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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.

Chapter Text

Summer arrives.

The heat is burdensome, especially for one of Maya's being. Her fur that keeps her warm through the winter now works against her. The insulation of her fur does help, but when the weight of the sun bears down upon her, even she can find herself unfortunately affected.

With summer comes the midsummer festival.

"I'm so excited!" Mahiru claps her hands together as she thinks ahead to the day. Even the glee and excitement is palpable on Claudine's face.

“It’ll definitely be a fun show, I can’t wait,” Claudine says. She’s leaning back in her chair, with her arms crossed, a corner of her lips tugging upward. She might look arrogant and confident, but Maya knows, oh, does Maya really know, that Claudine can also hardly contain her excitement, how eager she is to watch a highly anticipated show.

Maya hears the rest of their conversation but little of it sticks in her mind. She’s distracted, and that isn’t something she wants to do in Claudine’s presence, but…

But…

After Maya escorts Claudine home, she finds Mahiru waiting for her in the foyer, smiling apologetically.

“I’m sorry that all we did was talk about the show,” she says. Maya blinks at her before shaking her head.

“Why apologize? Both of you are eager to see it.”

“Because!” Mahiru steps back and glances down. “I don’t think that’s… um, fair, for you.”

“... it is what it is,” Maya only says. “Now, go rest, it’s getting late, don’t you think?” She walks past Mahiru to head up to her room.

"Why don't you come see the show?"

Maya freezes midstep. She plants her paw back down. Slowly, she turns around. Mahiru looks determined as she levels her gaze at Maya. It almost makes Maya laugh. Once, a long time ago, Mahiru had once been afraid to look at Maya in the eye. Now…

It is Maya herself who cannot meet Mahiru’s gaze. She opens her mouth to speak, and finds no words can come to her. Unable to speak, all she can do is shake her head.

“Impossible,” Maya only replies. She turns back around—

“You want to see, too, don’t you?” Mahiru tries again. “Why don’t you come with us? You can hide on the outskirts.”

“And risk being seen? What would the villagers say?! I already have no place!”

“B-but—”

“An impossible wish,” Maya says as firmly as she can. “And do not worry, I do not begrudge you for going.” She turns away. “Plays are meant to be watched, after all.”

Mahiru says nothing else, and Maya takes that time to leave. She heads straight into her room and lays down upon the bed, staring up at the ceiling. The moonlight is faint through her curtains, light tendrils of light managing to sneak through.

”You want to see, too, don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” Maya whispers.

The days pass. Mahiru and Claudine continue to talk about the upcoming play and the festival. Maya makes sure to excuse herself or pretends not to notice the way the both of them keep shooting glances toward her. She has already long grown used to her existence, to pity her would be nothing but insulting at this point.

… but she finds no strength in herself to scold them for a transgression.

When… had she lost all of her pride?

“I’ll be staying back with my family for the festival,” Mahiru tells her as the festival nears closer.

“Yes, of course. Please give them my regards,” Maya says with a nod. She doesn’t know why Mahiru needs to tell her, she does this every year.

“Yes! But… um…” Mahiru fidgets, as if she’s suddenly nervous to speak. “Are… are you going to be fine out here by yourself?”

“... yes? It will be as I have always done.”

“I…” Mahiru looks as if she wants to say something before she shakes her head. She looks back up at Maya with a smile on her face. “I’ll be back before you know it!”

“Please, take all the time you need with your family. I know your siblings miss you.”

“... are you sure you don’t want to come to the festival?” Mahiru tries again.

Maya’s eyes sharpen as she looks down at Mahiru again. “Have I not made my answer clear already?”

“Y-yes, but…” Mahiru tries to plead with her again, and while Maya has found that even she isn’t immune to when Mahiru implores with all her heart…

For this, Maya cannot budge at all. Her heart has already been steeled against it. What else can she do but to accept it!

“... please, enjoy your time. If you see Claudine, please give her my regards as well. I will see you when I see you,” Maya murmurs.

The day of the festival arrives. Celebrations last the entire day, if Maya remembers. When she peeks her head outside a window, even she can hear the noise of merrymaking far off in the distance. In the night, they will be shooting fireworks. Maya will need to prepare herself for those, as she can still hear them even when her windows are closed.

Her time passes. She decides to spend her afternoon reading after she nourishes herself. Here, deep in the recesses of her archive of her mind, the day passes. It’s only when her stomach growls that she realizes how much time has gone by.

“Went by easier than I thought,” she mutters to herself as she gets up. All of her muscles are stiff. A run will make her feel better.

The manor is quiet as she strolls through it. She’s long grown used to the faint sounds of Mahiru and Claudine’s voice. But, for the first time in a long while, she hears none of them.

It is… lonely.

“Foolish,” Maya whispers as she shakes her head. She comes outside, just in time to hear the loud boom that thunders through the forest. She winces, growling as she covers her ears.

Then come the explosion of lights in the sky.

“The fireworks…” Maya stands there, transfixed, as she stares up at the sky. Lights stream upward from the sky before they explode in a flash of brilliant lights. It makes Maya think of a star shooting upward, of a star struggling to reach the pinnacle of the highest mountain, of a star aiming to reach the peak for one last final bang before disappearing completely.

In a way… is that not what she is?

As if possessed by a sudden being, Maya finds herself wandering out in the direction of the village. The night air is still warm but not excruciatingly so now. Her paws take her ever forward even when every instinct tells her to run away.

The sounds of the village are loud, almost deafening as she comes closer. The smell of gunpowder, all sorts of food, and humans permeate through the air and assault Maya’s nose. Even if she winces and wrinkles her nose, she continues to step closer, circling the outskirts.

“—e pirates are here to take the treasure! If you want to stop them, yell as loud as you can—”

She cannot hear more, not through the sudden cheer of the audience. Her nose wrinkles even more. Audience members interrupting during a show? What bad taste.

And, yet, she can feel the excitement sizzling through the air. She remembers this energy very well, remembers it very clearly. Once, she had lived with this, breathed this air as if it had given her the will to live.

Once, she had done so. Now… she is filled with nothing but sorrow.

Finally regaining her senses, Maya slinks away the village. The sounds are still loud but grow fainter and fainter as she heads back to her home. Her appetite is gone. She climbs atop the roof of her manor, and stares upward, at the moon shining down upon her.

Bathed in the moonlight, she raises her hand, reaching out toward the stars.

If you grasp the small star, you will receive a small joy!

If you grasp the great star, you will receive great wealth!

If you grasp both of them, you will receive an eternal wish!

Gathering the stars forgives your sins.

Her hand falls back down, open and empty in its grasp.

So comes and goes Maya's days as they have always been, alone in her manor.

Thus, the knock upon her door is unexpected. Maya’s ears twitch, as if she’s unsure. Perhaps… it might be a ghost?

Maya quickly shakes her head. N-no, it can’t be a ghost, of course not! But the knock comes again, louder this time. Unable to brush it off as her imagination any longer, Maya lumbers her way down to her front door.

If it was Mahiru, she would have let herself in already; she has a key to this place. Then, who can it be?

Another knock comes upon the door, and several more. It is apparent the one knocking is turning impatient. Maya finally rushes to the door and throws it open, her lips pulled back in a snarl—

“It’s me!” Claudine raises her hands in panic. Maya blinks at her, once, twice, and smooths over her expression.

“Ah,” Maya only says with a nod.

“Is that all you have to say?” Claudine answers with a huff.

“... I apologize for my rude greeting but you’ll forgive me for thinking that no one would dare knock upon this dusty old castle," she adds.

Claudine looks around, her nose wrinkling. “Yeah, Mahiru definitely isn’t around, alright.”

Maya resists the urge to sigh. “Well? I don’t believe you came here to visit me, did you need something—”

“What?! Claudine’s eyes sharpen in a glare. “What makes you say that?”

“... you did come to visit me then?”

“N-no!”

Maya doesn’t think she’s ever been confused than in this moment. “No?”

“I-I mean…” and here Claudine crosses her arms, frowning as she looks at Maya. “Look, it’s kind of hot out here, so…”

“Ah.” Maya can get that hint. She moves aside for Claudine to come in, who does so. Maya closes the door, and turns to face Claudine.

They awkwardly shuffle their feet. Now that Maya has thought about it, they’ve… never really been left alone. It had always been Mahiru here with them as well, Mahiru to help guide the conversation. And, speaking of Mahiru—

“Mahiru’s doing fine, she’s spending some extra time with her family,” Claudine suddenly says. Maya looks surprised, and Claudine gives her a half smile. “It was all over your face. Are you worried about her?”

Maya… was not aware that Claudine could read her. She shakes her head. “If she is spending time with her family, then that is all I can ask for.” So. now, with her question answered, she can focus on…

“Then, why are you here?” Maya asks. “It’s rather out of the way for you. There is no reason for you to come down this path unless you were here to see me, but I see no reason for you to do that.”

“W-what?!” Claudine gapes at her. “I can’t just come here and visit without a good reason?”

“... did Mahiru ask you to come check up on me?”

Claudine’s sudden silence answers Maya’s question. “Please tell her I am well, and she does not need to worry about me. If that is all your business, then…” Maya turns around, placing her claw upon the door. “I won’t want to waste anymore of your time. I apologize that Mahiru asked you to come here, and I’m sure you had better things to do than to check up on me.” She opens the door, holds it open.

Claudine is staring at her as if she’s grown another head. Maya raises her other claw to her neck just to make sure she hasn’t. She’s not exactly too sure with this curse. She feels nothing there, which means nothing else has transformed, then…

Why does Claudine continue to look at her strangely?

“You’re… you’re so…” Claudine looks as if she wants to speak before she quickly looks away. She’s annoyed, though, that much Maya can tell. “Why do you have to act so much like…”

The last part had been whispered, spoken so lowly that Claudine is speaking to herself. Maya hadn’t meant to hear it but…

Her ears twitch as she struggles to hide that she’s overheard what must be Claudine’s private words. Really, why must Claudine forget these important tidbits?

“Do you mind if I stay here for a bit? I’d like to use your library to beat the heat,” Claudine asks suddenly. She shakes her head. “The library at the village is… serviceable. You’ve got quite the collection here, you know?”

“It had been my parents, and as I am now… I suppose it is my only last pleasure, to be able to add to it,” Maya murmurs. “I’ll take you there, follow me.” She goes down the hallway, unknowing of the way Claudine’s face falls slightly as she looks at her, unknowing of the way Claudine’s brow furrows together with worry as she stares at Maya’s back.

Maya stays in the room to keep Claudine company although she’s unsure if Claudine would even want her company. Mahiru has always been in here with Claudine, but it has never been the both of them alone. Thus, she does not know if Claudine wants to be left alone. Ah, but at least this way, if Claudine requires anything in her manor, Maya is able to acquire it for her.

Minus Mahiru, the day passes without incident. Night falls, and Maya makes sure to escort Claudine back. Claudine returns the day after, and the day afterward as well. They speak little, or rather, Maya has never been a very good conversationalist, and even if she were… she gets the feeling that Claudine does not like talking to her, with the unenthusiastic way she carries on.

So Maya leaves her alone. She’s already long grown used to being by herself. If Claudine wants to simply come here and use her library, then she does not mind; at least it is being used by someone else other than herself, she supposes.

Still, it doesn’t explain why she can catch Claudine looking at her, watching her as if she’s waiting for… waiting for what, Maya doesn’t know. It’s been several days now since Claudine has first started it since arriving, and if she thinks she is being subtle with it, then…

What will Maya do? Ask her about it? Should she do that? What good will come out of that? Will Claudine argue with her? Fight with her?

Ah… it wouldn’t… be unlike their younger years, Maya thinks. Always rushing for the top, always struggling to outshine each other, always striving for ever greater heights…

Claudine, the only one who could challenge her and force her away from complacency!

Claudine, the only one who would even dare to look at her with fire and defiance writ in those eyes!

Claudine, the only one who would look at her!

But… in the end, even, Maya, too, had been…

Maya closes her eyes.

Tired.

She is so… very…

“I’ve been meaning to ask something recently…”

Maya opens her eyes at the sound of Claudine’s voice. When she glances over, Claudine is looking all around the room, at all the shelves before she catches Maya’s gaze. “I realize this might seem like a silly question but… do you enjoy theater?”

Maya’s more than glad that her beastly countenance does not show very much expression.

“Why would you ask that?” she answers with instead.

“Many of the books here are plays and scripts,” Claudine points out. "And… Mahiru may have mentioned something while we were at the festival." She wears a smirk upon her face. "See? You're rather human, aren't you?"

"Are you still on that?" Let it be said that Maya has severely underestimated Claudine's obstinance. "Then, let me ask you this, what would you serve to gain in trying to figure me out? I have merely been cursed into this form, nothing more, and nothing less."

"I think I should be the judge of that!" Claudine seems strangely passionate right now. For what, Maya does not know, nor is she sure if she wants to know. Outside of her motivations, Maya has never been able to figure out Claudine any more than whatever Claudine has chosen to shown to her.

"Junna, they've got fresh bread at the bakery! Let’s head down there right now and we can pick some up for Nana too!”

"Futaba, are you busy right now? Let’s go practice together!”

"... Maya Tendou, what are you doing here?"

Once… Maya, too, had thought… that it would have been nice, if just once, that Claudine could…

But it is of no consequence now.

“Do as you wish,” Maya only says tiredly. It isn’t as if Claudine will ever be able to actually figure out her real identity. How could she even believe such a story!

“If you’re interested in plays and theater…” Claudine pauses for a bit before she continues speaking, “then, would you know of other actors?”

“Actors?” Maya… had not been expecting to be asked that. “Yes, of course. Sometimes, it is the very actor themselves that bring to life the stage itself. So I say…” Maya takes this chance to meet Claudine’s eyes once more, “that even I have of you, Claudine Saijou.”

