Behold! Yet another wonderful story proposed by 0mn, executed by yours truly! I'm so glad they gave me a Christmasy prompt. This is like our shared gift to the fandom this holiday season haha. It's full of super sweet and warm moments you won't want to miss~ and of course with a Mayakuro center~
Disclaimer: I do not own Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight.
Tendo Maya's Best Christmas Ever
Christmastime at Seishou Academy is, without a doubt, one of the most highly-anticipated times of year for just about every student.
The themes of the plays and performances they put on in those weeks always adhere to the season, like different versions of the Nutcracker and such. But the last of the performances concludes about a week before Christmas along with classes themselves, allowing for the students to have ample time to pack their things and return home for the break if needed.
And this year, by some stroke of luck, Junna's inquiry as to who of their group of nine will be going home for the holidays is met with no response, which delightfully surprises everyone.
"Really?" Junna asks, looking around the lounge. "No one?"
"Nope!" Nana smiles. "I know you aren't gonna go home till you graduate, so I planned to stay here with you, Junna-chan!"
"We're not goin' back," Futaba says. "Not for Christmas anyway. Kaoruko and I'll go back to visit on New Year's."
"Me too!" Karen says. "I wanna spend Christmas with you guys this year!"
Junna turns to other members of the group, who she's a bit more shocked to hear a negative response from.
"Tsuyuzaki-san? You're not going home to your family and all your siblings?"
Mahiru blushes and shuffles her feet a bit.
"It's like Karen-chan said… this year I wanted to spend Christmas here with everyone. I've already shopped and sent out gifts for everyone at home."
Junna turns to Hikari and then Claudine.
"Kagura-san, Saijou-san? You're staying in Japan?"
"Yeah," Hikari nods. "My father is working here for now. My whole family is in Japan."
"As for me," Claudine says. "I'd already told my parents I'll be missing them this Christmas. But I'll be going back for New Year's, as well."
Finally, Junna looks to Maya inquisitively. But Maya simply shakes her head in response.
With this, everyone perks up at the notion that they'll all be staying at school this Christmas.
"Wow!" Karen cries. "This is gonna be sooo much fun, you guys! We'll have Christmas together!"
"Yes!" Nana agrees. "It'll be such a good time, especially now! Last year we all didn't really know each other that well, and we weren't all that close."
"Plus, Hikari-chan wasn't with us," Mahiru says, patting her roommate's shoulder. "Now she can join us!"
"Thanks for having me," Hikari blushes.
"Well, it sure is sounding lively already," Kaoruko says.
"As it should be!" Futaba grins. "It's Christmas, for cryin' out loud!"
"There's so much we can do!" Nana claps.
"We should start thinking of ideas now," Junna advises. "I'll make a list."
"And check it twice!" Karen sings.
The lounge fills with chatter now as all the girls excitedly discuss things amongst themselves.
Well, almost all of them.
While the others are bombarding Junna with ideas, Claudine catches sight of her partner across the room. Maya has been standing close to the doorway since they'd come in, and now she's inching ever closer to it. Clearly, she had intended to slip away whilst everyone else was engaged in conversation, but now she catches Claudine's eye and gives her an odd sort of smile. She dips her head to Claudine, then quietly exits the room without ever having spoken a single word.
Claudine watches her go, equal parts curious and concerned.
All at once, the others realize Maya has left them, and the enthused conversations fade for more solemn tones.
"Ah," Junna sighs. "That was my bad. I shouldn't have instigated this kind of talk when Tendo-san was here."
"Eh?" Mahiru whimpers. "Why not?"
Nana takes it from here.
"Maya-chan's never exactly been a fan of Christmas, as far as I know. Her family always made it into a competition."
"Right," Junna mumbles. "Instead of enjoying the holiday and relaxing, they'd host all these parties and make Tendo-san perform at every one of them just to show off…"
"Indeed," Kaoruko interjects with a disgusted scowl. "They always made her work! It's no wonder she isn't going home this year! Hopefully, the poor thing can get some proper rest here at school."
"It isn't exactly the best time of year for her," Nana finishes.
A dejected air stifles the mood now as everyone's shoulders slump. Claudine feels her heart sink, but at the same time a flare of anger shoots through her chest.
Of course. She, of all people, should've known how Maya must have been made to spend her Christmases, being paraded around as the trophy daughter of the prestigious Tendos, forced to dance and sing for all their wealthy party guests while everyone else ate and chatted and observed.
Of course, Maya wouldn't want to return home, and of course, she wouldn't feel all that willing to participate in the festivities here, either. Claudine herself had flown to France for Christmas last year, and when she reflects on it now, she recalls Maya had gone home, as well. Which means that even as recently as last year, her parents had still been forcing her to do those things, to promote her value as a performer rather than cherish her as a daughter.
Claudine hasn't noticed that her fingers have started to ball into tight fists on her skirt until Futaba nudges her.
"Oy, Kuroko. You okay?"
Claudine makes the decision right then and there. She straightens up and turns to Futaba with a fierce determination.
