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Chapter 1

Mahiru chewed her lip as she watched Hikari slip into the back of the meeting room, a blue beret covering her long black hair and a sketch book in her arms. Certainly her late entrance would not be overlooked by Kaoruko, who was currently looking at her cell phone as Futaba pulled up a presentation on the projector and erased the marks of the previous meeting from the whiteboard.

Hikari slipped into the seat beside Mahiru, her simple blue canvas one-piece dress belying the fact that she worked for one of the top fashion companies in Japan. Mahiru herself wore an oxford button down and a houndstooth pencil skirt with black ankle boots. It was not a typical summer outfit, but Kaoruku Hanayagi’s company, HANA, was not typical in many ways.

“Ah, Hikari-han is here, we can begin,” Kaoruko said, putting her phone down on the table. She stood at the head of the long conference table where the twenty or so marketing and production staff gathered around.

“Sorry, Kaoruko-san,” said Hikari, “The line was extra long at the coffee shop downstairs.”

Karouko chose not to comment on this, raking her fingers through her distinctive bobbed hair. “We’ve reached the end of summer,” she said, walking over to the projector screen, which displayed the date, July 15th. Our designers, myself included, are working morning til night to finish up on the winter line. The fall line is already in production. The focus of this meeting is not fashion, obviously,” she said, glancing at a few underdressed attendees, “But marketing, events planning, et cetera. What are some concerns? Ideas?”

Kaoruko’s second-in-command, Isurugi Futaba, stood at the whiteboard and uncapped a marker.

“Well, I was thinking that since your fall line is all about strong contrasts, especially with black and white, that it would be nice to utilize that into a lot of our themes,” said Junna, who was in charge of the catalogue layouts. “For example, the catalogue title could be a bold black or white, our runway show could be themed around black and white elements, the models-”

“Let’s shelf the models for the moment,” said Kaoruko quickly. “But I like the rest of that idea. This past summer there were a lot of rich, jewel tones. If we transition to something like black and white, I think it would capture attention well.”

Mahiru took notes. Kaoruko’s intuition was never wrong. If she thought black and white was the way to go this season, then that was what Mahiru would follow.

“But perhaps,” Kaoruko mused aloud, “Instead of simply black and white…”

“Light and darkness?” Hikari suggested. Mahiru nudged her with her elbow for interrupting their company head.

“Exactly, Hikari-han. This is why I keep you around.”

Mahiru turned away so she wouldn’t have to see the shit-eating grin on Hikari’s face. On the other side of Hikari, she could see the new intern Karen watching the interactions closely, trying to follow the fast pace of the meeting. Mahiru was fond of Karen, she was hoping she wasn’t going to take after Hikari too, too much.

Nana Daiba, the head photographer, spoke up then. “I was also thinking that since a lot of the designs this season, and for HANA in general, are for very classic elements… traditionally tailored jackets, cardigans, dresses and such, that it would be fun if the elements of our print marketing and our runway were more non-traditional to contrast that, though I’m not sure what that means exactly.”

“That’s alright,” Kaoruko assured Nana, “That’s why we’re brainstorming. Hmm… something non-traditional to contrast the clothing designs… anyone?”

To Mahiru’s surprise, Karen spoke up then. “Some non-traditional settings for the print backgrounds would be fun. Some taken in nature would be nice, I think, or at the beach. My dream would be a Hong Kong nightlife shoot.”

“Bring me some ideas,” Kaoruko said, and Mahiru smiled. The new intern had brought something useful to the meeting. She nodded at her encouragingly. At the whiteboard, Futaba was frantically taking notes to ensure they captured all the ideas brought up.

Hikari cautiously raised her hand. “Yes?” asked Kaoruko, smirking a bit.

Hikari cleared her throat. “Maybe it’s still taboo to talk about models, but, I think we could get some unexpected models?”

The room was silent for a few seconds. Their last main model, Akira, had left the company after receiving an offer from HANA’s rival company, and a few of their other ‘mainstay’ models had left with her. HANA had used models from agencies to fill their summer catalogue and do their summer runway shows, but Kaoruko had always insisted on keeping in-house models both to keep their image consistent and to make sure their models were part of their staff just as the marketing team or the designers themselves were. The last group of models leaving all at once had been a shock and a difficult blow.

“What do you mean by unexpected?” Kaoruko asked, leaning forward a bit to look at Hikari. Hikari was one of the few attendees of the meeting who was also on the fashion design staff, so Kaoruko took a keen interest in her vision. Mahiru leaned back in her seat so as to not block Kaoruko’s view with her own face.

“Well, I’m not exactly sure. I mean, I was thinking it would be kinda fun if she were a bit unknown, honestly. Or if she looked a bit unique and caught people’s attention that way. Or…” Hikari trailed off, as if contemplating something she wasn’t ready to say.

Kaoruko looked like she was considering the pros and cons of Hikari’s proposal.

Mahiru sighed. She didn’t know why she was bothering to help Hikari, goodness knows Hikari never went out of her way to help her. But somehow she felt she could verbalize what Hikari could not. She leaned forward. “Hanayagi-san, I think what Hikari-chan is trying to say is that Junna’s idea with the strong contrasts could be actualized with the correct models. If you find two contrasting models to lead the campaign, one to represent light, and one to represent darkness, this theme could carry forth across our catalogue, and across our runway shows. If you find the right people, this could be our most successful marketing effort in recent memory.”

Kaoruko nodded, a fire lighting up in her eyes. “I like where your heads are at, Mahiru, Hikari. I think the public needs a new, consistent face from us, from the fall catalogue through the summer shows. And they’ll need to be older. I can’t have any teenagers running around here all year.”

Kaoruko began quietly giving instructions to Futaba who quickly began typing into her phone. Mahiru, too, continued taking notes. Finally, Kaoruko turned back to the staff. “Hikari, Mahiru. I’m putting you in charge of scouting. Take the intern with you.”

“What?” asked Mahiru, promptly covering her mouth as she realized she’d made the outburst aloud. Beside Hikari, who remained as emotionless as ever, Karen was beaming.

Mahiru could feel the eyes of all the other staff on her as she realized they were putting their trust in her to not let them down. “Understood.”

The rest of the meeting continued, and though Mahiru took notes, she wasn’t truly focused. She was partially responsible for picking the next models for the company? The faces that would be on their catalogues, other magazines, huge advertisements, and if they were lucky, the sides of buildings and inside department stores. She could be launching or advancing the career of a model, or, if she made the wrong choice, dooming the company to a year of bad marketing, and dooming the girl to several years of nasty comments and possibly being forced to leave the industry. She picked at her nails nervously until Hikari tugged at her sleeve to get her to stop.

After the meeting, Mahiru got lunch with Hikari and Karen at one of their favorite restaurants around the block from the company’s headquarters. The company was located in a high-rise in the Ginza district of Tokyo, and Mahiru knew the most delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurants down particular alleys so they wouldn’t spend their entire paycheck on one meal. They talked while they took a short walk after they ate, knowing soon enough lunch would be over and they’d need to return to the HANA highrise.

“I can’t believe we’re scouting models!” Karen said.

“Wow, I can’t believe it took you that long to say it,” Hikari said.

“How are you calm about this?” Mahiru kicked a pebble in their path. “Well, I guess this was kind of your idea. Ooh I got so nervous when you spoke up, oh my gosh!”

Hikari laughed gently. “I don’t know why. What’s the worst that happens? Kaoruko says it’s a bad idea and we move on.” She sighed. “But you’re right, it’s a lot of pressure.”

“What kind of person are you going to look for?” Mahiru asked. They turned off the path to head back to the office.

Hikari considered for a moment. “I don’t know if I’m looking for two separate people. I think we need to search together and find the pair. They need to complement each other correctly. A sun and moon. ”

Karen smiled. “Hikari-chan is so thoughtful.”

Hikari laughed. “It’s for the good of my clothes. What about you, Mahiru?”

Mahiru sighed. “I have no idea. I only got this assignment two hours ago because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut.” They walked in silence for a few minutes. “I guess, if I were making this my issue, and I were putting the HANA line clothes on someone, with the light and darkness and the untraditional themes in my head… I would want a ‘girl crush’ style model.”

Hikari snorted a little. “You just want a girl crush.”

Mahiru blushed, which was unfortunate as they had just approached the building entrance. “Do not,” she said, pushing past Hikari as they walked to the elevators. She got back to her desk on the 7th floor two minutes before her hour-long lunch break was over, and set to work assembling a collection of models to look over with Karen and Hikari.

Two hours later, she had finished, even adding short bios and descriptions below each model’s profile. She emailed the package to Hikari and Karen to review before they met up the next morning, but headed upstairs to her scheduled meeting with Kaoruko at 3PM, feeling rather nervous for no particular reason.

She took the elevator up two floors to Kaoruko’s suite, and greeted Futaba, who checked to make sure Kaoruko wasn’t on any calls and then let Mahiru through. Kaoruko was sitting at her desk, but her drafting table off to the side in her office looked recently used, as did the yoga mat on the other side.

“Tea?” she asked, gesturing to the electric kettle on the window sill.

Mahiru shook her head, settling onto the chair across from the desk. She’d been in her boss’s office many times, but every time she was impressed with how much the space reflected Kaoruko. It was simple, yet fashionable. On trend, and yet timeless. She glanced at Kaoruko’s expression to try to make out what the purpose of this meeting was.

“Mahiru, do you know why I have you and Hikari on staff?” she asked.

“Because I won a contest in junior college and got an internship, and you took a liking to Hikari the one time she tagged along to the office?” Mahiru asked, knowing already this was not where Kaoruko was going with her story.

Kaoruko smiled fondly at the memory. “Even then, I saw something in the both of you. I saw your potential. Both of you only have junior college degrees, and yet you’re my main event planner and Hikari’s designing a quarter of my winter line? Why is that? Because you never let me down. Everyone here has good days and bad days, it’s fine, I expect that, but you two? Remarkable, every time. Truly a testament to my leadership and foresight.”

Mahiru shifted uncomfortably from the praise and smiled a bit at Kaoruko’s trademark ego-stroking. Despite her final remark, she knew everything Kaoruko said was genuine, and that her boss rarely gave out compliments.

“Oh, I’m not saying this to put pressure on you, though I guess I inadvertently did. I just meant, you deserve to be where you’re at. Your work is consistently excellent. I have you two to thank for some of my recent success.” Mahiru knew Kaoruko was constantly receiving pressure from her parents, the owners of HANA Corporation. As their daughter, she was put in charge of the fashion company, just a small facet of a conglomerate of businesses the Hanyagi’s owned under the HANA name.

“Thank you,” said Mahiru. “I will do my best. Though I’m really not sure about finding you models.”

“I know we are sort of cursed when it comes to models. After Akira left and the rest of our main models left to work for that thorn in my side, Siegfeld, it’s been nothing but trouble. If we can get two to lead this campaign, we can reinvent ourselves. I am counting on you.”

Mahiru slapped her cheeks gently, trying to get herself into form. “I’ll do my best, Kaoruko-san. But I’ve been meaning to ask. Don’t you have scouts for that?”

Kaoruko laughed gently. “I do. It’s you three. I just spent the last few minutes telling you how you and Hikari have such perfect vision, how it’s pretty much always the vision I didn’t know I needed for my clothes until it’s there in front of me, right? I’ve been watching that intern as well, and she has good intuition. And then I realized, who better to envision the faces of our newest campaign? You can do this, Mahiru. And if, for some ungodly reason, you pick some duds, I’ll only ride you about it for a year or so.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

The next morning, Mahiru met with Karen and Hikari in the conference room on the seventh floor of the Hanayagi Corporate Tower to discuss the models they wanted to scout. There were headshots and brief biographies of models from three different agencies printed out, as well as several unaffiliated models that Mahiru found through her searching, since Hikari thought that having someone more “fresh” would be interesting. They laid out the pictures on the long conference table, arranging them and rearranging them to try to make pairs that looked good together.

There were many contrasting pairs that looked good together in Mahiru’s opinion, but Hikari turned them all down, stating that they weren’t going to bring out the right elements of the fall line, or they weren’t unique enough, or some other reason that was beginning to frustrate Mahiru. Karen, to her credit, was trying every possible combination of the photos, but none seemed to please Hikari.

After two hours, they sighed as they sank back into chairs. “Well, I think we can all agree that we like… Tendo Maya,” Karen said, reading the name under one picture that they had tried pairing with every girl on the table.

“She is the white concept, untapped potential,” said Hikari, leaning back in her chair.

“Mahiru-chan, didn’t you say you wanted a girl-crush?” asked Karen, moving Maya’s dangerously good looking headshot closer to Mahiru.

“K-Karen-chan!” said Mahiru, blushing deeply.

“The problem is, it all falls apart if there’s no countering force. We need the other half,” said Hikari. She sighed. “I’m going for coffee, text me what you want.”

Karen texted Hikari their orders while Mahiru looked over Maya’s biography. It said that she held an undergraduate degree from the University of Tokyo, studied modeling part time for the past year while working as a subject matter expert in a Tokyo Museum. Well-read, well-spoken, and well-mannered, Maya would be an asset to any company that would have her, and she was certain to become a Top Model in no time with her figure, beautiful facial features, and striking expressions.

While they were waiting for Hikari to return, Junna stopped by the conference room. While it wasn’t rare for them to work closely with Junna, they generally didn’t see her as much until it came closer to the catalogue run dates, when her expertise was needed more and more, so Mahiru was surprised to see her come through the doors.

“Junjun! What’s up?” asked Karen, already on casual terms with much of the staff despite being an intern.

“Hello, Karen. Good morning, Mahiru-san. I came to see how your scouting was going.”

“Ah, well… we haven’t managed to agree on anything yet,” said Mahiru sadly. She noticed how Junna looked tense, almost anxious. “Junna-san, are you looking forward to the models getting selected?” she asked.

Junna blushed, and though she looked as though she wanted to deny it, she sighed. “I have to say that I am. Ever since Karen suggested the possibility of going to Hong Kong, I’ve been dreaming of the shoots we could do. The designs we could create with the Hong Kong nightlife and the color schemes that evokes. I really want to do this project.” Her eyes were shining and Mahiru could feel her motivation.

“Don’t worry, Junjun. We’ll figure it out!” Karen assured her.

Mahiru wanted to caution the intern not to make promises she wasn’t sure she could keep, but just then Hikari returned, a tray of coffee in one hand and a magazine in the other. “I’ve got it,” she said, a rare smile on her features. “Hi, Junna.” She placed the magazine down on the table, implying that inspiration struck her as she was glancing at the magazine rack.

Mahiru walked closer to see the cover, wondering if it was a celebrity or singer that garnered Hikari’s attention, and nervous about how they were going to get this person involved. To her surprise, Hikari had picked up a copy of a rather trashy tabloid, and pointed to the photo on the bottom half of the front cover.

On it was a very pretty blonde girl, her expression rather distressed as she was obviously trying to avoid the photographers taking her photo. The headline above her photograph read ‘Former French Model Saijou Claudine Spotted in Harajuku Last Weekend’.

“You want the Saijou Claudine?” asked Junna, her face a deadpan stare at Hikari. Mahiru had a feeling her expression was somewhat the same, though she made an effort to keep it somewhat polite. Karen grabbed the tabloid and flipped to the article, pulling up a few more photos of the ‘encounter’.

“Is that going to be a problem?” asked Hikari. Mahiru wondered if perhaps she did not know who Saijou Claudine was. “It says she’s a model.”

“Hey, she’s really pretty,” said Karen. “She’d look really good beside Tendo Maya. Good eye, Hikari.”

“You two don’t know who that is, do you?” asked Junna slowly. When both Hikari and Karen shook their heads, she laughed a little, patted Mahiru’s shoulder, and walked out of the room, mumbling something about finishing up some print layouts for a deadline. Both Karen and Hikari’s eyes turned to Mahiru.

Mahiru was an abundance of patience, but after two hours of offering reasonable combinations of models to Hikari, only to have every last one of them rejected, and to have Hikari come back to suggest them scouting Saijou Claudine, with the added bonus of her not knowing who that was, she was running very low. “I’m going to take a short break,” she said, as calmly as she could. “Karen, I think it would be a good time for you to research Saijou-san’s work history,” she suggested. Taking her coffee, she walked out of the conference room, leaving the other two bewildered in her wake.

Mahiru rode the elevator two floors up to Kaoruko’s office, where she and Futaba were sitting at her desk discussing something that seemed to be very important. Mahiru turned to go, realizing that venting her frustrations to her boss was not the wisest thing to do, and perhaps she was better off going for a walk or seeing if Nana was around, but it was too late when Kaoruko summoned her inside. “I’m sorry to disturb you!” she said, bowing.

“No worries,” said Futaba, standing up to move a second chair beside hers for Mahiru to sit as well. “We were only planning parts of the summer barbecue party,” she said.

“Tell me,” Kaoruko said. “How are things going with your scouting?” She gave Mahiru a knowing smirk, as if ascertaining at once that this was the reason Mahiru came to her office.

“I… I am doing my best,” she said. “We all are. It’s just that Hikari has a certain vision, and it’s very specific, and she… she wants…”

“Oho, don’t tell me, she has expensive taste?” asked Kaoruko, cocking her head slightly in interest.

“Well, all three of us agreed that we think Tendo Maya- currently unaffiliated but who has trained under the Seisho agency- would represent the ‘Light’ half well.”

Futaba glanced at Kaoruko, as if waiting for her thoughts on the matter.

“Tendo Maya, huh? We’ve met once or twice. Her mother is also in the industry, and her father runs in those high art circles, so they interact with my family fairly often. She’s… striking certainly. Yes, I can absolutely see your vision.”

Mahiru sighed. “The problem was, none of the other girls we had brought to the meeting complemented Tendo-san well. We couldn’t agree on anyone. Then, just now Hikari went to the coffee shop and bought a tabloid and decided for herself that she’s the one, we’ve got to have her… Saijou Claudine.”

Futaba snorted in laughter, but to Mahiru’s surprise, Kaoruko did not. “Saijou Claudine, like the girl who used to model Christmas dresses for children?” asked Futaba. Mahiru nodded. Kaoruko was busy typing something into her laptop. “And didn’t she do that other campaign, the one with the annual passes for that theme park… what was it called…?”

“Futaba, focus!” Kaoruko’s voice brought them all back to attention. “Ugh,” she sighed. “Hikari is going to make me work, and you know how much I hate working hard,” she moaned. “That girl is truly a genius. A genius, but impossible.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Futaba, leaning forward to peek at Kaoruko’s laptop screen.

“Hikari. She’s right, you know. Saijou would be perfect for the ‘Darkness’ half. She would look exquisite opposite Tendo, and most importantly, they would both look divine in our clothes. The hard part will be getting her. She hasn’t worked in the industry in five years, and she isn’t affiliated with any agency. If she was in a tabloid, that’s the most I know about where she is,” Kaoruko said.

Mahiru cleared her throat, a little nervous to speak, but knowing that once Hikari and Kaoruko get carried away with something, it might be too late. “Do you think, maybe, that Saijou-san is retired, and she doesn’t want us to find her?” she suggested. “If she was considering modeling, she would have an agent, or she would make her profile available for scouting.”

Kaoruko shot her a look as if to say ‘do you even care about my vision?’ but kept her mouth shut. Futaba came to Mahiru’s defense. “I agree. We can’t just hunt her down and propose a contract, that’s an invasion of privacy, and borderline harassment.”

Mahiru thought of how bothered she looked in the tabloid photo, how it must be difficult for her to go out in public, even after several years, because of her high-profile work and her distinctive blonde hair and partially European features.

“We could do it once,” Kaoruko said.

Mahiru and Futaba looked at her like she was crazy, but she held up a hand to stop their rebuttals before they happened. “We could approach her just once. Tell her about the job, the company, how we need her specifically, how we’re envisioning her as one half of this project. We carefully explain it all, and either she accepts, or we never bother her again. And then either we get what we want or we abandon it. Or she reports us to the authorities, in which case this will cost me a lot of money, but she’ll probably cost me a lot of money to hire anyway, so…”

Mahiru bit her lip. She wasn’t exactly happy with the plan, but asking Saijou Claudine just once seemed better than bothering her dozens of times, and in her heart, it seemed better than never finding out if she would accept the opportunity. “We could maybe ask her just once, and it would have to be a very, very good proposition,” she said slowly.

“I know,” said Kaoruko. “That’s why I’m sending Karen and Hikari after Tendo Maya, and you and Futaba after Saijou Claudine.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Hikari and Karen took the train from Ginza to Ryogoku station, and bought admission to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Certainly, they had a mission to complete, but that did not stop them from spending some time gazing at the rooms and rooms of miniatures depicting scenes from Japanese history. It was fascinating, and before long they found that they had spent two hours in the museum, forgetting their original goal.

As an intern, Karen was told to ‘go with Mahiru' some days, or ‘help Hoshimi-san’ on other days. Her job was to assist, and in the process, gain experience in many facets of the industry. She was especially fond of days she could spend with Hikari, however. She loved the way Hikari’s eyes would light up when she was inspired, and the way she could get so focused on something she could forget everything around her. The things Hikari’s mind could imagine and her hand could draw were incredible, just like the way Mahiru’s ability to create and arrange dazzling events was unparalleled. Karen hoped to study hard in her internship to gain some of the same skills as the two mentors she was assigned to.

Suddenly, Karen snapped out of her reverie of watching Hikari study the intricate patterns on some of the miniatures.

“Hikari-chan, we need to find Tendo Maya-san!” said Karen urgently.

Hikari snapped to attention, eyes wide. A volunteer seemed to have overheard them, and she walked closer. “Did I hear that you are looking for Tendo Maya? She’s down the hall, in the manuscript room. Her specialty in Edo-era literature.”

After thanking the volunteer, Karen and Hikari walked to the correct room, and Karen knew at once that they had found their target. Tendo Maya was much more beautiful in person than in the photographs they had printed from the internet. She sat at a desk, her hair cascading down over one shoulder gently as she pored over an old scroll, gloved hands touching it with the utmost care. Some of her hair was clipped into a blue blow to keep it out of her eyes, and a couple clips held her bangs back. She looked up at them with piercing lilac eyes as they entered, her gaze proud but not haughty, intelligent but still inquiring. “Hello, what can I help you with?” she asked them, slipping off the gloves and standing up from the desk.

“Hello, my name is Kagura Hikari, and this is Aijou Karen. We come from the fashion house HANA. We’ve scouted you from among hundreds of models to join our campaign as one of our two lead models.”

Maya looked at them, her expression showing her surprise for a moment, but quickly hiding it away again behind a mask of placidity. “I’m afraid I’m at work right now,” she said. “Matters that don’t pertain to Edo-era literature can only be discussed once I’m off of my shift. While your proposition interests me, it would be unprofessional for me to discuss it with you here in the middle of my shift at the museum. Why don’t we meet at a cafe once I’m finished, just a couple hours more? Here’s my card. Text me where you’d like to meet and I’ll join you once I’m done here, at 4PM.”

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Maya changed from the apron she wore at the Edo-Tokyo museum and tucked it in her small locker in the staff room, slipping on her small shoulder bag. It was July, so she went without a cardigan or jacket, and the forecast was clear all day, so she didn’t need to bother with an umbrella. She checked her phone, and there was a message from one Aijou Karen requesting a meeting at a nearby cafe, and she replied to let her know she would walk over momentarily. She signed out from her shift and walked downstairs into the warm afternoon air of the Tokyo summer.

In truth, Maya didn’t expect much to come from the meeting. She thought if anything was to come from her modeling training, it would be from a formal offer and from someone ostensibly more… mature in appearance. The sudden arrival of two rather young women in her workplace was not at all how she expected an offer to join a company to go, even if it was a relatively well-known fashion house, such as HANA.

She figured that her evening was free aside from her normal workout, so she might as well meet the girls to hear them out, but she was almost certain she would politely decline them and be on her way. She especially didn’t want an encounter to end with a maybe. Maya hated loose ends and unresolved problems. She lived her life with few attachments and obligations, and it was better that way. She didn’t have pets, she didn’t have a significant other. She didn’t even keep houseplants. Her arrangement at the museum was nice, but she kept it on a monthly basis, since she hated to feel trapped.

Maya spotted the two girls almost immediately after entering the cafe, one in denim overalls and a white button down, and the other in red shorts and a cream-colored tank top. They were seated on the same side of a table, as if waiting for her to join them. Somehow, they still seemed stylish despite their childish attire and bold color choices. “Good afternoon,” she greeted, taking a seat across from them.

“Tendo Maya-san!” Karen said, gasping. Maya wasn’t sure if Karen was greeting her or announcing her. “You’re… you’re very beautiful. It’s nice to meet you.”

“It’s nice to meet you too, Aijou-san.”

“Please, call me Karen!”

“Karen-san, then.”

Maya ordered an iced tea, and was handed a folder by Hikari. Inside were various clothing designs, concepts for runway shows and catalogue pages, as well as the terms of a contract. She reviewed it, sipping her tea and ignoring Karen’s pointed gaze.

“Please let me make sure I’m getting this correct,” Maya said, after she finished looking at the documents. “This is a one year contract.”

“Yes,” said Hikari. “We want the fall line to start a year-long project that is linked together both thematically, and with the familiarity of the same models. It has been a tradition of HANA to keep our main models in-house, though typically we changed who was the face of each season.”

Maya sighed. “As you may have noticed from my employment at a museum, I have not been considering a career in modeling seriously. And if I were to take on a modeling job, I had not considered one that would last an entire year.”

Hikari looked frustrated, Maya could tell. She didn’t feel like getting in an argument this afternoon. To her surprise, it was Karen who spoke next. “Tendo-san, I am surprised,” she said. Maya could tell she was nervous to be taking a stand, so she decided to hear Karen out. “Tendo-san, you seem like someone who is not content with being adequate. I think the project that Hikari-chan and Kaoruko-san and Mahiru-chan and everyone is working on is going to be wonderful, and you could lead it right to the Top. You don’t have to hide away in that office all day. There’s plenty of time for that in the future. Right now, you can shine bright with all of us.”

Maya thought about Karen’s words. It wasn’t as if she took the modeling classes for no reason. Her mother worked in this industry, after all, and Maya had grown up steeped in the culture. But she also had a father who was a distinguished historian, and had considered following in his footsteps as well. She wondered if what Karen said was true… if she could pursue a modeling career in the present, and then continue her history studies again when she was older, once she had found out if she had any potential in that area…. It would be something to consider in the future, but it really was too soon to make a decision. She didn’t feel like uprooting her entire carefully curated life at this very moment.

“I’m really not certain I can accept your offer,” said Maya. “Though I am curious. It says here that there are to be two models. If you’ve taken such care to scout me, who else have you selected?”

Hikari looked as if she wasn’t going to reveal that information to Maya, but with a beaming smile, Karen said the words that Maya had perhaps been least expecting, and also most anticipating. “Saijou Claudine!”

Maya reviewed the notes once more, mostly to keep the nervous excitement from showing on her face. The girl whose posters had once adorned her childhood bedroom, who had convinced her to pursue modeling at all… that girl was selected to work with her? “Saijou Claudine, famous for her bright smile, is going to represent the concept of ‘darkness’?” she asked, looking at Hikari this time. Hikari averted her gaze slightly.

“Well,” she sighed. “She hasn’t officially agreed to join us yet. We’re in negotiations now. But yes, that’s the idea.”

Something stirred in Maya, a dangerous sort of interest that hadn’t been piqued in years. Her detachment was wavering, and her curiosity was growing stronger. The project was interesting enough, but to work with Saijou Claudine, the famous child model who disappeared one day, and Maya’s inspiration for modeling? Now this was definitely more interesting than looking through ancient scrolls all day and heating up convenience store food every night. There was talk in the contract of travel to Hong Kong, to international fashion shows, and of exciting schedules modeling for various print formats. It was appealing, in its own way. It was a new challenge, and Maya did like a challenge, if only to prove that she was the best.

Maya finished her iced tea, closing the folder. “Get Saijou Claudine, and I’ll sign the contract. One year. I work at the museum month by month, so if you work it out before the 31st, I will be available August 1st. You can speak with my lawyer and my agent about the terms of the contract and the compensation, here are their cards. It was nice to meet you, Kagura-san, Karen-san.” She bowed politely, paid at the counter, and left the cafe. She walked back to the station quickly. She was already an hour late to beginning her evening workout, and her stomach was beginning to growl.

She rode the train without music in her ears, and without glancing at her phone. In her heart, she knew what she wanted. In her heart, she hoped they would get Saijou Claudine to sign the contract.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Futaba and Mahiru got off the train at Shinsugita Station, about a 45 minute ride south from Ginza. “We could have taken my bike,” said Futaba.

Mahiru smiled politely, but didn’t reply. She would much rather sit on the train than sit tandem with Futaba on her bike for 45 minutes while her hair blew this way and that as it hung out from the helmet.

“Ugh, any way you look at it, this feels wrong, huh?” asked Futaba as they made their way into Isogo-ku. It was a naval district, so there was a distinct feel, but as they made their way further in from the port, the feeling of the military began to disappear and they could see more and more civilians living their normal lives.

Mahiru followed Futaba down the winding roads, as if by trailing behind, she would be less complicit in the borderline crime they were committing that afternoon. The fact that they had even found Saijou Claudine had been a small miracle; especially considering the fact that it seemed the paparazzi either hadn’t found her or had some sort of deal to keep her location secret. Kaoruko had found her home address through one of her father’s connections, and the man who sent it over said it took him quite a bit of effort to track down.

Futaba followed the scrawled out directions on the scrap of paper she held in her hand, but it was Mahiru who tugged on Futaba’s sleeve to stop her, to point at the girl sitting on the swings at the otherwise quiet playground. It was mid-day, and children were still at school, and this girl was much too old to be enjoying a playground. In fact, she should have been at university or at work at this time (not that Mahiru was one to talk, as she was currently traipsing around Kanagawa herself), but it was her hair that struck Mahiru- ash blonde and wavy, gorgeous hair that identified her at once as their target.

Futaba paused for a moment, just watching the girl kick up dust with the toe of her boot as the swing moved lazily back and forth. She was entrancing without doing anything at all. Mahiru was nervous. She came here hoping Futaba would lead the way. If Futaba was unsure of how to proceed, or lured in by this girl’s enchantments, Mahiru would have to take the reins, and she wasn’t sure she could handle it- not with only one shot. They already ran the risk of getting arrested for stalking.

Mahiru cleared her throat lightly and Futaba seemed to remember their mission. She smiled sheepishly at Mahiru and they walked into the park gates. Saijou Claudine had not yet noticed them. Futaba was wearing a gray blazer and matching dress pants, and Mahiru wore an emerald sleeveless dress, but both felt somewhat silly as they walked through a children’s park. Claudine was wearing a cream-colored sundress and a sunhat, and finally looked up at them as they approached the swings, suspicion lacing her features at once with their out-of-place attire.

“Good afternoon,” said Futaba, taking a seat on the swing beside Claudine. There were only two swings, so Mahiru stood beside the swingset, on the side closest to Futaba.

“Good afternoon,” Claudine said quietly.

“Are you Saijou Claudine?” asked Futaba.

Immediately, Claudine dragged her heels in the dirt to stop her motion so she could get up.

“Please wait,” said Futaba calmly. “We only ask for ten minutes of your time. If you don’t like what we have to say, you’ll never see us again.”

Claudine glared at them, still in the process of getting up. Mahiru thought she almost looked ready to cry. “Why won’t you leave me alone?” she asked. Turning on her heel, she marched off.

Mahiru panicked, thinking of the disappointment from Karen, Hikari, and Kaoruko. “Saijou-san!” she called, her voice breaking. “Please!” She bowed, kneeling in the dirt of the playground. “Please just ten minutes! I promise we’ve got nothing to do with any tabloids or paparazzi or anything like that!”

Claudine turned around, perhaps surprised to see Mahiru yelling into the dirt. “How did you find me?” she said, her voice quiet.

“Your father, he works in international shipping, and does a lot of business for Hanayagi Corporation. We work for the fashion house HANA. We found you through that connection,” said Futaba. “It was sneaky and underhanded, and we apologize greatly, but we needed to speak with you once. Like we said, if you reject us today, we will keep your location an utmost secret and never contact you again.” This time, Futaba bowed, her face coming close to the earth beneath the swing set.

Claudine sighed. “What’s done is done. Ten minutes.”

They moved to a nearby picnic table and sat down. “HANA, then?” asked Claudine immediately, checking the time on her phone.

“Right. My name is Isurugi Futaba, assistant director at fashion house HANA. I brought the events coordinator, Tsuyuzaki Mahiru with me today. We are looking for two new models to lead a year-long campaign,” she answered, straightforward as always.

“I’m assuming you’re here because you want me to model for you,” said Claudine, “But you must know I’m retired.”

Mahiru nodded. “Well you see, one of our lead designers saw a photo of you, without even knowing your career, and well, she thought of you as something of a muse. She decided she needed to have you.” Mahiru laughed nervously. It was difficult to speak to Saijou Claudine, the girl she grew up with seeing in so many ads and even on the runways, so candidly. Even now, without makeup, and her hair unstyled, Mahiru could see she had incredibly beautiful features, a combination of her Japanese and French heritage, and her movements were full of grace and consideration. She might have been out of practice, but it seemed some things were never forgotten.

“What is your concept?” Claudine asked.

Mahiru watched as Futaba tried to temper herself. It was encouraging that Claudine expressed some interest in their project, but she didn’t want to look like they were too eager and make her nervous. “We will have two models,” Futaba said. “For our fall projects, they will represent opposite themes. Sun and moon. Light and darkness. Day and night.”

“We’ve selected a newcomer, Tendo Maya-san as the second model,” Mahiru said.

“Which role do you want me for?” asked Claudine. She stared at them in a way that seemed to imply that the wrong answer would end this meeting at once with clear rejection.

Futaba met her gaze, though her voice dropped both in tone and volume as she replied. “Darkness,” she said, brow furrowing slightly as she tried to figure out if their intuition was correct.

“Hmm,” was all Claudine said, but she didn’t leave. Perhaps she was taking the timer seriously and was biding her time until the ten minutes ran out.

“Saijou-san, why do you live out here?” asked Mahiru, surprised at herself for asking such a question. Futaba looked at her as if asking her why she was wasting their limited time with such a question, and even Mahiru couldn’t answer it, she was just so curious as to why someone as glamorous as Claudine was hiding in this small naval town.

“After I stopped working, it became hard to afford our apartment in Tokyo,” she said. “Besides, out here we’re closer to my father’s work in the bay, and it’s much easier for me to blend in near the naval district,” she said, twirling a piece of her blonde hair around her finger, “And to avoid those mosquitos.” She checked her phone again.

“Why did you stop working?” asked Futaba.

“I got bored,” she said. “I just wanted to live a normal high school life. Now,” she sighed, “Time’s nearly up. I’m retired. I don’t plan on being un-retired any time soon. You want me to move back to Tokyo for a year to work on your contract with one other model? You’ll have to pitch it a little better than that.”

Futaba nodded. “HANA is an incredibly popular brand among young and middle-aged women and it’s only growing in popularity. It’s beginning to compete with top American, Italian, French, and Korean brands among Japanese and Korean women. It is a female-owned company, run by entirely female staff in the design, runway, and print materials departments. We have incredibly competitive salaries, with monthly paydays, and can offer a salary advance if needed. We have travel opportunities to London, Paris, likely Seoul, and notably to Hong Kong this year as well.”

Futaba pulled out a contract and her card before continuing. “We are very security-minded, and we understand that you have had issues with paparazzi and invasive fans in the past. We would ensure you would always feel secure when working with us. Many of our team members are fans of your career and would be disappointed if you never modeled again. We would be honored to represent you if you came back to the industry and re-invented yourself with us.” She slid the contract and her card over to Claudine.

“Please take a look at the contract and contact me with the number on that card if you are interested. We are hoping to get started as soon as possible if you are. Truly, you are the only one we are considering for this role.”

Claudine took the card and contract and stood up from the table. Mahiru stood too, bowing once more. “I’m sorry!” she shouted, almost crying. “We didn’t mean to stalk you! I’m really sorry!”

Claudine smiled gently, and Mahiru could see a shadow of the huge smile a younger Claudine would wear in the ads that would be plastered in department store windows. “I forgive you. Please, forget this place and I will forget this incident.”

“We will forget this place,” Futaba assured her, bowing as well, “But we will hope that you do not forget us.”

Claudine made a noncommittal nod and said goodbye, leaving the park with the papers in hand. Mahiru watched her walk away, and tried to imagine her walking down a runway of her own design, wearing some imaginative dress of Hikari’s design.

“Hikari’s got a good eye,” said Futaba.

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Claudine wanted to toss out the HANA contract. She wanted to tear it into tiny pieces, toss it in a random trash bin, or maybe just into the bay. She wanted to light Isurugi Futaba’s business card up with a lighter and watch it burn. How dare they find out where she lives? How dare they come to Yokohama, find her at that park, and try to drag her back into modeling? Claudine wanted to walk to the convenience store, buy ice cream after ice cream until she changed her body shape enough that no one would ask her to model their clothes again. Claudine wanted to cry.

But Claudine hadn’t allowed herself to cry in public since she was a child, and she wasn’t going home this early in the day, so contract in hand, she walked down to the bay. It wasn’t very easy to access the bay, despite living so close. Most of the waterfront was taken up by the corporations, shipping conglomerates, or naval bases, leaving very little for public access. But Claudine knew of a small walkway near the hospital that led out to the water, just between one of the shipyards and one of the refineries. The air was rarely clear, so she slipped on her sunglasses and mask, but she didn’t mind much- she did that half the time when she went out in public anyways.

It wasn’t for the clean ocean air that she visited the bay. That would be a joke. No, Claudine liked the ocean because of the view it provided, an open, unobstructed plain of blue. It was a viridian expanse that was so terrifyingly large it could swallow her whole in a moment and not know anything had changed. Though, she supposed Negishi Bay drained into Tokyo Bay, and only after leaving Tokyo Bay would she finally reach the open ocean. Somehow, today, even looking out at the seemingly endless waves, she still felt trapped.

Mahiru’s words echoed in her mind. “Saijou-san, why do you live out here?”

Claudine tried to slow her breathing. She could feel her heart beating erratically in her chest. If I feel trapped here, how would I ever survive going back to Tokyo?

She had tried, a few times. The most recent attempt was the previous weekend. She met up with a friend she used to model with in Harajuku, and when they got separated, she had pulled down her mask to call her. Foolishly, she thought that since it was Harajuku, there would be plenty of girls with dyed hair or wigs so she wouldn’t stand out as much. Those damned mosquitos had spotted her quickly, and were determined to still make money off of her after all these years. Yachiyo had pulled her away quickly of course, but Claudine knew she couldn’t easily spend a year in Tokyo, working in the industry again.

Even the bay wasn’t helping anymore. Her hands were trembling around those cursed papers. And yet somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to throw them away. It was early, too early, but Claudine needed to be away from the sunlight. She needed to be gone before school let out or the officers got off their shifts. She needed to get home.

“Claudine, honey, is that you? You’re back early!” her mother called from the kitchen in lazy French, not bothering to use Japanese since her father was still at work.

“It’s me, I’m home,” she called, the first part in French, the second in Japanese. She set her shoes by the door, but her tone must have betrayed her distress, as her mother came to meet her, concern in her eyes. Claudine hated causing that look in her mother’s eyes, much more than feeling the distress herself. It was one of the reasons she stayed out of the house as much as she could.

“What’s happened?” asked her mother, picking up the papers that had been set aside on the entranceway steps. She reviewed them briefly, her brow furrowed. “How did they find you?” she asked.

“Through Father’s job. The girls who came by were alright though, I trust they won’t say a word.”

Claudine went to sit on the couch in the adjacent room, and her mother followed. She hated how her mother would chase after her, following her with those worried eyes. For five years she’d been at home, largely unproductive, and for five years her mother had done everything she could to support her. It made Claudine want to cry when she thought about how she would never be able to repay her mother.

“If you’re worried, your father and I can look into the matter. We can make sure-”

“I’m not worried about it,” she said, sharper than she intended. It made her want to cry. She wanted to embrace her mother, and she was snapping at her instead.

“Alright,” her mother said, patiently. “I just… la mamie down at the convenience store showed me that nasty tabloïde, I know you’ve been on edge,” she said, calmly stroking Claudine’s hair.

“I was thinking of taking the job, actually,” Claudine said. She wanted to take back the words as soon as she said them. She didn’t want to take the job at all, truthfully, but something was building within her for years now, and it was ready to burst.

“Claudie, no,” cooed her mother. “You don’t have to do that. If you’re thinking of doing this for father’s medical bills, please don’t worry, we’ve already discussed it, we’ll manage just fine.”

“It’s not just for that,” said Claudine. She pulled her knees up onto the couch. “I’m 23 this year. I haven’t done anything productive in five years. I don’t have any skills aside from what I know from modeling. I think it’s time I get off my butt and do some work.”

Claudine didn’t mention how she couldn’t stand the concerned gaze of her mother following her around the house, or the furrowed brow of her father as he balanced the check book, or the suffocating feeling of the bay as she stared at its endless waves. She didn’t mention that she thought she might disappear if she stayed hiding any longer.

Claudine’s mother looked in her eyes, not with pity, but with an expression of pure love. “My daughter, if this is what you would like to do, your father and I will support you completely. We always have. But please make this decision for yourself. Don’t do this because of us.” She laughed lightly. “If you told us your dream was to start over and become… an air hostess, you know we would support you. We would always.”

“Merci, maman.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Maya reported for her first day of work at HANA in the Ginza district of Tokyo much earlier than necessary, so she idled half the morning away in a nearby coffee shop. Once the appropriate time was close, she sent a confirmation text to Karen, gathered her things, and walked to the fashion brand’s headquarters.

She wore tan paperbag shorts and a lavender sleeveless turtleneck, with a white denim jacket layered over it. She wore camel ankle boots on her feet. She carried her things in a simple white leather shoulder bag. She figured they’d want to see her figure and possibly make her change outfits, so she didn’t bother her usual long skirts or flowing blouses. Her hair was in her usual half ponytail and she had applied light makeup to fill in her brows, enlarge her eyes, and color her lips slightly.

She walked into the lobby and followed Karen’s instructions to receive a visitor’s badge from the security desk. Then she took the elevator up to the 14th floor and was greeted by a girl named Tsuyuzaki Mahiru who was flipping through something on a tablet as she sat on a bench in the hallway. She introduced herself as the events coordinator who planned the runway shows for HANA.

“I’m sorry,” bowed Maya, “I hope I didn’t make you wait long.”

“Not at all,” said Mahiru, “It’s wonderful to meet you. Let’s get you settled in, and then we’re just waiting for the other model to arrive and then we’ll call Kaoruko down.” She led Maya to a meeting room down the hall where there was a breakfast spread along with assorted beverages. “I’ll take your jacket,” offered Mahiru, and Maya handed it over, though she would have preferred to keep it on. She knew at this meeting she was a product, and she needed to sell that product.

“Please have some coffee, and try whatever you like!” offered Mahiru, “We love to eat here.”

No sooner had they sat down along one side of the table than voices could be heard coming from down the hall. “Karen, Hikari, is that you two?” called Mahiru, in a voice that made Maya laugh. It sounded like she was chiding small children.

There was no reply, but after a moment, a face appeared in the doorway, and a leg dramatically curved around the doorframe. “I am here, my love,” said Karen, blushing as she saw Maya. Hikari appeared beside her, escorting the Saijou Claudine. Maya felt her heart skip a beat seeing her so close. She was older, certainly, but even more beautiful than Maya remembered.

“Ah, I think introductions are needed!” Mahiru cleared her throat. “I think you’ve all met me by now, but my name is Tsuyuzaki Mahiru, and I am the events coordinator for this company.”

“I am Tendo Maya. I am a new model for this company.”

“I am Kagura Hikari, a fashion designer here.”

“Aijou Karen, I’m HANA’s intern!”

“I am Saijou Claudine. I was also just hired as a model here. Nice to meet you.”

Maya watched as Claudine carefully took off her sweater, handing it to Karen to hang with Maya’s jacket, and she took the seat beside Maya. Perhaps she understood that the people at this meeting would want to gaze at them as a pair. Maya wasn’t sure what to say to Claudine. For one thing, she was someone Maya had long looked up to, and for another, Maya knew one of her own weaknesses was small talk and making friends. She watched as Claudine carefully poured herself a cup of coffee and picked some fruit from a tray onto a smaller plate, a contrast to Maya’s rather large plate of breakfast. Fortunately, she was saved by more people entering the meeting room.

Maya met the catalogue layout director, several fashion designers, several photographers, many other people she couldn’t remember the names or positions of, and then finally, HANA’s creative director herself: Hanayagi Kaoruko, along with her assistant, Isurugi Futaba. Kaoruko’s presence dominated the meeting and suddenly everyone was seated and only the quiet sounds of sipping and chewing could be heard. Maya had met Kaoruko once or twice before when their families interacted, but now that she was Kaoruko’s employee, she felt like she was starting fresh, and kept every formality.

“Alright, Mahiru, Hikari, let’s see what you’ve brought us.” Kaoruko brought the meeting to attention.

Hikari stood. “This is Saijou Claudine-san, and Tendo Maya-san,” she said, gesturing to them each in turn. Claudine stood when she was introduced, so Maya did the same.

“Please, come forward,” said Kaoruko, her tone kind. “Saijou-han, if you could introduce yourself?”

Posture perfect, Claudine walked to the front of the room. This allowed Maya to finally look at her properly. It was easier when Claudine’s gaze was on the other people in the meeting. She was wearing a sky blue halter dress, and white espadrilles. Her hair was tied up in a loose bun with face-framing pieces. She wasn’t quite as tall as Maya, which was surprising, as Maya had expected her to be taller from seeing her work from just before she retired. She was slender, with feminine curves and striking features, most notably her eyes which were the color of garnets. Maya bit her lip as she stared at Claudine’s face properly for the first time. She was beautiful.

“Good morning,” said Claudine, with poise and confidence, “My name is Saijou Claudine. I modeled professionally from age 7 to age 17, but I had retired until this year. My interests… well, I don’t really have many, but I guess I enjoy reading and travelling to the coast. I plan to work hard, so let’s all get along and make this year a success.” She bowed deeply, smiling politely, and returned to her seat.

“Thank you, and now, ah, Tendo Maya-han?”

Maya straightened out any creases in her outfit as she stood and walked to the front of the room. She could feel Claudine’s eyes on her, but this only seemed to fire her up more. I have to do better, she thought. I have to reach the top.

“Good morning. My name is Tendo Maya. Although this is my first time modeling professionally, I trained under Seisho Modeling Training Center for a year, and received top marks. You may recognize my name as I am the daughter of Tendo Yuko, currently director of Sarazashi , the kimono company. I hold an undergraduate degree from the University of Tokyo in Edo-era literature and arts, and I hope to use this knowledge in representing the traditional Japanese aspects of your clothing line. Let’s work hard together.” She bowed, holding it a moment longer than Claudine’s, and then returned to her seat.