“Oh?!” Claudine’s whole demeanor changes. She has a smile on her face as she preens at the attention. “Why, of course! A renowned actor such as me, of course you would have!” She allows herself to bask, before her eyes narrow in suspicion. “But wait one moment, I recall that you’ve said that you heard of me from Mahiru.”

Maya’s ears flutter in nervousness. “Ah, well… would you have believed me then if I had said I had already known you? And would that not have roused your suspicion even more even if I did mention it?”

But I have already known you for so long… much better than secondhand stories, she almost wants to say.

“Oh.” Claudine accepts that answer, thinking it over to herself. “I suppose I wouldn’t have.” The smile on her face turns… Maya’s not sure how to describe it. Teasing? Playful? It is not a look she’s ever shown Maya herself, in any case. She cannot recognize it. “Well, you’ve got Claudine Saijou here in the flesh. Did you see any of the plays I’ve performed? Any questions you want to ask?”

Ah… of course there are questions Maya wishes to ask. There are hundreds of them she wishes to voice.

But Maya remembers herself, looks down at her hands, with their sharp claws and brown fur, how big her palm is that she can easily grab Claudine’s head without any problem. All the questions she wants to ask, she cannot ask them as she is now! She cannot ask what she wants without revealing her own identity, of why she would be privy to information no one else should know.

How would she even be able to broach that topic! And how could she ever convince Claudine to believe her?

But, most importantly, why would she want to burden Claudine with the knowledge of her curse, when Maya herself does not even know how to rid herself of this dreadful appearance?

Ah… but given the flow of this conversation, there is one question she can ask without seeming suspicious. She has only one chance. If Claudine wishes to figure her out, then Maya hopes Claudine is ready to be prepared to do the same for herself.

“You say I can ask any questions, Claudine Saijou?” Maya makes sure to ask. But, strangely, Claudine freezes up. Her eyes snap over to Maya’s.

“... you don’t have to say my whole name like that. Just Claudine is fine,” she says, and Maya blinks, wondering if she’s imagining the way Claudine’s whole mood has changed once more. It… might not be okay to ask.

But—

“Go ahead,” Claudine speaks, looking over at Maya. “What did you want to ask?”

If Claudine is asking her, then…

“You stopped performing. May I ask why?”

Claudine’s smile drops from her face as she tenses up again. She mutters something under her breath that even Maya herself can’t decipher. “Of all the things you must ask, you had to…”

“... forgive me for my curiosity,” Maya murmurs. “As I have said, I have heard of you… but I also know that you have stopped performing. I was merely curious, if you do not wish to answer, then…”

Claudine doesn’t say anything, but her whole demeanor changes once more. Her eyes are… they are faraway, as if she is somewhere else. When she looks at Maya, it is as if she is not looking at her but at someone else instead.

Who is she seeing in those eyes? Who is she thinking of with such a sad look? Who could cause Claudine to become this way?

Why… does Maya feel so affected by this?

Claudine opens her mouth, and closes it. She closes her eyes and breathes out deeply. Maya is already regretting asking this question. Maya rises from her chair, making sure to nudge it as it makes a sound to get Claudine’s attention.

“I apologize, I should not have asked such a question. I will be outside.”

“No!” Claudine also rises from her chair. She’s staring hard at her as well, as if she’s just focused back to the present. But Maya can still see it, the way she’s trembling slightly, how she tries too hard to set her jaw as if she’s forcing herself to be determined. “I… was just caught by surprise. I wasn’t expecting you to ask that.”

“And I have upset you with my question—”

“I’m not upset!” Claudine insists. Maya nods, but she is unconvinced.

“Allow me to make us some tea, then,” she says, and steps out to Claudine’s protests. Some air and self-thinking would be good for both of them right now.

By the time Maya comes back, Claudine is sitting down again, her arms crossed. She looks up when Maya approaches.

“Thank you,” she murmurs as she accepts the tea. Maya settles back down in her own chair. The silence in the air is… almost suffocating. She wants to leave—but she also feels that she cannot do that, not with the way Claudine is right now, and especially not because this mood is of her own making as well! To leave would feel cowardly—but Maya does not know of how she can fix this, of how she can salvage this conversation.

“The reason I stopped acting…”

Claudine’s voice nearly startles Maya into dropping her cup of tea. But she manages to hold on and quickly places it down before any accidents might occur.

“It is… complicated,” Claudine finishes. “Even I… even I don’t…” Maya waits for her to finish her words, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t speak at all afterward. Maya looks away from her and leans back in her chair, to look up at the ceiling. She fears Claudine will be mad at her again if she tells her not to worry about it. So she keeps silent. Claudine does too.

Claudine does not come back the next day, nor does she come back the day afterward. She does not come to visit for a week.

To think that all Maya had to do to scare her away was to ask a question of that magnitude!

… but Maya finds herself worried, and she cannot go to the village to ask for Claudine's wellbeing, so she waits, and hopes.

Mahiru finally comes back, with several boxes of gifts, and even her grandmother in tow.

Maya stiffens and finds herself already bowing as deep as she can. Mahiru’s grandmother lets out a bark of laughter and reaches out, her bony fingers taking Maya’s claw without any hesitation. Even for her old age, her grip is strong as she holds Maya’s claw and pats it.

“No need for that,” she says, and when Maya finally allows herself to look up, Mahiru’s grandmother is smiling warmly at her. “I must thank you for all the gifts you’ve given us instead.”

“T-those are no trouble—” Maya starts to stammer but Mahiru’s grandmother looks at her and she immediately snaps her mouth shut and her ears flatten against her head. She can hear Mahiru giggling in the background.

Maya helps them put away the various gifts Mahiru has brought for her. Some of them are clothes, and Maya finds they’re tailored to fit even one of… her appearance.

“I helped with that,” Mahiru’s grandmother says, not even looking up from the box she’s unpacking. If Maya were human, she knows she’d be flushing with embarrassment right now. As it is, all she can do is twitch her ears and flatten them against her head once more, a soft whine almost escaping. She misses the way Mahiru grins at the scene.

“Allow me to escort you back,” Maya says once they finish and preparing to see Mahiru’s grandmother off. She takes a step forward but Mahiru’s grandmother turns to her with a look that makes Maya freeze in place.

“You’ll do no such thing, young one,” she says. “Enjoy the snacks, Mahiru and her siblings made a lot of them.”

“Ah…” Maya still wants to protest but Mahiru’s grandmother is already walking off, waving to them. Mahiru waves back.

“... should you go with her?” Maya asks. Mahiru playfully nudges her with her elbow. “I tried,” Maya says with a sigh.

With Mahiru back, Maya finds some sense of normalcy returning. Mahiru hasn’t been here for that long, only… perhaps, maybe just under two winters at most, and yet, Maya doesn’t realize how much she’s taken Mahiru’s presence for granted. She’s done this the previous festival before, spending an extended time with her family, and yet, Maya did not feel so… offset about Mahiru’s temporary leave as she did now.

No, she is not upset, she is…

“Has Claudine come?” Mahiru asks once the night winds down.

Maya pauses. “Claudine had come to visit, but she hasn’t not been here recently.” She looks at Mahiru out of the corner of her eye. “Did you see her back in town?”

“Oh?” Mahiru places a finger on her chin as she thinks. “I saw her a few times but she seemed sort of busy. Did something happen?”

Maya shuffles her feet. “I… may have said something,” she mumbles.

Mahiru stops and stares at her, a slow creeping look of horror coming onto her face. “I leave for just a short while and…” Mahiru sighs, shaking her head. “What did you even say?”

Maya wonders if it might be fine to tell Mahiru. She decides she might as well. “I asked why she stopped performing.”

Mahiru stares at her, gapes at her. Maya blinks back at her, unsure of why Mahiru is making such an expression.

“You—you asked her—you asked her!” Mahiru can’t even finish her words, gaping at Maya incredulously. “You really asked her that!”

“I... “ Maya frowns, or, well, she huffs. “I realize my mistake, now, in asking that. She had said I could ask her anything and I thought… to inquire about that.”

Mahiru continues to stare at her, stare at her so long that Maya thinks she might have fallen unconscious. But she finally makes a movement, and that’s to raise her hands to her face, slowly covering them. “Oh my gosh,” she only says. “You asked her—you asked her!”

“M-Mahiru?” Maya hesitantly raises a paw, unsure of what’s going on right now.

“I-I’m sorry, I need a moment. You’re both so…” and Mahiru slowly walks away, shaking her head and muttering under her breath. Maya doesn’t think she’s been more confused in her life than right now. She allows Mahiru to go, if only because she doubts Mahiru will tell her anything right now, and also surely Mahiru must be tired still from all the festivities.

Mahiru makes no note of it. Maya thinks to ask her what had happened that night, but when she remembers how Claudine had reacted, and how Mahiru had also reacted… perhaps, she might need to be a little more tactful about her words. But, she needs to know what she has done so she might not repeat her mistakes.

“Mahiru,” she calls out, and tries not to feel anything when Mahiru startles at her voice. “The other night…”

Mahiru lets out a yelp. “R-right!” And she quickly shakes her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t… really tell you. That’s Claudine’s own—”

A knock echoes through the air. The both of them blink, look at each other, and turn to the door.

Another knock.

“Is that Claudine?” Mahiru asks, stepping forward but Maya is already racing toward the door before Mahiru has even spoken. She throws it open—

Claudine’s there, her knuckles just mere inches away from knocking against the door, and almost upon Maya. They stare at each other, eyes wide, the both of them clearly surprised. Claudine is holding something in her other hand, not that Maya can hardly pay attention to that right now.

“I’m—”

“I—”

They both speak and stop at the same time when they realize the other person is trying to talk. They continue to stare at each other. Maya wonders if there’s anything she can do in this moment to break the awkwardness, anything to… get rid of the strange tension that fills them.

“Claudine! Please come in,” Mahiru calls out from behind Maya, waving with her arm. “I’m sure it’s hot outside.”

“R-right!” Claudine says, and looks like she’s about to walk in before she blinks up at Maya, who blinks back down at her.

“There’s, ah, not that much space,” Claudine mumbles. Maya quickly scrambles out of the way, and Claudine comes inside and makes her way to where Mahiru is now leading them into the library, their usual spot.

Maya hesitantly follows after them. She’s still unsure of what to do right now, but she feels the need to apologize for asking such an intrusive question, especially if it has bothered Claudine far more than Claudine would like to admit.

When they settle down in the room, the silence follows them there too. Mahiru glances back and forth between them. Maya ponders what exactly to say.

Claudine does it for both of them.

She places what she’s holding onto the table. Maya looks down at it. It’s… a book, or… she tries to peer closer at it. A… a script?

“Is there a showroom in here?” Claudine asks, distracting Maya from further observation.

“Next door,” Maya says, a little bewildered. Claudine raises a brow at her.

“Can I see it?” she asks.

“A-ah…” Maya nods stiffly. She leads the both of them just a little further down the hall into another room. She pushes open the ornate door, its hinges creaking from disuse. Mahiru cleans all the other places, but she does not come here to clean, and Maya does not ask her to.

There are too many things tied to the stage for both of them.

“Wow!” Claudine is awed as she steps into the room. “This is… magnificent. Incredible!”

The area in front of them is more than wide and spacious. Claudine’s boots clack against the ballroom floor as she makes her way to the middle, looking all around her. Mahiru hesitantly comes in as well, silent as she, too, also looks all around. Maya follows after Claudine, her paws leaving only thuds upon the floor.

“Is this to your liking?” Maya asks. Her voice, even as quiet as it is, reverberates throughout the room. Claudine spins around, a grin on her face.

“Yes!” she says, and her expression changes to solemnness. “I will perform for you,” she announces. She holds up her script—

Both Maya and Mahiru freeze, seeing the title upon it.

Starlight.

“That brings back memories, doesn’t it?” Mahiru murmurs, a faraway look in her eyes. Maya wishes she could join her, but there is… an unsettling feeling that’s sitting in the pit of her stomach right now. She leans forward as her claws clench together, the back of her claws resting upon the floor so she is four legged right now. She does not mean to take such a beastly form—but she cannot help it! This helps ground her, helps steady her.

Helps her remember what she is in this current moment.

Thus, she cannot betray her intimate knowledge of this play.

“You… wish to perform, for us?” Maya asks. Her eyes flicker down to the play clutched tightly within Claudine’s hands. “You wish to… perform… Starlight?” Maya can’t help the way her voice lowers as she speaks the name of the play.

Claudine doesn’t answer her, at least, not with words, but the determined gaze she has tells Maya everything she needs to know. Maya is… still more than stunned right now, hardly able to believe everything happening right now. Claudine comes over to her and hands her the script.

“You may not be familiar with it so I’ll lend you my copy,” Claudine says. Maya wordlessly takes it from her, slowly turning her gaze down to it. She wants to laugh. Of all the things she could envision happening, she never thought this would happen.

The script in her hands… even she can tell just by holding it, that this is worn out, more so than usual. The edges of the pages are all rounded, not quite fraying, but a book that’s been flipped through far too many times. She opens to a page, almost in awe as she reads through all the notes made on the margins.

Wait half a second after Flora speaks.

Enunciate right here!

Find the right balance of emotion here, don’t go overboard with the despair and sadness

“I will be performing the role of…” here, Claudine takes a moment to pause, as if to steel herself before she continues, “Claire!”

… Claire?

Why?

Claudine had not been Claire—

It had been Maya—

For Claudine had been—

“Below is a shooting star that falls once a year…Flora and I—”

“Claire and I…” it is Maya that whispers, finishes the next line, unable to tear her eyes away from Claudine.

“It was our fated encounter!”

It is… it is… the same. Claudine’s radiance, her brilliance, her shine—

”Let’s meet here again next year!”

No, all of this is wrong. It isn’t—none of this—

”Who are you?”

