Tsukasa stirred awake several hours after the ordeal at the lake, vision bleary as she attempted to deduce where she was.
The familiarity of the hospital at Eientei hammered home reality, along with the ghostly sensation of feeling like she was being asphyxiated.
In panic, her hands went to her throat, nails trying to breach the skin but someone had grabbed her wrists.
The sight of Shiori aided in calming the panicked woman down as she took in several erratic breaths before Shiori instructed her to suspire slower, to follow her pace. Such a simple task now felt onerous, like commanding her lungs to receive oxygen was asking too much.
Fragments of what had occurred flittered through Tsukasa's mind.
She could feel the creature's cold flesh around her neck, crushing her oesophagus as the tepid water pooled down her throat.
Convinced that death was on the cards, she only hoped that Shiori had escaped.
But in hindsight, Tsukasa knew her lover would never leave her regardless of what situation befell them so seeing her descend from the surface, a ferocious look on her face kept Tsukasa breathing.
She gulped lightly, lips and mouth dry, a hand reaching out to touch Shiori's cheek to feel the warmth.
To feel her alive.
Shiori smiled and shook her head, cradling Tsukasa's hand against her face, "I should be saying that to you. I thought I was going to lose you, that I wouldn't be able to save you".
"Shiori" Tsukasa said gently, other arm going behind Shiori's shoulders, "You did. Even if it was a risk to you. Putting yourself under that much stress could have triggered your immune system" she sighed, "But you still came after me".
"I always will. I don't care if it is a risk to me. The thought of losing you.." the blonde said firmly, voice shaky, "I love you".
Tsukasa felt the heat of Shiori's forehead meet her own as her fingers stroked the woman's face. She could sense the fear course through Shiori at the prospect of losing her. It was understandable, especially given what they had been discussing mere moments before she was dragged into the lake.
The idea of never seeing Shiori again left a gelid sensation trickling into her stomach, every nerve trying to inveigh against the thoughts.
Yachiyo's death had yet to shed its first layer of ice.
So that consternation she could see in Shiori's eyes mirrored her own.
"It won't happen again, Shiori. I love you. How can it given the way you jumped into a dangerous situation like that?" she chuckled, a cough forming in her throat due to the action.
Shiori smiled as she sat back and handed a cup of water to Tsukasa after moving her so that she could rest back on the pillows.
"I'll do anything if it means keeping you safe" she insisted, brushing back the woman's orange hair behind her ear.
Her eyes travelled to Tsukasa's throat, now covered with contusions, the mixture of red and purple marring her skin.
Just the sight of it was a reminder to how close she was to losing her lover.
Tsukasa's ankle had also been sprained given the hold the creature had on it, dislodging some of the joints so Tsukasa would be off of her feet for a while.
A small price to pay to escape death.
The two were alerted to Shizuha and Fumi at the door after they'd knocked so they motioned for them to come in.
Shizuha's expression was contorted into apprehension and relief as she made her way to Tsukasa's other side, accepting her embrace.
"Thank goodness" she exhaled, arms curled around Tsukasa's back.
"Just a scratch, Shizuha" Tsukasa managed to tease, eyes closing and arms tightening around the other woman, "We've felt worse".
The Yumeoji sisters left them be when Fumi indicated for Shiori to join her.
Shizuha thanked the blonde when she pulled back slightly to examine Tsukasa.
Being notified of what had happened, Shizuha felt her heart stop for a second time.
It went without saying that if Tsukasa had died, it would push the other woman off of the edge.
"How are you holding up? Do you need anything?".
"I'm okay, I promise. A little sore but that was to be expected".
Shizuha nodded, hands still around Tsukasa, "I'm sorry I wasn't there. But more than that, I'm thankful that Shiori was there. If I lost you too, I-".
Tsukasa halted the sombre train of thought, putting her hands on Shizuha's shoulders.
"Please don't put yourself through that, Shizuha. Easier said than done, I know, but I'm still here, okay? For a moment, I..didn't think I'd get to see any of you again. Of all the near death experiences I have had, that one was just another wake up call. I was so scared..".
The violet eyes glimmered as the realisation of what could have occurred settled in for Tsukasa.
It was a constant weight being added with each incident, the respite they had gained slipping through their fingers.