"Futaba, I need your help."
"H-Hah? Sure, with what?"
Claudine looks to the rest of them as well, meeting all of their gazes in turn.
"Everyone, I'll need your help, as well."
"For what, Kuro-chan?"
But while Karen and a few others are still confused, Nana is already smiling in agreement.
"Right," she says. "Let's do it, Kuro-chan."
"Of course," Junna agrees.
And little by little, the others start to understand.
"Heck yeah! Count me in!"
"I suppose we owe it to her."
"I'll do everything I can, Kuro-chan!"
"Wait, wait! What is everyone talking about?"
Everyone chuckles a bit, not surprised that Karen is the last to catch on. Claudine explains it properly for her.
"It's simple; we're going to give Tendo Maya the best Christmas she's ever had."
Karen finally gasps in understanding.
"Oooh! That's a great idea! We can all surprise her!"
"She's probably the one who needs it most," Hikari says.
"Right!" Mahiru says. "We'll all still enjoy it and have fun, but we should focus on Tendo-san!"
"She's always practicing," Kaoruko comments. "She deserves to have a real Christmas."
"Christmas for Tendo-san!"
Claudine's spirits lift now as everyone expresses their eagerness to collaborate with her on this. But as Maya's partner, and arguably the person closest to her in the entire school, Claudine wants to be the one in charge of it.
She makes her intentions known by getting up to join Junna, who has already started writing out a small list of everyone's ideas. All the others huddle around as well and start calling out more.
"We should go caroling!"
The excitement mounts higher and higher with the thought of each activity, and Claudine already begins planning out some things mentally. She has her own proposition as well.
"What about that thing… Secret Santa."
Everyone else is in immediate agreement.
"Good one, Kuro-chan!"
As Junna writes everything down, it's Mahiru who notices a small problem.
"Um… if we're doing a Secret Santa with all nine of us, but Tendo-san won't know about it, doesn't that mean someone will get left out?"
"Ah, that's true…"
"It's fine," Claudine says. "I don't need one. I'll secure Tendo Maya's present and we can pretend I'm her recipient. So if she doesn't know about it, I don't mind not getting anything. The rest of you should do a lottery, though."
"We should do that now! There are only three days left so we've gotta get shopping!"
For the rest of the afternoon, the lounge is filled with excited, secretive chatter. Once they've given all the ideas they can come up with, Claudine takes the list from Junna and begins breaking the activities up to see where each would fit best between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
She wants Maya to have the full Christmas experience, covering both important days and as many traditional activities as possible. For all the years and all the things she's missed out on, Claudine wants to make it up to her. More than anything else this year, she wants Tendo Maya to have the best Christmas anyone could ever possibly have.
Once she's created a schedule that all the others approve of and agree with, they draw straws to determine Secret Santas between the remaining seven of them. Claudine isn't quite sure what to get for Maya just yet, but she plans to think on it all night and go out to make a purchase tomorrow.
The eight of them swear to keep things quiet from Maya until it's necessary to reveal, and with this, they begin a normal evening routine of cooking dinner, showering, and tidying up.
Claudine makes a few calls and arranges to have a tree delivered, and once that's settled, Nana calls for supper.
Claudine considers texting Maya to come and eat, but she quickly decides she would much rather fetch her herself. So she hurries to her partner's door and knocks with a call of her name.
"Hey, Tendo Maya! It's time to eat."
She waits a moment, listening to the sounds of movement from inside until there's a click at the handle. Maya blinks in surprise to see her there.
"Saijou-san? Surely a text would have sufficed. You didn't need to come all the way here."
"Well, I did," she huffs. "So let's go."
Claudine leaves no room for protest as she grabs Maya's hand and leads her out the door and down the hall.
And though still a bit perplexed, Maya follows with a smile.
In the following days, Claudine works in secret from Maya while collaborating with the other girls, though things are still just in the planning stages and not yet put into action.
The Christmas tree she'd ordered arrives on the morning before Christmas Eve. Futaba and Nana help her carry it into the lounge to set it up, while Junna spends that time requesting that the school allow them to use the ornaments, tinsel, and lights from the prop department. When she's granted permission, she, Kaoruko and Karen each take a box from school back to Starlight Hall with them. Mahiru and Hikari had gone out to shop for their Secret Santas together, as they hadn't pulled each other.
The boxes of decorations are left underneath the tree unopened for the time being, and the tree itself stands bare in the corner of the lounge.
Nana and Mahiru soon go out to start shopping for cooking ingredients, and the other girls all take turns going out to Secret Santa shop, as well. Claudine plans to go as well, as she'd decided on what she believed to be an appropriate present for Maya.
But first she needs to make sure Maya doesn't figure out what's going on just yet.
So Claudine has to make ample time to dedicate to their usual practices together in the school studio on top of keeping all her secrets.
