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[in the absence of light...]

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In the absence of light…

When Maya walks home, she passes the park where Koharu confessed. This is why she hates when her father sends her out on errands, even if he thinks ‘getting out of the house is good for her’. Even though it’s nearly winter, even though no scents linger in the freezing air, Maya can still smell the cherry blossoms and hear Koharu’s laugh. She closes her eyes, turning away from the children climbing on the park’s jungle gym.

It's getting dark now, the sun setting early on the November evening. She crosses the bridge back to her neighborhood, unsure why she stops in the middle. The view is average at best – it’s a low bridge and rather close to shore. The water, however, is surprisingly deep, an inky blackness below. She thinks again of the errand she finished for her father – the necklace he repaired now safely in the hands of some business-lady. She thinks again of the cherry blossoms. She thinks again of Koharu.

She isn’t sure exactly how she gets over the rail of the bridge, just that she is falling – just that she has jumped. The bridge is low, she hits the water quickly, and hard. Every nerve in her body fires with the feeling of the freezing water she’s plummeted into, and she wishes to sink deeper and deeper and never emerge.

But after only a few seconds, her natural buoyancy is pulling her up, and some savior has come in after her. ’An idiot’, she thinks. Let it end here, let her be forgotten in this nondescript crossing somewhere between finishing an errand and forgetting her way home. She half-heartedly helps as she is dragged to the shore.

“Are you alright?” the man asks, shivering and dripping beside her. A small crowd is gathering. Her shame is building.

“Yes, fine,” she answers, her teeth chattering.

“How did you fall in?” he asks, checking her over.

“She didn’t fall in, she jumped!” says a woman with a buggy. A pesky woman.

Maya brushes the man’s hand away and stands. “Thank you for your help,” she says. “I apologize for the trouble.” With a deep bow, she walks away.

She hears his protests behind her, and the clucks of the onlookers that feel she slighted her savior, but she didn’t die, which meant she had to go home.

“Ah! Maya!” Her mother cries as she enters their apartment, surprised. “Hideo, she’s done it again!”

Now both her parents are watching her, her father still in his shirtsleeves from the shop, but she just walks to the bathroom, water dripping behind her, turning on the tap for the bath. She’s careful not to catch her reflection in the mirror as she undresses and gets in the tub. Certainly, her parents will find a way to argue about this amongst themselves, and she doesn’t want to be able to hear it.

Soaking in the bathtub is a short relief, until her thoughts catch up with her. Thoughts of a beautiful woman with bright blue eyes and a brilliant mind, pulling her by the hand, posing for a photo, giving her a handmade Valentine….

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

“Your father is having the Tsuyuzaki family over for dinner tomorrow night, please eat with us,” her mother says, her voice gentle, more gentle than it had ever been when Maya was growing up. She sits in the living room, polishing silver, always working on the family business, even as she runs the home.

“I don’t mind,” Maya acquiesces. She doesn’t know the Tsuyuzaki family, but she has been taking meals in her room, and figures one night at the table won’t hurt.

“They have a daughter, around your age,” her mother says. “You’ll have someone to talk to.”

“Sure. I think I’m going to see about my camera,” Maya says. “The repairs should be finished today.”

Her mother nods, focused, as always, on doing good work, and Maya changes to leave the apartment, avoiding the mirror, avoiding looking at herself.

Her family owns a rather large apartment on the sixth floor, but Maya can’t say she knows many of the neighbors. The people across the hall have lived there at least as long as her family has, and down one floor is a couple who moved in a few years ago who always bring baked goods on holidays, but those are all who Maya knows aside from casual sightings. Therefore, Maya can say with confidence that she has never seen the blonde standing in the hall outside her apartment before in her life.

“Are you lost?” she asks, suddenly a little tongue tied. The other woman looks a little nervous, but beyond her charged energy there’s something… playful? Mysterious?

The woman smiles, licking her lips subtly. “Ah, no. My uncle, he’s just… a little upset right now. I’m waiting until he cools off.” She laughs lightly.

“Are you alright?”

Another smile. Another laugh. “Of course. Don’t let me hold you up.”

She steps back, allowing Maya to continue down the corridor, except Maya doesn’t want to. For the first time in a long time - in nearly a year - she wants to talk to someone. She wants to spend time with someone. She can’t even explain why, except that there’s some combination of beauty and radiance and volatility that she finds fascinating. She wants to say more, but words are no longer easy after months of solitude. “I’m going to the camera shop, if you want to come?” Maya offers, blushing a little at this lame proposal. She wants to know more, and like a wilting flower, she can’t pass up a chance to stand in the sunlight.

“Sounds better than this,” the other woman says. “By the way, my name’s Claudine.”

“Maya.”

“Maya.” She repeats the name, and it sounds like candy coming from her lips. “Let me go get my jacket and I’ll come with you.”

She dashes upstairs, and Maya follows, a few steps behind. Claudine enters an apartment one floor up and across the narrow courtyard, closing the door for a moment. Maya hears a man cursing, the television playing, what certainly is a bottle crashing to the floor, and then Claudine is back, the same calm smile on her face.

The air outside is chilly, but it’s a welcome change from Maya’s room, and she’s too distracted by Claudine to pay much attention to the chill in her fingers.

“I like that ramen shop,” Claudine says, gesturing down an alley they pass. “I went there last week.”

Maya makes a vague nod. She’s been to all these restaurants in their neighborhood, certainly, but not for the past year. Not since her self-imposed isolation began. It might be nice to sit at a table, to have someone besides her mother prepare her a meal, but her hand shakes with just the thought.

“I like that vending machine, too!” Claudine continues, nodding towards the machine next to the station. “They always have that melon soda and it’s the best.”

Now Maya’s lips tease at the edge of a smile without her thinking about it. “That one is good, but the mikan drink is better,” she argues. The vending machine is good. The vending machine is safe. Occasionally, when the apartment is unbearable, she will visit this machine in the dead of night, purchasing a drink, usually the mikan flavor.

Claudine does not debate her about her drink choice, switching topics easily from the vending machine to a book she read recently - some American romance. Maya has a feeling the plot was heavier than Claudine lets on, but she knows better than to share too much. Claudine seems to intrinsically understand to tread lightly, and Maya appreciates her banter. Their conversation is easy, taking them to the store quickly, neither of them prodding the other about personal information. It is a careful dance, Maya can tell, and yet the waltz with Claudine is natural.

“You have the most beautiful eyes,” Claudine says, just before they enter the shop, as if she were commenting on Maya’s shoes. Maya can feel her fingers twitch, an unbidden image of Koharu coming to mind, and yet, for the first time in nearly a year, it doesn’t hurt the same way.

“Thank you,” she says gently in reply.

Maya’s camera is ready, and she’s relieved she won’t have to make an additional trip out of the apartment.

“It’s good to see you again,” the shopkeeper says. “You can use the darkroom anytime,” she offers. Maya remembers when she used to spend hours there, processing photos, trying to get them to come out perfectly. She supposes it wouldn’t be bad: it’s quiet, dark, and solitary in the darkroom. But the memory of developing that photo, with the cherry blossoms, and Koharu’s smiling face after their promise… it is too much at the moment, and she gives a noncommittal response.

She inspects her repaired camera, pays the necessary fee and they return home. Claudine insists they exchange numbers, though Maya isn’t brave enough to ask her out again at that moment.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Tsuyuzaki family moved to Tokyo recently from Hokkaido. Attending dinner that evening are Mr. and Mrs. Tsuyuzaki, their eldest daughter Mahiru, and their next eldest son, Hiro. The younger children are left home with their grandmother. This is still a business meeting, after all, even if Mr. Tsuyuzaki and Maya’s father have been acquaintances for years.

Maya picks at her food, still not used to eating at the table. She listens to the conversation, sneaking a peek now and again at Mahiru Tsuyuzaki. Everything about her aura is soft and gentle. Her fringe cut gently drapes across her forehead, and her eyes smile softly as she laughs at something her brother says. She’s pretty, Maya realizes. She’s dressed in a green dress with flowers, which Maya admires as she stands to help Maya’s mother clean off the table.

Maya’s mother protests the help, especially from a guest. “Please relax, I have it taken care of. Maya can show you some of her photos while you wait for dessert,” she suggests.

Maya stands to meet her mother’s request, even as the pit forms in her stomach. With a nod, she leads Mahiru down the hall to her room, leaving the door open to hear the summons for dessert. Her hand shakes a bit, and she sits on it as she settles in her desk chair. It’s been nearly a year since anyone but her parents had been in her bedroom, nearly a year since Ko-

“So you take photos?” Mahiru asks, her voice a sweet song.

Maya nods. “I used to. I only just got my camera repaired today.”

“Do you put them up on a blog or something?” Mahiru moves in from where she had been leaning on the doorframe, admiring some of the trinkets around the room - a couple school awards, ticket stubs from the theater, a CD collection that needed updating.

“No. Nothing like that,” Maya says, thinking about how it might cause physical pain to post some of her photos online.

Mahiru smiles, and it’s not just papering over Maya’s feelings, it is as if she can understand what Maya has left unsaid. “I’m not a very good photographer, but I like to take pictures of flowers. It leaves me with good memories for times like now… in the winter,” Mahiru says, showing her a photo blog with close up images of all sorts of flowers.

Maya nods, her voice catching in her throat too much to issue a proper compliment. “I take portraits, mainly,” she chokes out. Mahiru sits on the edge of the bed, their knees inches apart.