Maya couldn’t read Claudine’s gaze as she returned to her seat. It was not the admiration that most of the rest of the staff held. Was it jealousy? Determination? Anger? She was never good at subtext, and in an instant Claudine extinguished the fire in her eyes, returning to the untouched breakfast on her plate. Probably for the better, Maya told herself. The less attachments here, the better.

“Would you mind each trying on one of our fall outfit prototypes?” asked Hikari.

They nodded their assent and were ushered into the next room to change. Maya turned away, not yet comfortable enough to change facing Saijou Claudine. Once they were both clothed, a tailor came by and pinned some of the clothes to fit their body-lines more flatteringly, and then they were allowed back in the main room. Maya wore a cream colored cocktail dress with a heather gray blazer over it, and Claudine wore a charcoal shift dress heavily embroidered with small pearl beads. Maya balanced carefully on the white heeled sandals she was given, and Claudine walked easily in the black suede ankle boots.

They walked back in to the various ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the meeting attendees, and stood in a casual pose that showed off the lines of each garment.

“You know,” said Junna, who Maya learned was in charge of the print layouts, “When I first saw you both, I thought Tendo-san would really capture the ‘black’ concept, and Saijou-san would really embody ‘white’, but I agree with this look. This is good.”

Kaoruko spoke next. “Hikari and Mahiru never fail me. Karen, too. I think I may have to hire her on full time once her internship ends. What do you think, Nana-han?”

Claudine shifted to show a different angle of the dress, so Maya moved to accommodate. It was almost instinct to move with Claudine. She wondered if this was what it was like to work with all professional models.

“I think it will be very easy to shoot with Tendo-san and Saijou-san. They work off of each other well. And the photos, well… I can already tell they’re going to be our best- probably ever.”

“Thank you, Tendo-han, Saijou-han. You can take a seat for now,” said Kaoruko. They sat back down beside Mahiru and Hikari, still wearing the sample clothes. Maya was amused listening to snippets of conversation around the room.

“Look at Saijou-san’s hair! It’s completely natural.

“Tendo-san’s eyes are fascinating. I could fall in love.”

“I remember when Saijou-san was this tall and she did that shoot with all those puppies! I still have clippings from that!”

“So it’s true you’ve never worked before?” asked Claudine, addressing Maya now.

“It’s true. Like I said, I have training and I have accompanied my mother to work, but this is my first contract.”

Claudine nodded. “You have good sense, you’ll do alright.”

Maya knew this was the kind of interaction that got her in trouble, the kind of interaction that caused potential friends to start avoiding her, or bullying to begin. And yet, she couldn’t help herself. “Unfortunately, doing alright is not good enough for me. In everything I do, I strive to reach the top.”

Maya watched as Claudine looked upset for a moment, but seemed to swallow it down. “If that’s what you want, you should seize it,” she said. “Just be careful what you give up to get what you wish for.”

“And what do you want?” she asked, suddenly curious about what drove Saijou Claudine out of retirement, to work on a contract with her of all people.

Mahiru returned then. “Sorry to interrupt, but we have some other orientation matters to address. Shall we go?”

“Yes, of course. We should get out of these clothes before we ruin them as well,” said Claudine, standing and putting an end to any conversation she had begun with Maya.

Mahiru took them through the process of getting security badges, took them on a tour of the company, and introduced them to the company’s lawyer, who spent some time going through some finer points of the contract. Mahiru explained that although her title was ‘events coordinator’, she was in charge of their orientation as they didn’t have runway shows for some time, and she would be the one coordinating their longer shoots, their travel schedules, and some of their day to day schedules.

“You can call me Mahiru-san or just Mahiru, there’s no need to be so formal now that we’ll be working together every day,” she told them, after Maya called her Tsuyuzaki-san one too many times. “You’ll want to get passports as soon as possible if you don’t have them already. The expense will be reimbursed by the company if you submit receipts.”

“Mahiru, don’t you think it’s time to stop for lunch?” asked the photographer, Daiba Nana, as they passed her in the hallway. Mahiru checked her watch, gasping at the time.

“Oh wow! I didn’t realize! Of course! Please, take an hour and get something to eat! The cafeteria on the second floor is open, or there’s plenty of restaurants in walking distance. We can meet back on the seventh floor at three.”

Maya turned towards the elevator, unsure if she was supposed to eat with Claudine or not. She figured it was simpler if she figured out lunch for herself, at least on the first day. She was surprised when she heard Claudine’s voice behind her. “Hey! Where are you going to eat?” she asked.

Maya shrugged. “I hadn’t thought about it. Are you asking because you’d like to eat together?”

Claudine looked taken aback by Maya’s response. She supposed that in status, or in experience, Claudine highly outranked her, so it was strange that she was essentially forcing Claudine to ask her to lunch. But she wasn’t the one who wanted company. No, never in her life had Maya asked for company when eating. And in return, very few times had company been offered.

“I… I just figured we would go together, is all,” said Claudine. “It doesn’t particularly matter.”

“Fine with me. Where should we go?” This kind of social interaction was easy for Maya. This was the kind of encounter where she could float along, guided by the clues Claudine was giving her. Let Claudine do as she pleased and Maya would follow along. It made no difference to her. There was little to prove at lunch, after all.

“Here,” Claudine said firmly.

Maya nodded, acquiescing easily. She wondered if the food here was any good, if Claudine had heard from the staff that there was something worth eating here. She pushed the elevator button and they rode to the second floor.

Claudine didn’t order anything special at the cafeteria, however. In fact, she didn’t order much at all. She picked up a miso soup, a side of steamed vegetables, another side of pickled vegetables, and a yogurt. Maya, who would be absolutely useless during her evening workout without a proper lunch, ordered the daily special of baked salmon, along with rice, the vegetable side, and a small dish of fruit.

They picked a table by the window and sat quietly eating, though Maya could hear other staff beginning to notice them.

“Say, are those the new models?” “Look, it’s her! Saijou Claudine!” “That one isn’t eating like a model.”

Claudine turned to the window, trying to look toward the horizon despite the low altitude. “Which way are we facing?” she asked quietly.

“North,” said Maya.

Claudine nodded, turning back to her lunch. “Even if it was South, I doubt we could see the water anyway.”

Maya remembered Claudine’s strange ‘hobby’ from her introduction. She had years and years of achievements and qualifications, it was a strange thing to mention personal interests at a professional meeting, and even then, to have them be as strange as Claudine’s. “No, I doubt you could see the water from Ginza.” Then, because Claudine picking at the small plate of vegetables was irritating her, she continued. “You’re still going to be hungry with only that much,” she said.

“I’m on a diet,” she said softly, but there was a hint of irritation in her voice. “I wasn’t exactly planning to take this job, so I’m not in my ideal condition, if you must know.”

Now Maya’s curiosity was piqued once again. If Claudine hadn’t been planning on taking this job, there was something that pulled her from retirement back into the industry, directly into Maya’s orbit. But the miffed silence Claudine emitted as she finished her meal told Maya now was not the time to pry.

“You could join me in the evenings, if you’d like. I do a workout every night. They’re fairly intense.” Maya wasn’t sure why she offered. She enjoyed her detachment. She enjoyed the freedom to drift here and there, it was the freedom to spread her wings and seek greater heights, to find the elusive Top. Having bonds, attachments and the like only weighed her down and kept her from rising as high as she could. Having Claudine at her workouts would most likely slow down her progress. Claudine wouldn’t have the same stamina. Claudine wouldn’t have the same strength. And yet… she had already offered, she couldn’t take it back. She held the bite of food in her mouth, hoping Claudine would refuse.

“Give me your number.”

“What?”

“Your cell phone number, you have one, right?”

“Oh. Sure.” Maya took Claudine’s proffered cell phone and input her own number into the contacts. As she pressed ‘ok’, she noticed a stunning lack of contacts. The scroll bar indicated there was likely less than twenty total. Was she as isolated as Maya?

“Are you finished?” asked Claudine. Maya nodded, handing back the phone. It was not the latest model, she noted. “I’ll think about it, and text you. I still need to get used to working here first,” she said, finishing the last of her meal.

They met Mahiru again, and were taken to a small studio to have their headshots taken for the company profile. A makeup artist ushered them aside into a small dressing room, and Maya watched as she first deftly touched up Claudine’s makeup, and then sat Maya down to adjust her’s.

Claudine sat first in front of the company-standard sakura-pink backdrop. It was Daiba Nana behind the camera, and Maya stood behind her, observing. “Whatever expression you’d like, Saijou-san,” said Nana. “This is your profile for our website and printed materials, so it needs to meet our formatting standards, but you can make an expression that suits your preference.”

Claudine nodded, taking a deep breath. She smiled brightly for a moment, but it seemed to be a warm-up of sorts and her face relaxed again after a moment. In the end, her face settled in a more serious, pensive look that was a far cry from the Saijou Claudine of most people’s memories, but Maya found it stunning. Claudine’s eyes seemed to bore right through the camera, seeking something that Maya knew nothing about.

“Those look wonderful, Saijou-san. You can come monitor if you’d like. I bet your fans will be surprised when they see this new style… in a really good way!” Nana smiled warmly, ushering Maya into Claudine’s vacated seat. Where Claudine had sat at a strong angle, Maya sat almost straight on, facing the camera like a challenge to overcome. She let the stylist adjust her hair so it hung just so, sleek and straight around her shoulders. She thought about leaving her expression serious, but decided instead to grin just slightly, her expression indicating that a grand plan was falling into place piece by piece as she designed. And truly, it was.

“Tendo-san, you’re a natural!” Nana beamed, after snapping several pictures. “You can come check as well.” Maya stood and checked Nana’s small monitor, pointing out her favorite shots in the short series. Once finished, they were ushered by Mahiru back upstairs.

“Mahiru-san, I was wondering what time our schedule ends today. I’m supposed to meet with a real estate agent this evening,” Claudine said.

“Oh! Of course! I’m sure you won’t want to make that commute longer than you have to! This next piece is the last thing on the agenda, so we should be finished by five. We can be flexible tomorrow if you want to look at some places, we don’t really need to get started until noon. Just text me.”

“I appreciate that. I’ll certainly let you know.”

Maya wondered where Claudine was commuting from. She wondered a lot of things about Claudine, if she was honest… more things than she had wondered about anyone in quite some time.

The last thing they had to do was get their measurements taken for some of their initial shoots. This took place in a small design studio, currently used by an older staff member who only worked mornings. According to Mahiru, this was normally done by an intern or a junior design staff member, but Hikari insisted that they always got something wrong, so she decided to do it herself, and allowed Karen to come along. And so, for her last task of the day, Maya was made to strip down to her underwear, but this time she was paraded in front of Claudine, Karen, and Hikari, with Hikari dragging a measuring tape here and there, dictating numbers rapidly to Karen.

Maya could feel Claudine’s gaze on her, but she couldn’t say she hated the feeling. She was proud of her figure, she worked hard on it daily. Right now, it was her livelihood. And Claudine might seem docile, but Maya could tell she was competitive. Good, she thought, so am I. Claudine hadn’t been Japan’s top child and teen model for nothing, she knew. There was still a fire in her somewhere.

They shifted roles, and Maya slipped back into her street clothes as Claudine stripped down to her undergarments. Maya attempted to look away under some false guise of politeness or possibly chivalry, but found it impossible in the end. The small room and the allure of Saijou Claudine standing before her in a bra and panties was too much.

Maya’s first thought was ’impossible!’ It was impossible that the girl standing before her hadn’t been paying attention to her diet or working out for the past five years. Her figure was too good. Her second thought was that Saijou Claudine was truly no longer the little girl who modeled children’s Christmas dresses or sold amusement park tickets any longer. Of course there had been hints of that right before she retired. She had attended some events in evening gowns as a 17 year old beginning to resemble an adult. But now, at 23, the difference was immense. And as quickly as it had begun, it was over, and Claudine was putting on her dress and her sweater, hugging it close.

Futaba entered then, asking to speak with Claudine. Maya decided to wait until she was finished, lest she get chided again for leaving Claudine behind. Hikari and Karen said goodbye and went back to the design studio to finish their work for the day, and Maya wandered around the studio, biding her time. She didn’t bother to check her phone, she knew there were no notifications.

A magazine on the desk in the corner caught her eye. Well, more specifically, Claudine’s face caught her eye. It was a trashy celebrity magazine, a tabloid really, but Claudine was on the cover. She flipped to the page the ‘article’ was on, and there were pictures of Claudine with another girl, looking distressed as they tried to avoid the photographer on the busy streets of Harajuku. All at once, Maya realized why Claudine didn’t want to go out for lunch. She glanced at the text that accompanied the photos: French-Japanese model Saijou Claudine spotted in Harajuku with ‘Siegfeld’ fashion house designer, and former model Tsuruhime Yachiyo. Saijou hasn’t taken work in five years- is this a sign she will join with the Edel Agency, who Siegfeld is long-term partners with? Notoriously tight-lipped, Saijou was not available for comment, nor was Tsuruhime. We did speak to a representative of the Edel Agency who said they would ‘absolutely consider’ adding Saijou to their roster ‘if she decided to return to actively modeling’. The mystery of her retirement remains, and her fans remain heartbroken over their abandonment…

Maya put the magazine back as she heard the door slide open. Claudine returned, evidently surprised to see Maya still in the room. Claudine picked up her purse from the chair she had left it on and turned back towards the exit. “I’m leaving,” she said. “Are you coming?”

“I’m coming,” confirmed Maya. Suddenly she was worried about Claudine traveling home. She knew it was unrealistic, but she imagined her leaving a real estate agent after dark and some aggressive reporter trying to corner her as she tried to get on the train. It wasn’t as if she could disguise herself well, even with a mask, with her eyes and hair…. “Say, Saijou-san, do you have anyone to go to the real estate agent with?”

Claudine looked at her curiously. “It’s only a meeting in his office, it’s not a dangerous encounter,” she said, but Maya saw the way her mind was whirring, the way that she clutched the strap of her bag a little tighter as they exited the elevator.

“Of course, but by the time you leave, it will be dark,” she said. “I don’t mind, if you want me to go with you. I’ll walk you to the station after.” Once again, Maya couldn’t believe herself. This girl, who she had only met this morning, was making her say incredible things. But despite Maya’s philosophies, she wasn’t heartless. If she came to work the next day to see some awful tabloid photos of Claudine, or worse, if someone had actually harassed Claudine on the way home from her trip, and Maya hadn’t been there, she would be sick with guilt.

Claudine put on her mask when they were in the lobby, unclipping her ID badge and tucking it in her purse. “You have your workout to do, I can’t impose,” she said. The look in her eyes told Maya otherwise.

“I’ll run home from the station,” she joked. “In any case, I was thinking of moving closer to Ginza myself. I’ll listen in on your meeting,” she said.

That was enough to convince Claudine, and she nodded. They walked north, just under ten minutes, to the very border of Ginza, to a modern looking rental agency. Claudine rang the bell and was let in by a woman in a well-tailored suit. Once she confirmed her appointment, she was led to the second floor into the office of an older gentleman, and Maya and Claudine both introduced themselves. If he was surprised by Maya’s appearance, he didn’t let it show, perhaps happy that he could potentially get two tenants out of one meeting.

“Now, Saijou-san, I understand you are looking for an apartment that has excellent security, is close to Ginza or close to a connecting station… anything else?”

Claudine thought for a moment. “I would like… a non-smoking floor, a balcony even if it’s small, and… it’s probably impossible, but I’d like to be able to see some water.”

“Alright, I have a couple properties that come to mind. Not directly in Ginza, of course, but the train ride would be short. Now the price would be a little higher…”

“Ah. How much? I know all my stipulations are not going to be cheap, but I do have a budget.”

The agent showed Claudine various properties, most meeting all her requirements, but all seemed to be out of her personal budget. Maya was unsure why, their salary was plenty to afford the apartments she was looking at. But Maya could understand not wanting to spend a lot on an apartment from a practical sense - they would hardly be home to enjoy it some days. So, once again, for the nth time that day, she did something she hardly ever does, and created a potential for another attachment she did not need. It seemed that more and more she was just sinking hooks into Saijou Claudine.

“If I may, Saijou-san… we are going to be working together for a year, and I’m not particular about where I live. If you didn’t mind a roommate, perhaps we could pick one of these and split the rent in half?”

Half the rent made these apartments quite affordable, and they did meet all of Claudine’s stipulations. The agent looked pleased enough as well. He might not make two sales, but at least he would seal the deal with Claudine this way. Both of them looked at Claudine for approval. “Ah… well, I don’t have a problem with that,” she said. “Please don’t feel obligated, though.”

“Not at all. I told you I was planning to move too. I’ll save some money on rent this way. And honestly, I don’t have many things,” Maya said.

The next morning, they toured two apartments and picked their favorite. Maya was surprised when a young man stopped them as they were leaving the second, bowing with a smile in front of Claudine. “Saijou Claudine! I… it’s an honor to meet you! I hope to see more work from you someday!” he said. Maya was surprised to feel Claudine grab for her hand, clutching it rather tightly behind her back and out of sight of the fan.

“Thank you,” said Claudine graciously. “I appreciate your support after all this time.”

“I will always support you!” he vowed, bowing again as he left.

Claudine released her hand without a word, their real estate agent muttering something about understanding her concerns about security.

Claudine’s hand had made Maya feel like she was being pulled slowly, dangerously, irrevocably back to earth, but at the same time, she didn’t hate it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Her advance turned to a security deposit and key money, Claudine turned the key in her new apartment. She had submitted her new address in Kachidoki to Futaba, and overheard Kaoruko call it ‘gauche’, an insult to her French upbringing if ever she heard one. She almost smirked as Maya submitted the same address and Futaba sputtered in realization.

“What are you talking about?” Kaoruko had asked, now fully paying attention.

“I was living in Sumida City by the museum,” said Maya. “My commute was 35 minutes on a good day, and I had to go through Kachidoki anyways. Now it’s 14 minutes, and via bus, I don’t even have to climb down the stairs.”

“Oedo line is the deepest subway,” added Futaba, shooting a sympathetic gaze at Maya. Claudine assumed Kaoruko did not take public transportation and therefore needed these things explained.

“I’m not asking why you moved,” said Kaoruko. “I’m asking why you moved together,” she said. “I pay you plenty, you don’t need to worry about affording a place in that district.”

“We did splurge a bit so Saijou-san could have her seaside balcony,” said Maya.

Claudine wanted to elbow her. She was making them sound like newlyweds. “Don’t you live with Isurugi-san?” she asked Kaoruko. She needed to get the attention off of them, if only for a moment.

Kaoruko’s death stare had been enough to confirm Claudine’s intuition, though Claudine was sure it was also enough to incur some future wrath. She bought them some time, at least.

Now, here she was by herself for the time being, ready to move into this new apartment. Maya would be along soon, she was sure, but she had spent the morning completing the workout she was sure to miss that evening. Claudine wondered why she bothered - they were sure to do plenty of activity setting up the apartment.

Claudine’s parents had helped her pack up her things over the past few days. In fact, they had done most of the work. With her packed schedule and nearly hour-long commute, she didn’t have much time to dedicate to helping when she got home. The boxes she packed were sent along with a courier who had dropped them off right in the corridor outside the apartment door, so Claudine set to work bringing them inside. The larger items - her bed, for instance- would just have to sit in pieces in the hall until Maya arrived.

It seemed their high-rise building hosted many families on the lower floors. When Claudine visited the lobby earlier, she saw many young children preparing for outings with their mothers. Her floor, closer to the top, was much quieter, and the only occupant she saw in the time she spent moving boxes was an older man in a suit who looked like he was getting ready to attend a business meeting on a Sunday.

She was happy with the camera at the door entrance, just as she was pleased with the key fob entry for the elevator and the doorman who stood in the lobby. There was an attendant who could call her if a delivery arrived for her, and she could indicate if it was expected. She would still have to walk from the building to the bus station, but… she wasn’t that famous. No one really cared about Saijou Claudine that much, she was just paranoid in her old age. Suddenly tired of lugging boxes, she opened the door to the balcony. They intentionally chose a west-facing apartment on the very west edge of Kachidoki. Her hair blew in the breeze a bit as she stood looking out at the water.

She wasn’t sure if the water that stood before her qualified as the Sumida River or a tiny part of Tokyo Bay. She supposed it didn’t much matter. All water was the same when you panned out far enough. It was busy water, with ships here and there and bits of land, both natural and artificial jutting out everywhere. There were bridges, docks, railroads, islands, birds… a colorful array of chaos. It was nothing like Yokohama.

Claudine decided the sight was too much, but the smell and the sounds weren’t bad. She didn’t have a chair, but she pulled an old blanket from one of her bags, laying it out on the narrow balcony. She laid down, closing her eyes and feeling the sun’s warmth. She was wearing only an old t-shirt and denim shorts, so it was comfortable to rest here for a while, listening to the seagulls and the trains and the children laughing at the nearby park.

“You’re going to get a sunburn like that,” said Tendo Maya, casting a shadow over her.

Claudine woke up from a nap she didn’t know she had been taking.

“Look at you, your cheeks are all… flushed,” Maya said, crouching down to sit on the threshold of the doorway to the balcony.

At times like this, Claudine found it difficult to look at Maya. It was like staring directly into the sun. Maya was shining too brightly, she was too radiant. Her features were too beautiful, Claudine had to look away. A bad habit overtook her, one she used too often with her mother. Unable to deal with her adoration, unable to directly show her affection, she turned to teasing, to cruel words.

“I look better than you, coming here after a workout.” It was untrue. She hated herself for saying it. She could never match the way Maya looked, flawless as the day they met, taking Claudine’s breath away without trying.

“I’ll have to do better next time,” was all Maya said. “But come inside and get out of the sun before you really do get burned, your skin is too fair to sleep out here.”

Deciding it was better to just keep her mouth shut than risk insulting Maya further, Claudine did as she was told and walked back into the apartment. Maya kept the door open, allowing the sounds of the water and the sounds of the children to drift inside still.

Maya had hired some professional movers to set up her couch, bed, and desk, and asked them to set up Claudine’s as well. Grateful she had cash on hand, Claudine tipped them generously, pleased when they didn’t seem to have any inkling who she was and just seemed appreciative of the cash. Once they were gone, they set to work unpacking clothes, both seeming to have relatively few boxes of other possessions.

Their apartment had a rather open floor plan, with the entrance opening into a small entryway with a shoe rack and closet, and then one step up into a kitchen that faced the living room which then opened onto the balcony. To the left of the kitchen was a laundry room, and to the right was a small hallway with their two bedrooms and a bathroom in the middle. Claudine would have preferred two bathrooms, but if that was her only complaint about this apartment, she supposed she didn’t mind.

As she was hanging up some sweaters in her closet, she heard a crash in Maya’s room and rushed over. Maya stood barefoot with what seemed to be some sort of award or trophy smashed at her feet. “Don’t move,” Claudine instructed her. “Let me get the broom.”

Annoyed at her own unpacking priorities, Claudine had to dig through several boxes to find the hand-broom and dustpan and bring them back to Maya’s room. When she did, she found Maya sitting on her bed, her feet miraculously unharmed, but her finger bleeding as she held a glass shard in her hand, the sunlight refracting through it casting a distorted rainbow on the wood floor.

It was nauseating, the half-unpacked room, the shaking rainbow, the dripping blood, the shards of glass- a remnant of an award now shattered. “Why did you touch it?” Claudine asked. “You can’t get injured, you need to look perfect for photos.”

Maya nodded, putting the piece she picked up back on the ground gently. It was now stained red. The rainbow was gone. Claudine noticed she had grabbed for the part with the inscription, but it was too small to read from where she stood. “My apologies. I have probably caused difficulty for the company. I just… forgot myself for a moment.”

Claudine put down the broom and dustpan, stepping carefully over the glass to grab a clean handtowel and bring it to Maya. She sat beside Maya on the bed, pressing the towel carefully to her cut. “I’ll run to the drug store and get some antiseptic and bandages. I think I saw one by the bus station.”

“There’s no need, I can go myself,” said Maya.

“And drip blood the whole way there? There will be rumors about you in the neighborhood in no time. I’ll go, you order something for dinner. And don’t leave the bed, I’ll clean up this mess as soon as I get back.”

Claudine put on her typical going-out accessories: her sunhat, mask, and sunglasses, and tucked her phone and wallet into the pockets of her shorts. She grabbed her keys to call the elevator, and walked out of the apartment, slipping on low-heeled sandals as she left. A quick search on her phone told her a large convenience store was nearby and would stock the necessary items. She walked there and picked up the first aid items, along with some standard medications, ice packs, and some other household items she had a feeling they were lacking. At the register, there was a sale on some pastries, so she picked up a small baumkuchen because it seemed like the kind of weird treat Maya would like.

Both hands full with bags, Claudine made her way back. She walked along the river, wanting to take her time gazing out at the water flowing by, but knowing Maya would appreciate her hastiness. She checked the notifications she had been ignoring all day. One from her mom, asking how the move was going. One from Mahiru, sending that week’s draft schedule. One from Yachiyo.

She hadn’t heard from Yachiyo since the tabloid had been published. Undoubtedly, Yachiyo had come under fire from her agency for that incident, since Edel and Siegfeld were notoriously strict. She tapped the message to read it. “Heard you’re living in Tokyo now. Are you actually working again? We need to talk.”

She pulled up a message to reply, annoyed at the weight of the bags pulling her arms down. “It’s all a secret. Who are you even talking to?”

She greeted the doorman and the girl at the desk, who keyed the elevator for her so she wouldn’t have to fumble with her fob. She felt her phone vibrate as the elevator ascended. “Michiru gets all the good gossip. I don’t know her sources for sure…”

Claudine didn’t reply. She did like Yachiyo, she was one of the few friends she had made during her first bout of modeling, but based on the disaster of their last meetup, she wasn’t sure she was ready to plan a second.

Claudine set the bags on the kitchen counter, pulling out the bandaids and antiseptic ointment and brought them to Maya’s room. To her annoyance, Maya had swept up the glass shards with the cloth still wrapped around her finger, though at least she now wore slippers on her feet. “I told you to stay on the bed,” she said.

“It’s my room,” said Maya. “And… I’m older,” she added.

“What? We’re both 23,” said Claudine, watching Maya apply the ointment and wrap a bandage to her hand. Maya then went to the bathroom to rinse the stained cloth.

“Yes, but my birthday is July 24. Yours was August 1, our first day of work. And you didn’t tell anyone.”

“I don’t like to make it a big deal. Futaba knew, I told her to keep it quiet.” Claudine wasn’t sure why Maya was bringing this up. Maya of all people didn’t seem like one to want a big birthday celebration. “Well whatever, you’re older, you cleaned up the mess, good job. What was that award even for, anyway?”

“It was an award for preservation of traditional Japanese culture and heritage. I won it during my college studies for my work with some texts and woodblock prints.”

“It’s a shame it’s broken,” said Claudine. “I liked the way the light hit it.”

“Nevermind, it’s no matter,” said Maya. “I ordered sushi for dinner. I hope you like that.”

“Fine with me.”

They ate in relative silence, Claudine thinking of whether or not to reply to her mother. In the end, she sent her mother a quick response, telling her their move went smoothly and they had settled in well. She wondered what Maya was thinking about as she ate her meal with almost robotic motions.

Maya was a mystery. Claudine had limited interactions with Maya so far, but Maya was difficult to read. It seemed that Maya was distant, almost purposely so, but she did strange things like offering to become Claudine’s roommate. Claudine was offended by Maya’s brash way of speaking, and her bold claims of reaching the top, but at the same time Claudine found herself drawn to Maya, wondering what was beneath that strange veneer she showed the world.

Claudine wondered if it was worth it, this interest in Maya. She wondered if Maya thought of her at all- if Maya thought much of anyone at all. She had hoped there was more to Maya than the carefully crafted presentation she gave to the public, and she thought she could peek bits of it shining through from time to time, but even now, relaxing over dinner, Maya was as careful as ever. Claudine wanted to ignore her, she wanted to shake her, to slap her, to kiss her. Anything to wipe that strange, boring, calm expression from her face.

This time, at least, she didn’t indulge herself, preferring to wait and watch Maya for a little longer, at least. Before bed, she opened a journal her mother gave her, but wasn’t able to write anything at all. Frustrated, she prepared an outfit for work the next day and went to bed, mind racing and anxious about her first ‘real’ week back in the modeling world.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Mahiru got to the office early, like she did most days, settling in at her desk to sip her tea and check emails before the day began in full. A few minutes later, Hikari came into the office, looking sharp in a red blouse and houndstooth shorts, and dropping into the vacant desk across from Mahiru.

“You’re here early,” Mahiru said. “And taking over a senior employee’s seat like that,” she remarked.

“She doesn’t start until ten, she won’t know,” said Hikari. “And I’m early because it’s the first day that those two are shooting for the catalogue. I am interested. And my butt is on the line.”

“Aren’t you hungry?” asked Mahiru, surprised to see her friend without coffee or breakfast in hand.

“I am. But they always cater the shoots.”

“That’s for the staff involved, you moocher!”

“I am involved,” said Hikari, laying her head down on the borrowed desk.

“Why are you so sleepy? Did you go out last night? Even after I sent Karen home early.”

“Her schedule and mine have nothing to do with each other. I only went out for a couple drinks, but the time kept passing!”

Mahiru laughed, enjoying the banter with her longtime friend. “Well, it’s almost time. We should head down and supervise.”

On the elevator, they met a sleepy Kaoruko, along with a more awake Futaba, who was carrying both of their coffees. After greeting their bosses, Kaoruko looked at them suspiciously.

“One: Hikari, stop coming to work that obviously hungover. You’re not fooling anyone.”

Hikari had the grace to look ashamed while Mahiru bowed slightly on her behalf. Kaoruko continued. “Two: where is that intern you two babysit? I want to hire her on full time. I had a brilliant idea last night.”

“You’re sure she’s the one…?” Futaba asked, looking as put-upon as Mahiru felt.

“My instincts are never wrong, Futaba. You all need to trust me more often. I hired Mahiru and Hikari, and they brought me nothing but good things. And also many, many hijinx, but their performance reviews look great!”

“What kind of job do you want Karen for?” asked Mahiru as they walked toward the studio.

“I want her to create and run our social media accounts! Futaba and I were out last night and we ran into someone from Frontier, and she runs a Twitter and Instagram account for their company. Mostly models, but also some design previews, behind the scenes stuff, sales floors, runway previews, flat-lays, all sorts of stuff. I want Karen for that. Nevermind, I’ll just text her.” Kaoruko tapped away on her phone.

“You want Karen to design flat-lays?” asked Mahiru, laughing a bit. She caught Futaba’s eye and grinned. “Can’t wait!”

They entered into a studio where Nana and another photographer were setting up lighting equipment. To the side, in a dressing room, Mahiru could see Maya getting her makeup applied and Claudine getting her hair done. Junna was over Nana’s shoulder with an open laptop, presumably discussing that morning’s shoot concept with a serious expression on her face. Kaoruko led them closer to the action, drawn, as always, to the tension.

“What’s going on, Hoshimi-han?” she asked.

“Ah, Kaichou, I was just reviewing some of the shots we absolutely need for this spread.”

“Nana’s no rookie. She’ll get plenty, you’ll have your pick.”

“I know, I just-”

“You just like to spend extra time with her?” asked Kaoruko with a grin, earning her a punch from Futaba.

Junna blushed but only retreated to the monitoring table, continuing to work on her laptop from there. Apparently she too, wanted to see the new models work. Either that, or Kaoruko was onto something.

Maya emerged from the dressing room then, and Mahiru gasped. Of course she had picked Maya as her top choice, and of course seeing Maya semi-casual at orientation was nothing compared to her ready to shoot, but the effect was slightly overwhelming.

Maya wore a HANA classic white collared shirt with the collar button and the next button undone, a light blue satin ribbon tied loosely in a bow where the tie would go, but hanging low enough that Maya’s delicate collar bones and slender neck were displayed in their full glory. The cuffs were unfolded and unbuttoned, just slightly covering her hands, and delicate silver rings were laced here and there on her fingers.

The shirt was half tucked into eggshell denim jeans that were slim fit, showing off Maya’s long and toned legs, and she wore tan suede ankle boots. Her hair was up in a ponytail which was long enough that it draped gracefully over one shoulder. The makeup was done well - minimal but up-playing Maya’s features. Mahiru finally remembered to breathe when Hikaru punched her in the arm. Maya looked for direction from Nana, but was instantly showered with compliments from the staff who were getting ready to begin. She smiled and seemed to be a bit uncomfortable with the praise.

Luckily, Karen burst forth onto the scene at that moment, arms laden with two boxes of “Don-don donuts!”

“Karen, this is why you’re late?” asked Mahiru quietly.

“What? Hikari said she wasn’t feeling well, I wanted to bring her a donut, but then I thought, I’ll bring everyone a donut!”

“That’s really sweet. But first of all, you are at a professional workplace, you can’t just show up whenever you want, and second, you make like no money as an intern.”

Karen bit into a donut, nodding along as she was chastised. “But kaichou shad I could haf a real jub!” She turned her phone to Mahiru, who promptly turned around after reading the text message to catch Kaoruko’s wink. Turning back with a smile, she hugged Karen.

“Congratulations!” said Mahiru, genuinely happy for her friend, despite her feelings on her professional workplace demeanor, or how much added stress this was going to cause her.

“Thanks!” said Karen, swallowing her donut. “Do you know anything about Instagram?”

Mahiru could feel a stress ulcer forming in her stomach, but she also felt that Tendo Maya and Saijou Claudine might have the powers to heal any ailments she had. Claudine joined the rest of them at that moment, finally released by the stylists, and she stirred Mahiru’s heart in a different way than Maya did.

Claudine was dressed in a black sleeveless turtleneck, with a black blazer draped casually over one shoulder. Mahiru knew it was pinned in place, but it would be impossible to tell in photos. She wore a black wool skirt with a pattern of small stars on it, which fell several inches above the knee, and a pair of sheer black tights, along with black heeled suede boots.

It seemed Claudine was given matching rings on her fingers (Mahiru was sure this was intentional), along with some silver bangles and leather bracelets. Her hair was done up in a high bun, aside from a couple face-framing locks. Her makeup was a bit darker and more smudged, and Mahiru imagined this was to emphasize the ‘darkness’ concept.

“Saijou-san, you look so pretty!” gushed Karen. She ran towards her, but Hikari held her back, ensuring no donut frosting got near the clothing.

“Thank you,” said Claudine, looking at Karen with genuine appreciation. “It’s all thanks to the hard work of the stylists and the clothing, though. I looked something terrible when I came in this morning,” she laughed.

Nana directed Maya and Claudine to the front, and they stood before a large backdrop of the Tokyo skyline taken from a rooftop at night. In front of them, a staff member brought a railing prop, and they stood on green floor, which Mahiru was sure would be converted to something appropriate for the rooftop apartment the scene was conveying. The staff that were just there to observe backed up a bit, most grabbing donuts and quieting down, with the exception of Kaoruko, who came to the front to watch carefully alongside Nana.

“Alright,” Nana said, setting her camera up. “These are our first set together, so I know it’ll take a little time to get comfortable. But these pictures are one of the three sets that are going to be our ‘iconic’ fall sets, meaning they’ll be the ones we’re using as cover photos, in department stores, as ad inserts, and if we ever get a billboard, they’ll be used there too. What we’re looking for is for the two of you to show off the strong contrast - light and dark, day and night, etc. - while still being two parts of one whole, you still both represent one brand.”

Maya and Claudine both nodded, following along.

“Great. Let’s start with um, Saijou-san, can I call you Claudine?”

Claudine nodded her assent. Nana tried, but had trouble with the French name. “My Japanese friends in the past have called me Kuro,” she said, pointedly looking away. Mahiru found her embarrassment endearing.

Nana beamed. “Kuro-san then! If you could take that seat and sort of rest your head on your arms, yes, just like that on the railing, and then Maya, if you could stand beside her and gaze straight out, with… yes, exactly!”

Nana took a few pictures of this first pose, and then directed a few others, Claudine sitting facing Maya; Maya sitting with Claudine standing back to back with her; both of them standing at the railing; until Claudine and Maya seemed to settle into their role and the timing and began moving on their own. The poses they moved into were nearly always more natural looking than the ones given to them, and what was more was that they generally didn’t need to speak. It was their first day shooting together and yet, with just a gaze, they seemed to be able to tell what the other wanted them to do. It was nothing like what Mahiru had seen watching other models. Not that the other models she had seen were bad, there just wasn’t this *ahem* chemistry.

The shoot ended with only a few non-essential staff left in the studio, and a rather dynamic and heart-racing shot with Maya and Claudine facing each other - two perfect figures in profile showing off treasured, classic pieces from their collection. Two opposites: dark hair wearing light clothes, light hair wearing dark clothes; a calm expression on Maya’s face and a charged expression on Claudine’s; formerly famous model Saijou Claudine just short enough to have to look up to meet the eyes of unknown model Tendo Maya. They all knew it, this was the one.

When Nana called the break for lunch, Claudine sat down in the chair right on the set to pull the boots off her feet. “Don’t blame me,” muttered Hikari, “Those aren’t HANA collection boots.”

Maya leaned down to ask her something, and a shutter sounded. For a brief moment, Mahiru thought she spied something dark in Maya’s eyes, but if it was there at all, it faded quickly, and she smiled politely as Karen ran up to greet them. If Maya was upset, Mahiru supposed she couldn’t blame her. She had posed for hundreds and hundreds of pictures all morning, only to be surprised by one from someone she hadn’t been expecting it from.

She checked Claudine’s reaction, but she had already gone back to the dressing room. Mahiru walked up to save Karen, if needed.

“Ah, Tendo-san,” said Karen, apparently surprised that Claudine had left so suddenly. “I apologize if I surprised you, it’s just… I’ve just been promoted!”

“Is that so?” asked Maya, in a tone that was impossible for even Mahiru to decipher. Mahiru liked Maya, but it was very, very hard to know what was going on in her head.

“Yes! I’m not an intern any longer, I’m a real employee! And I’ll be running the social media accounts! So I’ll be taking some behind the scenes photos and things so people can get an idea of what life is like here at HANA.”

“Oh, I see,” said Maya. “Try to get my good side, in that case.”

Karen laughed. “You don’t have a bad side! Neither does Kuro-san!”

Maya gave Karen an interesting look, but didn’t reply for a moment. Mahiru wondered if she was upset with Karen’s use of a nickname with Claudine, when they’d barely been introduced.

“I apologize for my partner’s rapid departure, but it seems you’ll have to talk with her another time,” said Maya. Mahiru met her gaze this time. Maya was interesting. She was not covering for or making excuses for Claudine, but she was also protecting her, in her own way, whether she realized it or not.

“Please, go get your lunch, Tendo-san. I know you have another shoot this afternoon. In the meantime, I’ll have a chat with Aijou-san about the dos and don’ts of candid photos.”

Maya gave them a slight bow and left to join Claudine in the dressing room.

Before Mahiru or Karen could even open their mouths, however, Kaoruko had descended upon them, looking at Mahiru with a sharp gaze.

“What’s that I smell?” she said, grinning.

“I haven’t the slightest clue what you’re talking about,” Mahiru said, willing Karen not to shout ‘donuts?’

“Is it the scent of blossoming love?” she asked, pretending to sniff towards the dressing room.

“Love?” asked Karen, eyes wide. She opened her phone to review the photo she took, which Kaoruko quickly snatched.

“Oh, come on, Mahiru, look at this,” said Kaoruko.

Mahiru had to admit, it was rather sweet, the way Maya leaned down to say something quietly just to Claudine while she took her shoes off, tired after their shoot. “I told you Karen will be a genius at her job,” Kaoruko boasted. Mahiru watched as Karen’s chest swelled in pride.

“I’ve gotta get with a few people about actually making the accounts… when did you want them up by, boss?”

“As soon as possible. I still want quality work, of course, but after I heard about Frontier, I realized Edel and Rinmeikan have them too. We have to get on this ahead of Seiran at least.”

“To be fair, those are all modeling agencies, whereas we’re a fashion house,” offered Mahiru placatingly.

“That’s even worse!” countered Kaoruko. “Think of one major fashion house without a social media presence. This has been a huge lapse in my sights!”

“I’ll work with Junna on the aesthetic,” said Karen, making a dramatic gesture with her hands. Mahiru could already predict the earful she would get from Junna for sending her more work. “But I think I can handle it. You can breathe easy.”

“Great, great, Kaoruko, I’m starving, can we get lunch now? We have like… eighteen minutes before your meeting with that Hokkaido distributor,” said Futaba, checking over their schedule as always.

“Yes, I’m about to pass out as well. Let’s eat. That meeting can start a bit late, too. He made me wait last time.”

They wandered off, and after confirming the afternoon schedules with Maya and Claudine, Mahiru went to lunch as well, glad at least that the first shoot had gone off without a hitch.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

Maya had time to scrub her face clean and Claudine did the same, their hair tucked safely in loose buns atop their heads to be dealt with later, before they were given instructions to temporarily change back into their street clothes and move down one floor to the next level of studios and dressing rooms. They were already in the building’s basement, so another floor down was some sort of sub-basement, but a staff member whisked them into a larger dressing room, where they had room to spread out their things and take a break before getting ready for the afternoon schedule.

Nana popped her head in, a small container of muffins in her arms. “I’m about to go on break as well, but I wanted to let you know that this dressing room and the adjacent studio is the primary one we will be using this year. So if you want to leave anything at the dressing tables or the cubbies, feel free, we’ll be down here often. For today, we have very little time, so Mahiru has gone ahead and ordered some box lunches and they should arrive soon. And please, take these. My hobby is baking,” she said, handing Maya the muffins.

“Thank you,” Maya said, taking them and placing them on the counter between where she and Claudine sat. Nana left them her cell phone number and left shortly after.

It was quiet in the sub-basement dressing room, and it was somewhat eerie, just the two of them, lit by the fluorescent lights and the bright bulbs of the mirrors, with the door opening to the warehouse-like space of the photo studio. Maya almost jumped when the concierge of the building knocked with their lunch delivery, and she thought Claudine looked ready to attack whoever had snuck up on them, until she realized. Maya was ready to take her lunch and sit at the counter, but Claudine took hers to the small coffee table, spreading out a blanket to sit on and eating away from where all the makeup and hair accessories were laying. Maya decided to join her - the room was fairly large, and they should appreciate that they had separate space for hair and makeup, eating, and dressing, at least.

Claudine ate a little more greedily this time than she did on their first day, but Maya didn’t comment on this. She learned quickly that Claudine was prickly about certain topics - many topics in fact, and food was on that list. In general, she preferred to let Claudine lead the conversations, but there were times, like today, where she was uncomfortably quiet, and Maya felt the insatiable need to say something, anything just to remind herself that she wasn’t eating alone. Or perhaps she just liked that irritated smile on Claudine’s face.

“It seemed they were satisfied with our work this morning,” Maya said, unsure yet if work was a safe topic or not.

“There were an awful lot of spectators,” Claudine growled, the fact that she was speaking with her mouth full lending a cute French-sounding lilt to her Japanese. “But I agree, the proofs I saw looked satisfactory,” she added as she swallowed.

They hadn’t monitored since halfway through the shoot, so they really weren’t sure how the last half came out, but everyone’s reactions had been good. Maya hadn’t been paying attention to what was in the boxed lunch that was delivered, but now she paid attention as she bit into the muffin Nana made.

“Is it good?” Claudine asked, watching her chew.

Maya nodded. “Delicious. Banana nut flavor.” She smirked. “Definitely worth a few minutes of extra workout tonight.” Maya pushed the muffins toward Claudine.

“I don’t know, I didn’t really feel like doing a workout tonight,” she said.

Maya wondered what else she had planned. Did she feel like sitting on their balcony just to silently stare at the water for hours, like she did some nights? Did she have a secret boyfriend she wanted to call when Maya went out of the apartment?

It seemed Claudine’s will was broken, though, and she picked the muffin up, bringing it to her mouth slowly. Maya watched her take a small bite, and couldn’t help but stare at her lips as she chewed, perfectly-shaped and pink even without any makeup.

Before she could continue, however, the stylists returned from their lunch break, corralling them back to the counters, seemingly overwhelmed by the style demanded for this shoot. Slowly, but surely, Maya watched herself be transformed over the course of an hour. Strands of glitter were laced into her hair, which hung loose and was waved just slightly at the last six inches. White lashes were attached to her eyes, and a frosty liner was applied as well. While her brows were lightened, they were not totally white, giving her face some prideful structure, along with her cheekbones. A delicate pink was applied to her lips. It was a bold, frosty look, but made more innocent with the dress Maya was given.

The dress was a white, ankle length gown made of intricately draped organza, which reflected the light in various ways. It was strapless, leaving Maya’s shoulders bare as her hair was arranged carefully around it. Interestingly, she was left barefoot.

Beside her, Maya watched Claudine’s transformation opposed hers. Claudine’s hair was naturally wavy, and the stylists re-set these waves after the morning shoot, then laced in tiny black feathers in an arc pattern across one side. Her brows were drawn in a little bolder, and her eye-shadow a little smudged, though not quite as bold as that morning’s shoot. She was given dark brown liner and lashes.

As Claudine went to change into her dress, her phone rang. “Saijou-san, you have a phone call!” the stylist called towards her.

“Who is it?” she asked, her voice distant, as if she was in the midst of putting on the dress.

Maya was beside the phone, so she leaned forward to read it. “Yachiyo-san,” she said. She added on the -san herself, as that wasn’t in Claudine’s contact name, and left out the ‘<3 <3’. She noted Claudine had already missed two calls from this same girl.

Claudine came back over, looking rather stunning in a long, black dress with a velvet, corset style top, spaghetti straps, and a poofed, layered tulle skirt. Quickly, she re-dialed her missed call.

“What?” she asked harshly, listening intently. Apparently there were few pleasantries between these two. Suddenly the name rang a bell. Yachiyo- Maya couldn’t remember her surname- she was the Siegfeld fashion designer Claudine was in Harajuku with in that tabloid. Maya tried to look busy while she listened in.

“What?! ...Oh, oui, j'aurais dû savoir… nothing. Thank you for the heads up…. Oh. Thanks to Michiru I guess, then. Je t'aime.”

Maya’s French was poor, but even she knew ‘je t'aime’. She wondered if the pretty, pink-haired woman was Claudine’s… girlfriend. They had gone out together, and she was the only person she’d seen Claudine on her phone with… ever, besides her parents. A giddy sort of hope filled her at that thought, though she wasn’t sure why, it’s not like she wanted them to be together. It’s because it means Claudine isn’t with some gross guy, she told herself. The elation disappeared quickly though, as Claudine put down her phone and turned to her, her expression dark. The stylists had made themselves scarce, suddenly.

“When were you going to tell me, Tendo Maya?” she asked. In her dress, with her hair and makeup done, she was truly a force to be reckoned with- dangerous and beautiful.

“I’m afraid I’ve no idea what you mean,” said Maya. “Do I have something to do with your phone call?” she asked. She was truly in the dark.

“Why is it that I’m just now being informed, through Siegfeld of all places, of the HANA company starting social media pages? Surely you knew? Surely you would have thought to tell me, seeing it has much more of an impact on my life, than yours?”