After putting on her warmest peach trench coat, her pink scarf, and her gloves, Claudine makes the walk to school in the brisk winter air. It's an overcast day, and it almost seems like it could snow, though ideally the snow would come on Christmas day. Unfortunately, she can't control the weather, but she is going to do her absolute best to make everything else a success.
By the time she reaches the studio and changes, Maya must have been practicing alone for at least an hour, and Claudine makes up some lame excuse as to why she's late. She falls into their routine of practice as per usual, making sure not to seem distracted by all the thoughts bubbling in the back of her mind.
During a water break, Claudine checks her phone for updates and sees that Nana has asked her to keep Maya a little while longer. So Claudine offers her another dance, and another after that until she's sent the thumbs-up emoji.
She and Maya change out of their leotards quickly and put back on the warmer sweaters and leggings, then their coats and scarves.
"My," Maya says to her as they head for the doors. "That was quite a session. You seemed even more motivated than usual, even for you, Saijou-san."
"It's this cold weather," Claudine says. "It makes you want to move more."
"Really? I feel most people would say the opposite."
"Well, I'm not most people."
Maya smiles. "Indeed, you aren't."
About a minute later into their walk, Claudine notes Maya's hands balled up in her coat pockets and heaves a sigh.
"Did you seriously forget to wear gloves, Tendo Maya? It's freezing out here!"
"In my haste to get to practice, I did leave them behind, yes."
"You're so hopeless." Claudine offers out her pink-gloved hand. "Here."
Logically, Maya's hand would stay much warmer inside its pocket, but logic is on neither of their minds right now. She extracts her hand and curls her bare. fingers with Claudine's, feeling the soft fabric and the gentle heat underneath.
"Thank you very much."
"Don't forget your gloves next time."
"If this is the result of me forgetting them, I may just throw them away entirely."
They take their time walking back to the dorms, both so Claudine can be sure the others are ready and because neither of them feels the need to rush the separation of their hands.
When they do finally get back inside the heated building, they head back toward their rooms. As she passes the dorm Claudine catches Nana's eye, and she gives her a thumbs-up. Claudine nods, then hurries to her room to shed her coat and gloves, then heads across to Maya's room. Maya is just hanging up her coat and looks to her in surprise.
"My, another visit?"
"We need your help with something."
"Is everything all right?"
"Just come with me."
Once again, Maya finds herself being led by the hand down the hallway, but she has no qualms about it.
Claudine brings her to the lounge where everyone else is waiting. The tree has been set up in the corner with a red blanket spread underneath, but all of the boxes remain unopened.
"Sorry for the wait, everyone," Claudine says. "I've brought her."
"Now we can start!"
Maya is puzzled by the joyful greetings from them and tilts her head.
"Pardon? What are we starting?"
"The tree-decorating!" Karen announces, waving excitedly to the small evergreen in the corner of the room. "Kuro-chan ordered it for us!"
Maya blinks in shock at the various unfamiliar things that her friends had set up in her absence, particularly the tree.
"Yep!" Karen says. "All the way from France!"
"Karen, it's from the store down the street," Claudine sighs.
"I think we should still say it's from France, though. It sounds cooler!"
"Anyway," Junna says. "The school is letting us use some supplies, too."
"Gotta give the place some holiday vibes, right?"
"It's Christmas, after all."
Chatting excitedly, everyone gets up and heads for the tree to begin unboxing things. Claudine keeps ahold of Maya's hand as she leads her over, as well.
"See?" she prompts. "We couldn't do this without you, Tendo Maya."
Maya is quiet as she watches them all get to work.
The more patient people of the bunch, Nana, Junna, and Mahiru, tackle the task of untangling the strings of lights, while Karen and Hikari start putting ornaments on the tree. When the lights start to get untangled, Kaoruko and Futaba begin trailing them around the tree and setting them on the branches. Junna takes out her phone a moment later and begins playing a Christmas songs playlist, and Nana steps back to start snapping pictures of everything on her phone.
Maya stares at them all for a moment, this being the first time she's ever actually been a witness to or a part of such a thing. Claudine lets go of her hand and gives her a nudge forward.
"Well? Come on, then. We have a lot of ornaments in there."
So with Claudine's encouragement, and all her friends' joyous chatter and laughter through the air, Maya bends down to reach into one of the boxes and pulls out a shining, circular red ornament with snowflake pattern printed on.
As Claudine helps Futaba with the lights, she watches Maya approach the tree with her ornament, searching for a place to hang it. When she decides on a good branch, she reaches out to hook it there, then slowly lets go.
It's the first ornament she's ever hung on a Christmas tree, and Claudine is both happy and sad to have witnessed it. Maya should have experienced this a decade ago.
But then again, she's also a little glad it had happened here, with everyone.
Claudine watches Maya fondly as she reaches in for another ornament and searches for another place for it. She might've just stood there and watched Maya all day if not for Kaoruko snickering softly at her for doing so.
Maya next hangs up a snowman ornament, then a reindeer, then a swan. The sparkle in her eyes grows brighter and brighter with each one, and her smile grows wide, too.
