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For Whom the Gong Toils

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The morning sun is already late in the sky by the time Maya wakes. She sits up, yawning to herself as she squints and looks toward her window. Waking up later than usual? She’s never been like this. How strange for this to occur.

Maya peels back the blankets and swings her legs to the floor. Her feet are about to touch the floor before her whole body stills.

… it is cold. The chill of the autumn this year must be worse than before. She immediately wraps her arms around herself, trying to warm herself up, her eyes going down to her body—

Maya freezes again, and not entirely because of the chill of the air.

“I’m… am I…” Maya slowly puts her hands in front of her, gaping at them. Soft, pink flesh meets her eyes. She rolls up her sleeves—the very same sight greets her eyes! “I am…”

She opens her eyes, and the very first sight that greets her is Claudine’s tear-stained face. But her eyes are wide, as if she’s staring at her in disbelief. Maya opens her mouth to speak, but finds that she cannot. She coughs and sputters instead, feeling something caught at the back of her throat. What is it?

The taste of iron fills her tongue. Blood?

… why?

Wait, no, she cannot worry about that, not when Claudine looks at her with such agony! She wants to ask why. She reaches out with her hand.

Her… her… hand?

Her hand?

She stares at it. Even as the darkness starts to creep in at the edges of her vision and consciousness, she cannot help but keep staring as if she’s grown an entirely new hand. What is this? What happened to her? Why has she become like this? Why is she changed?

Why does Claudine continue to look at her like that?

She… she…

Once more, the darkness takes her.

“Human,” she breathes. She turns her hands all around, her fingers running along the skin. The tips of her fingernails are still—she squints her eyes at them. They still seem… a bit sharp, but not ferociously so like what her claws had been!

“What is this?!” she whispers, her eyes darting all around. She is back in her own room, changed in her nightdress that she hadn’t put on since… since… Maya cannot even remember, that is how long it had been! What is this!?

… ah, but she’s still cold, she remembers, as a shiver runs through her.

Maya dresses herself. It is a strange sensation, to finally be able to wear her previous clothes, and yet still see the ones specifically tailored to her beastly image! What should she even do with them now?

Everything feels so surreal, as if she is in a dream. Perhaps this is. When she thinks of her last memory, it makes her think as if she really has passed and this is… this is the next life.

What a cruel joke it all must be, she thinks.

Maya leaves her room. She’s still feeling disoriented, but it is better than to spend the rest of the day laying in bed. Fatigue still seems to set over her like a shroud but it feels as if it is an ache from being bedridden for too long. Certainly, it is much different than the enervation she had felt as a beast, as if it would never leave!

The clack of her boots echo down the hallway. The sound is… much different than the heavy thuds of her paws. It makes Maya tilt her head curiously, listening to the sound of her own feet making them once more. Strange, how even this can make her feel different. She steps a few more times, all too entranced by the sound. How much she used to take this for granted!

So caught up in this that she does not notice Mahiru turning the corner of the hallway.

“Ah! Maya! You’re awake!” Mahiru cries out. Maya turns toward her.

“Mahiru, good mor—oof!” Mahiru has barreled right into her, her arms wrapping around Maya in a hug. “A-ah?” She awkwardly returns the hug, uncertain if that is what she should be doing. “What brought this on?”

“What brought this on?!” Mahiru pulls herself back to look up at Maya, tears in her eyes. “You almost… you almost…” she cannot finish with a sob breaking out of her. “I’m sorry, you’re awake a-and that means y-you’re alive. I was just—I was just so worried!”

Maya does not know what to say to that. She can barely remembers bit of what happened; she’d been attacked and it’d all been a flash and a blur of things happening too many times at once. Her head spins when she tries to remember. And when she does…

All she remembers is Claudine with tears in her eyes, her mouth moving but Maya not being able to hear her.

“I… I suppose the worst is over?” Maya says slowly, hesitantly, still uncertain. “I still feel weak, but I will… I will recover.” She exhales deeply. “Yes. I will feel better given time.”

“Y-yes!” Mahiru turns around, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “S-sorry, I didn’t mean to, um, do that.”

“That is fine,” Maya says, a small smile coming to her face. “You were worried. I’m sorry that I put you in such a state.”

“Don’t apologize for that!” Mahiru shakes her head. “A-anyway, please don’t push yourself too hard right now. The curse was lifted but…” she bites her lip, nervously looking at Maya up and down. “We’re still not sure if there are any side effects, so…”

“Yes, I understand,” Maya says in a gentle voice. “I will be careful, I promise.” This is a promise Maya intends to keep, not even she is immune to the effects of one of Mahiru’s scoldings.

