Actions

Work Header

Longing For a Star

Work Text:

At so young an age, Tendou Maya already knows that her eyes will be set upon the very theater her parents have devoted themselves to.

She will certainly go on to achieve greatness, she’s told from relatives and her parents’ friends. She’s told so many times that it is no longer a belief, it is simply a part of her. She knows of nothing else, nothing else beyond the stage that she’ll stand on, the stage that she’s told she will dominate.

And take the stage she will, as the one who will capture the audience's attention, the one who will captivate and mesmerize, who will stand and have all eyes be on her no matter what she is. So she is told, and her parents do little to refute that notion.

Her parents aren’t strict. At least, she doesn’t think they are. After all, it’s only expected of her, as one born to parents with such high talents. It is only fair that she must match up to them, must strive to even greater heights than them as their child.

“Stand above the others,” her mother tells her as her father subtly nods in the background. They have always stood at the top, have always reached for the top, have always craved for far more.

This will is what she inherits from them. And this is the memory she holds, the one that drives her further.

But, there is another she remembers, one from when she’s very young.

Once, after one of their dinners together, her father holds out his hand toward her mother. Maya watches with wide eyes, because this has never happened before, this isn’t what their routine consists of. Her mother laughs and swats at her father, who only continues to smile in that way he does: with only a small upward quirk of his lips, and the corners of his eyes crinkling with amusement and joy.

Her mother places her hand in his, and stands up. Their eyes never break contact, and they spend a moment simply to watch each other. Maya watches, holding her breath for the next moment. She’s never seen her parents like this before, and she’s never been so excited to see the next act.

Her father shoots her a quick glance, and Maya thinks she can see his smile growing wider. Then, he tugs her mother forward, brings an arm around her waist, and spins them around. They quickly fall into step, and they begin to move.

Dancing, Maya learns later, is what they’re doing.

Her father leads her mother all over the room, a flurry of movement all over the floor. Her mother laughs, and though it looks like she’s stumbling a bit, she doesn’t trip, and Maya catches how her father slows down just a little for her before she catches up again.

Maya is captivated. She’s never seen anything like this before, never seen her parents like this before. It’d been their anniversary, she learns later, hence the special performance from her father.

Outside of his acting, her father isn’t very expressive. He rarely smiles, rarely changes his face from the way his brow seems to always be slightly furrowed. He is not unkind, cruel, or overly strict, but rather, as her mother likes to say, awkward when he does not have a role to perform. “But the way he can change so quickly, though!” her mother likes to exclaim.

As Maya watches her parents twirl all over the room, she thinks that with his dance, the way he holds her mother in his arms, the way he seems to shine even when there aren’t any spotlights on him, speaks far more than anything else. His gallantry and charisma captivate both her mother and her. This is him, Maya thinks.

And her mother! After a while, they fall into a rhythm where they move so perfectly so in sync. It’s… breathtaking, being able to watch this, see her parents dance with such passion, such fervor, such ardor!

The dance finally comes to a close. Their movements start to slow, and Maya can see it, notice how her mother still has stars in her eyes, and how her father looks at her mother as if she's the only one in his world.

Her parents don't show their affection for each other much, so Maya finds herself absolutely dazzled by this display. Her father's reserved and always speaks with such purpose that Maya feels loathe to speak carelessly in his presence, and her mother, when she isn't in those rare moments of amusement, speaks so softly but with a sharpness to it that cuts away at Maya's weaknesses every time, so unlike the powerful voice she has on stage that echoes so resoundingly. That's why, she's so entranced by this performance, this one single time her mother and father smile so widely at each other with such affection.

She wants to be able to do that too, dance and show her passion the way they do.

“You’re still too young for that sort of thing,” her father says when she tells him. His usual stern expression is back on his face, but there’s a hint of a blush on it.

“I don't think she means like that,” her mother says with a laugh, and her father grimaces.

“But for that sort of dance, you need a partner.” He reaches down and pats her head, his usual way of affection. “Eventually, one day,” he murmurs with a frown, and her mother only laughs at his expression.

Maya doesn’t know why they act like that. All she wants is to shine like her parents had done, the way her father had become. He’d become almost an entirely different person the moment he started dancing, when he started acting.

How does she become like that?

“What is it that you want to do?” her father asks when she asks him exactly that. She stares up at him, blinking several times before she looks away. Maya feels as if he’s expecting some grand answer, and she doesn’t want to disappoint him. There’s nothing that comes to her mind, though. None, except… one answer.

She looks back up at him, and points. “I want to be like you,” she says.

Her father’s expression doesn’t change, but she catches the rise of his brow. Had he not expected that answer? Should she have said something else?

But she wants to be like her father. She wants to captivate the audience, because that’s what she’s been told she’ll do. Should it not make sense, that she wants to be like that?

“An actor?” he finally says.

“Yes,” Maya answers with a small nod. “Put on a good show like you and Mother do.” She looks down, shyly. “I like watching you two perform. I want to do that too.” Because everyone tells her she will, she doesn’t say.

“... ah,” her father hums. He doesn’t speak, but Maya knows he’s thinking over her answer.

“Are you sure?” he finally asks.

“Yes,” she answers right away.

He rises from where he’s sitting and comes to stand in front of her. Like a tower that looms over her, he’s tall, imposing, grandiose to little Maya. Then, he slides backward and kneels, and holds out a hand, staring above Maya, like he’s looking at someone. Even Maya hesitantly looks behind her just to make sure, but there isn’t anyone. And when she looks back, that when she notices it, the exact moment the change come over him.

He is no longer her father, he is now—

“But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun,” he cries out. His voice is different, so much unlike his usual intonation, low and quiet. Instead, his voice is pitched a bit higher, and she can hear the adoration, feel his very spirit pouring through his words. “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief—”

Even though he’s dressed in his usual casual clothes, even though he doesn’t have any stage makeup on like she’s seen from his plays, even though he isn’t even on a stage, he’s transformed so entirely into his role. He glances at her briefly, and she sees it, how he looks at her not only as his daughter, but as a member of the audience he’s there to entertain, to captivate, to rouse.

He moves his hand again, and they’re so exaggerated, overly dramatic, but it feels so perfect. Every movement, no matter how big or small, are all so purposeful. He speaks again, and though his voice is soft still, she can hear them as if he’s speaking next to her, the very adoration of the lines he seeps into his words that enrapture young Maya.

Then, he abruptly stands up. Maya blinks, and it is not Romeo that stands in front of her, but her father.

“Is this what you want to do?” he asks again.

Maya’s voice is caught, still spellbound by his performance. But once she breaks through that spell, she nods eagerly. “Yes.”

“Remember this feeling, then,” he tells her. “To leave your audience spellbound, to let them believe you are the character you have been casted, to breathe life into the role you have been given—”

Yes, she thinks. That’s what she wants to do. She wants to follow her parents, she decides.

She wants to come alive on the stage.

But it isn’t until Maya performs her first play that she finally understands.

To be truthful, she doesn’t remember much of the play. It had been a play for the cultural festival, and naturally she’d been chosen for the lead. She doesn’t even remember which play they performed. What she mostly remembers, though, is the nervousness she had felt. She remembers the whispers, all of her expectations.

”Tendou’s child is performing, she must be perfect.”

“I expect nothing less than the best from Tendou’s child.

“Show me how bright you can shine, my daughter.”

Stage fright is common, her parents had said. Maya’s hands shake, and she thinks the way her stomach seems to drop every few seconds is the most dreadful feeling she’s ever had yet. All the other children are nervous too, but they speak amongst themselves, trying to calm each others nerves as much as their own. None of them approach Maya.

Above everything else, she knows her mother and father are out there in the audience. She cannot disappoint them. She will not disappoint them. She is a Tendou, and they expect great things from her, so she will overcome.

She must because she is Tendou Maya.

The curtains start to rise.

She is Tendou Maya.

She is Tendou Maya.

She is Tendou Maya.

For the first time in her life, in front of her audience, Tendou Maya stands at position zero and comes alive.


1


Her training continues. Her parents enroll her into all the top schools and courses.

As expected from Tendou, come the whispers.

Nothing less than the best from Tendou, come the sneers.

Only here because of her parents, come the insults.

Maya does not listen to them. She cannot listen to them. She will not listen to them. What she’s settled her eyes on is already far higher than what mere words could drag her down to. All she needs is to give her all, work on achieving the potential she has yet to unlock, reach for those moments where she bursts to life once more upon the stage, with all the eyes on her, standing at position zero.

“You're working so hard,” her father remarks one day. Maya stops her practicing and looks over at him. He looks the same as ever but seems worn out. She remembers he mentioned helping out with a new play and he comes home late into the night. Maya feels as if she should be the one telling him that too.

Instead, she nods at him, and he nods back. Their expressions don't change, save for a small twitch of their lips. Maya learns from her mother that she starts to take more after him, the way they both get so reserved in their own affairs but ignite with passion when they're on the stage.

“Of course,” she answers, “someone else will take my lead if I don’t be careful.”

“Yes, of course,” he only says, and he smiles at her. Maya can’t help but preen at that. Rarely expressive, getting a smile like that is the highest praise she could ever receive. That’s why, she can’t disappoint him. She wants to aim for higher, even higher than before, to break all his expectations.

Because it is expected of her.

Because she cannot disappoint him.

Because she is Tendou Maya.

And so she continues.

“Time spent idle is better spent practicing,” her parents tell her. “There is no worse feeling than feeling you’re at the top, and having your position wrestled from you at the very last moment.”

Maya agrees. She cannot let herself falter, not even once. She is a jealous girl, and she will not give up her rightful throne upon position zero to those who do not deserve it. She lords over it as if it is her birthright.

Because she is Tendou Maya.

But, Maya finds, that she can have an even greater desire than that.

Once.

That’s all it takes.

It happens when she comes home after finishing practice on a day that feels like any other. Or, well, no, because her father is already home. He looks up at her when he hears her enter, and beckons for her to come. “We’re going to see a play this weekend,” he tells her.

Maya has already watched so many plays, most of them her father’s, but this one is special, her father tells her. “This is what I’ve been working on. There is a child actor who is the same age as you,” he explains. “You would do well to learn from her.”

So Maya hears, and understands. Her father’s praise is never given so lightly. Who else could have captured her father’s attention?

A bud of excitement grows inside of her. She wants to see who else is worthy of her father’s compliments. She wants to know, wants to see.

So excited that she is that she can hardly sit still in her seat by the time the day arrives and they get to the theater. Impatience runs inside of her, and she wants for the show to start already. She doesn’t think she’s ever felt like this for any other play.

Someone else the same age as her? In a leading role? Someone that receives even her father’s accolades?

Of course Tendou Maya must see who this actor is.

The lights start to dim. The curtains draw back. The sound of footsteps on the stage.

Then, the spotlight shines down, upon the girl in the middle—

Maya’s eyes widen as she draws a sharp breath.

Every movement of the girl, every word she speaks, every expression she makes, Maya can feel it all. This girl… Maya understands it now, why her father extolled so highly of her.

She’s enraptured. Just as she’d been with her father, she cannot look away, cannot even think to tear her eyes away. When the scenes change and the girl isn’t on stage, Maya longs for her to come back, aches for her to show up once more. And when she does, Maya can feel her heart sing.

Maya is captivated. Her eyes never stray from the girl when she’s on stage. Where she treads, Maya readily follows. She feels if she looks away, the girl will disappear from the stage, and the magic will be gone. So she keeps her eyes wide open, almost never daring to blink, as every moment the girl is on the scene is a life altering sentence.

So taken and bewitched Maya is by this child actor.

“She’s amazing,” Maya breathes, unaware that she’s spoken aloud until she hears her father chuckle.

“Even at so young an age, so professional,” her father says. He gestures toward the stage, where the girl is singing now. Her voice is wonderful too, Maya thinks, lilting, and matching the song perfectly. Her intonation is perfect, and each gesture she makes, everything about her is… is...

“The star that you should be reaching,” her father speaks, “that is—”

Maya remembers her name. Maya remembers all of her. Maya remembers her radiance upon the stage.

The star she wants to reach, the radiance she wants, the one she seeks to have. It is exactly what she has shown, the single moment of brilliance that Maya impresses forever into her mind, into her heart. She can’t ever forget it, she won’t ever forget it.

So she follows after that star.

She appears in commercials, in ads, on TV. Maya watches them all. Her mother laughs and tells her how dedicated to is to studying her rivals. Her father doesn’t say anything, but he hums and nods like he understands. Maybe he does, Maya thinks, that must be why he’s shown her that play.

Even though the television screen can’t fully capture the beauty Maya has seen in real life, that same girl still looks so wonderful, so captivating. Maya can never stop watching whenever she appears on the screen. When Maya hears that girl will star in more plays, she wants to see them all. Her father pats her head and buys them tickets. Maya sees them all.

And even when she disappears, even when her name is no longer everywhere, Maya still remembers, still keeps deep inside her own heart. She can never forget the radiance of her on that day, cannot forget the star she wants to reach.

So Maya promises herself, that she will one day match that star in all her resplendence, in all her shine, in all her glory. She wants nothing more than to reach out, to chase it, to seek it, to let herself become bathed in that single moment of brilliance once more.

Thus, Tendou Maya remembers—

Saijou Claudine.