Between the nine of them the tree gets decorated within ten minutes.
The Christmas songs continue playing as Mahiru scurries over to turn off the main lights, and then Futaba plugs in the Christmas tree strings. Immediately, the room bursts with colors and light, reds and blues and greens and yellows flickering and blinking to life, revealing all of the ornaments they'd hung together; carousels, presents, snow globes and so many more.
The girls all stand back to gasp and marvel at their work, hands clasped together or with each other's, squealing and sighing.
"Wow! It's so sparkly!"
"It's just like mine back home!"
"I always had a white tree."
"Really? An artificial one?"
"I fancy the idea of those pink ones!"
"Maybe next year!"
Claudine and Maya are quiet for the moment, simply marveling at the sight before them. With the music playing and their friends all around them, it certainly breeds the feelings of Christmas. Claudine can only hope Maya feels it, too.
She glances her way, relieved to find her smiling. All the lights are reflecting in her eyes, and Claudine soon finds herself looking there more than at the actual tree.
But Futaba's sudden call has Claudine quickly snapping her gaze away.
"Oy, didn't we forget something?"
Everyone looks up as Futaba crouches over to reach into one of the boxes and pulls out one more item; a large white star.
"Ah!" Junna cries. "How could we forget?"
"It's the most important part!" Karen cries.
"But how do we put it on?" Hikari wonders.
"We should probably just decide on one person," Mahiru advises. "We won't all be able to do it at once."
"Well, it surely can't be Futaba-han," Kaoruko snickers. "She'd only be able to put it halfway up the tree."
"Yeah, and you'd make it maybe an inch higher."
"Nana's the tallest."
"But it's Kuro-chan who got us the tree in the first place," Nana reminds them. "I think she should do the honors."
Everyone nods in agreement to that. Futaba brings Claudine the star and hands it to her.
But Claudine doesn't turn to the tree. Instead, she turns to the person all of this is really meant for.
"I've done this plenty of times before back at home," she says. "Why don't you give it a try, Tendo Maya?"
"Eh?" Maya blinks and looks around the room. Everyone had expected this response from Claudine.
"That's right! Tendo-san, you should do it!"
"It'll be your first time putting on a star, right?"
"Please complete our tree!"
Maya is stunned, but turns back to face Claudine, who has now placed the star in her hands.
Maya shakes her head.
"But… it is as Daiba-san said. This is your tree, Saijou-san."
"No. Now it's our tree," Claudine corrects her. "And I want you to put the star on top. It's only fitting for you, isn't it?"
Maya looks back up at the beautiful tree with the empty space at the top as the music of jingling bells fills her ears, and the warmth of the moment fills her heart. Claudine gives her a soft pat on the back, and her rose-colored eyes shimmer with something bright.
"Well? What do you say, Miss Top Star?"
Maya stares at her for a long moment, and her heart feels like it's about to swell over. This moment will live on in her memory for the rest of her life.
So Nana brings in a chair from the kitchen, and Claudine helps support Maya as she steps up onto it, cradling the star against her chest. They all watch as she carefully leans over to nestle it at the top of their Christmas tree.
As soon as it's in place, Maya flicks a small switch on the back of the star and gives it life. It shines a radiant glow down over the entire tree, casting a snowy-white light across the room. There's a soft collective gasp as everyone admires the sight. Claudine takes Maya's hands and helps her down.
"Well done. It looks marvelous."
"Indeed," Maya agrees, though her eyes are not on the tree.
For a while longer, the nine girls enjoy the sight of the tree and hum along to the familiar songs playing. They keep the main lights off and the Christmas lights on for supper, and even get permission to let them stay on all throughout tomorrow, it being Christmas Eve. They all wish each other goodnight and head to bed a bit early.
Once everyone else has gone to their rooms together, Claudine keeps beside Maya on her way to hers. Both girls are quiet all the while, but once they come to a halt, Claudine breaks it.
Maya turns to her with a curious tilt of her head. Claudine looks down for a moment as she decides on her words.
"Today… did you have fun?"
"Not with practice. I mean, with the tree. With the Christmas stuff." Claudine finally looks back up to her, a bit bashfully. "Was it fun for you?"
Maya's jaw drops a little.
"Saijou-san…" She reaches out to take both of Claudine's hands. "Of course. I had a wonderful time. I have never had a more enjoyable Christmas experience." She dips her head. "Thank you very much for allowing me to participate in yours."
"I said good," Claudine says firmly. "Because that was only the beginning."
"You heard me." Claudine turns her hands a bit to be the one holding hers now. "That was only a taste of the full Christmas experience I'm going to give you, Tendo Maya. Just you wait until tomorrow and the day after that. You're going to have the best Christmas of anyone ever. Mark my words." Her eyes are deadly serious with such an endearing intent, it would have been comical if it weren't so sweet.
Maya gives her a smile.
"Saijou-san. My Christmas experience is already the best I could have imagined just[ from today. Simply because you thought of me so earnestly. Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet," Claudine snaps gently. "You're going to have a proper Christmas Eve and a proper Christmas Day, too. So you'd better prepare yourself, Tendo Maya."