Shizuha brushed her thumb over the trail of tears coursing down her friend's face.
Tsukasa took a breath in, the action painful which made her body oscillate as Shizuha gently brought her to her chest, her chin resting on the woman's head. Her right hand swept through her hair in a soothing motion while they both came to grips on what could have happened.
More so, what had been averted.
Shizuha wondered if this was simply another coincidence, of some errant creature wreaking havoc.
First Hina, then Yachiyo and now Tsukasa.
Was there going to be a next?
Over in the waiting area, Fumi and Shiori were seated, embroiled in conversation.
Shiori had divulged all the details to Yukari about what had transpired, hoping that the woman could do something with the information.
Misty Lake was now off limits to humans.
The youkai were also warned to avoid the area but logically speaking, Yukari knew she couldn't exactly enforce it given that it was their natural habit. She made it clear the risk was theirs to take should they remain there.
"You should get some rest now, Shiori".
Fumi's glare to depict her dissatisfaction had remained the same throughout the years, along with the efficacy of it.
So Shiori relented, fingers balled into fists, "I know. I just want to spend some more time with her".
The image of Tsukasa in the creature's grasp made the blonde's anger blossom but it was quickly put to ease when Fumi placed a hand on her shoulder.
"She could have died".
It was whispered, light blue eyes staring ahead.
"Even if the whole thing lasted a few minutes, every second was closer to Tsukasa being killed. I.." she swallowed, "I can't lose anyone else" she managed and turned her gaze to her sister.
"I know" Fumi said gently, her hold on her sister's shoulder increasing, "I get it. That being said, you have to be careful, Shiori. You almost died. It took Eirin several times to revive you".
The younger blonde was now aware of it, "I still wouldn't change what I did".
"You can't be reckless" Fumi reminded, "If this happened in our world, the doctors wouldn't have been able to do anything to save you".
"So I was just meant to let Tsukasa die?!".
Shiori had stood up, indignation on her usually soft features morphing it to an ossified state as Fumi followed suit.
The area was free from other patients though Yumemi was around the corner and kept her eyes on the duo.
"That isn't what I'm saying".
"Would you have left Tamao in there? Or me? Would you have waited for someone else to save us?".
"Shiori!" Fumi sighed and gripped her sister's forearms, feeling the way her body was quivering in rage and fatigue.
Shiori snapped out of her tirade, her breathing heavy as she looked at her sister.
There was no anger on her face, just understanding and solicitude.
"I wouldn't have thought twice. I am not telling you off for saving Tsukasa. Honestly, I've come to expect that from you now and I know you are more than capable of handling yourself".
"Exactly that. I'm your sister, I'm allowed to freak out like this. I want you to be careful whenever you can even if it isn't always possible" she said and closed her eyes briefly before opening them, "You passed out the moment I reached you and didn't wake up till hours later. Fuck, Eirin didn't tell me about your almost death until after she saved you because she knew I'd lose it. I've always been like this when it comes to you. Yachiyo used to scold me, you know. 'Let her breath, Fumi-san, you worry too much'".
Shiori relaxed further, noticing the way her sister's expression shifted into one that Yachiyo could evoke out of her.
Annoyance and endearment.
Yachiyo had always been there for the sisters, repairing their relationship, supporting them in their endeavours.
She was the reason why Tsukasa had finally confessed her feelings to Shiori.
Though the woman had received some harsh words from Fumi about that.
"But she was right" Fumi continued, "Even so, I'll always be worried when you come to harm".
Shiori's ire drained with ease, understanding Fumi's concerns.
"Don't be" Fumi smiled, "The most important thing right now is that you are both okay".
It was a scenario where both women could have met their demise, a thought that went unsaid. The dangers of Gensokyo had become amplified which meant that the comfort they had found was no longer as strong.
Depending on the actions which followed from Yukari, they all knew their guards had to go back up, much like prior to reaching Gensokyo.
The same applied to Gensokyo's natives too.
Eirin was with Shinki in Eri's room, the doctor adjusting the girl's equipment.
She was now breathing on her own which allowed the rest of the machines to be put away much to Shinki's relief. The curative measures were monitored with diligence as the combination of medicine and magic aided in stabilising Eri.