The both of them… the both of them… they…

”Your voice… your warmth… I know that my promise with you was important…

Everything—

”But I can’t remember!”

Everything!

”I remember… your name… I’m sorry… our dream did not—”

“Stop!”

It’s Maya who roars, unable to take it any longer. Tears gather at the corner of her eyes. She… she cannot bear this anymore. Even Mahiru can see it, by the way she nervously wrings her hands together, a grimace upon her face as she watches both of them.

Claudine’s arms, raised toward the sky in the final act of the play, slowly fall down to her side. She'd been kneeling, and now she slowly stands. She says nothing, only meets Maya’s eyes. Her expression… she’s…

Why did you leave, Claudine?

Then… Claudine, too, already knows…

“You… you, too… are also…” Maya trails off, unable to find the strength to finish her words. For Maya… and for Claudine… the both of them… they…

“How was that?” Claudine asks then, and Maya’s eyes widen, because even surely she must know how that performance has gone. There’s a smirk on her face, but Maya can see it, can see the trembling of her lips, can see how she struggles to keep herself composed. Her eyes seem to pierce deep into Maya’s eyes, as if to tell her that this is her answer to Maya’s question.

When… how did this happen? How…

“Your performance…” Maya swallows. “I…”

Where did it go? Where did it all go? Why have you, too, become like this?

“Nothing,” she whispers. “It… has nothing.”

And she sees it, the way Claudine changes. It is a strange juxtaposition; how Claudine looks as she’s accepted Maya’s words, but the fire that roars so bright in her eyes ignites upon her words!

“And what did you mean by that?” she asks, her voice soft and yet, as hard as steel. Maya… is not sure whether this is the best place for this, especially in front of Mahiru. She only bows her head.

“... perhaps we can have this discussion another time,” she only says, turning toward the door—

“Wait!” Claudine’s footsteps thunder across the floor and Maya is too stunned to realize what is happening to react, but Claudine is now in front of her, holding out her arms and blocking her exit. Maya cannot help but blink at her. How easy it would be for her to swat her away like a fly! And, yet, there is very little of that fear in Claudine right now, only anger, and a burning desire to wrest the words Maya will not give her. How bold she has grown since the very first time they’ve seen each other!

“I’m not moving until you spit it out!” Claudine says. “Tell me!”

Maya breathes out deeply before she continues. “Your technique…”

It is not the same as I remembered!

“It is… lacking,” Maya finishes, and, ah, she can smell it, the sudden anger that now courses through Claudine. She quickly continues. “What I see in front of me is something unrefined. With more training and practice, then… it can become polished.” She thinks that is enough to satisfy Claudine, but when she tries to move again, Claudine hasn’t budged an inch.

“That’s not it. Stop beating around the bush. Tell me what it is I’m missing?”

Maya hums in displeasure. Claudine is still asking for more—then, it is all within Maya’s right to answer her the way she wants.

“Do you desire to become the lead? Do you desire to become Top Star?”

“I—” Claudine blinks, momentarily thrown off before she recovers. She nods. “Yes, of course!”

“And, yet, you think, with the performance that you have given me, that you deserve it? What you have shown me, is that the brightest that you can shine?!”

I know you can do better!

For I have always been watching you!

It is as if a dam has broken.

“The position of top star isn’t just for anything! Seek the spotlight upon where all eyes will gaze! Pretend that someone else stands upon this position you seek, and the jealousy you would feel!” Maya holds out her claws as she gestures frantically. “Grasp that position with your own hands! Shine so bright that you dazzle everyone! To deliver your radiance to the audience, to everyone who would watch you, to show them how strong your own brilliance is! Position zero is where we live, where we breathe!”

“The stage is always evolving, but so are we! Crave for it! Yearn for it! Chase after it! That very radiance, to stand upon position zero with anything less than the shine of a bright star…”

Maya easily towers over Claudine, looking down at her. “It would be insulting, otherwise.”

She breathes heavily, unaware that her voice had risen in the middle of her tirade. She slowly glances down at Claudine, afraid at what she will find.

Claudine’s eyes are wide, and she’s staring at Maya with something akin to shock. Ah, what else would she be? A beast has just yelled at her, snarled and bared her fangs in anger! What a monstrous image she must look!

“You… just now…” Claudine falls silent and she frowns, seemingly staring harder at Maya. “You… just now...reminded me...” Her lips pull back in a smile, one that flashes of annoyance and irritation, a challenge. “Your words… are true, but they infuriate me,” she says.

“Criticism is harsh, but I know, for us, that it only motivates us and makes us strive to do better,” Maya answers, her voice low.

“No, that isn’t what I meant. They annoy me for another reason.”

Maya furrows her brow. The expression upon Claudine’s face changes now, and she’s grave, staring hard at Maya. Next to them, Mahiru’s eyes widen in realization as she looks back and forth between the two of them.

“Tell me… you said that you have heard of even me…” the fire in Claudine’s eyes roar even stronger, “but have you heard of Maya Tendou?”

 


 

“I got a role!”

Both Mahiru and Maya blink as Claudine comes running up the path. With the heat of the summer finally starting to wane with the winds of autumn coming to take their place, it’s a nice day to enjoy outside. They’re relaxing under the shade of a tree when Claudine makes her visit. She’s waving what looks like a booklet in her hands—a script, from what Maya can tell.

“Oh?” Mahiru’s eyes sparkle. “From those Frontier girls?”

“Yes!” Claudine says, and though her voice is the same as usual, Maya can tell she’s also just as excited. Maya cannot express her pleasure so easily as the two of them, but her eyes crinkle with pride.

Upon learning there is to be yet another play for the Harvest festival and that there would be auditions held for the locals, both Maya and Mahiru had pushed Claudine to try out.

“Why just me?” Claudine crosses her arms as she gives Mahiru a meaningful look.

Mahiru waves her hands. “M-me?! I-I mean, I think you should go for it!”

“Really? Put your acting days behind you already?”

Mahiru doesn’t say anything, only laughs awkwardly. “I haven’t acted for a few years either. I don’t… I don’t think I would…”

“You’re selling yourself too short, Mahiru,” Claudine says, smiling gently. Rather than pursue the topic, though, she moves on once she notices Mahiru’s discomfort with the idea. “So you think I should go for it?”

“Yes,” Maya says immediately. “Do you not feel the stage calling? It is a yearning in our own blood. Do you not feel it?”

Claudine frowns, narrowing her eyes as she turns her attention to Maya. “You don’t have to tell me that,” she replies rather frostily to Maya, who only blinks. It looks as if her entire countenance has changed and she seems… gloomy, brooding almost. When Maya looks over at Mahiru for help, Mahiru only smiles patiently, which tells Maya nothing.

In the end, Claudine had gone, and now she’s come back with the news of her success.

Mahiru claps her hands together. “What kind of role did you get?”

“Not the lead, if that’s what you want to know,” Claudine says with a wry smile, and both she and Mahiru laugh. “I play a girl who’s been pining after the protagonist, but the protagonist already has eyes for someone else. She knows this, but still tries her hardest anyway.”

She flips through her script, eyes roaming through everything. “The biggest scene for me is a dance near the midway point. I have to confess my feelings but I get rejected, and I get a small monologue to myself, and then I… hm, come back one last time for a small scene near the end, and that’s it.” Claudine squints through the book. “Now that I think about it, don’t you think that might make the play drag on for too long?”

“Wow!” Mahiru doesn’t appear to have heard her, a dreaming expression on her face as she no doubt imagines the scene. “That sounds so sad, but…” and she pauses to place a hand over her chest. Claudine makes the same gesture, and they both sigh. Maya blinks at them. She had a feeling that Mahiru had been a secret romantic, but she never guessed Claudine would be one too.

“But, I got to really see their acting even closer!” Claudine grins at the both of them. “They’re still rough, but I can see they’ve got a lot of potential. Maybe even enough to give Futaba a run for her money with their action scenes!”

Maya watches over them as they talk, the both of them lost in their enthusiasm. She tries very hard to keep herself still or from making a sound instead, knowing that if she does, they will remember she is there and feel sorry that she cannot participate.

… it is a little lonely, though, she must admit.

But the call of the stage is no longer for her.

“I don’t want to sound mean, but I thought you’d be a little more upset at not getting the lead,” Mahiru remarks. If she notices the way Claudine stiffens at her comment, Mahiru doesn’t say anything. But Maya notices; even now, as she is, her eyes are always watching Claudine.

“I am,” Claudine says simply. Of course she is, for one so prideful as Claudine, Maya understands! “But as I am right now…” and here, Claudine spares a glance over to Maya. She quickly looks away before Maya can hold her gaze. “I think this is the best that I can allow myself to take.” Even as she says those words, though, Maya can tell that she isn’t happy with having to settle. But, it makes sense; Claudine has also fallen out of acting just as she has. Just as all of them have.

“Oh?” Mahiru has a smile on her face, warm and gentle. “You’ve changed since our theater days.”

“Of course I have!” Claudine huffs at Mahiru but she’s smiling. “You too, Mahiru.”

“R-really? Me?”

“Well… I never expected you to be out here taking care of…” she pauses, giving Maya a pointed look. “I still can’t figure out what sort of beast you are.”

“... is it really that important for you?” Maya doesn’t know why Claudine insists on trying to figure this out.

“No, but…” Claudine folds her hands together, eyeing Maya at the peripherals of her vision. “It would be one less enigma about you.

“Hm. Do as you like then,” Maya grunts. She is sure that nothing about her points to her old self. “I am afraid you will find yourself disappointed.”

“I think she’s plenty interesting as she is now,” Mahiru says, reaching out to place a hand on Maya’s arm. She gives her a pat. “Kind of like a big, fluffy… teddy bear.”

Maya… cannot tell if this is a compliment, or not, especially when Claudine laughs.

“Like your mascot cat—”

“No.” Mahiru’s response is immediate, her stare just as flat.

“... oh.”

As Claudine has gotten her role, she mentions that she will need to spend less time with them now as she will need to practice and prepare.

“It isn’t the lead, but that doesn’t mean I should take it easy.” Claudine smirks at them. “In those scenes I’m in, I intend to show how bright I can still shine!”

Mahiru cheers her on, and even Maya, as limited as her facial expressions are, gives her a resolute nod. To see Claudine trying to regain her former radiance back… it makes Maya feel warm.

Claudine is someone who should have never lost it, she thinks.

Maya knows, more than anyone, how much Claudine has worked, how hard she continues to work, and how much potential she has. Like a star newly born, Claudine’s shine had always been… mesmerizing. Sometimes, even Maya wishes she could sit in the audience to simply watch Claudine, see her dance and sing upon the dance as merely only a spectator. But seeing all the practice and training Claudine pours into her routine...

All just to topple her!

Now, look at them.

Maya shakes her head, trying to rid herself of her thoughts. Oftentimes, when left alone like this, they tend to spiral downward, and she knows that’s no good for her. With Mahiru, and, now seeing Claudine, these occurrences happen less.

But Claudine is off practicing now! Without her there, Maya has less to look forward to—

No, Maya should be happy for her. Claudine is trying to regain her radiance back. She shouldn’t begrudge her of that.

But why had someone so bright like Claudine lost it in the first place?

"Where is your radiance?! Where have you gone?!”

"As dark as a mere stone upon the ground!"

"Where is your resolve, Maya Tendou—"

Maya's ears prick upward at the sound of footsteps approaching. She hears a different set next to Mahiru's—ah.

"What are you doing out here all alone?" Claudine smiles slyly at her. "Did my not being here leave you lonely?"

Maya looks at her before she turns her gaze back out where she'd been watching, out past the towering trees with their falling leaves. She'd been lost in her thoughts, but why was she looking out in this direction—ah.

It is the direction of the village.

"I must admit, it has been rather quiet," she says to answer Claudine’s question.

"Wh—what exactly do you mean by that?!" Maya blinks at the sudden change in tone and when she looks over, Claudine is scowling at her.

“I’ve found that I rather enjoy the sound of your voice,” Maya says plainly. To her surprise, Claudine’s expression changes entirely, her mouth dropping open, and—Maya almost squints her eyes, to make out the color seeping across Claudine’s face.

Claudine doesn’t say anything, only huffs and looks away. Mahiru looks far too amused as she looks back and forth between them, trying not to laugh. She cups her mouth and pointedly whispers right into Claudine’s ear, just to make sure Maya won’t hear. Claudine’s eyes widen, her expression one of sheer incredulity now.

… Maya wonders what it must have been said, for Mahiru to not want to risk her overhearing.

“What are you doing here, anyway? Did you not have practice?” Maya asks. If they do not want to tell her, then that is fine too.

“It’s put on hold right now for maybe a week,” Claudine answers with a shrug. “Something came up with the other girls and they have to leave town for a bit. They’re making us all take breaks.”

“Take breaks?” Maya’s surprised. “I would have thought you’d still be practicing. You were always—” and Maya abruptly snaps her mouth shut, realizing what she’d been about to say. Claudine narrows her eyes suspiciously.

“I was always…?”

"I-I told her some stories about our days back in school," Mahiru quickly says. Maya nods eagerly, very glad for Mahiru's assistance right now.

"Yes. Mahiru had mentioned that you were, ah, always trying to train and practice yourself at every opportunity. She told me so many stories about that that I found it surprising you, here, right now, would allow yourself to take a break."

Claudine blushes."M-Mahiru! Did you really have to tell her stories about ourselves?!"

Mahiru laughs. "I thought they were fine!”

Never mind that Maya has actually lived through those stories herself, but Claudine doesn’t need to know that. For now, it seems as if the danger is averted.

“Then?” Maya looks over at Claudine. “Will you be spending your time here?”

Claudine meets her gaze—she shyly looks away. Maya blinks, not expecting something like that at all. Claudine sighs, and looks back at Maya. “I was… wondering if you’d allow me to use your showroom for my practice.”