2


The years pass. Her skills only continue to grow as she hones them, sharpens them, refines them. She cannot take a break, cannot rest, cannot stop. The path to the top is always a never ending process.

“Even when you think you are done, there are always endless possibilities,” her mother tells her. “There are always so many ways you can improve.” And when she looks over at Maya, smiling thinly, she says, “Practice only makes perfect.”

Of course, Maya thinks.

To reach the radiance that she seeks, Maya needs to go even further than she can even imagine.

Number one, Tendou Maya.

It’s only natural, of course, Maya thinks. Everyone else has the desire for the number one position, but no one else desires it more than Maya. But this isn’t enough; she still desires to soar even higher. For all her training, for all her practice, for all her skills, she thinks it still isn’t enough to match what she saw that day, isn’t enough to match the one she chases after.

It never feels like it is enough.

Even when she enrolls into Seisho and hears the praise of her relatives and family friends for getting into such a high place of honor, she thinks still—

Not enough. Not yet. Not there.

Number one, Tendou Maya, and she still hungers for even more.

When she arrives at school, she hears them.

They stare at her. They whisper to each other. They point at her.

Surpass me, then, she tells them as she sweeps her eyes over them, and they all look away from her.

Some don’t, though. There’s something different in their eyes, unlike the fires of challenge that snuff out that Maya is more than familiar with. But they keep staring at her, unable to take their eyes away.

She chooses to ignore that too. She’s not performing, this is not her stage to captivate.

Here, even at esteemed Seisho Academy, Maya will—

“Stretch with me?”

Maya turns her head to see who would even speak to her.

It is sheer self-control that Maya remains composed, for in front of her stands—

“I am Saijou Claudine,” she introduces. A corner of her lip is curled upward. Confidence, almost bordering on arrogance, Maya thinks. “You might have heard of me.”

Saijou Claudine, in the very flesh, Maya realizes.

In front of her stands Saijou Claudine.

And, that’s when it hits Maya, why that name underneath hers had seemed so familiar. Number one, Tendou Maya. And, number two—

She’s much different than what Maya remembers. But of course, that makes sense, they’ve both grown, she thinks. And, the girl in front of her…

“Tendou Maya,” she responds, and takes Claudine’s hand. When Claudine grips her hand with a ferocity that catches Maya off guard, she manages to not let her surprise show on her face.

“I know who you are,” Claudine answers. A corner of her lips curls upward, and she’s staring at Maya, almost expectantly.

I know who you are too, Maya wants to answer back, but she thinks that might be too… forward of her. So instead, she nods an acknowledgement. For some reason, the smirk on Claudine’s face starts to turn the opposite way, and Maya’s almost sure that Claudine is scowling at her. But the expression changes, and now she’s smiling again. There’s something about that smile, though, that makes Maya wary.

“Show me what you can do,” Claudine tells her.

… ah. Of course. How else could Maya expect otherwise?

“I hope to live up to your expectation,” Maya murmurs back.

Saijou Claudine or not, Maya is only here for one goal, and that is to better herself, to push herself even further beyond what she can reach now. She readies herself, thinking only of her goal.

To reach the same radiance as Saijou Claudine—

Maya blinks, and she realizes practice is over. Her peers are staring at her, and even the teacher seems hesitant, faintly awed. She turns her head, seeking Claudine, and finds—

There’s a dark expression upon Claudine’s face. There’s something about that look that strikes Maya, though, something about it—

Ah. Maya realizes what it is. She’s seen it so many times before.

Jealousy, she recognizes. Envy. Anger. Bitterness.

… but was it not Claudine’s own shine that Maya had sought to reach?

What has changed?

… ah.

Is it because, now, they both stand upon the same stage? It is no longer Maya, watching from the balcony above, gazing down upon Claudine in all of her glory, but now it is them standing upon the stage together? Is that what has happened?

Here, they come together, and seek the same desire. To stand at the very top above everyone else, to know they are the ones that shine far brighter than everyone else, to know it is their own radiance that captivates their audience.

And, now, as Maya gazes upon Claudine, looks upon the Saijou Claudine in front of her...

She wonders when it has... become so dimmed.

Ah, no, that isn’t right, either. There is something else entirely instead. Rather than the shine of a star, Maya can see it, a fire being stoked. As a star, Claudine has burnt out, but her ambitions still remain strong, still burning so bright, like a kindling trying to match the very strength of a star.

The radiance is still there, but it is buried. Then, what can Maya do to bring it out? She wants that—wants to see where that fire will burn.

It is what Maya herself has been chasing, too, after all.

The teacher claps her hands right in that moment. “That’s enough, everyone! Gather around.” Both Claudine and Maya blink, and in that moment, forget.

But Maya feels it, seconds later, the stare at her back. And, this, she knows is from Claudine.

For the first time in her life, Maya feels… excitement. And what she desires now—

School begins, and they settle into its rhythm.

And, yet, Maya cannot stop thinking about it.

Who is the Saijou Claudine before her? Why is she so different from what she has known? Who is she now? What has even happened?

… yet, does it matter? If Maya remembers the Saijou Claudine of before, the one who stood upon that stage as Arrie, the Saijou Claudine then… if Maya keeps sight of that shine, then it does not matter. Her goal has always been the same.

… but this Saijou Claudine in front of her is capable of the same magnificence she held back then, this Maya knows.

She will bring it out.

She wants to bring it out.

“We’re going to be doing something a little unusual for the next few years,” their teacher announces one day. Next to her, on top of the desk, is a stack of books. “For the next three years, we’re going to be performing the same play: Starlight.”

The class erupts into murmurs. The teacher waits a moment before shushing them down and begins to pass out the scripts. Maya looks down at it, fingers running over the cover. The script of the 99th class of Seisho, is here.

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

“For this year… we’ve already decided on roles. Tendou Maya will play Claire. Saijou Claudine will play Flora,” their teacher announces. The class erupts into another round of murmurs. Maya sits in front of Claudine so she cannot see her expression, but she can most certainly feel her eyes upon her back.

Yes, that’s exactly as to be expected.

As their teacher announces the rest of the cast, Maya turns her head, and happens to catch Claudine’s gaze.

Claudine is staring at her, staring so hard that she might as well be carved from stone. But, that would be impossible, not with the way her eyes feel so… searing, as if they’re trying to pierce right through her.

Maya’s almost taken aback. She’s never thought someone could ever look at her so. Or, she does have a faint memory of someone else who did, but they’d been insignificant, so she doesn’t bother to remember fully the details.

But Claudine…

This is new. Maya cannot help it; she catches Claudine’s gaze and turns toward her, as if to face her fully head on. Claudine doesn’t even flinch or blink away, as if she expected Maya to do just that. And when class is dismissed to head for the practice room, Claudine is still there, waiting for her.

“Tendou Maya, I haven’t lost yet,” Claudine only says before spinning on her heel and heading for the door. All Maya can do is stare at the spot Claudine had been, memorizing that look upon Claudine’s face.

Ah.

Ah!

There it’d been! That fire—Maya can see it, see it becoming lit.

She wants to see that fire again, see that radiance she once sought. It is all she can think about still, even as she heads into practice, even when she sees Claudine who’s schooled her face into the perfect mask of indifference.

The teacher claps her hands. “Take your positions!”

And Maya goes to position zero, as always. And, from behind, Maya can feel Claudine’s eyes burning into her, as always.

The Saijou Claudine before her… the one that stands behind her now...

If Claudine only comes alive when Maya stands at position zero, then so be it.


3


Claudine works surprisingly well with her, Maya finds. For all of Claudine’s glowering, for all of her griping, for all of her scowls, she easily falls into step with Maya. No one else can keep up with Maya the way Claudine can. Always, every single time, she can feel Claudine’s eyes, whether on her as they dance together, or after her back, as she leads their practices.

It makes her remember her parents’ words. “There will always be someone ready to take your position,” they tell her. “So become the very best, shine as bright as you can, so that none may even think of challenging you.”

So she had done, but Maya does not care for the thought of rivalry. To stand at the top means to shine even brighter than the others. And if Maya is aware of their jealous glances, of their biting whispers and resentment, then she cares for none of it. All they have to do is shine even brighter than her, show her that even her own radiance can become dimmed in the light of something far greater.

But no one has been able to show her that yet. None can come close to Maya.

Thus, the fire in Claudine’s eyes! No one else has ever sought to openly challenge Maya as she has. To see that look directed upon her brings a thrill to Maya like no other. She’d been uncontested for so long, but now, there is someone with the determination to challenge even her! Will Claudine finally be the one who shows her a greater radiance that she longs for?

So of course Maya notices. She has always been watching Claudine, after all.

When she stumbles, Maya is there to catch her. Claudine glares at her, mutters her thanks through clenched teeth, and gets back to work. It amuses Maya sometimes, how Claudine can get so easily riled up over the smallest of things. She’s so expressive, so unlike herself where she lets very few things bother her. An actor must always be ready to improvise, she thinks.

But acting outside of the stage is much harder than it is, Maya finds. She’s at a loss sometimes, when Claudine speaks to her with a barely muted sneer. Others would say Claudine is rude, but this is fine, Maya thinks. Claudine can treat her however she wants, if she does not hold Maya back. Even Maya knows, that her concentration and focus can make her seem aloof and callous to others.

What Maya wants to see, above everything else, is that flame that burns deep within Claudine. When Maya takes Claudine’s hand and leads her through the dance, she can see it alight, that spark of determination, the one that tells Maya that Claudine still dreams of being the lead.

Yes, keep watching me with those eyes, Maya thinks. Keep them on me, look only to me, show me how bright you burn, see if you can shine just as brightly as I can—

“Hey.” Claudine’s voice is gruff. Maya blinks from where she’s resting against the wall of the practice room. It is the weekend, and they are the only ones here. They will only be the ones here.

“Hm?” Maya turns to look at Claudine, who holds out a bottle of water toward her. Maya stares blankly at it. What does this mean? She doesn’t understand—

“Water,” Claudine only says. She pushes it toward her once more. “You forgot yours this morning, didn’t you?

“... ah.” Maya hadn’t realized, truth be told, and she didn’t think Claudine would notice before her. She takes the the proffered water bottle from Claudine with a murmur. “You’re too kind, Saijou-san. Thank you.”

Claudine turns away with a huff. “If you’re not at your best, you bring me down too, you know.”

At that, Maya can feel a smile twitching at the corners of her lips. “Yes, of course. I will not disappoint you,” she says. She hears Claudine make another huff.

“That attitude you have is what makes you so vexing,” she mutters. When Maya had first heard these words, she hadn’t known what to make of them. Were they an insult? Compliment? She doesn’t know, not with the way Claudine acts so… strangely toward her. Now, she understands, and the words grow into a familiar phrase of endearment.

… endearment? She supposes that must be what they are. What else can Maya call them? Claudine is…

Hm. Claudine is the only peer her age who’s even thought to talk to her beyond mild pleasantries. Even though their banter is more of a wary dance of thorns...

To be able to talk with someone else who doesn’t look at her and sees all the expectations of her family name bearing down on her—

It is nice, Maya decides.

“Done?” Claudine’s voice cuts through Maya’s thoughts. When Maya looks over at her, Claudine is holding out her hand, to help her up. Maya stares at it for a bit before she takes it. Claudine’s hand is smaller than hers, but the strength of her grip is no less vice like. The exertion from their practice gives a sheen to Claudine, so full of life. Her eyes, they still burn so brightly.

That passion! That ferocity! That intensity!

Maya has not seen anything more beautiful in her life, she thinks.

They continue practice, at least until they remember the time when the practice room gets locked. It’s late afternoon by the time they leave.

The walk back to their dorm is silent save for the sounds of their footsteps down the street. Maya rarely speaks unless spoken to, and Claudine does not seem intent on making any extra conversation with her. That is fine, too, Maya thinks. Focusing only on bettering oneself is the priority here. There are no other words for them to speak, and all they need to say are shown through their dance—

“Oh!” Claudine exclaims suddenly. Maya nearly startles, not expecting to hear such a loud sound. When she turns to look beside her, Claudine is looking at her phone. Claudine glances at her before going back to her phone. “Futaba mentioned there’s a new movie coming out next weekend, so…”

“... ah.” Maya nods, and wonders why she suddenly feels… unease. Of course, Claudine sees other people outside of Maya. Or, rather, Claudine has other friends.

… would Claudine consider her a friend? No—Maya knows Claudine would never think that. Maya knows that this isn’t how friends treat each other.

… not that Maya knows exactly what it is like to have a friend, or be a friend. She’s never had any need for them. She has only focused on one goal, everyone else is secondary to it.

“—ndou Maya!”

Maya blinks, and looks over at Claudine, who’s glaring at her. It’s a different sort of glare, though, not like her usual ones. This one is more… how does Maya describe it, exasperated.

“So? Do you want to go?” Claudine asks, and then looks as if she’s eaten something sour. Maya ponders to herself for a moment, and realizes she hadn’t heard Claudine’s question.

“... I’m sorry, I did not hear you,” Maya says.

Really going to make me say it again, huh?” Claudine makes another face. “I said, do you want to go see the movie?”

And here, Maya blinks. Of all the things to expect, it hadn’t been that. Claudine, asking her to see a movie? Claudine, asking her for… asking to see her beyond practice? Has something happened with Claudine during practice?

This is… strange.

“What? Something the matter?” Claudine seems rather defensive although Maya doesn’t understand why.