Maya knows she sees it - the face-down picture frame on the dresser - but Mahiru has the discretion not to comment on it.

“Did you want to come to this dinner?” Maya asks. She’s not sure why she asks it. Just a nagging feeling. Mahiru’s blush confirms her suspicions.

“You’re right, there’s not much reason for me to come to a business dinner. I just… got excited when my father said Tendo-san’s daughter was the same age. I don’t have friends in Tokyo yet, even at the university. When I met you tonight I just… I wanted to get to know you more.”

Maya can’t help but smile at Mahiru’s confession. The trembling in her hand has stopped. “I’m glad you came. I can… show you around the city if you want?”

Mahiru nods. “I would like that a lot.”

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Maya doesn’t have a chance to show Mahiru around the city for the next few days, as she’s working for her father, and when she messages Mahiru, she finds that she’s also busy with classes. She finds herself laying in bed, warming up at night after an evening running around Tokyo making deliveries. Precious gems that find their way back home. She avoids a certain bridge coming home.

Looking out her window, she sees a light on in a window across the way and up one floor. A woman, changing by the window. She averts her eyes, but a glimpse of blonde hair makes her turn back. One floor up and across the courtyard. It has to be her, she realizes.

Maya can see a black bra and panties, but the dark evening and Claudine’s movements impair her view. An idea occurs to her. Scrambling across her bed, she grabs her camera and flash from her desk. Resting the camera on the bed, she holds the flash up, hitting the camera shutter, and the flash goes off, illuminating the courtyard for a fraction of a second.

Claudine is turned away and misses it. Maya holds her finger down, waits until Claudine turns back, and tries again. Now she knows Claudine sees it, and she watches and Claudine slips on a robe and lifts open the window, peering out. Maya does the same, realizing once she’s done so that she hasn’t thought this far ahead. She had wanted the attention of this woman, and now that she’s got it, her mind is blank.

“Maya?” Claudine asks, her voice faltering a bit in the wind.

“Do you want to go to dinner tomorrow?” Maya asks.

Claudine considers for a moment. Maya hasn’t expected this - she was prepared for an outright rejection or acceptance. “...Tomorrow?” she asks.

“We can go to the Kishi Theater after,” Maya suggests. Her heart is hammering in her chest. She has no idea if Claudine enjoys the theater, but goodness knows she isn’t utilizing the season tickets her parents hold.

Claudine’s mood seems to change at this proposal. It is hard to read her expressions through the distance and the dark, but her posture perks up a bit. “You would take me?” she asks.

Yes, Maya thinks. It’s the only thing I’m sure of. Certainly, it is more to look forward to than sneaking out for a drink from the vending machine in the dead of night. “I’d love to,” she says, her voice a little less confident than she hopes.

“Then yes, I’ll go with you,” Claudine replies.

“I’ll send you a message,” Maya says, nearly laughing at how she could have sent a message in the first place. She closes the window, laying back on the bed. She lets the giddiness run its course. The feeling is unfamiliar and strange, but she doesn’t exactly want it to end.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________
In the morning Maya wakes up to a text on her phone. As always, her heart races for a moment, thinking it might be Koharu, finally, after all these months.

It’s Mahiru.

Mahiru: I’m free today, if you want to meet up to walk around the neighborhood.

Technically, Maya is supposed to help her father at the shop, but she’s missed so much work there already that she wonders if he even counts on her coming.

“Mahiru Tsuyuzaki asked me to show her around today,” she announces at breakfast.

Surprisingly, her father looks pleased. “I think their help with our Hokkaido merger is going well. But they were looking for a photographer for New Year’s… their little ones are getting dressed up for the shrine visit.”

“And you want me to offer?”

He nods. “Help them out, Maya. I’ve always liked your photographs.”

“I’ll let Mahiru-san know,” she says.

Maya: I can meet you near the fountain in the central park?

Spending time with Mahiru is peaceful, and it’s a nice foray back into society for Maya. They walk to a cafe, poring over the menu before deciding what to get. Mahiru takes a photo of their desserts and drinks before they eat, and they enjoy them slowly. Mahiru wants to know about Maya. She wants to learn what makes Maya happy and sad, what Maya finds beautiful, what Maya dreams about. It’s hard to shut someone out who shines such a gentle light, but it’s too much, too soon.

“We should see more of the neighborhood,” Maya says. She tells Mahiru she’ll take the photos on New Year’s, mostly to further change the subject.

Mahiru does not press, following Maya along to the market arcade, the bay access, the subway stations, the best restaurants, and so on. They return to the bay, the sun sitting a little lower in the sky now. They wrap their coats a little tighter and take a seat on a bench.

“I like baseball,” Mahiru says.

Maya doesn’t expect this, from the woman beside her, dressed in a long, pastel-colored skirt and fluffy coat. “Baseball?”

Mahiru nods. “I used to play, but I don’t anymore. We had a good youth team back in Hokkaido that I would support. We should go to a baseball game once the season starts.”

Maya nods. She realizes what Mahiru is doing, but even though she’s not ready to share, it’s enough to listen to Mahiru’s voice, to know what Mahiru likes.

Mahiru tucks her hair behind her ear, leaning forward a bit on the bench. It’s a natural readjustment, but it’s cute, and Maya is entranced for that moment.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________
Maya arrives to the restaurant a few minutes late. She had arrived at the station just around the corner on time, but spent fifteen minutes working up the courage to enter. After so many nights of taking dinner in her room, eating in public is intimidating, especially at a rather formal restaurant when she’s expected to make conversation the whole time.

But the thought of Claudine waiting for her inside gives her courage to go in, and the sight of Claudine already seated at a round booth by the window makes her heart beat with excitement, not fear. It’s winter - the sun has already set by dinner time - but just the vision of Claudine reminds her again of daylight, of a bright beam of sunshine.

She begins walking towards Claudine, pausing at once when her new vantage point reveals that Claudine is not alone. Beside her is a woman with a fashionable bob haircut, sharp eyes, and a curved, cat-like smile. Her heart continues to hammer, but for an entirely different reason. She can feel her palms growing sweaty, her blood pressure dropping. She had confirmed the date and time, but she feels like she is intruding. Was she really at the correct restaurant? On the correct day?

She nearly turns to leave, whether or not this is a mistake she’s ready to just go home, but Claudine catches her eye, her smile warm and welcoming, with a hint of an apology laced in. The other woman, whoever she is, makes eye-contact with Maya before Maya sits down and they size each other up, both asking the same question: ’Are you just a friend of Claudine’s?’ and both coming to the same answer: ’No.’

Maya sits, and Claudine stands to greet her, grasping her hands and kissing her cheeks, smiling warmly. “I’m glad you made it,” she says to Maya, “Please sit! I just need to use the bathroom, I’ll be right back!” She turns back towards the booth, her tone turning colder. “Order me something strong to drink,” she says to the other woman, an afterthought.

Maya does not want to sit alone with this stranger. Maya does not wish to have three people here at dinner, let alone just her and this other woman. She can’t blame Claudine for leaving for a moment, however. She did arrive late to dinner, and Claudine probably waited until Maya had arrived to excuse herself. So she doesn’t turn and run, she takes the seat slowly, cautiously. Perhaps this is a testament to how much she already is intrigued by Claudine.

“Hanayagi Kaoruko,” says the other woman, sticking her hand out in greeting. She’s cute, and she has good manners, likely coming from a good family, as far as Maya can tell, but there’s just something about her that puts Maya on edge. She’s not supposed to be here, a voice in her head chants.

Maya shakes her hand firmly, but with a hint of trepidation. “Tendo Maya,” she concedes.

“Tendo… ah! Do your parents have a box at the Kishi Theater?” she asks, cocking her head a bit. “I’m the owner of the Tokyo branch,” she says.

Maya swallows down the immediate inadequacy she feels at this revelation. This woman, around her age, owns the theater she so admired. “Yes, they do,” she says. “We’re going tonight.”

The waiter comes by then and Kaoruko orders drinks for all three of them. Then her attention is back on Maya, an interesting expression on her face: somewhere between intrigued and disappointed. "I hope you enjoy it, we always try to put on a good show," she said.

Maya watches the way her gaze flickers for just a moment, as if she's thinking about a distant memory. "How did you come to be running the theater?" Maya asks, her voice stumbling, not allowing her to say 'owning'.

Kaoruko looks at Maya… really looks at her, and then she smiles, somehow in the same vein as Claudine's bright smile but carrying something darker- something heavier. "I wanted to be an actress," she says, "But I wasn't cut out for the stage, as it turns out." Their drinks arrive and Maya is spared from replying.

Maya pretends to sip her drink, letting Kaoruko continue. “Claudine loves it there, at the theater. I’m glad she can go with you. I… don’t always have time to take her.”

Kaoruko is a strange mixture of confidence and vulnerability, and Maya doesn’t know what to make of it. “I’m looking forward to it,” Maya says, politely.

Kaoruko nods, her smile is pretty, despite her still leaving a bad taste in Maya’s mouth. Claudine returns then, glancing between the two of them before Kaoruko stands up to let her take the space between them in the round booth. As Kaoruko leans forward to exit the booth, Maya sees it, just for a moment - a large scar across her chest - perhaps the reason she was cheated of an acting career. And then it’s gone, and they’re all seated again, Kaoruko composed and once again an antagonist to Maya’s date, all vulnerabilities gone.