The two goddesses were in the midst of discussing the recent event at the lake.
Eirin changed the I.V as Shinki remained seated on the chair next to Eri, the small hand in her own.
"It is difficult to assume at this point whether the creatures targeting us were already in Gensokyo. Their assiduous attacks have no distinguishable characteristics".
"You believe there is more than one?".
Eirin nodded, jotting some notes down, "The creature at the lake was killed by Shiori. The one at the shrine escaped. There is also the identity of the being which killed Hina".
"That is disturbing. On the topic, other than Gensokyo's humans, I had no idea other humans were capable of apprehending magical beings".
"The Outside World isn't quite devoid of magic yet so there are a few that have had their own encounters, such as those whom had arrived in Gensokyo" Eirin answered and placed her clipboard and pen down, "In the case of Shiori and Tsukasa, their demise was evaded because of their ability to harbour the energy dispersed by their weapons".
"They are resilient it seems".
"They haven't had the option to not be" Eirin explained, "Essentially, they have left one war zone to end up in another. The scope of their resilience is apropos".
A soft exhale escaped Eirin's lips, Shinki watching her as she tucked Eri in.
The demon goddess had long admired Eirin's machinations with her projects, be that the construction of the Lunar Capital or establishing herself as doctor for Gensokyo.
From what Alice had told her, there was rarely an aliment Eirin couldn't deal with.
Her expertise was enough to keep Eri alive and for that, Shinki would be thankful.
"It is regrettable" Shinki said, "How does Yukari plan to proceed?".
"Nothing has been definitively decided. But knowing Yukari, she has something planned".
"I see. If there is any way that I can be of aid, please do not hesitate to ask. Gensokyo is also Alice's home and I would truly be dejected to see it come to harm, along with its inhabitants".
Eirin inclined her head in thanks, "Your presence has certainly made this process bearable for Alice and Reimu".
"It is the least I can do. As a mother, I understand their pain" Shinki spoke up, cradling Eri's hand between her own, her blue eyes softening, "There are no limits in which a mother will go to in order to ensure the safety of their child".
Eirin could feel the sincerity in the words, along with something else, something foreboding.
It was as Yukari had said, an attack on Alice was going to incur the wrath of Shinki.
The goddess's power could be beneficial in not only finding the culprit but fortifying Gensokyo till the threat was dissolved.
In the room adjacent to theirs, Alice was in the midst of going through some of the materials from her home.
Reimu was out with Sanae, Youmu and Sakuya, following up some potential leads which she had provided the three. Marisa was at the library within the Scarlet Devil Mansion, working with Patchouli to cover more of Alice's journals and research in order to reach more conclusions at a quicker rate. Reisen remained at Eientei, under strict instructions from Eirin to monitor Eri, Tsukasa and Shiori, both medically and as a guard.
The stakes had risen given the recent attack so time was of the essence to find concrete evidence of whether the occurrences were related.
At least with Eirin around and now her mother, Alice's mind was somewhat assuaged about Eri.
It gave her the time to peruse her works, looking for a link between the creatures, the attack on the shrine and her magic.
If the culprit was indeed going to extreme lengths to obtain her research, Alice would provide them with some bait.
Sunset approached the village as Keine stood watch near the school, ensuring that people returned to their homes.
The incident which occurred at the lake had been concealed, only those required to have the information being aware. Little would be achieved by stirring panic amongst the humans, especially after it had somewhat quelled given what had happened at the shrine.
Those in the know were instructed to keep quiet whilst increasingly monitoring the village and surrounding areas.
She waved back at some of the locals passing by, watching them go.
The dusky orange of the skyline shimmered in an almost eerily beautiful manner, like an omen.
It would be a full moon tonight so she couldn't be out for too long.
Keine could already feel the changes settling into her body as she squeezed her right arm with her hand, taking a quick breath in. Thankfully, distraction came in the form of Kotohime whom rounded the corner of the school and greeted her.
"You should retire for the night, Keine. All the villagers have returned home".
Only a handful of humans were aware of Keine status as half youkai, including Meira and Kotohime.
Keine smiled, "That is good to know. I don't mind waiting a moment longer, at least till Meira is done with her patrols too in order to make sure you aren't alone".