Maya felt her blood pressure drop. It had been her job to tell Claudine, and she had forgotten, with the moving studios and the rush to eat lunch and the quick costume change. She rarely forgot things, in fact, she could not remember the last time she had let someone down. She did not know how word got to Yachiyo so fast - certainly Karen had not launched the accounts yet - but she had let her partner down. Claudine would need to do things to prepare, perhaps even her parents would….

Maya did the only thing she could think of in that moment, she bowed in apology, low and long. “I’m sorry! I forgot!” she said, while looking at the ground.

“Ah, mon Dieu, get up, you’ll mess up the stylists’ work like that!” said Claudine frantically. When Maya stood, she saw Claudine was red with embarrassment, obviously not expecting a proper apology. “Aish! I see that you truly just forgot, I forgive you! You don’t have to go and do that!” she said, as the stylists came back to straighten Maya’s hair.

“Truly, I am sorry. We can go together to see Isurugi-san later if any arrangements need to be made or if you have any questions about it. It seems you’re very lucky to have your friend at
Siegfeld,” said Maya, not wanting to offend Claudine by using Yachiyo’s first name again, but not remembering her surname.

“Yes, Yachiyo always looks out for me, I’m trying to be less of a burden on her. She’s one of the only people I still keep in contact with from… back then…” Claudine trailed off, straightening out imaginary wrinkles on her dress. “But in any case, Nana’s probably ready, let’s go!”

The set this time was lush and red. Everything was red velvet, from the backdrop, to the hangings, to the cover on a platform in the center of the set, which Maya correctly assumed is mostly where they would pose. The set this time was only manned with essential staff - no casual on-lookers, with the exception of Futaba who was in the corner working on her tablet and keeping an eye on the proceedings.

Per Nana’s instructions, they were to stand, sit, or lay as they pleased on the platform, however they were comfortable. It was all female staff, so Maya didn’t exactly feel uncomfortable laying down, she was wearing a dress after all, it was more of the part of laying so close to Saijou Claudine that was causing her heart to beat wildly. She wasn’t even sure why - she admired Claudine, she found Claudine beautiful, she was intrigued by Claudine - but she was here to bring herself to the Top, so it shouldn’t matter who she needed to lay down near or pose beside. Steeling her nerves, she hopped up onto the platform.

Claudine did the same, though Maya could see a trace of nervousness on her face as well. A staff member brought her a step stool to use to climb up with, as her dress was a fair bit bulkier than Maya’s.

“I want to add one more element to the shoot, but if you’re uncomfortable with it, we can add it in post with digital editing,” said Nana. “The way this shoot was envisioned was like this,” she held up illustrations, obviously sketched by someone with great skill, of two faceless models in the dresses, but running from their arms respectively were white and black rivulets of liquid.

“Sounds messy, but I don’t mind,” said Claudine. Maya assented as well, expecting something much stranger from the way Nana had phrased the proposition. The stylists returned to help apply this last layer to the preparation, and Maya found her arms, chest, and even parts of her face now dripped with a sparkling silver paint. Soon after, Claudine was the same, a pearlescent black dripping down her pale arms and snaking into the cleavage of her dress. One line looked like a black tear running down her face.

Soon enough, the shoot began, but Maya found it hard to get into a rhythm. For one thing, the paint kept shifting and needing to be wiped and re-applied, but more than that, she felt tense, and she could tell Claudine felt tense as well.

“I’m sorry Nana,” said Claudine, after a few minutes, “Can we put on some music or something?”

Nana smiled gently, playing some popular, mindless music. Just having something on in the background helped immensely with Maya’s nagging thoughts, and it also provided a cover for them to whisper at each other without being overheard.

“Lay back,” Claudine commanded, and Maya did as she was told, respecting that Claudine was the veteran in this field. Claudine kneeled beside her, one hand on her chest, and the other, streaked with black, running through Maya’s hair. Her expression looked as if she was purveying an item in a pawn shop. Maya felt a stirring somewhere deep in herself, a demand to satisfy her own desires. Once it was time to shift, she sat up, so she was sitting facing Claudine, their legs intermingled among the long skirts of the dresses. She could feel that Claudine’s feet were cold.

Somehow, just like before, they didn’t need to speak to communicate, and this time Maya’s gaze said ‘my turn’. She curled some of Claudine’s hair in her fingers, pulling her closer, causing Claudine to be forced to turn her chin up some. Claudine put her hand on Maya’s shoulder as if pushing her away, and the shutter clicked. It was a mess of power struggles, paint, and beautiful dresses, and Nana had found the shot through her lens.

They had found their speed once again, and the work was easy. The interruptions were more frequent as the stylists had to adjust the dresses or their hair or the paint, but the afternoon rolled on. They sat back to monitor around five, fatigue setting in, and some of the staff heading out, their shifts ending. Claudine and Maya bowed and thanked those who left for their work that day, and then checked the proofs. Maya quickly found her favorite.

Claudine was in the foreground, laying on her back, her finger on her chin pensively, and her curls draped perfectly around her. Her other arm was reaching up to touch Maya’s arm. Maya was laying on her side, facing the opposite direction, propped up on one elbow. Her gaze was only on Claudine.

“Listen, we have a lot of good ones here to work with, so let’s call it early for today,” said Nana.

Maya smiled, relieved with this announcement, it was getting rather cold.

“Thank you for all your hard work!” said Claudine, bowing first at Nana, and then at the rest of the remaining staff. Maya repeated the sentiment, genuinely meaning it - it took a small army to get the photos they produced today.

Futaba approached them as they were taking their makeup off and getting the accessories out of their hair. “Good work today,” she said.

“Good work today.” Maya thought she was here mostly to talk to Claudine, but Futaba settled between them, looking as though her updates were for them both.

“Hey, listen, I’m sorry I had no time to warn you about the social media thing. Kaoruko gets an idea and gets carried away, and then Karen just dives right into a new project-”

“It’s fine,” Claudine assured her. “We granted you permission to use our photographs for your promotions. That includes social media. You don’t have to worry.”

Maya supposed she was right. It was their job to sell the company’s products, and what better way to do that than to promote the company and make it more popular on social media? Still, she didn’t like the tone Claudine was using, though she couldn’t exactly figure out why.

“Still,” Futaba said. “Just in case these promotions really blow up in terms of your popularity, we’ve arranged with a local company to have a driver available to and from work and for your schedules, on demand.” Futaba handed them each a card with the contact information. “We will, of course, cover that expense, so please, take these cards as well.” She handed them each a plastic card this time, a company credit card.

“You really don’t need to worry, we can take the bus,” Claudine said, but she clutched the cards in her hand nonetheless, making no gesture to give them back.

“Thank you, Isurugi-san. We appreciate the consideration.”

“Of course. Please use whatever method you feel comfortable with. And please come to me if any other arrangements need to be made or if you have additional concerns.”

Once they finished taking off their makeup and accessories and changed back into their street clothes, it was after six, and they left the building together to head home.

“Are you hungry?” asked Maya, trying to plan how to arrange her dinner and workout timing.

“We should pick up something from the convenience store,” said Claudine. “I’m too tired to cook anything.”

Maya nodded her assent and they got on the bus, riding the short trip home. Once near their apartment, they walked into the local convenience store, Claudine poring over the offerings.

“What should we get?” she asked.

“I like this one,” Maya said, pointing to a set she often chose. “But it’s rather mild. If you like spicier, this is a good one. Sometimes I pick this one as well.”

In the end, Claudine went with her first recommendation. Maya picked some side dishes and Claudine purchased some drinks, and they walked home, the summer air heavy and warm. “Do you not get convenience store food often?” asked Maya, wondering if Claudine was the type to be secretly good at cooking.

“No… I’ve been living with my parents for several years now. My mom is an excellent cook. Plus this food is no good for you… Tendo Maya.” She buzzed them into the elevator and they started up towards their floor.

“I know, I know.” Maya had no intention of telling Claudine just how often she ended up heating up a convenience store entree for dinner. “I’m going to go for a run. I’ll only be twenty minutes. Do you mind heating up the food?”

“That’s fine. I’m going to shower first, though, I feel gross.”

Maya ran into her room to change into running clothes and her sneakers, and headed out again, the sun now setting properly over Tokyo. The children had gone home from the playgrounds, the bars were not yet open, it was a curious time when society retreated for a bit - a respite between the workday and the beginning of nightlife.

She ran around their tiny, artificial island, and then across the bridge onto the next. She ran a circuit around the edges, just over 6 kilometers, and ran quickly, finishing up out of breath, especially after such a long day. She stretched out at the park nearby their apartment, and then went back upstairs, satisfied that she had at least done some physical activity that day.

She supposed the work they did was rather taxing as well - they were constantly shifting positions, holding themselves up at strange angles, and ensuring they always had good posture and body lines. But to Maya, her consistency and routine were important, and she needed her ‘proper’ exercise to end the day with, otherwise… otherwise what?

She was surprised when her phone buzzed. Her phone was only taken on runs with her for emergencies. She didn’t really have anyone she kept in contact with, so she didn’t expect any notifications. It was… a text from Karen. The body of the text contained a link, which she clicked, leading her to an instagram profile with a three-image banner reading HANA on the left two panels, and having the company’s distinctive sakura blossom logo on the right panel. The icon was another image of the sakura blossom, but this time, it was colored white on a black background, with the left side fading out into smaller petal-like pieces.

Maya clicked the icon which had a glowing ring around it. It showed the image of them from that day, sitting on the set of the first shoot, a candid, behind the scenes image. One could clearly tell it was Claudine, taking her boots off, and Maya could recognize herself in profile, she wondered if anyone else could.

She went to go upstairs to get dinner, but her phone buzzed again. It was Yanagi Koharu this time, an acquaintance from her training days. “You’re working with Saijou Claudine? And you’re working at HANA? And I had to find out through Twitter? You really are the worst at keeping in touch, Tendo-san.”

Maya clicked the button to reply, but her hands paused on the keys. What did she have to say to Koharu? It was true, she was bad at keeping in touch. The other statements were true as well. Claudine, she imagined, would answer with some pleasantries and a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, but Maya wasn’t capable of that. Koharu had found work right away, she knew, after their training period. Koharu was doing well on various short term contracts and projects. Maya was not ready to answer her fully until Maya herself was on top. “We’ll have to catch up once I’m settled in at the new job,” she wrote, shutting off her screen as soon as she sent it.

Finally, she went back to the apartment, her sweat now dried and her breathing long since returned to normal. The lights were off in the apartment, the bag from the convenience store abandoned on the counter where it was left initially. The shower was no longer running, but Maya got an eerie feeling entering the apartment nonetheless.

Maya turned the kitchen light on and put Claudine’s meal in the microwave, walking to her room and knocking on the door. There was no answer, so she pushed the door open. Claudine was not in her room, but a notebook sat open on the dressing table, glaring white as it caught light from the window. Maya had not been in Claudine’s room before, but she noticed the fluffy white duvet on the bed, the shelf of a few choice photos and mementos, and the dressing table with the stool like one would see in a Hollywood film. Aside from that, there was not much personality in the room.

Curious, she glanced at the notebook. There was writing… it seemed to be a poem or a list of some sort. She began to read, trying to make sense of what the words Claudine had taken the time to write meant.

The bottom of Negishi Bay
Mamie’s store
Taxiing in the plane as it pulls to the gate in Paris
Gâteau aux fraises
Amethyst colored eyes

Maya paused as she read the last entry, blushing as she wondered if it was about herself, and then nearly tripped as she was startled by the microwave beeping. Rushing back to the kitchen, she pulled the meal out and checked the balcony, where sure enough, Claudine was sitting just out of sight of the sliding door, on a towel, gazing out at the water.

She was in a nightgown and her still-damp hair was frizzy as it hung loose in the summer heat, but she looked no less beautiful than she did when she was dressed up earlier that day. Maya rested the meal on a small table beside her.

Claudine didn’t acknowledge the food, or Maya. Maya walked back inside to heat her own and get the drinks, and sat beside Claudine, perhaps a little closer than either of them preferred, generally, but the towel that was spread out for sitting on was only so large.

Maya ate her dinner in silence, and finally, once she was halfway done, Claudine started hers as well, apparently finally able to tear her eyes away from the water. “Thank you,” she said, between bites, “For not looking at me.”

Maya had expected her to thank her for making dinner, or for staying quiet, but she hadn’t expected this. “We get enough of that during the day,” Maya said, continuing to look forward.

Claudine put her tray down, her right hand pinching the skin on the back of her left hand “When I was home those five years, I didn’t work, I was a burden to my parents. My mom gets this look, when I cause trouble for her. I’d rather she just get mad, but instead, she just looks at me with these worried, pitying eyes. It makes me sick with guilt.”

“Why didn’t you work in that time? Not modeling, but… you could have gone back to school, no?”

Claudine smiled at Maya sadly. “Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I knew you back then. I used to be really competitive, I would have liked knowing a high achiever like you - someone I could see as a rival. I would definitely come on those workouts every day if I was a teenager.” She continued pinching her hand and Maya watched, irritated. “But I was alone then,” she continued. “It was just me, and to a limited degree, my parents. I tried going to high school, in the beginning, but it didn’t work out, and without finishing high school I couldn’t attend university. I could work in a shop, but everyone either wanted me because I was Saijou Claudine or didn’t want me because I was Saijou Claudine. I got irritated, like I was with everything then, and I gave up.”

She moved on to pinching at her wrist then, and Maya grabbed both of her hands in her own, holding them securely. Maya was beginning to realize that Saijou Claudine might only be here because she wanted to avoid seeing her mother look at her in a certain way. She almost chuckled, thinking of the irony when she realized that one of the reasons she was here was because she wanted her mother to acknowledge her and finally see her in a certain way.

Claudine looked at their connected hands, but didn’t try to pull away. “Maya…” she said quietly… then realizing what she said, corrected herself. “Tendo-san, what are you-”

“You are more than your career. You are more than the performance you give at work every day. If you ever want to quit completely, that’s allowed. But if you want to continue, I will work by your side. But you have a rival now, so please don’t neglect yourself.”

Claudine let these words sink in and then sat up a little straighter. “Of course not, Tendo Maya. I’m here for the duration of our contract. We are going to make history together. You better prepare yourself to work hard.”

A smile crossed Maya’s lips, and before she knew it, she was pulling Claudine closer to her. To her surprise, however, it was Claudine who wrapped her arms around Maya, pulling her into a hug. “You really are an impossible woman,” she said, sounding as if she was crying a bit. “Honestly, how could they expect anyone else to work with you.”

“Only you,” Maya assured her.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

Claudine woke up early the Tuesday of the following week, having a rare day off as Maya had solo work that day, and she had solo work the following day. She was to update several forms at the municipal offices with her change of address, take care of other various errands, and then, finally, meet up with Yachiyo.

She took care of the errands first, since those were the most urgent, and donned her usual mask, sunglasses, and hat as she walked into the government office. Realizing she looked very out of place with so much covering indoors, she took the sunglasses off, telling herself that 1- she and Maya were not actually that popular, and 2- people in a government facility cared little for fashion models. It seemed, for the most part, she was correct, and she took care of business with little delay, but she did see a few girls pointing and whispering as she made her way out. She didn’t want to seem rude and not acknowledge them, but she also didn’t want to draw attention to herself, so she tried to pretend she didn’t see them. Gritting her teeth, she put the sunglasses back on.

She rode the bus into Ginza and walked a few blocks from the HANA offices to the Siegfeld Design company, walking to the desk attendant and stating she had an appointment with Tsuruhime Yachiyo. The receptionist called Yachiyo down, and soon after, she saw the familiar, slightly mischievous grin of her old friend walk into the lobby. “Kuro!” she said, her voice low to avoid drawing unnecessary attention. She was warm, but sharp. Always sharp. Today she wore a black suit with gold accents, the tailoring perfect as usual.

“Good morning,” said Claudine, giving her a light hug. Admittedly, it felt good to see an old friend again, and to hug someone. Not counting her one hug with Maya, which she put in a different category for reasons she refused to think about, it had been quite some time since she greeted anyone with anything but a bow or a handshake.

“Let’s go get breakfast, whenever I see you I feel the urge to feed you,” Yachiyo said with a laugh.

“Last time we went out, you know what happened,” Claudine said, staying firmly in the lobby. “It’s bad enough going out as a blonde. Having your pink hair beside me is like a beacon.”

Yachiyo nodded her understanding. “Come on, there’s a tea room on the roof.”

They sat in the corner, under a shaded canopy, blocked partially by the landscaping that added a tasteful element to the patio. A waiter was by quickly to take their orders, and then they were left in privacy to chat.

“Thanks again,” Claudine began, “For the heads up about the social media. My own coworkers forgot to tell me,” she laughed lightly.

“What did your agent advise?” asked Yachiyo.

Claudine froze. She had not hired an agent, mostly because she was working under a single contract and didn’t think it was necessary to pay someone to negotiate on her behalf, since it wasn’t like she was taking small contracts here and there. But with the added nuisance of social media, and the accompanying press interest it would garner, she would likely want one.

She supposed it was an oversight on her part. Regardless of the social media, having her face suddenly plastered everywhere would bring requests for interviews, more interest from old fans, requests for small jobs and promotions, and other complications. An agent would be the wise choice. “I don’t… have one…” she muttered quietly, grateful for the pause delaying Yachiyo’s surprised reaction as the waiter returned with their tea and desserts.

“Claudine! What are you thinking?!”

Claudine pushed one of her macarons around on her plate, less hungry than she was when she ordered them, and filled with shame as Yachiyo chastised her.

“Who does Tendo-san have as her agent?” Yachiyo continued, and Claudine wondered why she felt so annoyed each time Yachiyo and Maya acknowledged each others’ existence.

“Not sure. If she has once, it’s probably from her mother’s firm. Tendo Yuko is director at Sarazashi, that contract Shizuha is working on now. Remember we met Tendo-san once?”

Yachiyo laughed. “Yes… if looks could kill.”

Maya’s mother had obviously been of the opinion that teenagers had no place at an adult runway show.

“Well… listen, if you are in the market for an agent, I think that I might know someone. Souda-sensei is training young models now, at that Seisho school, but she has this protege… Yakumo Kyoko-san, she modeled for several years, but now she’s switched to managing models. I feel like that’s one of the best you’re going to get: female, experienced as a model, vouched for by Sensei, and I hear she’s pretty tough too, so she’s no pushover.”

“Was she the one in that athletic campaign? With the sports bra and the katana?” asked Claudine, remembering a fierce and beautiful woman shot in black and white a few summers back.

Yachiyo nodded. “I think I can get her information, or I can get it from Sensei. I’ll get you connected with her.” She leaned closer, looking more serious. “Claudine. You need an agent.”

Claudine nodded. “I know.”

They spoke about lighter topics after, sipping their tea and eating their sweets, until a mostly unfamiliar pair approached the table. Claudine realized they were Edel models, so she recognized them from print media, but she definitely had not met them before- they must have debuted after her retirement, though she supposed it was more of a long hiatus at this point.

There was a blonde, who approached them looking apologetic, and a taller girl with grayish, silver hair and striking features. Claudine recognized them both from their facial features, and wondered if their hair was natural, if Edel’s latest contract with Siegfeld had required them to dye their hair, or if they just preferred it this way. “Ah, Yukishiro-san, Yumeoji-san, hello,” greeted Yachiyo. “Please, have a seat.”

The girl with the silver hair, Yukishiro, looked as if she did not want to take the time to sit, but perhaps she recognized the discretion Yachiyo was trying to lend to the scene, and quickly slid into one of the two open seats. Still, with three models and a former model at the table in the corner, there was some chatter and pointed gazes from the other guests in their direction, despite this being a rather private venue.

“Ah, I don’t believe you have met Claudine,” Yachiyo said. “Claudine, this is Yukishiro Akira and Yumeoji Shiori, Akira and Shiori, this is Saijou Claudine. She’s working with HANA this year.”

Claudine caught a small flicker of emotion - displeasure? - in Akira’s face, as she was introduced, but she had no time to ponder it as it was quickly smoothed over into an urgent look directed at Yachiyo once again, after she had finished the mandatory greetings. Shiori greeted her kindly and apologetically.

“Tsuruhime-san, the outfits you picked for the afternoon shoot aren’t going to work,” Akira said. “Michiru said they’re going with the checkered background after all.”

Yachiyo sighed, cursing softly. “Why can’t they make up their minds?” she asked. “I went over this twice yesterday to be sure it was the solid backdrop. And why couldn’t they just call, you didn’t have to come up here,” she said. “I’m sorry it’s causing you so much trouble.”

Shiori blushed. “Well, um, I volunteered to come. Michiru said you were here with Saijou-san, and well… I wanted to meet her.”

Yachiyo smiled as Claudine’s eyes widened in surprise. Akira’s expression was as unreadable as Maya’s often was, but she didn’t look altogether pleased. “Well in that case, Yukishiro-san and I will go adjust the afternoon wardrobe. Yumeoji-san, please keep Claudine company until her next appointment. I think another 15 minutes or so of your time will do. You can order what you’d like, it’s on my card.”

Shiori beamed, and stood to bow as Yachiyo left. Then, suddenly more shy, she slipped back into her seat beside Claudine. “I don’t think your partner likes me,” said Claudine, unsure of why she was venting her insecurities on this girl.

“Oh, it’s not you, it’s HANA,” Shiori said. “Akira was top model at HANA last spring and half of the summer, and quit halfway through the season.”

Claudine wracked her brain trying to think of any images she had seen around the office with Akira in them. If there were any, they were few and far between. Perhaps it was a bad falling out. “Oh.” She sipped her tea, interested in the gossip but not trying to pry.

Shiori took pity on her, however. “You don’t have to worry,” she said. “HANA isn’t a bad company. Akira was offered a high-paying contract with Edel Agency and HANA doesn’t like models from agencies. They want independent models they can keep in-house. It became this whole war between Akira, Hanayagi-san, and their lawyers, until finally Akira quit, and myself and another model, Liu Mei Fan left with her. We’re all Edels now so there’s some resentment.”

Claudine nodded, imagining easily how stubborn Kaoruko and the direct Akira could butt heads easily. “I’m curious - what contract are you working on now?” she asked. She knew the Edels almost exclusively took Siegfeld jobs, but they sometimes branched out as well.

Shiori beamed. “We’re actually modeling for Siegfeld’s dancewear and yoga line! It’s super fun!”

Noticing her conversation partner light up with the switch to lighter topics, Claudine asked then about work, Tokyo, hobbies, and anything else she could think of. It was only when Claudine innocently mentioned family that Shiori tensed up. "I have a sister," she said. "Fumi-onee-san. She is a model as well. She worked here, for Edel, even under the Siegfeld contract, until two days before I joined. Then she left for Rinmeikan, to model kimono for Sarazashi. I have to believe she left because of me."

Claudine understood plenty about not wanting to talk about personal matters, especially not with someone you just met. She quickly changed the topic back to traveling, which made Shiori light up again. Finally, it was time to leave, and she thanked Shiori for keeping her company. “I didn’t even get to ask you anything!” Shiori lamented. “All I did was talk about myself.”

Claudine smiled. Internally, she knew that had been her plan the whole time, but in truth, she enjoyed hearing about Shiori’s life. “Here, take my number, we can talk again another time,” Claudine offered. “Though I warn you, I often forget my phone for days at a time.”

“That’s ok - Akira does the same thing, I’m used to it,” Shiori said, handing it back.

Claudine said her goodbyes and walked downstairs back to the Siegfeld lobby. Officially, she was done with her duties that day. She had told Yachiyo she needed to leave by three in order to free up time in case she wanted to visit with Souda-sensei… but now she couldn’t decide if she was brave enough. For one thing, Souda Sawa now worked at a school, so there were bound to be people who knew of her there. And for another, Sensei always knew what to say to get in her head. But at the same time, Claudine longed to see the model who always acted like her older sister when they were both working in their younger years.

She decided to get on the train towards Seisho and decide on the way. While riding, Claudine kept her sunglasses and mask on, and pulled her phone out for something to look at besides the other passengers. There was another post on the HANA instagram. It was a photo of Maya, listening intently to direction from Daiba Nana. The photo was taken from over Nana’s shoulder from the back so only Claudine was able to identify Nana from her distinctive hair. Maya was wearing a white blazer, with a white cropped shirt underneath, and Claudine couldn’t tell what bottoms she was dressed in. Her hair was sleek and straight as always, this time clipped into the half-ponytail that was quickly becoming Maya’s trademark style.

Knowing it would only lead to regret, Claudine clicked the comments that had already accumulated in the hour-old post, reading about men and (mostly) women fawning over Maya’s good looks and HANA’s selection of a new leading model. There were some questions in the comments about the appearance of Saijou Claudine in the story post from the previous shoot, but Karen had not replied to any of the comments. Claudine knew it was only a matter of time before her own face graced the profile of the company’s instagram page, but instead of anticipation or excitement, she only felt dread.

She thought about transferring trains out to the coast, where she could just stare at the bay for a little while to calm down, but she wondered if she would be able to tear herself away once she got out there. She had a feeling she might stand there til sunset, or even past, or maybe, just this once, step into the water, so she faithfully got on the connection to Seisho and arrived at the school soon after.

She arrived a little before afternoon classes let out, and she checked in at the front desk. She told the receptionist she would be fine with waiting for Souda-sensei outside, or in the lobby, but the receptionist recognized her immediately, and smiled in joy. “Saijou-san! Souda-sensei has many acquaintances in the industry, but they rarely come by the school to greet her. I’m sure she and the students would be honored if you stopped into the afternoon classes.”

“Oh, I couldn’t interrupt!” Claudine said, hoping the receptionist would understand her declination.

“Oh, it’s no matter! Let me show you the way!”

Without another chance to protest, Claudine was led down a corridor to a studio-like room, where Souda-sensei was leading a class of about ten young women. She looked to be lecturing them on something to do with expression, from the way she was speaking and the students would pause to change up their facial features.

“Pardon me, Souda-sensei?” the receptionist said with a knock.

“Yes, what is it?” Souda asked, turning towards them. In a moment, she saw Claudine, and raised an eyebrow. Claudine tried to look apologetic, as she had not wanted to interrupt the lecture, but she had a feeling Sensei knew her well enough to know that. “Ah, my guest is here. Come on in, Saijou-san.”

So that’s how she was going to play it, Claudine thought, a little amused, despite her racing heartbeat as she watched ten pairs of eyes trained on her as she walked into the room. Calm down she told herself. They’re just young girls. You’ll have to deal with a lot more attention than this if you want to do runway shows again.

She stood beside Souda and the receptionist dismissed herself. “It’s good to see you, Claudine,” Souda said, nodding slightly.

“Likewise,” Claudine said quietly.

“Everyone, I have half a mind to flunk you if you don’t know our guest today, but just in case, this is Saijou Claudine. I think she might have been the first person to call me ‘sensei’, some… 12 years ago now?” Souda laughed. “She’s got ten years of industry experience, and now she’s working again with… HANA, correct?”

Claudine nodded.

“Alongside a graduate of my program, Tendo Maya.”

The girls in the class chattered quietly among themselves with this new information, but quickly composed themselves with one glance from Souda-sensei. “Now, I believe the topic we were discussing was exhibiting proper expression, which can vary dramatically from one shoot to another, and even from one pose to another. As a model, you need to be able to adapt on a whim when your director or photographer wants something to change in an instant. Let’s continue with the exercise and you’ll see why I brought Saijou-san here today.”

Claudine wasn’t sure what her role was here, as she was positive that Souda-sensei was not expecting her to arrive at Seisho Modeling Training Center today. She also wasn’t sure what to do as she had never attended a modeling school. When she began modeling at age seven, she didn’t know anything about the industry, she wasn’t even able to listen to the director well. She was entirely self-taught. She learned to take the criticism that the directors and older models gave, and learn from faults she found in her own work, but she never received formal instruction.

She watched the exercise- Sensei would act as the photographer, telling the girls what she wanted from their expressions and poses, and would even have a shutter sound that she pressed, and they would react as they should in a real studio. Claudine watched a few at a time, and then moved on, and almost laughed at her first conclusion: Did Maya really come from here? Maya is miles ahead of these girls.

“Now,” said Sensei, allowing them to take their seats again. “I’ll let Saijou-san take over, and give some feedback before we try that one more time. I’m sure you’ve seen her work - with the puppies, with the Christmas dresses, with the Kiwi back-to-school campaign several years ago. She’s got incredible mastery of expression.”

Claudine stood in front of the girls, who’s expressions ranged from bemused to reverant to skeptical. She tried to put into words what she did when she tried to form expressions for the camera, but it was like breathing at this point - there was no way to break it down simply. Instead, she tried to point out some ways to improve what they were doing during the exercise. “Wh- when you’re forming expressions, you really need to have awareness of your entire body. I think you’re focusing a lot on your facial expression, which is where our eyes are drawn first, but you’re selling clothing, so eventually people will be looking at your body, and if your pose doesn’t match the expression your face is making, the concept looks asymmetric and flawed.”

She took a breath, not sure if her hand was actually trembling or if it was imagined. “Right now, you’re posing in a group. You need to consider yourselves as a unit, rather than ten individuals. A warm, cozy pose might have you all gathered in, where something a little more aloof might have you more apart, but there still needs to be some sort of composition to the piece.”

“Lastly, you will want to think about little details. That’s what your fans will notice and that’s what can make a photo go from being good to great. It’s also a really good way to increase the intent or concept of the shoot - so another way to play with your expression. For example, slipping a jacket off your shoulder, tugging on a lock of hair, anything you can do to increase the interest of the photo can help - to a point. Use those details sparingly and at the right time.”

The girls nodded, and one was taking notes, another peering over her shoulder.

“Saijou-san… Can- can you do the exercise?” asked one of the girls. The others perked up in excitement, no one looking skeptical anymore. Sensei shrugged at her and Claudine acquiesced. She had consented to the role of guest instructor, she felt it would be somewhat rude to back out now. Sensei backed up to where the girls sat and began directing.

Claudine tried to follow along as best she could imagining this was a real shoot. It was somewhat hard to imagine without a camera, and she was dressed in a brown jumper over a cream blouse, but she did her best, switching from ‘hesitant, unsure’ to ‘something good you’ve waited a long time for just happened’ to ‘give me something a little sultry now’ in a span of about thirty seconds.

When she was finished, the girls applauded, which really made her blush. Then the students performed the exercise again, this time with much better results. Soon after, their class ended. Two of them asked for Claudine’s signature after class. Embarrassed, but unable to decline, Claudine signed a little book one had ready, and the other had a blank shikishi in her locker. Both bowed and thanked her, wishing her luck with HANA. She wished them luck as they finished their training and then she followed Sensei to her office. She sat on the small couch sensei behind her desk, resting her chin on her hands and her elbows on the desk as if studying Claudine.

“So, you made it back to Tokyo,” Sensei began.

“I just started working again last week,” Claudine replied

“That’s what Yachiyo told me,” she said, “She keeps in touch much better than you do, Kuro-chan.”

“I need your friend to be my agent.”

“Ah, Kyoko? Hm, I wonder if she’d call herself my friend.” Sensei smiled as if amused with the thought. “But alright, I will call her and tell her to get in touch with you. I assume it’s urgent?”

Claudine nodded.

“Fine, it’s done,” she said, tapping away at her phone. “By the way, you better tell Kyoko to stay on top of your press interest. You were famous enough back in the day, but I can already tell you, Tendo Maya is going to be something. The two of you together - Hanayagi doesn’t know what she’s done.”

“You’re making it sound like we’re idols. No one cares about fashion models that much,” Claudine said, but mostly said it to assure herself.

“Back when you worked last, the internet wasn’t as big as it is now. I have girls who barely stay afloat working here and there who get stalkers and creeps interested in them. Tendo and yourself - you might as well be idols.”

“Sensei, you’re making me want to go back to Yokohama.”

“Yokohama - that’s where you were hiding out? What were you doing there?”

Claudine was silent for a moment, unsure how to answer that question. What was she doing in Yokohama? Worrying her mother? Being a burden on both her parents? Walking every square inch of her village while the children were in school? Spending hours on hours on one tiny dock staring at the sea? Not doing anything that anyone would consider useful, that’s for sure. “I didn’t finish school.”

Sensei nodded, as if this wasn’t unexpected. “You also didn’t take my calls for five years.”

Claudine suddenly felt like crying. Sensei was like an older sister to her. She took care of her when she was young, and Claudine had shut her out without an explanation, only to come back to Tokyo asking for favors right away. “I didn’t take anyone’s calls, not you, not Yachiyo, not-”

“It’s alright, I’m not mad,” said Sensei, apparently hearing her voice crack. “But I was worried. If I knew where you were I would have gone there myself.”

“Sensei, I um… I have to ask…”

Souda gave her permission to ask whatever question she had with a nod.

“I was surprised to hear you were teaching when I came back. Did… did you quit modeling for a reason similar to me?”

Souda-sensei pondered this question for a moment before answering. “The modeling industry is both wonderful and has a dark side beneath it. And as you can see I have not quit it entirely. No, I think the reason I quit was simply because as I got older I felt my role was to guide younger models rather than to stand in the spotlight myself.”

“I see. I’m glad then. I think you guide them well. Or at least, you guided Yachiyo and me well.”

Claudine gathered her things, letting Sensei know she needed to get home to have dinner with Maya that evening. Sensei walked her to the entrance.

“Saijou-san,” Sensei said, as they parted ways. “You don’t have to do this. You can stay gone. You can work here. You can go to school. If you don’t want to go back, I understand.”

“Thank you, Sensei,” said Claudine, and she meant it. “But with HANA, with Maya, with everything so far, it’s completely different from when I was younger. So I’m going to give it a try. Please support me.”

“I’ll support you both. Good night.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

Maya laughed a little at the picture of Hanayagi Kaoruko that Karen had uploaded to the HANA Instagram a few hours earlier. It was a picture of Kaoruko at a drafting table, poring over some fashion designs, and gave the impression that Kaoruko was as serious as they come, a fashion designer that slaved over her art and did not bother with the day-to-day minutia of running a large fashion house. Oh, what a deceptive picture that was.

“Oh, Kaoruko looks pretty there,” Claudine commented, peeping the picture from over Maya’s shoulder. Maya got the impression that Claudine was not a fan of being included in the social media herself, but she was always keen on complimenting others when the pictures were of someone else. It was a strange stance to take for someone who was a model known internationally.

A few weeks had passed and the fall line was in full rollout, and everyone was gearing up for the major pivot from print media to fall runway. There were still shoots to be had, of course, but the major focus was on arranging travel plans, booking venues, and placing already-produced print media in the correct locations to draw attention to HANA at the right time and place, in order to sell clothing and draw interest at fall fashion shows.

Maya and Claudine had a rare break from work that afternoon, and sat in the waiting room of the passport bureau office as Maya’s passport renewal was ready that day. After a short wait, she was called and handed her new passport, where in turn she had to pay the necessary fees. The man behind the counter stared at her with a strange recognition, and in what was becoming more and more familiar, she was beginning to realize that HANA’s aggressive marketing was working. She paid and thanked the clerk and let Claudine know they could leave.

“Pull your mask up,” Claudine nudged her as they left the municipal office.

“I am still getting used to this,” Maya said, adjusting the mask. She had yet to add the sunglasses and hat to her attire as Claudine did daily. “Let’s get something to drink before we go back.”

They had a meeting to discuss the upcoming runway shows that evening, and though there would be a catered meal, Maya was feeling like she needed something now.

“Fine,” Claudine grumbled, “But you better not make us late.”

Maya smiled below her mask. Claudine grumbled about a lot of things, daily almost, but she always went along with them. She followed Maya nearly everywhere, indulged in Maya’s whims for late night snacks (though she didn’t always partake), quickly learned how terrible Maya was with directions and cooking and a lot of other life skills and grumbled her way through assisting Maya with those as well.

They entered a cafe near the passport office, which was located just beyond the border of Ginza. The cafe was bustling with customers despite the afternoon hour, when many businesses were still in session. Claudine hung close to Maya as she approached the counter to order, Maya getting an iced green tea, and Claudine an iced coffee.

As they waited for their orders at the counter, Maya could feel Claudine’s eyes moving around the cafe, watching for customers moving towards them. To distract her, Maya pulled out her phone, pulling up another newly uploaded picture on the HANA Instagram. It was a photo of Claudine in profile, wearing a mesh-paneled long-sleeve maxi-dress as she draped herself over an armchair, leather boots hanging over the arm. With this photo, the second row was complete: Claudine, Kaoruko, and Maya from left to right, causing HANA’s vision to form into reality.

“Double posting is a little gauche,” said Claudine, for once a joking tone in her voice.

Their number was called and Maya grabbed their drinks, turning to leave.

“Is… is that you? Tendo-san?”

Maya had no time to look at who called for her as Claudine grabbed onto her wrist tightly and her attention was stolen away. She noticed over half the people in the coffee shop looking in their direction now.

“Oh my, it’s really her! Tendo Maya!” said one girl, shaking her friend in excitement.

“That means… that must be her. Saijou-san,” said a nearby patron to his friend. The mutterings were getting louder now, and while no one had approached them yet, the girls looked like they were working up the courage. Somewhere, there were certainly camera shutters going off.

“Saijou-san! I knew you’d come back!” said one man, who came from behind them and now stood barely a foot in front of them. Maya was afraid if Claudine squeezed her wrist any harder she would drop the cup in her hand. “My friends said ‘no way’, but I knew you’d make a comeback!”

Suddenly, there was a hand pulling Claudine’s open hand, taking the two of them out of the coffee shop. Leaving, thought Maya. It seemed so easy now. Why hadn’t she just pulled Claudine along and left? She followed along like a lost child until their savior sat them down on a bench in the lobby of an air conditioned building, tucked out of the way of the main traffic in and out.

Finally, she looked up, recognizing the face of a former classmate. “Koharu-san,” she said, realizing she was out of breath. “Thank you.”

Koharu looked a little embarrassed. “Well, it was my fault for calling your name to start with,” she said. “But you’re welcome. I guess we can have that catch-up after all,” she joked.

Maya looked at Claudine who was sitting on the bench silently, her hands tucked under her thighs and her hair falling forward to shield her face further. “Claudine,” she said, lightly tapping her cheek with the cold coffee.

Claudine pulled her hands out from under her legs, grabbing the coffee. She tucked her hair back as well, finally untucking her mask. Beneath it, her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes looked rather glassy.

“Saijou-san, I really apologize for making a scene,” said Koharu, bowing deeply. “I saw you with Maya and knew who you were, I should have known better.”

This seemed to shake Claudine back into her normal self some. “Oh, please don’t worry so much. It turned out alright,” Claudine said gently. “Now, I don’t think we’ve met?”

Maya was always impressed with Claudine’s ability to act like an older sister to newer girls in the industry, even at times like now when she was struggling. Maya struggled to hold a conversation, and she’d known Koharu for a couple years now.

“Yanagi Koharu,” she introduced, bowing again, but only briefly this time. “I am represented by the Seiran Agency. I attended training school with Maya.”

“Koharu-san, nice to meet you. You can call me Claudine if you’d like. I didn’t realize Maya had friends in the industry, so you must be really special.”

Koharu sat down, relaxing a bit now that introductions had been made. “Ah, I’m not that special, it’s just that we often were close in rankings in our training so we naturally became competitive.”

Claudine had an unreadable expression, raising her eyebrow a bit at this new information. “Well that’s not gone away at all, Maya’s just as annoyingly competitive now. I’m afraid her ego has grown ten sizes from the fans she's amassing,” Claudine teased.

“Well, my fans aside, your ‘fan’ was pretty scary,” said Maya.

“Thanks, Maya, I was really trying not to think about it. But… he was probably harmless,” Claudine said, in a voice that suggested she was mostly trying to convince herself.

Maya’s cell phone rang then, and Koharu swept Claudine back into distracting conversation again. Maya stood to answer it, walking a bit away.

“Hello? Ah, Isurugi-san.”

“Maya, what happened?” Futaba’s voice was deadly serious. “Are you and Claudine safe?”

“Yes, we’re fine. We ran into another model, and we got recognized, and this fan ended up pretty loud in our faces and scaring Claudine, but we got out of there… we’re at the Seiran agency now,” she said, reading the sign over the reception desk.

“Wait… hold on, there was someone in your face?”

“Yes… wait… why are you calling?” asked Maya, suddenly nervous.

“Oh gosh, it’s worse than I thought.” Then quieter, “No… just someone got up in their faces… no encouragement, I imagine, but still, in a coffee shop…”

Maya imagined she was explaining the situation to Kaoruko. “Sorry, Maya,” Futaba said after a moment. “There was a photo, or rather, several. Not bad photos, but just of the two of you in the coffee shop. Since you were identified by name and Claudine isn’t really disguised even with her mask, you’re now recognizable to anyone with internet. It’s pretty likely this will happen again.”

“No,” said Maya. “No, I don’t know what needs to happen, but that cannot continue to happen. Claudine was completely freaked out, and I- I didn’t know how to handle it either.”

“I understand. We can dedicate the first half of tonight’s meeting to figuring out how to deal with this. Then move on to runway matters. I’ll send a car to Seiran now.”

“Thanks, Isurugi-san.”

When she got back to the benches, Koharu had stolen her seat and her iced tea. “You know,” Koharu said, “Seiran is one of the companies in competition for the HANA contract for runway,” she said.

“Really?” asked Maya.

Koharu nodded. “You two might be able to carry your catalogue, but you can’t pull a runway show with two models. HANA has to outsource a bit there. All the agencies without a major contract already are bidding for the HANA contract to help with your runway shows. We could be seeing a lot more of each other soon. You could also meet Hisame and Suzu!”

“By the way, Claudine, Isurugi-san is sending a car now, we should get ready.”

“Of course. Thank you again, Koharu. It was nice to meet you.”

They said their goodbyes and rode back to HANA headquarters, a relatively short drive, but made longer by the masses of pedestrians leaving work. Claudine leaned her head on the window, quiet for the duration of the trip, and Maya imagined if she was home she would be out on the balcony, staring aimlessly at the bay.

When they got inside the HANA headquarters, they dashed into the bathroom to fix their hair and makeup ahead of the meeting. All of the excitement and the running had taken a toll on their appearance and though it was only a planning meeting, somehow it didn’t feel right going in unkempt if their role in the company was its top models.

When they made it to the meeting room, they were nearly the last to arrive. Dinner was spread out on the table, and various staff were taking plates and settling in to discuss runway shows, fashion week, travel plans, and how the fall campaign was coming along. The conversation dampened when Claudine and Maya walked in- apparently the news of the internet photos had leaked.

Claudine grabbed a plate and Maya followed suit, each taking their favorite foods and sitting beside Daiba Nana who gave them an encouraging smile. Karen came in soon after, for once not the normal ball of excited energy, her face deep in an article on her tablet.

“She’s reading about PR and social media,” Mahiru explained. “And about ten other topics. She’s like a sponge, really, she just gains information at a terrifying speed.”

Finally, Kaoruko and Futaba arrived and the meeting began. “Alright, eat up, we have a lot to cover today,” Kaoruko said, turning on her tablet and propping it up in front of her. “First of all, and most recently added to the agenda: our models have recently reached celebrity status, at least locally. We need to increase security in this building,” she gestured to Futaba to make notes, “while we’re travelling, and at events.”

She turned to Claudine and Maya. “Now as for your personal lives, this shouldn’t affect the two of you too much because I hear you’re huge homebodies, but you might have to utilize the online delivery apps a bit more these days. And the company car. Or get swarmed, up to you.”

Futaba lightly punched Kaoruko with a grunt, indicating that this was not the time to joke. Maya thought swarmed was a bit of an overstatement in most contexts, she knew she would still be able to go on her run or visit a busy tourist spot with no problem, but it might be a problem to go to a quiet restaurant or ride a train where there isn’t much to look at but the other passengers. She wondered if she should have gone into a more niche modeling sector, like her mother’s area of traditional Japanese fashion, where she could garner tremendous respect without worrying about being too recognizable to the masses. She supposed it was too late to worry about that.

“We will keep that in mind, thank you,” said Claudine.

“We will speak with the building manager as well,” added Futaba.

There was a bit more talk about the logistics of added security, but Maya mostly allowed herself to zone out as she ate dinner and watched the way Claudine’s perfect lips closed around perfect sized bites of her favorite kinds of sashimi.

At some point, the conversation shifted to the fall events, of which there would be four: HANA’s self-hosted fashion show, Tokyo Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week, and the Asia Women’s Fashion Runway show in Seoul. It would be a rapid five weeks from mid-September to mid-October, and then they would go right into shooting the winter line from the end of October to mid-November. In fact, they would be getting a few of the shoots done in between the runway shows when possible, so mostly the three weeks that they were not abroad.

The catalogue needed to be out by December 1, and promotional materials were going to go up sooner. The problem was, Maya and Claudine needed to walk the runway with their fall concept ‘looks’ and needed to have a fresh ‘look’ for winter, so it would be constant shuffling between concepts day by day.

“I want to say it’ll be easier in winter because there’s no more runway til spring, but Kaoruko always finds side projects to sneak in during the winter,” warned Junna. She was working hard with her tablet and a sketchbook side by side, drawing mockups for a pamphlet for guests at the HANA self-hosted show.

Claudine just nodded, taking it in stride.

“What are we going to call our runway show this year?” Hikari asked.

“You read my mind,” said Kaoruko. “That was next on the agenda. Something that brings out our concept… something very different from last year’s spring show… what did we do? Nobility?”

“Yes, last year was ‘Nobility’,” Mahiru confirmed.

“What about-” Karen paused as all eyes turned to her, realizing no one had expected her to speak up.

“No, go ahead,” said Kaoruko. “Mahiru and Hikari trained you up well, I’m sure you’ve got good ideas.”

“What about ‘Eclipse’?” she asked quietly.

The staff around the table considered the word, and Junna quickly drew a sketch of a logo concept involving an eclipse, the kanji, and the HANA logo.

Mahiru perked up then. “What if… since Kuro-san and Tendo-san are sort of even, and they don’t really ‘cover’ each other, we have a sun and a moon side of the venue? And each half gets a different limited program? We could even have a black and white split stage, or different chairs?”

The excitement level in the room rose as Mahiru continued to brainstorm ideas, and Maya began to grasp why she was their main events planner. She was more than just the girl who made their schedules. She was going to design an entire event around the concept that was ‘Maya and Claudine as HANA’.

Finally, after an eternity of planning, the HANA Eclipse show was planned, the intermittent winter shoots were scheduled, the Tokyo Fashion week details were worked out, and Paris and Seoul were put on the agenda for the next meeting in two days’ time.

It was quite dark by the time they got ready to go home, so Maya called for a car using the service Futaba set them up with. Claudine took a call while they were waiting, and Maya listened in to her half of the call.

“Hello?... Yes, this is she. Oh, hello Yakumo-san. Yes, you came highly recommended…. Oh, yes, I was hoping I had a bit more time before something like that happened…. Indeed. There have been some… incidents in the past. ….Yes, of course, I understand. I have some time off tomorrow evening, it’ll be later, though. We could meet after I finish work? ...Alright, text me the location. Goodbye.”

Maya looked at Claudine curiously as they got into the car, double checking the license plate as a precaution. “I’m getting an agent,” she explained.