“What are you going to do right now?” Mahiru asks.

“Ah…” Maya cannot help but smile wryly. “I don’t suppose I could go hunting in this form.” The both of them laugh. “But… I want to go outside,” she murmurs. “I would like to feel the wind on my own skin again.”

Mahiru nods. “It’s chilly, don’t stay out for too long. And, oh!” here, Mahiru starts to be a bit anxious. “Nana and Junna are… ah, staying over, if that’s… fine with you? They… felt bad about everything that happened.”

“I do not begrudge them for acting out. But… that is fine,” Maya says, shaking her head. “And what of Hikari?”

“She’s… back at the village. She’s with my family right now.” Mahiru seems uncomfortable talking about it. "She also feels bad about what happened. She might come by to visit later as well."

“... ah.” Maya nods. “Tell her not to worry, but she is welcome here anytime. Please visit her as much as you can."

… there is still one more thing she wants to say… one more person Mahiru hadn't accounted for, but she is afraid of asking. When she thinks about it, the words get stuck in her throat, and her heart feels heavy.

Instead, she only nods, swallowing down the question she wants to ask. “I will be outside,” she says, and heads out.

The breeze is light right now. It… it feels nice upon her skin. But, it is chilly. She wraps the coat she’s wearing around herself, thankful for her own foresight. The air inside her manor feels… too suffocating right now to brave for a simple coat.

She does not know of where she goes, only letting her feet take her elsewhere. When she stops, she’s atop a small hill—oh! She went here often as a beast, staring out toward the forest. How ironic, that she would let herself be taken back here.

Maya sits down. She stares out at the forest, and then up toward the sky. She reaches out with her hand.

Her arm is shorter, but it feels as if she can reach out much farther than before. If there were stars in the sky, she thinks she might be able to grasp one. She lays down upon the grass, taking in all the sensations that were once familiar to her. It’s foreign, and, yet, she’s filled with a sense of nostalgia. How amusing, for her to feel this way!

Unknowingly, her eyes close. She must have been more tired than she thought. The breeze is nice upon the skin of her human self. She can feel it more clearly now, and the sensation of coldness is a welcome one! How much she’s missed her human body! She’s never realized this until now.

Maya keeps her eyes closed. She’s not aware of it, but she dozes in and out as she lays there. It is almost amusing, to think of her, Maya Tendou, laying down upon the grass to enjoy the breeze of the autumn air. Dignified and regal as she’d once been described, now she is none of those things!

So many things have changed, she thinks.

The next thing Maya is aware of is herself being shaken. Her eyes snap open, groggy as she tries to figure out why.

Claudine stares down at her, a frantic expression gracing her features. Maya blinks at her, once, twice, before her eyes widen. She does not dare to speak, feeling uncertain once more.

“You’re… you’re fine,” Claudine finally says, slowly, as if she’s still making sure. The hand that she used to shake Maya awake is still gripped upon her shoulder, and she grips it even harder. “I… I was… scared that you… weren’t… asleep.”

… oh. Maya sits up, wincing as she struggles a bit to pull herself up. “I am most assuredly awake,” she says, and turns to Claudine. “Hello, Claudine,” she greets, her voice soft.

“I…” and here Claudine makes a face and looks down at her lap, her hands clenching together. It doesn’t seem as if she wants to speak at all. Maya wonders what might be the best thing to say.

Perhaps, the truth this time.

Maya stares out toward the forest. “If I must be honest… I had thought that you would not want to see me anymore after everything. If you have come to give me your last farewell, I will hear it.”

“What?!” Claudine gapes at her. “What are you even talking about?”

“I… lied to you. About everything.” Maya swallows, her shame and guilt burning through her. She had never meant for that to happen! She had never meant for any of this to happen. “If you wish to never see me again, then I understand.” She exhales heavily after speaking. Saying these words… they bring her nothing but great pain.

Claudine does not answer her. Maya can hardly muster the courage to glance over at Claudine much less want to hear the words she knows Claudine will tell her. For herself to wound Claudine’s trust so easily—Maya would never allow herself to be forgiven!

If she were to look over at Claudine, she would see only pensiveness, and anger.

“... Maya. Do you remember… what happened? Right before you transformed back,” Claudine finally says. The question is… not entirely what Maya expected, and all she can do is blink several times in response before registering the words.