"I appreciate it. Given the current circumstances, we cannot be too careful" Kotohime agreed and glanced towards Misty Lake, her red hair being brushed by the wind.
Her mind drifted back to the day they were accompanying Claudine and Tsukasa, how the latter had been perturbed.
The precursors seemed to be littered every where and Kotohime pondered if they could have halted the attack from happening but she knew it wasn’t plausible.
"Or prevent everything" Keine enunciated, noticing the faraway look on the princess's expression, "The most important thing we can do is prepare ourselves for what may happen. The lake itself has been known to harbour many youkai so whether it was the same being Tsukasa saw, we cannot be sure".
"That is plausible. On a positive note, whatever it was has been eradicated and hasn't resurfaced".
"Indeed. And we have told the villagers to avoid the lake when possible. For the time being, we stay alert and-".
Keine's head whipped towards the roof of the school, her sharp hearing picking up on the almost airy footfalls skimming across the second layer of the roof.
The scent itself had established that the person approaching them wasn't a threat but they couldn't be too sure considering what was happening so Keine remained vigilant.
Not a moment later, Meira jumped down from the building, the sound of her feet meeting the ground barely audible as she greeted the two.
"My apologies, I did not mean to sneak up on you both".
"I'm not sure it is possible to sneak up on Keine when she is like this".
The redhead chuckled at Keine's subtle diffident chiding, "It is an useful trait to have".
"I am inclined to agree" Meira added, "With that said, the northern section of the village is secure and everybody has returned home. I believe it should be fine to end the night here".
"Alright, I will see you both tomorrow in that case" Keine replied.
They all exchanged a few more words before they parted ways.
Meira reached for Kotohime's hand, her senses still alert to everything around them.
"Meira, you can relax now, please".
The woman glanced to the side to see Kotohime eyes on her, "At this point, it is more of a reflex" she answered, offering Kotohime a warm look.
Given what had occurred, Meira's protective instincts had heightened, not wanting to make the mistake of letting something into the village. She was reluctant in Kotohime going on the patrols to begin with but she knew that the woman could hold her own.
Still, the apprehension was there when she thought back to their visit to Eientei to see Tsukasa and Shiori.
Kotohime understood her lover's weariness and squeezed her fingers, "I know. Until the source of this is revealed, we can't let our defences falter. That being said, we should rest tonight, okay?".
"Of course. Ah, that does remind me, Sanae enquired if I can remain at the Hakurei Shrine with Yuyuko tomorrow. I believe her goddesses require her presence. Would that be of any issue?".
"What if I was to say yes it would be an issue and insisted you remain here with me?".
Meira almost missed her step at the way Kotohime had said it. The giggle which followed proved Kotohime's intent as she remained innocuous to her lover's flustered expression.
"There we go, now you are worried about something other than my safety".
"Such measures were not necessary, Kotohime".
The princess moved her arms up to wrap them over Meira's upper arm as they approached their home, "I'll have you know that it was. But to answer your question, I have no problem with you being there. Will you be alone?".
"No, Youmu and Sakuya will be there should something else occur. What will you be doing?".
"Taking over Keine's lessons for the day with Tamao since she won't be able attend" the woman answered as she opened the door.
"Would it not have been wiser to cancel the day?".
"In a way yes, but Keine insisted".
Meira chuckled, "Such is the essence of their strict teacher".
"Education is important" Kotohime relayed, "Not to worry, the lesson plan should be enjoyable for the children. Tamao and I have something entertaining planned".
The woman's refrained smile made Meira chuckle, wondering what her whimsical lover had in store.
Given the dispiriting aura that had settled given recent events, a jolt of something pleasant was necessary.
Before returning home, Keine did one more surveillance of the village before checking in with Mokou at the entrance of the Bamboo Forest of the Lost.
While humans refrained from entering the forest at night, some intrepid youkai did so and ended up lost so Mokou would scan the location intermittently.
After ensuring that the woman would be careful, Keine made her way back home.
She could feel her heart racing as the moon had ascended in the sky now.
Time was of the essence, the teacher breaking into a sprint. The pain in her head had increased, the incoming signs of her transformation coming through.
