Actions

Work Header

through highways and byways i'll be next to you

Chapter Text

Nothing riled Claudine up more in the morning than the god awful commute to school. Buses are horrible death machines. The loose windows shake constantly, producing headache inducing vibrations that make her wish she stayed in bed. Trains weren't any better as they left her feeling more like a sardine stuck in a can than a human after ten minutes. Don't even get her started on walking in the morning under the rage of the sun. It was a wonder how she made it to school without looking like a haggard mess.

 

Morning commutes easily took second place in the list of things that ruin her day. What stole the coveted top spot of making Claudine's blood boil was none other than Miss Perfect herself, Maya fricking Tendo.

 

It was way too early in the morning to be thinking about her so-called rival, but Claudine was waiting for the bus for longer than she should be. She could spare a minute or two to stew about Maya. She almost rolled her eyes at the thought of the other girl outdoing her in every class they were in together which unfortunately for Claudine was all their classes. Be it academics, acting, singing, and even dancing, Maya Tendo was always a step ahead of her and it has been a thorn in Claudine's side for the longest time. Sure, she wasn't that far behind, but the thought of her getting bested in every little competition she set up for them was a habit she begrudgingly formed. Not of her own liking of course.

 

Another thing she can’t stand is how utterly soft the other girl’s hands are when they dance. No matter how firm the brunette’s grip is, there is this gentleness that Claudine just can’t ignore. There is also her impossibly long hair. Just once, Claudine would like to run her fingers through those brown locks just to prove they aren’t as luscious and spun by angels as the rumors say they are.

 

Not only was Maya better than her in most things -oh how it pained her to admit it to herself- another reason why Claudine absolutely couldn't stand Maya was because of-

 

Honk honk!

 

Speak of the devil.

 

A pristine, gray Porsche pulls up right in front of Claudine just as the light turns red and she gets the urge to walk a few kilometers just so she wouldn’t have to look at it.

 

"Good morning Claudine," Maya greets after the windows of the car roll down. "You're up early."

 

"Excuse you," Claudine scoffs. "I'm always this early." She could have been on her way to school by now, before Maya it seems, if the buses in this damn city arrived on time.

 

"And yet I manage to be at the dance hall before you every morning," Maya smiles. Only Maya could smile so elegantly and still look like she's mocking you.

 

"Not everyone owns a Porsche, Tendo." It's not like she couldn't afford it. If she asked nicely, her parents would gladly buy her a Porsche of her own. Maybe she could ask for something nicer just to have something to lord over Maya, even if it was as petty as owning a nicer car. If only she could pass her driving test, which she has failed to do so twice now. Would you look at that, yet another thing Maya is more competent at than Claudine. How irritating.

 

"Why are you even here? You don't live anywhere near this street." Claudine would know if Maya took this route to school. She would have noticed the gray abomination from a mile away and promptly avoided it. Maya has never passed through here and Claudine was sure of it.

 

"I'm flattered that you know my route, Claudine." God, must she use her theater inside voice all the time? "There happened to be construction work blocking my usual path and I ended up here. Since fate clearly brought us together, I can give you a ride to school. It's no trouble."

 

"I'd rather walk all the way there thank you very much." Claudine wonders just how long the light was going to stay red.

 

"And risk being disheveled and late when you finally reach campus? My, my, I didn't know you hated me that much." Maya was clearly holding back a chuckle after seeing Claudine huff in indignation. "The light is green, Tendo. Leave before someone runs into you."

 

"Thank you for your concern, Claudine." Maya shifted gears before giving Claudine one last wave. "See you at practice. Don't be late."

 

Infuriating. Absolutely infuriating. Leave it to Maya Tendo to drive Claudine up the wall with her mere presence even before classes start. That was so typical of her.

 

Luckily, this was just a one time occurrence. Surely Maya wouldn't pester her by intentionally driving through the street Claudine stands in to wait for her bus day after day after day and why is Maya such a stubborn buffoon?

 

It's been a week since Maya unceremoniously began ruining Claudine's day earlier than usual. The blonde was considering that either she wasn't making it clear enough that she wanted to stay as far away from Maya and her Porsche as possible or that Maya was just incredibly stupid for someone in the running to be class valedictorian. The latter sounded like the more plausible option.

 

"Good morning Claudine," Maya calls out to the blonde on one hot morning. As hard as it was for her to admit, Claudine did find the cool air from the Porsche to be a slight relief from the blazing sun.

 

"Morning Tendo." She could hardly consider the morning good if Maya was one of the first faces she would see. Claudine barely met Maya's eyes during their morning greetings, but she knows the brunette was always staring at her. They lock eyes all the time during dance class that she could pick out the hue of Maya's lilac eyes from a color wheel. It doesn't mean she enjoys staring at her eyes and long fluttering lashes. Definitely not.

 

Claudine couldn't believe just how utterly ridiculous the supposed stoic queen of campus was being. She drives by, always managing to hit the red light, and attempts to converse with Claudine until the blonde would tell her the light had changed color. She made no attempts to take her to school, which could only mean she was here to brag about the working air conditioning her car had. The nerve.

 

"I've brought a peace offering today, I figured you would need it." She could hear Maya move to the passenger seat and while Claudine had her eyes glued to the stoplight, she couldn't ignore the tall plastic cup Maya had presented to her.

 

"Iced coffee with vanilla," Maya said, smiling quite fondly at Claudine. "Wouldn't want you getting heat stroke now, would we?"

 

"Is buying drinks how you get girls into your car?"

 

“This is the first time I’ve tried, so tell me if it works.”

 

“Well sorry Tendo but your little tactic isn’t going to work no matter how hot out it is,” Claudine scoffed. How dare Maya Tendo think she can be coerced by a refreshing looking drink. “Would you look at that, you’ve failed at something at last. Is it a first for you?” Someone give Claudine a medal. No matter how petty the circumstance, Maya Tendo finally lost thanks to her hand. “Of course not,” Maya mutters under her breath, and Claudine is far too pleased with herself to even hear the comment.

