"Would you care to go on a walk?"
Claudine worried at the edges of the script in her hand to smother the instant inclination to scoff.
"I'm busy," as Maya could clearly see, but that obviously hadn't deterred her.
"I have something to show you."
Perhaps Maya thought that the prospect of mystery or whatever it was to which she was trying to allude would persuade Claudine to come along. That certainly wasn't working, for the moment Claudine lifted her eyes from the script to meet Maya's own lilac ones, a retort already set on her tongue -
Whatever scornful remark she had been so readily prepared to give died upon meeting Maya's gaze.
Claudine had come to learn every one of the expressions that played across Maya's face because who were they kidding? They were actors, and most of the masks they put on were fake, and Maya was no exception. When something genuine flickered across either of their faces, it was impossible to miss; but now - now Claudine wasn't sure what was playing across Maya's face.
The longer Claudine tried to piece together whatever mess of an emotion had captured Maya then - with eyes just so gently alight and mouth curved in a patient smile - the more uncertain she became of how well she thought she knew Tendo Maya.
"Can you not just show me here?" Claudine asked, feigning annoyance as her fingers continued to wear away the corners of her script.
This time, Claudine let the scoff pop past her lips.
"Will you come with?"
Despite the acute rejection she had been prepared to give and despite the vexation growing in the pit of her stomach, Claudine agreed. The light that was already aglow in those unusually soft eyes burst into something even more delightfully brilliant at Claudine's simple concession, and it took no more than a moment for Maya to grab hold of Claudine's hand - the one that had been persistently fraying her poor script - to lead them off.
As Claudine's legs fumbled around the corner of the table, muttering some curse in French under her breath all the while, she reluctantly followed.
The walk itself was no more than five minutes, but it was in complete silence. It was quite irksome and rather... unnerving, Claudine admitted; but when they finally reached their apparent destination, it left her more confused than anything else.
Just on the outskirts of the academy, a bit of a ways into the back forest, was an exceptionally beautiful display of flowers, shadowed by the trees overhead and lightly dusted in the rays of light that had managed to break through the canopy down to the forest floor below. Claudine hadn't known any of this even existed. She didn't notice the nagging curiosity of why she had been dragged out here ebbing away as she took in the sight around her, and it eventually dissolved in its entirety. It didn't even register that they had stopped moving until Maya began talking to her.
"Can I show you something?"
"What is it?" Claudine asked, and once again a mask of irritation had arranged itself on her face; Maya had brought her here on the guarantee of this unknown "something," so she better have something to show for it.
There was a pause. Claudine would say it was a moment of hesitation, but Tendo Maya didn't hesitate - so it was merely a pause. Nothing more than that.
Claudine had absolutely no reason to oblige that request. Maya had been nothing if not entirely uninformative. Claudine had no idea why she was dragged out to this forest, and regardless of how stunning it may have been, she hadn't a clue why they were here.
Yet, Claudine nodded. "Okay."
She couldn't help but notice that the thing that brightened Maya's eyes, the thing that peeked through the top star's suddenly not-so-perfect mask was some childish spark of happiness. There was no other word but "childish" if she reacted like that to a simple one-word affirmation.
As Claudine fixed herself a spot to sit, and as Maya walked off, it clicked, like a puzzle piece, something that had felt strangely out of place and unaccounted for.
For the first time, Claudine realized that even Maya had these childish tendencies. Not, she noted to herself quite hastily, that such was a bad thing; but it left her dumbfounded because how had it taken her this long to realize there existed another entire side to Maya? It had been buried good and well under layers and layers of "top star" talk and the "Tendo thoroughbred" image: that was an undeniable fact. But it had taken... What? A little extra spark in her eyes for Claudine to realize Maya existed separately from her actor persona? That her entire personality - her entire person - was not a mere extension of the stage?
The girl was clearly picking a random assortment of flowers, but for what reason, Claudine still remained unaware - and for once, she did not find annoyance in that lack of certainty. If anything, she was curious; and she initially wanted to snuff out the innate excitement of that mystery element on which Maya had founded this whole thing, but she was too tempted to see how it panned out.
When Maya returned, hands gripping stems upon stems of different flowers, she settled herself in front of Claudine, crossing her legs atop one another and laying her bundle in the empty space between them.
"Karen taught this to me."
Claudine wasn't quite sure how to take that information, but Maya offered no further explanation; and by that point, Claudine realized she wouldn't be getting anything more.
She instead found her attention drawn to the two flowers that Maya reached down to collect, one in each hand. She wrapped the stems around one another, and once they were successfully knotted together, she plucked a third flower from the stack. This time, however, just as she twisted the new one around the pair, she pulled a tad too hard, and the stem ripped in two. She silently grasped for a fourth one and continued the process.