Keine knew it was slightly reckless to have done that final sweep but it wasn't in vein, so long as everyone was safe. She could fight back should she be attacked so even if she was alone, it wasn't that much of an issue.
The transforming side was the part she was most uncomfortable with, both the process and the potential of a human seeing her.
She reached her home and quickly opened the door as her tongue felt the sharpness of her fangs extending.
Keine knew she had locked the door before she left which meant only one thing.
Her senses had already heightened when Kaguya walked in and hooked Keine's arm around her shoulder, moving them into the living area after Keine had removed her shoes.
"There we go" Kaguya said gently as she placed the woman down and sat in front of her, "Calling it quite close tonight, aren't we?" she chided playfully.
Keine managed a grin as Kaguya's hands rested on her shoulders, "It can't be helped. You don't have to be here for this, Kaguya".
The lunarian rolled her eyes, "How many times have we had this conversation?".
"Too many too count" Keine answered , "I won't stop giving you the option".
"And I won't stop saying no to it".
Keine's breath shuddered as her brown eyes, a shade similar to Kaguya's, now turned crimson.
Her teeth had elongated fully, along with the change of colour in her outfit, the royal blue switching to an electrifying verdant. The blue highlights of her hair shifted to a light green, Kaguya's fingers stroking the strands after removing Keine's hat.
It had been this way for years and yet, Kaguya showed no signs of finding this side of her tedious or unsightly so Keine knew the woman wouldn't leave, would be there for her during every full moon.
The pain in her skull increased, palms on the floor as her horns began to protrude at the same time as her tail appeared. She winced at the sensations as Kaguya held her close, wrapping her arms behind Keine's shoulders tightly.
"You're almost there".
Keine's eyes slammed shut as her hands gripped Kaguya's waist, careful not to injure her with her strength as the last processes of her horns extending was carried out. Her form went rigid as Kaguya clutched onto her with fervour, the soft texture of the woman's lustrous tail curling up Keine's back to tickle her arms.
Regardless of how long Keine had had the abilities of a werebeast, a hakutaku at that, the morphing phase never appeared without an arduous level of pain and discomfort.
The physical changes were just as dire as the mental ones, her hormones going out of synch, like a concealed side of her personality was attempting to escape and did so.
It truly was reckless to not stay in but there was nothing she could do about it now as the horns final stopped extending and a red bow appeared on the left one.
Her body slumped over Kaguya's, the woman's hands petting over her hair and back. Her breathing steadied and eyes opened as she carefully pushed Kaguya onto the floor, the princess easily following the pace.
Brown eyes looked up at her while Kaguya's arms curled behind her neck.
"Are you alright, Keine?".
Keine nodded, blinked open her eyes whilst trying to reign down the primal desires of her transformation.
"You don't have to hold back".
There was a point after their first meeting where Keine couldn't imagine seeing eye to eye with the lunarian, especially given her tumultuous history with Mokou.
Through a vicissitude course of encounters, Keine's opinions quickly wavered the more she was in the princess's presence.
Opinions were not immutable, always changed regardless of how long one lived.
Kaguya and Mokou's hatred abraded to more friendlier terms which allowed Keine to see beyond Kaguya arcane and exterior.
Stripping back each layer till Kaguya exposed her soul and Keine was captivated, imparted.
So she believed her when she whispered that statement, leaning down to kiss her as she settled between Kaguya's legs. Her hand went to the white bow of Kaguya's top, tugging it before peeling back the garment and ran her hand up Kaguya's abdomen.
The lunarian shivered, feet flat on the floor while her hands made work on the red ribbon on her lover's dress, pulling it and throwing it to the side. Keine's canines ran over her tongue before freeing her, lips travelling to Kaguya's throat as the tips of her teeth scraped down the column.
She knew Keine was holding back.
It was the case whenever their love making began and Kaguya had to remind her that she is immortal, that she couldn't kill her.
Despite this, Keine was cautious.
Immortality wasn't an escape from pain, even if the princess was well versed in the pleasures of such sensations too.
Keine exhaled, felt hands in her hair while her own hand had moved beneath the waistband Kaguya's brown skirt as her teeth broke skin.
The restlessness faded from the reserved youkai's mind, eyes closed as she revelled in the texture of Kaguya's blood in her mouth and the deluge coating her fingertips when she brushed them over the damp lips.