 

“I would prefer to just take you to school to avoid the heat, but I’m certain that is a highly unlikely scenario right now,” Maya manages to compose herself. “Making sure you’re hydrated is the next best thing.”

 

If Maya was this charming, then Claudine had no doubt other girls would fall for it immediately. Not Claudine Saijo of course. Heavens no. “What makes you think I’m going to accept? What if I don’t like iced coffee?”

 

“Well firstly, It’s ridiculously hot outside--” Thank you for pointing out the obvious Maya.  “—and secondly, we don’t talk much aside from our usual banter, so I never got the chance to ask for your preferred beverage.” Maya smiles, still holding the drink out the window for a stubborn Claudine to take, “and thirdly, I’m taking a chance here that you’ll take it.”

 

Claudine notices that those also lining up for the bus are staring at their little display. Since when did all these people get here? She turns away from the crowd out of embarrassment and finally looks Maya in the eye. Her expression is soft and there’s not a hint of mockery in her smile. How could she say no? That would just be rude.

 

“If you must know my drink of choice is a shaken berry sangria tea with no sugar however,” she steps forward and takes the drink from the brunette’s hand. Their fingers brush and Maya lights up for a second before loosening her grip for Claudine. Maya’s hands are cold, Claudine notes, most likely from the drink and the cool air of her car. Her hands are usually warm when they dance in the practice room. Both of their hands may or may not have lingered far too long for a simple exchange, but Claudine will tell anyone that it’s the latter. “Since you went to all the trouble I might as well take it from you.” The thank you that passes through Claudine’s lips before taking a generous sip of her coffee could have been drowned out by the hum of Maya’s car if Claudine’s voice was any softer.

 

“Shaken berry sangria tea with no sugar,” Maya repeats. “I’ll make sure to remember.”

 

“The light is green, Tendo.” Claudine had to remind herself for a second that she disliked Maya.

 

“So it is,” Maya notes as she returns to the driver’s seat. “I’ll see you in school, Claudine.”

 

Gosh if the iced coffee didn’t give her reprieve from the hot morning then she might have been mad. But it did cool her throat a great deal and she finds herself far too spent to be mad at Maya especially after that uncharacteristically kind gesture. A gesture that gets repeated every day for another week. With the correct order in fact. While Claudine will complain about the many facets of Maya Tendo that irritate her so, she is not the type to complain when being offered free drinks while under the heat of the sun. Not anymore at least. Not when Maya hands them to her everyday with that winning smile Claudine tries so hard to ignore.

 

That infuriating woman.

 

Claudine knew Maya had to end this little charade one of these days. This drink wasn’t cheap after all. Whatever Maya was scheming by being nice to her was not going to work. If Claudine had to guess when Maya would stop giving her free drinks under the pretense of keeping her hydrated, then it would probably be on one particularly rainy morning.

 

The rain started pouring even before she left that morning, but it had only been a light drizzle, so she thought a simple umbrella would guard her from the elements. Mother nature proved to be an unpredictable bitch.

 

By the time Claudine had reached the bus stop, the light drizzle that made the hot morning walk bearable turned into a downright depressing storm. This was the price she paid for a good education. Aside from tuition that is.

 

She groaned at the sight of the long line for the bus, but also at the blinking headlights parked beside the street. And while Claudine considered herself a genius, she didn’t need to be one to figure out whose lights those were. Already used to seeing her there, Claudine paid her no mind. What was Maya going to do? Offer her a drink in this weather? Without much fanfare, Claudine stood at the back of the line and ignored a certain gray car. Not that the person they were ignoring cared if their presence was unwanted.

 

“Good morning, Claudine.”

 

“The light is green, Tendo.”

 

“It’s changed to green thrice since I got here,” Maya’s gripping her steering wheel, as if she were ready to take off at any moment. Good, Claudine thought, she can leave right away. “I know you hate me,” Maya exhales like the very words she uttered exhausted her. “But it’s raining very hard as I’m sure you’ve noticed and we both know what I’m here to offer.” Maya helpfully pats the passenger seat beside her.

 

“And I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m not very keen on being trapped in a confined space with you,” She also doesn’t want to owe Maya anything, but that thought dissipates at the realization of just how much Maya spends just to fuel her morning tea habit.

 

“Why must you be so stubborn?” Maya sighs.

 

“Says the girl who literally stalks me every morning.”

 

“What are- I’m not- I don’t-“ A sigh. “Just get in the car Claudine.”

 

“Demanding today, aren’t we?” Claudine feels rather smug right now. Not everyone can boast that they managed to get Maya Tendo to stutter. Not everyone can boast about how Maya Tendo offers them drinks and rides to school every day either.

 

“Is it really so hard to believe that I don’t want my dance partner getting sick?” Maya crossed her arms, a dejected look adorning on her face.

 

“I find it hard to believe that you care about anything at all aside from the stage.”

 

“That is far from the truth, Claudine.”

 

“Could have fooled me. Good luck trying to get another girl in your car.” Claudine would mimic Maya’s crossed arms if she wasn’t holding up an umbrella. She had to wonder if she was being too harsh on the top star. Maya looked quite hurt. Claudine had half a mind to apologize. Maya had been nothing but nice to her during their mornings and the least she could do was apologize for her behavior.

 

That is until the excessive honking started.

 

“What are you doing?!” Claudine jumped from her thoughts. There Maya was, blasting her car horn every few seconds much to the ire of everyone around them and to the mortification of Claudine.

 

“I’m not going to stop until you let me take you to school.” Maya frowned at a scowling Claudine.

 

“That is the dumbest ultimatum I’ve ever heard!” Whether Maya acknowledges the statement doesn’t stop her from smacking her palm against her horn.

 

This was a test of wills. One that Claudine was losing very quickly judging from the determined look on Maya’s face. If she could just ignore her for a minute longer then maybe Maya would see how ridiculous she’s being and leave Claudine alone. The consistent loud honking was not a good indicator of that happening.