Claudine sniffs, inspecting the drink then sipping it. “You’ve introduced yourself?” she asks, addressing Kaoruko.

“I have, but I do need to get going,” she says, gathering her purse. “Enjoy the show.” She leans forward, tipping Claudine’s chin to meet her lips and kissing her chastely, businesslike. “Goodnight, Claudine. A pleasure to meet you, Maya.”

Without giving Claudine a chance to protest, Kaoruko rises, and with a small wave, she is gone.

“I’m sorry about her,” Claudine says, taking a long sip of her drink. “I didn’t plan for her to come tonight, but she’s so insistent,” she laughs, a little dryly.

“Who is she?” Maya asks, hoping Claudine will understand the ‘to you’ tacked on the end of the sentence.

“Kaoruko is…” and for the first time, Claudine’s smile fades, and even if Maya knows it has been forced all along, she hates to watch. She regrets the question, even if she feels her soul will be unsettled until she knows the answer. A true dilemma.

“Kaoruko is an unrequited love,” Claudine says, finishing the drink.

 

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Maya leaves work at her father’s jewelry shop around lunchtime on Saturday. It’s December now, and the sun is trying to peek out from the clouds, but the air is chilly, and Maya tucks her scarf tighter around her neck, desperately trying to stay warm.

She arrives home to her mother working on some financial documents, and Maya tries not to disturb her as she prepares some small meal for lunch.

“Maya, you remember your father and I are visiting Hokkaido this week, right?” her mother asks, once Maya turns towards the table with her plate. It’s tolerable to eat at the table when she’s the only one sitting there.

“I remember.” Truthfully she hasn’t, but it doesn’t much matter. She spends all her time in her room anyways, aside from when she goes into the shop. This just means she doesn’t need to go into the shop.

“You’ll be alright? You’re welcome to come with us.”

“I’ll be fine here,” she says.

There’s a bit of a pause, the only sounds coming from the fork scraping and the pen scratching as Maya eats and her mother writes.

“Are you staying home this afternoon?” her mother asks after a bit, barely looking up from her work.

Maya shakes her head. “I’m going out again.” She knows this is rare - this is breaking the pattern. Perhaps it’s because the pattern has been broken lately that her mother even thinks to ask.

“With whom? That girl from upstairs?”

Maya is surprised that her mother even knows of Claudine, let alone knows of Maya’s association with her. “With Tsuyuzaki-san,” she says quietly. She wants to ask her mother about Claudine, her curiosity is nearly enough for her to quit feigning disinterest, but she continues picking at her meal. Once Kaoruko had left, her night with Claudine was good, great even, and Claudine had been on her mind in the days since. But she swallows it down. “We have arrangements to meet and walk at the Imperial Palace grounds.”

Maya doesn’t miss the way her mother’s jaw tenses, the way she codes the activity in her mind: that is something that couples do. But just as Maya minds her own business, not inquiring about Claudine, so does her mother, nodding in acknowledgement of Maya’s plans but saying nothing more.

She heads out again soon after, camera in hand. She’s not sure why she brings it, she supposes it just makes her more comfortable. The camera bobs against her as she walks the last few meters from the station to the entrance of the grounds at a brisk pace, knowing she’s a few minutes late.

Mahiru is there already, but she doesn’t look put off by waiting. In fact, she beams when she sees Maya, running to meet her, and taking Maya’s bare hands in her gloved hands, then bringing her in even closer for a hug. “It’s good to see you,” she says.

“You too,” says Maya, deciding that she means it.

They walk through the grounds, which are still rather busy, but less than usual, due to the cold weather. Mahiru walks beside her, telling her about her mother’s woes in getting traditional wear for all the younger siblings for New Year’s, and Maya laughs at the way she describes her exciting family life, so much more lively than Maya’s own.

Maya considers the scenery, the subjects in the park, but her camera remains hanging around her neck, nothing quite inspiring her on this rather dreary winter afternoon.

At one point they pause by the moat, taking a look across the water at the inner palace grounds. Maya remembers when she was young and her father used to tell her to search for the royal family on the inner grounds, as if she might see them running about on the other side. She almost asks Mahiru if she was told the same thing, before remembering she was born in Hokkaido. Maya reaches in her pocket when she feels her phone buzz, her automatic response over the past year - just in case she finally reaches out. Her arms rest on the guard rail as she checks the notification. Of course it’s not from Koharu. It’s a message from Claudine.

I had fun at the theater. I want to-

The phone is knocked from her hands as she is bumped into from behind. She checks on the other party, realizing it was Mahiru. “Are you alright?” she asks.

Mahiru nods, blushing a bit. “Someone came through really close, on a bicycle, and I just-”

Maya nods. “It’s no problem,” she assures her.

“I’m truly sorry! Is your camera alright?”

Maya checks on her camera, which had been hanging below the rail. It appeared there was no damage to it. This was good, as she spent a fair amount of money getting it repaired just recently. Her phone on the other hand…

She picks up her phone from where it fell to the concrete, still several feet safe of falling into the moat, and finds that it turns on again, but the screen has a new large crack running across it.

Mahiru bows in apology, offering to buy Maya a treat at the cafe to make up, in some small way, for the crack in the screen, once Maya declines letting her pay for a new screen entirely. “It’s perfectly usable this way, please do not worry,” she assures Mahiru. She tucks her phone in her pocket to get Mahiru to stop fretting.

The food is good, and Maya’s fingers are thawing out. She knows she can’t bear to explain it to Mahiru, at least not yet, but she knows that Mahiru wants to become closer, and she also knows that the longer she remains siloed, the harder it will be.

“I like swans,” she says, almost turning red at how silly she probably sounds, and resorting to taking a bite of her pancake instead.

“Swans?” Mahiru asks, leaning forward a bit.

Maya nods, committing to explaining herself. “I used to go to the Imperial Palace with my dad a lot,” and with Koharu, a little voice in her head adds. “My favorite thing to look at was the swans swimming in the moat. I was disappointed that it was too cold for them to be there today.”

Mahiru smiles, placing her hand gently on top of Maya’s. “We’ll have to go back when it’s warmer.”

Maya nods. “After the spring, though. I… can’t stand the cherry blossoms.”

Maya knows this was a strange thing to hate. That Mahiru wants to ask more, but she probably can feel Maya’s knuckles tense under her own hand and refrains.

They make their way to the station, cutting through the grounds once more, and Maya can’t see any cyclists. She wonders if Mahiru was clipped by the single cyclist in the park, or if… she shakes her head.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________
Somehow, the week seems to pass in a blur, once Maya’s parents leave. Her mother leaves her dishes, wrapped in the refrigerator and freezer, which she sometimes remembers to unpack and heat for meals. Sleeping is strange - usually she is guided by the schedule of her parents, but without them here, she is free to sleep when she pleases, and she often finds herself waking in the dead of night or falling asleep as the sun is beginning to rise.

She knows the reason for this behavior - this far-cry from the Maya of high school and university who would bring home awards and was a shoo-in for many top jobs. It was approaching that day and with every moment that brought her closer to the one-year anniversary, her limbs seemed to lose energy, her will to exist seemed to shrivel up.

It was Friday perhaps, evening perhaps, when there’s a knock on the apartment door. The lights are off in Maya’s bedroom, and the shadows are long, but she has nothing left to give - no motivation to turn on the light, and even less to get the door. Her parents are out, and the only people who knock are people here for her parents, anyways.

She’s surprised, then, when the knocking persists. A bit annoyed, even. She falls perfectly still, listening, when she hears the lock click open. There were only two options now: a relative from out of town, sent to check on her on her mother’s instruction, told where the spare key was hiding, or an intruder who had either picked the lock or searched around for the spare key. If it was the former, she would have to find the energy somewhere to greet the relative, perhaps even pretend she was fine. If it was the former, well… she tries to search in herself for the terror she should be feeling - the dread of anticipating an encounter with someone who meant her ill - but comes up dry.

In her state of perfect stillness, laying on her back on her bed, she could hear every noise. The door opening and then closing behind the person. Footsteps down the hall. A beeline for Maya’s room. Her door cracks open, and Claudine’s face appears. Maya props herself up on her elbows.

“Maya!” she calls, a small smile on her face. She looks to be… relieved? “You’re here!”

“I’m here,” Maya says, wondering suddenly if this is a dream.

Claudine closes the door behind herself, coming to sit on the edge of the bed. “You never replied to my text. I thought… ‘that’s fine, maybe she was really put off that Kaoruko intruded on our dinner, that’s fair’. But then, I wrote you a few more times just to check in, and nothing. And your window has been dark all week. I was afraid that something had happened.”

Maya lays back on the bed, a strange lightness in her chest. “So you broke into my apartment?”

“I knocked first! And you didn’t even bother to come to the door, so it looks like it’s a good thing I came!” Claudine pouts a little, and Maya stores the image away - it’s cute. “Besides,” she continues. “Your key is resting on top of the light over the door - really??”

Maya gives a half-hearted shrug. Claudine smiles, leaning back and laying down beside Maya in the darkened room. It’s quiet in the house. It’s comfortable.

“I really was worried,” Claudine says. “And I felt bad. I… I wanted to see you again.”

Maya can’t see Claudine’s face. Claudine can’t see her face. They’re both staring at the ceiling, a view Maya knows intimately. And yet, with Claudine here, she’s not as on-edge as usual. To her own surprise, she laughs. She can’t remember the last time she laughed in her room. “I can’t believe you broke into my apartment,” she repeats.