And that was a key word - silently - because there had been an awful lot of silence, but at least now, Claudine found no uneasiness in it - and she wasn't entirely sure why. What she did know, though, was that some odd mix of contentedness and warmth had overtaken a section of chest, and it felt so strangely out of place and foreign but so nice.
She glanced up at Maya's face, and there was again an expression there, a messy one that she had never seen before on the girl. It was one of concentration; and that was the first time Claudine had seen that kind of meticulous investment because Maya seemed to just naturally get everything, to Claudine's ever-persistent frustration. There was no reason for her to focus so markedly when everything came to her so naturally.
For a moment, Claudine felt as though she might have been intruding upon something, or that this expression of emotion wasn't something she should be seeing.
And it made Claudine feel a tad bit dumb. She knew every facet of this girl, or she thought she did, but she hadn't considered that some of Maya's haughty and arrogant behaviors could collapse into something so childish as this.
And whatever this even was was still a mystery, but it wasn't as though that mattered when she hadn't paid a lick of attention to the flower craft Maya twiddled between her fingers.
"How is it?"
Claudine jolted. Maya was looking right at her, and Claudine could only hope Maya didn't notice the staring. Any hint of a flush that may have started to capture Claudine's cheeks melted away as she eyed Maya back. She looked so... so proud of herself - but it was a different proud than the kind she exhibited after an audition or a play. It was the kind that lit up her eyes in that childish glow again, and Claudine honestly didn't know how to feel about it, even after catching the three or four glimpses from today alone.
But when Claudine glanced down, what she bore witness to...
She required herself to refrain from snorting.
Maya's creation - Maya's creation, she reminded herself with an air of hilarity and incredulity - was an awful travesty.
It was supposed to be a crown of flowers, that much was obvious by its circular shape. Beyond that, well... there was not much to say. Positively, at least, because there were so many things wrong with it that Claudine could have made a list.
There were holes, stretches of nothing but green stems absent of any of the gorgeous flowers Maya had plucked. But then twist it around an inch or two, and Maya had bunched up a whole array of azaleas and lilacs. It was wonky and uneven, and she clearly hadn't been delicate enough because some of the petals had been ripped from their buds.
Something on Claudine's face must have shown how appalled she was because Maya cut in. "It's not good."
Claudine was tempted to agree. One of her rebuttals had already formed against the detestable arrangement of stems and petals; but when her attention flickered back up to meet Maya's, she found the new look that had overtaken the brunette's features to be downright detestable.
She couldn't stand it.
There was doubt, on which it was hard to even put a name, since Claudine could not discern even one instance that Maya had expressed such an emotion.
There was something else, too, something like... disappointment, maybe. And that was boundlessly worse than doubtful because Maya should have no reason to be disappointed. Not in herself, at least, and the way Maya waited was jarring. She yearned for approval, approval and praise for something she couldn't, for once, commend on her own. She could not say, "This is good," or, "This is a job well done," because she didn't know if it were. In fact, she had already condemned her creation under the "not good" category; and while it most certainly was "not good," it had a... charm to it. And it sounded abysmally childish when Claudine put it that way because it was a flower crown of all things, but that was exactly the point.
Maya didn't have a childhood of dolls and blocks and friends and jump rope but of dancing and singing and sore feet and recitals - and if she didn't have the experiences to begin with, she certainly couldn't be commended for them. Was she even commended for the feats she did achieve, or were they merely things expected of her as a Tendo?
Maya was a thoroughbred through-and-through, but the more Claudine thought of that, the more sick she made herself, and the idea left a bitter taste in her mouth.
Claudine needed that taste gone, so she finally answered.
And that was not a lie. It may have been the single ugliest flower crown Claudine had ever been graced to see, but it was Maya's, and it was lovely. It was... It was perfect, to Claudine, at least.
She knew she had said the right thing the moment that spark was back in Maya's eyes. The corners of Claudine's mouth unconsciously curled upwards at the sight.
It was tentative (and that was yet another trait Claudine simply hadn't thought existed within the brunette), but Maya leaned over and placed her creation atop Claudine's head. Claudine noted, in the back of her mind, that this had probably been Maya's plan from the start. To drag Claudine out here, to make a flower crown and put it on her head, like they were five years old or something - or maybe as though Claudine were royalty, which honestly just made it all the more like they were five years old. And that was... sweet. It was incredibly sweet.
But once Maya pulled back, eyes tracing the more-stems-than-flower flower crown, that smug grin of hers managed to find its rightful place on her face, as if she were mocking the very thing she made.
"It's hideous," she corrected and reached to pull it back off Claudine's blond locks.
Before Maya could move even an inch closer to the abomination, Claudine swatted her approaching hand away and glared.