“Ah?” Surprises, one after another. But, she doesn’t need to know why Claudine needs to act so… shy with this sort of request. “Of course, how could I refuse?” She gets up from where she’s sitting. “Did you want to head over right now?”

“Oh!” Claudine seems surprised that she’s agreed so easily. Maya doesn’t understand why she would have a reason to say no, nor why Claudine would think she would. “Y-yes, if you don’t mind.”

“It is no trouble to me,” Maya murmurs. “Better that it see use than to let it remain unopened.”

So Claudine begins to use her showroom for practice. She spends the rest of the day practicing, so at it that Mahiru has to walk inside and drag her out to dinner. Maya is slightly torn as she watches them, understanding Claudine’s burning desire to keep practicing, but wishing Claudine takes a break.

But it looks as if Claudine calms down after dinner, as she doesn’t head right back to practice, sitting to chat with them for a bit. The night gets later, and later, until Claudine finally stands up, her eyes wide.

“It’s getting late! I should be heading back,” she says.

“Claudine, wait!” Mahiru shouts before Claudine can rush right out the door. She stops, turns around to look at Mahiru.

“Yes?”

“If you’re going to stay here and practice…” Mahiru pauses, and shoots a look over at Maya, who only blinks back at Mahiru. Is… is Mahiru suggesting…

Silence takes over as Maya considers her options. It… it wouldn’t… hurt, she guesses.

Maya sighs, long and tired, “Wait. I may as well prepare a room for you. I do not feel comfortable with you always leaving every night to wander through the forest, even if under my escort.”

“Y-yes!” Mahiru says, clearly pleased. “I’ll go prepare a room for you, it’ll be right next to mine!”

Claudine looks back and forth between the two of them, amused. “Was this your plan the entire time?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

Both Mahiru and Maya answer respectively, and look at each other. Claudine grows even more amused before a frown comes onto her face. “Just as well, I guess. Some of the villagers were telling me that they’ve sighted some sort of foul beast around the woods.” She looks meaningfully over at Maya.

“I do not regularly wander through the forests at night,” Maya says, nearly growling in offense. How dare Claudine accuse her of that?

“I know you aren't,” Claudine answers. “But… you were changed into this beast form? Who’s to say there isn’t another one wandering out there?”

Silence descends upon them with Claudine’s questioning.

“... I have not smelled anything out of the ordinary,” Maya finally says.

“Let’s hope it stays that way,” Claudine says, smiling faintly. She turns to Mahiru. “Well? It’ll be like a sleepover!”

Thus, Maya finds even Claudine taking up residence in her manor. Temporarily, of course.

… she hopes so.

When Maya wakes in the morning, Claudine is already refreshing herself up. She’s always kept a strict routine, just as Maya did. They greet each other, and Mahiru soon joins them. The day doesn’t feel very much different, other than that Claudine is already here with them.

… it does feel a little surreal for Maya, though.

When the day starts to wind down, Maya heads for her archives, intending to relax with a book for the rest of the day, and perhaps listen in to Claudine and Mahiru’s conversation. To her surprise, though, the two of them aren’t there. Strange.

There’s only one other place they could be…

She chances a look into the showroom. Both Claudine and Mahiru are inside—oh.

Maya knocks on the door before she steps into the room. The two of them freeze and look up at her. Rather, Mahiru tries, as she tries to look over her shoulder behind her.

“Dancing?” Maya asks, taking the scene before her.

“I’m having trouble getting the dance down.” Claudine explains, a frown on her face. "The partner that I am to dance with… she is supposed to lead me but she isn't very confident at all!"

“I thought I could help with Claudine, but…” Mahiru smiles apologetically. Claudine lets go of her and she steps backward. “I’m sorry, it didn’t look like that helped at all.”

“No, no, don’t be like that. It was helpful, having another partner to dance with.” Claudine grins. “Almost like school.” But she returns to sighing, crossing her arms as she thinks to herself. “How am I supposed to teach my partner how to dance?”

Claudine continues to sigh in frustration. It’s at this moment that Maya notices Mahiru sneaking glances over to her. When Maya manages to catch her gaze, Mahiru smiles expectantly at her and points over to Claudine with her eyes.

… does she want Maya to do something? And, what exactly would that be?

Ah. Now she understands.

“Then, allow me.”

Claudine turns to look at her as Maya comes next to them. She holds out one of her paws, tries to ignore the way she notices Mahiru’s eyes sparkling. “If you wish to practice, I suppose I will be a sufficient enough partner for you, then?”

“... you?” Claudine’s skepticism is well received. Maya takes no offense, considering her very look, and that Claudine does not know of her identity. “What, are you going to tell me now that you used to act?”

It takes the greatest of willpower to not retort her answer out. Instead, she continues to be patient, holding out her claw. “Will you give this a chance?” she only asks.

Claudine watches her, wary, but she finally nods. “Ah, what else do I have to lose?”

She comes over and places her hands in Maya’s, her grip firm to be considered crushing were Maya in a human form. Ah, she doesn’t trust Maya at all!

“I will start,” Maya only says, and tugs Claudine to her, paws starting to move across the floor.

… she stumbles, barely catching herself in time. Claudine raises an eyebrow. The expression on Claudine’s face says that she does not expect much out of this, that this whole session will be nothing but a disaster. Perhaps it might be, perhaps it might not. As it is right now… it is heading toward disaster. Maya is not acquainted with using her body like this. A dancing beast, how amusing she must look!

But she must do this, in order for Claudine to understand!

“I apologize, please let me just…”

She lets go of Claudine. Experimentally, she tests her paws, carefully measuring the length of her strides. As she is much bigger than Claudine, and also much more powerful along with the claws upon her feet, she must take care that she not harm Claudine. Back when they danced, they’d been roughly the same height. Maya must account for that as well. Truthfully, she should have practiced before attempting this, but—

Maya has always liked a challenge.

She tests herself a few more times. Slowly, the muscle memory starts to come back to her.

“Alright,” she murmurs, “I understand now.” She holds back out her paw. Once more, Claudine hesitates for a moment before placing her hand onto Maya’s palm. Maya holds it gently, and looks into Claudine’s eyes. She sees that question and barely held amusement there, no doubt thinking this will be a feat in futility, along with the curiosity.

And, now, she moves.

Claudine gasps, her eyes wide as she moves along with Maya, who focuses on trying to find her rhythm. Once she has it, all her memories start to come back and before she realizes, her movements turn automatic.

As easily as she once did, she bades Claudine to follow her movements. They once used to dance each other for so long; Maya understands exactly how Claudine moves and thus she responds in kind, and she can feel Claudine do the same. They no longer stumble but glide across the floor as Maya leads them. Claudine’s hands, once hesitant, are now firm, curling around Maya’s claw.

They fall into step with each other, as if their bodies are remembering only a song, remembering only a dance, remembering only of the time that it were only the two of them, practicing forever by themselves.

This feeling! The thrill surges through her, makes her steps become even more animated as she steps all over the floor. She'd been afraid that with her larger body and longer strides, Claudine wouldn't be able to keep up. But Claudine is doing just that, and Maya has already learned to adjust.

"Only you know how I move—"

"Only I can follow after you—"

When had she last felt this way?

Maya, so caught up and lost in her own exhilaration does not realize the strange look that falls upon Claudine, and Claudine herself, does not realize how distracted she becomes upon this realization until she stumbles.

Maya immediately catches her, her claw automatically curling around Claudine’s waist. “I’m sorry, are you alright—”

“Yes, I’m fine,” Claudine says, out of breath, and looking elsewhere but Maya. “S-sorry, that was… that was my mistake.”

“... are you sure you’re fine? You seem—”

“I’m fine!” Claudine is frowning, as if she’s displeased. Maya, though she’s hesitant to do so, lets go of her. She looks over at Mahiru, who looks just as confused.

“... would you like to practice again?” Maya asks, her voice soft as to not upset Claudine even more. She thinks Claudine will agree, but strangely enough, she shakes her head.

“N-no, that… that was fine. I—ah, that was… that was acceptable. I think I’ve… learned a lot,” Claudine replies, but it’s more than obviously she’s distracted. She can’t quite look at Maya, and there’s something that seems like a mix between embarrassment and… something undecipherable that Maya cannot figure out right now.

It is as if she is trying to remember, Maya thinks.

“... if you require my aid once more, I will be around,” Maya murmurs, and swiftly leaves, trying to calm the pounding of her own heart.

Dancing with Claudine the way she had—Maya had not know how much it still truly affects her! To hold Claudine in her arms once more, even in such a grisly form, it must have been nothing but a dream come true!

Maya looks down at her claws, and remembers.

The days pass. Claudine continues to practice until she leaves to go back to the village. Maya sees less of her. The winds of autumn pick up. Mahiru starts to wear more layers and she prepares more stews. The dissonance in Maya’s heart quietly grows.

“The festival is in two weeks!” Claudine announces when she comes to visit them. Mahiru’s eyes widen.

“O-oh! I didn’t realize! I have to prepare gifts for my family!” Without any other warning, she promptly rushes out the room. Maya blinks down at the spot where she’d been, slightly confused as to the speed Mahiru had just run out. She wonders if she should go run after her.

Ah… since Mahiru has left… it is now only Maya and Claudine in the room.

“Are you excited?” Maya asks.

Claudine grins. “Of course! I can’t wait to come onto the stage! I’ve been so tired after rehearsal, but...” her smile softens. “I wouldn’t give this up for anything else in the world.”

“Of course,” Maya murmurs. “The allure of the stage is strong, you cannot help but be captivated to it.”

“Yes…” Claudine nods, but the air around her grows pensive. “If that was the case, then…” she whispers lowly, more to herself than for Maya to hear, but the words still reach her all the same.

“... there is something else that troubles you?” Maya asks.

Claudine whips her eyes over to her, surprised. “No? What are you talking about?”

“You are bothered. I can tell.” And Maya closes her mouth, realizing what she’d almost been about to say.

I can tell, because I have always been watching you.

“That easy, huh?” Luckily, Claudine fills in the blanks for her. She looks over at Maya, watching her for a brief moment before she looks away.

“So… you truly do not know where Maya Tendou is?”

… oh. Maya wonders how to answer this.

“If I do, I will tell you,” she settles on. It… is not exactly a lie, but it isn’t as if she can ever seek to honor her words. But it seems to satisfy Claudine enough. Or perhaps she does not wish to press it. Still, Claudine looks so pensive. Maya wishes for her to unburden herself. It will do no good to be weighed down by so many troubles before going on to perform a show.

But what can she say? How can Maya broach this topic without seeming suspicious? They have spent months together already, but… is that not because of Mahiru? Claudine would only associate with her because of Mahiru’s acquaintance. What can she say right now for Claudine to open up?

In the end, it is Claudine who reveals herself.

“I sent her a letter, once.” Claudine breathes out softly. “I… had invited her to one of my performances.”

Maya finds herself holding her own breath, finds herself trying her hardest to keep herself still. Otherwise, Claudine might be able to see the shock on her face, might be able to see the surprise, might be able to see the remembrance.

“I thought, this was it. I practiced long and hard for it. I wanted… I wanted to show her everything, all my hard work, all my training, everything.” Claudine’s voice trails lower and lower, almost to a whisper as she confesses to what she must have held deep inside. Maya doesn’t even dare breathe to ruin this moment.

“But she didn’t answer me at all! She didn’t even come! I don’t know why I even bothered sending that horrible girl a letter!” Claudine’s voice, quiet as it is, cuts through the air with her sharp words. But even in spite of them, Maya can see it, the tears that gather at the corner of Claudine’s eyes. “Didn’t even send me one letter! Did she think I was not worth it?! Nothing!”

That letter…

Maya remembers that letter, remembers it very well.

She remembers reading it aloud, reading each word slowly and carefully as if they would somehow change in that exact moment. She remembers how excited she’d been, that Claudine had thought to personally sent her an invitation. She remembers how much she wanted to go, how she read the date over and over again and thought about counting down the days.

And she remembers how daintily she had held the letter as to not shred it to bits with her claws.

The despair she had felt made her wallow in it that she had forgotten to pen a letter back.

There are no excuses she can offer to Claudine. There is none!

“That’s why… I came out here myself.”

Oh.

With Claudine’s eyes cast downward, she does not notice the way Maya’s eyes widen at the casual revelation Claudine has just confessed!

Claudine looks back up, smiling wryly as she looks at Maya. “Imagine my surprise when I found you here instead of her.” She looks back down, clenching her fist. “But, then, that only raises another question. Where is Maya Tendou? Where did she even go?”

“... is she really so important that you must seek her out?” Maya finds herself asking.

Claudine opens her mouth to speak before she closes it. Maya can see her clenching her fists even harder, turning whiter. “I don’t know,” she finally says. “I don’t… know.”

“You… don’t know?” Maya does not understand this. To her, Claudine has always been someone so certain, and to hear her answer as she says now, what is she to think!

“But I need to find out what happened to her. Where is she? Why is she suddenly gone?” Claudine makes a face, like she’s ate something sour. “Why did she not think to tell me anything?! I thought… I had thought…”

“Perhaps,” Maya starts, a wry smile coming to her lips as she thinks about what she is about to say, “this Maya you speak of has mysteriously perished and what you seek is a gh—”

“Don’t you dare joke about that!” And Maya gasps as Claudine’s hands whip out and grasp the front of Maya’s blouse. Maya looks down, and Claudine is glaring at her. The forlornness is gone from her; her eyes are alight with defiance and anger.

“Maya wouldn’t—she isn’t—” Claudine grits her teeth. “Maya Tendou isn’t the type of person who’d let herself disappear so easily like that!” she says, her voice rising. She’s so firm, with so much resolve that Maya almost bursts out with inappropriate laughter.