“You forced my hand!” Claudine insists. “Look at you, wasting away on this bed. Go take a shower or something and perk up, I’ll make you a meal.”

Once Maya showers, changes clothes, and comes out to the kitchen, Claudine has heated up several of her mother’s dishes and made her miso soup and an omelet. “I’m only good at the basics,” she says, “I’m glad there was some food on hand.”

“This is the best I’ve eaten all week,” Maya says honestly.

“Of course it is,” says Claudine. “You haven’t even turned a light on all week.” She slides into the chair across the table from Maya, picking pieces of chicken out of one of the dishes directly from the serving plate and eating them, bypassing her plate. Maya laughs, thinking of her mother’s horrified expression watching these table manners.

Maya pushes her plate away, finally full, and considers Claudine, tempted to ask questions that she isn’t sure she wants the answers to. She wants to know more about her, she wants to pull back layers, to enmesh herself more fully with Claudine - she even feels prepared to begin showing Claudine her own layers - but still, she knows the risk. Her own layers revealed a core that was no longer pure white - what color would Claudine consider hers?

“When did you move upstairs?” she asks.

Claudine grabs a piece of omelet with her fingers, popping it into her mouth, while considering this question. “About three months ago, I think,” she says. “My parents live in France, but I moved back to Japan last year, staying with my uncle. But he got into some bad gambling debt, and we were evicted from the last place.”

She sighs, wiping her hands on the napkin, as if trying to forget this memory. “He’s still in trouble with money, so Kaoruko pays for the apartment upstairs.”

Maya tries to control the way her chest seizes, hearing the name of the interloper. Push it out of your mind, she tells herself. At least for the moment. Focus on something else.

“Why do you still live with him?” she asks Claudine. She wants to reach inside and peel back any of those small layers that she can, to understand and close the gap between them.

Claudine pauses for a moment, as if she hadn’t considered the question before. “Who else is going to take care of him?” she replies. She laughs lightly. “Besides, even if I told him to get out, he’d come back the next day.”

Maya can’t understand this reasoning, just as she can’t understand Claudine’s arrangement with Kaoruko. She can’t understand anything about Claudine, but she really enjoyed her evening, and finds the entire situation extremely frustrating. It’s hard to swallow; it’s sad. Perhaps Maya is just stealing rays of sunlight here and there that are intended for someone else. She realizes that she is the interloper.

Finally, the dishes are cleaned up, and Claudine is by the entrance, preparing to leave, the spare key in hand to be placed back over the light beside the door. She has no final apology for intruding, and Maya realizes she’s not sorry at all. Maya wonders if Claudine has ever regretted anything in her life. “Thank you for coming by,” Maya says.

“Come outside your room sometime,” Claudine says. “Remember when you tried it once, it wasn’t so bad.”

And then, as if remembering that no one starts out secluded in her room, adds: “Even if you’re a little wary, anything is better than looking at that ceiling, right?” And she smiles, in a way that is both encouraging and somehow tragic, as if she understands that it’s hard to leave, hard to put yourself out there again and again.

Gently, her fingers tuck Maya’s hair behind her ear, and Maya feels her touch in the pit of her stomach - both excitement and fear. She likes Claudine - she likes her too much.

“Goodnight, Maya,” says Claudine, stepping out and waving goodbye.

“Goodnight,” she repeats, waiting until Claudine is out of sight before closing the door.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Suddenly, it’s nearly Christmas. More importantly, it’s the anniversary of that day, and Maya tells herself it’s fine, it’s just like any other day, but she knows it’s not, and her room is somehow too small and endlessly expansive, all at once.

She catches herself thinking of Claudine, thinking of an easy laugh and the swish of blonde hair and ’you have the most beautiful eyes’, but then she thinks of Kaoruko’s hand capturing Claudine’s chin, Kaoruko’s lips on Claudine’s, and her hand trembles.

Maya dresses mindlessly, with no thought but to get out of this building, this cursed building that acted as her voluntary prison for the past year. It doesn’t help that she now holds an imprudent affection for her upstairs neighbor. She throws on her coat, grabs her wallet and phone, and leaves, needing to go somewhere, anywhere.

Before she gets to the station, her phone buzzes. She has a text. From Mahiru. Not Koharu. Definitely not from Koharu.

Mahiru: Are you free?

She supposes, in a technical sense, she is.

Maya: Yes, I’m free.

Mahiru: Let’s meet at the station! I just got out of class!

Maya agrees, walking the short distance, and waiting a few minutes for Mahiru to arrive. She notices Mahiru before Mahiru notices her. Mahiru is wearing a maroon dress with black tights, and a black wool coat, a matching beret on her head. Maya’s jealous, for a moment, of Mahiru’s classmates, who get to see her outfits each day, who get to have Mahiru greet them good morning and listen to them tell her about their boring days.

Mahiru smiles when she finally spots Maya. “Why don’t we go for a walk?” she asks. Maya agrees. It’s overcast, but it’s still a fairly nice day, for December. They walk along the riverbank, away from the direction of that bridge.

“What’s wrong?” Mahiru asks, once they both have tea from a street vendor to warm their hands.

“I…” Maya wonders how to sum up what is wrong. She smiles, thinking of a silly, one sentence summary. The smile fades quickly - it was fake all along, after all. “I had a girlfriend once. A fiancée, really.” A proposal in the spring, clothed in the pink of the blossoms.

Mahiru nods, her free hand comes up to squeeze Maya’s arm.

“She… she’s gone now. Her parents disapproved, and they took her away, moved the whole family out of Tokyo, really suddenly, on this day a year ago.”

Maya can tell Mahiru doesn’t expect this, from the way that her expression changes. Surprisingly, it’s tears in Mahiru’s eyes, and strangely, this helps Maya keep her composure.

“I thought she would defy them, come back, from wherever they took her, but I haven’t heard a word at all in a year,” Maya finishes.

Mahiru nods, and Maya knows she understands - the face-down picture frame, the cherry blossoms, Maya’s stagnant-seeming life. “I can’t imagine,” Mahiru says. She sniffs, wiping away her own tears before looking at Maya, turning her attention fully to Maya. “Would it help if we did something distracting today, to get your mind off it?”

Maya nods, realizing that’s why she agreed to meet with Mahiru in the first place. They end up at a game center, a place Maya hasn’t been since primary school. She laughs as they compete over shooting basketballs, playing minigolf, and put on helmets and face off in the batting cages, their breath fogging up just a bit in the cold. She thinks of Koharu, of her love lost, of every day spent staring at her ceiling as she hits the balls with all the force she can muster.

She catches a smile from Mahiru, who is indisputably better at this than she is, and agrees to go another round. She’s going to be sore tomorrow, but she doesn’t mind. She thinks of the icy coldness of the river, and the thought of ending her life, and realizes that the soreness is just proof of her vitality - that she spent a day doing more than staring at the ceiling. And at this moment, with Mahiru, Maya undeniably wanted to be alive.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________

The sunset is extremely colorful tonight, but Maya’s bedroom looks in on the courtyard. It’s cold - it’s always cold - but she grabs her camera and her jacket, hoping to take some shots from the roof. She’s never been much for landscape photography, but lately she’s been obsessed with the sun. Perhaps it’s because she feels so withered.

When she gets to the roof, she sees Claudine, and maybe she should go back inside, but she doesn’t consider it for a moment. As soon as she sets eyes on the blonde, who is leaning on the rail, smoking a cigarette, she is drawn closer, pulled into her orbit. Perhaps her affection for Claudine is imprudent, but she barely feels like she has an option.

The sunlight falls on Claudine, and the shot basically creates itself. Maya moves closer, trying to frame the way the late evening light falls across Claudine’s skin, the way her hair blows gently in the winter breeze, the way the smoke billows around her on each exhale, a backdrop of Tokyo behind her. At one point, Claudine notices her, but there’s just a small twitch of her lip, a little smirk, and she goes back to her cigarette, staring at nothing.

Maya clicks the shutter, and takes a second for good measure. Claudine is a work of art. She wonders if Kaoruko sees that. Finally, Claudine straightens up, putting out the cigarette, dropping it in a coffee can tucked by a brick, popping a mint in her mouth. “Maya,” she says, tilting her head a little, as if studying Maya. “Did you know I’d be up here?”

Maya shakes her head. “I came to take a photograph of the sunset,” she says.

Claudine smiles, tossing her hair back. “I see. Well, that’s in the other direction, photographer-san.”

“Yes, I liked this picture better,” Maya admits, a light blush coming to her cheeks, despite the cold.

Claudine doesn’t seem to notice. She’s all energy, looking at Maya, at the camera, at the scenery. “I’m going out tonight, if you want to come?” she asks. “To a club… I feel like dancing!”

Truthfully, Maya isn’t sure. She hasn’t been out dancing, out to a club, since the early days of dating Koharu. But Claudine is asking her to come along, and it’s hard to resist the smile, the energy, the radiance that is shining directly at her. It is like staring straight into the sun. And so she agrees.

“Great! I’ll be leaving around 10, meet you in the lobby?”

Maya does not know what to wear, as it’s been far longer than a year since she’s gone to a club. She also doesn’t know what to tell her parents as she never leaves the apartment after dark. She supposes she’s an adult, so she just tells them the truth. “I’m going downtown with the girl from upstairs,” she says, announcing this before she changes into some strange outfit.