"This is for me, correct?" she questioned, bringing a hand up to point at the crown.
"That was the intent, but you surely do not want such a poor excuse of a crown."
Claudine was right. Maya had intended this little crowning from the beginning. Her stupid little crown suddenly felt exceptionally more important - not that it hadn't already been important, but now there was a nagging feeling in the pit of Claudine's stomach that established a need to hold onto this crown for good. She abruptly wondered if there were a way to preserve the flowers.
"Well I do, in fact, want it, and I wish to wear it."
And that brought pause to Maya. Pause, or hesitation?
"Ah," Maya rather noncommittally returned.
Definitely pause, Claudine determined, as a genuine smile played at Maya's lips, not that haughty smirk of hers of which Claudine so often found herself on the other side. She was... much happier to be on the receiving end of this smile, instead.
Maya began picking a few of the spare flowers from the pile between them and rolled the stems between her thumb and forefinger.
"I've only made one other before, but I think I can show you how to make one, if you would like."
The phrase stuck out to Claudine. This was something Maya wasn't certain about. Maya shouldn't care if she were good at it or not; but she did because she was Tendo Maya, and, as her name commanded, she ought to be good at everything.
And if Maya's apparent outlet for these juvenile behaviors was with Claudine and Claudine alone, she couldn't conjure up a true complaint. No, it was quite the opposite. Claudine was glad it was with her; and with the weight of the sweet-smelling petals sitting rightfully on top of her head, she wasn't even embarrassed to admit that (at least to herself).
The thought settled comfortably in her chest, right alongside the knowledge that she had been allowed to see this side of Maya. No - that Maya had sought her out to show her this side.
"I think," Claudine began, reaching for two flowers of her own, one pink and one blue. The idea of crowning Maya, as childish as it sounded, was something she quite heartily wanted to do. Claudine wanted to set a ring of flowers atop her head, just as Maya had done to her, as if it held some kind of significant meaning. She smiled something genuine and scooched closer to Maya, knees bumping as she settled in place. "I would like that."
"You should have told me you knew how to make these already," Maya spoke. Claudine couldn't help but grin at the unfiltered awe laced in her partner's tone.
The completed flower crown Claudine held was absolutely stunning. There were no ugly gaps of stems, and she had spaced the flowers apart perfectly. It was like night and day between hers and Maya's (not that Claudine had any intent to replace the one Maya had bestowed upon her).
When Claudine replied, there was a trace of laughter in her words. It was a pleasant surprise to herself. "I didn't. I've never made one before."
"Oh," Maya started, eyes flickering to meet Claudine's for just a moment before returning to the crown. "It's beautiful."
Pink dusted Claudine's cheeks at that statement. She wanted to believe it was simply Maya being Maya - blunt without even a hint of embarrassment at whatever she said - but the brunette was still admiring her perfectly symmetrical ring of flowers, so Claudine knew she was being entirely genuine.
Clearing her throat, Claudine brought herself closer. "Come here," she said, lifting the crown in her hands.
And she could tell that Maya tried (and for the most part failed) to smother how charmed she was at the prospect of being crowned by Claudine's gorgeous arrangement - of being crowned by Claudine. She bent her head towards the blond, who in turn rested the crown on top of her brown locks.
It was entirely and wonderfully endearing: the unabashed joy that went to light up Maya's eyes as she righted herself, how it was directed at Claudine as if she had just executed some incredible feat like hanging the stars and the moon and maybe even the sun in the very sky. It was a look Claudine hoped she could see more of.
But she knew - Claudine knew from some sickeningly sweet recess of her mind that her crown was definitely not equivalent to such an extraordinary feat - certainly not. Not when Maya's crown, still an ugly conglomeration of stems and flowers and set like absolute royalty atop Claudine's head, was far better than any one she could ever hope to make.
"Can you show me how you made yours?" Maya asked, and Claudine could feel her heart skip a beat because Tendo Maya was actually asking her to lead (even if it was with a flower crown, but she would take it).
Claudine pulled a few more flowers from the pile, and Maya copied her with an air of enthusiasm.
"Do realize," Claudine proclaimed, and she pointed to her horrid crown, "that none you make will ever top this one." She tried to smirk, but it was far too genuine to be anything but a smile - and that should have infuriated her, but the failure to be anything but blissfully content just tugged at her lips more.
Maya laughed, already weaving the stems together because she was not used to waiting and following. She was used to leading, even if it meant leading herself into the creation of another abysmal flower crown. Claudine pulled Maya's fingers away from the flowers and shot her an insincere glare to stop and wait.
And Maya's response, genuine and wholeheartedly happy, left Claudine feeling as though her heart had entirely burst apart.
"Claudine, you already topped it."