It went without saying that the process of regaining her stability was a painstakingly timely event, both the transformation and wielding the abilities of the majestic hakutaku.
In Keine's human form, she had the ability to hide history, which included being able to conceal landmarks and beings.
Her hakutaku form allowed her to create history, to add and remove whatever she desired .
The woman's awareness of the entire history of Gensokyo was also a part of that.
So it went without saying how it was essential for Keine to remain level headed, especially during her hakutaku form in which her behaviour became erratic.
She was still a youkai, even if half.
Mokou used to keep her company during the full moons and after that, Kaguya took it upon herself to do so, knowing that she could offer more since Keine was hesitant about hurting Mokou given their friendship regardless of Mokou's immortality.
She knew had to assuage Keine, both the human side and the youkai.
Kaguya held into Keine, head tipping back as the youkai continued to take from her unabashedly.
Gensokyo's delicate balance played a pivotal role in every being which existed there and with the change in the atmosphere and recent incidents, the status quo was shifting.
The unpropitious aura remained with Keine as she removed her mouth from Kaguya's throat, eyes taking her in while her palm pressed over the wound to halt the bleeding.
For the long lived, existence was fugacious.
For the immortal, existence was perpetual.
Keine was thankful for that.
Sleep circumvented Claudine as the quietness of the Yakumo household rang through.
Given what had happened to Shiori and Tsukasa, she was agitated, as was everyone else.
It was as if for every positive event, a negative followed, pushing their tentative stability back to the nadir.
Tae, Maya and Mahiru were safe but Tsukasa and Shiori almost died.
She sighed whilst tightening her hold around Kaoruko's waist, pressing a kiss to the woman's shoulder. Claudine couldn't bare the thought of Kaoruko being placed in a similar situation, already too close to losing her prior to reaching Gensokyo.
Moving a hand, she brushed Kaoruko's long hair back before running her fingers down her upper arm. She was sound asleep much to Claudine's relief, hoping the woman actually got some rest tonight.
Kaoruko spent most of her day training but not with her which the blonde found concerning, unusual. She wanted to bring it up but the timing never presented itself.
Claudine wondered if this was all in her own head, a culmination of the stress.
The group were stuck to each other for an entire year and now were free to pursue their own paths in Gensokyo.
So not having Kaoruko around often was anomalous.
Though in some way, this was beneficial for them.
Claudine tried to convince herself that this was the case.
Slowly, she extracted her arms from around her lover's body without disturbing her. She did not want to wake the woman up with her restlessness so going for some air might help settle her mind. Covering Kaoruko with the duvet, the blonde placed a kiss to her temple before leaving.
It was strange to adjust to the silence of the mansion even now.
The quietness, the peace, it was jarring.
Her slippers padded over the floor as she tied her robe and went down the stairs. From the corner of her eyes, she saw a light on in the patio which was on the right side of the house. The glass door was open and Claudine wondered who else would be awake at this time.
"Hello?" she called out in an effort to not scare whomever it was.
On the chair, Maya turned, "Claudine?".
"Oh, it's you".
"Sorry to disappoint" she chuckled.
Claudine tutted, "Can I join you?".
The brunette motioned to the chair next to her own, "Of course. You cannot sleep?".
"No, just one of those mercurial moods. How about you?".
"Likewise. I didn't want to disturb Mahiru since she is sleep".
Claudine smirked at that as she kept her eyes on Maya, "So you and Mahiru huh. Can't say I'm surprised at that happening".
"Is that so?".
"Yeah, even before all this, Mahiru was someone you got along with well. Now, I think it might have something to do with your potatoes obsession and love for food, two things Mahiru excels at. But it's just a theory".
Maya grinned as her eyes peered across the grounds of the mansion, the glimmering stars and moon highlighting everything in a silver glow.
"She has always had a calming presence about her. Had it not have been for her myriad of support, well, I may not have been here at this moment".
The blonde took note of the way Maya's form shivered beneath the thin material of her nightshirt.
It was as if she was a million miles away, back in the Outside World.
She couldn't begin to envisage what Maya, Mahiru and Tae had endure following their separation.
"Is that why you can't sleep, Maya?".