Her parents don’t look pleased, exactly, but it’s not yet New Year’s Eve, she doesn’t have work for the Tsuyuzakis the next day, so they have no real reason to protest. She changes into black skinny jeans and a gray tank with her leather jacket and slips out the front door before her mother can gawk at her.

Claudine is downstairs, wearing a silvery dress. Her hair is half done-up, and she walks arm-in-arm with Maya out of the lobby. Maya doesn’t expect there to already be people inside the car that picks them up, but she realizes she should have been suspicious by the double rows of seats and the fact that it appeared to be a regular car and not a taxi. Claudine directs her to the passenger seat, while Claudine sits directly behind her.

Maya is introduced to Yachiyo, Michiru, and Mei Fan, and Michiru begins driving them downtown.

“Kuro-chan, I didn’t know you had a girlfriend,” Yachiyo says. “Are you finally done chasing after Hanayagi?”

Claudine sighs, accepting a bottle of liquor that Mei Fan passes over, and taking a swig. “It’s not like that,” she says.

“Yes, yes, we wouldn’t understand,” teases Michiru from the front.

“AKA she is not done with her chasing,” Yachiyo says, poking Claudine’s temple. “You have this beautiful girl here, and yet you’re being an idiot.” She shakes her head.

“Maya just needed a night out,” Claudine says, “She’s got someone she likes, too.”

Maya wonders about Claudine’s intuition - if this was just a lucky guess, or if Maya had a tell. And yet, as much as she wants to agree, she thinks of two women - Mahiru’s comforting smile as Maya confessed her past, and Claudine’s small smirk as she seemed to understand Maya with just a glance.

“It’s true, there’s someone I like,” Maya says, before the lull goes on too long.

They pause once the car is parked, passing around a small envelope of something from Mei Fan’s purse. Maya turns them down - going out like this is adventure enough.

The girls want a picture together before going in and Maya offers to take it - she is not ready to be photographed yet.

The club is surprisingly busy for a weeknight, and everyone but Michiru gets a round of drinks to start. They make their way to the dance floor, and Maya watches as Yachiyo slides up to a woman, the two of them beginning to dance together, to whisper in each others’ ears.

She wonders if she’s too far removed from society to be any good in a club, until Claudine tugs on her free hand, pulling her close, willing her body to loosen up and move with the music. At first she feels stiff and awkward, but Claudine is relaxed, Claudine is guiding her. And it’s nothing serious, she realizes. This isn’t a rehearsed dance, no one is watching. This is a night out for her own enjoyment. She downs the drink, moving closer to Claudine, allowing her hips to move, allowing herself to feel the music more fully.

She focuses on Claudine and sees the usual smile on her face, and Claudine pushes Maya’s hair back from her face, her thumb caressing Maya’s jawline. “Are you having fun?” she asks.

Maya nods. This is nothing like hitting baseballs at the batting cage, but it serves the same purpose: slowly but surely, she is validating her own existence, carving out a place for herself in the world beyond her small bedroom. They spend several songs like this, close together, and Maya can feel Claudine, she can smell Claudine, she wants to taste Claudine.

“I’m going to get another drink, do you want one?” Claudine whispers this against Maya’s ear and it makes her shiver, the feeling reaching parts of her that haven’t felt sensation in recent memory.

Maya nods. “Sure.”

“I’ll be right back.”

And in seconds, the pressure seems to drop. The music is impossibly loud, the lights flashing with a blinding pulse. People are touching her, pressing into her and it’s all Maya can do not to shove them away to get out of the crowd. Maya realizes all at once that she didn’t enjoy clubbing, she enjoyed dancing with Claudine. She’s not sure if it’s the lack of personal space, or the fact that she can’t hear anything over the music, or the fact that she can’t see Mei Fan, or Yachiyo, or Michiru anymore, but an acute sense of dread sets in.

She looks around wildly, trying to find a glimpse of blonde hair, a flash of those ruby eyes. She catches her own reflection on a mirrored wall and her breath catches in her throat - she had forgotten what she looks like.

Fleeing through the back door, she finds herself in an alley behind the club. She crouches down to settle her breathing. She could almost laugh if she wasn’t trying to stop herself from crying. To think that she thought she was ready to be normal again, to go to clubs and meet new friends and just… leave her room. A joke.

She wants to go back in, to explain herself to Claudine, to maybe just spend some time, the two of them, somewhere quiet, but she doesn’t do any of those things. Instead, she calls a taxi and goes home. She waits for a text, a message from Claudine, checking where she went, why she suddenly disappeared. Nothing arrives.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

New Year’s falls on a beautiful day, and the Tsuyuzaki family gathers at a very old shrine at the edge of the city, the three youngest children dressed up in traditional clothing. Maya is crouched on the ground, photographing the energetic Tsuyuzaki children as they pose here and there, both formally, and just as they play casually together.

Despite it now being January, the day is sunny, and the temperature remains just above freezing. Maya bundles up in her coat and scarf, the calendar still a distant dream from the cherry blossoms of spring.

Mahiru laughs with her family, helping her grandmother navigate the cobbled shrine steps, herding the little ones here and there around the gardens. After about an hour and a half, Maya and Mahiru take a short break together, sipping tea while standing under a maple tree, watching the children chase each other and compare the candy they were given.

“I knew it,” Mahiru declares. “I knew you would do a great job.”

“You haven’t even seen the photos,” Maya says. But even as she protests, she turns on the camera, showing Mahiru a few shots from the screen on the back, eager to share her work for the first time in over a year.

“Look at them!” Mahiru squeals, careful not to touch the screen as she points at her siblings posing near the shrine altar. “You captured their personalities perfectly, and the lighting looks wonderful!”

Maya smiles, feeling Mahiru’s soft warmth as always, not too little or too much, just enough.

Maya’s phone rings, and the usual panic sets in before she sees Claudine’s name on the caller ID. She hands her camera off to Mahiru to hold. “I apologize,” she says, “I’ll just be a moment.”

Maya walks away from the tree, giving herself some privacy to take the call. “Hello?” she asks.

“Maya… I… something’s wrong,” she says.

A different panic swells in Maya’s chest, from the tone of voice coming through the phone being so different from the smiling, carefree blonde she was used to.

“What do you mean?” Maya asks, glancing back at the festival. Her father is here, too, fraternizing with the Tsuyuzakis. The Hokkaido deal, and all.

“I think I need to go to the hospital, I don’t know, just… I don’t feel well, Maya, can you help me?”

“Can’t your uncle take you?” Maya wants to take the words back as she says them, thinking of the shouting man she witnessed that first day at the apartment.

A soft laugh. “He’s been drinking all morning, I don’t think so… Please, Maya.”

“Kaoruko, then?”

“Her wife’s back from tour.”

Oh. Oh.

“You barely know me,” Maya counters. The children are laughing across the square.

A small wince. “I want to.” Claudine’s voice causes Maya’s heart rate to increase, and she turns around, trying to shake off some extra energy.

Maya’s gaze is caught by Mahiru, who is watching her take the call. She’s still standing under the tree, holding Maya’s camera - her eyes seemingly trying to hold Maya’s attention. Maya knows they have plans for lunch.

But moments later, Maya finds herself leaving the camera with Mahiru, and excuses herself. “I… really am sorry,” she says. “I have a friend who needs help.”

Mahiru looks like she wants to stop Maya, like she wants to ask more. She looks, even, as if she wants to request Maya stay, but the camera Mahiru is holding is a promise, and she clutches it firmly.

Maya slips out before her father can notice, taking a train back to their apartment. She takes the elevator to avoid the rare chance her mother is in the hall.

She knocks on the door to Claudine’s apartment, but there’s no answer. Cautiously, she opens the door and takes off her shoes, stepping further in. It smells like cigarettes and dust. She sees Claudine’s uncle, passed out in a recliner in the living room, the weekend horse races playing on the television. To one side is the kitchen, in a similar layout to Maya’s apartment, but this kitchen is sparse. There is no food around, and the trash needs to be taken out. A few empty liquor bottles are on the counters.

She wonders, in that moment, how Claudine felt, when she came to visit Maya in her apartment. Did she notice how different they were? She must have.

She moves further in, finding Claudine in the first bedroom - the one that would put her window across from Maya’s. She’s asleep on the bed, but her breathing is shallow, and she looks to be running a fever.

“Claudine?” Maya asks, shaking her gently awake.

“You came,” she says, smiling a little, but she pulls the blankets closer around her, shivering.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’ve been sick for a few days. I thought I could just sleep it off, but I’m getting worse, not better,” she says. She coughs a bit, an exhausted sort of cough of someone who’s worn out the muscles needed to do so.

Maya imagines the man passed out in her living room is not helping with preparing meals or changing out the bedsheets or making sure she stays hydrated. “I’m going to get you some clothes to change into. I’ll call a taxi so we can go to the hospital. Can you stand?”

Claudine nods, but even so Maya watches her carefully, as she seems unsteady on her feet. She wonders if there’s a job missing Claudine as their employee. She wonders if those friends from the club are missing Claudine, or if she’s replaceable to them. She realizes all at once she knows nothing but a woman in a photograph, a brief moment captured in time.

Once Claudine is dressed, Maya hands her some water to sip, and they take the elevator to the lobby. The taxi ride to the hospital is quiet, until Claudine turns to Maya partway through. “I’m sorry I took you from your date today,” she says.

“I wasn’t on a date!” Maya protests, wondering where Claudine got that idea.

“Oh. You seemed like you wanted to do anything but come over, so I figured you were on a date,” she says. Another coughing fit.