“Incidents?” Maya asked.

“Nothing important.”

When they got home, Maya decided to go for her usual run, taking it more quickly than usual to shake off some of the adrenaline from earlier. As she approached the apartment, a light drizzle was coming down, cooling her off comfortably. When she got back to the apartment, she peeked onto the balcony to make sure Claudine wasn’t actually sitting out there in the rain, but her fears were unfounded. Claudine was professional enough to preserve her health for the sake of her work first and foremost. Instead, Maya found her sitting on her bed, her bedroom lights off, staring out the window at the river.

“Don’t you get sick of looking at the same thing?” Maya asked.

Claudine turned to her, her look relaxed and cute with her makeup washed off and her hair loose and unstyled. “It’s ironic,” she said, ignoring Maya’s question. “That the last runway show was called ‘Nobility’ and then Yukishiro Akira-san, Fumeoji Shiori-san, and Liu Mei Fan-san all quit HANA to join Edel, which means ‘noble’.” She laughed lightly.

There was too much blood in Maya’s limbs from her run, and not enough going to her brain. “You mean HANA’s previous models?” Maya hadn’t known their names, but she recognized Yukishiro Akira’s name. The former dancer. She was tall and striking, already making a name for herself in runway.

“Right,” Claudine confirmed. “What will ‘Eclipse’ bring?” she asked, almost as if the show had a mystical element to it.

Nothing, thought Maya. She was too straightforward to believe in superstitious things like those which Claudine was talking about. “Come on, let’s get ready for bed,” she said.

The following day, Claudine seemed to have forgotten her introspection, and was back to her professional demeanor as she and Maya attended some preliminary fittings for the runway shows, and for the winter line - though from Maya’s perspective, it was hard to garner any themes of what these garments were going to look like in completion.

In the afternoon, Claudine was whisked away to review some PR and interview materials with Futaba, and Maya’s schedule had a meeting with Kaoruko herself. Though she had been at the company for a couple months, Maya wasn’t sure if she had ever had a one-on-one with Kaoruko yet - she had always attended these with at least one other person, usually Claudine. So it was with some amount of trepidation that she ascended the elevator after lunch to Kaoruko’s office.

Kaoruko greeted her personally, seeing as Futaba, who’s desk was just outside, was away with Claudine. As always, the office was neat - likely no effort of Kaoruko’s, but rather that of a cleaning staff, or in worst case scenario, of Futaba. Maya sat stiffly on the small leather couch and accepted the tea that was offered to her by Kaoruko. Doing anything else would be rude, she figured.

“Would you like to try this daifuku, or are you one of those models who cannot spare an extra calorie?” challenged Kaoruko.

Maya raised an eyebrow just a hair, trying to control her expression. Was Kaoruko trying to get a rise out of her? Daifuku wasn’t her favorite in particular, and it was just after lunch, but she could tell from the package that this was a good product, brought in from Kyoto…

“I wouldn’t mind a piece,” she conceded politely, and in turn was given a light pink round confection, stamped with the HANA corporation’s distinctive sakura logo. “Ah, so your family deals in confectionery, as well,” she commented.

“The Hanayagi product mix covers more than you can even imagine,” Kaoruko said, sounding bored as she came back from setting the teapot down to sit in a chair across from Maya. “We sell everything from diapers to calculators to electric scooters to I-beams.”

“Don’t forget women’s fashion,” added Maya.

“Of course,” said Kaoruko, sipping her tea with grace. “How else would our lives intersect?” She set her cup down. “Though, I suppose you would be in the industry eventually, even if I didn’t hire you, with your pedigree and looks.”

Maya wondered if that was true. She wanted to deny it - wanted to say that Hikari’s unique proposal and Karen’s appeal and the contract with Saijou Claudine were the only things to bring her here, but really, would she be able to resist the constant nagging forever? That shadow cast over her from the moment she realized that even furthering her education as far as she could would never garner her mother’s acknowledgement. No, to get that she would need to completely change the trajectory of her life - to reject the bonds she shared with her father, or at least let them weaken as she pursued another path.

“Is that what you called me here to discuss, Hanayagi-san?” asked Maya.

Kaoruko seemed to notice Maya’s refusal to continue the current trajectory of the conversation, because a small smirk appeared on her face. Was she satisfied with the fact that she just made Maya lose her composure, if only slightly? Maya exhaled slowly. “I called you here because I have no idea who you are, Tendo-han.” She bit into the daifuku, leaving Maya to ponder this.

“...Who I am?” Maya stared at her own daifuku… elegantly stamped with the pink sakura, mark of the Hanayagi empire. Proof of Hanayagi Kaoruko's existence was all around her: this office, the blouse she was wearing, the confection on the table before her. Hanayagi Kaoruko left such an impression, there was no questioning "Who I am?" in her case. Maya's appetite was suddenly leaving her.

“Yes. You’ve been in my employment for two months and yet, I feel as though I don’t know you at all.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you want to know about me,” said Maya. She was reminded unwittingly of class introductions in school, something she always practiced ahead of time. This naturally reminded her of the company introductions. At the time, she had thought Claudine’s introduction was odd and inappropriate. Had Kaoruko actually preferred that? Claudine was the veteran in this field, she supposed.

“Ughh,” Kaoruko groaned. “I want to shake you! You’re so boring! I know that Futaba-han likes the inside of her eggs runny and not hard. I know that Karen often gets perfect scores at karaoke. I know that Nana- well, that’s a secret, but I know that Kuro-han and Tsuruhime Yachiyo-han had some sort of falling out-”

“That’s not true,” Maya said, and then wished she had held her tongue as soon as she saw the smirk on Kaoruko’s face grow.

“Ah, so you do have feelings.”

'Of course I have feelings,' Maya wanted to say. 'You didn’t have to bait me with a dirty trick like that.'

“Anyways, I suppose it’s for the best. If you’re able to maintain this level of composure, you’ll do well when you’re the Top Model in Japan.”

There was a lot to unpack in that statement, so Maya took the opportunity to finally bite the daifuku, even though the timing was awkward. Did Kaoruko believe she would make it to the Top? And with HANA? Did she think that Maya’s awkward personality was an asset? Maya swallowed with a sip of tea, and met Kaoruko’s eyes. “I suppose it’s better to show no weaknesses for anyone to exploit?” she asked.

“I suppose you could think of it that way. Personally, I found you a little boring at first, but somehow, I am finding you incredibly interesting now, Tendo-han.”

“If you do have any advice for me, I’d be happy to listen to it,” Maya said.

“Listen, but not necessarily take it, I see. Yes, you are intensely interesting, Tendo-san. No wonder she has an interest in you.”

“Pardon?”

“Kuro-han. She told me to watch out for you. She’s worried that now that you’re both popular, you’re too naïve and will get yourself into trouble. On the contrary, I think you’ll do fine.”

“And her?”

Kaoruko shrugged. “She’s smart, but ten years is a long time in this industry.”

“That was it, then? There was no point to this meeting?”

“On the contrary, Tendo-han! I gained a lot from this. Hmm, perhaps I’ll make you my muse! We can have tea more often. I’ll draw you in the most perfect outfits. Yes, I think this is a good arrangement. I’ll let Mahiru-han know.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

“HANA Fashion House is accessible to the average… well, maybe slightly above average Japanese woman,” said Kaoruko, leading a meeting of a smaller group working on the Eclipse show. “We have the same style and quality as some of the higher end brands, but we make everyday pieces. Our classic blouse, our tailored slacks, our cropped jacket – people know us for these pieces, they recognize them on sight. But that’s not what Eclipse is for. Eclipse is to show off our crown jewels, all the fun projects we’ve been working on all season. Eclipse is haute couture.”

Karen gasped, apparently truly surprised at this revelation, and the note of irony in Kaoruko’s tone at the French phrase slipped right over her head, Claudine was sure.

For Claudine’s part, she stifled a yawn, sipping her iced coffee as she tried not to roll her eyes at how Tendo Maya was attentively noting everything that was said. It was a self-hosted runway show, of course they were going to pull out their exclusive and unique pieces. How stupid would they look strutting down the runway in the classic blouses everyone had seen before? For her part, at least, she was intrigued by what Hikari, Kaoruko, and the rest of the designers could pull out when they weren’t bound by the constraints of budget, mass production and mass appeal.

HANA was a new fashion house, not present at the runway shows when she was a child, and while technically not allowed to call itself haute couture in the strictest sense due to the designer’s lack of notoriety, there had definitely been some whisperings about the prodigiousness of both Kaoruko and Hikari’s work.

As the conversation continued, and Hikari and Kaoruko began showing off various concept drawings to the ‘oohs and ahhs’ of the gathered staff. While the change to couture was distinct, Claudine could certainly feel that they were sticking hard to the theme of ‘Eclipse’ - a Sun and a Moon, light and darkness, and a fairly monochrome palette. Not that it bothered her much. She watched the proceedings idly, and half-watched Maya take it all in, a hobby that seemed to be just as amusing.

Maya was taking notes, snapping pictures on her phone, and even mouthing key phrases back to herself as Kaoruko spoke them, as if to commit them to memory. She was nothing if not a hard worker, Claudine had to admit. It was the kind of thing Claudine was not used to. First, when Claudine had begun working, she was too young to bring to these types of meetings, so she was briefed on set. Later, when she was older, she was such a pro at the proceedings that she never found it necessary to ‘study’ in this way. It was fascinating, and a little intimidating, to see someone approach the show with such studiousness. She figured she better bring her best as well.

Claudine’s phone vibrated and she dared to look at it under the table. It was an alert from Instagram. Karen had posted a photo of her from earlier in the week, wearing a HANA classic sheath dress (in black, of course), staring out one of the studio windows. In all honesty, she didn’t realize Karen had captured the shot, and she was a little annoyed, but it wasn’t a bad photo. Her hair was clipped up, waiting for the stylists to finish, but her makeup was done. Instantly, the comments began to fill in real time. ‘Claudine, my love!’ ‘Marry me!’ ‘<3<3<3<3’ ‘Ugh, how is she still relevant?’ ‘FIRST’ ‘I love you Claudine!!!’ ‘Show more Maya, I’m sick of Claudine’.

Claudine was stopped from reading more by Maya, who grabbed her wrist and stopped her from scrolling through the comments. Maya looked up at Kaoruko, indicating they should be paying attention to the meeting. Claudine wondered if she was just being a hardass, or if she knew what Claudine had been looking at. Either way, Claudine turned off her screen and returned to the present.

Once the meeting was over, she could see others checking their phones, and wondered if they also read the comments. It was chilly that evening, so she slipped on her jacket, pulling up the hood, and donning her usual mask before exiting the building.

“We should get home and get home and get to bed,” said Maya, walking with her to the train station.

“Sure,” said Claudine, not sure what Maya was implying.

Maya didn’t respond again until they were waiting on the train platform a few minutes later.

“You just seemed a little out of it at the meeting. We need to be in top condition going into these shows,” said Maya.

“Of course I’ll be in top condition. I don’t need you to take care of me!” she bit back. She bit her lip under her mask, secretly concerned about who else on the staff thought that she didn’t look to be in top form. Was Maya going to overtake her? Had Maya already overtaken her? But what was she thinking? Maya hadn’t even been in a major show yet…. Show more Maya, I’m sick of Claudine. The comment returned to her memory.

“Then I’m relieved,” said Maya. “But I’m tired myself.”

Claudine rode home next to Maya, staring out the window, but not really seeing any of the scenery. Why was she even concerned with Maya ‘overtaking’ her anyways? Did she really care about this job, and by extension, her popularity, that much? She hated when people recognized her in public, didn’t she? What would it matter if Tendo Maya became the most popular model in all of Japan, leaving Saijou Claudine behind to wither?

She felt Maya nudge her, indicating that it was time for them to get off. They stopped at the convenience store closest to their building for dinner. Luckily, it was mostly empty when they visited, and they could browse in peace. Maya went on her usual evening run while Claudine heated up the food, they ate, and somehow, it was bedtime before Claudine knew it. Her days had become: work, eat, work, eat, sleep. She wasn’t sure where Maya found extra time for workouts, making fancy teas, reading novels, but it was enough that Claudine could put together a presentable outfit each morning.

In the middle of the night, Claudine woke with a start. She could feel her phone vibrating under her pillow and groped at it in the dark. “Hello?” she said, forgetting to check the caller ID.

“Claudie, baby, I’m so glad you picked up!”

Claudine’s chest tightened with fear at hearing her mother’s voice. “Maman, what’s wrong?”

“Everything is ok, we… we had to go to the hospital. Your father’s breathing was getting worse and the oxygen at home wasn’t helping enough, so we needed to get him on a better machine at the hospital.”

“You’re at the hospital? Which one?”

“Oh, no, Claudine! It’s the middle of the night, and you have shows coming up, even if you don’t tell me, I watch the news and I remember the busy seasons from before.”

“It doesn’t matter, I’m putting my shoes on now.”

“We’re going to be fine, Claudine. Please, stay in Tokyo. I just wanted to let you know so you didn’t call your father and wonder why he wasn’t picking up.”

Claudine took a few seconds to calm her breathing, trying to convince herself that her mother wasn’t lying. “And the bill?”

“We will manage. And I’ve gotten the checks you’ve sent so far, so we can use that, but honestly honey, you don’t need to do that. Buy yourself something. Are you eating enough? Your father said the apartment did look nice…”

“Don’t worry about me, mom, I can send more money if you need.” Claudine could hear shuffling in the next room and knew she woke Maya. “Or I can just get a ticket, it’ll be a short ride…”

“I think we might be transferring to a hospital near Yokosuka tomorrow. There’s a specialist that was recommended. That’s almost two hours by train. Stay in Tokyo, I’ll call every day to keep you updated.”

“Alright. Tell them to give dad a room with a nice view of the water, at least.”

Claudine heard her mom give a tired laugh. “Of course. Well, try to get a little more sleep. I love you, and so does your father.”

“I love you too, goodnight.”

Claudine sighed, knowing she wasn’t going to get back to sleep. She slipped on her robe and walked out to the kitchen, unsure of what to do with the hours of time before work started. Perhaps she could brew one of Maya’s teas, or read one of Maya’s books. Perhaps she could go on one of Maya’s runs.

Unsure, she found herself standing at the kitchen counter for several minutes, which is how Maya discovered her when she emerged from her bedroom, looking rather cute in her pajamas with no makeup and slightly disheveled hair.

“Is everything alright?” Maya asked, with the tone of someone who knew everything was not alright, but was raised in a family where topical, and not probing, questions were the norm.

“It’s fine,” Claudine said. She tried to swallow down the information she just received over the phone, unsure why she didn’t want to share it with Maya. It wasn’t as if she didn’t trust Maya - if fact, she trusted Maya a great deal. It was more of the fact that she didn’t want Maya’s pity, and more importantly, she felt that saying the words aloud would make them more ‘real’. “My mom called with some news from home, but everything’s ok.”

Maya looked at Claudine with an expression indicating that she didn’t quite believe Claudine, but she would let it slide for now, and then turned to start the coffee machine. “I’m glad everything’s ok,” she said.

Claudine’s phone buzzed before Maya could add anything more, and she reached for it with ferocious speed. It turned out to be an Instagram alert, and not a notification from her mother, but Claudine opened it anyways for the distraction. She noticed how Maya watched her desperately check her phone, but didn’t comment on it. The post Karen put up was one of a solar eclipse, announcing the HANA self-hosted runway show’s theme. “She posts at the oddest hours,” Claudine said.

“Hey… do you want to go get breakfast?” asked Maya.

“What?”

“Want to leave the apartment for a bit and go get breakfast? We have a lot of time before work.”

“Oh… sure.”

Claudine got dressed, unsure of why exactly she was spending so much time with her hair and her outfit when she was just going out with Tendo Maya, and they set off for Odaiba.

It quickly became apparent that not much was open so early in the morning, and they got food from one of the only options available, a vendor just inside the station, and sat out at the park near the cruise terminal.

“Why did we come to Odaiba, Maya?” asked Claudine. “We’re farther away from work now.”

“Yeah, but the water is all around us now. I thought that might cheer you up.”

“Who said I needed cheering up?” she challenged. “Besides, I don’t know if it cheers me up or brings me down, to be honest.”

“Oh, is that Saijou Claudine?” called a voice from across the park. Claudine didn’t stiffen as she usually did because the voice was female and shy-sounding. She turned to see Yumeoji Shiori. With her were two other Edel models: Yukishiro Akira, and Liu Mei Fan. A short manager was beside them, perhaps in charge of getting them where they needed to go, but her attention was buried in her smartphone. A second handler or manager also seemed to be with them, but she was talking on the phone and wandered away a bit, which seemed to be fine as the park was empty in the dawn hours.

“Good morning,” Claudine said, standing and bowing to greet the new guests. Maya stood beside her.

“Good morning, Saijou-san, and is that… Tendo-Maya-san?” asked Shiori. Introductions were made all around, and Claudine took note of Akira, the current top model of Siegfeld. Where she went, the others followed, it seemed. She carried herself regally, and there was something… Maya-like about her presence, if Claudine was honest. The shorter girl beside them was Otori Michiru, the name familiar to Claudine as she had been the one acting as Yachiyo’s informant.

“What brings you here?” she asked, addressing Shiori, with whom she was most familiar.

“We have a job today, at one of the art exhibits here in Odaiba,” explained Shiori. “We’re-”

“Kuro? Is that you?”

Claudine finally paid more attention to the person who had been speaking on her cell phone. She had a hood drawn up around her face, and was wearing rather casual clothes, but there was no mistaking it - before her was Yachiyo.

“It’s me,” she said, rolling her eyes a bit. She introduced Maya to Yachiyo after a moment, realizing that the two had never actually met, and learned a bit more about Siegfeld’s job that morning. They were to model the latest winter designs of Siegfeld, in some of the TeamLab exhibit halls with endless mirrors, lights, flowers, and other projections and incredible designs. Both Maya and Claudine were curious about the project and kept asking questions, until Yachiyo made the Edels keep the rest of the details secret.

“Let’s talk about you two instead,” she said. “That’s all Japan wants to do anyways, according to my Instagram,” Yachiyo teased.

“That’s not true,” Claudine said. “That picture of Akira on Siegfeld’s Twitter went viral last week.”

“So you do keep track!” Yachiyo said. She turned to Michiru. “I told you! She acts clueless, but she knows!”

Michiru only shrugged, her eyes fixed on her phone screen.

“You really ought to get a personal account, Maya,” suggested Liu Mei Fan. “Even if the staff run it. It will definitely help with your popularity and help with jobs down the line. I was surprised when I saw you didn’t have one!”

“Oh, I will ask the staff about it, thank you” said Maya.

Soon enough, it was time for the Edels to start their job and time for Maya and Claudine to head to Ginza for their work. Before leaving, Yachiyo leaned in, so only Claudine could hear her. Claudine watched as Maya noticed their exchange but tried to give them some discretion.

“Listen, Kuro… I heard a rumor. I didn’t get Michiru to look into it yet, but I heard something about Kirin being back in town…” said Yachiyo, her whisper trailing off.

“What a nasty start to this day,” Claudine grumbled, her voice a little louder than Yachiyo’s. Noticing Maya’s gaze, she dropped back to a whisper. “You or Michiru don’t need to look into anything. Forget you heard anything about it,” she said, her voice firm enough that Yachiyo nodded, despite seeming like she wanted to protest.

They said goodbye and parted ways, exchanging numbers before doing so. It felt strange to exchange numbers with the models who had worked at HANA before she did, so she made a mental note not to mention it to Kaoruko.

“What did Yachiyo say?” Maya asked directly as they rode the bus back into Ginza.

“Nothing important. She’s trying to make a big deal out of something from the past.”

Maya looked more disappointed than Claudine expected to have Claudine avert her answer. “Yachiyo and you seem very close,” she said, “I’m glad.”

Maya’s expression didn’t exactly give the impression of being glad, but it was hard to tell with her mask on. Was she suspicious of Yachiyo? Jealous? Claudine almost laughed. To want a friendship with her, it was nearly comical. Maya had Koharu, why would she want to be Claudine’s friend?

“Yes, I suppose we are,” Claudine replied at last. “For several years, Yachiyo and I were the only underage models at our agency.” She bit her lip under her mask, deciding how much she wanted to talk about the past today. “Then Yachiyo finished the last years of her career with Edel, so it was just me.”

They were approaching Ginza, at least.

“Do you keep in touch with anyone else from before?” asked Maya.

Claudine had expected her to ask why Yachiyo left, but then she remembered that Maya did not pry into people’s lives. She only asked minimally invasive questions as she was doing now. “Just Souda-sensei,” Claudine replied. She laughed a little. “She was still a teenager when we met. Now pay attention, it’s time to get off.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

Karen stood outside of Hikari’s office. Well, Karen had been standing outside of Hikari’s office for about fifteen minutes. From the small window in the door, she could see Hikari leaning over her drafting table, and didn’t want to disturb her in case she was intensely focused on a new design.

But really, that was just an excuse.

She was afraid.

Karen had been an intern at HANA for six months, and then was hired on as a full time employee about two months ago. She had spent much of that time with Hikari. In that time, she could see the change in Hikari, and she wanted to offer her support, but she wasn’t sure if her words would be the words Hikari needed to hear. She wasn’t sure if they were close enough yet for that, or if someone like herself could understand the struggle of a creative genius like Hikari. Plus, there was that other matter she wanted to ask about…

She shook her head, steeling herself. No, it didn’t matter how much Karen was uncomfortable. Hikari was struggling and Karen could try to offer support. As for Karen’s curiosity, well, that took a backburner to Hikari’s concerns.

With a slow exhale, Karen knocked on Hikari’s office door.

“Come in,” Hikari said, not turning away from the large sketchbook propped up at her drafting table. It was well after dark, and well after most of the design staff had left for the evening. Hikari had been working on a design over a sketch of a model that looked like Claudine, the dress still incomplete but already striking.

Besides Hikari’s drafting table was a large bookshelf with all sorts of reference materials: books on design and fashion, but also on military history, rock and roll music, and samples of various fabrics and accouterments. Hikari sat mostly in the dark, just a lamp lighting her desk and sketchbook.

“Hikari-chan, it’s Karen,” Karen announced herself. Entering the office, she was standing behind Hikari’s back, and Hikari hadn’t bothered to turn around since allowing Karen to enter. Hikari hadn’t been bothering with much of anything lately, aside from work, and the occasional (or not occasional) trips to the bar afterwards.

“You can sit on the couch,” Hikari said, waving a lazy free hand toward the small couch in the corner, half-piled with garments and magazines.

“No, Hikari,” said Karen, clenching her fists. “I’m here to talk to you.”

Hikari put down her pencil, only then, finally, turning around.

Hikari nodded her head, geturing Karen follow her to the small door on the far side of her office, past the second, low bookcase that held potted plants and an electric kettle, out onto a tiny balcony, overlooking a small side street in Ginza, several stories below. The other large corporate building across the street looked so close that Karen could touch it, though of course that was an illusion. Hikari leaned against the rail and lit a cigarette, and Karen spied an ashtray that indicated Hikari’s habit was on the upswing lately. Hikari took an inhale from the cigarette, blew out the smoke into the calm night air, and then looked at Karen as if to say, ‘Well?’

“Your plants are dying,” said Karen. She honestly wasn’t sure where to begin this conversation, and this was just something she noticed as she was following Hikari out to the balcony.

Hikari nodded, acknowledging this fact. “I don’t have time to take care of things like that,” she said.

“Hikari-chan, what’s wrong?” Karen watched the way Hikari pulled on the cigarette in desperation, and had been watching the way her already lean form seemed to be whittling away. People might call Hikari a genius, but that title came with pressure, Karen came to understand, and a tremendous amount of work. Her designs didn’t just produce themselves from thin air.

“Nothing is wrong,” Hikari said. “I just need to get these submissions to Kaoruko before the deadline next week.”

Karen dug her nails into her palms harder. It was hard to speak up to someone who highly outranked her, but… it was Hikari. “I know I’m new this year, so I don’t know how things usually go in the fall, but I spoke with Mahiru, and she said that you seemed unusually stressed, even for the busy season.”

There was a twinge of annoyance detectable in Hikari’s sharp jaw when Karen mentioned that she had spoken with Mahiru. Hikari put out the butt of the first cigarette and reached for a second, but Karen grabbed her wrist, finally meeting her eyes properly. Instead of frustration, Karen thought she saw fear for a moment.

Finally, Hikari relaxed her wrist, and Karen let go. Hikari seemed to have lost all of her fight, and sat on the ground of the small balcony. Karen sat beside her, and with both of them sitting, they took up nearly all the space, aside from the small table that held an ashtray and another dying plant. Mesh grates held up the rail, but it was hard to see out of them now that it was after dark. Karen wondered if anyone would ever find them if they just stayed sitting out here.

“My designs were rejected,” Hikari said slowly, after a long silence. Her voice was hollow, but then she laughed a little. “I think that’s the first time I told anyone. I took care that none of the design staff found out, so I think only Kaoruko, who rejected them, and probably Futaba, who knows everything, know.”

“Rejected?” Karen asked. She wanted to understand, but she couldn’t imagine anything Hikari designing being bad.

“My designs for the fall runway are all things I had ready, they’re good to go, but the final selections for the winter lines, several of my submissions were rejected. I need to redo them by next week.”

“And that’s why you’ve been here every hour you can?”

Hikari smirked. “Well, aside from when I can drag someone to the bar, yeah.”

“But Hikari, you have no problem coming up with ideas, what’s going on?”

Hikari turned away, looking at the dead plant on the table. “We have the theme set for winter. We’re continuing with the ‘cosmos’ theme set by Eclipse in the fall, with the winter catalogue is called ‘Life on Mars’, so we will be using earth tones mixed with water, or vice versa. The problem is I’m having somewhat of a block… I can’t create anything, let alone anything good.”

She turned back to Karen, and Karen was unprepared for the vulnerability in Hikari’s expression. She looked close to tears. “What if I’m finished?” she asked. “What if a few years of good designs were all I had in me?” she asked, clutching on to Karen’s hand. “They’ve all been ripped off now, anyway, sold at the fast fashion places for bargain prices. I have no legacy.”

Karen smiled gently, trying to calm Hikari down. “Of course you’re not finished,” she assured her. “You have plenty of years of designs ahead of you. And the fact that those companies copy you means that you do already have a legacy, Hikari-chan. But we need to get you past this block. When did it begin?”

Hikari tried to calm down her breathing, and closed her eyes, as if trying to recall when her designs began to struggle. “Before we began this campaign, before we hired the new models. When… oh god. When Akira left.”

“Oh, Hikari… was Akira your muse?” Karen could see this theory as making sense, as Akira looked stunning in Hikari’s distinct velvet/punk/military regalia combination standark sort of designs in the same way that Liu Mei Fan and Shiori always looked incredible in Kaoruko’s designs of traditional Japanese elements reworked into modern and cleanly tailored designs.

But Hikari just shook her head, looking rather shocked, as if she had just made a revelation that perhaps she should have made months ago. “It’s my rule,” she said quietly.

“What?” asked Karen, wanting to understand, but falling behind.

“Keeping the models in-house, on contract, it’s my rule. It’s how I do my best work. We used to use agency models, but I asked Kaoruko to change it, so I could have a consistent reference for my designs. But I- I- wonder if my stupid rule was the reason Akira and Kaoruko got in that spat and the summer line was ruined.” She did take out another cigarette now, lighting it up from where she sat on the ground. “And even so, Kaoruko still respected my wishes and got two more models in-house for this year.”

Hikari held her forehead up with her hand, slowly puffing on the second cigarette. Karen wasn’t sure how to respond. She had been around when the models left for the Edel agency, certainly, but she was just an intern then, and wasn’t privy to the details of the conflict. Still… to see Hikari struggling like this - Karen had to do something to help, and well, to save the winter line.

“Don’t worry,” Karen said gently. “I’ll fix this. You just focus on getting your designs ready, and I’ll do the rest.”

Hikari looked up at Karen as if she had grown a second head. “What is there to fix?” she asked. “What’s done is done. I ruined our last contract, and I’m likely going to ruin this one.”

To be honest, Karen didn’t know how she was going to ‘fix’ anything, so she didn’t answer. “You know, Hikari,” she said. “This is really silly, probably, but I wanted to ask you a question.”

“Ok,” Hikari said, sounding defeated, but like nothing would really bother her after the realization she just had.

“Well… when I was a kid… I had a neighbor who moved to London…”

Hikari looked at Karen like she was saying something strange, but Karen continued tentatively. “I mean, I was only about five when this happened, but my neighbor, she had your eyes and hair, and I was really shy… the girl I was thinking of would always be drawing new fashion sketches like you, though.”

Hikari seemed to be in her own world, or perhaps she was trying to remember. Finally, after a moment, she mumbed a few words that Karen had to struggle to hear. “Pretty… rhythm… handheld…” Hikari said, and Karen nodded, then blushed.

“I think most girls want to become idols after playing Pretty Rhythm,” she said. “But for me, it was always fashion.” She smiled. “Ah, so it was you. I’m glad I found you again, Hikari-chan. Please, give me a day or two, I promise to help.”

The next day Karen got up, remembering her promise to Hikari, but unsure of how she was going to make good on it. She felt that the answer had to do with Yukishiro Akira, so she felt like she needed to get to Siegfeld Fashion House, where she was most likely to run into Akira. She had a feeling that Kaoruko wouldn’t appreciate Karen skipping a day of work just to talk to a former employee she had an issue with, so this mission would have to be done in secret. It was very much to her luck when she overheard Claudine say she would meet Tsuruhime Yachiyo that evening.

“Kuro-chan!” called Karen, greeting Claudine who was reviewing some notes in a meeting room while drinking a coffee, a half-eaten pastry beside her.

“Karen, good afternoon,” she said, looking surprised to see Karen there. And perhaps it was strange, as Karen’s work usually only connected them when Claudine was actually modeling something.

“Hi, this is… sort of strange, but I have a request,” she said, sliding into a seat near Claudine’s.

Claudine closed the packet of papers she was reviewing, giving Karen her full attention.

“I need to get to Siegfeld to talk to Yukishiro Akira, or well, whoever is in charge of the company, or in charge of the Edels. I’m not sure really. I just need to get there. And well, I heard you were going there to talk to Tsuruhime-san, and I thought maybe you could help me get in…” Karen’s cadence of speaking slowed down towards the end, her voice growing higher in pitch as she watched the skepticism on Claudine’s face grow.

“You want me to help you sneak into Siegfeld so you can accost their top model or maybe their creative director for god knows what reason? Did you think about what kind of press that would bring HANA?” she asked. “Thank god you came to me instead of just trying this yourself…”

Karen felt her face redden. Hearing her ‘plan’ laid out, it was just plain embarrassing. There was no way that she would be taken seriously. Claudine was right, she would just bring trouble to HANA. But of course Claudine was right, she had over ten years of experience in the industry. She must understand the subtle intricacies of what Karen was trying to help Hikari with. And so Karen told Claudine everything, ending with a bow that slid her chair back several inches, and a “Please!” that she hoped sounded as sincere as she meant it.

With a sigh, Claudine pulled out her phone, gesturing for Karen to get up from her bow. Lazily she flipped through the contacts with perfectly manicured nails. “You really care about your friend, don’t you?” she asked Karen, as she brought the phone up to her ear. “I can appreciate that.” She waited for the other person to pick up, then continued. “Yes, Yachiyo, it’s me. …What? No, I’m fine, honestly you worry too much. I’m calling for a favor, actually. …The coffee date we have tonight, can you see if you can bring Michiru? I’m bringing someone from my company as well. Aijou Karen. …Yes, thank you. Alright, 5:30. Bye.”

“Michiru?” Karen asked, trying to see if saying the name would trigger any memory. Siegfeld was an extremely large and well-known fashion house, but still, the name didn’t ring any bells.

“She knows everything. You want dirt, she’s got it,” Claudine assured her.

And so, under the premise of accompanying Claudine to her afternoon interview for social media purposes, they set off together. Karen learned that the papers Claudine was reviewing were questions she was liable to be asked in the interview, and some reasonable answers, and the two of them turned up in a small studio just outside of Ginza. Karen was allowed to wait in the studio while the interview took place, and watched as Claudine ‘transformed’ once the cameras turned on, and once the interviewer began recording her responses.

“Well, we are certainly glad to see you back again,” the interviewer said, straightening his suit as he compared his appearance to Claudine, who today wore a teal tunic dress and suede boots. “What brought you out of retirement?”

Claudine smiled, as if thanking him for the question. “After my childhood, I took some time off to enjoy with my family. I wasn’t sure if I would ever come back. But the right opportunity came to me, so I am very excited to work with HANA and Tendo-san this year.”

“Yes, we are very excited to see the Eclipse show next month! The ads for the ready-to-wear clothing have us all excited already, what can we expect from the couture?”

“Well I can’t spoil anything,” said Claudine, “But it will be a show full of contrasts. If you are familiar with Hanayagi-san and Kagura-san’s designs, the fundamental elements will be there, but instead of more of the same, the Eclipse element brings in a new factor: two opposing forces. In a way, it becomes Hanayagi’s traditional yet modern elements vs. Kagura’s edgy yet historical elements.”

“I know you haven’t given away much, but I am already on the edge of my seat. Tell me a little bit about your partner, the newcomer Tendo Maya.”

“Of course. Tendo-san is a professional in all aspects of the word. I could not believe that she had never held a professional contact before. In the ‘Eclipse’, she represents the ‘light’ concept, and she is truly radiant. As someone just coming back into the industry, she challenges me to be my best and to reach higher every day.”

The interview continued for a while longer, but after the questions and the photographs were completed, Claudine and Karen continued a short walk west of Ginza to a coffee shop just next door to an art museum. Purchasing their drinks, they walked up to the second floor seating area, which was both much quieter, and had better viewing of the street below. Selecting a table in the very corner, Karen sat with Claudine, waiting for Yachiyo and hopefully, Michiru.

After about ten minutes, both girls arrived, Yachiyo wearing a navy sheath dress and Michiru wearing a black trench coat, despite the relatively mild temperature. It was Karen’s first time meeting her, and she admired the bold fashion statement she made between her coat, her bobbed haircut, and her rather diminutive stature (though this was likely less of a fashion statement and more of a fact of nature).

They exchanged introductions, and Karen learned that Michiru was a fashion designer at Siegfeld, much like Yachiyo was. Claudine blushed. “I thought you were an Edel manager or something,” she said, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” said Yachiyo, “That’s the impression she likes to give. She’s one of those designers who likes their designs to remain anonymous, it’s annoying.”

“Are… are you close with the Edel models then?” asked Karen, suddenly feeling shy as the person at the table with, by far, the least industry experience.

“I’m friends with Akira, Liu Mei Fan, and Shiori” Michiru offered, “And I am friends with other Edel models as well.”

“I hope I’m not imposing, but the reason I asked Claudine to ask Yachiyo to ask you here today, well, it’s about Akira and my friend Hikari.”

An amused sort of smile crept onto Michiru’s face, and Karen had a feeling it was not due to Karen’s poor sentence structure. “Ah, the ‘genius designer’.... Sure, what can I help you with?” she asked.

“Well, I just wanted to find out the truth. About why Akira and the others left HANA. Was it because of HANA’s policy of not wanting agency models? Or was it something else? Please, the answer is really important.”

Michiru took a long sip from her drink, leaning over the table to peer at Karen more closely. “It’s really important? Like, if I don’t tell you, then HANA won’t be able to finish the winter line because this answer is plaguing Kagura-san so much it’s causing an artistic block?”

Karen felt the blood draining from her face. How did this girl garner all of that from the small amount that she had said? She nodded, just subtly, just once.

Michiru smiled, like a cat. “Then perhaps I shouldn’t say a thing, because that would be good for Siegfeld.”

“Come on, Karen, we’re leaving. This little imp is just playing games.” Claudine stood up, but Karen stayed seated. Yachiyo looked back and forth between Claudine and Michiru as if unsure whether or not to intervene.

“Even if she’s playing games,” Karen said slowly, forcing herself to meet Michiru’s eyes, “Even so, I need to play the game. I need the answer. I made a promise.”

Something seemed to soften in Michiru’s eyes upon hearing the word ‘promise’, and Claudine sat back down with a small huff.

“I made a promise, too,” Michiru said. “To Akira, when we were just kids. That she would be the top of Siegfeld. And I would get her there with my designs.” Michiru sighed. “But things got in the way. First her ballet lessons got more serious than I think she intended. That’s how Akira is - she just excels at anything she tries. So she was busy with ballet our whole childhood, performing all over the country with her company. Then she switched to modeling in her late teens, but I was still training then, I was powerless to help her. By the time I got to Siegfeld, I had to work my way up. It was only last summer when I got in a position where I could select the models I wanted for our campaigns. So I chose her. I stole her. It has nothing to do with contracts or agencies or anything. Akira was just fulfilling a promise we made almost fifteen years ago.”

“Aijou-san, are you crying?” asked Yachiyo, handing her a handkerchief.

Karen used it to dry her eyes, unable to contain her tears. “I’m sorry, it’s just, Michiru, that’s so lovely! I’m so glad you two could make the promise come true!”

Michiru laughed lightly. “Yeah, try explaining that to Hanayagi.”

They changed to lighter topics then, like Yachiyo harassing Claudine for looking too tired during their coffee date. “I have had the worst sleep schedule lately,” Claudine complained.

“I never sleep well,” Yachiyo agreed, “But I’ve been using these lately. Good for a pick-me-up, but you can’t take too many at once or you’ll get too jittery.” She held up a bottle of caffeine pills for inspection.

“Honestly I might need to pick up a bottle, I’m pretty wiped every time I do a shoot,” Claudine complained, taking a picture with her phone. “And runway’s going to be even worse…”

After the coffee date, Claudine and Karen walked back to the company headquarters, Karen to meet with Hikari, and Claudine to meet with Maya. “Can we stop in here? I’ll be five minutes!” asked Karen, as they passed a small flower shop. Claudine shrugged, acquiescing, and Karen dashed in.

About twenty minutes later, she found herself outside of Hikari’s office once again. “I’m coming in,” she said, knocking and then pushing the door open herself. This time she found Hikari on the couch, flipping through a book somewhat listlessly.

“I got you a present,” offered Karen, setting the fertilizer packets and new watering can on the shelf beside the listing plants.

“Thanks,” said Hikari, her voice dull.

“And I got you good news. I talked to Otori Michiru today.”

Hikari’s eyes lit up. “Hierophant?” she asked. “You met her?”

“Hier-o-phant?” asked Karen.

“She’s an elusive designer said to be the genius of Siegfeld. Well… Tsuruhime is up there, too, now. But I’m a personal fan of Hierophant. I can’t believe you met her. She never goes out in public!”

“She hangs with the Edel models a lot. Kuro-chan knows her.”

Hikari’s eyes widened, as if taking in this new information. “I might have to spend more time with Kuro-san…”

“But that’s not why I’m here!” Karen said, “When I talked to Michiru, I learned the truth about Akira’s departure.”

Karen explained about the promise, watching as Hikari’s eyes widened in surprise, and then understanding. “So it’s like that,” she said, smiling softly. “I’m relieved.”

“Yes, you don’t have to worry,” Karen said. “You can work on your designs with Kuro-chan and Maya-san, and not worry.”

“You know, suddenly, I’m really hungry,” Hikari said, laughing a bit. “Why don’t we water my plants, and then call Mahiru and see if she wants to get curry?”

“Teppanyaki!”

“Mahiru is deciding vote.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

“What do you mean?” asked Maya.

“I mean you need a ‘handle’, something that people will recognize as you in online platforms,” said Karen. She smiled patiently as she explained this, pushing Maya’s smartphone back across the table to her. “Like how we’re @HouseHANA, people know it’s us when they see that. We can’t just use @HANA because Hanayagi-san’s parent companies share a name and it might be confused with some of his other enterprises.”

“Can I use Tendo Maya?”

“I already explained, someone made a fanpage for you and already took the handle @TendoMaya.”

“So someone imitating me stole my name?”

“They’re not trying to be you, they’re just a fan.”

Maya sighed, already frustrated with this process. She tried ‘thisisTendoMaya’ and the name was available. With a small laugh, she decided to keep it, and continued setting up the account.

“Just out of curiosity, what’s Claudine’s account named?” she asked.

“Oh, Claudine got her account in Instagram’s infancy. She has @Claudine.”

“You really think this is the right move?” she asked Karen, as she uploaded one of the photos the staff had sent her as a profile picture.

“Oh, definitely. Great timing too, with the show this weekend.”

It was true, the Eclipse show was that weekend. They had a rehearsal in one of the photo studios in the building that had been transformed to represent the event space that afternoon.

When Maya walked in, she almost laughed. Mahiru had draped half the room in black and half in white. The runway itself down the middle was black and smattered with stars like a night sky. The staff ushering in guests and handing out programs were wearing eclipse-viewing glasses.

“I wonder if this is too much,” Mahiru mused, looking at the staff. “Am I shoving the theme down their throats?”

“Just far enough,” Kaoruko assured her. “Looking great as always.”

The glasses had to be adjusted when the poor visibility caused an usher to run into several chairs during the rehearsal, and an intern was sent to replace the actual eclipse safety lenses with colored film, a tedious, but necessary job before the weekend.

Koharu and the other Seiran models were there, on contract for the next few weeks as extra models for HANA in their fall shows. Maya and Claudine were introduced to Honami Hisame and Minase Suzu, both of whom insisted they use their first names. There were a few other models present as well, but they only had a chance to meet those two - Koharu’s closest friends - so far, as the others were getting oriented or dressed for rehearsals.

Suzu and Hisame looked thrilled with the chance to be working with HANA. During the break, Suzu ran up to Mahiru, apparently a huge fan of the runways she had designed in the past. Mahiru looked surprised by the attention, but chatted animatedly about the upcoming stages.

Hisame, on the other hand, kept an eye out for Nana. “We used to work together, a few years ago,” she said. “She was brilliant.”

Maya resumed rehearsal soon after, participating in final fittings for the couture dresses and some of the more high fashion pieces that Hikari, Kaoruko, and the other top designers had been working on for this season’s shows. Claudine worked beside her, checking her phone often enough that Maya was suspecting something was going on with a close friend or her family. She wanted to ask, but wasn’t sure if they were close enough for that. They had been working and living together for about seven weeks, and spending all their time together had made them much closer than when they began, but Maya was a naturally private person, and it seemed that Claudine didn’t much feel like sharing details of her personal life with Maya, so Maya didn’t pry.

They spent several hours reviewing sound and lighting cues, timing for outfit changes, staging for the models and equipment backstage, and syncing the video that would display behind the stage and on two screens on either side. Mostly, it would be displaying an eclipse video between the models, and camera work zooming in on the details of each outfit while the models were walking.

Maya had watched her mother’s runway shows since she was young, but generally, the runway shows Tendo Yuko directed - those for kimono and other traditional Japanese fashion - were of a very different style. Maya had practiced walking a runway at Souda’s training school, but this would be her debut on a runway. She felt she was doing well, but made sure to have Karen record her walking so she could monitor herself and fix any issues she saw. She also asked Mahiru and Claudine for any pointers.

“You’re doing fine,” Claudine said. “That incredibly rigid posture, and that face you have, where you look too arrogant… it actually works perfectly here. You’re made for runway.”

Mahiru seemed to agree. “Give everyone an extra second to admire before turning back, Maya-san. Otherwise, it looks wonderful.”

Maya stayed in the ‘audience’ to watch Claudine rehearse as well. Despite her hiatus, Claudine walked the runway as if she had never taken a break. “Ah, Mahiru, I’m mostly a print model by trade,” she said, before walking out. But Maya would never have guessed, from the way she walked with confidence, and the slightest hint of sultriness that Maya knew she could never imitate.

The rehearsal went on past dark, and they returned to the apartment late, eating some takeout food mindlessly, but they had the next morning off to recover before the show began.

Maya woke up the next morning to her alarm, checking her notifications on her phone as she remained in bed. Her Instagram account already had 2500 followers. How? she wondered. Who cares that much about me? All she had put up was a selfie from behind the scenes at the Eclipse rehearsal, but apparently that had been enough to prove that this was the ‘real’ Tendo Maya. Karen had done something to apply for a verified account, but she would have to wait for that. She mentally cursed the person who got to @TendoMaya before her, but knew that was her own lack of foresight. She replied to Koharu, who greeted her on the day of the Eclipse show, and then decided to get out of bed.

It was funny how on different days, the apartment could feel completely different. Some days, Maya could see the plants she recently purchased and the sunlight streaming through the windows and think that the mood was very charming and cheery and feel like humming to herself as she prepared some coffee in the mornings. Some days, however, perhaps the sun was hidden behind the clouds or perhaps Maya just wasn’t in the right headspace as she got up, but she swore she could see whatever Claudine saw as she sat on the balcony for hours.

Up on the twelfth floor, there was not much to gaze upon aside from the views of other high-rises and the bay, but Maya had never explicitly asked Claudine what she looked at when she sat out there. Perhaps she was just thinking about various things and not looking at anything at all. Maya preferred to look up. On days when it was cloudy enough that it was possible to look at the sky without blinding herself, Maya liked to look at the clouds, the colors of the sky, and the slow change from day to night. After dark, she liked to look at the stars, the phases of the moon, and pick out constellations and planets when it was the right time to observe them. She was no expert astronomer, but it gave her something to do beyond looking at the never-changing sea and buildings.

She took her coffee, sitting on the towel that eternally sat out on the balcony. She ought to purchase them proper cushions for the balcony, she thought to herself, for all the sitting they did out there. Today was bright, so it was difficult to look at the sky, but instead of looking at the water, like Claudine did, Maya looked instead at the edges of Minato City across the river, the buildings giving her something to focus on. The large white exterior of the Shiki Theater caught her eye, and she remembered going to see plays with her father as a child.

She wondered if her father would be disappointed that she had put her historian career on hold to pursue modeling. Unlike her mother, she had not pursued a path in fashion with ties to history, but rather she had decided instead to pursue the path to ‘The Top’ - mass appeal and high fashion. She put it out of her mind for now - she was about to go into a busy few weeks of runway - it was time to focus.

Maya opened the Instagram account again out of boredom, sipping coffee with her free hand. The messages feature boasted hundreds of unread messages. She opened one. ’Maya-san! I am so happy you’re on SNS! You are my favorite model! I look forward to seeing what you do next!’ Smiling a bit at the message, she opened another. Maya-sama! I adore you~ Please send me a message back, it would mean everything to me!!! Despite the plea, Maya left the message without responding and tried one more. Who are you, going near my Claudine? She clicked on this person’s page, to see if they were someone in the industry, or perhaps a friend of Claudine’s, but the account didn’t have any information, not a picture or a bio written.

“What are you doing?” asked Claudine, standing in the doorway.

“I’m checking the messages on my Instagram… I just got one yesterday.”

“You’re better off not doing that,” Claudine said. “A lot of them are sweet, but the rotten ones will ruin your whole day.”

Maya turned around then, admiring a sleepy Claudine in her pajamas with a coffee mug of her own in her hand. “You don’t read any messages from your fans, Saijou-san?”

“Not a single one.”