“I... “ Maya shakes her head. “I… hadn’t been expecting that,” she confesses. Claudine’s face changes, and Maya feels as if she’s being studied instead, with the way Claudine’s eyes roam over her, as if she’s scrutinizing every corner of her face searching for… Maya does not know what she seeks.

But whatever it is that Claudine is searching for, she seems to find. Maya is tempted to ask what it is, but she has a feeling Claudine will not tell her, nor will Maya herself even understand.

… there are many things Maya is starting to find that she does not understand.

“Anyway!” Claudine’s impatience starts to rear. “Do you want to go or not?”

A movie. What movie is it, Maya wants to ask, but she thinks Claudine might not appreciate it. Instead, she mentally runs through her schedule for next weekend. All she has planned is practice, which she absolutely cannot skip.

”Time spent idle is better spent practicing,” she recalls. Thus, going out to watch the movies, even with Claudine… is unnecessary, not when Maya can use that time to practice. Then—

“You know, practicing all the time isn’t so good either,” Claudine suddenly says. Maya blinks, and wonders if what Claudine’s spoken is deliberate. It must be, with the way Claudine’s stare suddenly seems accusing to Maya.

“... but is that not what you do, too?” Maya asks instead. Claudine makes a face and huffs at her again.

That is different. At least I know when to take care of myself too!” Claudine jabs a finger at her. “I bet you’re the type of person who forgets to do things like take a break or skip lunch while in the middle of practicing, aren’t you, Tendou Maya!” The way she says it makes it sound as if she doesn’t expect any sort of rebuttal from Maya.

… that isn’t to say that Claudine is wrong, though. And when Maya doesn’t answer but merely look away in slight embarrassment, Claudine sighs very loudly and she throws her hands up. “Ugh! You really are so frustrating!” she says.

“We’re going to the movies!” Claudine declares, and walks away as if that is the end of that. Maya can do little but follow after her. She really should say otherwise, that missing practice is an absolute thing she cannot do, but she thinks if she protests, Claudine will glare at her, and this, perhaps, might be the one thing she will not budge on. Stubborn, but for what reason, Maya doesn’t know.

So, Maya finds herself with plans to go to the movies next weekend with Claudine.

… strange, Maya thinks, how she finds herself in this sort of situation. She is only here at Seisho to better perfect herself. Nothing else matters. It is how Maya has lived her life, will continue to live her life: to chase after that single glimpse of perfection.

Nothing else matters, she tells herself again. This one single instance is merely an outlier. It will not happen again, even if Claudine were to ask her once more.

This, Maya promises. She cannot afford to waste her time on such frivolities. There is still so much for her to do, still so much for her to train, still so much for her to hone. She cannot…

They arrive back at the dorms. Claudine only gives her a curt nod before striding off to her room. Maya watches her go before making her way to her own room.

She cannot stop thinking about it. Why had Claudine asked her to go with her? Why does Maya feel so… anxious? How is she to act? She’s never seen a movie with anyone else before, much less gone out to another place that wasn’t with her parents. She’s never had.

Maya doesn’t know what to do at all.

The smell of freshly baked goods waffs over to Maya in that moment. It is nighttime now, and she thought to have herself a glass of water before retiring for the rest of the night. Instead, she finds Nana inside the kitchen, sighing loudly to herself.

“Daiba-san? What are you doing?”

“Oh!” Nana spins around, looking embarrassed at being caught. “Tendou-san! I, um, kind of messed up this batch, so I was going to throw them away.”

“Throw them away?” Maya looks at the food on the counter. Cupcakes line the small tray Nana had been baking with.

“How so?” Maya decides to ask.

Nana laughs sheepishly. “I added too much sugar and they’re way too sweet now. Something like that isn’t very good, don’t you think so?”

Maya has had Nana’s treats only but once, and she cannot forget how delicious they were.

“Allow me to try one before you do,” she says, and does just that.

… it really is sweeter than she remembers.

But it is still just as delicious, she thinks. “These are good. Please allow me to take them instead, if you still want to dispose of them.”

Nana stares at her as if she’s said something else entirely. Then, she giggles. For what reason, Maya doesn’t know, but Nana is smiling gently at her. “Tendou-san, you're really kind, aren't you?”

Maya… does not know what to say to that. But, thankfully, Nana speaks again. “I mean, I don’t feel fine with giving you something I’m not happy about, but if you’re willing to take them, then go ahead!”

“Delicious food should not be wasted,” Maya only says, and Nana laughs as she places the cupcakes into a container to give to Maya.

… this might be the first time Maya and Nana are alone together like this, Maya thinks. Usually, Junna is here, or someone else. But, they are both alone. Thus, Maya feels the need to ask—

“Daiba-san, I know that you’re holding yourself back. May I ask why?”

It is almost impossible to miss the way Nana’s whole demeanor changes. Her body coils tight. It makes Maya think of a snake about to strike. She’s never thought Nana could be capable of this. A shiver goes through her, but it is a completely different emotion that isn’t excitement.

“Why?” Nana answers Maya’s question with one of her. She tilts her head, and Maya gets the strangest feeling that Nana isn’t quite seeing her.

“Why?” Maya repeats. Why? Because there is no meaning in standing at the top if she has not had a proper fight with everyone competing. She does not belong there if she knows there is someone else that deserves to stand higher than even her.

Just as she knows Claudine’s potential is hidden deep down, she knows, there is more to Nana than it seems too. And, yet, unlike Claudine, Nana has no desire to bring herself out.

“I just think the stage looks brighter from the side,” Nana finally answers.

… from the side?

Maya has never heard such a ridiculous answer before. For what reason is there to be on the stage than to strive for top star? Is there any other reason to aim for the brilliance of the stage? To be happy from merely the side?

What sort of ridiculous ideal is that?

And yet, because it is Nana, and the way she speaks so earnestly, lets Maya know that this is truly what Daiba Nana believes.

“I… see,” Maya can only say. She does not understand this, but she will endeavor to at least try.

“I think,” Nana says, “that the radiance we both want to see, come from different angles of the same star.”

Now, Maya thinks she can understand what Nana is trying to say. But, that isn’t what strikes Maya as odd. There is something about Nana’s words, and how she suddenly looks so wistful and faraway, that makes Maya pause. The Daiba Nana that stands in front of her…

Maya is finding that she knows very little about Claudine, about Nana, about the people she calls her classmates.

… is it really that important?

“I heard you’re going to be watching a movie with Kuro-chan sometime,” Nana suddenly says.

… Kuro-chan? Who is—ah. Claudine. She’s heard that nickname before from some of their other classmates, especially Karen. She hadn’t realized Nana had started to do the same. To address Claudine in such a familiar way…

Maya wonders if she might be able to do that, too, one day.

“Yes, I am,” Maya only says, and wonders where Nana had even heard that from. From Claudine? Maya has obviously not told anyone else. Then, it can only be Claudine. “She… asked me to go, and gave me no option to refuse.”

And Nana laughs. “Kuro-chan can be really forceful when she wants to be. Do you want to go, though? If not, I can tell her that you don’t want to.”

Maya mulls it over. She can, but she’s already spent so much time thinking about it that it feels like a waste to not go. She might as well go now, she thinks.

“It is fine, I will go,” Maya replies. Her resolve is already there, she will see it to the end.

… and she thinks Claudine would not appreciate her cancelling like that.

“It’ll make Kuro-chan happy,” Nana says with a small smile, and when Maya only gives her a strange look, waiting for her to explain, she doesn’t. “Maya-chan, you should—”

Both Nana and Maya’s eyes widen at the same time. They stare at each other, and Nana slaps a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry, that was too forward—”

“No,” Maya cuts in firmly though she’s still trying to overcome her surprise. “No, it’s…” and she pauses.

“Is it fine?” Nana asks, hesitantly. She looks scared, like she’s done something she shouldn’t have. Maya wonders why she looks like that, it is only the use of her name. And, yet, Nana looks as if she’s done something else far greater than that. Once again, Maya gets the oddest feeling about Nana, that she knows something about Maya that not even Maya does.

To have her name slip out like that, though…

Maya exhales. “It is fine. I didn’t mind.” Nana likes to take care of them. The way she makes everyone feel familiar and at home is one of her greatest strengths. It works better when she can address them so familiarly.

“Okay, Maya-chan,” Nana says, brightening with a smile. Even Maya finds herself slowly smiling back.

To be addressed in such a familiar way, like a friend…

Maya decides she rather likes it.


4


Starlight, the 99th stage play of Seisho Academy is finished.

Idly, Maya wonders if her parents are waiting for her outside. She should go see them, but it looks as if someone is trying to round the others up. For a picture, from what she can see. It must be Nana, she’s always been fond of taking pictures with her phone. Maya doesn’t understand why she does it so often, though.

But she lingers then, waiting. Before, she might have thought this to be frivolous, but she’s spent all those months practicing, and even someone like her can feel it inside of her to be sentimental from time to time. They’ve all put in so much work, time, and effort.

Her eyes roam across the backstage, unconsciously seeking for someone—

Ah. There she is.

Claudine is standing off to the side, talking to someone—Futaba, from the looks of it. Maya, out of sheer curiosity, lets her gaze linger. Futaba says something Maya cannot hear, and Claudine rolls her eyes but she laughs, hiding her mouth behind her hand. Futaba says something else again, and Claudine playfully swats at her, laughing again.

Something sharp seems to prick through Maya in that moment. She should look away, knows that she looks impolite the longer she keeps staring, but she cannot tear her eyes away. How can she, when Claudine is making an expression like that, smiling so openly and freely that she might as well be a different person.

Maya has never seen that—rather, Maya has never seen Claudine look at her like that. It is always…

Claudine happens to look over right at her in that moment. Maya nearly freezes in place, and Claudine seems to do the same as well. Claudine recovers but the exuberance fades away from her face. Her eyes narrow slightly, as if she’s challenging Maya. For what, Maya doesn’t know. The play is over now, and their positions have already long been decided. All hints of mirth are gone from Claudine.

To see Claudine’s face change so drastically when she looks at her, to know that she will not give Maya that same open smile without the provocation underneath—

It is only a simple detail, merely another part of Claudine and yet, one she will not show to Maya. Too proud and too prideful, the both of them are, Maya thinks. She can only make that face when they play their roles on the stage, but Maya can still see that glimmer of challenge underneath. Yet, the prick inside of her grows to an ache, a yearning she thought she pushed down long ago.

If only… even outside of their acting, Claudine could smile like that for her. She is beautiful, too, when she smiles, Maya thinks.

The sound of footsteps snap Maya out of her thoughts and alert her to Claudine coming closer. And closer still, until she’s standing right in front of Maya that they can feel each other’s breaths. They stare at each other—or rather, Claudine stares straight into Maya’s eyes, expression still stony. Maya can do little but return her gaze, feeling herself catch her own breath as the tension between them mounts.

Against her wishes, Maya can feel the panic surging through her. Why is Claudine so close? Had she caught onto Maya’s thoughts? Will she berate her for thinking of Claudine in such a way, for thinking of her so softly? A weakness, Maya thinks, and a mockery to Claudine’s efforts. To think of Claudine in such a way is a disservice!

But Maya cannot help it. Her heart is traitorous, beating so fast, so excitedly only by the mere fact that Claudine is so close to her. She thinks she might understand a little more, all those sonnets and love poems they’ve had to recite and perform.

… understand? Understand what? The feelings Tendou Maya holds for Saijou Claudine are only admiration of a time once gone, of a Claudine before then. They are most certainly not—

Then, Claudine reaches out. Her hand is coming closer, and Maya would flinch away if it weren’t for the way she’s suddenly frozen. Now she can feel Claudine’s hand caressing the side of her face so gently, and Claudine’s face is coming closer, even closer, and Maya cannot help but dart her eyes down to Claudine’s lips—

“I won’t lose.”

The whisper, spoken so softly yet with so much force, brushes against her ear, and Maya holds back the shiver that threatens to shoot through her. Then, the words register, and now Maya understands.

… ah.

Claudine pulls away, glaring at her still but there is a different quality to her, now. No longer is the girl in front of her so filled with anger and frustration, but she is… resolved, almost calmly. Her passion still blazes so hot, but there is a warmth to her. Even though the play is over and the adrenaline is starting to fade, the defiance upon Claudine is still so intense, so fierce! Ah, for Claudine to look upon her like that, it always brings a joy to Maya like no other.

And now, Maya understands, what this painful throbbing inside of her heart must be. Now, she understands why so many have written of its pain, of the agony it brings to those unfortunate to be seized.

It really is… painful, she finds.

As the night passes and Maya returns to her room, the pain ebbs away and an entirely different feeling overtakes her instead. She replays the scene she’d just experienced over, and over, until her mind is absolutely certain what her heart has already known. It is a sobering reality, but at least she hadn't been foolish enough to even dare to allow herself to hope.

Ah, does she really understand now!

Maya already knows, that she has never had any room in Claudine’s heart except only as an obstacle for her to overcome. She stands at the top, for Claudine to dream of knocking down.

Claudine will never look at her like…

Maya swallows, and nods to herself. Of course. How could she think otherwise? How could she even dare to think otherwise?

Of course, she thinks again. It echoes, as a reminder, as a wall.

Then—

There is only one thing left for her to do.

Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed at all.