 

With one very loud and very long honk, Claudine’s resolve crumbles and she throws the car door open. It was already unlocked because of course it was, knowing Maya’s cocky attitude. She shakes her umbrella shut before slamming the door, “Happy?”

 

The smirk on Maya’s face was answer enough, “Very.”

 

The silence that followed was uncomfortable to say the least. The only time they have ever been this quiet with each other was during dance practice when they let the music and their expert moves do the talking. Other times their arguing was constant enough for everyone around them to turn their bickering into white noise. Her eyes gravitate to the sight of Maya, brow furrowed, and eyes glued on the road. Maya’s hands maneuver the vehicle with the same level of precision she gives any performance. It was almost captivating, if Claudine hadn’t reminded herself that she still found Maya infuriating.

 

“I’m sorry,” were not the first words Claudine thought would break their silence, but those were the words she would be getting. “I realized that forcing someone to enter my car is… unbecoming of me to say the least.”

 

“I think the word you’re looking for is creepy,” Maya cringed before facing Claudine.

 

“I know and if this whole thing,” Maya waves her hands in front of her steering wheel for dramatic flare as a good theater prodigy would do, “bothers you then I will drop you off, not gladly mind you, to the closest bus stop. Just know that I meant it when I said I cared about whether you get sick or not.”

 

“So after that mortifying display, you’re still going to drop me off in the rain?” Claudine couldn’t help but tease. It’s not everyday she can turn the tables on their dynamic. “That’s harsh, Tendo.”

 

What follows is another tirade of apologies and variations of “I just don’t want you getting sick” which almost brings a smile to Claudine’s face.

 

If only people could see the vulnerability of Maya Tendo, Claudine thought. How the girl beside her made mistakes off the stage at times that only Claudine could recognize because only she watched Maya Tendo that closely. If she ever heralded the knowledge that, indeed Maya was still a human being with flaws, then she would have been laughed out of the cafeteria. And scolded by Nana, because that was a mean thing you just metaphorically did Claudine. She hates how her friends have such an influence on her.

 

Only Claudine had access to this facet, to this performance and if she were being honest with herself for just a moment, it’s why she can never bring herself to fully hate the beautiful girl beside her. Things would have been so easy if Maya were a stone-faced bitch, but after all the late-night practices and lunch periods together, Claudine has to accept that Maya is imperfect, but she’s still perfect in her eyes. It’s why she tries so hard to beat her after all. The blonde isn’t quite ready to accept that second part yet though.

 

“I get it,” Claudine laughs and if only she vowed not to look at Maya right now out of sheer embarrassment then she could see the way Maya looked at her with a dopey smile on her face then maybe she would have something to tease the other girl about later. “and thank you for the ride. Let’s just not make this a habit, okay? I have a reputation to keep and arriving in the car of my rival doesn’t help.”

 

“Understood.”

 

Maya clearly did not understand. Claudine hoped that after that little heart to heart, Maya would give her a break and not pester her in the morning anymore. Lo and behold, here Maya was at the usual bus stop with a knowing smile on her face and her hand dangerously close to her horn.

 

She didn’t even need any prompting, Claudine just rolled her eyes and got in the passenger seat. The cold tea in the cup holder beside her was a pleasant surprise.

 

Claudine doesn’t even ask before taking a sip to the amusement of Maya. “I can pay for these you know?” She was starting to feel bad for all the free drinks.

 

“Technically you can,” Maya says as she makes a right turn. “But will I let you though?”

 

“Ugh, have it your way,” Claudine rolls her eyes. When she tells Maya to watch out for money randomly spawning in her car, the brunette smirked, holding back a laugh that was building in her throat.

 

Two blocks in and Maya speaks, “You know I wouldn’t have pulled the same stunt again if you just said no, right?”

 

“I know.” Maya was many things but disrespectful is not one of them. The day in the rain was more out of stubbornness than disrespect considering the other girl’s intentions. Claudine knew with absolute certainty that if she told Maya to stay away from her, the other girl would comply. She hasn’t said anything to that effect so really the fault lies with her.

 

“And yet you’re still in my car,” the growing smile on the brunette’s face made Claudine want to respond in kind.

 

“I’ve been thinking,” Claudine won’t admit at gunpoint that she’s been thinking about the other girl a lot lately. “And I certainly wouldn’t mind a free ride to school everyday.”

 

“Using me for my car, Claudine Saijo?” Maya laughs and it’s so light and carefree, Claudine can’t help but be dumbstruck by it. “And every day as well. How presumptuous of you.”

 

“Did I presume correctly though?”

 

“You did.”

 

Their conversations become easier. Less venom laced with their banter and more lighthearted teasing that almost makes Claudine believe they’re friends. Any emotion resembling hate and ire is reserved for their never ending duel on the stage. Maya still continues to one up Claudine every chance she could under the eyes of an audience of teachers and other students. They both had to agree how beneficial the arrangement was to their drive to perfection.

 

When it was just them, however, all the animosity seemingly melts away for they’ve already said their pieces in school. All their criticisms and heated back and forths end the moment they enter Maya’s gray Porsche in the morning as if a switch in their relationship has been flipped.

 

Lines in the sand were still present though. There had been a brief conversation where Maya offers to just pick her up or take her straight home after class to which Claudine responds, “Let’s not push it just yet.” Maya doesn’t bring it up again. At least until Claudine sprains her ankle during practice one day.

 

“You really don’t have to do this,” Claudine sighs, knowing Maya isn’t listening to her. They’re in the nurse’s office after a mishap with their dance partners. Claudine believes the only one at fault here is their teacher for pairing her up with one clumsy Karen. It doesn’t make her tumble to the floor any less embarrassing though. You can’t expect to always be with the same partner so you need practice with performers, they said. As if Claudine will allow herself to be in a position to be partnered up with anyone lesser than Maya Tendo. And as far as Claudine is concerned, there is no one greater than the brunette examining her swollen foot.