Maya nods again, unable to think of anything else to do other than pull Claudine in for a brief embrace.
"You truly needn't concern yourself so much for my sake."
"Don't tell me what to do."
Claudine hugs her back, and Maya lingers against her a moment longer before they part, sharing a mutual sparkle in their eyes.
"Then I'll see you tomorrow, Tendo Maya."
Maya dips her head.
"I look forward to it, Saijou Claudine."
They retreat to their separate rooms for the night.
All the while as she lies in bed, Claudine runs over tomorrow's schedule in her mind, while Maya is left wondering what could possibly be in store.
On the day of Christmas Eve, Claudine wakes early. She gets dressed into a red sweater and black leggings and heads for the lounge right away.
Junna and Nana are already there, also dressed in Christmas-y clothes getting ingredients ready for today. Claudine joins them, checking to ensure they have everything they'll need for later.
As the others trickle in and happily greet the rest, Maya is the last to arrive in a knitted green sweater. Claudine catches her eye and sends her a silent message: I hope you're ready.
They gather to eat breakfast together like usual, and then dive right into what Claudine has planned for the morning.
"Simply enough," she declares. "We'll be decorating the rest of the room. We still have two boxes full that Junna got the school to let us borrow, so let's make sure we don't neglect anything."
They don't waste a second. Junna brings in an old radio and puts on classic Christmas tunes to work to with the blinking lights of their tree shimmering off to the corner. Kaoruko and Futaba find silver streamers in one of the boxes and work together to untangle them and hang them up along the walls. Nana and Junna hang up little silver jingle bells.
In the meantime, Claudine brings Maya and Karen's group to the table, where several large sheets of white paper are waiting for them.
"Kuro-chan?" Mahiru asks. "What's this for?"
"Why, snowflakes, of course!"
"Oh! Like the paper ones?!"
"Yes, Karen. That's why there's paper here."
So their group of five sits down and begins folding and cutting up the paper, with Claudine having to give Maya a run-through of how it's done, considering this is her first time. Claudine cuts one and unfolds it to demonstrate, resulting with a very clean snowflake.
"See? It's not difficult at all if you aren't Karen."
"Waaah, Kuro-chaaan! It's not my fault I keep accidentally cutting them in half!"
"Karen-chan, you need to be a little more gentle."
Mahiru and Hikari both do their best to help her with her current snowflake, as Claudine watches Maya with hers. Maya cuts one-inch incisions around her paper, spacing them out with precise care. When she finishes and opens it up, Claudine is stunned.
"Well?" Maya asks. "Is this correct?"
Somehow, she managed to make a perfect snowflake, one even more satisfying and symmetrical than Claudine's, on her very first try.
"Tres bien! Tendo Maya, you have a knack for this!"
"Really…?" Maya blushes a little. "Art has never been my strongest subject."
"We aren't in class - we're having fun," Claudine reminds her. "Maybe that's the secret to it, hm?"
Maya smiles and deposits her snowflake into the small, growing pile. As she begins on her next one, Claudine notices she's once again trying to make those painstaking cuts. Claudine gently rests a hand on her knee to get her attention.
"They don't have to be perfect, you know."
Maya blinks, then dips her head. She does as the others do then, making some longer cuts, some slanted ones, and some minuscule ones. The next snowflake she opens looks much more haphazard than the first, and she frowns.
"Perhaps I should recycle this one."
Her friends chorus a rebuttal.
"You don't have to!"
"Don't do that!"
Maya is perplexed.
"But it's not as pretty as the first."
"I think it's great!" Karen cries.
"She's right!" Mahiru says. "I like it, Tendo-san!"
"It looks like a real snowflake," Hikari says.
"I agree." Claudine takes the snowflake from Maya and admires it. "Real snowflakes are a bit wild in their beauty. It looks genuine."
Maya accepts it back from her with a smile, and happily adds it to their pile.
So the girls go about their tasks a while longer, with Nana and Junna taking the finished snowflakes to start tying them on strings to hang them up all around the room.
Before long, the entire lounge is a winter wonderland of paper and streamers and lights. Claudine watches with a quiet smile as Maya takes in the sight of the decorations she'd created along with her dearest friends. But this is still just the beginning.
"All right," Claudine says to her. "Come on, then. We've got a lot more to do today." She gives Maya's back a light push and corrals her into the kitchen, where the others eagerly join them.
"Next," Claudine announces. "We'll be baking cookies."
There's a cheer of excitement all around as the girls tie on their aprons and begin setting things up.
Their agenda is to make both sugar cookies and traditional chocolate-chip, so they split themselves into two groups, with Nana leading one and Mahiru the other. Claudine joins Maya in Mahiru's chocolate-chip group with Karen, while the others go to Nana. They divide the labor between passing each other ingredients, mixing the batter, measuring the portions, and doing the actual molding of the cookies.