Maya supposes she did give the impression that she didn’t want to help. “I was just doing a favor for my dad,” she explains. “I didn’t want to let him down.”

They get to the hospital and the nurses cluck over Claudine, berating her for letting herself get so dehydrated. Maya waits nearby, reading some news on her phone. She gets a text from Mahiru.

Mahiru: Is everything okay?

Maya: It’s alright now. Shall we meet up this week so I can make it up to you?

Mahiru: Sure!

After almost two hours, she can go see Claudine, who’s tucked up in a bed for overnight observation. Pumped with fluids and medications, she’s more like her normal self, and smiles when Maya comes to sit beside her.

“Here, I saved you my pudding,” she says, nodding towards the tray.

“Aren’t you supposed to finish your dinner?” Maya asks. “How many meals did you miss while you were sick at home?” She thinks of the empty kitchen.

“I ate all the rest, I just hate butterscotch. Just eat it, Maya.”

Maya does as she’s told, slowly eating the pudding while she chats with Claudine. Perhaps being away from that apartment is enough to do Claudine good, as she’s laughing with Maya in minutes, despite it being interrupted by coughing.

“...I know! And that’s why I thought the bird character reminded me of you, Maya,” she laughs, sipping her juice.

They are interrupted by a cell phone ringing, and Claudine reaches under the blankets to pull hers out. “Excuse me, Maya,” she says, looking apologetic. Maya nods, making herself busy replying to her mother’s inquiring text as Claudine answers her call.

“Bonsoir. …I don’t have to tell you anything,” she says with a huff, and Maya’s fingers pause on the keys as she realizes Claudine’s speaking with Kaoruko. “No,” she continues. “I could be hospitalized but it wouldn’t make a difference to you.” She pauses again, her finger twirling around a lock of her hair as she listens. “I’m not, so you don’t have to worry about coming up with some excuse to get away from your perfect wife.” Another pause. “Well I didn’t ask you to call me!”

Maya can see the tears of frustration, or perhaps of disappointment. Claudine ends the conversation quickly after that.

“Why did you lie to her?” she asks, when Claudine puts the phone down.

“I want her to choose me, not come because she feels obligated,” Claudine says.

Maya bites her lip, hands still frozen on her phone, screen long since turned off. She looks at the woman in the bed beside her, hooked up to fluids, to monitors, who had called her for help. She knows what the feeling in her chest is, she knew it from the start, really. But today she came here out of obligation, she can’t deny it. She wonders… how would Claudine feel if she were to come out of choice?

______________________________________________________________________________________________________
Maya walks down the promenade in front of the theater with Mahiru. It’s snowing gently, but the air is still, so it’s a rather pleasant winter night. The theater has long since let out for the evening, so the walk is largely clear of pedestrians, and they spend some time admiring the sculptures and the winter decorations as they stroll.

“Ah, Tendo-han!” The strange Kyoto-ben…

Maya looks ahead to see Kaoruko approaching, a shorter woman arm in arm with her. She realizes at once this must be her wife. Suddenly, Mahiru grabs onto Maya’s hand as well, her gloves soft in Maya’s palm.

“Hanayagi-san,” Maya greets steadily.

“This is my wife, Hanayagi Futaba,” Kaoruko introduces. Futaba releases herself from Kaoruko’s grasp to shake Maya and Mahiru’s hands. Maya recognizes her at once - a famous stage actress whose face was in nearly every train station. On stage she went by Isurugi Futaba, at least according to the posters Maya has seen where she was dressed as a huntsman or as a prince.

“This is Tsuyuzaki Mahiru,” Maya says, “Hanayagi-san is the owner of the theater,” she explains to Mahiru.

Maya thinks she gets away without introducing Mahiru’s relationship to her as the handshakes finish, until Kaoruko gazes at Mahiru with her cat-like grin. “Tendo-han, you didn’t tell me you had a girlfriend.”

Maya meets Kaoruko’s eyes, challenging her. Oh, how badly she wants to tell Futaba about Kaoruko’s infidelity, but Kaoruko meets her gaze, indicating that she understands Maya’s position as well. ’Not a word,’ she warns with her eyes, ’Or this woman finds out you’re running about with Claudine.’

And Maya shouldn’t feel ashamed. There’s nothing incriminating about her situation with Claudine, but still, she feels that it should be kept from Mahiru. That her relationship with Claudine is a little too intimate to just be friends. And though Maya wants to have more honor than to protect herself instead of letting the truth out, in this moment she does not, betraying Futaba.

“We’re just getting to know each other,” Mahiru says, noting Maya’s extended pause. “But I think it’s going well.”

Maya nods, her eyes on Futaba, whose arm Kaoruko has reclaimed. Futaba looks at her, her eyes suddenly sharp, curious for answers. Is she suspicious? Maya wonders. Is there anything Maya can communicate in just a gaze? But Mahiru is tugging her hand away, eager to return to their walk, and after saying goodnight, the stage actress and the theater owner become part of the background again.

After Maya gets home, when she should be settling down for sleep, she finds that she’s still restless. She can’t settle her mind, and she finds herself laying in bed with her thoughts swapping between the way Mahiru tugged at her hand, placing a claim in front of Kaoruko, and the way Claudine called her, confessed to her that she wanted to be chosen. Batting cages, dancing together, visions of walks in the park and laying on her own bed with Claudine beside her swim through her vision as she drifts off.

The next morning, she walks back to the camera shop. She asks permission to use the dark room and develops the photograph of Claudine she took when she meant to take a photo of the sunset. She takes it home, glancing at the frame with Koharu’s photo - still face down - before taking some years-old school award out of a frame and replacing it with Claudine’s photo. She sets it up on her dresser, telling herself it’s because the composition is well-done, knowing already that it’s a lie. She thinks of Mahiru’s hand in hers and silently apologizes, realizing as she does that her mind has finally settled.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________
Claudine texts Maya for the first time since that night at the hospital - perhaps a week later.

Meet me on the roof.

Maya wonders if Claudine knew she was home - if she saw the dim light coming from her bedroom window - or if she just assumed, since Maya never left the apartment. She supposed it didn’t much matter, drawn as she is like a moth to a flame, her legs taking her up the stairs to the roof as if she was under some sort of spell.

It’s cold, the snow falling steadily, typical for mid-January. It’s only afternoon, but the clouds bringing the snow are covering the sun, and the sky is overcast, the whole mood more somber than last time she was up here. Claudine is already near the rail, standing in a long, navy blue coat.

As she gets closer, Maya can tell she’s crying, not wracking sobs but something quieter, the sort of tears that come at the end when the major crying is finished. Maya considers herself an expert in crying at this point.

The question of ’Are you alright?’ falls dead on her lips, as she knows both of them are too jaded, too intimate for a question like that at this point. Instead, she opens with, “What happened?”

Claudine wrings her hands, looking as if she’s not sure what to do with them. “I got greedy,” she says after a pause. She rakes her fingers through her hair, shaking her head, as if considering the events she’s recounting. “I told her I wasn’t happy as the other woman. She needed to choose. Her wife, or me.”

Maya nods. She understands. She doesn’t want to make Claudine have to say it.

But Claudine says what Maya’s already put together, perhaps saying it aloud is therapeutic. “She’s staying with her wife, I just - I thought for once I-” her voice cuts off as tears come out once more, perhaps more of frustration than of sadness. She hastily wipes them away.

Maya watches her, realizing that as Claudine is lamenting her lost love, a sick sort of hope is crawling into Maya’s chest - a thought that perhaps this is actually an opportunity. She knows it’s wrong, and yet - wasn’t this what she wanted all along? For Kaoruko to be out of the picture?

Claudine gives her a look - of need and want - and Maya realizes that free will is an illusion. On this rooftop, in this moment, there is only Claudine, and she captures every iota of Maya’s attention.

I would always choose you,” Maya says, and she means it. If they have to stand here all night, until her fingers turn to ice, she will repeat it to Claudine until her message sinks in.

Claudine continues her silent study of Maya, almost as if seeing her for the first time. In a way, Maya supposed, she was. They were always just friends, before, in Claudine’s eyes. Friends, a neighbor Claudine could rely on, someone she could trust with her relationship with Kaoruko.

But now that Kaoruko had betrayed her, Maya was suddenly a viable option. Perhaps she should care that Claudine didn’t see her from the start, but she doesn’t. It was enough that they could start from this moment, on this snowy evening, on the rooftop.

“Why would you choose me?” Claudine asks. She kicks some snow with her boot, unable to meet Maya’s eyes when asking this question. “You know what a mess I am.”

Maya considers the words Claudine doesn’t speak. You know about my drunk, gambling-addict uncle. You know I was the ‘other woman’ to Kaoruko. You know my friends at the club weren’t sharing anything healthy.

“You aren’t the people around you,” she says, cold fingers grabbing cold fingers. “I’m not thinking about any of that. I’m a mess too, to be quite honest. But I’m thinking about Claudine and Maya.”

Claudine meets her eyes, a small hint of a smile twitching on her lips. “Just Claudine and Maya,” she repeats, adding an extra word to exclude the rest of the world. “I like that.”

Maya thinks Claudine is going to say something else, but she tugs on Maya’s hands to pull her down the inch or so in height that separates them, and crashes their lips together. Maya is surprised, but somehow not at all. She wanted this, after all, perhaps from the moment she first saw the blonde in the hallway all those weeks ago.