But she is, and she is right here, Maya almost wants to say right back to her.

“... forgive me, I had not realized you…” and here, Maya swallows, “kept her in high regard.”

… why?

She does not understand this. Why would Claudine even want to chase after her? If she had become lost, then why Claudine still want to chase after her?

“I don’t!” Claudine says through gritted teeth. “But I have to find her! I have to know why she disappeared too! Of all the people, I had thought that Maya Tendou… I had thought… oh! I’m sorry!” Claudine realizes she’s still holding onto Maya and slowly lets go. Maya sees her wince, realizes how tight she must have gripped Maya’s coat when her hands take a little longer to relax into a natural form.

“I have to find out what happened to her. Someone like Maya Tendou… someone like that just doesn’t disappear so easily! And so quietly!”

“... but what if she does not wish to be found?” Maya asks, her voice, even softer. “Will you still seek her out?”

Claudine’s eyes widen. She gapes at Maya like a fish before her expression hardens. Even so, she doesn’t answer, doesn’t speak, clearly mulling over her answer. It’s obvious that the thought that Maya not wanting to be found had never crossed her mind, that to Claudine, Maya must have been… Maya’s not sure herself of what Claudine thinks must have happened to her.

“Then I…” Claudine starts before her mouth closes. Her body trembles slightly, as if she’s struggling to speak, or perhaps of the words she will reveal. Either way, it feels like another eternity before Claudine finally speaks.

“If Maya Tendou had willingly chosen to disappear… then…”

“Then she will have lost everything,” Claudine finishes. Her voice had been a whisper, almost like a hiss.

… ah. When faced with this… what else can Maya do but to speak the words that start her demise?!

“Send another letter.”

Claudine narrows her eyes and slowly turns to Maya. “Excuse me?”

“Send another letter,” Maya repeats. This time… without fail, she will answer it!

“And where will I send out the letter? I don’t know where she is—no one does!” Claudine says, frowning as she does.

… right. Maya desperately wracks her mind, trying to solve this dilemma she has caused herself.

“Then, all you need to do is make a performance where she’ll come, even if she doesn’t get an invitation from you. Build up the anticipation of watching the return of Claudine Saijou!” Maya knows she herself would come to that.

“... that sounds like such a ridiculous idea,” Claudine says. Maya’s ears flatten against her head and she tries not to whine at Claudine’s immediate refusal. She thought it was a good idea…

“... but I guess that might be all I can do,” Claudine finishes with a sigh. “I’ll lure her out!”

“Yes… a performance so grand that all who hear of it must come to see you,” Maya says.

“Yes!” Once more, Maya can see the fire burning within Claudine, her new resolve.

Yes, she thinks, this is exactly how Claudine should. Full of passion, full of vigor, full of ardor, this is exactly who Claudine Saijou is, who Maya remembers her to be.

She needs to watch that play.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you’ll be fine?” Mahiru asks for what must be the ninth time. Just like all the other times, Maya shakes her head.

“Of course I will be,” Maya says gruffly. “I can smell everything, and…” she surveys the village in front of her. “You forget, that I, too, had also lived here.”

Mahiru still looks worried. “... are you sure?” she tries again. She turns around, her eyes darting all around as if she is afraid that someone is watching them. “If you’re caught—”

“Then I will run into the forest. They cannot catch me. If I keep myself out of sight for a long time, the villagers will forget about me. Do not worry.” Maya wishes she could smile, or at least, wishes the smile in her beastly form didn’t look so… strange. It almost makes her want to laugh, how Mahiru had tried to get her to come to the Midsummer Festival but now that Maya is here, she’s more than worried for the both of them.

Maya reaches out to nudge Mahiru toward the village. “You should return. It will look suspicious for your family if you are gone for a long time, yes? I’m sure your siblings are eager to see you too.”

“Ah…” Mahiru doesn’t look happy, but she nods. “Here, take this.” She holds out what she’d been holding out to Maya, who takes it and holds it up.

Ah! It’s a large cloak, she realizes.

“You might look suspicious still, but maybe people can’t really see you if you’re wearing this. And, remember, it’s the Harvest Festival! There’s a lot of people dressed up as ghosts and monsters so keep that in mind! Although…” here, she looks Maya up and down, stepping closer and tilting her chin up. “You still stand out like a sore thumb, though.”

“I… will do my best,” Maya says with a tired sigh.

“I’ll try to help out if I can, but…” she bites her lip and reaches out, to place her hand on Maya’s arm. “Don’t be reckless.”

“Of course.” Maya moves her face down, to gently touch Mahiru’s hand with the tip of her snout. Mahiru giggles at the gesture.

“You’re really committed to this, aren’t you?” she comments.

“Yes. Claudine is expecting me. I must not fail to disappoint her,” Maya answers.

“But, you… don’t need to? Claudine doesn’t know your secret, and she’d never find out!”

Maya blinks before she narrows her eyes. “There is truth in your words, but…” She shakes her head. “I could never forgive myself in letting Claudine down after all that talk!”

Mahiru frowns, and she’s staring hard at Maya now, as if scrutinizing her. She’s not sure why, and… if Maya must admit, she is a little discomforted with such a heavy stare being directed her way with little provocation. But the stare falls away, and Mahiru beams, like she’s finally found what she’s looking for. “I’m happy! You’ve changed a lot.”

“... I don’t understand?”

“Remember the Midsummer Festival? You refused to go with us, or even try to sneak into the play like you’re doing right now!”

“Ah… that…” Maya frowns. “I did… want to go. But Claudine is performing now,” she says plainly.

“For Claudine!” Mahiru says with a giggle. Maya slowly nods. Of course, for Claudine. After seeing her practice for so long… how could Maya even dare to miss her performance? Even if… she isn’t able to watch the show properly.

Mahiru pats Maya’s arm again. “You’ve got a performance you can’t miss.”

“A-ah.” Maya’s just a little thrown off guard by the sudden change of topic, but Mahiru has a point. She also nudges Mahiru toward the town. “Yes, I will see you. Please return to your family. I thank you for all your help.”

Mahiru returns back to the village. Maya continues to linger on the outskirts, keeping herself hidden in the bushes and trying to do her best to crawl along the ground when the scent of guards hit her nose. Once, she would have laughed at herself for attempting to do this. Trapped in this form, she no longer cared for human pursuits, because what could she do?! But now…

Maya looks toward the village.She can hear all the merrymaking inside. Her ears prick as she can recognize some familiar voices, the very same ones she used to hear during her days here. What are they doing now?

Sometimes, Maya thinks about where the rest of them have gone. Upon graduation, they all scattered apart, to chase their own path to radiance. And, yet…

What had happened? She was cursed into this form, Claudine had also fallen from the light, and since Hikari’s disappearance, Mahiru, and Karen, too, had also...

The noise from within the village gets louder, startling Maya out of her thoughts. Her ears prick up. It’s hard to make out individual words, but she can make out a few ones that get repeated above the others.

The play is starting.

She needs to find a way in.

Maya circles around the village, carefully keeping track of the guards and the people loitering outside. There are a few, and some of them are arguing with the guards. They’ve clearly had more than enough spirits and ale to drink, judging from how they sway on their feet and how their faces are red.

Ah… wait… Maya thinks to herself as she observes how inebriated some of them are, and how exasperated and annoyed the guards are. Perhaps, she can use this as a distraction.

As carefully as she can, she skulks closer. She can clearly make out the argument, but she pays it no heed. Their words will only distract her from her mission, and nothing will keep her from watching the play.

She continues to lie low, waiting for just a few more minutes before she springs upward onto her fours. She’s far enough to remain a trick of the forest, but close enough for someone to glimpse the shape of a beast.

Judging by how suddenly pale the reveler’s face turns, her plan works. Maya looks into his eyes, and grins, showing off all of her fangs.

“B-Beast! Monster!”

“What? Gonna try that trick again?” The guard scoffs, trying to wave away the man’s frantic pointing by slapping his arm.

“N-no! It’s really—a beast! It’s come to eat us! We should have—”

“That’s enough noise of out you!”

“No, really! Just look!

Maya can see the exact moment the guard gives up and decides to play along. She waits, for just a quick moment, before quickly slinking away. She has to be quick enough for the guard to second guess himself, and for him to not see what she truly is.

“W-whoa!” The guard shouts. Maya hears the clanging of the guardsman’s bell, a signal for the others to converge. She retreats into the forest until she’s sure she’s a good distance away before circling back to the village. By now, she can hear the clamor of footsteps and shouts, all clamoring after her. When she turns her head, she sees the patrol running the opposite direction of her.

Maya takes off in a dash toward the village. She only has a small window, and she will not waste it!

“I told you it was just some prankster!” she hears faintly. “Dressed up to scare us out of our wits! What kind of guardsmen are you to fall for that!?”

A prankster… ah, it is the Harvest Festival after all.

She hastily throws over the cloak Mahiru had given her over herself and draws up the hood. Maya knows she’s looks more than suspicious, but it’ll be better than being recognized right off the bat. As she nears the entrance, she slows down, her eyes darting all around. The drunk man she’d seen is still there, a scowl on his face as he looks to where the guardsmen have run off.

“Big, dumb beast, I saw, and they can’t find it!” he grumbles, growling. “What sort of patrol are they? Have they even got eyes? I could do a better job—” and his eyes fall on Maya.

“Excuse me,” she says loudly and purposefully. She bares her teeth in a toothy smile. His mouth falls open as he gapes at her like a fish. The man takes a step backward and stumbles, falling upon his behind as he points up at her in both bewilderment and terror. "Good day to you, sir," she says and strolls into the village.

“No more drink!” she hears the man say. It almost makes her laugh. After all, who would believe a talking beast had come in?

She sneaks through the village. It’s easy, given her now heightened senses and that the town has not changed much since the last time she’s been here. Of course, as it has been several years since then, there are still some new buildings and things that she doesn’t remember at all, like the standing sign of a new bakery she knocks over next to a familiar flower shop.

Maya quickly darts in between the buildings, keep her senses alert. She doesn’t hear any noise, nor smell any humans wandering closer. All of them have gathered to where the play is, on one end of the town. Seeing herself safe, Maya creeps back out. She looks down at the sign she’s knocked over. There’s a drawn picture of a banana and purple stars twinkling around it. That makes her pause and she can’t help but squint at it, wondering if some child drew this. Ah, there’s no time for distractions! As carefully as she can, she puts it back up, trying her hardest not to scratch any of it with her claws.

With that done, she moves on, carefully creeping her way closer. Her hackles are raised, her heart thumping as she comes closer. She can hear and smell all of the humans, so concentrated and gathered in one place, that it almost makes her nauseous, almost wants to gag. But she cannot, not when she has so much more on the line.

For Claudine, she will endure it all!

… but how will she get close to even see the show? She sees all the people rushing in and though she knows she could easily tower over everyone to see the stage… it wouldn’t exactly do good to stand out like that as well. Thus…

She needs to go somewhere high, where no one would dare to look!

Maya scans around. There are houses, but any wandering eye would be able to see her. She needs a place higher, high enough that even she can hide—ah! She finds it.

How ironic, that it would be this building to help her serve her goal.

Maya takes off and once she's close, leaps up the building. She manages to grab onto a window, and quickly hefts herself up to the next window higher up. She does this one more time, grabbing onto the metal fence that encloses the rooftop, and climbs her way up, landing upon the floor.

Three floors along with a rooftop area, for three years of students, she remembers. And, also conveniently close to the outdoor stage, for both her and the actors. As she looks over the edge, she can see stagehands running in and out of the building for last minute preparations.

As she's hoped, there isn't anyone up here. She took a big gamble on it, desperately hoping for it to be empty. There was always someone up here, one way or another. Or, well, Maya guesses she's that person.

Now, she waits. Maya has always been a very patient person. She takes the time to look out toward the large outdoor stage that’s been set up. Maya is still a good distance away, and her eyes might not be quite as good as her ears, but… it’s serviceable, she thinks. Her eyes go over to the crowd, widening when she sees exactly how huge the audience is. To gather so many people… are there also other travelers who’ve come to see this play as well?

This troupe here… must be impressive to gather a crowd of this size. Impossibly, Maya feels a small spark ignite itself within her. If they could…

Were this any other time, Maya is sure she would have enjoyed the play. But, alas, as it is, she is forced up here by herself and not out in the crowd. She… can only concentrate upon one person… more than anyone else.

After some time has passed, Maya does not know, she sees someone finally come onto the stage. She squints her eyes and strains her ears, wondering if this is the announcement she, and the audience, have been waiting for. It is.

The play starts.

Maya's ears prick forward, trying to catch the words. What she does catch is that the play is a continuation of their previous story, following the adventures of the pirates, but some there’s some sort of new conflict now.

Everyone in the crowd dramatically gasps. Maya’s ears twitch rapidly, slightly irritated. She hadn’t been able to hear the rest of the words because of that noise.

Ah, no matter, this is the best she can do. Perhaps, she can ask Claudine to show her a script, or summarize the play. For now, all she can do is enjoy the performance as best as she can.

That said, it takes a very long time for Claudine to even make an appearance. The show has been very entertaining thus far, though, she has to admit. She can’t quite make out a lot of words, but it looks as if the play is more to emphasize action scenes. One of the actors, someone with blonde hair, seemingly bounces all over the place as she performs backflips and incredible acrobatics that even have Maya holding her breath.

Maya can see how that draws the crowd, can see why everyone’s enthralled with such a performance. Even she is impressed by the things she’s able to see. But while these feats are impressive to see, it makes her wonder about the actor’s other qualities. She wishes she could hear better, wishes she, too, could be sitting down there.

Unknown, the small spark within her grows to kindling. She doesn’t realize she’s leaning forward where she sits. The anticipation, the excitement, the drama! She wishes she could experience all of that once more!