Maya will continue to shine even brighter. Claudine will continue to push her even further. So Maya will stand at the top, soaring even higher, so Claudine can continue to chase after her. It is the least she can do, for Claudine who watches her back so intently. Will Claudine ever overtake her? Maya doesn’t know, but she won’t make it easy, and she thinks that’s fine with Claudine too.

Her goal hasn’t changed at all, Maya continues to tell herself even as she lays in bed that night. The thrill and exhilaration are gone now, and she can feel the weariness starting to take over, of both the performance and her newfound realization. Her eyes close.

And behind them, she can still imagine everything: the one single moment of rapture upon Claudine’s face when Flora and Claire promised to meet together again for the festival, the single glimpse of utter despair upon Claudine’s face when Flora cannot remember her dear friend…

Maya closes her eyes, and indulges herself for one single moment, that it is her that Claudine looks at.

… nothing has changed at all, Maya continues to tell herself.


5


The ringtone that plays on her phone shouldn’t already sound so familiar to her. Yet, it does, and Maya is already steeling herself.

By the time she arrives, Maya is still the only one on the stage. Only the second audition and already the cloak sits upon her shoulders like a familiar weight where it rightfully belongs. Even her sword seems to fit into her hands much better than it did last time. It’s not unlike stage fighting, she thinks.

But, here, their blades are real. The stage is as whimsical as their own feelings, changing to fit the desires of the ones on the stage. Everyone here is all fighting for the top, aiming to become the top star. This is the same battle Maya has always been in, will always be in. She is already more than familiar with this.

That is why, no matter what, Maya will cut them all down.

For the only one that can stand up here—

The doors creak open. Maya looks up and across the stage, meets Claudine’s gaze.

… ah.

Early, is what Maya thinks.

The battlefield, as wide and spacious as it is, will not be enough for their duel, Maya fears. And, as if to add insult to injury, Maya recognizes this landscape. How can she forget the columns, the pillars, the stairs, everything? How can she forget the stage where she stood even higher for Claudine and earned nothing but a promise of a chase?

Gathering the stars forgives your sins.

Gathering the stars is a miracle of the night—

Maya’s eyes are unblinking, blazing this very sight and memory before her. She doesn’t think she ever wants to forget this moment.

The star she wants to grasp—

But Claudine…

There is none of her usual self here. Instead, she’s stoic, staring up at Maya with barely any hint of… anything. She’d have thought that Claudine would come at her with her usual bravado, her usual scowl, her usual glower. But there is none of that.

Only a grim determination set upon her, as if she is…

Maya doesn’t like that look. It doesn’t fit Claudine at all, doesn’t fit the girl who constantly reminds Maya she cannot falter and let her guard down. Why does she look like that? Where is that fire? Where is her resolve?

Has Maya outshone even the very fire inside Claudine?

Claudine readies her sword. She still hasn’t spoken. Maya follows her lead. If Claudine will not speak, then Maya will not either. They’ve never needed words between them.

Between them, on this stage, only one of them can shine. Who will it be? Here, right now, in this very moment, Maya will deliver all of her radiance upon Claudine.

They both rush forward at the same time. Their swords clash. The steel rings in the air.

And there, as they hold their swords against each other, as they both struggle for an inch in their deadlock, as they both stare deep into each other and see the same yearning for top star reflected back at them—

The determination! The boldness! The conviction!

There it is! A shiver of excitement jolts down Maya. Claudine’s gaze is concentrated, fixated only upon Maya. It is… exhilarating, to be able to even glimpse all of Claudine’s passion, the one Maya knows is there.

Has Maya gone mad? No—this, too, is all of Maya’s own passion. She has never felt more than alive than in this moment, clashing swords with Claudine, fighting for the right to stand upon position zero.

Come for me!

Run after me!

Drag me down—

If you can!

Their fight drags on, impossibly longer than Maya would have thought. She had easily breezed through her first revue, but Claudine continues to meet her expectations—no, she’s exceeding all of them right now. The thrill is surging through her like electricity. She can feel every clang their swords make as they crash against each other, can hear every growl Claudine makes when Maya meets all her slashes and thrusts, can taste both the frustration and ardor so tense in the air between them.

Even as the stairs crumble all around them and the pillars crash and destroy their sacred stage, even as the water splashes down upon them and their strikes become heavy with their fatigue, even as they tire and the clash of their steel no longer boom through the theater as they once did—

Keep coming!

Keep running!

Keep chasing!

They break apart, both breathing heavily. Claudine’s eyes are so sharp they might as well be like the very sword she holds in her white-knuckled grip. But, her face is almost blank. There’s a different air to her, one that’s almost… resigned. Maya finds herself feeling disappointed. Had Claudine come in not expecting to win? They both desire being top star, so much more than the others, almost painfully so. It resonates deep within both of them, this craving.

But, not even Claudine’s hunger can come close to Maya’s own gluttony.

Chase after me—

Cut me down if you can!

“Tendou Maya!” Claudine screams as she rushes forward. The fire in her eyes is lit again, and Maya revels in that fervor. Claudine’s hunger for the top propels her so much, so far, Maya can never stop watching her.

But Maya can catch her mistake, catch the way she leans forward a little too far, a little too fast, and knows their dance is coming to an end. Standing her ground, she brings her own sword up to strike against Claudine’s heavy blow. The shock wave reverberates through her arm painfully but Maya’s resolve is stronger, and she does not flinch the way Claudine does, standing firm like an insurmountable wall.

It is also in the span of that single strike that Maya can see the horrified realization flash across Claudine’s face.

With her sword, Maya pushes her away. Claudine stumbles, desperate to regain her footing but it is too late. Maya’s arm is like a snake, and she knocks the sword out of Claudine’s hand. With the momentum of her swing, she spins around and slices off the golden brooch in front of her.

All in one motion, Maya has knocked away both of Claudine’s weapon and armor.

The sword clangs on the floor just as the brooch does.

Claudine’s cloak lands on the floor.

Claudine does not.

Maya hadn’t realized she reached out, but now she’s holding Claudine, gazing into her eyes. With the sting of defeat, what sort of fire will burn within Claudine’s eyes? Knowing that Maya has robbed her, knowing that Maya has dealt her defeat in such a humiliating way, knowing that Maya still stands above her—

Claudine shoves her away and stumbles backward. Her legs are too weak, though, and she falls to the ground. Maya steps after her, as if to chase her. The thud of her footstep makes Claudine snap her head up, and quickly pull herself forward so she’s on her knees instead. She looks up, at Maya—

Ah.

There it is.

Maya stands at position zero, staring down upon Claudine. The brooch lays scattered elsewhere, but Claudine’s cloak hugs the ground like a kiss of death.

Yet, even then, the fire in Claudine’s eyes haven’t even dimmed at all. They burn so hotly, blaze so bright that not even Maya can hardly bring herself to look away. She’s like a moth to the flame, staring into the brightness of Claudine’s defiance that still burns so hot, even now, after everything.

For as long as I stand here—

Position zero is where she lives, where she feels, where she is.

This is Maya’s domain. This is where she reigns. This is where she breathes.

Even alone, she will shine far brighter than anyone else.

Even... alone… Maya is…

She stabs her sword into the ground. Her hands shake but she grips her sword even tighter. There is no time for hesitation. There is only her resolve, to burn so bright, so brilliantly, that none can look upon her.

In the end, it is only Maya that can stand upon the stage at position zero.

“This is Tendou Maya.”


6


Something has changed.

Maya is not sure.

Claudine has become… subdued. Rather, she still burns so bright, but there is… another different quality to her again. Maya notices the way she stares, how she frowns and seems more sullen than… her usual self.

Maya would be lying to say that it did not bother her.

Is it because of their revue? Had something changed then? Maya doesn’t think it has—rather, all it has done is strengthen Maya’s own resolve.

… but has she really burned Claudine’s own?

No, that is impossible. If anything, Claudine’s hunger for the top is just as voracious. Maya knows, better than anyone else, how deep that desire burns, how it aches, how much yearning it brings. No one knows better than both Claudine, and Maya.

No one else can understand.

The ringtone of the giraffe plays through her room. Maya turns toward the sound. She stares at her phone, letting the unnatural sound wash over her.

To stand at the top above all others—

Maya will reach there, and strive for even higher.

This time, she is not alone when she reaches the stage.

For this revue, it is Aijou Karen that stands before her.

Maya watches her from across the stage. Her smile is confident, self-assured. Most likely, if she’d lost, there will be no hard feelings between them. She is… different, but not in a decidedly bad way, Maya thinks.

Karen is… she has character, and promise, that much Maya knows. She is clumsy, but makes up for it in her exuberance. For all her stumbles in practice, she has yet to do it on the main show. That much, Maya will give her credit.

But ever since Hikari arrived, Karen has changed. Once ready to accept the roles given to her, she has transformed. There is a fire that burns bright within Karen as well, one that even Maya can see.

But it does not burn for the calling of the stage. Instead, it yearns for something completely different, one that Maya cannot comprehend.

“I want to perform Starlight together with Hikari-chan!” she screams. “Because we made a promise to each other!”

Made a promise? Perform?

Together?

Maya tightens her grip on her sword. The offense shakes her very core.

Is this all what Karen thinks makes a top star?

No—

She does not desire to become top star.

She wants to stand alongside someone else’s radiance.

For Maya, who lives and breathes upon position zero—

… Aijou Karen has no pride. Aijou Karen has no pride as a stage girl. Aijou Karen has no—

The insolence!

Their swords crash against each other. Maya’s arm is ringing with the force of her blow, but she cares little for it. Karen gasps, and Maya can see her knees quaking as she struggles to hold back Maya’s weight.

How simple it must be! Maya’s own legs shake under the magnitude of all her expectations all the time! The mountain that hangs atop Maya’s shoulders weigh far heavier than some whimsical childhood promise!

What has Aijou Karen done to deserve position zero over Tendou Maya?

“What have you sacrificed?! What have you given?!”

What has Aijou Karen done to deserve position zero over Saijou Claudine?

Together?

Together?

“Even alone, I am a star!”

As if her very words are a weapon itself, Karen flinches away as if she’s been struck. Her hesitation is all Maya needs. Her sword slices through the thread holding together the brooch, and she wrenches her sword back that it knocks against the pin. Its clang thunders through the air like the final note of a tragedy.

Karen’s foolish desire has no place here. It has no place anywhere. Here, on this stage, where their dreams and pride lay on the line—

None can match Maya’s pride.

There can only be one.

And Maya has already decided, has already sworn to herself, has already seared right into her own heart once more—

She will not move for anyone else.

Together?

What a foolish notion.

And yet—

“Together…” Maya finds herself whispering, and catches herself. No. She cannot let herself become swayed by such lofty and ridiculous notions.

Even if the path in front of her is dark, even if she can no longer see the brilliance of her own shine—

For those who stare upon her back, all she can do is move forward.


7


Maya hasn’t seen Claudine for a while.

Or, no, that isn’t exactly right. Rather, she still sees her when they practice together, but she’s been spending her time elsewhere. So, it is more that she sees less of Claudine than she is used to. Claudine treats her the same, but there is… something that has changed. Maya has yet to figure it out.

That… is fine. Perhaps, it might calm the way her heart seems to beat in an erratic manner when she thinks of Claudine spending her time elsewhere. To find that Claudine, who is almost like a second shadow at times, not behind her is…

It brings an uneasiness to Maya. She doesn't know what else to describe this feeling. Is it painful? Uncomfortable? She does not know. Such longing is  uncharacteristic of her and yet, she cannot help herself. Being deprived of what she once took for granted is an unfamiliar feeling to her.

“Kaoruko-chan and Futaba-chan are, uh, having an argument, right now,” Nana suddenly says one day. Maya blinks and looks up from the muffin Nana’s graciously given her. She finishes her bite before speaking.

“... I’m sorry?”

“Kaoruko-chan, and Futaba-chan. If you were wondering,” Nana says. “So Futaba-chan is staying with Kuro-chan in the meanwhile.”

“Ah.” Maya slowly nods. “Yes, thank you.”

… was she pondering over it? Or, had she been obvious? She doesn’t think so. But, Nana gives her a smile like she understands, and heads back into the kitchen.

If Maya were to hazard a guess, Claudine is most likely practicing with Futaba. Claudine would never allow herself to fall so behind, and even Maya can see of Futaba’s own desire to stand at the top too. Thus, they must be practicing with each other.

It must also be why Kaoruko is moping around still, even after the revues. That is, the issue with Kaoruko and Futaba should be resolved, but Claudine is still running—no, she’s practicing with Futaba, Maya corrects. They are practicing, to both better themselves, she tells herself. Jealousy is an unbecoming trait.

… it is unfortunate that Maya harbors such an attribute.

“How rare to see you alone, Tendou-han.”

There is only one person that speaks like that. Maya looks up from her magazine to see Kaoruko standing in front of her, a curious expression on her face.

“Is it?” Maya looks back down at her magazine. “I could say the same for you, Hanayagi-san.”

“Our followers are off with each other.” Kaoruko sighs and shakes her head. The sound of the chair sliding out from beneath the counter distracts Maya slightly as Kaoruko takes the seat next to her. Maya only spares her a glance before continuing to flip through her magazine.

“... followers?” she asks. But Kaoruko doesn’t elaborate, only sighing loudly again. Maya isn’t sure why Kaoruko is here, she’s certain someone else might be better company than her.