The kiss is hot and cold, a mixture of their warm breath and chilled lips, and each sensation is new and yet familiar to Maya. Yes, she realizes, this is where I’m supposed to be. Her place is beside Claudine, pressed against Claudine, kissing Claudine as the snow slowly piles onto the shoulders of their jackets.

“Maya,” Claudine says, pulling away for a second to take a breath. Her cheeks are flushed pink, her eyes glowing with excitement. “Maya, what if we get away from here?”

And Claudine has captured Maya’s entire world, and the only answer is yes. “For how long? Where?” asks Maya. She knows she’s the more down to earth between the two of them, but even she is beginning to float, beginning to feel herself become untethered from the grip of despondency.

Claudine’s smile widens and Maya can see the idea growing in her mind. “I don’t know, somewhere warm… Okinawa?” she laughs, the beautiful musical sound. She captures Maya’s lips again in a slow kiss. “Somewhere I can be with only you.”

Maya pulls away this time, nodding. “Okinawa, I like that.” She takes a curl of Claudine’s hair and winds it around her finger, imagining herself with Claudine on a sandy shore instead of on this frozen rooftop. “Just for a vacation?” she asks.

Claudine pauses, her hair jerking back out of Maya’s grasp. Her mouth is half-open, as if on the edge of a thought. “We could take a vacation, or we could just… Start over, Maya. We could just go to Okinawa, away from Kaoruko and my uncle, and you don’t have to be here with reminders of the person who broke your heart, and we can just start from a new beginning… Someplace warm.”

Maya considers this, considers Claudine. She was never impulsive, not in her whole life, but look where that’s gotten her. “I never told you someone broke my heart,” she says.

“Oh?” asks Claudine, as if she was sure Maya had. But that’s why Maya chose Claudine, she supposes. The neighbor who never asked a straight question and yet could read her like a book. The woman who knew her best.

“I want to go,” says Maya. “I want to go with you.”

Claudine smiles, her perfect teeth reflecting the joy in the dream Maya felt of just… beginning again, away from the dreary winter she was feeling now. Claudine steps forward to wrap her arms around Maya and they embrace, both shivering now from the cold, but not quite ready to part.

“I’ll buy the tickets tonight,” says Maya, a whisper into Claudine’s ear. “We can leave tomorrow. No need to spend any more time here.”

Claudine nods - Maya can feel her brushing against her hair. “Call me, or text me when. I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

 

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Maya buys the tickets, two seats on a domestic flight one-way from Tokyo to Okinawa. She tries to sleep, but ends up turning around on her bed so that she can see out her window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Claudine through the window across the courtyard and one floor up. The light is on, but there’s no movement on the other side.

The next morning, Maya has to tread carefully through the apartment as she goes to the kitchen to get breakfast. Her mother is cleaning, cooking, decorating the apartment, humming a bit to a song on the radio.

She thinks of her parents as she sips her coffee and eats her breakfast, watching her mother work and her father read the newspaper. Would they miss her when she was in Okinawa? She hoped that after watching her mope for a year, they would be pleased at her new start.

“Maya, tonight the Tsuyuzakis are coming over to celebrate. We closed the Hokkaido deal,” her father says, closing the newspaper. “Please join us, I know their daughter is fond of you.”

“She is,” adds her mother, with a smile that implies she understands that Maya may not have just been showing Mahiru around the city as friends.

“Sure,” says Maya, letting the lie slip out easily.

Maya spends the day quietly packing a bag, poring over items in her room. Idling her days away alone in her room is no different than how she’s spent most of the last year, so she doubts her parents suspect anything. As she packs, she realizes she can only bring the essentials. She’ll come back for the rest, perhaps. She moves through her room, deciding what’s necessary to take, and what shall remain in Tokyo.

She flips up the photo in the frame - the portrait of Koharu, taken under the cherry blossoms. Koharu truly looked beautiful, smiling for Maya that day - but she is a distant memory now, taken away to somewhere Maya knew not - Kyoto or Nara or somewhere where she, also, could begin a new life. Maya puts the frame back down. She looks at the portrait of Claudine as well - taken on the roof at sunset. It really is a beautiful portrait, but it pales in comparison to looking at Claudine in person. So in the end, that photograph remains on her dresser as well.

She peers at rows of school awards, at certificates, at small trinkets picked up here and there. She looks at her collection of books - textbooks, mostly, and a few recommended by her father, by Koharu, by old school friends. She gathers up some clothes. She almost laughs. Of course it’s time to go to Okinawa, she realizes. This room is empty, devoid of anything Maya has any attachment to. She’s been wasting away in this room for a year, and yet she still feels nothing for any of these objects. Okinawa. Claudine. A new start. She is ready. She texts Claudine to meet her in the lobby at 5PM for a flight several hours later.

The Tsuyuzakis arrive earlier than Maya anticipates, and they all gather in the living room. Maya’s mother passes around champagne, and they drink to the closing of the Hokkaido deal. Mahiru comes to sit beside Maya, and for the first time since the rooftop with Claudine, Maya feels slightly bad about leaving. Mahiru did not inspire the same willful passion that Claudine did, she did not cause Maya’s heart to beat wildly, but rather, she had a calm steadiness about her that seemed to quiet Maya’s racing heart.

Claudine was a direct beam of sunlight, beautiful but dangerous, while Mahiru was a soft ray of morning light, never too harsh. And Maya, after spending a year in shadow, craves the feeling of any sun on her skin. Maya feels that if she could have gotten to know Mahiru better - if they had more time, if she focused a little more on developing her relationship with Mahiru, if not for Claudine, she and Mahiru would have been a great match. She watches as Mahiru prepares a plate of her mother’s hors d'oeuvres and hands it to Maya, a thoughtful gesture she appreciates.

But now, the time is nearly five, and she has a plane to catch. She will miss Mahiru, certainly. She will miss what they could have been. She will miss the rest of this evening, at the very least. So she eats the plate of food that Mahiru prepared with love, watches Mahiru as she chides her little brother, and excuses herself to the restroom.

Instead, she goes to her bedroom, grabbing her coat and her duffle, and walking in the opposite direction to the door. She exits quietly, slipping on her shoes once she’s outside, and she walks to the stairs. Turning the corner, she’s surprised to see her mother, standing on the stairs. Somehow, she has slipped out ahead to circumvent Maya. “Where are you going, Maya?” she asks, her tone not chiding, just sad. As if she’s asking why Maya still hasn’t recovered from a year ago. As if asking what more she could have done.

“I’m…” Maya pauses, searching for a lie. Nothing comes to mind. “I’m trying to start over. I don’t think there’s anything for me here anymore,” she says. “I need a change of scenery.”

“You’re going with that girl, aren’t you? The blonde from upstairs?”

Maya assumes her mother’s slight tone of disdain comes from her hearing Claudine’s uncle, the cursing and banging from that apartment. Maya nods - there is no use denying it.

Her mother takes a deep breath, sighing. Maya remembers how she used to harshly chastise Maya for every question wrong on her homework. Now, she seems so old, so much softer. “You’ll be safe?” she asks.

“Of course.”

“Alright. I won’t tell your father until after the dinner party. You can talk to him on the phone tomorrow.”

Maya smiles, moving forward to embrace her mother. It was so long since they had hugged - properly hugged - and it felt strange, but not bad.

Maya watches as her mother returns to the party, and she descends to the lobby. Claudine isn’t there when she arrives, and she considers going up to her apartment, but their agreement was to meet in the lobby. She waits until fifteen after five, and then calls Claudine. She doesn’t pick up the first time, so Maya waits five more minutes and calls her back. They really need to get going if they want to make the flight, and Maya is starting to get worried now.

“Maya?” Claudine asks, picking up the phone, her voice quiet and deeper than usual, as if she’s been crying.

“Claudine! Are you alright?” she asks.

“...” The silence on the other end is telling, and Maya walks outside the building entrance, sitting on a snowy bench, watching pedestrians pass by as she shivers slightly from the cold.

“Are you in trouble? Do you need help?”

“...No, I’m alright,” she says with a sniffle.

“I… I’m right out front,” Maya says, panic clutching at her throat, making her words sound tentative. “I have the tickets.”

Another pause. “I… don’t think I can come with you, Maya,” Claudine says at last.

“What do you mean? What’s going on?” Maya is desperate for answers, and at the same time, she knows she doesn’t want to hear any more.

“...Kaoruko called earlier. She… said she’s been doing some thinking. Maya… I do still love her,” she admits, and Maya can hear her shame through the phone.

Maya clenches the fist that is not holding the phone, trying to hold back tears, though it’s futile. She can see her vision fogging up. She wants to swear. She wants to yell at Claudine and shake her. She wants to declare her love with an impassioned speech. She wants to show her love intimately, just the two of them, alone. She wants to slap her. She doesn’t know what to do.

“She’ll never leave her,” Maya says, knowing it’s petty, knowing she only says it to hurt Claudine as Claudine has hurt her, but also knowing it’s the truth. Why couldn’t Claudine see the truth?

“You don’t know that!” Claudine says, and Maya can tell she’s crying once again. Desperate to hold onto a love that’s slipping from her grasp, desperate for a ray of her own sun. Maya almost laughs. Of course she could never be a sun for Claudine. Someone like her, who’s light was all stolen the day Koharu left? She had no light left to give….

“Alright.”

“Alright?”