For the next hour or so, the entire kitchen is filled with a merry chatter amongst friends, all while the classical Christmas songs continue playing. When it's finally time to begin taking the finished products out of the oven, everyone gathers around in anticipation as Nana puts on her oven mitts.
"Ohh, they smell so good!"
"They don't look half bad, either."
"Do we have any milk?"
"Oh! Good idea!"
"I'll get some napkins."
One by one, Nana extracts the trays of finished cookies for everyone to admire. The chocolate-chip cookies are visibly melty and warm, while the sugar cookies that have been cooled a little are all in the shapes of Christmas trees and gingerbread men and presents, all covered in sprinkles.
As the girls take their pick of cookies and begin eating, Claudine makes sure to witness Maya's first bite of her first-ever homemade Christmas cookie.
As soon as she bites into the gooey chocolate-chips, her eyes fill with delight just before she closes them in order to focus on her sense of taste. Claudine bites into one, as well, and the taste sends a tingle through her mouth before all the sweetest flavors come flooding in.
"Well?" she asks, nudging Maya's side. "How is it?"
Maya opens her eyes slowly, still a bit hazy from the euphoria of the taste.
"Saijou-san… it is absolutely delicious. Perhaps the most delicious thing I've ever eaten…"
"Of course. No cookie tastes as good as one you made together with your friends on Christmas Eve."
"You're quite right. Thank you for allowing me the experience."
"Like I said, don't thank me yet. We're still only getting started."
"My… how much do you have in store for me, exactly?"
"You'll just have to see for yourself."
The nine girls spend a good deal of time enjoying their spoils, gathering together on the couches and chatting as they snack and squeal and sigh in bliss. Maya makes sure to try a few of the sugar cookies as well and offers all her highest compliments.
After everyone is finished eating, they divide the work of the cleanup and dish-washing. And once all of that is taken care of, Karen is the first one turning to Claudine with a bubbling question.
"Kuro-chan, what's next?"
With a smirk, Claudine casts her gaze around the room.
"What would you all say to some caroling?"
There's a chorus of cheers in response. Naturally, at a music and theatre institution, going room-to-room caroling is a very popular and highly-anticipated activity.
The girls decide to stay together as one group instead of splitting up. And so, with their voices as warmed-up as their stomachs from their cookies and wintery attire, the nine girls begin making their rounds to sing.
They decide on the carol before knocking on each door, and as soon as they're greeted by the girls on the other side, the nine of them begin to sing. Of course, they sound exceptional with every tune, even the few times when Karen goes off-pitch and causes some of them to start giggling.
They must go along the entire floor singing, and more than once their classmates join in with them.
Claudine is as delighted as the rest of them to make their classmates smile. But at each and every door, she turns to check on Maya.
And each and every time, she finds her absolutely radiant.
By the end of the evening, Claudine can only hope Maya's heart is half as full as hers is.
Once they return to the lounge, it's evident their group has stirred up some Christmas spirit in the rest of the girls at the dorms, as there's hardly a moment that goes by afterward where someone isn't singing in one of the hallways.
While Nana and Mahiru get started on dinner, the others take turns showering or playing games. Here and there, a few presents end up under the tree when the rest aren't looking, until the red blanket is covered in gifts.
Karen finds a bunch of patchwork stockings folded up at the bottom of one of the decoration boxes, and she eagerly dusts them off and has everyone choose one to hang up on the walls with the streamers.
And she also finds a bushel of mistletoe. Having Hikari hold a chair as she stands on it, Karen tacks the leaves to the ceiling above the threshold. When she's finished, she jumps down triumphantly.
"There, it's up! All right, any first takers? Hikari-chan? Mahiru-chan?"
"Eh-?" Mahiru leans back from the stove for a moment, blushing. "Wh-What are you two talking about, geez…"
"Ahh, Karen-chan found the mistletoe!" Nana sings. "Junna-chan, come with me!"
"Wha- Hey, wait a second!"
"Futaba-haaan~! Kiss me!"
And somehow it becomes a bit of a spectacle for each girl to pull her roommates under the mistletoe and for the others to cheer and watch.
Karen ushers both Hikari and Mahiru, who are both blushing wildly, but in the end she just gives them a huge hug. Mahiru seems both relieved and disappointed, until Hikari speaks up.
"Bakaren. That's not what it's for." And to everyone's surprise, Hikari is the one to plant a soft kiss on, first, Karen's cheek, and then Mahiru's. "You're supposed to do that. At least in England."
Mahiru nearly falls over, while Karen jumps for joy.
"Wow! Hikari-chan, do it again!"
"Nope. One is all you get."
The others give a small applause, blushing all around.
Once the three of them have hobbled away, Mahiru is down for the count, and she has to sit on the couch for a while. Karen and Hikari sit on either side of her and lean against her.
Next up at the mistletoe is Kaoruko dragging Futaba by the arm.
"Please, Futaba-han! It'll be the only thing I ask of you this year!"