That isn’t to say she does not enjoy Kaoruko’s company, though. There is a certain… kinship she feels with Kaoruko. She is heir to her family, born into a role already so filled with duties and expectations. Maya understands, more than anyone else, how heavy it is sometimes, how much fortitude they must have to not be crushed underneath everything.

Thus, she can understand Kaoruko's feelings during her spat with Futaba. She will not condemn Kaoruko for them, only that Kaoruko will understand that it is not only her own pride she will forsake if she wishes to run.

They sit in silence. Maya takes another glance at the girl sitting next to her, wondering still why Kaoruko is here. She looks at the plate of banana bread Nana had left for her and silently pushes it over.

“O-oh!” Kaoruko blinks at it before hesitantly taking one. “Thank you,” she mumbles shyly.

Maya nods and returns to her magazine. It was left off to the side on the counter and Maya had picked it up on a whim. It's full of restaurants and food, the easiest and surest way to entice Maya's attention. Idly, she wonders if Claudine might like to try one of these restaurants sometime—

“Tendou-han, do you think Kuro-han’s ever going to catch up to you?”

Maya pauses, eyes fogging over the sentence she’d been reading to mull over Kaoruko’s question instead. Her eyes narrow as she contemplates her reply before carefully smoothing her face over once more.

“... what makes you ask that?” she answers with her own question.

Kaoruko is chewing through a bite of her bread. The manners instilled in her dictate she finish chewing before answering. Maya is patient.

“No reason,” Kaoruko says with as much nonchalance as Claudine when she’s practicing with Maya. Not even Maya can find herself fooled. So instead, she asks her own question.

“Isurugi-san also desires to stand at the top, does she not? Are you not afraid she’ll overtake you?”

Kaoruko looks at her, and takes a bite of her bread. Maya allows it, pretending to leaf through her magazine in feigned interest.

“If that’s what Futaba wants to do, then that’s what Futaba can go do!” Kaoruko mutters angrily. But before Maya can say anything, Kaoruko begins to mumble. “But if that happens, I’ll be left behind. I don’t have any choice but to keep doing better than her, so Futaba will keep following me.”

Kaoruko makes a sound that resembles both a sigh and groan. “And that means I have to do extra practice now,” she mutters. Maya’s not sure if she’s meant to hear that, but she answers all the same.

“If you seek a partner to practice with, I am open.” Maya pretends not to notice the way Kaoruko makes a face at her.

“What about Kuro-han, then?”

Maya feigns ignorance once more. “What about Saijou-san?”

Kaoruko opens her mouth, and then closes it. She fidgets in her seat, and takes another bite of her bread. Maya flips to the next page.

“Are you so confident that Isurugi-san will be right behind you all the time?”

Of course,” Kaoruko immediately answers, says with so much certainty that it sounds as if she’s spoken an absolute truth of the world instead. “Because I know that no matter how far I go, Futaba will always be following me. That’s how things have always been between us!”

… ah. Maya’s eyes gloss over the words on the magazine once more.

Maya knows the lengths Futaba is willing to go for Kaoruko. And, in her own way, the lengths Kaoruko is also willing to go for Futaba, whether she realizes it or not. For Kaoruko, her solution is simple: to shine so bright that Futaba cannot overtake her, to become the very star Futaba needs to overcome for her own radiance, which, in turn, binds Futaba to her side.

From what Maya has gathered, Futaba is… content with that. But, would she also risk the chance of burning out? If she were to stand so closely to a star…

Is this, perhaps, how Claudine feels?

… will Claudine simply be content to be behind her all the time? Maya cannot think she would. Thinking of it like that, it brings a certain feeling of… dissatisfaction to her.

… what does this mean? Does Maya crave for more beyond what they have?

… what do they even have?

Maya no longer knows.

Kaoruko makes a sudden gasp. It distracts Maya from her thoughts, and she glances over at her, only to find that Kaoruko is staring at the page Maya is on. She reads through it.

“A parfait,” Maya says, and as she sees Kaoruko’s blank expression, she slowly puts the pieces together. “Have you never had one before?”

“H-huh?!” Kaoruko is frowning at her, suddenly tense. “O-of course I have! It’s… um, it’s…” and she falls silent, staring at the picture. A hint of color creeps onto her cheeks. Maya notices this before turning back to the magazine.

“Would you like to come with me to try this, then?” she offers.

“... huh?” Maya looks at Kaoruko out of the corner of her eye, and finds the other girl confused. Perhaps that was too forward of her? Maya… does not have much experience with inviting people out. At least, not in the way Claudine does that makes it seem so easy. From Claudine, it sounds so natural. From Maya… not so much.

“Ah, of course, you can go with Isurugi-san too if you prefer,” she adds, sensing maybe it is not her company that Kaoruko would rather go with. Maya is getting a little better at being able to tell these things.

Kaoruko doesn’t answer, at least not right away. She looks as if she’s trying to think it over. Most likely, she’s trying to think of a way to be polite, Maya thinks.

“... is it really okay?” Kaoruko finally answers, and when Maya looks at her, she’s… bashful, shy. Not unlike when they first met at the beginning of their first year and Kaoruko had taken to hiding behind Futaba instead, Maya thinks.

“Yes, of course. We can go... together,” Maya tries again. The word feels foreign on her tongue.

Kaoruko nods at her, and even Maya can see the excitement that shines upon her.

Together…

Maya looks back down at the magazine though her eyes gloss over the rest of the words again.

She has only walked down one path, and that is ever forward.

But… if it were possible…

Maya closes her magazine.

It is never good to want for things she knows are unattainable.


8


The last day of the audition.

Maya knows that she still stands at the top; she must, after defeating everyone that’s come her way. So, who is number two, then? Who will she cut down this time to prove her worth?

Will it be Claudine, after clawing her way back up? What a sight would that be! To face Claudine once more for a revue, only this time, they fight with even greater stakes, with nothing but only their prides on the line. Who would prove to be victorious then, whose desire for the top will reign supreme?

Or will it be someone else?

“Tendou Maya.” Even the way Claudine speaks her name holds a small note of finality within them. But when Maya looks at her, there is still that fire that burns, the one that’s still alight from when they last performed Starlight together. If it is not Claudine Maya faces, then it matters little to Claudine, Maya realizes.

Claudine hasn’t given up, has never given up in the first place. Maya still needs to watch herself.

If Claudine were to be the one to defeat her… Maya finds herself thinking, that it would be—

“Are you going to keep standing there, or are you going to help me practice?” Claudine is in front of her, brow raised as she taps her foot impatiently.

“Ah. Yes, I got distracted, I’m sorry,” Maya says, and moves to help Claudine.

She wonders if Claudine is thinking about the revues too. It must be, with why she’s suddenly asked Maya to help her with practice than to come to the room alone. The familiar routine helps distract Maya, passing the time. She finds that even she is anxious, waiting for the countdown.

The final day of the auditions. What will the revues bring? Will Maya find herself at the top? Or will someone else steal her radiance?

“Do you remember the very first day of school?” Claudine asks suddenly. Maya blinks down at her, but she remembers Claudine is stretching, her face pressed against her stomach as Maya holds her leg. “No, you probably don’t. I asked you to stretch with me. I wanted to see for myself, the skills that Tendou Maya had.”

Ah. Maya remembers that very day. The only one to approach her, Saijou Claudine. How could she forget?

But, Maya has been watching… for far longer than Claudine realizes.

Claudine straightens herself up as she finishes the stretch. She stares at Maya, and Maya cannot help but blink at her again. “I always thought that I was the best, but you…” She makes a face, but sighs. A small smile forms on her face, wistful and reflective. “You forced me to change. No longer could I think I was the best.”

“But I will still come for you, Tendou Maya!” The smile changes to a smirk. Ah, that fire is back within Claudine once more, but… Maya thinks this has a different quality to it. Her resolve and determination have never shone so brightly, so amazingly, so fiercely than in this moment.

Beautiful, Maya thinks.

“Don’t think I’ve lost completely yet!” Claudine finishes, and unbidden, a smile comes to Maya’s lips.

“I will be waiting,” she murmurs, and Claudine huffs at her though the smirk still remains upon her face. To see Claudine’s confidence, and her pride, brings an ease to the anxiousness Maya had felt.

No matter what happen in the revues, come what may, at least Maya knows that this will not change.

They finish their practice early, an unspoken agreement to rest for the final revues.

So, without much further ado, the revue comes. The ringtone blares through Maya’s room, hopefully for the last time. Maya glances over at her phone on her bed before she looks over at the picture on her desk as she always does before a revue. Her hand reaches out, fingers tracing Claudine’s face, remembers of that single moment once more.

And Maya will always do as she has always done: chase for the top.

But, it looks as if this revue has something completely different planned, as she finds herself on the stage with others she hadn’t expected.

Out of everyone here, there is only one person that can even stand on the same stage as her—can even dare to stand on the same stage as she does.

The answer has never been more obvious to her.

Claudine is already ready by the time she throws the brooch, as if she’s expected this. To pick anyone else in this moment would be utter betrayal, Maya thinks. Claudine would never forgive her for making the wrong choice, and Maya isn’t sure why she would pick otherwise.

They’ve performed together, of course. Claudine is Maya’s partner, just as Maya is Claudine’s partner. They’ve danced together so many times, played so many roles together so many times, practiced together so many times, who else could be so synchronized than in this moment but them?

Who else can so perfectly chase after Maya without losing her own fire?

And that’s when it hits Maya.

This feeling, this burning, this thrill, this excitement, this elation, this furor, this frenzy, this—

This.

What her parents had shown her that day when she had been young, when she wanted nothing more than to shine just as bright as they did, when she wanted to burn into herself the passion impressed upon her by her parents—

Maya’s arm comes around Claudine just as Claudine lays her hand upon Maya’s.

“I am the only one that can follow you,” Claudine declares.

You are the only one that can follow me,” Maya breathes.

Their appearances are so disheveled from all the fighting, and there’s a sheen of sweat that gives a shine to Claudine’s face. And Claudine’s eyes! They sparkle so much! The passion within them is overflowing, and Maya wonders if she looks the same way, wonders if Claudine is thinking about her the same way.

Maya thinks Claudine has never looked so more beautiful than in this moment.

They’re trying to catch their breath, but Maya doesn’t know if it’s from the fighting, or how they’re so close to each other. So close, Maya could lean forward...

No, a stronger emotion is gripping her now, a sudden realization.

This is what she’s wanted her whole life. Here, in this moment, with their prides on the line, with their audience captivated by their performance, with Claudine in her arms, here, in this moment, is what she’s sought.

This single moment of radiance as the two of them stand above the others—

This, she thinks.

This.

This!

Maya has never wanted anything more in her life than the moment of right now.

Her sword in her hand feels heavy and she longs to throw it away instead, so she can fully grasp Claudine’s hand instead. She wants nothing more than to bring Claudine close, wrap her arms around her, dance to a song that only they know. Claudine understands her so well, she can follow Maya perfectly. Of course she can, because they’re partners.

She wonders if Claudine can feel it.

Maya knows that her friends sitting up in the lofters above, their audience they’re here to entertain, are spellbound. No one else could put such a magnificent performance like them.

But she can’t think about that. She can’t think about that at all. Instead, all she can think about is how much she’s enthralled by the girl in her arms, of how they both fit so well under the shine of the spotlight together.

The lights disappear. And, still, neither of them move, still staring at each other even through that faint darkness. Maya knows, if she reaches out, Claudine will reach for her too, and she would do the same for Claudine. It is as if their very souls are impressed upon each other with this single moment.

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

If you grasp the great star, you will receive a great wealth—

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

Here, right now, as she grasps the very star she’s been chasing, Maya thinks about an eternal wish, and that is—

The spotlights come back on. Maya and Claudine break apart.

Even as their swords clash against Hikari and Karen’s once more, Maya finds herself missing the warmth of Claudine that had been in her hands.

And she thinks, for one single moment, that if she could have that moment once more, with Claudine in her arms, then it would be fine if she l—

Claudine shouts suddenly, and Maya looks up just in time to see Karen falling off the stage. Even Maya can feel her heart stopping in that single moment. Here, in the auditions, can they even survive a fall of that height?

So focused on Karen that she doesn’t realize Hikari is no longer in front of her. Instead, she’s—

The wire wraps around the stairs where Karen had been, and then come Karen and Hikari, seemingly flying out from around the corner. Maya cannot help but stare at them. Her eyes are wide, taking in this very sight.

Karen had trusted Hikari enough to catch her after falling down at that perilous height. And now, they’re soaring through the air together. She can see the trust they have in each other, the absolute faith Karen has in Hikari, the way Hikari has also chosen to place her convictions in Karen as well.

Right now, in this very moment, even Maya can see, their very radiance, they way they shine—

Together.

Claudine shouts, and Maya snaps back to the moment on hand. She’s already moving on instinct, dashing ahead to the wall and jumping just as Claudine heaves her sword through the air. Maya kicks off the blade she know is there to meet.

An impressive display from the both of them, but even Maya knows, that this battle is—

This revue—

Even as she keeps her sword steady and sees Karen flying at her—

The way Karen shines dazzlingly bright almost to the point of blinding—

”Perch glory at the tip of your sword!”

Maya already knows, even before she can feel Karen’s sword cutting through the thread of her brooch.