Then, Claudine appears.

Once more, Maya is completely taken when Claudine steps upon the stage. She’s unable to look away, staring transfixed at the stage. Even here, all the way out here up on the rooftop where none can see her and she needs to strain all of her senses to even be able to see or hear Claudine—

It is as if she is right there in front of her, in the audience, just as spellbound and captivated as they are. Claudine has always had that ability, to make even Maya want to sit in the audience and watch her instead of stand upon the stage with her.

It makes her cry! It makes her anguished! It makes her yearn!

That stage where Claudine performs upon—

She wants to be there!

She wants to stand there!

She wants to—

She wants to be up there alongside Claudine!

Maya watches Claudine hold out her hand, watches her hand get taken, watches as Claudine follows after her partner. She sees the soft smile Claudine gives, and even though it is all an act, it makes Maya's heart throb painfully.

No! It’s wrong!

The only one that can keep up with Claudine—

The only one that can keep up with Maya—

That hand!

It should be Maya!

Why is she not the one up there?!

Why—

“I… I want…” the words unknowingly fall from Maya’s lips, fall from her maw, fall from her fangs. “I want… I want to…”

She remembers back to that day when she stood in front of Claudine, remembers when she held out her hand, remembers the feeling of Claudine’s hand in hers.

No, she remembers of even earlier, of when Claudine had been the one to hold her her hand, a smirk upon her beautiful face as she asked Maya to stretch with her.

“I want to perform again! I want to stand upon the stage again! I want… I want to bask in her radiance again!”

Her voice, low and guttural, cannot portray all of her aching, all of her awe, all of her burning. Maya wants to reach out, wants to hold Claudine and dance until their feet hurt, until there is nothing left in the world except for them. She reaches out, her arm stretching for that stage she once breathed and lived upon—

The sight of her claws snaps her back to her reality.

"If I am trapped in this form… then… then…" she cannot finish her words, her anguish so painful that it feels as if it is tearing her from inside. How cruel! How awful!

… how fitting.

Maya watches the rest of the play, but she is listless, as if she cannot bear to focus. It is an insult to the other actors, but her eyes have always been for Claudine. When Claudine comes upon the stage again, Maya reaches out with her paw, reaches out so longingly with both her paw and heart, and remembers her painful reality.

Her claw falls back down.

Nighttime comes by the time they finish. All the actors come out on stage. Claudine stands just off to the side, away from position zero. Maya sees her, and even from afar, can catch the way Claudine's eyes linger upon that lofty position.

Claudine's eyes have always… only… been for position zero as well, just as Maya's, too…

But she aches for something more… she yearns for something more… she… longs…

For now, for the first time in many long, long years, her heart is full of warmth. Devoid and cold, it beats again, of agony, of anguish, of aching.

Underneath the radiance of the stars, Maya is, once more, engulfed in the brilliance of Claudine's shine.

 


 

The pen flies across the paper as Maya frantically writes—

It snaps.

Maya blinks, exhaling deeply as she looks at both her ruined hand and parchment. On the table lie similarly broken pens. This makes it… the fourth one she’s broken yet.

“Should be one designed for claws,” Maya mutters as she cleans up both her hand and the mess. Once she’s done, she gets a new pen and a fresh piece of parchment.

Slow and careful, she tells herself. No matter how impatient she feels in this moment, even she has a rather limited number of pens.

… and she doesn’t think it would be a good idea to ask Mahiru to purchase some more for her.

Finally, after what feels like hours sitting at her table, she finishes writing. When she releases her pen, her paw remains in the same position, a sign of how hard she gripped her pen. Even her arm is sore from how tense and tight she’d been, trying so hard to be careful as she writes.

Now… the next part, almost just as hard as writing the letter.

Maya looks down at the parchment and the envelope, narrowing her eyes. How to fold it without even damaging it with her claws…

It takes her quite some time and maneuvering but she manages by being patient, going as slowly as she can. Slow and steady, she had told herself, even though she’s been feeling anything but that. It’s more than imperative she needs to get this letter out as soon as possible! Even now, she can still recall that moment when, days after the festival, Claudine had come to stop by.

“Maya Tendou did not come to my play!” Claudine had said, a fearsome scowl on her face. She fumed so angrily that Maya could find neither the time nor space to squeeze in that, yes, Maya Tendou had indeed come to the play.

Not quite as a human, but Claudine does not need to know that.

“How are you so sure of that,” she asks.

Claudine stares at her as if she’s spoken something incredulous. “Because I did not see her?” she states plainly, an eyebrow arched at Maya as if daring to challenge her. Maya opens her maw—

“I asked Mahiru, and she said no, as well,” she makes sure to add when Maya opens her mouth to speak.

—Maya closes her maw.

“Hm,” is all she says. She should have at least concocted a story together with Mahiru to say she was there.

Thus, Maya has found herself in a dilemma! In hindsight, she should have seen this coming, should have prepared this letter the moment she came back to her manor. How could Claudine believe otherwise, that Maya had been there, even if she hadn’t seen her?!

So, the letter had been born.

But, how to deliver this letter? Mahiru is still spending her time with her family right now, Maya does not know when she will be back. How else? To leave it out? But, would that not look suspicious that Maya would have such an item? The longer she takes to figure this out, though, the longer it would still be suspicious of Maya to deliver this—ah, perhaps time can be blamed, yes, that might work. But, that still does not solve her original predicament.

From one fire into another!

In the end, she decides the best course of action… will be to hand the letter directly to Claudine herself. She will wait some time first. Claudine has only come once since that day, to drop off some gifts from Mahiru, and to check up no her. She’d had to leave quickly, as she was still helping out at the village with cleaning up after the festival.

That’s convenient for Maya; it forces her to wait! But her hands itch, she cannot wait to give this to Claudine. How could she not, seeing how anguished and furious Claudine had looked?! Even in her anger, Claudine is always beautiful, but as much as Maya had been the subject of her ire in years gone by, she still would rather not see that look focused so solely on her!

One week passes before Maya is able to pass on the letter.

“This letter!” Claudine exclaims loudly once she has it in her hands. Her eyes are wide, staring in sheer disbelief, and looking a little stupefied as well.

“Ah… yes.” Maya awkwardly shuffles her paws. “Mahiru had, ah, Mahiru… had it, but she passed it to me to give it to you.”

“Oh?” Claudine furrows her brow in confusion. “I ran into Mahiru, and she didn’t mention anything about this.”

“Perhaps it had come afterward. Mahiru has taken some letters from the courier before they’ve come seeking out this place. I cannot imagine things would go well if they were to see me.”

Claudine doesn’t say anything but she’s still frowning, staring at the letter and she turns it all around. “Alright,” she finally says, and tears open the envelope.

Maya can only watch, can only hold her breath, as Claudine’s eyes roam over the parchment. Ah, wait… should she leave? Perhaps Claudine might appreciate some privacy for this. She thinks she should leave. This is… a little awkward, if she must say. But she doesn’t even dare to move, thinking Claudine might be disturbed away from her intense reading if she did.

“So she really came!” Claudine suddenly says. Maya blinks at the sudden grin that spreads across Claudine’s face. There’s no denying the way Claudine is… sparkling, radiating joy as she reads through the letter. “She came! And she saw me perform!” Her grin turns into a smirk. Her eyes roam through the letter again. “Hah! So she admits it! I am good!”

Maya nods mutely. She thinks that if she were to say anything in this moment, Claudine’s good mood might change. That would be… unwise. While Maya enjoys seeing Claudine so upbeat, there is a small part of her that feels apprehensive. There is… she’s not sure what it is, a terrible pit in the gut of her stomach that makes this situation feel strange.

And Maya’s fears come true, when Claudine finally calms down, and the smile slips from her face.

“... but where is she? Why can she not tell me in person?” Claudine’s voice grows somber. All the joy is gone from her as her eyes are downturned. Maya stills, her own eyes wide as Claudine clutches the letter to her chest. Tears gather at the corner of Claudine’s eyes.

“That vexing woman! Where is she?! Why can I find no information about her?! Where did she disappear to!”

Here, Maya wants to say. I am right here! Her hands instinctively reach out toward Claudine—

Her claws. These are not her hands, these are her claws. She cannot hold Claudine; she will just as easily rip her to shreds with little effort at all.

“That horrible woman!” Claudine squeezes her eyes shut. “She should tell me these words in person! She won’t even give me the satisfaction of letting me hear them from herself!”

Maya feels her mouth opening, as if she can grant Claudine that very same wish. She snaps her mouth shut instead, almost growling. This agony! The fact that Claudine is suffering in front of her! That Claudine can show such despair in front of her because of her!

And Maya can do very little! She cannot expose herself—her throat and tongue are a beast’s, they do not have the same intonation and sound as what her human had sounded like. But, it isn’t as if she can just reveal herself, even if the desire to do so burns so strongly right now! She cannot!

“... I apologize,” she says.

“For what?” Claudine whispers, trying to hold back her sniffles.

“You…” Maya looks away. “I am sorry that I cannot do anything more for you.”

“... you don’t have to apologize for that.” Claudine shakes her head and sighs deeply. “Maybe… I really had my hopes up for nothing. I should have expected this. She… she did not consider me to be as important.” She finishes her words in a harsh whisper, as if she’s trying to convince herself.

No! I never thought that! You were always… you were always…

But Maya does not speak.

How can she?

She cannot.

She cannot!

“Allow me to make you some tea to calm yourself down,” Maya finally says, turning around without waiting for Claudine to speak, not that Claudine voices any objections.

She walks out the door, hidden away from sight before her paws feel as if they are rooted to the floor. Every part of her feels heavy, as if she cannot bear to walk another step.

“I… I want to see her.”

Were it not for Maya’s heightened hearing, she would have never heard Claudine’s desperate cry.

It hurts, that she cannot answer it.

 


 

Once, in what might feels like a long time ago, Maya had wanted to change back.

Gone to sleep as a human, she had woken as a monstrous beast in the morning. How could this have happened?!

The curse! She had brushed it off as mere words; there was no evidence to the contrary! Thus, when she had woken up with giant paws, claws sharp enough to tear even her own skin, fur lining her entire body and her legs changed, with fangs that were meant to rip flesh apart…

What else was Maya to do, but to feel that everything was a dream? No, this wasn’t a dream, it was a nightmare!

But it wasn’t. She raged, trying endlessly to figure out what could change her back. She thought back to the curse, but could find no answers there. The riddle she’d been given was cryptic. Regain her radiance back? How could she do that, reduced to this state?! How unfair it all felt, to be given an impossible task, and impaired to further that feeling of futility!

Everything about her life had drastically changed.

… or had it?

Trapped as a beast, Maya had found herself… liberated. She had already lived alone in her manor, but now, it seemed all but certain; she was trapped here.

“Maya Tendou has stopped acting!” she had heard the rumors. It was all anyone could talk about.

How could anyone understand what she felt? The path in front of her, once lit and so brightly illuminated, had become so dark. There was no light for her to reach, no light for her to run through. When she reached out with her hand, only the darkness touched her back. In nothing but that darkness, she felt as if she was drowning, suffocating, suffering.

Darkness had taken over her, and she could find out no way out of it. To stand at the top had been all she strived for, to fly ever further than she could reach—

But what did it all mean in the end? Unsatisfied, unfulfilled, unhappy—

She yearned for more.

No, it wasn’t… for more

She wanted… she wanted…

“Maya Tendou has disappeared!”

“Who?”

And, as if everyone had forgotten about her, Maya is gone.

“If you wish to break your curse—

“If you wish to break free from your shackles—”

“If you wish to find yourself once more—”

… find her radiance again?

What if… she has no desire for that?

In the end, days pass. Days turn into weeks. Weeks become months.

Years move on.

And still, Maya remained, trapped in her beastly form, unable to see any end in sight to her dilemma.

There is only one solution she can derive from this.

She will never be changing back to human.

Is she a coward, for accepting her fate so easily? If she were younger, then, yes, she would have called herself one.

But, as she is now, engulfed in that darkness, she fully embraces her beastly nature.

She retreats into her manor. Better for her to stay out of sight of the humans than to be hunted down by them. Her home has always been hidden out of sight, out of ways in the forest. A fitting home, for a beast, to live so far out.

So Maya Tendou disappears.

Until Claudine Saijou had come knocking.

For the first time in many years, Maya finds that desire within herself lit once more.

If she were human…

If she were human…

If only she were human again!

… but that even be enough to rid herself of the darkness she’s enveloped in? When she reaches out with her hand… what does she expect to happen?

Does she want Claudine to take her hand?

Will Claudine even want to take her hand?

Maya… does not know.

What she does know, though, is that ever since Claudine—no, it might have even been kindled by Mahiru too! But by the time Claudine had come and became a part of Maya’s life once more…

She feels it again, the call of the stage.

But, if only she weren’t doomed like this!

How paradoxical! She longs to stand upon the stage, but she cannot in this form. And, yet, if she wishes to take back her human form, it will be stand upon the stage in her glory!

Then, what must she do?!

Is she forced to reach out to Claudine?! Must she depend upon Claudine’s ferocity and kindness once more!? Can she, too, also bring back Claudine’s own light?

… but will Claudine answer her?

Maya… does not know of this as well.

All these questions, all this musing, all this uncertainty…

How must Maya step forward? How can she step forward? How can she do anything, so trapped as she is? For the first time in so long, she can glimpse a small shine of light, and she wants to reach out for it. She wants to run toward it.

How?

What must she do?

… perhaps Mahiru might know what to do.

Ah, no, Maya cannot do that. She has depended on Mahiru far too long already. And, it isn’t as if Maya would know how to approach the topic, especially after brushing away Mahiru’s earlier attempts.

But, now, she understands why Mahiru had tried still!

Maya makes her way to her archives after her morning run. She’s still agitated and wound up, unable to relax. Perhaps she can spend some time in there with one of her books as she ponders over her predicament.