The brunette exhaled, blinking out of her stupor.
"Unfortunately, yes. After we were all displaced, the situation became more dire and difficult to obviate. Daiba-san and Hoshimi-san's disappearance. My capture.." Maya said, voice pinched, "It is difficult to halt the nightmares".
Of her ordeal when she was subjugated.
"If you want to talk about what happened, I'm here. It might not fix everything but getting it out of your system is a start".
"Mahiru insists the shame".
Claudine smiled, "She's a clever woman".
"I agree" Maya responded, "She has been patient with me in regards to disclosing what had occurred during the time of my capture. Be it with the night terrors or other fears, Mahiru has been there. But I feel like I am burdening her with the way I am currently".
Claudine could understand the sentiment but she knew Maya was aware as to how Mahiru wouldn't think such a thing.
It just felt natural for personalities like Maya's to not rely on others, something which had softened over the years. It went without saying that she would feel obsolescence to those around her even if it wasn't the case.
She listened as the other woman continued, "There are moments that I convince myself I dreamt the whole thing up. That I hadn't been captured and subjected to interrogation. Despite what they did, I had no intent on reveling the whereabouts of Mahiru and Hanazono-san".
What they did.
The words chilled Claudine as she watched Maya dwell in the past.
She reached out a hand, taking Maya's in her own.
Claudine wasn't sure if she was the one who needed the support or Maya.
Her thoughts were going astray with the images of a captured Maya at the hands of the E.B.O.S personnel.
An organisation so ruthless that any means to silence the opposition were acceptable. They had showcased that first hand as they turned the world upside down, taking advantage of the perils befalling on humanity.
"To be honest, I like to think I was one of the more fortunate ones at the facility. We know of their human experimentation programs, whether one was inoculated or not. So in that regards, the violence and torture was a walk in the park to endure".
Claudine was on the edge of her seat as her hands cradled the brunette's, rapt attention on the woman. The fact that Maya was correct in her observation left a bitter feeling because either way, she was in their clutches for months.
Maya smiled and pushed on, taking in the warmth of Claudine's compassion.
It brought her peace to know Claudine wouldn't look down at her, or think of her as weak.
"Whether I would survive or not faded after a few weeks. The routine of being questioned, manual labour and being beaten became repetitive. I was not counting on escaping the facility alive".
The violet eyes looked away, shimmering slightly.
Claudine could hear the pain in her words, her heart aching. Even now, Maya strove to conceal her emotions so when she did reveal them, the effects of what had occurred were detrimental. A raconteur when it came to conveying stories, be it through plays or anecdotes, Maya managed to pull Claudine into her nightmare.
She squeezed the hand between hers, "You don't have to continue".
"Thank you, Claudine. The rest is self explanatory, I suppose. Mahiru and Hanazono-san waited, biding the right time, using any means to disrupt the power circuits. Those that could escape did so. They saved not only myself but many others. I..want to recall those pleasant moments but my mind drifts to that room, the dark, the feeling of..".
"Hey, it's okay, Maya" Claudine shushed and embraced Maya softly, arms around her form, "It isn't going to be easy to leave that behind. So don't push yourself. You've been through so much. I know what you are like, always wanting to be first but take your time with this".
Maya laughed at that and gripped the soft robe beneath her palms. Her breathing was tremulous as she sunk into Claudine’s body and words.
"Old habits.." she replied, "Intermingling with negative new ones are a recipe for disaster".
Claudine couldn't agree more as she patted the woman's back before Maya pulled away.
"That and the physical reminders often muddy the process of recovery".
Maya sat back and unbuttoned the last three buttons of her night shirt, the cold air hitting her instantly but she didn't halt her movements.
She parted the white garment to allow Claudine to see a glimpse of the damages which had been inflicted on her, to ratiocinate the words she couldn't expel.
Only Mahiru and Tae had witnessed the full scale of it considering that they had to dress her wounds after they escaped.
The blonde barely managed to conceal her gasp.
Scar upon scar, some deep and others light over the expanse of her abdomen.
"Oh, Maya.." she sighed, "I'm sorry you had to go through this".
Her fingers flexed, the urge to run her digits over the wounds prevalent but she was unsure of if the woman would be okay with it. The fact that Maya was showing her was a step in itself, showcasing her vulnerabilities.