Her cloak drifts downward like a leaf blowing in the wind. When it finally touches the floor, all the tension releases from Maya, and her shoulders slump.

In that very moment, she had seen it.

That one single moment of radiance that shone far brighter than she’d had ever seen—no, she had seen it before, so many years ago, upon the stage she once stared down at, when she was only but ten years old then, watching the girl upon the stage dance and sing with so much glee and emotion.

But, just for this one time, Maya wishes it wouldn’t burn away so easily.


9


The auditions finish.

For the first time in her life, Tendou Maya is not the one that stands at the top.

The notion is foreign to her. Everything is foreign to her, she thinks. She does not know how she feels. Angry? Bitter? Frustrated? Is this what Claudine must feel, to not come out on top every time? To come close to the end, only to be snuffed out so cruelly?

But, strangely, Maya does not feel any of that.

… she really isn’t sure what she’s feeling, to be honest.

There is one irrefutable truth from the final revue: Tendou Maya has lost—

“Tendou Maya hasn’t lost!”

Maya remembers all too well that cry. Even as she felt the sting of defeat, the shock of what Claudine had been yelling had sent a bigger ripple through her.

For Claudine to say that—

For Claudine to insist that—

Maya still does not know of the feeling that bloomed within her then. Or, rather, she had seen Claudine in distress, and something had twinged—that is the only way she knows how to describe what she felt—inside of her. Claudine, in distress, over her!

Maya still does not know what to make of everything that’s happened since then.

Tendou Maya had been the one to lose her cloak, and yet, it is Claudine who reacted vehemently against it.

… a peculiar turn of events, Maya thinks. For Claudine to be the one to cry over her loss instead of her, for Maya to show Claudine such a disgraceful sight to Claudine, for the both of them to come so close and yet to lose—

When she thinks about everything that’s happened, Maya is at a loss for words.

What could Maya do in that moment but to offer solace to Claudine? It hadn’t only been her own pride that had been tested, and Claudine…

For Maya to lose as she had—

For her to lose and bring Claudine down with her—

For Claudine to feel the same way as she did too—!

No other thing could bring a greater joy, and pain, to Maya. To know that they still dance together so well, understand each other so well, know each other so well—

What is Maya to do now? What must she do now? What can she do now?

But, it’d almost been nothing but a whirlwind of activity since then. With Hikari’s disappearance, it is decided, once more, Maya and Claudine will play Flora and Claire for Starlight. Maya knows this to be inevitable, as does Claudine.

For some reason, this victory feels hollow. Maya knows that Claudine feels the same. They practice their lines together and dance together still, but Maya can feel, through Claudine’s words, through her movements, her dissent. That they are both so dissatisfied with this outcome speaks multitudes, and brings to mind once more how attuned they are to each other.

Karen… changes. The radiance that Maya had seen back then is almost entirely gone. Maya can see a glimmer of it underneath the sudden listlessness but she does not know how to draw it out. Neither of them know how to draw it out, save for one.

But she is not here.

Maya still isn’t sure what had happened back then. They lost, and Karen and Hikari had been taken away, rising so high up that not even Claudine or Maya could see them. Then—

It had been Karen that fell down by her lonesome self, her cloak flying behind her, still too shocked to even comprehend what had even happened to her. Like a star, Hikari had shone so brightly during the final revue for her final bang, and just as abruptly, winked out of existence. And just like that, she’d taken Karen’s radiance with her as well.

“What do you think of it?” Claudine asks. Maya, sitting down where she is on the floor of the practice room, glances up toward Claudine, who stands leaning against the wall. Claudine doesn’t need to clarify her question.

“A shame,” Maya answers. She reaches for her bottle of water and takes a sip before wordlessly passing it to Claudine. Maya does not notice the way Claudine hesitates for a split second before taking it, not that she would understand. “They had shone so brightly during the revue.”

“And now, Karen…” Claudine falls silent. And there it is, Maya thinks, the way Claudine seems to fall deep in thought more and more recently.

“Maya,” she starts, before seemingly hesitating. Maya can feel her curiosity being piqued, and when Claudine still doesn’t continue speaking, Maya finds herself wondering a different thing instead.

… when had Claudine stopped referring to her without her family name? It already sounds so natural, as if she’s referred to Maya like this the entire time. And when she thinks of Claudine, she thinks of Claudine, not Saijou Claudine. When had this change come? Why had she not realized this before?

… what does this mean?

Once more, Maya finds that she still understands very little about what exactly it is that she and Claudine have. Friends? Rivals? No, neither of those sound quite right.

Partners?

… that is too strong a word, Maya thinks.

“Do you think you would ever lose your reason for acting?”

Maya blinks, and realizes Claudine’s finally asked her question. And what a heavy question it is! There’s no doubt that this has been on the forefront of Claudine’s mind, by the way she hesitated to ask. Yet, Maya thinks her answer would be the same, that Claudine would already know of her answer.

“... of course not. I devote my all to the stage. Ask me to give it up, and I will have nothing!” Maya knows her words sound theatrical, but she is a child of the theater, and it is the simple truth.

“I’m not asking you that,” Claudine mutters. “If it had been you in that revue, if your radiance had been stolen, if—” and she stops, suddenly frowning to herself. Perhaps, she has realized the implication of her words.

“... I wonder how it feels,” Maya finds herself speaking. How can she even begin to imagine what Karen must be going through? To lose her very reason for acting, and in such a way! It would be as if Maya has lost her very own will to live! Yet another exaggerated example, but there is no better comparison she can draw.

“Awful,” Claudine says then, and Maya nearly startles. When she looks up at Claudine, the other girl is still frowning, but she seems… wistful, as if she’s remembering a memory. And, now, Maya understands. She slowly looks away, unable to stare at Claudine any longer, not when she looks so unguarded.

“Is that why you came back?” Maya asks, her voice soft.

Claudine says nothing, but she slowly slides down the wall, sitting down on the floor now. She’s staring ahead, and if Maya didn’t know any better, she would have said that Claudine was being defiant yet again, refusing to meet her gaze. But, now, after everything, Maya knows, Claudine is merely only contemplative.

“The stage is always calling,” Claudine finally says, and Maya cannot help but look at her in this moment, cannot help but look upon the girl who still struggles to shine once more, cannot help but look upon the girl that still captivates her after so long.

Beautiful, she thinks.

To her, Claudine is already…

Claudine is…

The ache she thought she pushed down pulses back in full force, as if seizing her very being. Her heart thrums, and Maya can no longer tamp it down, not with everything that has happened since then. Maya has always been one to look forward, but this, she must look inward at herself, and realizes that there is nothing she can do to rid herself of this affliction.

It has always… only been for...

The days pass.

Hikari finally comes back to them.

She looks tired, haggard, and devastated—

But the light within her eyes is shining so brilliantly. And when she looks upon Karen, they seemingly gleam impossibly brighter.

Ah… this...

Karen’s radiance is restored, and her shine is so bright, almost blindingly so. Even Maya finds herself shivering with excitement when she sees Karen, the way she holds herself with absolute certainty and wields her smile like a star herself.

The radiance—

This, too, is also what Maya had been seeking.

The preparations for Starlight continue. Karen and Hikari take over as Flora and Claire, just as they promised each other. Maya thinks she should feel… something about this, and, yet, she finds that she cannot. The rest of the class chatter about how excited they are, for the new costumes, for the new script, for the new… everything. They are performing the same play as last year, and yet, everything feels so different.

For the first time Maya finds herself excited.

Then, she remembers.

She will need to inform her parents of the changes.

Maya decides she may as well do that right away. Her parents have always prized punctuality and directness, and she thinks there is no better time than now to inform them of the changes compared to when they come to watch and realize she is no longer the lead. Her mother would no doubt be displeased, sighing loudly to herself. But her father… Maya is still unsure.

It has been instilled within her that she stand at the top, to show the others how bright she can shine. The hunger for the top resonates within her father, her mother, and within Maya as well. And so, to tell them, that she has given that up, tossed it aside—

What she dreads the most, is explaining why she stepped aside. Where is your pride, she is afraid he will ask.

“Maya,” comes her father’s voice once he picks up. Even on the phone, his voice still bears so much weight in them. “Did you need something?”

“I wanted… to inform you of a matter,” Maya says, very glad that she’d been able to keep the stutter out of her voice. She’s nervous, she’s never stuttered. She’s learned to speak little, but with purpose, but she cannot help but want to dance around the subject here.

“Yes?”

“I will not be reprising my role as Claire next year,” she says, even making sure to speak loudly and clearly so she cannot be misunderstood, and then swallows the knot that suddenly forms in her throat.

“... what happened?” Her father’s voice is not demanding, but Maya suddenly feels the need to explain everything. But, she cannot. It feels as if her tongue is stuck to the roof of her mouth, and she cannot find the excuses she foolishly thought to give. And, perhaps, her father, in sensing her hesitance, decides to take pity upon his daughter.

“Are you frustrated, Maya?” he asks, instead.

Maya… does not know. She has always assumed she would take the lead, become the top star. She’s done so last year. She’s never heeded gossip and whispers, but she’s heard them, of how others speak to Nana about wanting to create a different Starlight from last year.

Even so, if they think she will relinquish her top star position so easily

And yet, is that not what she had done?

“I…”

Yes, she thinks, and no, she also thinks. Outweighing the frustration, is…

“Many things have happened in the last few months,” she starts. “I have… learned a great deal of things about both myself and my… friends. Kagura-san and Aijou-san made a promise to each other when they were children that they would perform Starlight together.”

“And you stepped aside to let them perform together?” Her father’s tone is not accusatory, but Maya thinks it might as well be. Her family has never been one for whimsical things like promises or oaths. It is all training, hard work, and effort, that bring them closer to the top.

Maya is struggling to pull her thoughts together. Hikari’s skill is impeccable, Maya admits, but Karen… is like a diamond in the rough, she still needs to be refined. But Maya can still see it, the way her acting has a much different quality than anyone else’s, one that’s much more lively and refreshing. And, together, both Karen and Hikari…

She’s already seen firsthand what they can achieve together.

Karen, and Hikari. Hikari, and Karen. They’ve done nothing but chase after each other, running forward with their hands outstretched, both toward the very same stage. And when they come together...

“They will shine better than even me for this rendition of Starlight,” she finally says.

“Ah.” He’s quiet. Most likely thinking of what to say. Her father never speaks much unless there is weight behind them. He has always been like that. And when he finally speaks, he asks, “Is this what you truly believe?”

Maya adopts her father’s taciturn attitude for this moment to mull over the conversation and everything that’s happened but the more she thinks of it, the more she feels ready to burst, unable to contain herself.

“Yes,” she finally says. “Even I want to see what sort of stage they will make. What sort of new stage everyone will create. What we can do together.

Her father is quiet once more. In the background, she can hear some sort of soft music playing. He often likes to listen to music when he relaxes at home. But how much relaxation can he do now that Maya has given him this news? She pretends to not realize she is holding her breath in anticipation of his answer.

“Your class is also performing Starlight again for next year?” he asks. Maya nods, remembers he cannot see her, and answers an affirmative. He hums. Then—

“Sometimes, it is good to see the stage from another angle,” he murmurs, and Maya makes sure to cover her phone before she releases her shaky breath.

They talk more before saying their goodbyes, and her father hangs up first. Maya inhales slowly, and exhales slowly. Once more, she feels like she’s going to burst, but this is… akin to a pleasant buzz that goes through her. She’s eager, she wants to perform already. Her whole being is calling for the stage, even if she is not the one who will stand at position zero.

To perform together with everyone, to see the stage upon which they all sparkle and dazzle, to feel the same emotions and feelings—

Ah. She understands it now.

She really does understand.

Nana isn’t at the counter by the time Maya arrives at the cafe. Even so, Maya takes a seat, waiting patiently. She can already smell what Nana is making, and she can almost taste the excitement.

Nana sticks her head out, sees Maya, and smiles. “Maya-chan! Sorry, I won’t be too long.”

“Take your time,” Maya says. True to her word, Nana soon comes out, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Just letting it rest a little,” she says, and Maya nods gratefully at her.

“I understand it now, Daiba-san,” Maya finds herself blurting out.

Nana blinks at her. “I’m sorry?”

Perhaps she should have explained first. But, for once, Maya feels an impatient rush to charge ahead. She’s never felt like this before, seemingly bursting at the seams, ready to leap forward.

Maya looks up at Nana. “You have spoken to me before, and I realize… that now, even I would like to see how many sides of the stage I can see, how different it can all be.”

Nana blinks at her some more, and Maya can see the exact moment the realization dawns upon her. And Nana grins, and laughs softly.

“I’m glad,” Nana says. Before Maya can speak, she rushes away, back into the kitchen. In the next moment, she comes back out, and Maya has to resist the urge to lick her lips.

“Your favorite, right?” Nana says as she places down a plate of baumkuchen in front of her. Her tone is teasing, and Maya should feel slightly offended that someone has figured her out in such a way. It should scare her how much she is changing, knows she is changing, but she finds herself caring very little for that nowadays.

All she can do now is smile up at Nana for providing her such a wonderful treat. “Thank you for remembering,” she murmurs, and spends the rest of the night talking to Nana about the play.


10


Summer arrives.

Everyone, save for Junna and Nana, prepare to go back home for the break. Maya herself is no exception, but she is leaving after everyone. Already, Kaoruko and Futaba have left, so eager to return back to their home of tradition. Tomorrow, Karen and Mahiru will set off for their own homes.