When she comes into the room, though…

Claudine is there, standing in front of a shelf.

Maya stands at the doorway, blinking. How had she come in? Had she made a key for Claudine and forgotten? No, Maya does not remember doing anything of that sort. While she doesn’t mind Claudine coming and going, it is… a little strange to see her drop by, especially unannounced. Then…

“Good afternoon, Claudine,” Maya starts as she steps closer into the room. “Forgive me for asking, but how did you come in here?”

“Mahiru. I asked her and she gave me her key,” Claudine responds without even looking up at her. Maya pauses. The air… is different. Her hackles rise slightly. Tension lingers in the air. She looks over at Claudine, taking in the stiff way she is holding herself, and how… flat her tone had been earlier, as if she is displeased!

Dread settles inside the pit of Maya’s stomach. Her instincts are telling her to both run and prepare for a fight. Her ears flatten against her head, and her tail hangs between her legs. Something is coming, and it is not good.

Maya takes the chance to walk closer, coming to Claudine’s side. “Claudine?” she voices. “Is there something the matter?”

That is when Maya sees it, sees the very book Claudine is holding in her hands.

A script.

Ah.

Wait.

Not just any script, but—

“Starlight,” Maya breathes.

It feels as if her heart has stopped beating in the span of this moment.

“Why do you have this?” Claudine slowly looks up. Her eyes are accusing, seemingly boring straight into Maya.

Were it any other script, Maya could bluff her way out. But it is that script, Maya’s own personal copy of their play, written with all of her handwritten notes in the margins, the very same one! In this way, there is only one copy of this script.

Maya… has made a mistake.

“My library is a vast archive,” Maya begins, “I collect only—”

“You said you were cursed,” Claudine cuts her off. Maya cannot find it within her to continue her lie. Claudine’s voice is still quiet but the fury is simmering underneath. “How long ago was that?”

“I…” Maya cannot answer this. To do so would reveal everything!

No, to do so would be to admit it!

Claudine takes it one step further. “I had asked Mahiru about the letter. She was confused, and said she didn’t know about it.”

This is—!

“... when.”

Maya keeps her maw shut even in the face of Claudine’s question and fury bearing down on her. Even when Claudine finally looks over to her, betrayed and so full of anger, Maya cannot answer her.

“How long ago were you cursed, Maya Tendou?!”

Maya steps backward, as if that move could shield her from all of Claudine’s fury bearing down upon her in that moment.

“If you have… figured out that much… then you can figure out the rest,” she breathes.

Claudine’s eyes widen, staring at Maya. “So it was true? Then… then!”

Maya’s silence is the answer Claudine needs to push forward. "Is that why you stopped acting?! Because you have turned into—" Claudine shakes her head as she pieces together the rest of the puzzle. "No, you had already stopped before then! Then being turned into a beast didn't keep you from acting, it was a convenient way for you to disappear!"

“You ran away from it all!”

Maya’s ears twitch. She can feel her own anger rising—Claudine does not know the whole story, does not understand what had happened! For Claudine to accuse her so when she understands nothing!

But, that matters little. In the end, she still had run away, and thus, she cannot refute Claudine’s words.

“... I did,” she finally speaks. Almost impossibly, Claudine’s anger rises ever higher. Ah, Claudine’s passion and feelings were always the most wild out of all of them!

“Why did you not tell me!?” comes Claudine’s furious answer. “From the very beginning! It had been you this whole time—” She cuts herself off with a sharp gasp. Her face turns a deep shade of red. “You… you listened to me! When I talked about you—you heard it all! Everything!”

Maya averts her eyes. “I, ah, had no intention of, um, goading you, but, ah…” she stumbles over her words, unable to find a proper excuse. Nothing in her mind seems to work in this moment. How can she explain herself out of this? What can she do?

“I, too, was also… curious,” Maya starts. “You had also lost your way as well. I only meant to probe because I wanted to help—”

“It was all because of you!”

Maya feels as if everything in this moment stops. “I... what?” She looks back up at Claudine, finds the other woman gritting her teeth, her hands clenched into fists at her sides.

“Because of you!” she says again, hissing through her teeth. “I named you my rival! I wanted to surpass you! I wanted to steal that number one position right from under your feet! I wanted to show you that even I could shine even brighter than you!”

“But how could I do that if you disappeared?!”

“... me?” Maya’s voice is barely above a whisper as she tries to wrap her mind around Claudine’s words. “It… it was… because of… because of…”

… because of her?

Because… of…

Her?

Maya falls to a knee as if she’s been dealt a blow right to her chest. She can hardly dare to believe the truth suddenly laid before her.

The reason Claudine had stopped acting—

The reason Claudine had become lost—

The reason Claudine had lost her radiance—

It is all because of her!

“And now, I’ve found you’ve become like this!” Claudine’s ire rises once more. “You were cursed like this the whole time! And you did not think to tell me at all!?”

“I…”

“Why would you have kept such a dire secret from me?! Why did you not tell me?! Did you think I would never figure it out eventually?! Maya Tendou, you could fool no one with your act! Your acting really has deteriorated so magnificently!”

“What would you have me say?!” Maya cannot listen to Claudine any longer. Her own fury rises. She gestures to herself. “That I have become this! That you would believe if I had told you! That you would not—” here, Maya rises from the floor and draws herself up to her full height once more, towering over Claudine. She raises her arm up, spreads out her fingers so her claws gleams dangerously in the light. She sees the way Claudine sucks in a breath, hears how Claudine’s pulse quickens with fear. “—be so afraid of me?!”

Claudine does not speak, still staring at the claw raised above her. Her eyes shimmer. Maya freezes at that sight. Slowly, her claw falls back down. They breathe hard, hardly able to speak.

But the fire within Claudine still burns bright, as her eyes narrow into another fierce glare. “If you did not even try to tell me, then of course I know nothing! Did you really trust me so little? You had told Mahiru—but you could not tell me!?”

“Did you really think so little of me?!” Claudine finishes, her voice significantly softer and—Maya feels a pang run through her at the hurt she can hear.

But—why? Why? Why? She does not understand, why does Claudine—why would Claudine say this? Why would…

Trust?

No, Maya has nothing but the utmost trust in Claudine.

Then…

Then… what is it… about Claudine’s words… that strike her so dissonantly? There is something strange about Claudine’s words, something that Maya does not understand.

“Think so little of you?” Maya finally says, as if she can hardly believe her own words she’s saying. “Of course I don’t, I… I think very highly of you.”

“Not enough to tell me the truth!” Claudine fires back. “Why would you lie?! You pretended to act as if you were someone else! I was searching for you all this time, but you were right under my nose!” She lets out a bark of laughter but there is no humor in any of it. “What a fool I must look right now! Running around in circles!”

“... and… why must I tell you the truth?” Maya… cannot figure this out, why Claudine would go so far to accuse her of so many things. “What would you have done? Would you have tried to help me? Would you have believe me? Why would you go out of your way for this?”

“What?!” Claudine gapes at her. “Do you think so little of us—”

“I know nothing of you!” Maya roars. “I am—I was only a goal for you! To reach up and knock me over, to take my position! What else could we be?! What else will I be?! Nothing more! Everyone else sees me the same way!”

“No one… I only wished to inspire in others to dream even higher, and yet—”

A disappointment.

That is… what she is.

All of her expectations, all of her obligations, all of her duties—

She has lost them all.

And in doing so, she had also caused Claudine to lose hers.

“What would you have me do, Claudine? I have lost my way, and…” Maya closes her eyes, suddenly tired. “I have also made you lose yours. How can I face you?”

Claudine furiously shakes her head. “Do you think so highly of yourself?! That you giving up the stage had made me give up mine?!”

“But that is what had happened, is it not?” Maya slowly turns to her. “Did you not recall what your acting had been in the beginning? And now look at you! Your shine had been lost, all because you had been chasing after me! Calling for me! You want to surpass me, but once I disappear, you became... empty!”

Claudine gapes at her again. Each word Maya says summons more of Claudine’s rage, that she knows. But, she knows that Claudine understands this to be true. Why else would she become so upset? Why else would she become so angry?

“In the end… I have nothing! I cannot perform as I am, nor would I even be allowed upon the stage with this hideous appearance. Position zero had been where I lived and breathed, but… I am nothing. Nothing! I am already forgotten, my name already lost to the winds of time!”

“Maya Tendou! Are you listening to yourself!?” Claudine’s hand shoots forward, grasping the fabric of Maya’s shirt, her hand balling into a fist. How bold Claudine has become, Maya can’t help but think! “How can you say such nonsense?! I haven’t—”

“Because even to you, if I am not standing upon the stage, I have no worth!”

Claudine’s eyes widen once more. Her grip upon Maya’s shirt slowly loosens as she steps backward.

“Nothing!” Maya roars but there is no rage in her heart. There is…

The only sound that fills the air is Maya's heavy breathing. She hadn't realized how much she exerted herself, how incensed she had become. She tries to force herself to relax, but she can find no calm after revealing herself so brazenly.

“Is… is that what you really believe?” Claudine finally asks, her voice soft.

“What else must I believe?” Maya shakes her head. "I have no inclination to believe otherwise!"

“Then you are nothing but a fool!” Claudine whispers. She meets Maya’s eyes, and Maya finds herself rooted in place, for even Claudine’s teary glare has made her afraid to even breathe. “I was a fool, too, to believe in you! You’ve fallen so far! You’re nothing but a coward! It was better for me to receive nothing from you than to get that letter!”

With that said, she storms away, rushing past Maya.

But not before Maya sees the fall of Claudine’s tears.

“... a coward,” Maya whispers. Her heart, once filled with thoughts of Claudine’s radiance, becomes cold and hollow once more.

The rest of her day is uneventful. When she falls asleep, it is with a heavy heart.

But tomorrow will be another day. She closes her eyes, and lets herself fall into a fitful slumber.

The next day, Maya wakes.

She pulls herself up, groaning at the sudden aching in her limbs. That… is strange, she has never had this happen to her before. With her beastly vigor, she's always felt ready and in top form.

Perhaps she’s done something to exert herself the previous day? What had she done—

The memories of Claudine come back to her.

… ah.

She is indeed exhausted, yes, but would that extend so far to her physical form? There is still so much she does not know about this curse—

But, it isn’t as if she will ever be able to lift it anymore, after squandering her chance.

The days pass. Maya continues to feel weakened. It feels hard to even open her eyes sometimes, so sluggish as she is. Moving even feels like a tiresome task. When she lifts her limbs, it feels as though they have weights attached.

It is… all so very tiring. It is as if she’s back in that darkness, but even further down than before. She is drowning, but there is no hope within her heart any longer. When she tries to claw for the surface, it is as if she can try with all her might, but she doesn’t even scratch the top of it.

“I am nothing!” she whispers. “Nothing!”

It is… all… so… very tiring.

Claudine does not come back. Maya suspects she never will anymore. She thinks she should at least apologize for keeping everything a secret, but she doubts Claudine will even want to listen to her anymore. Who would?!

At least… Maya had been able to witness one last performance of Claudine, had been able to dance one last time even in practice! She’d been able to hold her, been able to take her hand, been able to… been able to…

Ah, how right it had seemed back then, and how right it had still seemed now! Only she knows exactly how Claudine moves, and only Claudine knows exactly how Maya moves as well! They both know and understand each other so well through their dance! Even now, that feeling hasn’t changed at all!

She yearns for it! She craves for it! She longs for it!

But she has squandered her chance.

Gathering stars forgives your sins—

Her hand, reaching out for the stars in the sky, falls back down toward the earth and the ground.

Mahiru hasn’t come back at all, nor has she sent any letters. It is a little strange, for Mahiru to not be back, but Maya hopes she’s making the most of it.

The air inside her home feels… heavy, stagnant. She dislikes it, cannot stand to be in there. Maya decides, even with her body feeling so heavy and sluggish, she will take a walk outside in the forest.

The fresh air does wonders to her aching body. Even the sun bearing down on her makes her feel a little more energetic. The autumn winds are blowing through, and it makes her shiver. How cold it is!

… cold?

Maya looks down at herself. She's absolutely sure now, that there is something strange happening to herself now. Her body, full of its thick fur, helping little against the chill of the elements?

But what is it? And, why now? This has never happened before. What can she do to remedy this? It isn't as if she can go to a doctor or apothecary. Or, well, anyone else, for that matter.

More trouble on top of everything else, she thinks.

Maya trudges through the forest, whining slightly in pain. Her body feels… so heavy, as if she’s dragging it through mud. Every step she takes feels as if she is hiking up a mountain instead. Why does she feel like this? When will she recover? Is this a sign?

What does all of this mean?

Maya huffs as she shakes her head. Ah, that’s a mistake, even that simple motion makes her feel even more tired afterward. She huffs again. “Am I getting old?” she finally mutters, glaring down at her claws. The years have certainly been racking up, are they finally catching up with her?

She continues her journey through the forest. Even though she’s tiring, the change in scenery is doing good. Her mind does feel slightly lifted, or at least, much better than she would have by staying inside her manor.

An odd scent hits her, suddenly, something familiar—oh!

Mahiru, Maya realizes, her ears perking up. Why is she out here? Perhaps, foraging? Maya glances around before she manages to pinpoint where Mahiru is. Just as before, she trudges along again, trying to ignore how her legs quake with weakness.

In her weakness and distraction, though, it takes Maya a moment to realize there is… something different about the scent. Agitation, fear, and confusion.

Is… is something attacking Mahiru again? Against her body’s wishes, Maya hurries her body, pushing ahead. There’s another human scent in the air, but Maya does not recognize it. It doesn’t smell vaguely like Mahiru’s, so it isn’t someone from her family.

Who is it? Who else is with Mahiru?