However, Claudine's doubts were erased when Maya held her wrist and moved her hand towards it, nodding.
With that, Claudine gently ran her fingers over Maya's abdomen, feeling the ridges and the crevasses left on the firm skin. Her warm hands combated the early autumn night which Maya appreciated. Her eyes never left Claudine's face, witnessing the range of emotions flutter by.
Choler, sympathy, frustration.
Maya was touched, "It's okay, Claudine".
"How.." she paused, took a quick breath and looked up at the other woman, "I know. I just wish we were there to help you all too".
It went without saying as Claudine retracted her hand and buttoned Maya's shirt back up.
"I know without a doubt you would so please don't dwell on it. Seeing you all here and alive, it made those 4 months worth it. Despite the losses along the way, we stuck together and will continue to do so".
"Always with the motivational speeches" Claudine shook her and smiled.
"Well, we may be following each other but it counts. Now more than ever to support each other" Maya reminded and tucked her dark hair behind her ear as the wind picked up, "We should head back inside".
"Sure, you feel okay to do so?".
"I do. Thank you, Claudine". "
Don't worry about it".
They made their way into the mansion after locking the door and heading upstairs where they encountered Mahiru just stepping out of the bedroom.
The sleep left completely as the two reached her and she took Maya's hand in her own.
"I think you lost something, Mahiru".
Claudine grinned as Mahiru blushed slightly, "Thank you for finding her. Are you okay?".
Maya wrapped her arm around Mahiru's waist, causing the other woman to move in closer, "Other than the cold, I'm okay. I didn't want to disturb you so Claudine kept me company".
"Best company there is" the blonde winked at Mahiru.
Their hushed voices reverberated around the landing as Mahiru smiled and attempted to warm Maya up.
"That can't be refuted" Maya said, "I've kept you awake enough, Claudine. Thank you for the company"
"No problem. I'll see you both in the morning. Hopefully you'll get some rest. Good night, Mahiru, Maya".
They parted ways as Maya and Mahiru returned to bed, the shorter woman pulling Maya to her chest as they lay side by side. The outside chill still lingered so she rubbed Maya's back whilst stroking her hair, feeling the brunette's breathing even.
"I revealed to her some of the details of what happened".
Mahiru kissed her hair, "Only if you feel comfortable with it. Kuro is nothing but supportive, isn't she?".
"She is. Her reaction was touching. I owe that to you, Mahiru".
"That's not true" Mahiru whispered, ghosting her fingertips down Maya's spine and over the scars there.
"On the contrary, it is. I don't think I would have had the courage to tell her without your support. You've always been there".
Maya closed her eyes, revelling in the feeling of Mahiru's heartbeat against her lips. The psychological toll of her captivity and reprobate acts of E.B.O.S would have broken her and without Mahiru's help and attention, as well as Tae's, she would have lost herself.
While a part of her would always love Claudine, what she felt for Mahiru was different. Much like the same was for Mahiru in regards to Karen and Hikari.
They had built up an elemental support system long before the pandemic and it now had flourished.
"I'll always be with you, Maya".
Back in Claudine's room, she was relieved to see that the heiress was still asleep as she settled in behind her, resuming their previous position.
Her thoughts remained on what Maya had shared, pleased that she could still confide in her.
It made her that much more thankful of the woman in her arms, safe and sound.
The thought of Maya enduring such a thing was horrific enough so imagining her lover in that situation terrified her.
She held her close, lips against the blue strands as she bid Kaoruko goodnight, reminding her that she loved her.
Unbeknownst to Claudine, Kaoruko was awake.
She had been since the moment she left their bed.
Kaoruko played the audience to the untenable exchange between Claudine and Maya.
The pernicious image imprinted into her mind.
Claudine's hands on Maya, Maya's soft expression.
Though she couldn't make out the conversation, their actions were telling enough
Her brown eyes stared ahead, unblinking as her lover's hands rested around her waist.
Kaoruko's own arms remained slack in front of her, not touching Claudine.
The bile in her stomach rose as visions of Maya luring Claudine in with her touch swirled around her head.
Kaoruko didn't sleep.
Felt something cold weave into her subconscious, curling within it before infusing.