Claudine came to sit beside Maya, rather close due to the small size of the towel. It made Maya reconsider getting the cushions, as she rather liked the proximity. “Today’s the day,” said Maya, finishing her coffee. She wasn’t nervous, exactly, but she did feel anticipation, and a desire to establish herself.

“Eclipse…” said Claudine, already looking out at the bay. She managed to focus again, grabbing ahold of Maya’s hand, as if to focus herself. “You’ll do great. Everyone already knows it.”

Maya supposed in some ways, this was higher stakes for Claudine than it was for herself. No one knew of Tendo Maya, so as long as her performance was acceptable, she would get good reviews. For Saijou Claudine, this was a re-emergence. Her performance today would be compared to the Claudine of the past, and everyone would be looking for signs of ‘rust’. “So will you, Saijou-san.”

Claudine smiled a little. “Of course I will. Now let’s get dressed so we can go practice at the actual venue.”

An hour and a half later, they stood beside the stage where they would be walking that evening. Getting to the venue didn’t take much time, as they didn’t bother with hair or makeup, and the whole day would be catered, so they skipped breakfast as well, leaving the house as soon as they had changed from pajamas and gathered their needed possessions.

They reviewed some cues, walked the slightly larger runway, and went over the order another time with one of the managers. Since there were limited models, as the others were walking, they would use the time to quickly change from one outfit to another. Some of these changes were accompanied by changes in hair or makeup, all of which was marked on master lists the stylists and managers held. Mahiru’s voice came through in ear pieces to the staff, and Maya and Claudine were ushered to the dressing room to prepare for their initial look.

From down the hall, Maya could hear arrangements being made in the main room, but the dressing room door was quickly shut to give privacy, and this smaller room became its own hub of activity. Maya’s makeup was applied, her hair half styled, and then she was given permission to eat. She slipped on a robe and sat with Claudine at a small table, along with Koharu, picking at some bentos that had been sent over. Suzu and Hisame sat nearby, enjoying their meal with Nana and Mahiru, though Mahiru looked fairly busy with last minute arrangements and was multitasking while she ate.

In truth, Maya didn’t find herself very hungry, which was rare. She wasn’t sure if it was nervous anticipation of her first runway show, a desire to look in her top form when she slipped into HANA’s stylish clothes, or another reason, but after a few bites of chicken and rice and some fruit from the dessert plate, she was finished. The others seemed to feel the same way. Claudine was staring at her phone, now and then putting an orange slice in her mouth and chewing slowly. She got up midway through to take a call.

“Are you nervous, Maya?” asked Koharu. “It’s your first runway show, and you’re top billed.”

“There’s no billing at a fashion show,” Maya replied, her gaze unable to follow Claudine as she slipped from the room.

“There are Top Models, though,” Koharu said. “And you’re definitely well on your way to being a Top Model, in record time.”

Before Maya could reply, a stylist ushered them back for the rest of their hair and outfits. “Where has Saijou-san gotten to?” she asked, sounding overwhelmed.

“I think she took a call in the hallway. Please, start with the Seiran models, I’ll go get her,” Maya offered.

Quickly, Maya cleaned up the lunch table and walked to the corridor which was surprisingly empty. Taking a guess, she turned away from the stage, moving towards the loading dock at the back of the venue. She cracked the door open and instantly sunlight flooded the dimly lit corridor and she stepped out onto the loading dock, spying Claudine at once, out of place as she sat on the concrete ledge looking on into the Tokyo cityscape.

“The stylists need us again,” she said quietly, noticing that Claudine was no longer on the phone and just sitting and staring, as she was prone to do.

“Of course, let’s go back in,” Claudine said. But even though she said this, she made no motion to stand. Instead, Maya walked out and sat beside her, nearly as close as they had sat that morning, their legs dangling off the ledge meant for trucks to back up to, now devoid of life aside from the two of them.

“What’s going on?” asked Maya.

“My dad is sick,” Claudine said.

Of all the things Maya expected Claudine to say (if she even expected her to answer at all), she did not expect that.

“He’s been sick for a while, but recently was sent to the hospital. I’ve been sending my checks to him and my mom. He’s… going to get a lung transplant I think.” As Claudine finished speaking, she leaned over, resting her head on Maya’s shoulder.

Suddenly, many things made sense to Maya, and many things didn’t. Claudine didn’t want to spend too much on an apartment because she needed to send checks home. Perhaps Claudine even took this contract because she needed a way to make money. Claudine was fine with the same old clothes and convenience store food and few personal possessions in order to save her income to send home. Those things made sense. What didn’t make sense was the huge weight in Maya’s chest. She didn’t intend to care about Claudine this much, let alone her family that she had never met. She didn’t expect Claudine resting her head on Maya’s shoulder would feel so… electric.

Maya exhaled slowly, trying to calm herself down. She still hadn’t responded to Claudine, but she wanted to do so carefully. She was Tendo Maya. She feared attachments. They were strings that held her down to earth, keeping her from reaching the Top. And yet, Claudine was the most tempting string she had ever encountered.

Maya knew her limits, and speaking, especially to comfort others was one of them. Instead, she placed her hand over Claudine’s to let her know she was listening, squeezing it gently in sympathy. Claudine didn’t pull her hand or her head away. They sat there for a couple minutes, until they were interrupted by someone clearing their throat in the loading dock doorway.

Straightening up at once, Claudine whipped around with a blush on her cheeks. Maya found it endearing. Waiting for them in the doorway was Futaba, her tablet in her hands as always. “Found them, sending them your way,” she said into her headset.

“Oi Kuroko, what are you doing out here?” she asked, walking closer. “Hey, are you alright?” she said, crouching down as she got closer. “Did something happen?”

Maya ignored the prickle of jealousy she felt from Futaba’s affectionate nickname for Claudine, and the way she asked questions as if she knew more about Claudine’s history than Maya did. Well who’s fault is that? a voice in Maya’s head asked. You’re the one who tries to keep her at arm's length.

“Everything’s fine, Futaba. I’m sorry for running off.” Claudine stood up and went back inside first, leaving Maya standing with Futaba, who she rarely interacted with alone.

“I guess I should go back as well,” said Maya, feeling somewhat uncomfortable standing on the loading dock after being caught with Claudine by Futaba.

The shorter girl smiled at her, in a comforting way. “Don’t worry, Maya,” she said. “I didn’t see a thing.”

An hour later, Maya found herself dressed and her hair and makeup finished. For the initial part of the show, Maya’s hair was pulled back into a slick high ponytail, her makeup done in a way that was heavy on highlights. Strands of glittering hair tinsel had been threaded into her ponytail, and her eyes had been shaded with gold and light brown, a very warm look. She slipped into an exquisite dress of Kaoruko’s personal creation - in fact Kaoruko came to oversee it as it was arranged.

The dress was white, with gold embroidery throughout. Small pearl beads adorned the chest in diamond patterns, with the gold threads surrounding, and the skirt was fitted but layered, trailing behind Maya in a gauzy, ethereal form. The back was laced up tightly to fit Maya’s form closely, and suddenly she was glad for all the days she spent working out, as she felt every curve of her body on display. There were no straps to hold it up, and her shoulders felt bare, though stylists added a necklace and several bracelets. The overall effect was stunning, however, even Maya understood: Hanayagi Kaoruko truly had a talent.

Beside her, Hikari was fussing over Claudine, who was wearing one of her designs first. To keep a blush rising from her cheeks as she thought of their earlier interaction, Maya looked to Hikari, who was wearing a black jumper and black tights with a HANA classic white blouse, her favorite blue beret on her head. She had pins in her mouth, muttering that Claudine had once again changed in size since the previous fitting two days prior.

Maya watched the Seiran models dressing with other designs of Kaoruko, Hikari, and the various other talented designers at HANA. She caught Koharu’s eye, and Koharu winked at her while she was getting her accessories put on by a stylist who looked to be about 70 years old. Finally, unable to reign in her curiosity, Maya turned back to Claudine.

Claudine was wearing an off-the-shoulder black velvet dress, embellished with gold chains across the chest, arms, and hips. In this way, the gold seemed to link it to Maya’s dress, though overall it was quite opposite from Maya’s look. It was shorter, ending above the knee, and though the back was covered, this dress… emphasized the cleavage a little more than Maya’s did. Maya tore her eyes away and looked higher. Claudine’s hair was in a loose bun, and a hair clip of black feathers, gold chain, and white pearls was added to her hair. Her makeup was darker, smudged a bit like in their first shoot, and her jewelry was heavier too, thick layers of gold chain and pearl bracelets and necklaces. Maya had not imagined Hikari designing in this style and yet, the mixture of couture fashion, 1920s style, and a dash of military regalia seemed perfectly blended. They had called Hikari a genius, but it was only now, seeing Claudine wearing this dress, that Maya understood why.

Once Claudine was finished getting ready, she slipped her robe back on, checking her phone and sipping an iced tea.

“Let’s circle up!” Mahiru called, entering the dressing room and immediately commanding attention. Apparently, at this show, even Kaoruko deferred to the way Mahiru wanted to run things.

Everyone formed a large circle, and Maya found herself between Claudine and Hisame. Mahiru drew everyone’s attention, as she checked off a few more items on her clipboard. “Alright, everyone! Excellent job preparing! We’re about ten minutes ahead of schedule. Doors opened about ten minutes ago, so everyone will be settling in now. I’ve confirmed that we have all the changes ready to go back here. Models, you know your station to change and who is assisting you, please listen to the stage crew for the cues to walk. Stylists, you know who you’re working with, you’re doing awesome already, let’s keep it up. Photographers, Daiba-san will lead you to your appropriate stations. If anyone else has questions, please see myself or Isurugi-san after this meeting. Alright, let’s have a cheer for a good show. Karen?”

“Yes! Let’s go!” Standing on a chair and holding her camera above the circle, Karen nodded to Mahiru who indicated that everyone should put their hands in the middle of the circle. Maya could hear various staff whisper in her ear as she got closer, ‘have a good first show,’ or ‘good luck, Tendo-san!’, and she smiled a bit, forgetting until that moment how many people were there supporting her. “On three, Eclipse!” said Karen, preparing to record.

“1… 2… 3… Eclipse!” they cheered, and the show was underway.

The final preparations flew by, and suddenly, Maya was backstage. The lights darkened, the music began. The audience, sitting in their seats (half black, half white), were seeing a video of a sunny day, and the moon coming across and covering the sun - a full lunar eclipse. From this ensuing darkness, the show would begin. Atmospheric music played, and Maya received a light tap from behind. Ascending the steps as if she had done this a hundred times before, she took to the runway.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

Kaoruko stood on the balcony of the arts hall, watching Maya, Claudine, and the Seiran models alternate on stage. She tried to remain detached, watching the show as an objective viewer, as she slowly sipped a glass of champagne. In front of her was a tablet, the twin to Futaba’s, in fact, on which she was scribbling notes, and occasionally taking a photo with her phone which would instantly be uploaded. ’And they all think I never do work,’ she muttered to herself.

The Eclipse show would be going on the road, as part of the Paris, Tokyo and the Seoul Fashion Week shows. This in-house, HANA-only show was more like a preview, a way to work out the kinks before taking the show on the road. There was more press than Kaoruko would like here, but that was expected. It was Maya’s anticipated debut, and Claudine’s re-emergence. If everything went well, that could drum up a lot of interest in HANA, Kaoruko figured.

And so far, so good. Of course there were things she wanted to fix. The order, the cues, some of the pacing was a little off, but overall there were no major mishaps. Claudine looked as if she had taken a refreshing month-long vacation rather than five years off, from the way she was walking down the runway, showing off the HANA designs as if they were the hottest imports from Europe. And Tendo Maya - Kaoruko could not believe this was her first runway show. She was… impossibly good. Her timing was impeccable, her posture and her expressions were perfect. Kaoruko needed to keep taking notes, but she found it difficult to tear her eyes away from the stage. Yes, she thought, This was how her designs were meant to be seen!

At the end of the show, Kaoruko made her way downstairs, greeting a few VIP attendees, all of which had high praises for both the collection and the presentation. “This is it, Hanayagi-san,” said Karasuma Urara, a reporter for a rather influential Japanese fashion magazine. “Tendo Maya plus Saijou Claudine plus this Eclipse concept plus you and Kagura-san’s designs? You have to let me do a piece for Fashion*Butai!”

“Naturally, we would be obliged for that sort of feature,” said Kaoruko. “Please get in touch with Futaba to schedule something.”

After about ten more minutes of greetings, she escaped to the dressing room. Naturally, there was more schmoozing to do afterwards, but for the moment, she needed to see her staff. The models had changed from their final outfits back into casual dresses and robes, and looked rather silly with their attire contrasting their perfectly set hair and fancy makeup, but it was nothing Kaoruko hadn’t seen before. They got first preference at seating, followed by the stylists and managers who had been running around backstage helping with the outfit changes. Some of the photographers and other staff were leaning against the dressing room counters, waiting to hear what was next. Futaba and Mahiru came to stand beside Kaoruko.

Kaoruko handed her tablet to Futaba, whose job it would be to disambiguate her scribbles into notes for improvement on Eclipse’s next run. “Alright, everyone, excellent job! I think we really brought the fall line to life, this was probably our best debut runway to date. We’ll have a meeting about changes we’re making ahead of Tokyo Fashion week, but for tonight… I’ve rented us the rooftop at Loft 26 in Ginza, so let’s move what we need to move back to the office and get dinner and drinks there. And note, the VIPs from tonight will also be there so please try to look presentable.”

There was excitement over food and drinks, a little grumbling over sharing the evening with the VIPs from the show, but everyone started moving towards cleaning up. The crew began the tear down work after receiving word that the venue had been cleared, and the stylists and models began packing up the accessories and makeup, leaving the dresses for the designers who would handle them with the most care.

“Futaba-han, go tell the models we’ll send a car in thirty minutes. Well…” Kaoruko quickly tallied the models, “Three cars.”

Kaoruko watched as Maya got shooed away from trying to help clean up, told by the older stylist to go get changed for dinner. Claudine was sitting on the couch, looking half asleep, making no move to change herself. She had half a mind to let the models go home, but the thought disappeared as quickly as it occurred to her. It was the first show - what a precedent to set! Plus the VIPs would be dying to meet the models. They simply had to attend the after party. “Ugh, they really are useless,” grumbled Kaoruko. “Futaba, make sure they arrive.”

Annoyed that she had to leave Futaba with the models, but certain they would not make it without Futaba’s guidance, Kaoruko moved along to supervise the others. She spied Karen in the corner of the large dressing room, fiddling with her cell phone. “Get something good?” she asked.

Karen grinned at Kaoruko. Honestly, Karen was quickly becoming as reliable as Mahiru and Hikari for giving her quality work. So far today, she had posted various pictures and videos to their disappearing ‘story’ on Instagram of the venue, behind-the-scenes looks at the set and close up sneak peaks of the outfits. She put up a permanent post of the video she took of the staff cheering for the success of the Eclipse shoot. Currently, she was working on a post of several photos of the runway shots that Nana had sent her that had basic edits done to correct the harsh stage lighting. “Hmm, Kaoruko, should we put Maya-san or Kuro-chan as the photo for our first show?” she asked.

Kaoruko flipped through the photos, realizing quickly that any of them would be an excellent post for their page. She particularly liked the ‘Eclipse pose’, but thought it would be too much of a spoiler ahead of the Fashion Week events. She considered that if she selected Maya, who was shot during the first outfit, it would be Kaoruko’s dress featured first. Additionally, Kaoruko was nothing if not perceptive - she noticed how Claudine didn’t seem to enjoy being on their Instagram page, though she wasn’t sure why. “Maya, I think,” she said.

“Got it, boss,” said Karen, getting to work adding a caption and hashtags. “By the way, I got Maya’s account verified,” she said. “Though she’s still grumpy she can’t have the TendoMaya handle.”

“That’s her own fault for being clueless,” said Kaoruko with a smirk. “Good work as always!” Kaoruko turned away, ready to call for Futaba before remembering she left her with the models. She met up with Hikari who was assisting the others with storing the dresses.

“Let’s start getting these in the truck,” said Kaoruko, taking one of the complete racks, and gesturing for Hikari to take another.

“You can go ahead,” Hikari said, “I can finish up here and meet you at the dinner.”

“Ugh, to go and sweet talk with those people without my Futaba-han by my side? No thank you.”

Hikari followed Kaoruko’s stare to where Futaba was helping Claudine with her jacket. “She does that for everyone, you know,” she said.

“I know,” Kaoruko said, rolling the cart in the opposite direction with more speed now. “It’s annoying.”

After another twenty minutes, everything was packed away and they were on their way back to Ginza. The trucks were locked in the underground garage, ready to be unloaded and sorted the next day, once everyone had recovered from tonight’s revelries. Kaoruko met a car at the building’s entrance along with Hikari, Mahiru, and Karen. They were only going a few blocks, but it was unbecoming to walk, plus she had changed into heels. In the back of the towncar, she adjusted her makeup, floofed up her signature bob, and ensured her outfit was sitting perfectly. She was the head and lead designer of HANA, after all. She ought to have a good fashion sense herself.

Tonight she was wearing HANA collection ankle-length pants in sakura pink, her trademark color. She paired this with a linen top imported from Italy, notable for its bishop sleeves, and she wore a rather understated pearl necklace - by her standards at least. On her feet were off-white suede ankle boots, but what really made the outfit ‘Kaoruko’ was her giraffe print clutch which she used to store her cell phone, lipstick, and other essentials. “Let’s go, ladies,” she said, as they pulled up to the Loft.

They rode the elevator which had a glass wall up to the roof, and Kaoruko amused herself by watching Karen’s open jaw as she stared at Ginza on the other side of the glass. “We’re going to the rooftop, you can stare at it all you want there,” Mahiru assured her.

Upon entering the party, they were offered champagne and hors d'oeuvres, but Kaoruko sent a waiter away to fetch her a martini. She was paying for this party, she wanted to make it worth her money, at least. Pretty soon, she was pulled into conversation with some art patron and his wife, a similar situation to the Tendo parents, though Kaoruko had not spied them in this crowd. She greeted the patrons she didn’t bother to remember the names of, and chatted politely for the necessary amount of time, then excused herself. Finally, she saw Futaba exiting the elevator, her short height accentuated by the fact that she had four professional models accompanying her.

Kaoruko walked over to reconvene with Futaba, but before she could make it across the roof, Claudine had leaned down to whisper something in Futaba’s ear. Futaba nodded, and without even replying took off as if on a mission.

“Who are you to give orders to my Futaba-han?” asked Kaoruko, striding up to Claudine. The two Seiran models sidled away to enter the party, but Maya stayed beside Claudine. Interesting, thought Kaoruko.

Claudine blushed, looking rather ashamed. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “It’s just… Futaba said if I had any concerns about security to let her know. I was just asking her to make sure a certain person wasn’t here.”

Kaoruko was a little embarrassed as well, as this was a completely reasonable request, but a Hanayagi never backed down, so she wouldn’t let Claudine see her stumble. “And do you think I would invite just anyone to our party?” she challenged. “Your crazy fans can’t just buy a ticket to this event, it’s only industry people.”

Claudine clenched her jaw, as if deciding whether or not she wanted to continue this conversation or just let it go. Kaoruko felt a martini being slipped into her hand. She waved the waiter away with her free hand.

“The person I’m looking to avoid… is someone in the industry,” Claudine said at last.

And suddenly Kaoruko wondered why Claudine left. And she wondered why she never considered the question before. She supposed that they were around the same age. At the time Claudine took her hiatus, it didn’t much matter to Kaoruko what the top models were doing - Kaoruko was too busy learning fashion design. But then, shouldn’t she have wondered when Claudine came back?

She supposed that Claudine was a master of deflection - on complimenting others, on turning conversation away from herself, on performing her work effortlessly as if she had never taken a hiatus - that it meant that everyone forgot to consider why she left the industry. Kaoruko had assumed it was because of an obsessed fan or stalker after that incident in the coffee shop, but could it have been for another reason?

“Who is it you’re trying to avoid?” Kaoruko asked her.

All this time Maya hadn’t said a word, but stood beside her, her gaze serious, as if she was mulling over the same things Kaoruko was. Maya was sharp, Kaoruko knew, and Claudine knew too, she was sure.

Futaba rejoined them then, shaking her head. “All clear,” she said to Claudine.

“Thank you,” she said, “For checking. And… I’m sorry for making you work extra on the night of a party.”

“It’s no problem, really. This is my job.”

“Well, I guess I’ll get a drink then. Oh, and Futaba? As always, I’d appreciate your discretion.”

Futaba nodded and the two pairs split ways, Maya leaving with Claudine.

“Ok, spill,” said Kaoruko, handing the drink to Futaba and gesturing to a waiter for a new one for herself.

Futaba sipped the martini, also grabbing a few treats from a passing tray. They came to stand at a rail, looking off of the roof on a rather secluded corner. “You heard her, discretion,” said Futaba, taking another gulp. “Oi, today was exhausting. Corralling models after a show is like herding sleepy cats.”

“Futabaaaa, it’s me. Who is she looking for? I can help.

Futaba seemed to consider this, looking at Kaoruko for a moment or two. “Suzuki Rinshou,” she said quietly. He’s commonly referred to by his nickname, ‘Kirin’, taken from Suzu’KI RIN’shou. Well, that and the fact that he has a long neck and is quite tall and imposing overall reminds people of a giraffe. He is currently working as an unaffiliated agent, and formerly worked for the company that employed Claudine in her prior contracts.”

“You’ve been looking into this for a while,” she said.

“She seems to really want to avoid this guy, Kaoruko.”

“And you don’t know why?”

“Wouldn’t tell me. But the last time she worked was when she was 17, which doesn’t leave a lot of good ideas…”

“Ah, excuse me, Hanayagi-san?” a voice interrupted them from behind, and Kaoruko turned to see an older man who she vaguely recognized from one of the more reputable fashion blogs.

“Good evening,” she said, straightening out her blouse, “How can I help you?”

Kaoruko spent the evening reception arranging various interviews and photo sessions, while Futaba and Mahiru helped pencil it into the HANA schedules. Once midnight hit, however, it was announced that all work related inquiries were over, and the rest of the night would be dedicated to dinner and celebration.

She found Junna and Nana a bit after this, sitting close together on a small outdoor couch with a couple of fancy cocktails. She had half a mind to tease them, but she knew this would make Junna clam up, so she just winked at Nana and went on her way.

She found Hikari and one of the Seiran models smoking along the edge of the roof.

“How many times do I have to tell you that’s terrible for your lungs?” she chided, though quietly, so as not to disturb the girl who wasn’t from her company.

“How many times have I told you that you make bad decisions when inebriated?” she bit back.

“Stop taking the moral high ground, I know you drink too,” said Kaoruko. Hikari grinned bitterly.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“What should we do for spring?” Kaoruko leaned on the railing as well, upwind from the cigarette smoke. The winter line was in production already and some of it was being shot already for print, but it was about the time that the two of them needed to be drafting some designs for spring, or pulling out some of their dozens of completed sketches and form them into a cohesive themed collection for spring.

Hikari turned towards her, holding the cigarette in her mouth. She held both hands up to Kaoruko, indicating that they should put their palms together. Kaoruko did as she was told, and Hikari raised one hand, bringing Kaoruko’s hand with hers. Releasing the position, she exhaled over the edge of the balcony, raising one eyebrow and tilting her head at Kaoruko.

“Mirror?” asked Kaoruko, saying the only word that came to mind.

“Right. Fall we spent so much time focusing on juxtaposition. Now let’s do mirror images. Crystalline reflections. That sort of thing.”

Kaoruko grinned. “Oh, and coming after the winter theme… Hikari, you’ve done it again.”

Kaoruko left Hikari to enjoy her smoke break in peace, and found Maya and Claudine, decidedly drunker than she left them. She supposed it was expected - it was not the first time she had seen this, after all. The models rarely ate much on the day of the show, then came to the after party, where drinks were served for a few hours before proper dinner, and a few drinks in, they were done for.

“It’s a good thing most of the VIPs are gone,” Kaoruko chided, looking at them both slumped on a pair of plush chairs. Both managed to sit up straight when Kaoruko came by, so she was relieved to see they were not dangerously drunk, but just rather useless at the moment. She asked the waiter for a couple waters and sat across from them.

“Everyone thought you did a good job today,” she said. “Myself included.” For someone like Kaoruko, praise never came as straightforward as this, so it was fun to say things like this when the recipient was not in a proper state of mind.

“I am glad to hear this, I am always striving for the Top,” said Maya, suppressing a yawn.

Kaoruko nearly rolled her eyes at Maya’s proper-sounding response, even after a few drinks.

“And you, Claudine, what is your goal?” Kaoruko asked, suddenly more curious about them both.

“If Tendo Maya is aiming for the Top, then that is where I will aim as well, certainly.”

“Fine, fine. Guess I’ll have to continue designing the most lovely clothing in all of Japan,” said Kaoruko. “But honestly, you two are poor company. I’m calling a car. Drink that water before it comes and get home. I expect you at our debriefing meeting tomorrow at 1PM.”

Kaoruko spent the rest of the evening eating and drinking and generally not thinking about work, and wandered back downstairs to get a ride home with Futaba around 3AM. “Ugh, the meeting is for 1PM?” she whined. “I barely have time to rest.”

“We’ve been at this for a while,” said Futaba, instinctively guiding her head so she wouldn’t hit it on the car door after one too many drinks. “You know runway season is the busiest time. We’re on the runway at Tokyo Fashion Week in less than a week.”

With a grumble, Kaoruko stopped arguing, pleased at least that they lived just outside Ginza and the drive home was short. Honestly, she didn’t understand why Claudine and Maya chose to live so far away, but she was sure she’d figure them out in time. For tonight, she settled for a quick shower and got into bed with Futaba, a familiar arrangement that allowed her to fall asleep in minutes.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

Claudine’s lips were dry. Her makeup was applied perfectly, somehow, she was sure of that - but her lips were dry - it was hard to open them. In fact, her whole mouth was dry. It was hard to breathe. Standing backstage moments before the HANA ‘Eclipse’ segment of the Tokyo Fashion Week runway shows, Claudine paused, trying to breathe. A strange thought occurred to her, one that she wanted to shake away and hold close at the same time: I wish Tendo Maya were here.

But alas, Maya entered from the opposite side of the runway, so she stood backstage about as far from Claudine as it was possible to get and still be backstage. Somehow, Claudine doubted that Maya’s lips were dry. Maya never seemed to get nervous - no, Claudine’s weakness was her own. And yet, this frustratingly confident part of Maya, this part that ought to make Claudine annoyed or feel inadequate or just generally deter her from the rising star that was Tendo Maya (and a star she was surely becoming), conversely, it just seemed to draw Claudine closer. With everything Maya did with assuredness and grace, Claudine felt the need to do the same, even if she was just faking it - she was the senpai, after all.

She shook her head, clearing her thoughts. You’re no longer a teenager, she reminded herself. There’s no senpais and kouhais here anymore. But the sentiment still stood. For every runway that Maya took with grace and poise, Claudine wanted to do better, feeling she had at least as much to prove. For every write-up that praised Maya in a local paper or online blog, Claudine hoped for at least as much recognition. But she knew she was old news, out of practice, and, most jarringly, Tendo Maya was just incredibly skilled.

Claudine’s real skill lay in print media, she was always good at posing and expression, and she photographed well. Runway was never her forte, and she didn’t get as much chance to practice runway as a teenager - no one particularly wanted teens at their shows aside from those designated for children’s fashion. Now, she had her height against her as well, especially compared to Maya, or other stars, like Akira. But when it came to Maya, there was also her posture, expression, everything. Claudine listened to Maya talk about the Top not as a dream, but as a summit she was currently in the process of approaching.

Claudine slowly exhaled, licking her lips. Maya didn’t know about the wolves at the summit, about the avalanches that could occur, about how the path to the Top could be misleading and meandering. For whatever reason, Claudine had come to care about Maya, at least enough that she didn’t want anything to happen to the girl who, for all her intelligence, still maintained a juxtaposing sense of naivety. If that was the case, Claudine supposed she had no choice but to guide Maya. Even if she lagged a little behind because of her inadequacies, at least she would be there to nudge Maya closer to the Top, and perhaps save her own career in the process.

She could hear the introduction music and willed her shaking hands to steady. It was louder in this venue than it was in HANA’s self-hosted show, both because the venue was larger and because the industry people and guests were chatting amongst themselves while they waited. Tokyo Fashion Week hosted proper celebrities - actors, singers, directors, athletes, along with the usual industry folk - journalists, photographers, and other designers. It was a good thing Claudine couldn’t see the crowd with the way the stage lights shone up onto the runway.

Maya stepped out first, as she had during the initial show, and then waited at the end of the runway, posing in Kaoruko’s incredibly gauzy white gown. Claudine’s cue came and she was given a tap by the crew and walked up the steps, her chin high, her expression haughty, but her eyes fixated for one moment on the way Maya’s legs appeared through that gauzy fabric, before moving her gaze to a random point in the back of the room.

Claudine stepped in front of Maya, effectively ‘covering’ the sun with the moon, and they both stood together at the front of the stage as the crowd admired the effect with a few ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and many shutter clicks. Claudine really liked Hikari’s velvet dress with the chains, a good contrast to Maya’s look, but she wasn’t sure what kind of impression it would give. At the last show, Maya’s photo was posted, after all. Claudine felt Maya’s breath on the back of her neck, and got goosebumps along her arms, which she had posed on her hips. She hoped those giant camera lenses wouldn’t pick up this level of detail.

Claudine felt Maya turn back and she took a step backwards, holding her pose. A moment later, Koharu appeared in white, stepping in front of her, and causing a ‘solar eclipse’. Claudine tried to hold her breath to prevent breathing on Koharu’s neck in the same way Maya had done to her. By the time the appropriate time had passed, Claudine felt lightheaded. She turned away, letting out her breath, but held good posture as she walked back off stage.

Back in the staging area, Claudine was beside Maya, a curtained area drawn around them both and the stylists and designers, rushing to get Claudine and Maya out of the first dresses and into the next. Claudine was gasping to catch her breath after holding it for so long on stage, and stood with her hands on her knees as the women around her busied themselves with undoing the dress, taking off her necklace, detaching the bracelets and earrings, and prompting her to lift her feet to slip off the shoes. She was wearing little more than thin nude underwear and pasties under the dress, so she blushed as she caught Maya looking in her direction, likely checking on her breathing, but enough to cause her some embarrassment. To her credit, she saw Maya redden as well. Maya was halfway dressed in her next garment, a white sequined and beaded maxi skirt and a matching camisole, the top tied in the back with delicate laces. She accessorized with oversized white sunglasses, keeping the high ponytail, and was given short white gloves to complete the outfit. ‘

Claudine was given her next outfit as well - a dress with a black corset top and tulle skirt, completed with ankle boots, a black ribbon choker, and leather cuffs outfitted with chains. The corset itself had intense detailing - a contrast of velvet and satin in the structure, it clung to every curve tightly, and small spikes were used to create texture in an asymmetrical way along the front. It was Hikari’s punk allusion amongst the sun and moon themes.

She was triple checked to make sure each piece was in place, and then sent on her way back to the staging area backstage to await her next cue. She felt like a racecar that had its tires changed in record time.

Suddenly, a stylist ran up to her, plucking the previous outfit’s hairclip from her hair, and ensuring her hair lay flat beneath it. “Phew,” the stylist sighed in relief, rushing back to the tent.

This time, Claudine would walk before Maya, allowing the sun to come and cover the moon. After a couple minutes, she was up, tapped on the shoulder and took to the stairs. The punk dress seemed to be a hit, and though she kept her eyes focused forward, she could hear the shutters clicking rapidly and a murmur of conversation. At the end of the runway, Claudine struck her pose, awaiting Maya.

On cue, Maya appeared a moment later, right on time with the atmospheric music, stepping in front of Claudine and taking over the scene. Claudine stayed in place as she was directed to do, just for a few seconds, but they felt like eternity when standing behind Maya. Claudine was shorter than Maya, and her breath would fall on the very base of Maya’s neck. She tried to hold it, but the adrenaline was making her vision foggy. She let it out, watching the little hairs on Maya’s neck stand up. After the appropriate amount of time, she turned away, rushing back stage to catch her breath once again.

The rest of the show continued in the same way, and after several more changes, Claudine was finished and allowed to go back to the dressing room while Kaoruko said a few words to finish the show. Claudine changed into shorts and a t-shirt, not bothering with socks or shoes for the moment, relaxing on the couch, ready to sleep after the exhaustion of the show but knowing she wouldn’t be allowed. It was always like this, she recalled, even as a child. After a show, a shoot, after anything where she gave her utmost focus and attention, she simply… ran out of energy.

She leaned against a pillow, hoping to rest her eyes for a few minutes before Kaoruko returned to tell them what club or rooftop bar they would have to travel to tonight to schmooze with the industry people and now, with the celebrities who felt like joining as well.

Surprisingly, moments after, she felt the couch depress beside her, and a cold hand grab onto hers - it had to be Maya’s. Claudine opened her eyes. They were out of sight of most of the staff, but she didn’t exactly want rumors starting or someone snapping a photo of her sitting on the couch hand-in-hand with Tendo Maya. Luckily their hands fell behind where Maya’s legs were propped up, a fluffy blanket resting on them.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“I’m fine, just trying to rest before the party,” she said, a little snappier than she meant to say it.

“Ah,” said Maya, as if Claudine had spoken to her in a normal tone. “Well get some rest then. It’ll be a few before Kaoruko gets back.”

Claudine drifted off again, only to be woken what felt like moments later to listen to Kaoruko’s closing words and to be instructed on their next moves for the after party. It seemed that tonight, Kaoruko was not giving up Futaba, so Claudine was sent with Maya and Koharu and a different manager to attend the party at some club in Harajuku. With robotic motions, she changed into a black mini-dress and heels, letting her hair down fully and watching Maya do the same.

“He’s not on the guestlist,” Futaba said, whispering in her ear when she arrived. She and Maya both took a drink, learning their lesson after the first party and sipping very slowly tonight. The Tokyo show would have a “secret show” in two days time, and then they would be flying out to Paris. Claudine was nostalgic for Paris, but she wasn’t particularly looking forward to this trip. Without her parents, what was the point of visiting? She thought of her father, stuck in that dismal hospital room, hooked up to breathing machines, and her mother beside him, that pitying look in her eyes - the one usually reserved for Claudine. Her hand shook around her drink.

To Claudine’s surprise, it was not Maya who steadied her hand and prevented the glass from falling, or worse, from shattering in her hand, but Daiba Nana. “Kuro-san, what’s wrong?” she asked.

Claudine wanted to laugh. Everyone conversation she had was “are you alright?” or “what’s wrong?”. Was she really that pathetic looking? She would have to do better. Tendo Maya was already surpassing her, she could tell. It was all she could do to keep up with the prodigious girl beside her. How irritating….

“Nothing. I’m fine, was just getting annoyed thinking of a mistake I made earlier.” Claudine lied smoothly, remembering a time when she lied daily, and matched the lie with the same assuring smile she used back then.

Nana looked as if she didn’t buy Claudine’s lie, but understood that the afterparty at this Harajuku club was not the place to pursue this conversation.

Claudine stuck with Nana and Junna most of the night, losing Maya quickly. Maya first chatted with various patrons and industry people, and then with this woman and that woman. Each beautiful woman, a special guest at this event, seemed to be drawn in by Tendo Maya’s charms, and wanted to personally meet the rising star, so it was impossible to get back to Maya’s side, and Maya seemed to make no effort to get back to Claudine’s side.

No matter, Claudine told herself. As long as she doesn’t bring anyone home with us tonight, it makes no difference to me.

She was interrupted from her staring by her phone buzzing, and opened the Instagram notification. Karen had uploaded the first ‘Eclipse’ shot, with Claudine in the black dress with the chains, coming to stand before Maya, who’s warm breath had been on the back of her neck. Inadvertently, she shivered again. “Nana, you did a wonderful job with these shots,” she said.

Nana smiled. “Thank you! Between Mahiru’s set and Hikari and Kaoruko’s dresses and you and Tendo-san’s modeling, my job was easy.” Her implication was all but stated aloud. I know you didn’t make a single mistake tonight.

Junna and Nana were close and getting closer as the evening progressed, and Maya was busy with her socializing. As soon as it was acceptable, Claudine called a car to leave, realizing as she rode home that this was probably the first time she had gone home from work without Maya aside from the few times they had separate schedules. She hoped Maya didn’t bring a woman home. She didn’t care that Maya liked women (at least, she assumed Maya liked women from how much she entertained them this evening), but she didn’t want to be privy to her relations amoureuses, and she didn’t particularly want anyone knowing where they lived.

To her surprise, Maya was in the kitchen alone, sipping coffee when Claudine woke up the next morning. “You came home alone, I was worried,” Maya said, almost immediately.

“You were occupied, I wanted to go home,” said Claudine, unsure of why she was being so petty about this. Her throat felt tight, making the words hard to say, but she held her voice steady, reaching for a coffee cup to avoid showing her face to Maya.

“Were… you jealous?” asked Maya.

Claudine nearly spilled coffee on herself but corrected at the last minute, only splashing a bit on the counter.

“I- of course not! You can do as you please!” Claudine finished preparing the coffee, now thoroughly flustered.

“Oh,” said Maya, sounding rather disappointed. Had she honestly wanted Claudine to say yes? What a vexing woman.

They spent the morning in relative silence, with Maya reading one of her many books, and Claudine sitting on the balcony. She sipped her coffee slowly, looking out at the water. After a while, Maya joined her, continuing her reading outdoors, and Claudine hated to admit it, but she appreciated the presence of Maya on the balcony, pulling her out of her thoughts of her father and the bills and the dread of encountering him at one of these events.

That afternoon, they had a meeting scheduling some shoots for the winter collection, to take place in the weeks before and after the Seoul show. Claudine didn’t pay attention to most of it, knowing the schedule would be sent to her phone, and knowing Maya was paying enough attention for them both. The evening was spent with the annoying realities of aesthetics when modeling - getting extraneous hair waxed, skin treatments, and getting her bangs trimmed. Claudine went to bed hoping she would be less sore by morning.

The next day was the Eclipse ‘secret’ show in Odaiba, and though the atmosphere was different - it took place at 10PM, with a different, younger, more alternative crowd - to Claudine it was the same event, and she performed it with the same effort and level of professionalism she gave every runway. Still, somehow, she felt her radiance did not bloom as bright as Maya’s.

After, the runway was torn down before their eyes, and a DJ came out, the venue becoming the afterparty in a matter of a few minutes. It was close to midnight, and as always, Claudine was exhausted, but she had no choice but to continue on. She swallowed a couple caffeine pills with a swig of water and changed into a silver mini skirt and a torn black American band T-shirt. It was an outfit put together by their stylist - all of her afterparty outfits were, but it suited her fine. Maya was wearing a black miniskirt, paired with a silver camisole and black women’s suit jacket with a military style patch on the chest. Claudine had the urge to pull it off of her, and see the surprised look on her face. Lately, she was becoming obsessed with causing Maya to make faces other than her normal placid ‘listening’ expression and her standard, haughty ‘runway’ face.

Claudine didn’t touch the jacket, however, and once again watched Maya become accosted by women at the party. Female musicians, actresses, and various other guests all wanted a chance to talk with Maya and take pictures with her. Claudine stepped out onto the back patio and found Hikari, bumming a cigarette from her - a rare indulgence, but one she felt she needed at the moment.

“I didn’t know you smoked,” said Hikari, standing beside her.

“I don’t, that’s why I’m bumming from you,” she said, letting out a puff of smoke that seemed to ease some of the tension in her shoulders.

“I thought it was because the stylists don’t give you any pockets,” Hikari said.

“That’s a good point. And yet they give Tendo Maya a whole jacket,” Claudine complained.

“Is she on your mind?” Hikari prodded.

“I don’t know. She’s on all of Tokyo’s minds with Karen’s campaigning.”

Hikari laughed a bit. “You’re pretty good at deflection, you know.”

Claudine sighed, exhaling smoke again. She could see the water from the patio and it made her a little more calm. She paused a bit before answering, realizing she could deflect even this accusation, if she wanted to. “I know,” she agreed at last.

“You don’t have to,” said Hikari. She looked like she didn’t want to say more, but then she turned around to lean her back against the railing, putting out her cigarette in an ashtray beside them. “I used to deflect everything until Karen started, and then she gradually got me to open up, and I feel so much lighter. It’s like… my inspiration has returned. My designs are better. It’s incredible.”

Claudine knew if it was August, if she had still been in that house with her mother, that she would have said something hurtful to Hikari just then like, ’Well that’s great for you but you don’t understand me at all!’. It was a testament to how much she had adjusted to HANA and how much she trusted the staff that she believed everything that Hikari said, and that she wanted to open up. She just couldn’t yet, she wasn’t ready.

“Thanks, Hikari. I’ll think about it.”

Days after the secret show, Claudine found herself in an airport heading to Paris. Somehow the days between the last Tokyo show and this departure had been jam-packed with interviews, with shoots, with meetings and more, and Claudine found herself in Narita airport, sleep deprived and following the HANA train of Karouko, Futaba, Hikari, Mahiru, Karen, Nana, Junna and Maya. A second flight was carrying the Seiran models, as well as several stylists and stage crew members. This was the crew deemed essential for the Paris shows.

This morning, it seemed, nothing was going her way. The coffee shop in the terminal was closed due to a staffing issue, and so Claudine was forced to get a coffee at the newsstand nearby, which ended up being bitter and rather un-drinkable. She popped a couple caffeine pills, hating how they made her jittery, but knowing she shouldn’t sleep for another few hours to get her schedule right in Paris. The news stand had a tabloid with Maya on the cover, bragging about how “Tokyo’s girlcrush” was spotted in Ginza. Well of course, thought Claudine, she works there. There was another tabloid that mentioned them, but she didn’t bother to read it. It was all so irritating. She went back to her seat to wait for the flight, annoyed even with the crying baby across the way.

Did Claudine always find everything so irritating? She thought that Tendo Maya, who's life was planned so perfectly, who needed everything 'just so' from her evening run to her perfectly ironed outfits, would be the one getting set off by little things, but it seemed Maya was as relaxed as could be. She was chatting with Nana at the moment, the two of them leaning back in the uncomfortable airport chairs. No, it was just Claudine who was having a bad time.

Perhaps this is why some people labeled her a 'diva'. She smirked, realizing it was just a matter of time until the term would pop up again.

“Come on, Claudine, it’s time to board.” Junna brought her out of her thoughts, and they made their way towards Paris.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

Being a model was much tougher than it looked. Nana would know, as she used to be one. And in Nana’s experience from her time working as a model, one of the main reasons the job required you to be a lot tougher than the average person was because it could sometimes be very difficult to evaluate praise and criticism objectively before deciding whether to take it to heart.

Nana scanned the blogs and forums as she perched on the bed in the Parisian hotel room she shared with Junna, her roommate (and girlfriend) perched over her shoulder.

“Check that one,” Junna said, indicating the link Nana’s mouse was hovering over. “They’re always fairly objective.”

Nana clicked on Elle’s Daily Fashion Revue and control+F searched for HANA on the page, finding what she was looking for instantly. “HANA’s Eclipse show was a real treat. HANA’s production last year was average at best, however if you don’t have them on your radar - you should be watching!! They have two ‘new’ faces for the campaign, one being the truly new and incredibly talented Tendo Maya who I predict will be a top model in Japan within the year, the other being the surprise return of Saijou Claudine, now all grown up and proving to the world she hasn’t lost her skill. The design and format of the show itself was superb, and the HANA couture dresses were greater than I could have hoped. I even found a way into the secret show to watch it again - I was that obsessed. Heed my warning - do not sleep on HANA! [9/10 stars]”

“That’s awesome!” Junna said. “Told you she knows what’s up.”

“Yeah, I’m glad.”

“You don’t sound so happy,” said Junna, running her fingers through Nana’s hair. Her hair was down, a style reserved for when she was alone with Junna, and she tilted her head back to enjoy the feeling a little longer.

“I am really glad Elle liked it. It’s just that for every review like hers, there’s dozens who didn’t come to the show with comments like this:”

Nana pulled up a forum, titled Tokyo Fashion Week - HANA, scrolling through so Junna could see the comments, which ranged from the highly positive to those that she didn’t even wish to read again. “HANA doesn’t even deserve a thread here, I’m glad Akira left,” said one. She scrolled.

Currently obsessed with Kagura-san’s black chain dress. I can’t stop staring at it.

I would like it more if it wasn’t worn by Saijou Claudine

what’s wrong with Claudine? I’m happy she’s back!

All she does is stand there and try to look sexy. I like the new girl. She’s pretty and athletic and she has a degree and she’s really nice to her fans. Claudine neveer interacts with fans :P

Will you two shut up? We were talking about the show?

this is about the show, calm your tits. Eclipse was really good, but idk how they’re gonna follow this up. And tendo maya is only on this contract bc of her famous mother…

“You’re worried about the models,” said Junna.

Nana felt the intrinsic urge to deny this claim, to play it off, as if everything was fine, however Junna was right, and she had no reason to be dishonest. “I am.”

“You always are. You were worried about Akira too.”

“I’m still worried about Akira,” Nana said. “But I trust Yachiyo to look out for her.” She leaned back on the bed. There was a certain level of fame in the industry that just made her nervous. Even lower level models, like Yumeoji Shiori, struggled with obsessive fans and stalkers, or bad press rumors from time to time, and it only got worse as the fame grew. During last year’s campaign, Akira had a particularly bad time due to her inability to handle social media (Maya picked it up in record time in comparison) as well as her blunt way of speaking with interviewers and fans.

But currently, the situation with Maya and Claudine was a little different than that of Akira. Maya was plummeting to fame at a record pace - attracting the attention of all sorts of people, and Claudine was staging an incredibly difficult sort of comeback - a transition from child to adult, and from absolute disappearance to a global stage. Everyone was going to have an opinion on the two of them.

On the bright side, they looked good in HANA clothes, and they looked good together. The HANA fall print media campaign went well - so well, in fact, that they were currently hanging billboards of the red velvet shoot and selling department store window prints of the initial rooftop shoot - even as late as November. All of metropolitan Japan was going to have Claudine and Maya shoved in their faces. It was helping Nana and Junna’s careers as well. As the photographer and graphic designer behind those images, they had ascended into fame in their circles, their names attached to the images to those ‘in the know’. And to those ‘in the know in the know’, they were the power couple of high fashion photography at the moment.

Nana leaned over and kissed Junna before flopping back on the bed.

“Do you miss it ever? Modeling?” asked Junna, looking down at Nana from where she remained leaning over the laptop.

Nana contemplated this question for a second. She had modeled during the years of her photography training, only working full time as a model for about six months. And though she had found some success, the stress of that fast-paced, high-tension world was unforgiving enough to make her return to the camera, to the world where she could slow things down, capturing moments to save and reflect on, something she found much more joy in.

But you have so much talent!’ her agent had whined at her, when she gave her resignation.

She didn’t have much to say to that. She felt like she was given a choice, and in the end she chose time over fame. She would always choose more time.

“No, I don’t miss it,” she said firmly. “But I will support our models however I can.”