 

“It’s a good thing this was last period, no?”  Maya smiled from her crouched position on the ground. Ever the gallant prince, when Claudine fell, the first person at her side was Maya. Being the class darling, it was no problem for Miss Perfect to get them permission to leave class earlier if it was serious. It wouldn’t have surprised Claudine if Maya escorted her to the nurses office via princess carry. They had to leave their partners, Karen and one sly Kaoruko, behind for the last half of the class. The latter of which was grinning at them like she knew a dirty little secret they didn’t as they left the room.

 

“I still have to go home with a swollen foot, so we can hardly call that good.” Claudine was not looking forward to her commute home. She didn’t mind spending money on a taxi if it came down to it.

 

“The walk to my car isn’t that far, I’m sure your foot will survive the trek,” Maya teased as she pushed herself up.

 

“Your car?” Claudine asked, her tone akin to that of someone asking what a car is.

 

“Yes? How else am I going to take you home?” 

 

Here were Claudine’s options: Tell Maya that she didn’t want to be taken home, which she knows Maya won’t accept nor does Claudine herself fully want. Her pride might be on the line, but she also has dance practice again tomorrow and stressing her ankle even more will not help her recovery. She can also let Maya take her home and risk having everyone see her enter Maya’s car.

 

It’s different in the morning when they arrive so early no other soul can see their smiles as they exit the car. In the afternoon though, when everyone is bustling out of the school buildings and funneling out the school parking lot, Claudine would rather not have people know her preferred mode of transportation. Why was Claudine so averse to the idea anyway?

 

There was no debate to be won here. Maya was already acting as her crutch so she can limp back to the gray Porsche. She can already hear the giggles and whispers of the nosy theater kids they were sure to pass by. Much to the dismay of Claudine, they just so happened to meet the one nosy theater kid she wanted to avoid.

 

“Claudine darling!” that sickeningly sweet voice could only belong to one devil and her name was Kaoruko. “I thought you already went home, I was so worried when you fell and-” then followed the fakest gasp Claudine had ever heard. If they were secretly being graded for this little performance then Kaoruko would already be expelled by now. The thought cheers her up a tad.

 

“Is that Maya Tendo, your rival, your sworn nemesis, holding you so closely?” Behind the blue devil was a sheepish looking Futaba who could only smile apologetically as she started her motorbike. Maya’s face was passive, but Claudine could feel her stiffening beside her as they stopped to greet the pair.

 

As if there was anyone in this school who didn’t know what Maya looked like. “You’re in the same class Kaoruko or have you failed so miserably to stay awake that you can’t even remember the faces of your classmates?”

 

“I stay awake long enough to see that look on your face when you stare at-”

 

“Let’s go Kaoruko, you wanted to try that new restaurant by the station before going home right?” Futaba, ever the mediator, cuts Kaoruko off before she can retort. Claudine might have been injured but that wouldn’t have stopped her from strangling a bitch if Kaoruko went too far. Kaoruko huffed and found her spot behind Futaba. “See you tomorrow, Claud. Oh and remember, karaoke’s next week,” Futaba waved before speeding off, effectively saving Claudine from Kaoruko getting the last word in.

 

Maya, who had been silent throughout the exchange, nudged a scowling Claudine’s shoulder, “shall we?”

 

Not wanting to stand in the middle of the parking lot to exchange pleasantries with anyone else, though Claudine was sure no one could beat Kaoruko’s attempt of raising her blood pressure, Claudine nodded and was led to the familiar Porsche.

 

“So they were…” Maya is at a loss for words and rightfully so after witnessing Kaoruko’s excellent display of teasing. “An interesting pair.”

 

“That’s one way to put it,” Claudine laughs as she watches the view outside change from the campus to the city streets. “Futaba is a decent person. Reliable to a fault honestly. How she puts up with Kaoruko I’ll never know.” Deep down though, Claudine can’t bring herself to hate Kaoruko much like how she can’t hate Maya. For entirely different reasons of course. The blue haired menace might be annoying and Claudine would love to stuff a sock in her mouth sometimes, but while Futaba is the listening ear, Kaoruko isn’t afraid of getting into the heart of the matter. Even though ends up flustered in some way after speaking with the blue devil, she can appreciate Kaoruko’s peculiar brand of caring.

 

“They’re both good friends though,” Claudine admits, not wanting to paint even Kaoruko in a bad light.

 

“Even if she’s annoying and infuriating?” the choice of words doesn’t go unnoticed.

 

“Even if she makes me want to commit bloody murder, I would still call her a good friend.”

 

“I see.”

 

If Claudine cared just a fraction less about what Maya feels, then she would have dropped the conversation and enjoyed the peaceful ride home. The problem was that she cares a great deal, especially now that she could tell something was off.

 

Claudine sighs upon asking Maya what was wrong to which the other girl quickly answered with a helpful amount of nothing. “Ugh you can’t make me ride with you every day and not expect me to pick up on when something upsets you.”

 

“I’m not making you ride-“

 

“That’s not the point, Tendo.” Claudine wasn’t going to let Maya derail another conversation she doesn’t want to have. “Look. I know something is bothering you and don’t ask me how I know but I frustratingly do and I’d rather we get this conversation over with before-“

 

“Stop!” Maya grits her teeth and Claudine is taken aback. Their conversations tend to get heated half the time but never did they raise their voices at each other.

 

“I’m driving just-” Maya makes a hard left at a Starbucks parking lot, almost running into an SUV, and screeches to a halt and Claudine swears she was about to fly through the windshield. The brunette rubs her temples before addressing the injured girl next to her, “Sorry, it’s… hard to think and drive at the same time.”

 

“It’s not a very hard question”

 

“It’s complicated.” When are things ever not complicated when it came to Maya? “Try me,” is Claudine’s response.

 

“So you think Kaoruko is annoying and infuriating.” It was more of a statement since she’d already asked to which Claudine responded with a simple yes. “And you seem to talk with her a lot.” Another yes.

 

“And you think I’m annoying and infuriating.” More so than Kaoruko, Claudine admits out loud. Maya nods, “And we seem to talk a lot.” Surprisingly yes. Claudine seems to know where this is going.