“I…” She tries to recall. She had stumbled into her garden after multiple wounds, and collapsed, unable to find the strength to get back up. She remembered Claudine speaking to her. She remembers… she…

“... I must confess that I do not,” she admits, shaking her head as if it would help her remember. Claudine makes a sound, one that tells Maya of her irritation. Maya hopes she hadn’t said anything. When she tries to recall, though, there are only the barest and briefest of memories she can remember.

She remembers she had spoken to Claudine before… before… how would she even describe that time? She had been absolutely sure she had breathed her last. And, yet, here she is! Alive, and as a human! She doesn’t know what had happened.

“... if you don’t mind, can you tell me what happened?” Maya asks. “I… had been sure I was going to…”

“... you did,” Claudine whispers, trying to keep her voice steady. Maya can still see it, can still glimpse the tears that gather at the corner of Claudine’s eyes. “But… you… I… I’m not sure what happened. There was this bright light surrounding you suddenly, and… you were suddenly in the air, and… when you came back down, you were human again!”

“But you did not regain consciousness, so we put you in your bed for you to rest. It’s… it’s been one week since then,” Claudine finishes.

“... oh.” What else is there for Maya to say? What can she say after hearing that? She tries to think, running the words of Claudine’s recollection through her mind.

Why did she change back? She doesn’t think Claudine will know. Thus, Maya can only answer this question for herself.

How did she escape perishing, and how was she allowed to change back?

“Maya.” Claudine’s voice, quiet as it is right now, is strangely firm. Maya cannot help but slowly turn over to Claudine, meeting her gaze. “You… you said that you wanted to stand on the stage with me again.”

“Was that a lie as well?”

Maya widens her eyes in shock. To answer this question… what is she to say? She does not know what she finds more incredible in this moment, that Claudine can even think to ask her that, or that she finds herself at a loss at how to proceed.

The truth. It is all she can do for Claudine.

“... no,” Maya finally replies, her voice barely above a whisper. Hesitantly, she meets Claudine’s gaze. “That… I could never lie about that.”

Claudine stares at her. Maya does not know of what she is looking for, of what she is searching for. The intensity of her eyes do not falter, and Maya finds herself needing to avert her own eyes away. Under that look… Maya cannot bear to see them trained upon herself any longer.

“... but that is only a dream for me, now, is it not?” Maya looks down at her hands, smiling tiredly. “If you will allow me to be selfish for a moment, I only wish you the best in your—”

“Maya Tendou.” Claudine’s voice cuts through the air like a sword, stopping Maya from further speech. “I have never said anything about never wanting to see you again.”

Once more, Claudine surprises Maya. She opens her mouth to protest, but decides the better of it. “Why?” she asks instead. “I have done nothing but shown you a shameful and disgraced side of me. I… ” she trails off, unable to find the strength to continue speaking.

Because Maya cannot forgive herself!

Claudine doesn’t say anything but she exhales. For Maya, it sounds like the start of a countdown, for when Claudine will reveal her true feelings, that she will affirm her desire to never want to see Maya again. After everything, Maya would not blame her!

“Maya,” finally comes Claudine’s voice again. “Look at me.”

Maya… does not want to, but she slowly lifts her head at Claudine’s command—

Her eyes widen. She’s taken aback, unable to help but gape at the soft expression Claudine directs her way. Why does she look like that? She doesn’t understand. Maya does not deserve that, not after everything!

“Tell me, Maya Tendou. Can you still see us standing on a stage together? Can you imagine a stage for the both of us?”

“I…” Maya’s hands ball into fists. “I want to, but—but you—”

“Be quiet about that!” Claudine’s hands whip out, grabbing Maya’s shirt, and shakes her. “Have you ever considered that I want the same thing too?!”

Maya’s hands immediately grab Claudine’s arms, stopping her in place. She blinks several times, trying to think. “C-Claudine? What… what are you saying?”

Claudine doesn’t speak, only frowns. Her hands let go of Maya’s shirt, so Maya hesitantly lets go of Claudine’s arms. Claudine moves her hands instead, up to Maya’s face, holding it gently. Maya finds her breath hitching, hardly able to breathe as she realizes what is happening. Claudine stares at her, as if she’s searching, seeking for something Maya is not sure of. If she were a beast, she thinks she might be able to smell what sort of emotion Claudine is feeling. But she cannot, and now she must wait.

Whether Claudine finds the answer or not, her expression changes, one of exasperation.

“... I was searching for you for so long,” she says.

“You were?” The words, a breathless whisper, slip out of Maya.