Claudine, as she always does, will go back home to her beloved France for break.

And Maya…

She will go home, she supposes. There is no real reason for her to stay out here, not when she can very well practice the same at home, especially under the tutelage of her father’s scrutinizing eyes. There is still no rest for her, not that she has ever truly rested even during breaks.

Time spent idle is better spent practicing, after all.

All the better for her. She needs distractions, to deal with the way her tumultuous feelings toward Claudine have suddenly so resurfaced.

To stand at the top, to become the star for others to chase, to become the one reflected back in Claudine’s eyes as she chased after her—

Maya had thought, with a role like that, everything would have been fine. For her who chases after Claudine’s own inner radiance and longs to see it once more, to see Claudine come alive chasing after her is… more than fine.

All of that had been thrown into chaos with the revues. Now, with its conclusion, Maya finds herself haunted by them.

The wild spirit that burned within Claudine as they dueled each other in their revue! The hunger for the top that powers the strike of her sword against Maya’s! The fervor behind Claudine’s eyes as she reached her hand out toward the top hoping to overtake Maya’s hand!

Then, the way they fought, danced, and struggled together upon that same stage, all to keep each other propelled higher up toward the top—

Simply glorious!

Maya cannot stop thinking about it.

And, with the strength of all these wonderful feelings and memories, she does not know what to do. It’s all swelling up inside of her, and Maya knows she is nearing the point of breaking, an outpouring ready to spill out.

The only solution, then, is to bare her feelings.

Yet, when she thinks about doing just that, she finds herself stopped in place. Her legs shake, a different feeling from when those very few moments where even she can feel her own bravado cracking under the pressure. At least, for that, it is simply a matter of doing her best to live up to everyone’s expectations. That much, she knows how to act the part.

But, for this, she does not know… does not understand why she is so hesitant, so reluctant.

Perhaps it is because of everything that’s happened so far. Performing Starlight once more and stepping aside for the role of Claire for the sake of her friends, being content with that, seeing the happiness of her friends and class as they prepare for Starlight together—

Everything thus far is all so new. She has never felt anything like this before. Onto a new stage she is stepping where she has no script, but she finds she doesn’t mind.

But when it comes to Claudine, Maya finds herself at a loss. She has always thought of herself as hurdle for Claudine to overcome. If Claudine can overtake her, then it means Maya still has much work to do. Thus, she must continue to keep herself at the top. Maya is a jealous girl; she does not share the spotlight so easily with those who do not deserve it.

Claudine pushes her just as Maya pushes her. This, Maya comes to understand.

But, what exactly is this? She is not entirely ignorant to the way Claudine sometimes sends her soft glances when she thinks Maya is not paying attention. And, when Maya does glance at her out of habit, Claudine either sharpens her gaze into something more familiar, or she averts her eyes and pretends she hadn’t been staring.

On some days, she doesn’t look away, meets Maya’s gaze evenly, and Maya finds herself the one to avert her eyes instead, unable to make heads or tails of Claudine.

“Maya-chan?” Nana waves a hand in front of Maya, who simply blinks in surprise. “Are you okay there? I called you a few times but you didn’t answer.”

“Ah…” Maya shakes her head. “My apologies. I was… lost in thought, it seems.”

“Does it have to do with Kuro-chan?” Nana asks, speaking in a tone that seems as if she already knows the answer. Maya wishes she wouldn’t do that so often, and so much, but she supposes it is a strength of Nana’s, already being able to deduce their problems.

Still, she won’t make it easy for Nana to pull secrets from her. “What makes you say that?” Maya asks instead.

“Usually, you’re both fighting to get to the practice room first,” Nana points out. “And it’s already the middle of the day, and you’re still here on the sofa.”

Maya pushes her lips together, and forces down the feeling of sullenness that arises from being figured out so easily. Nana only laughs and takes a seat next to her.

“Hoshimi-san isn’t around?” Maya asks instead, glancing all around. With summer, Junna and Nana are the only ones here now, and Maya can only guess how much more time the two spend around each other without anyone else around.

“She wanted to borrow some more books so she went to the library. And I wanted to go to the market but Hikari-chan offered to go for me instead,” Nana explains, shrugging.

“... ah.” Then, that means it is only her and Nana here right now in the dorms. All the other students have already gone home, or they’re most likely lounging in their own rooms, making use of the air conditioning to avoid the heat of outside.

“So, was I right?” Nana asks.

Maya opens her mouth, and abruptly closes it.

“It is nothing,” Maya chooses to reply instead. It—it really is nothing. This feeling will pass. Just as she had pushed it down the first time, then this too, will… come to pass.

“... are you sure?” Nana continues to ask. When Maya looks over at her, Nana is staring at her too, seemingly studying her.

“Is it really so bad?” Maya murmurs, more to herself because she knows there is no proper context for Nana to draw from. And Nana knows it too, when she doesn’t reply, merely waits for Maya to continue.

“Claudine is… Claudine…” Maya cannot even form proper thoughts about the other girl right now. What is it that she feels? She does not know, cannot find where to even begin with this. Perhaps she can ask Junna. There might be a clue in all those books she’s read, or, as she remembers all the sonnets and poems they’ve recited, there perhaps might be a clue in there instead. But they all still feel… so inadequate, to describe what Maya feels in this moment.

Dissatisfaction? Uncertainty? Apprehension? Anticipation? Excitement?

Maya does not know, does not understand, and thus, she finds that she is simply…

“What is Kuro-chan to you, Maya-chan?” Nana asks, and Maya thinks this might be the hardest question she’s ever been asked.

What is Claudine to her? A star that she’s spent most of her life chasing after? Or is Claudine simply part of that radiance that captivated her so? Or does Maya revel in that spark within Claudine, with the passion that sets the both of them aflame when they meet each other upon the stage?

In the end, all Maya has eyes for is the stage, to stand upon position zero, to look out into the audience and leave them spellbound, to fulfill the expectations set upon her by both the stage crew and the audience.

But, her eyes wander, and she finds herself craving for more. For Claudine, who gives her all for the stage. For Claudine, who shines so fiercely and brightly. For Claudine, who still captivates her so much even after so many years.

And so, to her, Claudine is…

“A star. I chase after her, but she will burn me if I come too close,” Maya says. Nana’s eyes widen, staring upon Maya as if she’s had a new realization.

“What makes you say that?” Nana asks in a soft voice, gentle, coaxing. And Maya is struggling, wanting nothing more than to spill out everything, or to hold it all within as she has always done.

“I merely stand over the position she wants. I am the one she wishes to knock over. She stares with such yearning at my back, hoping to replace me, and so I answer her. I am her partner, I understand that much. To her, I am an undefeatable challenge she will overcome, merely a stepping stone to her goal.”

Nana laughs. The sound startles Maya. She hadn’t been expecting Nana to laugh, all things considered. “I’m sorry, it’s just…” Nana looks at her with a small smile. “I think you’re wrong about that.”

“Am I?”

“Why don’t you try talking to Kuro-chan about it?”

“I cannot.”

“... why not?” Nana is surprised. “I didn’t think Maya-chan was the type to run away.”

“It… is…” Maya looks away. “Complicated. And it is not running away,” she says with a sharp glance. But Nana only smiles again, seemingly impervious. Hm, who would have thought this would happen? Maya has allowed Nana too much freedom.

… but Nana is not wrong, and therein lies the crux of the matter.

“Are you fine with that, though?” Within Nana’s voice lies genuine concern, and Maya finds herself the need to answer earnestly.

“It is… as I have always done.” Maya shakes her head. “As I have always done.” She stares down at her hands.

Confusing. That is what it all is. Confusing, and complicated.

“Maya-chan—”

Maya stands up abruptly. “Thank you, Daiba-san, for your help. I will retire to my room now, I still need to pack for my trip home,” she says. Nana is displeased, Maya knows, but Nana slowly nods her head. And so, as Maya walks away, she does not see the gears turning in Nana’s mind.

Thus, she is entirely caught off guard when Claudine approaches her the next day.

“Maya.”

Her name, spoken so simply, can only mean one person. Maya swallows down the knot in her throat and turns around. “Claudine,” she greets. She still wonders when and how it started to feel so natural to say Claudine’s name.

“Are you busy this weekend?” Claudine asks.

Ah.

Maya contemplates turning her down. Does Claudine need to pack for her trip home? She’ll have the longest trip out of all of them. She needs to make sure to properly pack everything, does she not?

And yet, Claudine will be leaving, and Maya will not see her for months. Against her will, a small pang shoots through her at the thought of not being able to see Claudine, of not even being able to catch a glimpse of her.

Painful, Maya thinks, how very unsuited of her.

“... I am not,” she finds her traitorous mouth answering. Her mind can barely catch up to her heart. Claudine smiles widely at her, and another sharp pang bolts through Maya.

“There’s a movie out that I want to watch before I leave, and I thought we should go together. How about it?”

No, Maya desperately wants to say. I cannot, we cannot, not with you, not when I feel so—

The tiny glimmer of hope that shines upon Claudine’s face is what seals the deal.

“... if you wish,” Maya says with a resigned nod. Claudine looks at her strangely before she laughs. It’s a nice sound, her laughter, Maya thinks.

“What kind of answer is that? You sound so old, and like you don’t really want to go either.” She sounds so amused, and Maya wishes she could feel like that too.

“No, I’ll—” Maya swallows, trying to recollect herself. “Yes, let’s go.”

Claudine claps her hands together in obvious glee. “Tres bien! I’m looking forward to it!” And Maya feels yet another wring of her heart when Claudine smiles at her.

Why must Claudine speak like that? Why must Claudine act like this?

It is…

The weekend comes faster than Maya realizes. They meet in the living room, and head off. Along the way, they pass Nana, who snaps a picture of them as Maya blinks owlishly at her and Claudine flashes a pose.

“How does it look?” Claudine asks.

“Great!” Nana says with a grin.

“Send it to me later,” Claudine says as she winks playfully. Nana laughs and gestures for Claudine to get going, who does so. When Maya passes her with a small murmur of acknowledgement, she pats Maya’s shoulder.

“Enjoy yourself,” she says, her eyes twinkling, and Maya has half a mind to demand what Nana has done, what she has spoken to Claudine—

But Claudine is already out the door, and it is impolite to keep a lady waiting.

They get to the movies right on time.

Maya’s not sure if Claudine’s done this on purpose or not.

The movie is a romance, and one of the characters harbors an unrequited love. In a nice twist, she does confess to her love to her interest instead of keeping silent as is common, but gets rejected.

… Claudine has to be doing this on purpose, Maya thinks.

“I’ve been in love with you for so long, I can’t take it anymore! I don’t care if you reject me, I just have to let you know!” the actor on the screen is screaming. She’s shouting over the platters of the rain at the main character, who stares at her from across the street with wide eyes, frozen in the spot. Not a very comfortable position, Maya thinks.

“Every smile you send my way, every time you talk to me, I always… feel… so happy. I thought, if I could stay by your side, it would be fine… but I’m not satisfied with that any longer. What I want is more than that! I love you!”

Maya has always tried to watch these scenes with utmost objectivity. Romance scenes are always so overdone, but it is the quality of the actor that she wishes to see. Do the expression upon their face match the passion of their words? Is their body language too overdone or is it just right for the scene in question? Is their delivery able to inspire and rouse emotions from Maya?

But when she hears those words, she can feel them reverberating down into her very being.

… awful, Maya thinks. The world’s a stage, and she is dancing upon it like a fool.

The movie finally ends, not that Maya had paid much attention. She turns to Claudine and finds her dabbing at her eyes, sniffling slightly. Claudine has always been a secret romantic at heart, she remembers. Maya pretends not to notice though she reaches into her pocket and holds out her own handkerchief. Claudine takes it with a shaky murmur of, “Merci.”

Afterward, they go out to eat at a new restaurant, somewhere in the same department store of the theater. Maya faintly remembers Claudine talking about wanting to try a new place though she cannot remember if this is the place she wanted to go. She’d been very distracted recently in regards to Claudine, and only hoping Claudine doesn’t notice. And, miraculously, Claudine doesn’t, or she wisely chooses not to say anything. Maya is glad for that.

She isn’t sure if she can say a convincing lie right now.

They finish lunch without much incident. Claudine spends most of the time talking about what she’s excited for when she finally gets to head back home to her beloved France. Maya tries her best to listen as much as she can, but she is still so distracted. She cannot help it, not when Claudine is so animated, the way her whole being comes so alive with her excitement.

“You should visit sometime,” Claudine adds. Maya nearly chokes on her bite of food. “Since you already know the language, you’ll have an easier time. There’s a lot of places I know you’d enjoy too.”

“I... “ Maya covers her mouth, chewing fast to push her food down. “I will consider it,” she mumbles. Is Claudine simply telling her to visit? Or is Claudine telling her to go with her?

… Maya is not sure which one she wants.

They walk around the mall. Once again, it is mostly Claudine who leads the way, talking about wanting to buy some more little souvenirs for her family back home. For once, Maya allows Claudine to lead.

Claudine takes out her phone, clicking on one of the side buttons. “Hm, we’ve still got good time.” She turns to Maya and takes her arm. Maya can feel herself stiffening in response, trying her best to remain as composed. She forces herself to relax lest Claudine grows suspicious.