“Sure. Go to Kaoruko.” She sniffles, trying to keep it together, like kicking away a dog that she hoped would never return. “I loved you, though.” Intensely. “I love you.” Of course, it is impossible to let Claudine go without telling her this. If Claudine accepts her here and now, changes her mind, decides to come to Okinawa, a dark part of Maya knows she’ll accept.

But Claudine doesn’t. The phone is silent, aside from Claudine continuing to cry. “I wish I wasn’t like this,” she says at last. “I wish the inside of me wasn’t stained black. I wish I could love you like you deserve.”

Maya can hear the self derision in Claudine’s tone, and can understand, for just that one moment, why she may think she has to sabotage herself, to think she has to settle for Kaoruko’s scraps of affection. Maya’s tears are falling fully now, earning her looks from pedestrians. Perhaps, if Maya had more energy, she could convince Claudine that she was not so damaged, that she could love Maya the way Maya loved her. But Maya is tired. She wants something simple, something that comes easy, just this once. She wants to be cared for and loved consistently, without worrying about that love suddenly disappearing without notice one day. Ah.

Maya remains on the bench, but closing her eyes for a moment, she’s back on the edge of the bridge over the river, she’s at the batting cages, she’s on the roof during golden hour. And on the roof, like always, is Claudine: beautiful - the sunset itself - but dangerous, the threat of night on the horizon. Maya takes a step back on the roof - just to clear her head, just to get another foot of separation between herself and that woman she feels so strongly for - and realizes she’s right at the very edge. Another step will leave her falling.

She opens her eyes, orienting herself again to the here and now, to the passersby outside of her apartment. She bites the inside of her cheek, probably hard enough to draw blood, but she knows what she has to say, she knows the decision she has to make. This time it’s in her hands, but the ache isn’t lessened.

“I wish you could love me too,” she says. “I… have to go now. Goodnight, Claudine. Please take care of yourself.”

“Goodnight, Maya. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

Maya digs through her duffel for something to dry her eyes with - a scarf will work, she figures. She wonders if she’ll ever stop wondering about Claudine, worrying about Claudine. Probably not. But for now, she needs the separation. She needs to at least try to claw her way towards some semblance of happiness for herself.

Even after wiping away the tears, she’s sure it’s still quite obvious she’s been crying. She hasn’t packed a mirror to check her reflection. She supposes she’s come home looking worse.

Heaving the bag over her shoulder, she goes back inside, taking the elevator to the sixth floor. She enters her apartment, hearing the raucous laughter of Mahiru’s father and her own parents coming from the living room. She slips into her bedroom, depositing her jacket and the duffel. She tears up the tickets and throws them in the trash - it’s likely too late to make the flight now, anyways. She walks back out to the living room.

“Maya, I thought you went to meet your friend?” her mother prompts, earning a slightly disapproving look from her father. She had promised to attend tonight, after all.

“The plans got canceled,” Maya said simply. “I apologize for my absence.” She goes back to sitting beside Mahiru, a little closer this time, and realizes: this isn’t so bad. With Mahiru around, her family home that she holds no affection for seems to warm up. With Mahiru around, their families combine and enjoy time together. Mahiru loves her, she realizes, surely and steadily, and shows it in her actions: the way she listens carefully to the things Maya says, the way she pays attention to Maya’s every move. Maya has no idea why - she isn’t sure what Mahiru sees, what Mahiru finds inside Maya’s emptiness, and it makes her uneasy that someone chooses her so easily - but this is what she wants after all: an easy, simple love.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________

“I have tickets to the aquarium this weekend, if you want to go,” offers Mahiru. It’s late now, the parents have moved to the parlor with cocktails, Mahiru’s brother asleep in the spare room. They’re sitting on the living room couch, opening pistachios here and there as a snack, and mostly just chatting. Mahiru’s knee is touching Maya’s thigh from their positioning, and it’s hard to focus on the question. She remembers advice she was given once: even if she’s wary, anything is better than looking at the ceiling. She shakes away the image of Claudine, the memory of Claudine tucking her hair behind her ear with the softest touch, and focuses once more on Mahiru.

“I would love to,” says Maya, watching the way Mahiru’s smile lights up her face as she accepts. She really has been subtle, Maya realizes, with the way she’s crept into Maya’s heart. Secretly, shamefully, Maya wonders if she’s done the same to Claudine, at all. The ache, even as she smiles with Mahiru, is proof enough of the reverse.

“Great!” says Mahiru. “My grandma and I are making onigiri this weekend, I’ll pack some for us to eat.”

The image of Mahiru in the kitchen with her grandmother warms Maya’s heart, and yearning for the warmth, she is drawn closer to the woman who has been beside her all this time. Is this a natural fit, she wonders, like herself with Koharu, or the way she instantly connected with Claudine? Perhaps she is forcing it a bit, but maybe that is alright. She swallows, bracing herself. “Shall we call it a date?” Maya asks.

Mahiru blushes, as if she wasn’t expecting this question, but smiles happily, shyly. She bites her lip for a moment, drawing Maya’s attention there. “I’d like that,” she confesses.

“Would you mind if I-”

But it’s Mahiru who closes the gap first, her lips just barely grazing Maya’s. A soft brush, and she’s pulled away. But Maya’s quick to continue the contact, for as soon as she feels the connection with Mahiru, she wants more. She is always greedy for more.

Her kiss with Mahiru is just as she would expect: gentle, sweet, unhurried. And yet somehow, it still ends too soon. Her teeth just barely scrape Mahiru’s lower lip as she pulls away, a futile attempt at holding her close.

If Maya is honest, the kiss is not the physical manifestation of the brightest ray of sunshine. It’s not a swish of blonde hair, it’s not where she hoped to be tonight. But it’s comfort, and it’s security, and less like settling and more like the feeling of laying down her heavy load after a long journey and hearing someone tell her ‘it’s alright, you’ve done well’.

“I’d like to do that again,” Mahiru confesses as they break apart.

“Me too.”

Mahiru sits back, observing Maya in the way that she had that seemed to show that she knew much more than she let on. “I thought you weren’t going to come back,” she says.

Maya considers this, considers Mahiru. She doesn’t want to insult her with a lie. “I didn’t intend to. But in the end, my original plans changed, and… it led me back to you.”

“I’m glad you’re back,” says Mahiru, moving closer again to embrace Maya. Maya clings to her tightly, leaning against the back of the couch.

Maya thought she had finished crying for the evening, but she could feel tears escaping once again. Tears for a love torn from her. Tears for a love unrequited. Tears for a love just blooming. “It’s been a really hard year,” she says, not realizing the thought was voiced until she feels Mahiru nodding against her.

“I know,” Mahiru says, rubbing her back. “Let’s make this one better.”

Maya wonders if this is possible. For this woman to love her this purely when two hours ago she was planning to fly to Okinawa with another woman. For a relationship to begin in the literal ashes of another. She wonders if there’s anything left inside of her to love.

But still she nods, allowing the sensation of Mahiru’s hands on her back to help her calm down again. She thinks of the face-down photo on her dresser - Koharu and the cherry blossoms and a promise broken. She thinks of the upright photo on her dresser - Claudine and the sunset and a road not taken. She sighs into Mahiru’s neck.

 

She thinks of a photograph she hasn’t yet captured - maybe at the aquarium, maybe at the gardens. She hasn’t felt inspired to photograph Mahiru in the same way she has Koharu or Claudine, but perhaps that’s alright. Those emotions are dangerous. Those feelings of passion are what led to ruin. This relationship was safe, much less volatile. Perhaps, with Mahiru, she can take a photo she could display without fear. Maybe, just maybe, she could even take a photo with Mahiru and look at them both together. She wonders what she even looks like in a photo.

Slowly, they adjust themselves until they’re laying down on the couch. Maya can still hear her father’s raucous laughter in the parlor and feels it will be hours until the Tsuyuzaki family heads home. It’s nice to lay beside Mahiru, to have her curled up beside Maya.

Perhaps she should worry about them getting caught, about how it appears, but she knows her parents wouldn’t do much, not after what happened with Koharu. She knows also, that after closing the Hokkaido deal, tonight is a night for happiness. So she snuggles close, getting comfortable, and is close to drifting off while she watches Mahiru’s steady breaths.

 

Mahiru is asleep when Maya’s phone buzzes.

Maya’s heart beats faster, and she wants so badly to ignore it. She looks between Mahiru’s sleeping face and the phone resting on the arm of the couch. Her arms are tangled in Mahiru’s. She wants to leave them there. For once she wants to feel whole and complete, not like a few loose ends from here and there being dragged back to a place where there’s passion, but also emptiness.

But slowly, carefully, she moves one arm, hovering it over the phone, not quite brave enough to pick it up. She keeps her eyes on Mahiru. ’This is enough, isn’t it?’ She asks herself, trying to quell the deep, raging curiosity in her gut. It’s awful: the purgatory - being stuck between the present or the past or the future, unable to move forward or back, unable to fall asleep or stay awake. She can’t pick up the phone, but she can’t put her arm back down with Mahiru’s, either. Seconds pass, or perhaps time stops, it makes no difference.

Maya’s eyes remain locked on Mahiru, and her hand hovers centimeters over the phone, restlessly, perpetually. She is in a void - pulled backwards with the same force that she’s pulled forwards, enough that she feels she might rip apart, even though it’s all just an illusion, all just pain in her chest. She bites her lip, feigning indecision. No one was exempt from the movement of time - empires fall, power never lasts and all - and her heart hammers. In the end, she knows which way she’ll fall.