“I was,” Claudine only answers.

Maya squeezes her eyes shut. “I’m sorry.”

“I hope you are.” Maya flinches from her words. “And I hope you’re prepared to make it up to me, Maya Tendou.”

“I…” Maya takes a deep breath. “I am willing to do whatever is necessary.”

“Then shut up and let me do this,” is all the warning Claudine gives her before she leans in.

Maya’s eyes widen as far as they can go. Claudine is—Claudine is—Claudine is!

Claudine pulls away before Maya can even think to react or even sort through her thoughts. The hands on Maya’s face stroke her cheeks tenderly, gently.

“I can’t believe I missed your stupid face,” Claudine mutters. Her eyes are shining—ah, tears, Maya thinks. “Well? Do you get it now?”

Almost unbidden, Maya finds herself reaching up as well, to place her hand on Claudine’s cheek. Her other arm comes to wrap around Claudine, pulling her closer.

“Claudine.” Maya does not know what else she can say in this moment. She finds herself moving closer to Claudine. Perhaps, actions might speak louder here. And, if it is not her imagination, she thinks Claudine is moving toward her again, their eyes slowly closing.

When their lips meet, the both of them sigh at the same time. Claudine seemingly sinks into her embrace, her hands trying to pull Maya closer, and Maya responds in kind as well. She can feel Claudine’s desperation, her relief, her passion—she can feel it all in this moment.

And Maya herself! Her heart sings, feeling as if it might burst through her. It is as if there is a stage, but the one in the spotlight is Claudine, standing there by herself, as if her very lonesome self is a beckoning! In the darkness still surrounding her, Maya reaches out, running, chasing after it.

Maya wants this!

They pull apart only to move back in again, still hungry for more. They’re both frantic, desperate, full of years of aching and longing! But it is Claudine who overpowers Maya with her fervor, putting forth all of her anguish and agony. Maya can hardly think, dazed as Claudine breaks away and buries her face against Maya’s neck.

“So long,” Claudine hisses against her skin. “I couldn’t find you, and no one knew what had happened! Where did you go?! I… I had… I was afraid…”

“And you really had gone and… and… you… you weren’t moving, or breathing, and… I...” Claudine chokes, unable to finish her sentence. And, now, Maya feels the wetness striking her skin as Claudine finally lets her tears fall.

“... I am here now,” Maya murmurs. She brings a hand up to run it through Claudine’s hair. “I’m sorry to worry you so.”

Claudine only shakes her head and sobs. Her hands slide down to Maya’s shoulders, gripping tight the fabric of her coat. They move as if they want to shake Maya again, but Claudine doesn’t. Instead, she lets out a shuddering breath, falling against Maya, who only holds her through.

Finally, it seems as if Claudine stops shaking. Claudine slowly pulls back, keeping her face hidden from Maya as she rubs at her eyes, as if she’s embarrassed. Maya makes a small smile as she leans forward and kisses away the rest of Claudine’s tears.

“I want another stage for us,” Maya starts. “I want to stand up there with you. There’s no one else who understands me, who can take me flying even higher. I have found myself in darkness, but it is you who will light my way out. It had always been you my eyes have followed. I… I want my radiance—no, I want to experience our radiance once more.”

“So… even with the way I am now… even after everything… will you still allow me to stand beside you, Claudine?”

Claudine, even with tears falling down her face, still looks just as resolved, just as determined, just as fierce! She pulls away from Maya, rising to her feet. Now, Maya is left to stare up at her, stare up at her as the waning sunlight illuminates her from behind.

“Maya Tendou…” she only says. They stare at each other, Maya hardly daring to breathe as she awaits her verdict.

“I want to see that stage. I want to stand up there, too, with you, Maya.” Claudine offers her hand. “There is no one else I want next to me.”

“Claudine...” Maya reaches out and takes Claudine’s hand, rising to her feet. She holds Claudine’s hand with both of hers, her touch reverent. Warmth blooms in her heart when she feels Claudine squeeze her hands.

"You’re so vexing! Why else would I go searching for you for so long!?" Claudine whispers, the tears forming in her eyes again. "To me… you were more than the stage… you were…”

Maya breathes out softly. She brings Claudine’s hand up, holds it to her face, smiles gently when she feels Claudine spread her fingers out and cup her face. Her thumb caresses her. Maya revels in that feeling, closing her eyes and pressing her lips to the palm of Claudine’s hand. And now, here, when she opens her eyes and gazes at Claudine, she swears again for the both of them.

“Let us reach the stars together.”