 

“…You also consider Kaoruko as a friend.” Ah and there it is.

 

“Unfortunately, yes.”

 

Claudine watches as Maya erratically taps her steering wheel and laments how even the unsteady drumming of Maya’s fingers produce a sort of melody. She patiently waits for Maya to drop the bomb.

 

“So am I…” Maya’s voice begins to fade, unsure of how to proceed. “Would you consider me in the same league as Kaoruko?”

 

Maya turns to meet Claudine’s curious expression. There’s a sadness in her eyes that Claudine can’t immediately associate with her rival. Was this really the same girl who once told her that her tearful displays during acting class were akin to a preschooler’s attempt to gain sympathy after getting caught stealing snacks?

 

“Maya Tendo, you are in a league of your own.” Sincerity shines in Claudine’s eyes and it’s Maya’s turn to be caught off guard. “You are annoying and infuriating and frustrating and every other synonym that can be found in the dictionary but,” Claudine sighs wistfully, so unprepared to open herself up to Maya. “No one pushes me harder than you. No one else knocks me down and makes me want to fight tooth and nail for the spotlight you’ve claimed countless times.” At the confession, Maya lowers her gaze to her pedals, looking like the very preschooler she had accused Claudine of portraying before.

 

Claudine shakes her head before gently cupping Maya’s jaw to set her sights on Claudine. “That’s on the stage though,” she whispers kindly.

 

“Off of it you’re still all those words I mentioned. Just a tad different is all.” She offers Maya a smile so unreserved and genuine, she makes the brunette blink in confusion. “Off the stage, you’re kind, though you show it in the strangest way, and you’re generous enough to make me feel guilty about it.” She takes a moment to make a dramatic pause as she lowers her hand because, theater kid. “It’s… comfortable being around you; It’s easier than I thought it would be. Easier than being around Kaoruko half the time that’s for sure.”

 

And I like all those sides of you, Claudine thinks.

 

For now, Claudine would ignore how soft Maya’s skin was and how her fingertips tingled at their brief contact. She would attempt to forget how the look in Maya’s eyes would brighten and how it made her need to remind herself to breathe. For now, she was going to focus on how she had essentially called Maya her friend albeit in the most roundabout way possible.

 

“Okay,” Maya was trying to be calm but the raised octave in her voice told a different story.

 

“Okay?” Claudine parroted back as Maya started her engine again. “I just poured my soul into that little speech and all you have to say is-”

 

“This Starbucks has a drive thru” They really needed to stop interrupting each other. “Shall I get you the usual?”

 

Deciding to let it go, Claudine reached for her bag, “Are you going to let me pay for my own drink this time?”

 

“Nope.” She thought not.

 

As they drive through the city with Claudine as the navigator, the blonde takes notice of Maya sipping her own beverage; one that she doesn’t see during their mornings. “What’s your usual?”

 

Maya waits until they hit the next red light before responding, “Pardon?”

 

“You know my usual order,” Claudine says with a generous sip of her cold tea. “What’s yours?”

 

Without missing a beat, “I enjoy a piping hot cup of Arabian brewed coffee with a teaspoon of two percent skimmed milk with one cube of muscovado sugar.” The answer earns her a slap on the arm. Maya laughs and Claudine smiles back in relief. She’ll take cocky, laughing Maya over sad stuttering Maya any day.

 

“I’m a simple woman with simple tastes, Claudine,” she says as she shifts gears. “Iced coffee with vanilla.”

 

Claudine repeats the order much like how Maya did to her before. “I’ll remember that.”

 

The twitch on Maya’s lips is a satisfactory response in Claudine’s book and as she tells Maya to pull up in a condominium driveway, she already schemes about how she’ll get Maya back for buying her all those drinks.

 

“Are you sure you don’t want me to help you inside?” Maya asks worriedly as Claudine opens her door.

 

“I didn’t break my leg Tendo,” Claudine rolls her eyes. “I can handle this short walk just fine. You’ve done more than enough.”

 

“If you say so,” Maya exhales, more than a little exasperated from the sounds of it.

 

“Hey Maya?” Claudine says as she collects her belongs on her lap.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Thank you.” She’s been saying that to the brunette more frequently that it almost bothers her that she hasn’t done anything to warrant one back. It’s always Maya doing something for her and never the other way around.

 

Maya grins back at her, telling her that it was her pleasure before leaving her own car, much to Claudine’s bewilderment, and opens Claudine’s door for her. The blonde wonders how they got to the point where Maya is opening doors for her and all she can respond with is the roll of her eyes.

 

As Claudine was about to enter the building, Maya rolls down her windows and calls out. “Claudine,” the blonde turns and raises an eyebrow. Maya smiles at her, she’s been doing that a lot lately, “I know where you live now.”

 

“We’ve talked about not phrasing things creepily, Maya.”

 

Maya laughs and Claudine is sure something is stuck in her throat somehow. “I’ll try to be here early. Can’t have you walking to the bus stop with that ankle. Don’t leave without me.” Without bothering to listen to Claudine’s retorts, Maya drives off.

 

Claudine knew there was a reason she didn’t want Maya to take her home. Maya also proceeds to take her home everyday from then on. She was absolutely spoiling Claudine.

 

She wasn’t completely averse to the idea of Maya picking her up in the morning. Not anymore at least. She would need to explain to her parents who owns the car she climbs into every morning if ever they spot her. Nevertheless, the next morning she patiently waits at the lobby until she spots a gray Porsche cruising in.

 

Memorizing what Maya’s car looked like, as well as the plate number, was not something Claudine would have spent brain space on yet here they were.

 

“Good morning Claudine,” Maya greets, a little too chipper in the morning if Claudine were being honest.

 

“To you as well,” Claudine responds as she limps inside.  She notes the iced tea already in her cup holder –when it even became hers is beyond her, but it is. Without much fanfare, she gently drops a tall, white tumbler with a straw sticking out the top onto Maya’s cup holder.

