edge of the village where Maya does not go past, they both pause and turn to each other.

“Please send Mahiru’s grandmother my regards,” Maya murmurs, “and take care of yourself.”

“Likewise,” Claudine says. She glances between Maya and the forest behind her. “Nothing’s happened to me yet, you don’t need to stick around to make sure I’m back in the village.”

The surprise must show on Maya’s face because Claudine smirks at her. “You think I wouldn’t notice?”

“Hm,” Maya grunts in response, unwilling to answer Claudine. To be caught so… Maya does not know what to think. And, strangely, rather than continue to gloat, Claudine’s expression softens.

“I think I understand now, why Mahiru’s grandmother wasn’t scared of you.” She meets Maya’s eyes, and there’s something that sparkles in them, as if she’s solved a mystery. Of what, Maya isn’t sure. “You tried to play the part of a fearsome beast, except you’re anything but!” Claudine laughs. “You’re not a very good actor.”

Maya’s eyes widen. Not a—not a good actor! The words, spoken in mere passing, sting far more than Maya wants to admit. She cannot help the sudden pain that runs through her. A poor actor!

”This skill—you think you can call this acting? There is no drive, no emotion, no passion behind them! I have traveled to see you, and you show me such—”

Claudine’s expression changes as she stops laughing, to smile gently now. A-ah? Maya does not know what to make of this—Claudine has never looked at her this way, not even… not even when she wasn’t…

“I can see now, that you, too, are also kind,” she says. Maya closes her eyes, exhaling loudly.

"Continue to speak to me like that and I will devour you right here," Maya says, with absolutely no fire behind them. Claudine laughs. It is a soothing sound, Maya thinks. She has always enjoyed Claudine’s voice—

Even though she knows Claudine had meant nothing of it, even though Claudine does not know who she is, her remark still stings, like a wound that’s never gone away.

“I’ll see you around,” Claudine says, waving to her as she turns away. Maya watches her go, slinking backward into the trees.

When she’s sure Claudine is back in the village, she makes her journey back to the manor. Her heart is still heavy. She looks up at the sky, the stars twinkling up there. It feels as if they mock her, for continuing to shine so brightly as they always do. She reaches out with her hand—no, her claw. If she could grasp a star… if she could once more feel that burning desire to chase after them as she once felt… if she could… if she could… if she could feel that flame within her once more…

Gathering stars is a miracle of the night—

Her hand falls back down to her side.

Underneath the radiance of the stars, she is nothing.


 

 

 

The knock on her door, so late at night, startles her. She had not been expecting company. When she goes to the door, it is no one she knows, dressed in a long cloak to brave the winds. The most striking thing, though, had been the stranger’s appearance; or rather, her hair, the color of platinum, that not even her plain cloak could hide.

“This may be much of me, but may I ask for shelter for the night?” the stranger had asked. Seeing no other reason for her to refuse, she allowed the stranger to come in.

"I wish for some entertainment," the stranger had asked after supper. For an actor of her caliber, who is she to refuse? What sort of play did she desire to see, then, she had asked.

"A snippet of your favorite play," the stranger had said.

She nods.

This is a tale of a nearby and distant planet. It is an epic of ancient times, a drama of the far future—

Did that meet your expectations? she asks after she finishes.

The stranger remains wordless, a grave countenance upon her pale face. Her hair, so fair and flaxen that perhaps it could be mistaken for silver or platinum, seemingly to glows in the light of the candles.

“I have never seen anything more disappointing,” the stranger had finally spoken.

Shock engulfs her.

The stranger rises from her chair. The stranger is a tiny woman, even smaller than her, but in this moment, it feels as if this stranger looms over her.

May I ask for a clarification? she finally thinks to ask.

“Clarification?” the stranger murmurs angrily. “You mean to say that even you cannot tell me what went wrong with such a shoddy performance?”

I cannot, she says.

“You sing and dance only as an imposter!”

“You have nothing!”

“Your radiance is gone!”

Each word she says cuts deep into her very being that she can hardly dare to believe such cruel words could ever be directed her way. The fury rises; her fists clench together, digging almost so painfully that she almost draws blood.

How dare you, she wants to say. How dare you!

To speak so lowly of her acting—

Bright light surrounds her. Her head whips all around, panic coursing through her next to the anger. The same light comes from the stranger’s hand as she points at her. She wants to keep her eyes open but the light becomes too bright, and she must close them.

“I curse you!”

She knows—

“Only when you have found it again—

“When your life has found meaning once more—”

“This curse will never fade!”

—they are the truth.

Exeunt Maya Tendou.