Nana spent another hour lounging with Junna until Junna convinced her to get up and enjoy Paris. Paris was Junna’s favorite kind of place, filled with romance, history, the setting of many plays and stories, and it allowed her to recharge on inspiration for her designs for the next sessions of HANA media.

In the late fall evening, Nana and Junna toured Paris, stopping in cafes, bookshops, a florist, and walking below the Eiffel Tower. Before it became properly late out, they picked up dinner and returned to the hotel, surprised to see Karen at the desk in the lobby.

“Karen-chan!” called Nana, surprised when the normally cheerful Karen did not immediately look up. She moved closer. “Karen-chan?”

“Oh! Nana-chan! Junna-chan! I’m sorry, I was distracted.”

“What are you working on, Karen?”

Junna and Nana sat down at the small table Karen was sitting at in the lobby, surprised to find her sitting by herself for once, and not with Mahiru or Hikari. Perhaps they were picking up dinner.

“Well the show is tomorrow, so Kaoruko wanted some sort of preview to go up on our story on Instagram, so I’ve been working on a video for that. I’ve also been trying to keep up with the Twitter, but I keep falling behind on that.” She yawned. “And I’m drafting captions for our posts for tomorrow so they’re ready to go whenever you send me the pictures.”

“Wow, Karen, you really are working. Do you want me to buy you a drink or something?” asked Junna, sounding impressed. Nana wondered if she had doubted how much work Karen had been doing until that moment.

“Wow! Um… a hot cocoa would be great!”

With a smirk at Nana, but no comment to Karen, Junna walked to the coffee shop on the left side of the lobby, rather than the bar on the right side as she likely had been anticipating.

“Karen, do you manage the models’ social media as well?”

Karen looked up properly from the tablet she was working off of for the first time. “I have access to @thisisTendoMaya, so I often clear her troll messages or post on her story from time to time. I have to fix her tags too,” she said with a giggle, pulling up a screenshot of one of Maya’s posts of a cafe breakfast that she had tagged #thisisbreakfast and #iamgoingtoeatthis

“I don’t know, #thisisbreakfast is a pretty good tag,” Nana argued.

“I agree, I have a little bit of regret about changing that one,” she laughed. “I don’t have access to Claudine’s account, though. She’s an old pro at Instagram and Twitter, though.”

“You’re a new pro, though, it seems. I can’t believe how good our page looks!”

Karen beamed, and just then Junna returned with the cocoa, slipping a hot tea into Nana’s hand as well. “Thanks!” said Karen, to both of them. “Anyways, I see you have dinner. I need to finish this video, so I’ll let you eat!”

Junna and Nana returned to their room to eat, watching a French drama they couldn’t understand as entertainment. “Call Claudine,” said Junna. “I want to know who the murderer is!”

Both to appease Junna and to satisfy her own curiosity, Nana called Claudine’s cell.

“Bonjour? Oh! Nana! Hello,” she said, quickly switching from French to Japanese.

“Kuro-san! Junna requests your presence in room 716. We are watching a French drama and need help solving the mystery.”

“What? Hold on.”

A few minutes later there was a knock on the door, and to Nana’s surprise, Claudine arrived with Futaba in tow. “Weren’t expecting me, were you, Nana?” she teased.

“I can’t say I was,” said Nana with a smile, “But you’re more than welcome here.”

“Good, because Kuroko and I have champagne!” They each raised a hand to reveal a rather large bottle of champagne and entered the room, waving hello to Junna.

If either Futaba or Claudine noticed how only one bed in the room was being utilized, they didn’t comment on it, and Nana appreciated their discretion. While it wasn’t exactly a secret that she was dating Junna, both she and Junna liked keeping their work and personal lives separate. Claudine and Futaba both sat on the unused bed, and Futaba set about popping the first bottle of champagne.

“You two aren’t usually together,” Junna commented, from where she was lying on her stomach on the bed, flipping through a French magazine. In the background, the French drama continued on the television, though Futaba had gotten the champagne open and was starting up a playlist from her phone.

“It’s true, we’re not as close as the two of you, perhaps,” said Claudine. “But Kaoruko decided she needed Tendo Maya for some dumb event this evening, so we decided to occupy ourselves.”

Nana wanted to ask about the event - if it was Kaoruko picking Maya randomly, or because she generally was more sociable than Claudine, or if it was because of family connections, or her new popularity, but she knew Claudine was not the person to ask. “Well cheers to this hotel party!” she said, and even Junna sat up as they passed around paper cups of champagne.

During the course of the evening, she learned that Futaba and Junna were the chatty drunks of the group, while Claudine seemed to be holding herself back. Nana preferred to observe, though it became harder and harder, especially as the four of them became more and more drunk. Nana knew Futaba and Kaoruko were a couple, but hearing Claudine mention Tendo Maya each of the few times she spoke made her wonder if there was more to the relationship between the two models than just acquaintances.

Eventually, after midnight, there was a knock at the door, and a grumpy Kaoruko came in to retrieve Futaba who had fallen asleep on the bed, fully clothed beside Claudine. Claudine woke during this exchange, and embarrassed, excused herself to return to her room as well.

The next day was the Eclipse show at Paris Fashion Week. Nana and Junna rode with Claudine and Maya to the venue, which they didn’t think anything of, but Claudine drew the curtains in the car as they approached. “Oh mon Dieu…” she said, her voice a bit hoarse from the previous night’s revelries. “Did you see them? Dozens of mosquitos out there, waiting at the entrance.”

On any other occasion, Nana might laugh at Claudine’s word for paparazzi, but in this situation, they did seem like a swarm of mosquitos. They were hovering around a staff-only entrance, waiting for a glimpse of models without hair or makeup done. In fact, Claudine looked rather obviously hungover and sleep deprived, and Maya seemed to still be jet lagged from their flight two days earlier. This wasn’t Japan, so Nana didn’t know who to call to amend this situation, and the driver wasn’t going to wait all day for them to exit the car.

Claudine slipped on her mask and sunglasses, her typical Tokyo attire, and one of the stylists offered her a black bucket hat, which she took. Maya also put on a mask, but otherwise left herself uncovered.

When the car door opened, dozens of shutters clicked, and voices asked questions in French, English, and Japanese. Nana stepped out first, allowing Maya and Claudine to step out beside her, and then Junna and the two stylists got out last, forming a sort of diamond formation. They walked the twenty feet or so to the staff entrance with men approaching them from all angles, cameras in their faces, and shouts of questions in their ears. Once the door had shut behind them, Nana felt Junna slip her hand into hers, and Nana squeezed, trying to reassure her that there would be no way this would happen again.

“Tendo-san?” Nana heard one of the stylists ask, and turned to see Maya leaning against the wall just inside the door, catching her breath. Nana wondered how late she had been out with Kaoruko, and if she was in poor condition this morning, or if she was just sensitive to the paparazzi in her face.

She righted herself quickly, looking a bit pale. “I’m fine, sorry to worry you. Let’s get downstairs.” Nana did not miss how she and Claudine subtly grabbed hands as they walked.

Naturally, Futaba and Kaoruko were upset upon hearing about this incident. “The building manager just keeps saying ’that’s just how it is here, nothing security can do,’” Futaba said in frustration, running her fingers through her hair.

“Unacceptable,” said Kaoruko. “We’ll simply have to hold HANA shows at a different, much more heavily vetted venue from now on. I will not have anyone on my staff subjected to that.”

As if the entrance to the venue was a sign, the Paris show just seemed to be cursed from start to finish. Luckily, the impressions overall seemed to be good. Unfortunately, by the end of the show, Nana had one camera that was not functioning, Yanagi Koharu had a rolled ankle from tripping over an exposed cable backstage, and one of the guests had to be removed by security for approaching the stage. It was a far-cry from their flawless Tokyo Fashion Week debut.

Kaoruko gathered them for their typical debrief in the dressing room, Koharu icing her ankle, and the rest of the models looking rather shell-shocked from the super-fan who tried rushing the stage.

“I should have guessed Claudine would be a hit with the French crowd,” Kaoruko said, perhaps as an attempt to lighten the mood, but earning a punch in the arm from Futaba.

“In any case,” she continued, “We pulled it off. I know this wasn’t our best show, but I will be having serious discussions with the staff at the venue, I do not believe this was our fault in any way. Let’s get some food and rest up a bit, there’s a get together this evening that we’re expected at.”

Futaba arranged for Koharu to see a doctor, and for the models to leave without the harassment of paparazzi.

Somehow, the rest of the visit to France passed uneventfully, and before Nana knew it, they were back in Tokyo. Once she got a good night’s rest, her first stop was her favorite camera repair shop just outside of Akihabara. To her surprise, she spied a familiar face inside, though she was rather hesitant to approach.

“Daiba-san, is that you? Come let me get a look at you. Goodness knows I’ve been seeing your photographs all over Tokyo.” Sakuragi Rei walked out of the shadowy corner where she had been inspecting some sort of lighting equipment, moving towards Nana. The older woman worked for the Sarazashi Company, a line of kimono and other traditional Japanese clothing which had been long-time partners with the Rinmeikan Agency..

“Sakuragi-sensei! What a pleasure to see you here! I have been seeing your photographs as well, every night on the subway line.”

Sakuragi smiled wryly. “A station pillar is a far-cry from a billboard and the department store windows, but that is the nature of selling everyday clothing vs. traditional wear. Not to mention that the photographer is well, one of the very best.”

“Ah, I’m not nearly that skilled, Sensei. I just work with wonderful designers and models.”

“Indeed, your subjects are quite stunning. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone at HANA in Seoul. It’s one of the few times per year Sarazashi is on the same stage as companies like HANA.”

“Looking forward to it! Now, Sensei… I think I’m having an issue with my lens…”

After fixing the issue with her camera with the assistance of the veteran photographer and the shop owner, Nana made her way to HANA headquarters, where she walked into the meeting room to convene with the others to prepare for the first of the winter print shoots. So far, only Mahiru and Junna were present, and they were very much occupied, giving Nana just a cursory greeting.

The theme for the winter line was [life on mars], so many of their shoots were taking place in nature. Hikari, Kaoruko, and the other designers had released designs that seemed to be part of the earth, blending seamlessly into trees, leaves, snow, and water. Junna was nearly losing her mind planning the catalogue, with Mahiru in tow bouncing ideas off of her, as there was no runway to plan in winter.

“We could plan the catalogue in four sections, like elements of nature, with an earth, water, plants, and snow sort of feel. Even the edges of the pages can show four sections when the catalogue is closed!”

Mahiru nodded, eyes alight. “Full page photos, with the text describing each piece in white, so as to be unobtrusive and blend into the organic feel of the shot.”

Junna scribbled down notes, nodding. “We could have a page with the models, and the opposite page with the clothing just hanging on a line in nature, so we can see what it looks like in its natural form, emphasizing our organic cotton, and how the light flows through our fabrics.”

Hikari walked in, obviously trying to give the impression that she was unconcerned with mundane things like the catalogue. “You two are just making a photobook,” she said.

Mahiru blushed a bit, but Junna looked undeterred. “Based on market research, this is the style our customers want,” she said confidently. “If the women want a photobook, I’m going to get a photobook into their hands. That’s what’s going to sell your clothes, after all.”

“Women… and men,” said Kaoruko, who had slipped into the meeting room undetected. “Can’t forget those men who want pictures of beautiful women and then end up buying clothes for their girlfriends or moms or sisters.”

“Ara, Kaoruko, are you calling me a beautiful woman?” asked Claudine as she walked in, and seemed to be in an unusually good mood at the chance to tease Kaoruko. Maya was just behind her, smiling mildly in amusement.

Kaoruko chose to ignore her, unlocking her phone instead. “Where’s Futaba and Karen? We need to get going.”

“We’re here!” Futaba’s voice sounded from down the corridor. Karen came bounding into the room a few seconds later, huffing and puffing, but with a large grin on her face.

“Check it out! It’s my new toy!” In her hand was her phone, mounted on a handheld gimbal, allowing it to function as a steadycam. “My videos are going to be upgraded!”

“Great, we’re all here, let’s go.”

They piled into a van from the underground parking garage, settling in as they took the relatively long drive to a nearby forest. Nana wanted to get some golden hour shots, so the set up was to take place around 3pm. The models had their hair and makeup done, but they would be getting changed on location, and the set still needed to be dressed and the photography equipment set up. They arrived on time and got to work, the staff who were not busy with setting up huddling under a tent and portable space heater.

Today’s shots were with the ‘earth’ theme, and fall leaves littered the ground, and they chose an area with several large boulders as well. The orange and brown tones dominated, and soon the sunset would allow for a natural-lit glow on the scene as well. Claudine changed into terra-cotta colored pants with brown clogs and a crocheted, cream-colored camisole, her hair extra fluffy and hanging loose around her arms. Maya wore a long taupe skirt with a leaf pattern beaded into the bottom third in silver beads. On top she wore a brown sweater made of a loose weave, and a brown beret. She wore HANA collection flats on her feet. Her hair was in a loose side braid.

It was strange seeing Maya and Claudine in coordinating outfits after seeing them as opposites for so long. The warm, rich colors were so different from the constant black and white feel of fall, but in a good way. Before long, it was time to begin the shoot. Nana took a few breaths, listening to the distant sound of a stream and the birdsong that filled the forest as they worked.

“Alright, let’s get to work!” she called cheerfully. She started with Claudine sitting on a low boulder, and Maya leaning against the adjacent taller boulder. Then she had them both sit on a nearby downed log, with fall leaves around them. She took a few of Maya walking across the log, and some of Claudine perched atop the taller boulder. Then, as usual, they began moving on their own. Posing without speaking. And in compositions that were extremely well-balanced.

Karen zoomed around the scene, recording this and that with her phone, and making sure to stay out of Nana’s shots, and the stylists popped in and out of the scene to adjust from time to time. There were two outfit changes – both similar “earth” outfits in the same family of color and style, and they finished the shoot around six. By that time, it was a bit chilly, and they sent the models to the tent to change and take some time by the heater before driving back. “This is going to be a good catalogue,” Nana told Junna. “Probably your best work.” “Our best work,” Junna said, sneaking a kiss to the back of Nana’s shoulder.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

“Ah, I guess Sarazashi will be here, huh?” Claudine leaned against the window of the plane, gazing down at Korea as they approached in their landing. Maya sat beside her, just two seats on each side of the aisle.

Claudine’s offhand comment caused Maya to shiver. It was the Asian Fashion Week, of course a traditional Japanese company like Sarazashi would have a showing at this event, even if they didn’t host runways at events like Paris or Tokyo Fashion Week. But Maya was unprepared. Somehow, this had been a huge oversight. She did not anticipate facing her mother while she was in Korea.

It wasn’t as if they didn’t get along, it was just… this would be her first time facing up to her mother since she had entered the industry. It wasn’t as if Maya had been avoiding her mother. It was more like… well, she didn’t feel like exploring those thoughts, right now.

“Mm,” said Maya, noncommittally. She supposed this answer would suffice, it was rather early in the morning. Claudine probably didn’t expect full sentences from her at this point.

“Sarazashi, Siegfeld, probably even that fashion house Frontier works with… that Western style one… What are they called? …Showtime? It’ll be a regular reunion.”

“Did you know all these people from before?” asked Maya, mostly to get her mind off of her mother.

Claudine shook her head. “I have walked at this show before, but the runway for children and teen fashion is completely separate. I just meant that we hear about these models and fashion houses all the time, but we never really see each other.” She paused for a moment, considering. “Though I wonder if she is still working…”

They landed soon after weaving through the busy airport. Kaoruko had ordered a service to move all of their luggage and equipment to the hotel and the venue, so Maya only had to hold her small carry-on bag as she walked through the airport, noting, however, the dozens of fans waiting for their arrival. Though it was nothing like Paris- these fans were not professional paparazzi, but rather just regular people who had come to the airport to catch a glimpse of their favorite models or designers, and they did not encroach on their party at all- it was still surprising to see so many people after just getting off the plane. It made Maya appreciate that she bothered to dress well and do makeup for such an early flight.

Maya wanted to grab Claudine’s hand, but resisted the urge, lest someone capture a photo of them holding hands. Beyond Maya’s stress about seeing her mother, Maya was becoming increasingly stressed about her relationship with Claudine. She had come to terms with her attachment to Claudine – that this was inevitable and irresistible, but now she did not know where they stood. They held hands from time to time, but Karen also would hold Maya’s hand as she pulled her along to the next meeting. Maya shook her head. She wasn’t so naïve as to believe that holding hands with Claudine was the same as holding hands with Karen. She knew that to Karen, holding hands with Maya was not the same as holding hands with Mahiru or Hikari. Even someone as inexperienced in relationships as she was could tell that much.

But where exactly that left Claudine and Maya – she was unsure. Was she meant to try to get closer? Claudine could be prickly, but ultimately, she had a good heart. Was Maya meant to just enjoy where they were in their relationship? Good friends, rivals, partners? That seemed to be acceptable to Maya, until she imagined anyone else becoming closer to Claudine than herself. A vice seemed to grip at her heart – a strange jealousy that she didn’t even know she was capable of. Since when had she cared so much? For what reason did she care so much? Did Claudine feel even a fraction of what Maya felt in return?

Seoul was nice, and their hotel was clean and modern. This trip was shorter than the trip to Paris, but the flight was shorter as well – it was more of a long weekend than anything. The day of arrival was a rehearsal, the following day was the show, the next day was a tourism day, and the following morning they returned home. Perhaps Maya wouldn’t see her mother at all. This thought crossed her mind, and disappeared as she walked back to the lobby with Claudine to get a ride to the venue for their rehearsal and found herself face to face with Tendo Yuko.

Of course the show would put a lot of the Japanese guests in the same hotel, she supposed. It was only a matter of time.

“Maya!” her mother chirped, her hair done perfectly, as always, her suit pressed and perfect. “Come here.” The creative director of Sarazashi stood in the lobby of the hotel, looking every bit her role, not an ounce of motherly affection in her tone.

As if drawn by a magnetic force, Maya presented herself before her mother, holding herself up with perfect posture. Claudine, who had been accompanying her out to the car, had no choice but to follow along. Maya wondered if they had met – Claudine’s career was certainly long enough for her to have encountered Tendo Yuko in the past.

“Mother,” Maya said in greeting, “Have you met Saijou Claudine? She’s my partner at the company.”

“Good afternoon, Tendo-san,” Claudine said, her tone formal, but not demure.

“Ah, yes, it’s hard to forget hair and eyes like yours, even after so many years,” her mother said. “Please treat Maya well.” She looked at them both, but continued speaking just to Maya. “I saw your show a couple weeks ago. Your father and I were both impressed.”

Maya felt a strange sensation of warmth flood her insides at the acknowledgement from her mother. “Thank you,” she said, trying to sound more confident than she felt. A part of her, deep in her heart, knew the truth that she was not ready to admit. She was afraid her parents would disapprove of her ‘mainstream’ pathway into the industry, rather than selecting a career in the more traditional realm of kimono or other traditional Japanese clothing. However, she knew from observing her mother’s career that though this was a way to garner tremendous respect, this was not the way to the ‘Top’.

“Keep it up,” her mother intoned. “It’s hard to get to the top, but even harder to stay there.”

“Of course.”

“Well, I’m sure you have a schedule to keep. Perhaps we will see each other again. Goodbye for now.”

And as curtly as she arrived, Tendo Yuko was off, rejoining some staff from her company at the hotel bar.

Claudine shot Maya a sharp gaze but spared her a comment. They both rode to the venue in relative silence. Despite Maya’s complicated feelings about her mother, however, Tendo Yuko had certainly carved a niche for herself. All of Maya’s early life, Tendo Yuko was forging ahead with Sarazashi, busy with her designs and her planning and the company. Maya was often left with her father, and they occupied themselves with the theater, and museums, and the arts and history. Perhaps this was the reason Maya got her degree in history. Well that, and the fact that she wanted to strive for the Top in some area. Now, thrust back into her mother’s orbit, she couldn’t fail.

The rehearsal for the Seoul show went well, with all the lessons from Paris taken to heart. Every cable was double checked and taped down, every camera was checked to be in good condition, and the security presence was much more active. Backstage, various models from all over Asia were buzzing about, speaking in various languages, and sporting every sort of design from Western fashion to traditional Asian fashions to modern, experimental looks to couture and everything in between. HANA shared a dressing room with Showtime, and next door was Siegfeld and Sarazashi, perhaps in an effort to keep the Japanese models close together.

Maya had never met the Frontier models who had won the multi–year Showtime contract, but they were outgoing and very cute, sporting bold colors and a California-type look that Maya found very flattering. From the limited interaction she had, the Frontier models were very laid back, spending time playing cards or snacking while waiting for their turn with rehearsals.

“Oh, Shizuha, look!” A blonde model, sitting on the couch beside a taller, dark haired model who was working in a puzzle book pointed out Maya and Claudine as they settled their things down for the rehearsal, waiting for the stylists to unpack all the hair and makeup products. Despite this being a rehearsal, Maya knew there would be some press allowed in, so it was necessary to look her best, as always.

The girl addressed as Shizuha looked up, a look of familiarity dawning on her features upon seeing Claudine. “Saijou-san,” she said, closing the book with her pencil inside to hold her page. “I had heard that you were working again.”

Shizuha was pretty, Maya noticed at once. With long, wavy hair and feminine curves, she would look perfect in Showtime’s beachy, bohemian looks. But more than that, she carried herself in the same way Claudine did - with the weight of experience. She seemed to have the same combination of grace and trepidation on her features that Claudine did, though Claudine did better to hide her world weariness when working.

“Shizuha,” Claudine greeted her. “I was just wondering if you would be here. Frontier is a new agency, no?”

Shizuha nodded. The second Frontier model, the blonde, came to sit closer, but the others were busy getting their makeup done. “Yes, when you and I met, I modeled for Papillon, and then another contract, before taking a break for a year. Then I took this contract with Frontier just after the agency began, and joined with Aruru-chan here, along with Tsukasa and Misora-chan,” she said, gesturing to a couple of the models across the dressing room. “I had started to get really burnt out.”

Claudine nodded. “Yachiyo left to pursue design, you and I took breaks. Akira’s still going, but she was doing ballet as a child, not modeling. It seems like no one can keep it up from childhood to adulthood,” she said.

“Our manager, Lalafin, I think she could have done it and not lost her mind,” Shizuha said. “She was successful as a child model. But she stopped growing.” She nodded her head towards where a cheerful girl was assisting the stylists with preparations, a rabbit-patterned dress bustling here and there. “She still does lolita shoots now and then.”

“Oh, yes! Lalafin! I remember her. We both got scolded when we were about eight because our Japanese was poor. I’ll have to say hello.” Claudine let out a low laugh. “It really is funny though… The one with the most fortitude just doesn’t have the height. Cruel.”

Maya listened attentively to this conversation, trying to gain insight into the world of Saijou Claudine. She couldn’t imagine them growing up in much more different environments if she tried, with Claudine modeling and working independently before age ten, and Maya spending days with her father, exploring the history of Japan, and studying… always studying. Maya wondered if Claudine was insinuating something else with her last phrase, or if she truly believed that she ‘lacked fortitude’. The thought was curious to Maya, as she watched Claudine strive to give her absolute best daily.

Soon enough it was time for Maya and Claudine to get ready, and Shizuha returned to her puzzle book, and Aruru set up a card game with the other models Shizuha had pointed out earlier, with Karen joining in as well when they needed a fourth. Maya expected Shizuha to join, but instead she dashed about with Lalafin, the two of them making last-minute adjustments for the show. “She seems busy,” Maya commented to Claudine, when it was finally just the two of them walking to the backstage area.

“Shizuha? She’s always been that way. She’s the motherly type to begin with, but from what i’ve heard, Showtime is a bit of a mess right now…”

“What do you mean?”

“Yachiyo was telling me… Their creative director, some guy named Andrew, he spends all his time in California and never bothers to support them with their fashion week events. So it’s up to managers like Lalafin, and even the models themselves to make sure the runways go smoothly.”

“Seriously? What a nightmare. Why even-”

“Because it’s a contract, Maya,” Claudine cut her off curtly. “If the runway goes badly, everyone will look unfavorably on the Frontier models and not want to hire them for other projects, regardless of the mismanagement. And because… well of course they want to put on a good show. I can’t even imagine the stress, though…”

After the rehearsal, Kaoruko sent them home to sleep for the show, with promises to order plenty of food to their rooms. Unlike with the other Fashion Weeks, this last show did not have mandatory party events, for which Maya was very grateful. She took a shower, grateful for the moments of relaxation in the hot water, before emerging from the bathroom in a nightgown and robe to find Claudine asleep on the bed. Maya sat beside her, intending to wake her up, but instead spending several moments watching Claudine sleep.

Finally, realizing that Claudine probably wanted to shower before eating as well, she gently shook her awake. To her surprise, however, Maya found her arm grabbed by Claudine’s, and found herself pulled down onto the bed. “Come lay down,” Claudine said, her voice thick with sleep.

Maya found herself laying beside Claudine, facing her, altogether too close, on that hotel bed. Their arms were entwined, and Claudine’s hair brushed against Maya’s shoulder. Maya closed her eyes and breathed in the scent that was so distinctly Claudine, relaxing slightly from the stiff position she initially found herself in.

When she next woke, it was Claudine shaking Maya awake. Claudine’s makeup was a little smudged, and the side of her face was red from sleeping on it, but the sight still made Maya smile. “Go get the food from the delivery person. I don’t want to open the door like this,” Claudine said. That was all she said - there was no comment on their nap together, or how it came to be. Maya did as she was told, and set up the meal as Claudine showered.

They ate without much conversation, and slept early (this time in separate beds). They returned to the venue around noon the next day, as the fashion show was set to take the better part of the afternoon and evening between two stages, with HANA’s final Eclipse show running at 4. This show had the added pressure of being the only one streamed online, so there would be many fans and industry representatives watching live and forming opinions, and the recording would be shared on SNS quite extensively in certain circles, Maya was sure.

Somehow, due to arriving four hours before they were set to walk, Maya and Claudine found themselves in the dressing room next door, after having their makeup and hair done initially after arrival. Yachiyo had come by to invite Maya and Claudine to their dressing room to watch the runway where it was being broadcast on the livestream on a large television, and after some arranging, Koharu, Aruru, Misora, and Tsukasa decided to come along as well. Suzu and Hisame decided to stay with Nana and Mahiru, and Shizuha and Lalafin continued to assist with Showtime’s last minute preparations.

The six newcomers were greeted among the Siegfeld circle of Akira, Michiru, Shiori, and Liu Mei Fan. Carefully, they pulled up chairs and squeezed into the Siegfeld designated area. Maya watched as Claudine slipped into a spot next to Shiori, which surprised her, as she thought she would have selected a seat near Yachiyo.

“What’s wrong?” Claudine asked quietly.

“I haven’t seen her since… well, in a long time…Fumi, that is,” Shiori said, glancing toward the Sarazashi half of the dressing room.

The show had begun, and various models were taking to the stage, and Yachiyo and Michiru at once began commenting on design choices. Maya’s attention was stolen by Hikari and Karen nervously entering the room - the guests now highly outnumbering the hosts - and Karen giving Hikari a light shove. “Go on,” she said.

“Ah, hello,” Hikari said to Michiru. “I’m Kagura Hikari of HANA Fashion House. I… I am a huge fan of Hierophant. I wanted to meet you…”

With a wink at Maya and Claudine, Karen backed out of the room, leaving Hikari alone facing the Siegfeld staff. “Kagura-san, please, call me Michiru. Would you like to watch the show with us?”

Hkari nodded and came to sit beside Michru, and they all settled down again, the designers chatting about the fashion, and the models occasionally taking part, but mostly chatting about the industry or unrelated matters.

“Are you going to say hello?” asked Claudine, nudging Shiori to get her back on topic. Maya had her eyes fixed on the screen, but was listening in on Claudine’s conversation.

“I- oh, she’s coming this way!”

“Shiori, it’s been a while,” said a girl in a Sarazashi kimono who Maya assumed was Fumi Yumeoji. Her voice betrayed no emotion, she was merely stating fact.

“Onee-chan,” she said softly. Shiori looked as if she didn’t know where to begin their conversation.

“Why don’t we move out in the hall and talk?” suggested Claudine.

Fumi raised her eyebrow, as if wondering why this third party was inserting herself into their family drama, but Shiori nodded, agreeing. As if deciding to deal with the interloper once out of sight of the others, the three slipped from the room. Maya watched them go, and watched as Akira seemed to make a motion to get up as well.

“Now, now, you two,” Yachiyo said, turning around to face Maya and Akira. “Let’s let those three work it out. I’m sure they can do it themselves.”

Akira looked as if she wanted to protest, but seemed content to stay put as long as Maya did. A moment later, however, they were disturbed again by another visitor from the Sarazashi side of the room. She was a lovely-looking girl in a kimono once again, with long, straight dark hair and perfect posture - a true yamato nadeshiko.

“Ara, all these HANA staff, and no Hanayagi-san? What a shame.”

Michiru didn’t even look up from the screen before replying. “She’s next door, Tamao-chan.”

Suddenly, an inkling of recognition clicked in Maya’s mind. She could recall memories of her mother mentioning “Tomoe Tamao-san, the most lovely model has renewed for another season,” or “Tamao-san was saying yesterday that her uncle’s distributors in Kyoto say everything is going smoothly.” Tomoe Tamao was the golden child of her mother’s empire, and it was easy to see why.

Heeding Michiru’s words, Tamao continued on to the HANA dressing room, and they continued watching. At some point, Claudine and the sisters came back, and though Claudine looked content, she was a professional at masking her emotions. Maya could see Shiori had been crying, though she perhaps looked slightly more relieved, and Fumi immediately moved back to the Sarazashi side, so it was difficult to read her expression. Shiori took the vacant seat beside Akira, whispering to her and leaving Claudine with Maya. “Let’s go back,” said Claudine. “I need to fix my makeup.”

They slipped from the room, passing by a few other Rinmeikan models. There was one sleeping on a couch (luckily she hadn’t yet changed into a kimono yet), and two using an empty corner to take selfies for social media: one making cute poses like one might see an idol use, and the other crouching low to take the photo from the correct angle. “Rui, get up, you’ll wrinkle the kimono like that,” Maya heard her mother chide. She hadn’t even seen her, sitting in a chair at the counter, reviewing something on her tablet.

The girl, Rui, stood up quickly, and a stylist came by to help smooth out the kimono. Maya and Claudine slipped out of the room before Tendo Yuko could want anything to do with them.

Back in their dressing room, the chaos seemed to be just as great. Tamao seemed to be the bane of Kaoruko’s existence, from the way she was chasing her around, telling her about the various merits she was earning back in their shared hometown. In Maya’s opinion, being a clothing designer of international renown was greater than modeling kimono, no matter for whom, but she supposed she did not know the ways of traditional Kyoto families.

Additionally, Shizuha and Lalafin, and now Aruru as well, were running about with preparations for their runway, which seemed to be rather high tech and complicated. Maya hadn’t even seen Aruru leave the other dressing room, but she supposed there had been a lot of distractions. So, once Claudine had her makeup adjusted, they let Mahiru know they were stepping out and would check in with her just before it was time to go backstage. Wrapped in a robe over her first dress, Maya walked with Claudine down the corridor to a small open area just inside a stairwell, likely some sort of fire escape.

“Are you alright?” Claudine asked, straightening out a bit of Maya’s long ponytail. She was similar to Shizuha in more ways than she probably noticed, Maya thought.

“I’m fine, what about you?” she asked.

“Of course I’m fine!” Claudine said, sounding a little indignant. “I just thought, with your mom, and with meeting so many people, this trip was a little more overwhelming than the last. But I’m glad you’re fine.”

“You are always worrying, Claudine, I appreciate that,” said Maya. She wanted to add more, to tell Claudine how she wanted Claudine to allow Maya to worry about her, or how all the little things Claudine did didn’t escape Maya’s notice, but Claudine was standing too close to her in that small, deserted corner. They were both in their slippers, but Maya still stood a couple centimeters taller than Claudine, and she could see Claudine staring back at her, her chin tilted just slightly upward with a questioning sort of gaze. Her robe was open a bit, revealing Hikari’s beautiful creation, the black dress with the golden chains, Claudine’s breasts swelling right against the top. Maya brought her gaze back upward, to Claudine’s perfect lips.

“What are you looking at, Tendo Maya?” she asked, a hint of a challenge in her words. She bit her lip, her eyes, as well, darting between Maya’s eyes and lips.

“Only you, Claudine,” she answered.

And she was unable to resist, even if she wanted to. She leaned down to close the small distance between them, pressing their lips together. After a moment, she felt Claudine step closer and she wrapped her arms around her, both to support her and to feel more of Claudine. She was greedy, she was possessive. The moment she tasted Claudine, she knew it wasn’t enough, she wanted more.

Claudine opened her lips, allowing Maya’s tongue entry. To her surprise, Claudine shifted their momentum, her tongue pushing into Maya’s mouth and her weight pressing against Maya as she deepened their kiss. Feeling unsteady from the lack of oxygen and a rush of blood to her head, Maya stepped back, her back coming to rest against the closest wall in the stairwell. She broke the kiss to double check that they were out of sight of any staff and checked for security cameras, and then leaned in again, sighing in content as she felt Claudine reach between her and the wall to grab onto the parts of her back that were exposed in the dress.

She longed to run her fingers through Claudine’s hair, but it was tucked up in the perfectly styled bun. She longed to caress Claudine’s cheek, but it was covered in meticulously applied makeup. She longed to run her hands along Claudine’s entire body, but she didn’t know what Claudine was ok with, and she thought that it was unbecoming to set boundaries in the emergency stairwell of some random building in Seoul, twenty minutes before a runway show.

Claudine pulled away, as if sensing Maya’s wandering thoughts. She was still trapped between Maya and the wall, an intimate position that seemed to color her cheeks red. “We should… pull ourselves together so we can look proper when we get back to the dressing room before final call,” she said, her voice lower than Maya had heard it before.

They leaned beside each other in the stairwell, waiting for their heart rates to calm down and for any evidence of their intimacy to subside before turning themselves back over to the stylists to once again fix their makeup and hair. “That was-”

“Something we can talk about tonight,” Claudine said, cutting Maya off. “I’ll go back first.”

The final Eclipse runway began before Maya knew it, and with the knowledge that she was being streamed live to her peers and to strangers worldwide, Maya took to the runway with her usual confidence, not allowing herself to feel nervous. If Claudine held herself with her usual professional demeanor, and everyone at HANA was giving their best effort, then Maya was certainly going to do the same.

With each step down the runway, with each change of outfit, she held herself prouder, tried to show off the designs more, and walked with greater confidence. Each moment she had to stop and breathe, she remembered her kiss with Claudine and she felt her chest fill with excitement. Claudine shared at least some semblance of the feelings Maya held for her.

Finally, the show ended, and the stage began transforming for Showtime's runway. The HANA crew moved back to the dressing room, where they were met with applause from all of the staff who had been waiting and watching on screen, along with a few friends like Yachiyo and- "Sensei!"

Claudine called out to Souda-sensei, who to Maya's surprise was waiting beside Yachiyo.

"Kuro-chan!" Sensei called out, sounding familiar with Claudine. Maya remembered Claudine saying she knew Souda-sensei from when Sensei was an active model, so she supposed it made sense. “Maya-san, as well, great job!”

Claudine moved over to greet Sensei, and Junna entered with a cake, Karen filming. “To all the staff, photographers, models, planners, designers… here’s to the end of fall runway!” she said.

Suddenly, there was the distinct popping of champagne, and the cake was being sliced, and a flurry of movement in the dressing room as the stylists and crew were returning from backstage, and then the photographers and Mahiru and Kaoruko. Someone helped Maya out of her dress, and she saw Claudine and the Seiran models getting changed as well.

Maya was handed a slice of cake and a glass of champagne, and she sat on the couch in the dressing room beside Koharu to watch the Showtime runway. She wanted to talk to Claudine, to establish what exactly happened between them in the stairwell, but Claudine was busy catching up with Yachiyo and Sensei, so she didn’t want to disturb her.

As she ate the cake, Maya watched the Showtime girls take to the stage. A mellow, English-speaking female singer played as ocean-sounds set the atmosphere, and sunset colors splashed onto the runway itself, though the higher parts of the runway remained well-let to see the clothing. The audience slipped on some sort of high tech glasses to watch the show, and the models emerged.

Aruru came out first, in wide-legged pants and a crocheted top, with Shizuha following in a ‘70s-themed shirt with long bell sleeves and a v-neck, and a suede mini-skirt. Tsukasa followed in a sheer kimono printed with camellia flowers over a bandeau top and jeans, her hair tied back with a bandana, and Misora followed with a flowing sundress in yellow, with a woven leather belt and chunky wooden jewelry. It was a completely different vibe than the HANA show, and yet Maya could understand why this company was making a splash in Japan’s fashion scene.

“I hear those glasses have some sort of augmented reality feature,” said Koharu, one of the few actually watching the runway stream with Maya, the rest of the HANA party choosing to socialize.

“I wonder what the show looks like through the glasses, then,” mused Maya.

Koharu shrugged, sipping her champagne with grace. “They look great as-is, I can’t imagine.”

They watched a bit more, until Claudine came to sit beside Maya, and Maya could see Souda-sensei now in conversation with Kaoruko.

“Aren’t you going to eat your cake?” Claudine asked, nodding toward Maya’s untouched plate. Claudine herself was eating her cake, sitting comfortably with her legs tucked under her on the couch, dressed now in an oversized sweatshirt and athletic shorts.

“Of course, I was distracted by the runway,” said Maya, now picking up the artfully decorated cake. Taking her first bite, she could feel Claudine’s gaze on her lips, and could feel herself blushing lightly. She willed herself to look away from Claudine, away from the perfect lips taking bites of the perfect cake, and turned back to her other side, to Koharu.

“What are you working on now that this contract is over?” Maya asked her.

“Yes, we’ll miss seeing you and Hisame and Suzu every day,” Claudine added.

“I’m not sure about those two, but I’m taking a job with Blue Glitter, the loungewear company. I’m going home for a little while, until after the new year, though. Say, Tendo-san, they were talking about needing extra models for a few shoots if you have a couple days off and wanted to make a little extra money.”

Maya considered this. Per her contract with HANA, she was allowed to take other work, as long as it was cleared with HANA first and wasn’t associated with any long term contract or agency. Still, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to take on more work at this time, without receiving her winter schedule. “I’ll have to take a look with my agent and get back to you. Please send me the information, Yanagi-san.”

Turning back to take a sip of champagne, Maya caught a pointed glance from Claudine, but Claudine looked away before Maya could gauge the meaning behind it. Soon enough, they were interrupted by Karen, who wanted them to take a post-show selfie that she could then post on social media. Begrudgingly, Claudine agreed, though she made Maya re-take the photo about three times.

Finally, they packed up their possessions and moved to a restaurant. The day seemed endless, and Maya didn’t remember much of dinner, both because she was exhausted, and because she became distracted every time she saw the blonde hair at the next table swishing a bit as Claudine took a bite. It also didn’t help that Kaoruko had ordered them ample amounts of soju, and Maya wasn’t exactly sober. She knew she was sitting with Kaoruko, Futaba, Nana, and Junna, but she hadn't been following the conversation at all, her eyes drifting constantly to the other table.

“Honestly, Tendo-han, if you’re that uncomfortable being away from Kuro-han for one hour, you may have a problem,” said Kaoruko, sipping plum wine with an appraising look on her face.

Maya had the state of mind to blush, but felt too inebriated and exhausted to come up with much of an excuse. Nana smiled politely at her. “Kaoruko,” Nana offered on Maya’s behalf, “Perhaps Maya is just concerned for Kuro-chan.”

Futaba looked between the two HANA models. “Is something wrong with Kuroko?” she asked.

“Something’s always wrong, but it’s nothing new,” Kaoruko said, rolling her eyes. She took another sip of her wine. “Maya knows that too. She’s just.. Admiring,” Kaoruko said, with a smirk.

Junna looked at Maya, as if waiting for her to protest this egregious suggestion, but Maya was too tired, and honestly, in a way, Kaoruko wasn’t wrong.

“Good idea, Maya,” said Futaba, with a knowing look. “Just ignore her. If you protest, she just doubles down.”

Somehow, Maya made it through the rest of the dinner unscathed and only slightly drunk, and traveled with the others back to the hotel. Slowly, unsteadily, she made it back to her hotel room, Futaba ensuring she made it back safely. To her surprise, she was alone when she returned. Claudine had left in the other car with Karen, Mahiru, and Hikari, so she supposed Mahiru would ensure she returned to the room safely.

Exhausted from the day and certain she could use it, Maya stepped into the shower, not trusting herself to soak in the tub after drinking. When she finished, she brushed her teeth and combed out her hair, and left the bathroom for the bedroom of the hotel room wrapped only in her towel to find her nightgown. To her surprise, or perhaps not, Claudine was on the bed, scrolling through her phone, looking amused as Maya approached her suitcase.

“Do you need help drying your hair, you lush?” she teased, a wry smile on her face.

“I certainly wouldn’t complain,” said Maya, slipping out of her towel and into the nightgown, unsure if Claudine’s gaze was on her. She grabbed the water bottle she had left on the nightstand and took a few long swigs to try to help sober up, and found herself seated on the edge of the bed as Claudine plugged the hair dryer in, kneeling behind her on the bed.

Claudine dried her hair, combing it gently, her fingers helping to separate the strands and brushing against Maya’s neck. Despite the heat from the dryer, Maya could feel shivers on her scalp. And then, after what seemed like no time at all, Maya’s hair was tucked, dry, over one shoulder, the dryer was switched off and set aside, and Claudine remained kneeling behind Maya on the bed, impossibly close.

Claudine reached forward, embracing Maya from behind. Maya didn’t dare move, didn’t dare to do anything to make Claudine think that she didn’t want this affection. Instead, she closed her eyes, feeling the pressure of the arms reaching around her from behind, the warmth of Claudine’s breath on the back of her neck, and the erratic beating of her own heart due to their proximity.

“Maya,” Claudine said, her voice low and quiet, but steady. Somehow, Maya expected Claudine to be emotional, for all the stress Maya knew her to be carrying to pour out during a moment of intimacy, and yet, somehow, it was Maya who needed to steady herself.

“Claudine,” she said, as unwaveringly as she could, having to remind herself not to say ‘Saijou-san’ even at a time like this. “Claudine,” she repeated, more firmly. “Earlier, in the stairwell, I-”

“Yes?” Claudine asked, her grip loosening as if to give Maya room to be honest, but she did not move away. “You can’t lie and tell me you didn’t enjoy it, I won’t believe you. But if you do not want anything like that to happen again, if you value your career, then I understand. Le choix t'appartient.”

Maya’s brain was too addled for French, but she understood that the ball was in her court. She also understood that Claudine was implying that to further their relationship at all was to sacrifice something in her career. Claudine had worked in this industry, she knew the stakes. Maya bit her lip, grateful that Claudine was positioned behind her and could not see her. Of course she wanted Claudine. She realized that, perhaps intrinsically, from the moment Hikari mentioned that Claudine was the one on the contract, and her interest had only grown since then. And today, finally holding Claudine against her, finally kissing her, she realized that she did want something more than a relationship as friends or partners as well.

But still. Maya’s entire reason for entering modeling was to pursue the Top, and she wasn’t even close yet. A scandal would drag her down, and perhaps end her career before it had properly begun. It would all but ruin her relationship with her mother. But that was only if there was a scandal…

Maya turned around, now kneeling on the bed as well, facing Claudine. Before speaking, she leaned in again, closing the gap between their lips. It was not as fiery as the first time, not as desperate or rushed, but it was already becoming familiar to Maya - the curves of Claudine’s lips, the soft feel of her tongue, the angle of her jaw as Maya held a thumb against it.

But Claudine pulled away first, even scooting back a little on the bed, obviously unwilling to continue these intimate plays until the unanswered question was addressed. Maya watched Claudine wipe off her lip with the back of her thumb and tried to focus on her career, tried only to think about herself reaching that pinnacle, but somehow, it wasn’t even her own loneliness that broke her down in the end, it was the idea of someone else laying claim to Saijou Claudine. The idea of Claudine wiping away the remains of someone else’s kiss became unbearable, despite the potentially disastrous implications of pursuing any sort of relationship with her, and Maya was unable to tell Claudine ‘this should never happen again’.

So, after a pregnant pause, she met Claudine’s eyes, once again steadying her voice. “I want this to continue,” said Maya. “I do not want to give this up.”

Claudine appraised Maya neutrally, but did not move closer. Perhaps she was trying to see if Maya was still drunk? She tipped her head to the side slightly, her hair cascading around her. “...However?” she asked, implying there was something unsaid to Maya’s earlier confession.

Maya sighed. She had to say it. “However I still plan to aim for the Top. My goal, as always, is to be Japan’s Top Model. So I do not know where that will leave us.”

Claudine laughed a little, in a way that implied she did not find the situation funny at all. “I want you, Claudine, so long as you do not impede my career,” she mocked.

Maya wanted to correct her, to say she was wrong, but the words were stuck in her throat.

“That’s alright,” Claudine said, her tone lighter. She brought her hand forward to trace Maya's jawline. “I already knew that, Tendo Maya. Nothing comes between you and the Top. I’ve already accepted that.” She sighed, moving from a sitting to kneeling position and reaching out to adjust Maya’s hair. “But because you’re so frustratingly impossible, who do you think is willing to put up with you? Honestly… No one else but me, I’d assume.”

Maya felt herself begin to relax for the first time since Claudine’s arms reached out around her to begin this discussion. Her mind was fuzzy, but she thought, perhaps, she had both Claudine’s acceptance and freedom to continue her pursuit of the Top in terms of her career. And of course, Claudine was nothing if not discreet, more discreet than Maya, most likely.

She laid back on the bed, allowing her body to rest, after a long day of runway, socializing, and of course, intimate moments with Claudine. Claudine tossed another water bottle at her, telling her to drink while she got up to dig through her luggage. “It’s true,” Maya said, fascinated with the way she captured Claudine’s attention again at once. “There is no one else for me but you, I’m certain of it.” It was a bold confession, Maya knew. She had only known Claudine a few months, and yet, she did not doubt her words. She was drawn dangerously into the world of Saijou Claudine, and she did not want to leave. Nothing - no one - else, would taste nearly as sweet.

“Get some sleep, Maya,” said Claudine, “And finish that water. You’re drunk. I’m taking a shower. We’re expected up at 9 tomorrow.”

Claudine didn’t acknowledge Maya’s confession, but she didn’t dismiss it either. Maya could have sworn she saw the edges of Claudine’s lips move towards a smile, even. But it was too late. Now, laying back on the bed, Maya was fading into sleep. She would have time to ponder this later. For now, she was pleased that she could communicate this much, at least.

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

The next month moved swiftly, with work for the winter catalogue finishing, and new print media going up in store fronts, train stations, and on social media. According to Junna and Mahiru, due to the success of the Eclipse show, HANA didn’t have to ‘wait and see’ to sell ads this season, they could sell them right from the start.