"Ah, geez… Fine. Just a kiss, right?"
"If you would, please~"
Kaoruko leans forward and closes her eyes expectantly, and everyone else holds their breath as they watch. Futaba sighs.
"You're so spoiled, Kaoruko…" She takes her roommate's hand and brings it up to her lips, holding a long kiss to the back of it. Kaoruko squeaks and opens her eyes, cheeks turning pink.
"It's a kiss," she mumbles. "Take it or leave it."
"Of… Of course…"
Kaoruko is clearly delighted beyond words, probably having thought she'd be denied her request altogether, especially in front of everyone. But now she's humbled into a blushing silence as Futaba takes her by the hand and leads her back to the couch.
Next, it's Nana's voice.
"Eh? Us, too?"
Nana pushes Junna forward until they're both under the mistletoe. Junna is already overheating, enough to have to take her glasses off so they don't get steamed up. With a soft giggle, Nana leans in and kisses her cheek before anyone can say anything. Junna stammers.
"Heehee~ Merry Christmas Eve, Junna-chan~!"
"Geez… At least let me do it first…"
This time, Junna leans in and surprises her with a reflective kiss on the cheek. The others hold down their squeals, but Nana sure doesn't.
"Merry Christmas Eve, Nana."
Nana just laughs merrily and throws her arms around her roommate. Junna catches her and gives her a good squeeze.
Seeing them do as much puts the others in the hugging mood as well. Kaoruko opens her arms invitingly, and is rather surprised when Futaba just nestles right into her.
"Merry Christmas Eve, Kaoruko!" Futaba nuzzles into her neck, laughing lightly as she locks both arms around her. Delightfully flustered, Kaoruko folds her arms around her shoulders and squeezes her tightly.
"Merry Christmas Eve to you, too."
On their couch, Mahiru pulls both Karen and Hikari in to her sides, and both of them hug her tightly in return, and reach their arms around to one another as well.
"Merry Christmas Eve, you two!"
"Merry Christmas Eve!"
"Merry Christmas Eve."
As everyone else laughs and cuddles up close, Claudine and Maya watch from their seats beside one another, smiling in amusement. What's unfortunate is that, when each sends a hopeful, curious glance at the other, they miss each other's eyes.
So in terms of the mistletoe, no action is taken.
But Claudine doesn't let this moment go entirely missed. She sidles up closer to Maya and softly places a hand over hers. Maya blinks, but Claudine cuts her off before she can ask.
"You looked a little cold," she mumbles.
Maya smiles so warmly the temperature of the entire room improves.
"Thank you, Saijou-san. You seem a little chilly yourself. Please, allow me."
So Maya does the honors of wrapping an arm around her and pulling her in close. Claudine welcomes it, slipping her arms around Maya's shoulders in a fuller embrace. In response, Maya hugs her sides, pulling her as close as possible until she can feel the fluttering rhythm of her heart. Claudine turns her face in to Maya's hair, murmuring into her ear.
"We aren't finished yet. I have more in store for you."
Maya squeezes her a little harder.
"I assure you, that is not necessary… but thank you. I will very much look forward to it."
With the mood of the evening now shifted into something much warmer, the girls finally part to help with dinner, and then more dishes. But when that's all finished with, no one makes any move to head back to their rooms for the night.
The main lights are turned off once again, allowing the strings of lights around the tree, as well as a few extras that had been hung up on the walls, to do their job. The radio continues playing, setting the mood perfectly.
Only Maya is puzzled as to what's going on, so Claudine gladly explains.
"On Christmas Eve, what's the most exciting event of all? And don't you say 'getting a good night's rest.' I'm an advocate for proper sleep, but tonight is an exception."
Maya blinks, clearly having had her only answer dashed before she could voice it, so she simply shrugs. Claudine looks to the others.
"Would anyone like to help Tendo Maya-san out?"
"Oh! Oh! Me, me, me!"
"Go ahead, Karen."
Karen jumps up from her seat and stands tall to announce her answer.
"The most exciting event is staying up to wait for Santa-san!"
There's a small applause as Karen takes a bow.
"Well done, Karen," Claudine commends her.
"Ehh?" Kaoruko says. "But Santa isn't even-"
"Kaoruko-chan! Be careful what you say on Christmas Eve!"
With that avoided, Claudine takes the floor once again.
"As such, tonight we decided we would all get the most fun out of the experience if we were to sleep over here together."
"Yeah! We'll stay up telling Christmas stories and eating cookies!"
"And we got permission," Junna says importantly.
"Right." Claudine turns to Maya specifically now with a smile. "So? What do you say? Care to join us?"
Maya already has a smile spread across her lips at the idea of such a special night. She dips her head humbly.
"I would be delighted."
A little chorus of cheers goes up as the girls begin standing. They head back to their rooms only to grab blankets and pillows and plushies to bring back to the lounge with them. They lay everything out on the couches and get comfortable snuggling up with their roommates and partners.
Nana brings over the leftover cookies and some milk, and Kaoruko even reveals a box of assorted chocolates she'd been saving to share.