 

Maya is amused and a little curious, Claudine could tell by the twitch of her lips and the numerous glances Maya sends her way, but she decides not to press until they leave the condominium drive way.

 

“And what’s this?” Maya inquires, not bothering to hide her curious tone.

 

“Iced coffee with vanilla,” Claudine notes proudly. “I thought you would enjoy a home brew.”

 

Maya trains her eyes on the road as she reaches for the tumbler and Claudine wonders if there’s an action that this girl can’t do gracefully. The brunette takes a generous sip, exhaling in contentment as her lips part with the straw. “It tastes absolutely lovely, Claudine. I expected nothing less.”

 

Claudine can’t help the surge of pride she feels at Maya’s praises. She was definitely going to restock on vanilla extract soon. The thought branches out into a more concerning idea, one that will allow her to enjoy Maya’s company even more than she already is.

 

“Then I’m sure you wouldn’t mind taking a detour after school and come shop for the ingredients with me?” The question is out of her mouth before she has time to consider whether this was a good idea or not. She’s all but convinced herself that being around Maya is not the worst thing in the world. It’s the stirring in her chest every time they brush hands when reaching for their drinks and the soft look in Maya’s eyes that make her want to scream is the problem.

 

“With your injury?” Maya glances at her with an incredulous look on her face. “Absolutely not! I can’t let you walk around more than necessary. Especially not because of me.” The last few words were so muted and came out more as a breath than words that Claudine wasn’t sure if Maya ever spoke.

 

“It’s a minor injury, Maya.” Sure it disrupts her lessons and practice and she loathes having to cease her progress for anything, but it will heal. It barely hurts now already. “You can’t treat me like cheap glass. Or do you really think I’m that weak?”

 

“Of course not. Injury or no injury,” Maya raised her voice. “Would I even consider you a rival if you were?” Claudine can already see Maya’s jaw clench and she sighs, not wanting a repeat of last time. Maya is a good driver, but Claudine isn’t keen on finding out her limits under stress.

 

Claudine didn’t bother answering the question either. She knows Maya enough that if Claudine were to slack off and lose her drive to be anything but the best then little miss perfect would drop her faster than a burning coal in her hands. The thought of Maya not wanting to do anything with her terrified the hell out of her. Luckily for either of them, Claudine has no intention of ever dousing the flames of her passion for the stage.

 

All that thinking did was increase the now unfamiliar silence between them. Maya had a lot of talents and apparently one of them was finding new ways of making Claudine’s morning difficult.

 

“How about this Saturday then?” Claudine offered. “My ankle is already healing and it should be all better by then.”

 

“You want to me to go with you on a weekend?”

 

“Is that a no?”

 

“Yes. I mean no. I mean I would love to go with you.” Claudine would laugh at how quick Maya’s response was if the prospect of sharing her weekend with Maya didn’t excite her so.

 

Claudine offered to meet somewhere in the middle so Maya wouldn’t have to drive so far and the brunette only gasped. She was offended at the notion that she would let Claudine commute anywhere when she had a functioning car with gas at her disposal. Claudine wasn’t about to start refusing free rides from Maya again any time soon.

 

Then it hit her. She was going to spend her weekend with Maya. Just the two of them.

 

Granted they already spend a considerable amount of time with each other, but that was with the pretense of school and taking one’s rival to school which totally isn’t weird at all. Weirder still was that now it was Claudine who initiated the whole thing. Up until recently it had been Maya’s persistence that took their relationship to heights that Claudine didn’t think was possible. But now…

 

If Claudine took another second to justify to herself that she enjoyed the company of the absolutely ridiculous girl taking her to school and downing the iced coffee she had brought, she would have gotten a migraine. Yes, she liked being around Maya. So much so that she was very much willing to spend her day off with her.

 

Seeing the glowing grin that Maya was so desperately trying and failing to hide made Claudine admit that this revelation wasn’t so strange as she first thought it was.

 

It made her giddy to think that she’s the reason Maya’s smiling at all.

 

She got to see that smile again plenty of times during their Saturday together. It was almost laughable how a simple trip to the grocery store made her day. They took longer than they should for such a short shopping list, but they had no qualms with going through every single aisle in the store for no other reason than to prolong their time together.

 

After shopping, they decide to hang out at the coffeeshop that Maya apparently buys Claudine’s morning tea at. Claudine notes at how they should try drinking their beverages somewhere else besides Maya’s car and Maya couldn’t really disagree.

 

While lining up for the cashier, something on the shelves caught Maya’s eyes and wandered away. The look of wonder on her face entertained Claudine greatly. When she came back, Claudine saw the black tumbler that was in Maya’s grip. It was tall and had silver stars littered all over the metal casing.

 

“And what’s that for?” Claudine points.

 

“It’s for your morning tea,” Maya says as she turns the tumbler over, revealing a four-point star that was larger than the rest. “I might as well use a reusable container since I’ll be buying more in the future. Think of the environment Claudine.”

 

Claudine wouldn’t hold back her smile even if she could. “Aren’t those tumblers crazy expensive though? I can just get one from home, you know.” At this point, Claudine knows it’s a fool’s errand to change Maya’s mind about buying her tea every morning. The least she could do is make sure Maya doesn’t spend more than she needs to.

 

“No cost is too great for you Claudine.” It was hard to wrap her head around just how soft Maya’s expression was as she stared at her. “You are my star after all.”

 

Did Claudine swallow a drum set or was that just her heart, hammering its way out of her chest? Her eyes were locked on Maya and her cute pink-tinted cheeks for longer than she should be. With it came the need to fill the silence with a response of some kind and Claudine was sure she could spit one out if Miss Top Star herself didn’t just call her something she had always wanted to be. A star.

 

She acquired the taste for excellence and stardom at a young age, but that was too fleeting and way too circumstantial. She was just an incredibly adorable child who happened to know how to play pretend well. Ever since her fall from grace, Claudine only wanted the spotlight to shine on her for as long as she can keep it and certainly far longer than the critics believe she would. She would like nothing more than to show the world what she was truly capable of.