Everywhere Claudine looked, she could see Tendo Maya in earthy tones, standing amongst evergreen trees, herself in a green sweater and HANA classic denim, posing by a travel camper, and- “Yakumo-san?”

“Just call me Kyoko,” said Claudine’s agent, approaching her from outside the station, where Claudine emerged from the escalator.

“Of course, Kyoko. I am to meet them at the Tokyo Tower in about fifteen minutes, I believe.”

“Well, I won’t make you late. When I heard you wanted to discuss some things, I figured we could have a phone conversation as usual, but it is nice to meet clients face-to-face at least once or twice,” she said, slipping on a pair of sleek sunglasses to match her slicked-back ponytail. From her tall boots to her black, fur-trimmed coat, everything about Yakumo Kyoko said no-nonsense with a side of ‘badass’. It gave Claudine a small modicum of satisfaction to imagine Kyoko beside Tendo Maya’s agent, who she imagined as some aged, frumpy lawyer.

“Let’s get something to drink, then walk and talk,” Claudine said, walking to a street vendor. “I haven’t had breakfast yet.” Claudine purchased them a couple of coffees from the vendor and they set off, warming their hands on the hot cups against the cold November day.

Claudine wore a knit cap with her hair tucked up inside it, oversized sunglasses, and a black, puffy jacket. She doubted anyone would be able to identify her, but she stuck to Kyoko’s side, as if the attention Kyoko’s striking image brought would take some off of her. “Now, what does Souda’s imouto want from me?” Kyoko teased.

“I need work,” she huffed, nearly choking as she took a sip of the too-hot coffee right after.

“You have work,” Kyoko said, gesturing to a [life on mars] campaign ad on a nearby train overpass. “You’re plastered all over Tokyo.”

“Don’t I know it,” said Claudine with a derisive laugh. “I need more work,” she clarified. “Some kind of short term contract I can work on in January or February, during the slow season.”

Kyoko clicked her tongue a bit as she opened her mouth, tipping her head towards Claudine with a little furrow of the brow that Claudine could see even beyond her sunglasses. Claudine turned forward again and began walking a little faster toward the Tokyo Tower. “I have a couple questions,” Kyoko said.

“I just need you to find me work, not pry,” Claudine said, now a step ahead.

Kyoko caught up so she wasn’t shouting her questions down a Tokyo sidewalk. She was nothing if not athletic, Claudine realized at once, so she slowed down, knowing that between them, she would be out of breath first. “First: what do you need more work for? You have a lush contract, enjoy your breaks when you get them, you’re gonna miss that free time come spring.”

Noticing Claudine’s reticence to answer, Kyoko continued with her questioning. “Second: why are you trying to pick up more contracts? It’s only going to get worse… your popularity, your fans, your anti-fans, all of it. If you don’t want the recognition, just ride out this contract and go home.”

Claudine clenched her teeth, trying to let the questions roll off of her and not affect her. Somehow it was easy in interviews to answer like a robot, or a well-trained idol, but here - it was like Kyoko knew exactly which buttons to press. Claudine could hear a small voice in her head saying ’tell her! Just tell her!’ and her heart leapt with nervous excitement at the idea of just opening up to Yakumo Kyoko of all people. But she was on a random public road in Tokyo, ten minutes from a job where she was expected to be in top form. There was no way.

With a sigh she shook her head, biting her lip. “Hey, …hey!” Kyoko grabbed at her wrist, surprising her. Claudine ended up dropping the coffee, which by some miracle only dribbled sadly onto to the sidewalk, the lid staying mostly attached. “What are you doing?” asked Kyoko, nodding towards Claudine’s hands. She looked down at her wrists, realizing the hand that hadn’t been holding the coffee had been pinching at the other wrist rather firmly.

“Nothing,” she said defensively, knowing even as she said it Kyoko wasn’t going to buy it. Claudine felt like she was ten years old again, getting chastised at a show for popping some stitches in the clothes she was modeling, or scuffing the shoes she needed to wear on the runway. She picked the coffee cup up and tossed it in a trash can, continuing their walk.

Kyoko also seemed to notice their proximity to the Tokyo Tower, and raised a skeptical eyebrow at Claudine. “You and Shizuha both are going to give me a stress ulcer,” she said.

“What’s wrong with Shizuha?” asked Claudine. She hadn’t realized that Kyoko was Shizuha’s agent as well.

“It’s not for me to say. Do you want me to share your dirt with Akira or any of the Edels? I didn’t think so.” Kyoko shook her head, as if lamenting her state of affairs. “Honestly, Souda sends me all the toughest assignments.”

“Do you have a crush on Sensei or something?” asked Claudine. “You keep bringing her up.”

Claudine had mostly said this offhand to get the conversation away from herself, but had to laugh at the way Kyoko adamantly denied this accusation while blushing.

“Come on,” Claudine said. “Let’s go upstairs.”

“Oh, no, you’re not paying me to go to work with you,” Kyoko complained.

“I know you want to see,” baited Claudine. To be honest, she wasn’t sure if Kyoko wanted to meet Kaoruko, Hikari, Nana, or Maya, but she was fairly sure it was one of those four and she was fairly sure that was why Kyoko insisted they meet in person on this day in this place.

“I’ll accompany you for a moment because I’m afraid you’re completely hapless on your own,” Kyoko acquiesced with half a growl.

They entered the shopping-mall like area at the base of the Tower, and Claudine checked Mahiru’s email to find the rented room they were going to use on the second floor to get dressed. Kyoko received a few strange looks upon entering, but a quick “She’s my agent,” from Claudine allowed her entry into HANA’s inner workings.

Maya was already seated at a makeshift hair/makeup table, this season’s typical ‘natural’ looking makeup being applied, with an additional element of wind-blown wildness to the up-do of her hair. Quickly, Claudine was ushered into a chair beside her, with little time to see where Kyoko wandered off to. Her own face was done up in what she had taken to calling the ‘Mars’ style: light contouring, natural colored eyeshadow, light blush, brown eyeliner and lashes, and rounded brows. Her own hair was only taken into a half-bun, in a strange reversal from Maya’s and her usual styles. Just like Maya’s hair, hers was teased into oblivion until she felt like she had half a cloud around her, and a small pouf atop her head.

It was strange having all this prep done with Maya just a few feet away. Since the return from Seoul last week, things had been normal between them - eerily so. Claudine wanted to close the gaps between them, literally and figuratively, but she held herself back. For one thing, at this moment, they were at work, as coworkers, and to be anything but that was inappropriate.

But Claudine knew this was only a cursory excuse. They lived together, and nothing had changed at home since returning from Korea, as much as Claudine wanted to once again pull Maya close to her for a kiss, or sit beside her on the couch with their legs touching. Her chest burned with the desire to be closer to Maya, it felt physically painful. Sometimes, like when they sat inches apart on that porch balcony, she thought she might cry out.

Maya was nothing but patient while Claudine snapped at her in bad moods. Maya was competent, professional, a fast learner, and had great chemistry – everything Claudine could want in a partner for this contract, and she was more than that - she was someone Claudine had grown to have feelings for.

Claudine once again grabbed her wrist, now safely hidden under the cape the stylist was using to trim her bangs. Yes, it was true Maya was someone Claudine wanted to grow closer to - to be intimate with even - but the problem was with Claudine. Despite Claudine’s assurances to a drunk Maya in that hotel room in Korea, she knew that she herself was the problem, not Maya’s quest for the Top.

Maya’s hand on her shoulder startled her from her thoughts. “It’s time to get dressed,” she said. Without a word, Maya untied the hair-cutting cape, making Claudine feel frustrated with herself for making Maya have to take care of her all the time.

“Of course, let’s go,” she said, trying to take command like she always did. She rolled her eyes once she was a step ahead of Maya, annoyed at herself. How long until Maya was sick of her tactics? How long until Maya saw through the front she was putting on and realized Claudine was a sham, nothing but a burned-out child model?

They dressed in Hikari’s designs, gauzy dresses with embroidered leaves and small pearl beading in great detail. Maya’s was a cream color, Claudine’s closer to an earthy sepia tone. Maya’s was a shorter dress, falling a few inches above her knees in bunches of tulle, her long legs on display as she stepped into heeled suede boots. Claudine’s dress was long, falling nearly to her ankles and the sleeves were long as well, but it was thin: some skin-colored underwear and pasties and a few layers of organza and embroidery left her feeling rather exposed, despite having far more skin covered than Maya. She was given a pair of sandals with a low heel to match the dress.

“Let’s go, let’s go, we only have the stairs closed off for 90 minutes!” called Futaba, ushering them all out.

Claudine looked around, but Kyoko was gone. A staff member handed her a hot pack for her hands and threw a jacket around her shoulders, and they made their way onto the stairs of the Tokyo Tower.

Once outside, Claudine noticed it was a rather small group: Nana, a second photographer, Futaba, Kaoruko, Karen, Hikari, Mahiru, and, most surprisingly, Junna.

“Alright, Junna, this is your shoot, what are we doing on the side of the god-damn Tokyo Tower at near freezing temperatures in November?” asked Kaoruko. “Ugh, sorry, sorry,” she said, taking a deep breath and shaking her head. “Yakumo-han just put me in a rotten mood. Why did you bring her along, Kuro-han?”

Claudine wasn’t sure how to respond to this, so she gave a noncommittal shrug. Taking the hint, Junna cleared her throat and began. “So the concept for this [life on mars] shoot is to feature the juxtaposition of the airy, elemental designs with the bold colors and concrete structure of the Tower. It’s also a contrast between the modern, never-before-revealed design of Hikari’s dresses, and the familiar structure of the Tokyo Tower - something that everyone in Japan will be familiar with.”

“There will be two outfit changes in this shoot, which will also give us a chance to warm up between sets. We’re aiming for 15 to 20 minutes of shooting per outfit,” said Nana, about ten minutes together, and five minutes of solos. We have two photographers, so we can do the solos simultaneously on different sections of the stairs.”

With everyone briefed, the shoot began, but once the jacket was removed, Claudine realized how cold it truly was to stand on the Tokyo Tower in a sheer dress in mid-November, her feet in sandals. It was good that their hair was designed to look wind-blown, as it was currently being challenged by the rather substantial wind. Claudine didn’t have much time to think about feeling exposed, as all of her focus changed to feeling cold and getting these poses done so she could return indoors as soon as possible. She saw Nana crouching down to get ready to shoot, and Karen also held her smartphone up to capture some behind-the-scenes shots.

Futaba was assisting Nana with some equipment as Hikari and Kaoruko chatted behind her, pointing to various parts of the garments, but it was Junna front and center, directing the shoot. “Tendo-san, can you move up one stair? Yes, perfect, now Kuro-san, your left hand… yes, a little more…”

Claudine caught Maya’s eye, surprised that Junna was taking charge. Maya, who’s expression did not change to any of the onlookers, cast Claudine a near-imperceptible glance that showed that she, too, was confused about this change in style. Usually, Claudine and Maya were left to their own devices when it came to posing, and their natural style produced good results for the company promotions. And even when they were posed, it was never by Junna, who was more active before and after their shoots - planning concepts and designing the print layouts for the catalogues and the print ads.

Still, Nana did not stop Junna from directing them, so both Claudine and Maya felt that they couldn’t say anything either. It took longer than usual to get the first few poses going, and Junna seemed to be growing more frustrated with the time crunch. Claudine could feel Maya shivering behind her, and reached behind her to hold Maya’s freezing hand in her (marginally warmer) hand, a public gesture, but one that was easily dismissed as helping the shoot go more smoothly.

“Kuro-san, can you lean against this beam, matching the angle?” Junna asked. Claudine didn’t much care to lean against a freezing cold steel beam, but she nodded with a tight grin, tensing at the contact. Maya was to lean on the rail beside her, but facing the camera straight on, and the next set of shots took place. Claudine knew it had been well over their budgeted ten minutes, but Junna had only gotten through four shots.

Finally, it was Kaoruko who had enough. “I came to watch, Junna-han,” she said, “Since you really wanted to try this project. But we have a very limited time until these stairs open, and if you want the amount of photos you’ll need to make the print ads, you need to let the models breathe. You can’t control every movement. Just let the shoot happen, and give them some ideas and direction if it goes way off course.”

Junna looked tense during this chastisement, and at the end her hands were balled into fists at her sides, but she nodded obediently. “Of course, kaichou,” she said, not quite meeting Kaoruko’s eyes.

“Good. Now let’s get the rest done at double speed. I’ll be waiting inside with some tea.”

True to her word, Junna was quiet for the rest of the shoot, hovering over Nana’s shoulder near Futaba as Claudine and Maya posed, using their usual non-verbal cues to change position, with the occasional tip from Nana. All the while, Junna looked glum, but between the cold air, and her proximity to Maya, it was hard for Claudine to focus on that.

The other two outfits did not offer much more protection from the cold, though they did remind Claudine of why Hikari was a creative genius. After a brief respite inside, they again trekked onto the stairs to shoot the next set, this time even Mahiru and Karen opting to stay inside and get some work done, so their party decreased further.

Maya and Claudine naturally posed much faster than the first session, but Claudine kept having to remind herself to look forward, after being drawn to those eyes, the lips, the face that plagued her mind every waking moment…

She thought there was a nice shot of her a few steps down from Maya reaching up, Maya facing the other way but looking over her shoulder and reaching back, their arms entwined, but there was no time to monitor.

The last set went by in a blur, and suddenly she was back in the dressing room, changed back into her street clothes, a blanket around her, a hot pack under her feet, and a cup of tea in her hands. Someone was pulling the pins from her hair, but Claudine wasn’t paying much attention. It was like all of the energy was sapped from her once the work was done.

She realized Junna and Nana had left, seemingly disappearing immediately after the shoot ended. Kaoruko, Futaba, and Hikari were also packing up. She turned to Maya, who was furiously warming up her hands with a hot-pack. “I guess we should get going as well,” she said.

“Indeed. I don’t want to make Mahiru-san wait here on account of us,” said Maya.

Her voice was quiet, but Mahiru seemed to catch her name being said. “Please take your time!” she said. “I know you two must be freezing! It’s my job to make sure you’re in good condition, so please spend some time warming up before you go back outside. I am just working on my laptop here, so it doesn’t matter to me how long you need,” she said.

“Et toi, Karen?” asked Claudine, looking at the other girl tapping away on her tablet.

“I’m learning English!” she chirped, with a smile. Upon seeing Claudine and Maya’s confused faces, she backtracked a little. “Well, not really, but you have a lot of overseas fans, so I’m learning basic English, so I can communicate with them better.

“It’s not just us,” Claudine said. “You run HANA’s page. They’re fans of HANA.”

Karen furrowed her brow as if deciding whether or not to debate this, but ended up deciding on a confused nod. Claudine decided to drop it. “Drink your tea,” Claudine said, pushing the cup closer to Maya.

Maya gave Claudine a small smile at the gesture and took the cup, sipping as she scrolled through their schedule on her phone.

Claudine pulled out her phone as well, figuring she had better check if her mom had messaged her, only to find a notification from Yachiyo. “Ooh, the industry insiders’ Christmas party is December 14. Are you and Tendo-san going as a couple? (づ ̄ ³ ̄)づ”

Claudine closed her phone without replying. “I’m ready to go whenever you are,” she said, knowing she was likely rushing Maya, but too on-edge to stay in this room any longer. Luckily, with the rather intense nature of that afternoon’s shoot, they had the rest of the day off. “Let’s go home so you can warm up, you ice cube.”

Kachidoki was not far from the Tokyo Tower by the bird’s wing, but the trip was somewhat of a hassle due to the way the trains were set up. By the time they got home, Claudine could see Maya shivering again, despite her wool peacoat. “Go take a shower before you get sick,” she said, for once not caring if she sounded like a nagging mother. She had never had to work on this contract with Maya out of commission, and she didn’t much want to start.

Maya nodded, for once not insisting Claudine go first or that she just wanted to take a short run first, and turned toward their bathroom. Claudine went into her bedroom, changing into sweatpants. It was early - before dinner even, but she felt like laying in bed for a bit. She kept her blinds open: the Tokyo Bay was an ever-present backdrop to her melancholy. The phone buzzed again, and lazily she pawed at it. One message from Yachiyo, and one from Kyoko.

She checked Kyoko’s first: “Short-term modeling pajamas for an American brand’s Japanese rollout? I have some of the Frontier girls on the contract as well.”

“Sure, email me the details,” Claudine replied. She checked Yachiyo’s message next.

“Don’t leave me on ‘read’! fr though, I haven’t heard from you since Seoul. You didn’t have to get involved with the Yumeoji sisters… I’ll try to see if I can handle that…”

Once again, Claudine left Yachiyo on ‘read’, turning off her screen and laying back on the bed. She had heard from her mother after returning from Seoul, and her father had been discharged back to home, but was still on oxygen, so she was still concerned. She needed to take that second job, and wanted to spend her short break over the holidays in Kanagawa.

Somehow, though it felt like no time passed, Maya was before her, changed into pajamas, and looking much warmer. “Saijou-san, if you’d like, you can use the shower now,” said Maya, somewhat tentative now.

Hearing her family name from Maya’s mouth was irritating. Watching Maya glance out the open window of her bedroom towards the bay was irritating. The bay was Claudine’s to stare at. But at the same time, Claudine couldn’t decide if she wanted Maya to stare only at her or to grant her the peace of looking away from her. She sighed. Why was everything always so vexing?

Claudine knew if she spoke she would say something harsh, so instead she reached out, grabbing the front of Maya’s sweater, pulling her closer. Maya acquiesced with surprisingly little resistance, coming to sit on the edge of the bed. “...Claudine?” Maya tried this time, her face now close enough to Claudine’s that Claudine could feel the warm breath of air that came with her name on the side of her cheek.

And that was all it took. All the restraint she had managed for a week was nothing when faced with her own name coming from Maya’s mouth in such close proximity, under the quickly darkening sky that Maya dreamed of ascending to, and before the Tokyo Bay that beckoned her with its quiet but pervasive hum.

Desperately, possessively, she pulled Maya closer, connecting their lips with a moan of wanting. Maya seemed surprised at the kiss, but recovered after only a moment. Perhaps, in her perspective, she was only surprised by the week delay - why had Claudine been holding back at all?

Unlike the last kiss, they were not about to go on the runway. They did not need to maintain their appearance, and they were not bound by the constraints of time. They laid back into Claudine’s bed, Claudine leaning over Maya. She could feel Maya’s breath once again - and the warmth was addicting. She closed the gap once more, feeling the curve of Maya’s lips, the feel of her tongue as it met Claudine’s. She felt Maya’s hands weave through her hair, and moved her hands from where they were propping herself up on the bed to Maya’s shoulders - anything to touch more of Maya in this moment.

A wave of emotion moved within her at the contact with Maya, the soft, but yearning connection at their lips, the unspoken truth that this was what they had wanted not just for the past week, but for far longer, and Claudine swallowed it down. Don’t ruin this by crying, she chastised herself.

Claudine exhaled, a little shakily, into the curve of Maya’s neck, kissing her there as well. She felt Maya’s hands - tentative, gentle - along her neck, along her shoulders, and she wanted more of the touch, she wanted to melt into everything that was Tendo Maya, but she knew she couldn’t go further. She knew she wasn’t ready to go further. She needed to come up for air. Being loved by Maya was like drowning in its own way.

Reluctantly, she broke apart, sitting up on the bed. She could feel the emotion in her throat, but swallowed it down. Maya propped herself up on her elbow, using her free hand to push her hair back, out of her face. The effect was so startlingly sexy that Claudine had to remind herself that it was time to stop.

“Are you ok?” Maya asked, with concern, not making an attempt to move closer.

It was then that Claudine realized that she hadn’t spoken during this whole encounter. The lump in her throat was dissolving for the moment, so she thought she could manage it now. She nodded. “I’m just… out of practice,” she said, smiling lightly. “I want to take things slowly, if that’s ok.”

Maya nodded, staring at her in a way that begged for more answers, more understanding, but Maya was never one to pry. Maya would wait patiently for Claudine to be ready to open up. “Of course. I- Honestly I’m just glad that what happened in Seoul wasn’t a dream,” she said, her voice perhaps more vulnerable than Claudine had ever heard it.

Claudine shook her head. “Not a dream.” She stood up. “I’m going to take a walk to clear my head, I’ll pick us up something to eat while I’m out.”

Maya seemed to think about offering to come with Claudine, but whether it was the implication that Claudine wanted to be alone, or the fact that Claudine had forced her to take the shower to get warm, she didn’t offer company. “Bring your cell phone,” was all she said.

Claudine got back into her hat and jacket, slipping on her boots. In truth, she wanted a shower, to order junk food, to sleep early. But the apartment had Maya, and Maya was dangerous at this moment, or rather, Claudine was feeling volatile in proximity to Maya. She considered just boarding a train to be back in Kanagawa by 8PM. But she knew she had work in the morning, and if she saw her parents’ faces, it might be difficult to turn back home.

Claudine took the elevator down to street level, walking out into the cool evening air. The sun was beginning to set now, the autumn season causing the night to fall earlier. She walked, almost without thinking, towards the bay, the water calling her as always. Walking among the seemingly endless streets of high rises wasn’t even an option - it was always going to be the shoreline.

She sighed, thinking again of Maya on her bed. She imagined Maya still laying on her bed, flipping through the nearly empty journal sent from her mother, opening her drawers. But Maya did not pry, Maya did not ask for more than what Claudine was willing to give.

A muted, choked sort of sob emerged from her mouth, and she quickly muffled it in the collar of her jacket. Biting her lip, she felt tears cloud her vision, but tried to blink them back. No, no, no, no, no! You were doing fine! It was so frustrating, endlessly irritating! She walked more quickly towards the water, unable to quell the wellspring of emotion she had managed to suppress in front of Maya. Luckily, it was that strange dead hour between work hours and nightlife, and very few pedestrians were about to witness her distress.

It was inevitable, she supposed. Since her abrupt departure from Tokyo at seventeen, there had been no one. No calls, no emails, no friends. There was a brief attempt at school that ended quickly in failure when she realized that social reintegration wouldn’t happen easily for someone who had a childhood like hers. From age 18 to 23, she had interacted primarily with her parents only. Dating had not been on her radar at all. In the depths of her melancholy - her days sitting on that one dock in Kanagawa for six and a half hours per day without doing much of anything - she would have thought herself unbefitting of being loved by anyone.

She had grown up, of course. She understood she had value: love to give and to receive. But the actual act of loving, and of loving Maya specifically was much more terrifying in actuality than it was in concept. She was afraid of so many things: her own vulnerability, of exposing how she’d been damaged in the past, of hurting Maya with her primary coping mechanism of lashing out. Maya was so comfortable, so right, that it was easy to relax around her, to want more and more, to want to fall deeper and deeper into their tryst.

Finally, Claudine turned onto the path that bordered the water. The sun was falling low on the horizon, but she turned east, so her shadow was cast long ahead of her. She took a few deep breaths, trying to sort her thoughts. She knew she should talk to Maya about this, that Maya would be willing to listen to her. But it was as though everything was built up so tightly inside of her that it was difficult to begin. Claudine felt as though her development was an asynchronous mess - first sped up too fast in her teenage years, filled with too much, too fast, and then slowed down to a near stop while she was in Kanagawa, enough to stunt her interactions. It was both a major part of the problem, and the reason she was having trouble explaining it. “Ugh, comme c'est énervant,” she mumbled, kicking a pebble.

She considered talking to Yachiyo for advice. Yachiyo was liable to get too involved, and telling Yachiyo meant Michiru finding out about her relationship with Maya, but she figured that was only a matter of time anyways. Yachiyo was mad she hadn’t been reaching out…

With cold, slightly shivering fingers, Claudine pulled her phone out of her pocket, surprised she already had a message from Yachiyo. Honestly, how many times does she intend to message me today?

‘Kuro, listen, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I know you’re still reading these. Akira was at an industry dinner just now and *Kirin* was there-’

Claudine missed the rest of the messages the phone fell from her hand. She wasn’t sure if was poor grip from the cold or from the shock of reading the name, but she guessed the latter from the rage that built in her chest upon reading that stupid nickname.

Suddenly, she was unable to stop the tears. These tears that had nothing to do with Maya and yet everything to do with the reason Claudine couldn’t properly kiss her. Upset with the message, upset with herself for crying in the middle of Kachidoki, upset about leaving Maya with dozens of questions, she impulsively brought the heel of her boot down on the phone, properly breaking it against the concrete path. With a small laugh, she stomped again, watching as the case, which was really only for decorative purposes, split in half and skittered across the path. She continued until the phone was properly destroyed and her breath was coming out in gasps.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

Maya woke the first day of December to freezing temperatures in Tokyo. She glanced at her phone to see that it was just before 7AM, and shuffled into the kitchen to start the coffee, double checking that the sliding door to the balcony was locked against the chilling wind.

Still in her pajamas, she knocked on Claudine’s door as she usually did, in order to wake her slightly sleepier partner to start their workday. She brushed her teeth, watered her plants, and took her morning supplements: vitamins, fish oil, probiotics, psyllium, and collagen. She finished her morning skincare routine, and with Claudine still not making an appearance in the common area of their apartment, she decided to venture into her bedroom.

Things had been off since the other night, when Claudine had returned from her walk, claiming that her phone fell into the bay. Maya wasn’t sure if she should be concerned that Claudine was lying, or concerned that she wasn’t, and that she was close enough to the freezing waters of the bay that her phone fell in. But, now wasn’t the time to ponder that again.

Claudine’s northwest-facing room was still dim in the early morning light, and she lay sleeping on the bed comfortably, now that she didn’t have an alarm set to wake her, as she usually just used her cell phone. Their first schedule was for ten, so it was not important for Maya to wake Claudine right away, and she probably should just leave her to sleep, she realized. But she also realized that she didn’t much feel like doing that, drawn as she was to the other woman sleeping on the bed.

She thought of the hotel in Seoul, of sleeping comfortably together, and how far they had come since then. Carefully, so as not to disturb Claudine, she sat down on the edge of the bed.

“Maya…?” Claudine asked, groggily. “Is it time for work?”

So much for not disturbing her, she thought. “No, we still have plenty of time.”

Claudine sighed in relief. “Then lay down or something, you’re putting me on edge.”

Maya did as she was told, slipping under the fluffy white covers of Claudine’s bed. Perhaps this is what she wanted all along, she realized. Claudine turned on her side so they were close, impossibly close - Claudine had fallen back asleep in seconds, her head now resting on Maya’s shoulder. Maya gently stroked her fingers through Claudine’s hair, currently extra fluffy from sleeping on it, and Claudine snuggled deeper into Maya’s side.

Maya lay in the bed, not quite awake, but not close to falling asleep again, either. She had questions, many of them, but it never seemed like the right time to bring them up with Claudine. ’Why did you take that hiatus?’ was currently top of the list, along with ’Why did you return?’ That being said, both ’Where did your phone actually go?’ and ’What are our boundaries currently?’ took up ample space in her mind, as well.

“Hey,” said Claudine, waking up after a while, and turning over into her stomach to prop herself up on her elbows and look at Maya. “Are you alright?”

“Me?” asked Maya. ’I could ask that to you,’ she thought.

Claudine nodded. “I don’t think you got any sleep just now, I was worried.”

“I slept well last night, so I’m fine. I was just thinking about some things,” Maya said. She said this cautiously, unsure if now was a good time to start this conversation, or if it would just lead to a rotten day.

“Thinking about what?” asked Claudine, shifting to lean on one arm so she could use the free hand to toy with Maya’s hair, their previous arrangement now swapped.

Maya debated which question she wanted to ask - something she was curious about, but a question that Claudine perhaps wouldn’t be completely averse to answering. “I’m curious about you, is all. Why did you come back, after all this time?”

Now Claudine did release a small sigh, averting her eyes and bringing her head down to rest on Maya’s chest. She traced a pattern gently along the top of Maya’s sternum. “There were a few reasons,” she said. The sun was shining more brightly now, illuminating her face in profile. “For one, like I said, I wanted to contribute to my family, financially, and modeling is the only skill I have. For another, HANA was probably just about the perfect contact for me - simple, staffed by women who could be my peers, secure. And, well… I guess I felt like I had unfinished business in the industry.”

Claudine sat up, stretching out with a yawn. “I kind of felt like I had no choice but to leave back then, but now, I can continue my career on my terms.”

She stood up, slipping into her slippers, and then turned around to sit back on the edge of the bed, giving Maya a small kiss. “And I’m glad I came back, because I was able to meet you.”

Maya’s question died on her lips with that kiss, and with the soft smile on Claudine’s face as she spoke, and instead Maya simply watched as Claudine disappeared into their bathroom to get ready for the day. ’Why did you have no choice but to leave back then? The question hung in the air, Claudine’s deflection masterful, certainly intentional. It felt as though the answer to that question would help Maya understand so much, but it was constantly held out of reach.

She pressed her fingers to her lips, suddenly doubting their kiss. Their entire transition from friends to something more intimate was amorphous and undefined, happening slowly and without boundaries. A kiss here, holding hands there, sharing a bed there. Of course, these actions might be chaste in the scheme of most adult relationships, but Maya did not like the undefined nature of their relationship - the wondering that came with slipping into bed with Claudine, or the fear that came with capturing her lips with a kiss.

And then there was the concern of their relationship well, existing at all. Of course Maya liked Claudine, and Claudine was observant, she had likely picked up on this as well, but was it a possibility that Claudine was using her affections as a way to keep Maya from prying? Even unintentionally, the timing of their last kiss was such that it prevented Maya from continuing their conversation. Somehow, Maya felt that until the burden of secrets between them lessened, their relationship could not progress, at least without eating away at Maya’s trust.

That day at the office, the photos from the Tokyo Tower were being rolled out, a huge banner of one of the pair shots now hanging in the HANA lobby. Maya had to admit, the shots came out beautifully, a brilliant mixture of the manmade carmine steel and the organic-inspired dresses flowing in the high winds. The color grading of the shots had been adjusted to change the winter feel to one matching the [life on mars] concept more accurately: a warmer, rusty tone, and Maya took a moment to admire the work.

She caught sight of Junna in the corridor as she was approaching their morning meeting, taking some of the stack of winter catalogues from Junna. “I saw your Tokyo Tower shot in the lobby, Hoshimi-san, it looks brilliant.”

“Ah… th-thank you,” Junna replied. She seemed slightly thrown off by this comment, but Maya did not have time to investigate further, as Claudine caught up with her, eager to show her a video of a cat on Twitter.

The morning meeting was the bi-weekly session discussing the events for the next two weeks. Mostly it was preparations for spring, special holiday shoots, and the Ginza Fashion District Christmas Party.

There was the most buzz around the party, since it was the only event outside of HANA, and everyone began chatting about who would likely attend. Siegfeld was also in Ginza, as was Showtime, technically, though the creative director of Showtime would likely be in California. Maya breathed a sigh of relief that Sarazashi was headquartered outside of Ginza, but wondered if Seiran would attend.

That afternoon, she had a session with Kaoruko, so after eating lunch with Claudine, she ventured up to Kaoruko’s office, stopping at the front desk where this time, Futaba was stationed.

“Ahh, Maya-san, welcome. Go on in, I’ve got Kaoruko’s phones and I know she’s alone in there, so you’re good.”

“Thanks,” said Maya, knocking and then entering.

“Ah, Maya-han,” said Kaoruko, apparently feeling casual. “Tea?”

“Sure,” Maya accepted, knowing she would likely be here for a while.

Kaoruko took her time pouring the tea, and Maya looked around the office. Various fabrics lay on a large table in one corner, along with reference books and a large computer monitor. Towards an adjacent wall was a drafting table with a large sketchbook, pencils, and various rulers and curve tools, along with Kaoruko’s trusty tablet. It looked as though she was working on one of her classic ‘princess’ type dresses, on a sketch of a model resembling Maya.

“Can you drink while standing? If you’re going to be my muse I need to muse over you.”

“Your muse? Won’t Isurugi-san be jealous?” said Maya, deciding to go on the offensive a little more than she did on her previous encounter.

Kaoruko just laughed. “Please. A muse is simply one who ‘guides my genius’. I’ve had a few, and none can compete with my affections for Futaba-han. They simply… have the correct body lines for my vision.”

Maya sipped her tea (while standing), and watched as Kaoruko moved to the drafting table, flipping it the opposite way so she could stand on the wall side and face Maya while she worked.

“So, mirror images, hmm…” mumbled Kaoruko. Maya was surprised. Had she actually intended to use these sessions to get work done? Maya had thought they would just be check-ins or gossip sessions, an excuse for Kaoruko to pick on Maya, in a way. And yet Kaoruko pulled off a new sheet of drafting paper, sketching up a new model of Maya, or at least Maya assumed she was, from the way Kaoruko kept sizing her up for reference. The tilt of the drafting table prevented her from seeing what was actually happening. “Some people just have all the luck with their genes,” she said, shaking her head dismissively.

Maya wasn’t sure what to say to this, so she decided to respond to the previous point. “Did you say the spring theme is mirrors?” she asked.

“Hikari-han officially named it ‘crystalline’, so there will be a lot of blue, white, and crystal tones, shimmering fabrics, possibly even reflective surfaces. Instead of the ‘opposites’ theme of the fall campaign, we want you and Kuro-han to ‘reflect’ each other naturally.”

“Is Saijou-san working with Kagura-san then?” she asked. Kaoruko shrugged, in an ‘ask her yourself’ kind of way. “Hikari-han and I are working closely together on all of the designs. I will draft some and share my ideas with her, and she will do the same with me, so that our designs truly ‘reflect’ each other. But remember, you wear some of Hikari-han’s clothes, and Kuro-han wears some of mine. I’m just using you as a muse to get going,” she chided.

“Right, of course,” said Maya, settling into the routine as she sipped the tea and Kaoruko worked. She admired the way that Kaoruko could focus, sketching with small pauses from time to time to check a reference or feel a fabric, or observe Maya. Kaoruko often gave the impression of managing only from a highly macro level, but she was truly involved in the minutia of HANA - designing garments, understanding the themes of each campaign, getting to know every employee.

“By the way, I heard you were taking other work,” Kaoruko said, after a while.

“Oh, I hadn’t decided on whether or not to take it,” she said, wondering how word of the Blue Glitter offer got to Kaoruko. She supposed word traveled quickly in this industry and she would just have to accept it.

“Well if you do, just make sure to clear the contract with our lawyer. She’ll be sure to fill you in on any minutia you may have to consider while working outside the company. And share that schedule with Mahiru so she can work around it.”

“Of course. And I assure you I will make my HANA work my first priority, I wouldn’t inconvenience Mahiru.”

“Well, I suppose a short-term campaign like that outside the company will only increase your popularity, drawing your fans back to HANA. I say, go for it. Just don’t get greedy and try to take anything on in the spring.”

“Understood.”

Kaoruko looked to have gone back to her drafting, so Maya was surprised when she spoke again. “Oh, and the Blue Glitter designer should be at the Christmas party, so keep an eye out. Don’t just stand in the corner with Kuro-han.”

 

Somehow, her week went by in a blur and it was time for the Christmas party. Karen had posted the cute Christmas-themed shoot they had done earlier in the week on social media, and Maya found herself at the apartment, trying to sort out what to wear.

“Do you think the gray one is better than the navy one?” she asked Claudine, holding up two dresses as she stood in Claudine’s doorway.

“I don’t want to go back out,” Claudine said, laying back on her bed. “...But the gray one.”

“It’s just to Odaiba, we don’t have to go back to Ginza,” Maya said, laughing internally at the irony of the Ginza district Christmas party being held in Odaiba.

Taking Claudine’s advice, she changed into a gray A-line dress with a narrow belt, pairing it with black tights due to the cold weather. She would wear her wool coat to the venue, but planned on checking that at the door.

As Maya did her makeup, Claudine finally got the motivation to change, putting on a black, long-sleeved dress and putting her hair up into a loose bun. Claudine only wore sheer tights, despite the dress hitting just above her knees, and pulled out black ankle boots. She came to join Maya at their bathroom vanity to apply her makeup.

“You look good,” said Claudine, her hand gently grazing along Maya’s back.

And Maya wanted to accept the touch, she wanted to give her own touch to Claudine’s waist, but she held back, even tensing a bit, because of her confusion about their relationship. Because of the secrets that hung like a brick wall between them. Because of the small possibility that the gesture from Claudine was just a ruse to keep Maya from getting too curious and asking too many questions.

Claudine seemed to notice Maya tense and went back to her own makeup, not making a comment about it.

“Thank you,” said Maya, accepting the compliment a beat too late. “You look lovely as well.”

Claudine bit her lip as she applied eyeliner, and Maya couldn’t discern if this was something Claudine always did or if it was a response to her comment, but it was hard to watch Claudine for too long right now. It was difficult to stand inches away from the woman she had feelings for - whose feelings she hoped were true - and not know where they stood. Quickly, she finished her makeup and left the bathroom, before she burst forth with a torrent of questions that threatened to come out.

They made their way to Odaiba by car, bundled in winter coats and surrounded by a night sky that presented a Tokyo that was below freezing, but not yet covered in snow. As planned, they dropped their coats at the entrance, and entered into a warehouse that seemed to be part art gallery, a massive open space filled with lights, sculptures, and framed art. The overhead lights were darkened, creating a more intimate atmosphere, and allowing the light effects of the art installations to shine more brightly. Between the exhibits were tables set up for socializing, and staff walking about with drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Along one wall were some activities, like prize raffles and contests, and along another a DJ was setting up. Maya and Claudine descended the stairs into the already full room.

“Ugh, I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” said Yachiyo, rushing up to Claudine. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I’m fine,” Claudine answered, her tone annoyed as if she already knew Yachiyo had a bone to pick with her.

Yachiyo shook her head, as if she didn’t believe this answer. “Good evening, Tendo-san.”

“Good evening, Tsuruhime-san.”

Yachiyo snatched two flutes of champagne from a passing staff member and handed them to Maya and Claudine. “If you’re fine, then where is your phone?” asked Yachiyo, raising her eyebrows. Maya appreciated Yachiyo’s ability to ask these questions, even if she was envious of the fact that she couldn’t ask them herself.

“It’s not- ugh.. Can we at least go talk somewhere more private?” Claudine asked.

Maya knew she was referring to the guests at the party at large, not to Maya personally, but it still stung. Yachiyo nodded, and excused them politely, at least for the moment. Now alone, Maya plotted her next move.

Distantly, across the wide room, she could see Mahiru and Hikari chatting with some guests she didn’t recognize. A little more nearby, she saw Koharu chatting with Souda-sensei. She decided to go with this option, at least to let Koharu know about the Blue Glitter contract and to greet her old teacher - she had been unable to do so properly at the Eclipse show.

“Good evening,” she said, bowing slightly to Souda-sensei, careful not to spill her champagne, and smiling at Koharu.

“Good evening, Tendo-san,” said Koharu, her mood seeming to lift slightly.

“Ah, Maya! I was wondering if I would see you here!” said Souda. I’m not technically a Ginza industry professional, as Seisho isn’t in the district, so I came as a guest of Karasuma-san’s.”

“The reporter?” asked Maya, remembering the woman from a few interviews in the fall.

“The very best! Fashion*Butai is the top of the top in print reporting for Japanese fashion, at least in my opinion. Though Elle’s Daily is up there in terms of web content.”

“I’ll have to look at it more thoroughly in the future,” said Maya. She turned to Koharu next. “Yanagi-san, I wanted to tell you: I spoke with my agent and with HANA’s lawyers. I will be accepting the Blue Glitter contract.”

Now Koharu seemed to light up into a full smile, her excitement tangible. “Really?! That’s fantastic! Suzu and Hisame accepted as well, in the end, though no one else at Seiran did, so it looks like it will be the four of us!”

Maya was glad to be working with familiar faces, and friendly ones at that, for her first contract outside of HANA. “It’ll only be a few weeks, but let’s work hard,” she said.

“Of course! Let’s show them our full power when working together!”

Souda-sensei had a strange look on her face, as if she wanted to say something, but kept it to herself. Perhaps she may have spoken, if given another moment, but Yakumo Kyoko came and tapped her shoulder, offering a drink, and the two of them excused themselves.

“Hanayagi-san told me I should be networking tonight,” Maya said. “She said the Blue Glitter creative director will probably be here.”

Koharu pondered this, her expression cute as she thought. Her hair was curled over one shoulder, and she was wearing an asymmetric emerald dress, with silver accessories. Although she was shorter than Maya, her bearing easily gave the impression of ‘professional model’. “I don’t actually know the designer. If they’re a man or a woman. All the communication came through my agent and I haven’t researched it much beyond making sure the clothes were something I’d be comfortable wearing.”

“Hmm, alright, well I might check in with Hanayagi-san and see if she knows.”

“Yeah, I better check in with Hisame and Suzu as well, maybe I’ll catch you later, Maya!”

Maya bid goodnight to Koharu and began making her way across the floor. In all directions, she could see various people she knew, vaguely recognized, or didn’t know, and her brain automatically tried to sort them into categories: model, designer, agent, photographer, stylist, reporter, manager. It was difficult, especially at a party where everyone was trying to look their best and wasn’t dressed for work, and in an industry where she was so new, so she didn’t have much familiarity with the players.

When she was halfway across the room, eyes peeled for Kaoruko, she was stopped by a man who called out to her with a quiet, “Excuse me!”

Turning to him, he continued: “Are you… Tendo Maya?”

She wondered if this was him, the elusive Blue Glitter designer. Surely he would have gotten the names of the models on the contract by now. She turned back to meet him at his small table, where he had been standing with one other man who left as she approached. “I am,” she said, bowing slightly, just enough to be polite.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said. “I’ve been following your work ever since you’ve debuted.”

“Pardon my rudeness, sir, but I do not know who you are,” she said. She figured it was better to clear this up quickly than to give the impression that she knew who he was and then get caught in a lie. The man was tall, certainly, and large enough that he was likely not a model, but he could easily fit any other role. Since he said he was following Maya’s work, he was likely a photographer or an agent, but she couldn’t rule out a designer or reporter, either. Dressed in a rather fancy suit, he was an impossible read.

“That’s no problem. I’m not a very big name player or anything,” he said with a light, self-effacing laugh. From his pocket he pulled out a small case, opening it to slide out a business card. With two hands he offered it to Maya, and with two hands she accepted it.

Suzuki Rinshou
TRUTH Clothing
Recruitment and Talent Mangement

Above the text was a small logo of a giraffe. Maya had not heard of this man, but she certainly had heard of TRUTH. Originally selling denim jeans and denim jackets in a famous shop in Harajuku, they had expanded throughout Japan, probably the largest domestic seller for denim. “It’s nice to meet you, Suzuki-san,” she said. “I hope you’re not trying to recruit me, however. I am currently in a contract until the end of summer.”

“Well everything is negotiable,” he said, silkily. “But no, truthfully I just wanted to make your acquaintance.”

Before Maya could respond to that, a hand gripped hers tightly from behind, tugging at her urgently to leave.

“Ah, good evening, Claudine.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

Claudine saw him as she was leaving the Siegfeld group. Perhaps, if she was thinking more clearly, she would have gone back to get Yachiyo, or hunted down Futaba, but thinking clearly she was not. In that moment, seeing that man speaking with her Maya, her only thought was to get Maya away as quickly as possible.

As she walked over to them, quickly, but not rushing so as not to cause too much of a scene, she wondered how he was here. He was still working, certainly, but not in Ginza. And HANA was not hosting, but Futaba still had been checking the guest lists of the events they were attending. It didn’t matter, she realized. He was here, and he was within inches of Maya.

Finally reaching them, she grabbed Maya’s hand, pulling her away, urging her to move away from this wretched man. And yet, Maya didn’t budge. She almost laughed. ’Of course she won’t move,’ a mocking voice in her head called out, ’You have given her no reason to, told her nothing about why she should fear this man!’

Tears almost welled up in her eyes with frustration. Maya probably just thought Claudine was being weird, or irritating. Couldn’t she see the danger? Couldn’t she see how much Claudine needed her trust right now?

“Ah, good evening, Claudine.”

And suddenly, she was seventeen. Seeing that face was one thing, but hearing that voice, the voice with so much power over her life- well, that was completely different. Her grip went slack on Maya’s hand. Her mouth went dry. Somehow, this seemed to get Maya’s attention more than the urgent pulling. She thought, in that moment, ’Ah yes, this is why I went to Yokohama. This is why I never wanted to come back. How could I have forgotten?’ She wanted to curse her own stupidity.

But instead of turning away, instead of tugging once again on Maya’s hand, instead of slapping this man across his face, she heard her own voice, coming out smaller than she had ever heard it before. “Good evening.”

Each millisecond felt like minutes for Claudine, her feet glued to the spot. ’Why didn’t Maya understand? We need to leave! Now!’ Kirin sipped his champagne, turning back to Maya and saying something about how lovely her necklace was. Staring at her chest was more like it.

Somehow, by some miracle, Souda-sensei approached them, bowing as she interrupted their group. “Claudine, you look pale,” she said, or at least that’s what Claudine thought she said. Maybe it was the Christmas party and she was 23, or maybe it was a runway event and she was 14, for all it mattered, the way that Souda-sensei was dragging her by the hand and taking care of her.

She was led to a bench in a corridor, given a glass of water, with Souda-sensei and Yachiyo taking turns fussing over her. Yachiyo came to sit beside her and ask about Kirin in a whispered tone, because Souda-sensei didn’t know the details, while Souda-sensei would quiz her if she ate or drank anything strange, or if she ought to call her parents - ‘where was her phone anyway?’

Finally, as Yachiyo went to go alert Futaba to find a way to get Kirin out of the party or at least on some kind of security watch, Claudine sent Souda-sensei for another glass of water, and took the chance to leave the party.

Walking around Odaiba in mid-December, with just her puffy coat over a light dress probably wasn’t the smartest idea, but she didn’t have a phone to call a car, and leaving the apartment earlier, it had been too much trouble to add gloves, hat, and scarf to her ensemble. At the moment, the freezing air was helping Claudine to clear her head, and she was drawn, as she always was, to the bay.

She was grateful that the party wasn’t in landlocked Ginza, where she might actually panic. At least here she could go sit by the water and relax until it was time to catch a late train home - she still had her train pass at least.

She sighed as she walked, a little puff of air appearing in front of her face from her warm breath hitting the air. She supposed it was only a matter of time before she encountered Kirin. She should have been prepared. But imagining an encounter was nothing like the real thing. Even if she had “practiced” for that moment, she was certain she still would have been blindsided by that voice that was embedded into her psyche.

She looked around realizing that in her haste to depart the party, she hadn’t much paid attention to where she was going. The Sky Wheel was to her left, and the water before her, and she realized in a moment she would be approaching the ferry terminal. She realized it was likely almost midnight, as the Christmas party started late, so there would be no ferry service so late at night, and the dock would be mostly empty. Odaiba’s ferry terminal offered only an inlet, and while it was rather impressive in size, it was dwarfed by the size of the actual bay. However, the inlet would have to do for now. Claudine was not traipsing to the shore of Tokyo Bay in her current attire and heels.

She arrived in just a few minutes, passing by one traffic partition meant to keep pedestrians off the dock once the ferry was closed. She hoped there wasn’t a security camera, but she also didn’t much care. ’Ha!’ she thought, ’Let Saijou Claudine get arrested for trespassing.’