“Is… there anywhere else you want to go?” Maya asks.

“Yes,” Claudine says right away, and looks up at her. “The beach.”

“I’m sorry?” Maya blinks at her, but Claudine is already tugging on her arm and leading her toward the train station. “Ah, Claudine, w-wait—”

… they end up at the beach. The day is starting to wind down, with the sundown painting the skies above a vivid orange. Claudine prances through the sand, laughing with a wide grin. Maya can feel her chest throbbing at the sight.

This is…

Claudine comes to the shore and bends down to take off her shoes before wading in. Maya had meant to shout that she could hold Claudine’s shoes but Claudine had been so eager to run in before she could. Perhaps, she really wanted to visit Japan’s beach before heading home? Maya does not know what is going through Claudine’s mind right now, only that she is trying her best to even keep up with Claudine right now. Unlike Claudine’s enthusiasm, she warily comes to the shoreline, stopping before the darkened sands.

There is little warning, then, when Claudine turns around and looks straight at her, and asks—

“Tell me, how do I look to you right now, Tendou Maya?”

… unfair.

That is what Maya wants to say. How can Claudine ask her that question, when she stands there at the shore, as the water laps at her ankles, the sunrise serving as her backdrop to the radiance upon all of her?

How can Claudine even think to ask her that question, after everything? How can she even think to ask that, when Maya has tasted of what it feels to have Claudine smiling up at her, to feel her in her arms without any pretenses, to feel the force of Claudine’s affection given to her so freely?

How…

Maya tries to swallow down the sudden thickness she feels in her throat. She needs to answer, Claudine is still waiting. But her heart is pounding, beating so fast she thinks she might faint upon the spot. It’s as if she’s taken back to the very first time she performed on stage, when the stage fright had almost been too much, when her hands trembled and shook and turned clammy.

This isn’t a performance, but Maya wishes it were. If there were a script for her to read such sweet words, she would gladly recite them aloud here. She’s had to perform more than enough amorous confessions on the stage, and she would gladly suffer the embarrassment of performing another one here.

But she doesn’t have a script, all she has is the one her heart is trying to weave for her, where her words are rough and her passion feels like it isn’t enough to give to Claudine who deserves nothing short but a perfect performance. Because, to her, Claudine is—

“Beautiful,” Maya whispers. The dam upon her heart breaks, and her words pour out of her. These words, she has only practiced in her dreams—has only dreamed that she could even dare speak them aloud without fear. Everything spills out.

“Even now, you still shine so brightly to me. It is your radiance that I seek to grasp, the one that I chase to perfect my own. From the moment you took the stage as Arrie all those years ago, you continue to dazzle me with all of your brilliance, like a star that I cannot reach.”

“... Arrie?” Claudine furrows her brow. “That was when I was a child—” her eyes widen. “Your father was the one who signed my certificate. Then, you—”

Maya nods, slowly. “Even back then, I have watched you. I have… always... watched you. The radiance that I have been chasing after all this time, the one I long for… it has been yours.”

The sounds that follow her confession are the waves lapping at the shore. Claudine is staring at her, and Maya can only return her own gaze, all of her emotions and feelings coursing through her in this moment. Even performing on the stage knowing her parents are in the audience doesn’t leave her heart pounding so much like it is doing now.

And what will Claudine think?

That, is what Maya truly fears.

“All this time, you, I, you!” Claudine can’t finish her words, gaping. Her mouth is moving up and down, as if she’s wishing to speak but cannot. Maya would think the sight looks amusing, but not here, not with everything she has thrown out in the open.

Instead, all she can do is bow her head, unable to look at Claudine any longer. Admitting… to all of this… her heart feels so heavy, yet, at the same time, a great weight is being lifted. She’s held onto these feelings all this time, and now… they’re out of her, finally for Claudine’s own ears to hear.

But, it matters little, she thinks. Claudine is leaving to go back to her home in two days. Maya will not have to see her for months. She will pull herself back together. Now that she has laid herself out to bare, now that she has let herself indulge for a single moment… she will...

Maya will…

Her heart clenches painfully. She already knows of what the outcome will be. For all their words, for all of Claudine's actions, Maya knows, that they could never be—

“You’re! You’re so!” Lost in her own musings, Maya hadn’t realized Claudine had come closer. And now, all she can see is Claudine in front of her, and the tears in her eyes. Maya can feel her heart stopping, because it’s her that’s put tears on Claudine’s face. Claudine is still cute when she cries, but not when it is Maya’s own fault.

Ah… she shouldn’t have said all of that. She’s gone and burdened Claudine with her feelings, and—

Claudine’s hands shoot out, fist in the fabric of Maya’s shirt before she tugs her close, all before Maya can even react. A warmth covers her front now, and Maya bends her head slightly to look down, to look at Claudine hiding her face.

“You’re so detestable! Making me cry over you again!” Claudine’s voice is muffled from where she’s pressed against her, but Maya hears it loud and clear. She can’t see Claudine’s face, can’t see if that’s meant to be a joke, can’t see what sort of expression Claudine is making at all. Maya thinks she wouldn’t be able to understand, anyway. She doesn’t know what to make of this situation anymore. Nothing makes sense. Claudine doesn’t make sense.

Instead, she hesitantly wraps her around Claudine, unsure of what else to do. “I… I’m sorry,” she murmurs into the top of Claudine’s head.

“Don’t apologize!” Claudine snaps. “Just—shut up, right now. Don’t… don’t… say anything.”

Maya obeys her, immediately shuts her mouth. What else can she do? Claudine cries into her chest, and Maya can do little to comfort her. What can Maya do for her? If Claudine does not wish to see Maya any longer, then Maya will listen to her wishes. Claudine is leaving, they will not see each other. And, with the passage of time, even passion can erode away.

That is for the better. To speak everything as she had done, even she knows what a mistake it’s been.

“For someone who’s supposed to be a genius actor, you really… you’re really… so… stupid!”

Maya pushes her lips together. If it makes Claudine feel better by insulting her, then… Maya will weather them, too.

… but it still doesn’t sound nice, even coming from Claudine.

But Claudine clings to her even tighter. Her hands clench, ball into the fabric of her shirt.

“I… used to think… that you had never noticed me.” Claudine’s voice is quiet, so quiet, that Maya can barely hear them over the lapping of the waves. But she does, and Maya widens her own eyes. “Knowing that I was training and practicing so hard everyday, without even being acknowledged…”

Impossibly, Claudine grips her shirt even harder. “I was told I was a prodigy! That I would be the best! That no one else could stand to be my equal! And then I met you! And everything… everything…”

“I have noticed,” Maya says, so quietly that she isn’t sure she’s wanted Claudine to hear.

“I know now! And that’s where the problem is!” Claudine snaps. And Maya blinks, clearly not expecting an answer like that. What does that even mean? She really doesn’t understand anymore. Claudine is acting too erratically for her, too… too much for Maya to handle right now. She doesn’t understand anything anymore.

She doesn't understand Claudine anymore.

But had she ever?

“You really are so frustrating!” Claudine hisses through her teeth.

Maya doesn’t know how many times she’s told she’s frustrating from Claudine. She thinks she could keep count with a jar. But hearing the familiar term brings a small smile to Maya. Perhaps, some semblance of normalcy might possibly return, and she might know what to do.

But she knows she is only deluding herself now. Everything she’s just said… how could Claudine ignore that? There is still so much for them to talk about, but Maya already knows the answer Claudine will give her.

As carefully as she can, Maya slowly pushes Claudine off of her. And almost laughs afterward, because Claudine looks offended that Maya’s just pulled her away.

Maya meets her eyes, and quickly averts her own. “Everything I have said… was all unnecessary. I have burdened you with… with my feelings. I already know you do not feel the same way.”

“... what?”

Maya swallows thickly. “I had, ah, I hadn’t meant to say, ah, speak of this. I am only someone for you to chase, for your ideal. You could… you could never… not like… I…”

She knows she is rambling, but how can she even think coherently at this moment? Being confronted like this so suddenly… how is she to properly convey herself? She does not want Claudine’s pity, does not need it.

Maya chances a peek at Claudine, and nearly flinches away. The expression Claudine makes is darkening by the second, and she looks as if she’s on the verge of restraining herself from… something. There is a fire in her eyes, but for once, Maya does not wish to see it.

“Tendou Maya, you are truly the most infuriating person I have ever met!” And without any further ado, Claudine forcefully grabs the collar of Maya’s shirt and drags her down.

… ah.

oh?!

Maya cannot help but surprised sound that escapes out of her though the sound is muffled against Claudine’s lips. Her whole body has frozen but her hands have instinctively grabbed onto Claudine’s arms. She should push her away but—

But—

Maya’s heart betrays her, and she slowly sinks against Claudine—

And just as quickly, Claudine pulls away. Her eyes are narrowed, and she looks so, so, so angry. “How dare you speak for me,” she hisses. “How dare you even think that you know how I feel?”

“I—” Maya wants to explain herself, but Claudine holds her gaze. She cannot look away, cannot tear her eyes away. And, now, how can she, as Claudine reaches out and cradles her face, and looks at her so softly?

Her mind is spinning. She cannot think right now, cannot even gather her thoughts. How can she, after that display? Claudine has successfully devastated the inner workings of her mind, how is she to form the words she needs to say? How…

“You only see me as someone to defeat. And I will aim to keep being that person for you. You can take me to greater heights, and I know I can do the same for you. That is…”

“Did you even listen to yourself? You said we would do this together.” Claudine's voice is still soft, but her words are sharp, honed like her sword. “Did you forget that part?”

“Together…” Maya breathes. She had said that, but when she had spoken it then…

What Claudine is saying is entirely different than… entirely different than this. This—Maya is sure this had not what she had in mind.

Claudine is…

… rather, why is Maya so hesitant?

Because she is afraid. She is… afraid. Playing the part of a rival, of an obstacle, had been easy for her. For anything else—

Maya does not… know.

It terrifies her. Her cowardice, her indecision, her hesitation—

All because she is… afraid!

Maya, who has always kept her gaze ahead of her, who has always looked forward, who has always reached for the stars—

Afraid!

Maya wants to laugh, but she is nervous that she will lose what little composure she has tried to maintain. To think, she had once rebuked Karen for the very same thing she now yearns for. Had it been simply because she was afraid? Standing at the top for so long, to only stare ahead of her, to tell herself that the longing she felt inside was only a mere weakness.

Claudine lets go of her face but they trail downward instead, carefully smoothing down the area where she’d forcefully grabbed Maya. It is a simple action yet feels far more intimate than it has any right to, Maya thinks.

To stand upon the stage together with her class, with her friends, with Claudine, to shine even brighter than they could ever hope to do by themselves together, to know that she can turn around and reach out and feel Claudine’s hand in her as they stand upon the stage—

Maya has never felt greater exhilaration. She understands that now, why Karen had been so endlessly driven even in the face of impossible odds, why Hikari could become reborn again and again.

“You’re… for better or worse, you are... more than that to me now,” Claudine whispers, and looks up at her. Maya can find herself hardly able to breathe, not when the expression upon Claudine’s face is so… open, unguarded, vulnerable—

She can no longer help herself; she leans forward, and sees Claudine’s eyes widen. She does not look away, though, and waits.

“May I?” Maya asks. Her voice comes out as low, far breathier than Maya would like. She feels as if she is feeling… everything upon this moment: all of her anxiety, her restlessness, her excitement, her ardor, her hopes…

Claudine, still staring deep into her eyes, slowly nods.

Maya finally closes the distance between them, brushing her lips against Claudine’s. Even so, she is shy, almost seeking askance, as if she is afraid to lead, but Claudine responds by moving back against her, firmly. Claudine’s arms come to wind around her neck, and Maya finds her hands are somehow upon Claudine’s waist, trying to pull her closer. She’s held Claudine countless amounts of times but none of them compare to this moment.

… Claudine is much softer than even she could dream of.

And when they pull away, they’re breathing a little harder than normal, staring at each other.

There,” Claudine says breathlessly, and she sounds strangely satisfied for a reason indiscernible to Maya. “Even when you’re confessing, you’re still just as vexing!”

Claudine’s hands slide to her face once more, and though the expression on her face is fierce, her hands are anything but. Her thumb strokes Maya’s cheek, belies the affection that shimmers underneath the sudden fire that burns in Claudine’s eyes. “Keep your eyes on me, Maya. I’ll be sure to make it worth your while.”

Maya blinks at her. “But I always have been—”

Yes!” Claudine suddenly interrupts, a flush coming onto her face that Maya suspects is not from the heat. “I know! But, I meant… keep watching me. I’ll become that star you want to see again.”

“But, you already are—”

“Can you at least let me have this moment!” Claudine lightly squeezes one of her cheeks.

Even with the small pinch of pain, Maya cannot help but laugh. “I will always follow you,” she says instead. “But soar with me to greater heights. Stand together with me upon the stage. Together, we can go—”

“Even higher,” Claudine finishes for her, and Maya’s lips curve upward.

Here, in this moment, Maya thinks she’s grasped it once more. Again, her words come out of her, and she speaks simply not as Tendou Maya, but as the girl who wanted to chase after stars and shine just as bright as they did.

“When I think of what I seek on the stage… when I think of the star that I am always chasing even as I stand upon the stage… when I think of the most beautiful sight I have ever seen…”

“It has always been you, Claudine.”