Heedless of her body screaming for rest, Maya rushes ahead, even falling to her fours to run faster. She bursts through the foliage—

Oh!

Maya is so shocked that she rears up, unconsciously towering over them. Mahiru’s eyes widen when she sees Maya. The person in front of her spins around, her black hair whirling around her, dagger at the ready.

“Hikari—”

Hikari quickly shoves Mahiru away, pushes her so forcefully that she stumbles backward and falls to the ground. Without another word, she rushes forward, her dagger flashing. Maya barely has any warning before Hikari starts slicing at her. So shocked still at seeing Hikari so suddenly and how weak her body is that it takes her a moment to even react.

Maya roars and sweeps out her arm. Hikari easily avoids it but she backs away, what Maya had wanted. She can see her arm, though, littered with cuts and slices already. Normally, these wounds are nothing, but in her weakened state, they sting, as if it is her own soft human flesh!

Hikari rushes forward again. Maya growls and slashes out with her claw but Hikari is much quicker, dodging and leaping into the air. She lands on Maya’s arm and leaves nicks on it as she pushes herself around Maya’s shoulder. Maya roars in pain and reaches behind her with her other arm. She manages to grab Hikari’s leg before Hikari can jump away and slams her upon the ground.

Hikari slides away from the force, crying out in pain. Maya freezes in place at that cry. She remembers herself.

Hikari is still a human. It is she who is the beast, the monster. She—no matter what, she should—she shouldn’t bring great harm to Hikari.

“Hikari! Wait! Stop! It’s not what you think! Please stop!” Mahiru is shouting, trying to scramble to her feet and get between them.

But neither of them hear her.

Hikari rights herself, flipping over onto her fours. Her dagger comes flying out. In her hesitation, Maya is slow to notice the dagger flying toward her, cries out when it pierces right into her arm and embeds itself there. She instinctively clutches the dagger, taking notice of the wire wrapped at the hilt.

Hikari tugs on it at the same time. Maya cries out, feeling the blade cut into her palm. But she does not let go—to let go would be to give Hikari her weapon back! Instead, she holds the dagger tighter, and tugs Hikari toward her instead. Her maw pulls back in a snarl, baring all her fangs. Hikari’s eyes widen, a small pulse of fear running through her in that moment.

It brings Maya back to her senses.

No—no! She can’t, she can’t do this!

Maya immediately lets go. The dagger falls to the ground, clattering. She stumbles backward, struggling to catch her breath. Hikari has paused in place, slowly pulling her dagger back. She’s still watching Maya, waiting, ready to react.

Maya bristles, her chest rumbling as she growls lowly She can hear her blood running, smell the anticipation from both of them, can see the way Hikari’s legs are coiled tight to react. She wants… she wants to… she wants…

Maya runs.

Anywhere, wherever—

As long as she doesn’t hurt them any longer!

Maya doesn’t know where she’s run, but she’s managed to get to what looks like a small creek. She stumbles down onto it, breathing hard. Wearily, she moves her head to the water, taking a few sips, hoping it’ll revitalize her. It’s a small effect, but it does help. She slowly pulls herself up, splashing water upon her wounds as she goes over her predicament.

She’s weak, tired. How is she to get back to her manor to rest up? Where even is she? Maya tiredly glances around, sighing to herself. Of all the things to happen today… she returns to washing her wounds though she can feel the pull of unconsciousness. Even lifting her claws feels so tired. But she must do this… she must…

So caught off guard that she catches too late the whistles of arrows.

Maya howls at the sharp pain in her shoulder. She quickly springs forward, just in time to avoid another arrow. The water splashes all around as she scrambles upright and spins around.

Just in time to see the blade cutting across—

Maya roars in pain as she swings an arm out, crying out as she clutches her head. The sword had swung just above her eye, cutting across. Blood pours down the wound, and her eye instinctively closes from the discomfort.

What is it now!? She focuses her still open eye—

“Sorry, Junna, it moved faster than I expected!”

“Don’t worry about it! I got some arrows into it, the poison will give you more opportunities, Nana!”

Maya stares at them, unable to believe the sight. First Hikari, and now both Junna and Nana! Why are they here? She wants to ask. Her mouth opens—

Nana rushes forward, her swords flashing in the sunlight. Maya snaps her mouth closed, dodging Nana’s blows. It’s taking all of her focus to even concentrate not to get hit. Nana is already formidable enough by herself, that much Maya had remembered, but to have Junna at the same time! To get struck once, it would be all over, Maya knows!

But she starts to feel it. Her vision is growing blurry, her limbs growing even heavier and more sluggish. She wants nothing more than to lay down, to let her eyes close, to sink into sweet darkness. She feels even more weakened than before even though she hasn’t gotten hit—

Ah. Yes, that's right.

Poisoned arrows, Junna had said.

Maya wants to swing her arm out—but her body refuses to obey and she falls to a knee instead. She’s far too weak, she can’t barely move her body now! And she sees it, sees Nana raising her sword above her head, knows if Nana lands that hit, it will be fatal.

Maya… as she is… she cannot… she cannot run, she cannot take this, she will not live—

Not like this!

Not like this!

Never—

Maya moves at the very last second. She lurches forward just as Nana brings her sword down. Nana yells, twisting her body out of her way to avoid Maya barreling into her. But still, her sword slices through Maya’s arm. But Maya grits her teeth and lunges forward, right at Junna, who looses the arrow she'd been readying in panic. It flies past Maya.

“Junna!” Nana’s shout is frantic. Junna is frozen in place as Maya all but flies toward her. She slams down in front of Junna and immediately rises to her full height, towering over her. She raises a claw, snarling with all her fangs bared—

The smell of fear makes Maya freeze in place. She blinks and looks down at Junna, the terror more than palpable in her eyes. They stare at each other, Maya forcing human clarity back into her mind.

Junna is afraid! Of her!

Afraid of a beast!

“Junna!” Nana’s shout makes both Junna and Maya startle. Maya immediately lowers her arm and dashes off past Junna back into the forest. Her mind screams.

With herself so weakened and grievously injured so, her bestial instincts are slowly overriding her human mind. Survive! it screams. Survive at all costs! Maya fights against these instincts. She cannot hurt them! She would never forgive herself! She cannot! She will not.

Unheedful of where she is going, Maya only continues to run. But everything hurts. She’s winded, and so, so, very tired. But she cannot stay here. Even if Nana and Junna intend to hunt her down—she cannot hurt them! Anywhere is better than here!

Maya does not know where she runs. She can hardly see at this point, only relying on her nose, and her extensive knowledge of the forest. All she knows at this point that she needs to get away, needs to find somewhere safe. That’s what all of her instincts are telling her at this point. If she will not allow her feral instincts to take over, then she must compromise with it.

Find somewhere safe, figure a plan. Find… find somewhere…

“Oof!”

Maya crashes into something, or, rather, she crashes into someone.

Someone so painfully familiar.

“M-Maya?! What the heck are you doing—” she hears Claudine suck in a breath. “B-blood?! What are you—what is all this?!”

Maya tiredly looks down, sees Claudine gaping at her. Claudine steps closer, placing her hands upon Maya’s body to look at her injuries. “What were you even doing?! What is all of this?! Maya!”

“I…” where does Maya even begin? She doesn’t know, nor does she think she can. She’s swaying on her feet, barely able to keep herself upright. It’s Claudine who’s even managing to keep her on her feet right now, trying to hold her in place. “I’m… I’m sorry,” slips out of her. “For everything I said earlier.”

“Wh—what the heck are you saying?!” The panic rises in Claudine’s voice, Maya can hear every tremble.

“A… A beast… that is… all I am…” Maya finds herself whispering. “Please… get away...”

“Y-you’re talking nonsense again, Maya Tendou! What were you even doing?! Did you run through some sort of thorny bush?! Maya!” She wants to tell Claudine that everything will be fine, but someone else interrupts them before she can.

“Claudine?!”

Footsteps come running up behind them. Maya’s hackles raise as she realizes who’s caught up to them. She moves on instinct, placing her arm in front of Claudine and shielding her from the other two as she growls.

“Huh? Nana? And Junna? What are you doing?!” Claudine calls out. She tries to move Maya’s arm, but Maya does not budge at all. Maya herself can barely think straight in this moment, only reacting to her instincts. Her rational side is telling her that Nana and Junna will cause no harm to Claudine, that they only harm her because of her beastly appearance, but her bestial side is roaring, screaming, howling for Maya to run and take Claudine with her to safety.

No—no! Groggy as she is, Maya blinks rapidly, trying to focus through both the pain and the feral side of herself. She had never thought that being turned into a beast could affect her so much until right now, with every urge telling her to run.

“Don’t move, Claudine. We’ll get that beast away from you in no time,” Nana shouts.

“What?!” Claudine gapes. “What are you two talking about?!”

“That’s the monster that’s been terrorizing the countryside,” Junna answers. “We’ve heard rumors, and someone even said they’ve spotted it at the Harvest Festival!”

… ah.

“What?! You’re both talking nonsense! This isn’t a normal beast! This is…” and Claudine falters, her words trailing off as she realizes what she cannot say. Who could believe her? Who would believe her?

It is simple; Maya makes the decision for Claudine as she shoves Claudine away from her.

“Claudine!” Junna rushes to Claudine while Nana steps forward, her swords ready to hold back Maya at bay. Maya looks at them, her eye barely able to focus upon their blurry shapes.

She howls. All of her anger, all of her despair, all of her hopelessness, everything—everything, everything! She raises a claw and places it over her heart.

“You should have struck me down here if you wanted to kill me!” she roars.

“I-it can speak!?”

“It really can speak!”

“Maya, no!”

One last time, Maya runs away. Even after making a provocation like that… what had she been thinking? She doesn’t know. She’d been so angry, and…

She is so very tired.

Maya’s vision grows blurrier as she runs but she comes eventually upon what looks like her manor. How amusing, she thinks, to somehow be able to run back to her home in the end after all. Fitting, for this to be her resting place. She drags herself toward the building. Blood has caked over her eye now, and she isn’t sure whether it is the poison or the loss of her blood that makes her head spin. What distinction does it make? Nothing, she thinks. Just the mad thoughts of someone about to breathe their last.

Her paws slow down. She pants openly. Her energy is spent. Just a little more, she thinks, just… just a little… just a little…

When she falls to the ground, she does not get back up.

Maya cannot get back up. All of her energy is spent. Is it the poison coursing through her? Or is it her curse taking the rest? She does not know, nor does she care anymore.

In this moment… Maya knows, understands, she will be breathing her last very soon.

No! Not here! Not like this!

There were still so many things I wanted to do!

I wanted—

Once more—

I wanted to—

Maya reaches out in front of her. Her arm hangs in the air. What is she reaching for? Is it for the stars in the sky she once sought? Is it for the faint shimmer of light she thought she could see? Is it… what is it for?

She doesn’t know.

Maya exhales. It is a sorrowful sound, of resignation, of defeat, of weariness. She cannot, she cannot do it anymore! How awful she must look in this moment! For someone who had stood at the top, who had tried to soar ever higher than she ever could, forced to the ground and lying in a pool of her own blood.

Nothing but a beast! That really is all she had been, in the end. Made this way by her arrogance, unable to move past, loneliness bearing down upon her to the point of crushing…

Truly… a curse of her own pride.

Her claw falls back down.

“—ya?! Maya!”

Something grabs her claw before it hits the ground. Hands are touching her face. A familiar scent hits her.

“Claudine,” Maya breathes. Her ears twitch weakly. “I am… afraid… I cannot… see you any longer…”

“Don’t worry about that!” Claudine hisses. She sounds angry. Why is she angry? Maya would like to know, but she can hardly focus herself to string together words in this moment.

“Do not… worry about me…” Maya shakily exhales, whining in pain. “I know… I will be—”

“No!” Claudine’s voice is frantic. Maya can feel hands tugging on her but she barely moves forward. “Don’t say that, don’t you dare say that! You wouldn’t just—you wouldn’t just!” Claudine cannot finish her words.

“It is… as you’ve said… Claudine… I am a coward…” She exhales, a small gurgle at the back of her throat.

Wetness splashes down on her face. Maya whines, a weak sound. Is… is Claudine crying? She… she has no reason for that. Tears? She’s caused tears to come to Claudine’s eyes? Because of her? Ah… because of her… once more…

“Claudine,” she calls out. Her claw tries to rise—she feels it being taken by Claudine’s hands. Ah, how she wishes she could see Claudine! She wants to see her, she wants to see her one last time! There are still so many things for her to say!

Ironic, that on the verge of her death, she would start to cling to the last few seconds of her life.

Maya tries to raise her paw again. She attempts to focus through the hazy images of her unbloodied eye, trying to raise her paw to Claudine’s face. She can see it, see the tears that roll down to splash upon her. When she touches it, she cradles it, murmuring.

“All those… words I wrote… in that letter… I had… meant every word… truly...”

“What?! That… o-oh! I…” Claudine’s voice is choked. “I was… angry! In that moment, I… I didn’t meant to…”

“N-no… it was… I… who had saddled you with… so many unnecessary… things… but thank you for… showing me your radiance… again…” Maya exhales, trying to ignore the burning in her chest. It is as if each word she speaks, each breath she takes cuts into her very being! But… it will all be over soon… the tugs at her consciousness are too strong for her to ignore any longer. The darkness is starting to take over everything. Soon… she will rest in that domain forever.

Thus, she speaks her final words.

“It would… have been… wonderful to… perform with you… once more…”

Her hand falls back down. She is too tired to struggle any longer. She gives one last shuddering breath. It is quiet as she fades.

“Maya… I… wanted to do the same!”

Behind the darkness of Maya’s eyelids, there is a flash of light. She wishes to open her eyes, but she is… too tired, now. Far… too…

She slips back into that eternal darkness once more.

Chapter Text

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.”