 

But to think of herself as someone’s star. Maya’s star. Even as a joke the statement made her feel like she could take on any stage as long as this wonderful girl was by her side. She couldn’t tell Maya that she had Claudine thinking of nothing else but her right now so she weakly smiles at the other girl and instead says:

 

“That was the cheesiest line I’ve ever heard.”

 

“And yet you didn’t even roll your eyes at me,” Maya nudges her shoulder. “I consider this a win overall.”

 

Claudine feels the same.

 

The brunette was about to order for them when Claudine boldly stepped in to order Maya’s iced coffee for her and slammed a few bills on the counter. She couldn’t just let Maya pay for these as well. The barista was shaken at the aggressive display but served them with a smile as they were trained to do.

 

Maya asks her if that was at all necessary when they picked up their orders to which Claudine doesn’t dignify with an answer.

 

They sat face to face on cozy armchairs near the window as they enjoyed their drinks. Claudine found that being with Maya felt like the most natural thing in the world and that there was a certain comfort she felt just being in the other girl’s presence.

 

“Thank you for this,” Maya blurts out when their latest conversation about popular music dies down. “I don’t do this very often but I found it quite enjoyable.”

 

Claudine rolls her eyes playfully, “Who would have thought Maya Tendo doesn’t pick up her own groceries. How above it all of you.”

 

Maya responds by rolling her own eyes back, “I’ll have you know I go every other week with my mother, Claudine Saijo. I meant spending time with friends.” The blonde notes how Maya always had a hard time saying that last word, more so if she is referring to Claudine as one. Her voice gets softer and more unsure than Claudine is used to hearing from the other girl.

 

“It’s my pleasure.” Claudine can’t help but be honest about it. “I’m sure you’re always busy with practice so letting me take up a bit of your time means a lot.”

 

“Well I do believe you’re the only person willing to be around me.” She says it like it’s a fact and Claudine can’t help but worried.

 

Claudine’s brow furrows as she takes a moment to stare at Maya with a frown on her face. Looking at Maya straight on and not from the side as she does when they’re in the Porsche together is such a completely different experience. She does it all the time during their heated dances and acting practices, but it was always a performance. They both wore masks, but Maya more so than anyone else, that show what the audience would like to see: Passion and determination, flawless movements and graceful steps. The pinnacle of what stars should be. There are always eyes on them from their teachers to their peers to the scrutinizing gaze of an audience. Every part of them must be perfect.

 

But here they don’t have to be.

 

“Hey,” Claudine’s voice softens as her hand reaches out for Maya’s cheek. After a few repeats of the action in the past, Claudine found that it calmed the other girl immediately much to her satisfaction. With the distance between them because of the small round table in front of them, the act would have looked awkward if Claudine weren’t so poised and graceful. “You know that’s not true. People would love to hang out with your dorky self if they gave you a chance.”

 

“People tend to part when I’m in the room, Claudine. It’s flattering to think they look up to me, but it makes small talk very difficult when they all stay a good three meters away from me.”

 

Claudine winced at the dejected look on Maya’s face. She couldn’t help but run her thumb over Maya’s cheek fondly for no reason other than to comfort her. If anyone asked Claudine a few months ago if she cared whether or not Maya was sad, she would have laughed at their face. But now she was ready to go to war for this girl and Claudine doesn’t know what to make of it.

 

Maya changed the topic soon after, clearly uncomfortable with talking about it, and Claudine will let her deflect for now. She already has a list of names that would absolutely love Maya’s company in her mind.

 

When Maya dropped her off and left, the first thing Claudine does is to reach for her phone and call a friend. “Futaba?” she asks, not sure who was going to answer since a certain blue haired menace was fond of answering for the shorter girl.

 

“Kaoruko actually. Futaba’s busy making tea right now so leave your message after the beep.” Kaoruko lets out the most irritating beep sound in human history that Claudine felt sorry for Futaba.

 

“Ugh. Just tell her I’m bringing someone else during our monthly karaoke get together.” No use in hiding it from Kaoruko since she’ll be at the get together as well. Claudine immediately regrets is as she can already see the smuggest scheming smile from Kaoruko’s face.

 

“A plus one? You would break the sanctity of our group for this individual?” Claudine groaned, thinking it was illegal for Kaoruko to act off stage. More so, their friends do love the phrase: The more the merrier so she really doesn’t think bringing Maya along would break any sort of group dynamic. “Is our little Claudine going to introduce us to a girlfriend, finally?”

 

“No!” Claudine’s face grows warm at the word and very idea of people thinking Maya was anything beyond a friend and rival. “It’s just Maya Tendo. I figured she could get out more and meet her other classmates for once.”

 

“Oh?” If trouble had a voice, it would sound like Kaoruko. “The same Maya Tendo whose car you alight from at the start of the day and enter once class ends? The same one who you said had a criminally beautiful face? The one who you dance with every day? That not-girlfriend Maya Tendo?”

 

“Yes,” Claudine hissed. Why must Kaoruko make things difficult for her and her feelings? “That Maya Tendo. Now if you could please tell Futaba that so we can handle the room reservation that would be great. I’m hanging up no-”

 

“Do you want her to be?”

 

Claudine’s mind went blank. She couldn’t help but realize how close she and Maya have gotten over the past few months. It was hard to not be at peace when Maya was with her, whether it was with her hands holding her during their dances or with her eyes always looking back at her no matter where they were. “I don’t know.” Her voice was quiet. “I think it’s too soon to be thinking about that.”

 

“How about this then,” Kaoruko begins, her voice growing gentle as it usually does when she decides to be serious. “Do you like her that way?”

 

Her heart skips a beat.

 

“I don’t know either.” Claudine hangs up.

 

The next Monday, Claudine climbs into Maya’s car as usual and drops the white tumbler with Maya’s drink in the appropriate cup holder. She takes a sip of her Maya-delivered tea and refuses to look the other girl in the eye. She would never admit it to Kaoruko but her questions have been burned into the back of her mind for the duration of the weekend and it was driving her insane.