She stood at the edge, peering into the black waters. For the first time in a long time, she wondered what it would be like to be embraced by the cold water, to sink below the surface and be carried beneath, to let the feeling flood every cell and then her lungs.

“Claudine!”

She was shaken from her thoughts by her name being called, by none other than Tendo Maya. Tendo Maya, who couldn’t take a hint earlier at the party, had followed her out to the pier. She was huffing and puffing, apparently having run all the way here in heels, and was wearing someone else’s coat. “How did you find me?” she asked, sticking her hands in the pockets. She had come here to be alone, she had slipped from Yachiyo and Souda’s supervision - she did not ask for Tendo Maya to pry into her business.

“There was only one solution,” said Maya, walking out further onto the pier. In the freezing temperatures of the evening, some of the spray from the waves had frozen onto the dock, leaving a slippery surface for their heeled boots, but Maya did not falter, striding towards her with purpose.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” said Claudine. “I’m… I’m not good right now,” her words difficult to find now that her mind was racing. She hoped Maya would understand what she meant. She was in that dangerous place - where she would yell at her mother, or scratch at her skin. She was in the place where jumping into the water seemed all too tempting. She bit her lip.

“You know him, Suzuki Rinshou-san?” Maya asked, almost shouting against a strong wind that blew in across the ferry terminal. The few large ships that were moored did nothing to stop the chilly gust that caught inside Claudine’s coat.

She spit on the ground upon hearing that cursed name. “Ugh, l'enculé!” She shook her head. “Don’t say that name around me again.”

“Why?!” asked Maya, taking another step forward, this time skidding a slight bit on the ice. Claudine took a step back. “I want to understand, tell me why you don’t like him, tell me why you couldn’t move back there!”

It wasn’t the words that reached Claudine, not really. It was the fact that Tendo Maya, usually so composed and proper, was standing on the edge of the icy dock, covered in freezing sea spray, raising her voice for the first time since Claudine had met her. She was… yelling. She was upset.

But how? How to sum up the years of history with that man with a few words? She opened her mouth, surprised to find herself shivering, though she supposed it wasn’t surprising at all. Her mouth hung open for a moment, a choked noise coming out as she tried to form the words. He… he what? He… “He ruined my life!” she shouted, slipping as she took a step back towards Maya. Tears flooded her eyes, and she couldn’t see anything to stop herself from falling, there was nothing to grab onto to keep herself from pitching into the sea.

Somehow there was a hand on hers, and Claudine felt herself collide with Maya, feeling Maya’s shoes slipping on the ice as well. Claudine could feel them careening towards the edge, and kept her eyes shut, bracing for the impact of the freezing water. “I’m sorry!” she shouted to Maya, apologizing for dragging her into her panicked disaster.

And then they stopped, Claudine thudding rather hard into Maya. There was no splash of hitting the water. There was no icy embrace as she sank below the surface. Somehow, somehow, she was still on the dock, pressed against Maya’s chest as Maya had crashed into a large wooden pole used for mooring on the pier.

“Maya?” she called tentatively, afraid to look up.

She could feel Maya take a deep breath, wincing slightly as she did so. “I’m here,” she said, her voice a little quieter than usual.

“Maya!” Claudine repeated, backing up on her knees and turning around. Now that she had assurance that Maya was alright, she needed to see the extent of the damage - the extent that her actions had caused damage.

Maya was sitting on the pier, her back against a mooring pole, slumped forward a bit as she massaged the back of her head. “Are you alright? Are you bleeding?” Claudine asked, swiping away her tears with a clumsy, cold hand as she reached for Maya’s face, gently tilting her chin up to look at her.

Maya looked somewhat dazed, but didn’t seem to be bleeding. She held up her hands, which were scraped from the fall, with small splinters of wood here and there. Claudine’s stomach turned. Her outburst had caused this. Because she couldn’t speak rationally or explain herself to Maya earlier, she caused a scene and gotten Maya hurt. She could have easily gotten them killed.

“Let’s get you to a doctor,” Claudine said quietly, her throat closing from guilt. She held the tears back once again, digging in Maya’s jacket pocket for her cell phone.

Oh, but it wasn’t Maya’s jacket. And Claudine had smashed her own phone. “Shit,” she cursed, mostly at her own ineptitude, than at the lack of cell phones. “Do you think you can stand?” she asked, standing herself and then leaning down to offer a hand to Maya.

Maya took her proffered hand, standing as well, the two of them unsteady on the ice, but moving slowly towards the sidewalk back on solid ground. Claudine stayed behind Maya, hands still held, inspecting her for any injuries she may have missed.

“There’s an attendant at the valet circle up there, perhaps he can call the driving service for us,” suggested Maya. “Do you have their number?”

Claudine slid out the card from where it was tucked behind her train pass. Leave it to Maya to come up with a logical idea like this, even after she just had a major fall. The attendant was more than happy to call the driver, and despite the late hour, a car was there to collect them in less than fifteen minutes. They spent most of the time waiting in silence. Claudine knew their conversation from earlier wasn’t over, but she did not want it to be interrupted again, so she chose to wait.

Maya instructed the driver to stop back at the warehouse where the Christmas party was still going strong. She left Claudine waiting in the car for a moment as she dashed inside to collect her actual coat and her phone and wallet. Then they set off back home.

“Who’s coat is that?” asked Claudine of the second coat now on Maya’s lap, her voice almost a whisper as she looked out the window. Despite this, Maya answered her as if this was a normal conversation.

“Koharu-san’s. She happened to be leaving early and had her coat already claimed. I didn’t want to waste any time following you so she offered it to me.”

Claudine bit her lip thinking of the other girl going home without a coat. “Make sure you get it back to her,” she chided, knowing already that Maya’s sense of responsibility meant she would never keep the coat.

“Of course,” said Maya. “I saw Tsuruhime-san inside,” she said, after another moment passed. “She looked really concerned, so I let her know we were heading home together.”

Claudine didn’t respond, she just leaned her head against the cold window of the car, watching the scenery change as they approached Kachidoki.

They arrived home and nearly ran into the warm apartment, each going to their bedrooms to change into something warmer. Claudine could hear Maya return to the kitchen, gingerly grabbing at mugs and switching on the electric kettle. She followed her out to the common area, unsure of what to say - how to start the conversation that needed to happen between them.

“Let me look at your hands,” she said, not waiting for Maya to respond before she reached out to take one of Maya’s hands, inspecting it in the light of their kitchen.

It was dirty and scraped up from the dock, certainly, and small splinters of wood had embedded themselves into her palm. She thought of the day they moved in together, when Maya had cut herself cleaning up the trophy. “You need this taken care of - and you are not doing it yourself,” Claudine said firmly. “Either let me help you or we’re going to the hospital.”

“I don’t mind if you help me,” said Maya, turning around and using her free hand to turn off the electric kettle which had begun to boil. Claudine could feel the way Maya winced as she lifted the kettle to pour the water, through their connected hands.

Claudine retrieved the first aid kit and they moved to sit on the couch, two cups of tea between them. First, she wiped off the grime from the docks with an alcohol wipe, watching as Maya tried not to react, but stiffened slightly. Then she retrieved a sterilized needle and forceps, and set to the tedious work of removing the tiny splinters of wood.

She sighed. It would be easier to talk while doing this work - staring at Maya’s beautiful hands - than it would be to delay any further and try to explain herself while looking Maya in the eye later on.

“When I was first starting out, my mom was always with me at jobs,” she said, her voice quiet. She could sense Maya listening carefully. “When I was seven, eight, she was always watching me work, watching the staff at shoots, keeping an eye on the older girls to make sure no one was being mean to me, making sure I kept up with my studies. When I was nine I had my first overseas job and we went to Italy together.”

Claudine wanted to keep talking about these memories, but she knew that wasn’t exactly what Maya needed to hear. She swiped a small piece of wood she removed on a piece of gauze and continued. “But once my dad got sick for the first time, she was torn between two duties. She needed to stay with him, and pick up part time jobs, so she couldn’t stay with me all the time. I… well at that time, I was making the most money in the family, so I chose to keep working. They got me an agent.”

Maya’s finger twitched a bit as Claudine poked at a deep splinter, but her hand remained still, allowing Claudine to work. “I shared an agent with Yachiyo then. Well, we shared most things: clothes, a tutor, jobs, a room in the agency dorm. My agent was a strict woman, but she was fair. She worked hard to make sure I was promoted well, and I quickly became more famous, landing that contract with the theme parks. That was when I met Souda-sensei, around the time when I was eleven or twelve, and she in her late teens. She was one of the only older models who was kind to us.”

Claudine finished with Maya’s right hand, rubbing in an antibiotic salve and wrapping the broken skin in gauze. She fixed her attention on the left hand, after each of them took a break to sip their tea. “But when I turned fourteen, Yachiyo left for Edel, and my agent ended up leaving as well. I wonder sometimes if she was forced out. In any case, I was put in his care…”

“Suzuki Rinshou-san,” said Maya, saying the name carefully.

“The bastard,” Claudine cursed, the forceps shaking slightly in her hand. She settled her hands in her lap for a moment, not risking herself touching Maya while she was feeling so… volatile. “Yes, him,” she acknowledged. “Kirin, as he is known, became my agent and manager. He… ruined me.”

Maya reached out, her bandaged hand coming to cover Claudine’s hands which remained balled in her lap. “Please help me understand, I want to support you,” she said.

Claudine raised her gaze to look at the shining violet eyes she adored so much, staring at her with nothing but affection and concern. She sighed, flipping Maya’s left hand over and setting back to her work for something to distract herself.

“At first it was normal, then slowly, it changed. He would ask me to accompany him to events, to places no teenagers should be at, with older men I had no business meeting with. Called it ‘networking’. He would always comment on how I was changing from a child to an adult, and have something to say about how much I was eating. As I developed a presence online, he would bring up nasty things people would say online about me, teasing me about it.” She gently removed a splinter, biting her own lip as if she could feel the pain that Maya felt.

She continued speaking once the delicate work was finished. “He would demand to see my fittings, where I might be barely half dressed, or he might ask me to come to the agency at odd hours or do extra work in exchange for priority placement in the next shows.” She scoffed. “It worked, as someone of my height and more importantly, my age, rarely got into runway shows, and I became extremely popular, but I felt dirty, like I cheated…”

She finished her work on the second hand, rubbing in the salve and wrapping it, too, in gauze. “Surely you must have been able to get away?” Maya asked, shifting on the couch so she sat beside Claudine now, their legs touching. The closeness was distracting, and Claudine found it hard to think with Maya so close, but she didn’t want her to move away, either.

“I didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “I didn’t tell my mom, or Souda-sensei, or Yachiyo, though I think Yachiyo figured it out before long. I thought that ‘if I can endure this, if I can get more famous and land bigger contracts, even if it was ‘cheating’, then my family wouldn’t have to worry about money, and I… I could hire anyone I wanted to represent me.”

Somehow, saying this out loud to Maya was making her calm down, instead of getting more riled up. Shifting, she adjusted so she was laying on her side on the couch, her head on Maya’s lap, feeling Maya’s unbandaged fingertips moving softly through her hair. “But in the end, you couldn’t endure,” Maya prompted.

“No,” she said, the words sounding hollow even to herself. “I was nearly eighteen, nearly to the point where my contract with Kirin expired. But the things he was asking of me, in exchange for rigging these contracts to get my name higher…” She rolled onto her back, now looking directly up at Maya. “I just woke up one morning and realized, “I would rather die than continue living another day under this man.”

Maya’s hand came down and caressed her cheek now, softly moving her hair aside. “I called my mom,” said Claudine. “I told her as much. We broke the contract, paying severe penalties to the company, and certainly some of our money lined his pockets. But I got to leave, and I thought I would leave forever.”

Maya traced her thumb over the curve of Claudine’s nose, across her brows. “It’s ok to walk away from that,” she said. “Your boundaries were completely invaded. I… I would not blame you if you did not return at all,” she said.

Claudine understood the other half of the sentence, the implication Maya left unspoken. “I don’t regret it,” she said, meeting Maya’s gaze. “Coming back, I mean.” She sat up, now back beside Maya on the couch, unable to keep still. “But it is just so irritating!” She ran her fingers through her hair, feeling her teeth grind together. “I have suffered for what? Seven years? More? And he just… gets to run around Tokyo like nothing’s wrong? Enjoying life? Probably trying to recruit you just to ruin your life! I can’t let that happen, I couldn’t allow that to happen, I absolutely,-”

“It’s alright,” said Maya, cutting her off mid-sentence with an embrace. “I’m alright,” she assured her.

Claudine could feel the tears now, unstoppable now that Maya was holding her. She allowed herself to cry, hiding her face in the curve of Maya’s neck and shoulder, allowing herself to be comforted by the feel of Maya’s hands on her back.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Maya said, her voice close to Claudine’s ear. This seemed to help quell the tide of emotions in Claudine's chest after a few minutes, and though she didn’t move from Maya’s embrace, she felt much more composed.

It seemed Maya had more to say, after all that listening, however. “I’m glad you were able to talk to me,” she said. “I… want to be able to support you.”

Claudine nodded, wiping her eyes with her sweater sleeve.

“As for Kirin, we will have to see if anything can be done. You’re right, it’s unfair that his abuses are not reported and unpunished. As you said, he could be continuing to do the same to other women.” She sighed, sitting up a little straighter. “But not tonight. It’s late, and we’re both tired. Tonight let’s get some sleep.”

Claudine nodded, following Maya’s lead. Despite the late hour, she felt dirty from the adventure at the docks, from her makeup, from her encounter with Kirin, and so she elected to take a shower. When she got out and changed into pajamas, her own room, with the fluffy white comforter on the bed, and the window facing the water, seemed a little lonely. So for what felt like the tenth time that night, she bothered Maya, crawling beside her in bed.

“Claudine?” asked Maya, obviously not expecting this.

“Is it alright?” she asked, pausing for permission at the edge of the mattress.

“Yes, of course,” said Maya, shifting over.

Claudine joined her, the two of them close under the covers. Finally, her body seemed to relax, the fight seemed to be leaving her muscles. The excitement of the evening seemed distant now that Maya was beside her. Maya, who was like the calm waves of the bay, constant and steady, full of depths she knew nothing about, and dangerously beautiful. At this moment, it was undoubtedly Maya that Claudine wanted to sink into.

And so she did.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

Maya woke surrounded by white fluff. Claudine’s comforter. This was Claudine’s bed, she realized after a moment. Moving her head a few inches, she could see Claudine, still sleeping peacefully on the other side of the bed, her hair spread across the pillow, the strap of her camisole draping off her shoulder.

Maya swallowed, orienting herself in the quiet stillness of the January morning. The room was still dimly lit, and while she was now fully awake, she allowed herself a few more minutes before beginning her morning routine.

It was now three weeks since the Christmas party, three weeks since she tore up her hands on that dock, and three weeks since Claudine finally, finally opened up to her. In the time since, she had some time off from HANA for the holiday break (after being berated by Kaoruko for her injuries), spent some time with her parents, and mostly, became closer to Claudine.

It was as if a glass wall between them had been shattered, and they could now see and touch each other without obstacle. As if making up for lost time, they spent lazy days on their holiday in bed or on the couch in the apartment, watching television, talking, reading, eating, doing anything they could together legs entangled, hands finding each other, and falling asleep beside each other.

Even now, unable to control the feelings bubbling up within her, Maya moved closer across the bed to cuddle up beside Claudine. “Ah, Maya,” Claudine mumbled, leaning back into Maya’s touch.

Maya kissed the back of her neck, a spot now becoming familiar, but one she knew she would never tire of. Claudine moaned softly, turning over to meet Maya’s lips with her own. Maya propped herself up on an elbow as she pulled away, catching Claudine’s satisfied smirk.

It seemed impossible that this is where they would be three weeks ago, when Maya felt impossibly stuck, but she didn’t want to argue with her good fortune. Claudine’s fingers tucked Maya’s hair behind her ears, tracing her jawline. Maya felt her desire grow, looking at Claudine in just her camisole and panties, staring up at Maya as if she was a challenge to overcome. She leaned forward again, capturing Claudine’s bottom lip in her teeth gently, her finger hooked on that tempting strap of the camisole.

Claudine’s alarm went off, interrupting them. Claudine bit her lip with a laugh, rolling over to turn it off. “Did you have to replace your phone?” Maya teased her.

Claudine laughed again, and it was music to Maya’s ears, quelling any minor annoyance she felt. “Yes, everyone at work was so annoyed with me. Plus my maman was worried sick!”

“I suppose we should get up, then,” Maya said, indicating the time.

Claudine nodded. “It’s a long day. HANA work, then we have contracts in the evening…” Her mood dropped a bit on the second half of the sentence, and the implication it carried. Maya was going to be starting the Blue Glitter loungewear contract that evening, and similarly, Claudine had work with the Arcana brand for their Japanese pajama launch. Unlike most of their modeling work until this point, this would be done separately.

“Whoever gets home first should order dinner, and then we can finish that drama,” Maya suggested. “I think we only had one episode left.”

Claudine seemed to accept this proposal, getting out of bed a little less reluctantly. The sun was rising a little higher now, and Claudine drew back her gauzy white curtains, Maya noticing how her eyes were caught by the view of the bay for just a moment longer than someone else’s might have been. “Ugh, don’t you have a plant to water?” Claudine teased her, turning back around. “Stop watching me! I have to make this bed and you’re in it!”

Maya did as she was told, leaving Claudine to get ready and beginning her own morning routine. She started the coffee, then visited the bathroom to wash up. She took her supplements, and watered the plants, carefully skipping over the cactuses and succulents that were on a different schedule.

Once all this was finished, the coffee was ready, and she poured two mugs. She wanted to go sit on the balcony and sip it, but the January weather prevented this, with temperatures consistently below freezing, and icy winds blowing across their small balcony consistently. So she settled on the couch, flipping through a news app on her phone until Claudine joined her in the kitchen, her hair loose and wavy, and her face, with only base makeup on, was glowing. “A break seems to have done well for you,” Maya commented, sipping her coffee.

“Yes well, everything resumes today, so let’s see if coming out of hiding keeps my complexion this bright.”

It was true, their break came to an end that morning, and before they knew it, they were out of the tower apartment and street level, bundled in parkas and fighting against the wind to get to the bus stop. “We should have called the car,” Claudine huffed once they were settled on the bus, her fingers tapping out a text simultaneously. “Yachiyo says it’s supposed to snow this evening.”

“We can call one tonight to go home,” said Maya, remembering only then that they would be returning home from separate locations. “The Blue Glitter shoots are taking place in Akiba. Where are you heading?”

“Roppongi,” Claudine said, with annoyance. Maya wasn’t sure if this was because she didn’t want to go to Roppongi or because their destinations were in opposite directions.

“Well you will only have to go there for a few weeks,” Maya offered.

They got off near the HANA offices, battling the wind for another block until they entered the shelter of the HANA building in Ginza. They greeted all the staff they encountered a Happy New Year, and made their way to the conference room where they were scheduled to meet with some of the main staff.

It was nice, being back, in a way. The break was good, but Maya never liked sitting still for long. She was antsy to continue working, to continue to prove herself. She wanted to take the energy that had been building during the weeks off and expend it - with shoots, with planning, with work.

She sat at the table in the conference room between Claudine and Karen, half-paying attention as Karen managed Maya’s own social media accounts. There was a new fan account that Karen was scrolling through, she noticed: @MaYaYas. The name made her chuckle a bit, but it was surreal to look at dozens of photos of herself perfectly cropped, with hundreds of likes on each one. Karen quickly closed the screen as the meeting began.

“We’re here to plan spring events,” Kaoruko said, beginning the meeting as Futaba uncapped a marker and pulled up the whiteboard. “First up is managing our schedule, and second is our major shoot, which is going to be in Hokkaido.”

“Hokkaido?” Claudine asked, looking as surprised as Maya felt.

“Ok, let’s start with that,” said Kaoruko. “Yes, since our theme is ‘crystalline’, Hikari, Nana, and myself thought a shoot in the snow would be ideal. And what better snow than in Hokkaido in winter?”

“Vacation!” Karen cheered, scribbling down some notes on her tablet.

“Sounds cold,” Mahiru said. “We’ll have to plan some logistics for having models in the snow…”

Futaba nodded, making some notes on her whiteboard. Maya had to agree. She was pretty adaptable, but the Tokyo Tower shoot was cold enough… standing in the actual snow in Hokkaido?

They reviewed the schedule next, including Maya’s Blue Glitter dates and Claudine’s conflicts with Arcana. They set dates for the Hokkaido shoot and the other major shoots for spring, for the catalogue rollout and ad sales, and reviewed which runways they aimed to enter for spring. Their in-house runway was set for mid-February, with the other shows following quickly after. Maya left the meeting with a better idea of her plans for spring, but no longer feeling like she would be bored for long.

She and Claudine ate lunch together in the company cafeteria, their last time together until that evening. It was strange - it was only a few hours apart, she supposed, but after doing all of their work together in the fall, it was odd to go for a shoot without Claudine by her side. Maya reminded herself that she did this often when she was training, when she was in Souda-sensei’s school. Plus, Koharu would be there.

“Are you nervous?” Claudine asked. “You’re eating less than usual.”

Maya shook her head. “Not particularly. I just don’t want to fill up when I have work this afternoon. I can have a big meal after we finish.”

Claudine smiled. “Of course. We’re getting takeout.” Despite her words, she seemed uneasy. Maya wondered if she was worrying on Maya’s behalf or concerned about her own job.

“Are you nervous?” she asked softly.

Claudine bristled slightly, despite Maya’s tone. “Of course not. I’ve done this plenty of times before. Plus, Shizuha’s there. We know each other from way back.”

“I’m relieved then. We’ll work hard at this and then come together for the Hokkaido trip.”

“Yes, where we’ll freeze to death in the snow,” Claudine laughed.

Soon enough, lunch was over, and it was time to go their separate ways. But, as an indication of the closeness they now shared, Claudine squeezed her hand in the elevator, her lips centimeters from Maya’s ear as she whispered “I know you’ll do great.” Maya felt goosebumps arise on her skin from some combination of the words and the closeness.

They walked out into the sunny afternoon, down to the nearest station, wrapped in their winter gear plus masks and sunglasses. Maya got on an east-bound train, while Claudine waited for the west-bound, promising to reconvene that evening.

Maya got off in Akiba, following directions on her phone to a building just outside the famous electronics markets. It honestly didn’t look like any sort of studio from the outside, but inside, the building was clean and professional, with a directory beside the elevator. She found the correct floor (the third) and took the elevator up to a slightly old but clean photo studio.

“Maya-san, you’ve arrived!” Koharu ran up to her as she exited the elevator, grabbing onto both of her hands. She noted the familiarity of the greeting, but realized she didn’t much mind it. She saw Hisame and Suzu come up as well.

“Good afternoon,” she greeted them. “I apologize if I am late.”

“You’re on time,” Koharu assured her. “Suzu just got us here super early so we could see some silly arcade this morning.”

“It was not silly,” Suzu pouted.

They led Maya into a dressing room, a bright, cheerful space with translucent coverings on the windows. They were assisted by stylists to get the hair and makeup started, some cheerful pop music playing on the radio. At one point, the photographer and director came in to greet them, and Maya was put at ease. These men were not as reassuring and easy to work with as Nana and Kaoruko, perhaps, but this shoot was not going to be troublesome, she could tell.

The clothes were fine as well. Perhaps not exactly what Maya would wear to lounge around on a day off, but she didn’t mind wearing it. Different sets of sweatpants, tank tops, crop tops, crewneck sweatshirts, and leggings would be shot over several days. The work was mostly for catalogue, webstore, and social media ads, so they would be using plain backgrounds and many angles for each piece, a fairly repetitive process, but Maya didn’t mind.

There were also a few shots for billboards, store ads, and larger website banners with the girls interacting, so those would be more fun to shoot and break up the monotony a bit. This was all briefed to Maya as she stood in the studio in her first outfit, and she was determined to do a good job, determined to help Blue Glitter do well with their campaign. She thought of Kaoruko’s words - if this does well, Maya would bring back fans for HANA as well.

She posed for a few outfits, realizing quickly how exhausting this was, and how much different it was from her work with HANA. Each piece of clothing needed shots of her posing, then straight on shots for potential buyers on the website from various angles, and in every color and style it was offered in. After about an hour, she took a break with Koharu.

“Tiring, isn’t it?” Koharu asked, munching on a cookie from the snack table. They watched Hisame work, a consummate professional.

“Extremely,” said Maya, sipping a juice. “Do you do shoots like this a lot?”

Koharu shrugged. “Seiran doesn’t have a fashion company we’re linked to like you do, so we take work here and there. Sometimes it’s like this, sometimes it’s more like what you typically do. My dream is to one day bring Seiran to a point where we get a contract like Edel has with Seigfeld, steady work, less jumping contract to contract.”

“I hope you get that, I think you’re really talented,” Maya said. She meant it, too. Koharu was extremely skilled, and she looked good modeling clothes. If anyone could bring Seiran up, it was Koharu.

“Thank you, I appreciate that,” Koharu smiled at Maya, a rare respite from her usual serious demeanor. “I’ll continue working hard.”

They spent the rest of the break comparing workouts, supplements, and what they’ve been reading lately. Maya was surprised by how much they had in common - she didn’t remember speaking to Koharu this often at the training school, but she supposed she didn’t speak to anyone much at the training school. She had been busy with school as well, at the time, and Koharu was one of the only ones who even bothered to try to have conversations with her.

Maya changed once she finished the break, continuing to shoot for another two hours, finishing after the sun had gone down. She walked out of the building into the cold evening, alongside Koharu as they headed toward the station. “Are you still planning on doing a workout tonight?” Koharu asked.

Maya nodded. “It’s a little cold to jog, but I’ll probably put something on in the apartment and do a workout on my yoga mat.”

Koharu nodded. “My apartment has a gym, if you wanted to come over and do one together. It would be nice to catch up.”

Maya knew Koharu’s apartment wasn’t far, since she ended up mailing her coat back after the Christmas party. “Sure, let me just text Claudine and let her know I’ll be back late.” She figured she would be the one providing dinner for herself and Claudine, but she didn’t much mind.

They descended to the platform, and Maya sent her text. “By the way, how is Saijou-san?” Koharu asked, her tone dropping to provide them with some discretion from the other commuters on the platform. “I was concerned at the party, but we didn’t really get a chance to speak again since then.”

Maya nodded. “Better, I think.” She thought of that morning, waking up with Claudine, and the marked improvement in Claudine’s mood since Christmas. But she knew truly, the Kirin problem was not dealt with, not really, in any concrete way. “I appreciate your help that night,” she added.

“Of course. We have to look out for each other,” said Koharu. She didn’t add any more as the train pulled up, but Maya heard a hint of sadness in her voice, as if she could sympathize, in a way, with having a bad night, or a difficult past. They sat on the train, and Maya realized that she truly didn’t know Koharu at all besides the little she learned at Seisho.

She knew Koharu didn’t attend university, going instead to a theater program after high school. However when her auditions weren’t panning out, an advisor recommended she branch out into modeling, which is when she attended Seisho’s training program. A natural in modeling, she excelled in the classes, along with Maya, which is how they became friends, or perhaps the step before friends. But she went to work right away, where Maya took the museum job, reluctant to commit full time to the industry. So there was a blank period that Maya wasn’t privy to in Koharu’s past, or rather, a couple blank periods. Maya wasn’t sure if she wanted the missing details filled in, or even if Koharu would want to share with her, but she felt like it was important to try to make connections, to try to establish herself more in this world. It was impossible, she realized, to remain floating, unconnected, forever.

They got off the train, walking the short distance to Koharu’s apartment. Hisame and Suzu lived in the same building, she explained, just a few floors down, but she lived alone. The other two had gone for dinner in Akiba, however, and did not take the same train back. They entered Koharu’s apartment, Koharu loaning Maya some clothes to work out in, and Maya looked around. It was smaller than the apartment she shared with Claudine, but it was neat, and cozy. Books, a few plants, and a tapestry on the wall to match the carpet and furniture, Maya could picture Koharu curling up in the armchair with her dinner, flipping on some drama, and relaxing after a long day at work.

But they left the apartment after a moment, taking the elevator to the top floor, where there was a weight room, some cardio equipment, and some open space for exercise routines with medicine balls and kettlebells. She and Koharu quickly worked out a plan - warming up on the treadmills, and working through a circuit on several pieces of equipment, before cooling down and stretching out. There were only a few other people using the gym: an older man who was likely retired, another girl around their age, and a couple of businessmen who looked to be hurrying to finish their workouts so they could get to the bars.

It was fun, doing her workouts with Koharu. Despite what Claudine said, she never came with Maya, so it was nice to workout with a partner for once. And to just have a gym to go to was incredible. It was an oversight, Maya realized, to not look for an apartment with a gym during their search, but it was nice to have somewhere protected from the elements, private, and conveniently located to work out at.

“What are you working on next?” she asked Koharu, as they twisted medicine balls back and forth in an ab workout.

“I have a short-term contract with the tourism board for Chiba prefecture,” she laughed. “I’m shooting a lot of billboard and pamphlet photos and major tourist locations. I’m trying to think of it as a mini vacation.”

Maya couldn’t help but admire how hard Koharu worked. To travel around the prefecture, to take jobs that perhaps weren’t ‘high fashion’, to work hard to get that ‘breakout’ job. “You’ll certainly be seen if you’ll be the face of Chiba,” she commented.

“It’s true. I grew up there,” Koharu said. “I figured it’s the least I can do to give back. Plus, who knows what it can lead to.”

Maya nodded. They changed into a plank, and suddenly speaking became more difficult. “We’re going to Hokkaido soon,” she said, almost a grunt.

“To model?” Koharu said. “Too cold!” They held the plank a moment longer, before she collapsed, laughing. “Makes me glad I’m only working in Chiba in the winter!”

Maya rolled her eyes. “I know. I have a feeling they’re not going to pull out the HANA parka line, either.”

Koharu laughed harder than Maya thought the joke was worth.

“What?”

“Nothing. It’s just… I haven’t spent much time with you. I didn’t know you were capable of sarcasm like that. A joke coming from Tendo Maya is extra funny.”

Maya shook her head, standing up to sip from her water bottle, moving to the treadmill for the cool down run. “I can be funny,” she pouted.

“Obviously,” Koharu continued. She also took her spot on the treadmill, both of them lagging now, after the intense workout. “This was fun though. I think I spoke to you more than I ever have in the two years I’ve known you. If you’re looking for a workout partner, I’m available.”

Maya considered this. She didn’t particularly want to get home late every night, but it was nice to have someone to join her on her workouts. “Perhaps sometimes. This was fun. Thank you.”

About twenty minutes later, Maya was changed back into her winter attire, out on street level, alone this time, heading to the station back to Kachidoki. What a long and meandering day back into work, she thought. But still, it was good to be busy.

She stopped at the convenience store by their apartment and picked up dinner, just something simple, but that was something that had become normal for them. She also picked up some puddings, figuring they could eat them while watching television that evening. It was getting late already, so she walked back quickly, tucking her chin under the collar of her coat to keep out some of the winter breeze.

The lobby of the apartment was empty and quiet, and the elevator ride was silent as usual. Even though nothing was out of the ordinary, for some reason they gave Maya an uneasy vibe. She thought of that morning, waking up with Claudine, enjoying their newfound closeness, and assured herself that everything was alright. Then she walked the short walk from the elevator down the corridor to their door, opening it to find the lights off, and thought at first that she had still managed to make it back first.

She realized, walking in a few steps, that the television was on, on low volume, casting an eerie light on the otherwise darkened living room. Laying on the couch, under a blanket, was Claudine, still dressed from work. Maya took off her shoes and jacket, setting her bag down on a chair, and leaving the food on the kitchen counter.

“Claudine?” she asked. The first name was still somewhat foreign, strangely intimate, but she liked saying Claudine’s name.

Claudine didn’t respond right away, and Maya thought she might be asleep, but she turned her head to look at Maya, and somehow, if it was possible, she looked even more devastated than when they had spoken on the night of the Christmas party.

“Can I join you?” Maya asked.

Claudine nodded, and she moved forward a little, so Maya could slip into the space between Claudine and the back of the couch. She wrapped her arms around Claudine, pulling her close, both of them watching the wrestling match on the television, the volume too low to hear what was happening.

Maya pressed her lips against the back of Claudine’s head, almost certain Claudine didn’t want to be looked at, but she knew they both couldn’t resist this contact, at least. “What happened?” she asked.

“I didn’t see him,” Claudine said, her voice low and quiet, putting to rest Maya’s initial fears. “I went to the shoot today, though, and…” She sighed, reaching up to wipe her eyes. She leaned back, as if pressing into Maya for support.

“It wasn’t just me, Maya. There’s at least one other…”

Chapter Text

Chapter 22

Claudine took the train from Ginza to Roppongi, keeping her sunglasses on, despite how odd she supposed she looked. She debated whether it would draw more attention to keep sunglasses on on the train vs. risk having her upper half of her face identified by someone on the train, and decided to just stick with the glasses. She wanted to just assure herself that she wasn’t that popular, no one really cared about Saijou Claudine, but she knew that wasn’t true. Millions of people followed her on social media, millions of people watched her every move.

She closed her eyes as she rode, thinking of her trip home over the break. It had been nice to return home. Her father wasn’t doing well, exactly, but he was cheerful and they enjoyed their time together in the two weeks she was home. Her mother warned that they would likely need a consultation with a specialist in Tokyo, so she anticipated her parents visiting in a few weeks as well.

And then there was the matter of Maya. Of all the mess the Kirin business had caused, she supposed getting closer to Maya was the best thing that had happened. They could talk easily, they could kiss. They could sleep together. She smiled a little, to herself. She was too old to be blushing over such things, she supposed, but she was behind on relationship matters. And Maya was just… she shook her head a bit. It wasn’t good to think too much about Maya midday on a train in the middle of Tokyo.

She tried to refocus, to think about what needed to be done. Claudine had warned her mother that Kirin had resurfaced, but she wasn’t exactly sure what her next move would be. She needed to talk it over with Kyoko, and likely with a lawyer. Ugh, what a headache.

She got off the train in Roppongi Hills, the studio actually incredibly close to the station. She stopped in a convenience store to pick up a cold drink first, she felt like this would probably be a long session, and got a second, since she knew Shizuha would be there. On the magazine rack in the shop, Claudine noticed Akira was featured on the cover of Fashion*Butai, and Claudine had to admit, she was in top form.

At the studio, Claudine greeted the director, the photographers, and the stylists, bowing politely. It was an old habit, but she figured that it was better to be overly polite than to come off as a diva. The director mentioned that it was nice to have two veteran models here, and that things should run smoothly, and Claudine had to agree. To be honest, nothing seemed like it would be as easy as working with Maya anymore, but she had full faith in Shizuha’s competence.

Once the men and women in charge of the shoot left to set up, she and Shizuha and the stylists moved to the dressing room, sitting in adjacent chairs. They were modeling pajamas, so the styling was rather simple, but the girls helping them were very good, and minimalist makeup helped brighten and accentuate their features greatly. Both of them were given soft, wavy hairstyles.

Claudine passed over the drink, turning on some popular music on her phone. “It’s been a long time, Shizuha,” she said, hoping Shizuha would indulge her in some sort of conversation to break up the nervous tension she was feeling.

“It has been,” Shizuha said, with a soft smile. “I don’t think we’ve worked together since we were um… 14? 15?”

Claudine laughed. “Probably around that time, yes. I think maybe for that campaign for the sundresses? Remember? With the giant hats?”

Shizuha laughed as well. “Yes. I think you might have pulled off a giant straw hat better than me. They ended up making me hold mine at my side.”

“I think that means you won, really, in the end,” Claudine joked.

They were dismissed from the chairs, and sent to change into the first set of pajamas. Shizuha went ahead, speaking with a stylist, who nodded. “Your agent let us know, yes, we have pulled these sets,” she said, showing which rack was Shizuha’s and which rack was Claudine’s. Claudine couldn’t find a difference between the two, they seemed to have varying colors and styles, and the two of them were about the same size, but she didn’t give it much thought: she was here to take the photos and get paid. Not that she wasn’t going to do a good job. She was Saijou Claudine - anything less than the best quality of work would be insulting to those who hired her.

They began once they were dressed, moving to a set dressed like a bedroom. There was a canopy bed, a chaise lounge, a window sill, and a dressing table with a vanity mirror. Beside this set was a plain backdrop for getting shots of each set for the website and catalogue for purchase. They were instructed to take shots together, then one would take solo shots on the set while the other posed with the backdrop, then switch, then change and repeat. It was easy enough.

Claudine wore a navy blue spaghetti-strapped nightgown and a kimono-style robe over it, black fluffy slippers on her feet. Beside her Shizuha was in a plum colored long-sleeved night-gown with mesh panels on the chest. Claudine sat on the chaise lounge, Shizuha standing beside her, holding a hand mirror from the dressing table. The shoulder of Claudine’s robe slipped down, but she allowed it - it added some interest to the picture. The stylist came to fix their hair, and they began.

Shizuha, as predicted, was a professional, and they continued to pose naturally, with little direction needed. Claudine tried various sets of pajamas, sitting on the large bed, on the stool by the vanity, pulling back the curtain to the fake window. In each shot with Shizuha, the other woman worked off her well, knowing which position was most complementary, which positioning would fill out the frame, and what expression to make. She never seemed to want to take the lead, but she played off of Claudine well enough.

They were offered a break but both chose to push through, just finishing the drinks from earlier in a couple minutes. It was a long session, but Claudine didn’t find it that difficult. No more difficult than anything she’d done as a child, in any case. When they packed up, at least until the next session (with the next set), she had a message that Maya was going to be late, as she was going to be working out with Koharu. Claudine originally planned to just go to the apartment and watch a movie or something, but she noticed Shizuha waiting for her, almost as if she wanted to say something.

“What’s up?” she asked, packing up her bag.

“Do you… want to get dinner?” Shizuha asked.

Her tone indicated that this proposal was not about the dinner at all, and perhaps that was why Claudine agreed. They ended up just going to a shopping center in Roppongi, neither of them feeling like worrying about figuring out a destination at the moment. They sat on the second-floor seating section of the food court, which was luckily rather empty, looking out towards the elevated train tracks. The sun had gone down, and Claudine watched the cars and people move busily through this neighborhood.

She didn’t even pay attention to what she had ordered, and mindlessly picked at her tray. “What’s this about, Shizuha?” she asked. She felt like she could talk straight with Shizuha, even though they weren’t that close. Shizuha was the same age, and had been in the industry nearly as long as she had. Some experiences just brought them to that level of closeness.

Shizuha took a deep breath, ignoring her own tray of food. “I heard you had a run-in with Kirin at the Christmas party,” she said.

Of everything Claudine expected her to start with, it was not this. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

“Kyoko indicated as much, though don’t blame her. I pressured her a little for details.”

“...Why?” Claudine asked, the word emerging a little choked.

Another sigh, as if bracing herself. She pulled back her sleeve, just a few inches.

“I… also…”

No. Nononononoono. Claudine wanted to reverse time, to wish this conversation had never begun.

Scars. The kind one can only inflict on oneself, on Shizuha’s arm. The only difference in their outfits - none without long sleeves for Shizuha that afternoon. Claudine willed her not to go on.

“After you ‘retired’, he became my agent. I had just turned 18…”

“No.”

“I had to leave my contract before the year expired…”

“No!”

A few people in the cafeteria looked at them, surprised by Claudine’s outburst. She reddened. Without a mask or sunglasses, she felt exposed. She felt like crying. She had left, she didn’t get Kirin detained, she had put Shizuha directly in the crosshairs. She was partially to blame for those scars. Who knew how many scars were further up her sleeves? She felt dizzy.

There was a hand on her shoulder. Shizuha. “Why don’t we take a walk?” she suggested.

Claudine could have laughed. This girl, confessing her own trauma, now comforting Claudine. She took a deep breath, pulling herself together, nodding. They dumped their uneaten dinner trays in the trash, Claudine putting on her mask again.

“I apologize,” she said, once they were walking around the neighborhood in the chilly winter air. “Both for my outburst just now, and for what you went through back then. I often think about that time and think… if I could have just done things differently, he wouldn’t be working in the industry now.”

“Please, Saijou-san, don’t worry. I… didn’t tell you that to make you feel guilty. I wanted you to know you’re not the only one with something against that man. Perhaps something still can be done, I don’t know, I suppose we’d have to speak with a lawyer. But… I don’t know. I thought: I was somehow relieved that I wasn’t completely alone. Perhaps Saijou-san would be relieved that she wasn’t completely alone.”

Claudine nodded, understanding, a bit, despite how strange the concept seemed. “Y- your arms…” she said, feeling her tears coming despite her attempts to hold them back.

Shizuha nodded. “That is part of my past, certainly. Something I can’t erase, no matter how much I want to. There’s other things too. The way I can’t think of food without worrying about my body image, my weight, that’s all him. The way I worry every time I’m alone with a man, no matter how trustworthy he seems.”

Claudine nodded, stopping in order to embrace Shizuha. “I know,” she said. “I know.”

She left soon after, with a promise to meet with Shizuha and Kyoko ahead of their next shooting for Arcana, in order to discuss their next move. By the time she got back to the apartment, Maya was still not back. Her adrenaline from finding out about Shizuha seemed to fade all at once, and turned into pure exhaustion and sadness. Of course it was not just me, she thought. Of course he would move on.

She laid down on the couch lazily throwing a blanket over herself, thinking perhaps she should just go to sleep, but remembering she had said she would stay up to meet Maya that evening. She flipped on the television, trying to focus on the program, and not on the thoughts racing in her mind, memories of a man who would certainly bring her fame, no one could debate that, but who would also bring her misery. ’Claudine, you’re coming to dinner tonight, wear this dress.’ ‘Claudine, careful with your portions.’ ‘Claudine, I need you to stop by my office after your shoot tonight.’

“Claudine?”

She looked up, realizing that Maya had returned. It was hard to speak, it was hard to ask for anything. She didn’t want to rely on Maya too much, but at the same time, she just wanted to sink into Maya completely, to be with Maya was to feel comfort.

She felt Maya slide in behind her on the couch and it felt like a physical buffer between Claudine and her worries. She pressed in closer, hoping for more of this power, and more of Maya’s touch. She almost laughed - one day apart and she was this needy, the busy work of spring could not come fast enough.

She could feel Maya’s tenseness behind her, Maya’s concern. “I didn’t see him,” she assured her. “But it wasn’t just me, Maya. There’s at least one other…”

Maya’s hand ran up and down her arms, as if the friction would bring her some comfort. Strangely, it seemed to work. “We’ll get through this,” she said, with the confidence that Claudine needed.

“Thank you,” Claudine said, “For always listening to me, for being here.”

She leaned back, pressing herself closer into Maya, until she felt Maya lift her head, feeling Maya’s lips against her neck a moment later. The kiss deepened, bringing heat into her core, and she reached back, her hands snaking through Maya’s hair as Maya kissed her neck.

She could feel Maya’s hand, tentative at first, reaching under her shirt, so she placed her hand on top, guiding it, letting her know that yes, she wanted this. The tension from the day - the long shoots, the confessions, the unwanted memories - seemed to melt away, at least temporarily, as she was under Maya’s spell, and she wanted it to continue, at least a little longer.

“Bedroom?” Maya asked, her voice low, spoken right into Claudine’s ear.

Claudine didn’t trust herself to speak, merely nodding and complying with the request.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

“Have you seen these YaYas?” Yachiyo asked, as she sat across from Claudine at a small teahouse in Ginza. They were meeting during the lunch hour, so it was fairly quiet, but they still requested a seat in the back room, just in case.

“What are those? Your fans?” Claudine asked.

Yachiyo laughed, sipping her tea with dainty, perfectly manicured fingers. “As if. I’m just a slave who ‘also works at that firm that Heirophant works at’. No. The YaYas are MaYaYas… Maya-san’s fans.”

“What? Let me see.”

“I knew that would get your attention. Based on that mark on your neck, you’re the head YaYa.”

Claudine blushed, tucking her hair around her neck, but taking the phone from Yachiyo nonetheless. “Oh, matching T-shirts? Oh gosh, this one made Maya keychains. She’s like a pop idol!”

Yachiyo nodded. “Teen sensation indeed. Akira has her own set of fans. Maybe they’ll meet after dark and fight.”

Claudine shook her head, sipping her tea.

“Tell her to watch out, though. Akira’s had some trouble with the ‘kirakiras’ bombarding her after shoots and things like that. They mean well but they can take it too far.”

“Honestly, things have really changed since we worked.”

“It’s not too late for you to go to design school,” said Yachiyo. “You can always join me.”

Claudine shook her head. “I have no talent for things like that. Besides…”

“Besides?”

“Don’t make me say it.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, Kuro, you lost me.” Yachiyo bit into a pastry at the table, tilting her head, awaiting Claudine’s explanation.

“Well, I feel as though I’m meant to stand at her side…” she said, quietly, feeling the blush color her cheeks. “Ugh! You knew from the start!”

“I wanted to hear it! Ah, you really are YaYa-sama,” Yachiyo teased.

“You’re the worst.”

“I know. But I’m still your best friend. And I’m happy for you. I really am, I just haveto tease you, it’s in my nature.”

“I know, and I really do appreciate you. I wanted to apologize, for sneaking out of the Christmas party, after you spent all that time trying to help.”

Yachiyo shook her head. “Listen, Kuro - I understand. I don’t know everything that went down, but I know that man is fucked up. If you needed to leave, you needed to leave. I’m glad Maya-san found you. But you should call Souda-san. She doesn’t know anything about what happened, and she was really surprised.”

Claudine nodded. She did not look forward to speaking with Souda-sensei, but she understood what Yachiyo meant. “Yeah, I will. I better get back. I’ll leave first, and pay for us both. Thanks, Yachiyo.”

“Bye, Kuro!”

After an afternoon of fittings for the crystalline campaign, Claudine received a text that Maya was again working out with Koharu, so she took this as a sign to seek out Souda-sensei. She rode the train to Seisho, arriving a few minutes after the final class had ended. She called Souda-sensei, letting her know she was outside, and was let in and led to Souda’s office.

“I’m glad to see you’re alive,” she was berated, as Souda handed her a cup of tea and pointed to the small couch in the corner of her office, this time choosing to sit beside her. Claudine realized that she didn’t mind - she and Souda had known each other for so long that despite the age difference, it felt like sitting with an old friend.

“I’m alive,” she repeated.

“What is happening with you? First it seems like you’re going to pass out in the middle of the party, then you run away? This isn’t like you.”

“Thank you,” Claudine said, “For getting me out of there. You probably will never know how much that means to me.”

“Kuro. Who was that?”

“It’s a long story…”

“Kuro, I want to help you.”

Claudine thought about telling the story to Maya. She realized that perhaps she could speak to Souda, someone she had known for years, only because she had spoken to Maya first. Maya’s persistence, Maya’s patience, Maya’s love, if she was being honest, was necessary. Only then did she have any chance of speaking to anyone else.

“How much time do you have?”