 

Did she lose sleep over it? Also something she would never admit. Although thinking about Maya during the evenings when she was alone in her dark room did not help her at all. It made looking into the other girl’s eyes very difficult.

 

“Maya.”

 

“Claudine?” God even her just saying her name is enough for Claudine’s heart to start beating like crazy.

 

“If you can coerce me into riding with you every day, then I can technically convince you to go karaoke with me and a few others this weekend.”

 

“Technically you can,” Claudine still doesn’t want to look at Maya but she can tell the other girl has that worried look on her face where she furrows her brow and frowns at the road, as if she’s deciding on safe driving or meaningful replies. “Do these few others know I’m going? I wouldn’t want to impose…”

 

“Well you’re not.” Claudine is quick to stop that train of thought, “They’re very excited about having someone new join in on our get togethers.” Claudine takes care to leave the fact out that it gives some of her friends ammunition to tease her relentlessly. Mostly Kaoruko.

 

“What if I have other plans?”

 

“Unlikely.”

 

Claudine waits for a confirmation. It was a very quiet car ride to be sure. It wasn’t until Claudine could already see the gates of their school does she seek an answer. “So is that a yes?”

 

“It’s a yes.” Maya says with a hint of amusement in her voice. “As if I could refuse you Claudine.”

 

She’s back to playing that game where she avoids Maya’s soft gaze again and as with most things involving Maya, she loses spectacularly. She can already feel the heat on her cheeks when she catches a small glimpse of Maya’s face before looking away. Claudine can’t help but be annoyed that it’s there at all.

 

While Maya is busy with parking the car, Claudine attempts to calm herself before they can leave. It wouldn’t do her any favors if she leaves Maya’s car red as a stop sign. “I guess you’re hanging out with people.”

 

With a shake of her head, Maya cannot hold back her smile any longer. “I guess I am.” Claudine can’t help but stare.

 

Claudine and Maya were made for the stage. Their hard work molds them to be nothing but the very picture of perfection in front of an audience. Yet here in Maya’s Porshe where not a single soul is looking at them, they can be so much more than actors on stage. There is no strict script to follow and no clear roles for them to embody. It’s just them. Claudine and Maya. Maya and Claudine. They don’t have to be anyone but them. And as Claudine looks at the genuine smile Maya shares only to her, she thinks she’s never seen the other girl look more beautiful.

 

They go to karaoke with Claudine’s friends and of course Maya is welcomed with open arms. They’re all from the same class so introductions were hardly necessary. Karen had appointed herself on the spot as the grand welcoming committee, telling Maya how much fun they were going to have. Hikari and Mahiru were right behind her to remind the rambunctious girl to calm down. Futaba was there too with one hand covering Kaoruko’s mouth. They all agreed that when Futaba does that, it’s mostly for their benefit. Nana and Junna were there as well, acting more like chaperones than anything else.

 

Claudine could tell that Maya is putting her acting skills to great use when she watches the brunette hide her surprise when someone strikes up a conversation with her. It warmed Claudine’s heart to see her friend growing more and more comfortable with the people she trusts by the minute.

 

She might have become a tad more social that she had ever been, but that did not stop Maya from being glued to Claudine’s side the entire time. Whether it was during dinner at a restaurant they all met up at or actual karaoke itself, Maya was never more than an arm’s length away from Claudine.

 

The blonde could only say she tried her best to ignore the snickers Kaoruko sent her way.

 

It certainly didn’t help that at some point, Maya chose a song for them to sing together. Their voices naturally melded perfectly together. It was different from singing for a performance. Surrounded by no one else but her friends –their friends she wants to say- Claudine couldn’t remember a time when Maya looked heppier.

 

When the night ended and it was just her and Maya alone in the other girl’s car again, Claudine couldn’t help but stare at Maya tapping her steering wheel while she hums a song they were singing earlier. Even in the confines of her car, Maya’s humming could be a performance on its own by how it captivates Claudine so.

 

“What are you looking at Claudine?” Busted.

 

“You seem happy,” Claudine expertly dodges the question. “I’m guessing you had fun tonight?”

 

“I had an excellent time,” Maya sighs wistfully. “Thank you for inviting me.”

 

“I’m glad,” Claudine smiles. The whole thing went better than she expected. “Although you do realize that now they’ve taken a liking to you, you have to come with us every month or Karen might actually cry.”

 

“Well we can’t have that now, can we?” Maya laughed and Claudine thinks her heart might stop if she heard it again, “I wasn’t aware this was a monthly gathering.”

 

“It is and now that you’ve been indoctrinated into the group, you’re required to go. You better not miss a month.”

 

“I’ll do my best to meet your expectations,” Maya says as she comes up the driveway of Claudine’s condominium.

 

They’re quiet for a while and they know Claudine has to go before the guard asks them to leave, but neither of them want to say goodbye. They were having such a great time. It can’t end just like that.

 

Claudine reaches for Maya’s cheek. It’s such a familiar gesture that the blonde isn’t even surprised when Maya leans into her hand. They both can’t help but stare at each other. “I hope you realize now that people do like spending time with you.”

 

“So this whole outing was for you to prove a point?”

 

“Maybe.”

 

Claudine likes the look in Maya’s eyes. There is a slight sparkle in them as she looks at her so fondly. She likes how Maya’s face slowly moves closer to her own, her hand still pressed onto Maya’s cheek. She likes the press of Maya’s soft lips on her cheek as she gapes, breath knocked out of her lungs, as she tries to process just how close Maya is to her at that moment.

 

When Maya moves away, Claudine makes a mental note of how she likes the mix of pink and the color of Maya’s skin. “Thank you for tonight,” Maya whispers and if she weren’t so close then Claudine would have missed it.

 

Claudine barely remembers what transpired after Maya said thank you. Understandably so given how her mind had short circuited during the exchange. When they part and Claudine lays on her bed that night, her mind running a thousand miles a second, one thought shines above the rest.

 

She likes Maya.

 

No.

 

She really likes Maya.