Everyone cuddles up and gathers around to listen to fun stories and memories of Christmases past. Mahiru has a lot to tell about all her little siblings, Futaba and Kaoruko tell of their shared holidays, and both Hikari and Claudine tell of their Christmases back in England and France.
All the while as they chat and eat and hum along to the music, Claudine makes sure to keep an eye on Maya. She had been on the fence about this idea solely because she'd feared that having everyone else reminisce about their much happier holidays would only result in depressing Maya.
But to her utmost relief, Maya does not seem to be perturbed or upset in the slightest. In fact, her eyes never lose their shine all through the night, and her smile remains true as she envisions and imagines each and every story her friends tell.
Claudine breathes a little more easily to know this hadn't been a poor decision on her part, and she even moves to sit a little closer to her.
The girls talk and laugh well into the night, with the room alight in soft blinking colors all around them.
And in spite of her eagerness to stay up, Karen is the first one to fall asleep on Hikari's shoulder, which surprises no one. Mahiru lies out their blankets and pillows on the floor in a big warm pile, then helps Hikari move Karen there. They both pull their Mr. White and Suzudaru Cat plushies close as they cuddle up on either side of Karen.
And seeing the three of them having to use the floor makes the others feel guilty about using the couches, so everyone agrees to sleep on the floor tonight.
Futaba and Kaoruko bundle up tightly together in a cocoon of blankets, petting through each other's hair softly.
Nana wraps her arms around Junna from behind to spoon her and spends a good amount of time nuzzling into her hair.
As for Maya and Claudine - who aren't roommates, yet are very much close in many other ways - they aren't sure where to put themselves in relation to one another.
Claudine knows she absolutely doesn't want to let Maya sleep alone tonight, so she wracks her brain for an excuse - anything.
Luckily for her, Maya is craving her closeness just as deeply, and she comes up with the perfect and most logical excuse.
"Saijou-san? It's cold tonight. Please join me."
And Claudine is both delightfully relieved and just a bit annoyed because she hadn't thought of that.
But nonetheless, she moves herself over to lay beside Maya, pulling all of her blankets and pillows with her. She drapes the blankets over Maya, and Maya makes sure to give half of them back.
Murmured goodnights drift up as their friends start to nod off around the softly-glowing room, with the music still playing cozily in the background.
For a moment, Maya and Claudine lay facing one another under their blankets, their faces mere inches apart on the same pillow. At first, Claudine turns away, giving Maya her back, just to spare her own sanity and to give her heart a moment. But she doesn't want Maya to interpret it the wrong way, so after drawing in one more deep breath, she turns back to her.
Maya smiles and lifts one arm up beneath the blankets. Claudine moves in close without a word, draping her arm across Maya's shoulders. Maya pulls her in by her waist, and the two of them allow themselves a moment to get accustomed to the intimate comfort.
They wait a moment, letting the warmth sink into their chests and spread across their bodies. Maya then slips her knee between Claudine's, allowing them to move even closer together until they are pressed snugly. Though Claudine is finding it increasingly difficult to keep looking into her eyes like this, so she pushes Maya down just a bit, having her tuck her face in against her neck. Maya eagerly accepts, nuzzling close against her pulse.
"Saijou-san?" Her voice is a soft and raspy whisper. "I-"
"We still aren't done yet," Claudine murmurs. "We have all day tomorrow."
Maya smiles, pulling her as close as physically possible.
"Please allow me to thank you anyway."
"Then you're welcome."
All around them, the sounds of their sleeping friends join the melodies of the music, songs Maya had always known should have stirred up fond, warm memories, but instead they'd only ever been associated with a season of work and loneliness.
Yet as of today, all of that has changed. She now loves the songs she was once indifferent to, and adores the shimmering lights and decorations that she never believed could be for her to enjoy. She loves it all so, so dearly. But nothing more so than-
Claudine's voice comes softly to her, and Maya can feel the vibrations of it in her chest. She gives her partner's back a light squeeze.
She feels Claudine's hands thread through her hair a little as she chooses her words.
"All of this… it isn't upsetting to you in any way, is it…?"
Maya is beside herself, so touched by her consideration that she actually lets out a small chuckle.
"Saijou-san…" She eases back, because she simply must look into her eyes to say this. "From the bottom of my heart I can assure you that this is the happiest I have ever been."
Claudine lets out a sigh shaking with relief.
Maya feels tears coming on, and all she can do is hug her again, even tighter than before.
"Thank you. Saijou-san… no… Claudine."
Claudine's heart skips. She pulls Maya closer and rests her chin on top of her head, breathing in the scent of her hair.
"Go to sleep," she huffs. "And… Merry Christmas Eve, Tendo Maya."
This time, Maya feels the tears stinging to the point where a few actually drip free. Never in all her life has anyone said those words to her. Not like this. Not beyond the common required formality.
She smiles, burying her face into Claudine's collar as tiny sobs interspersed with laughter bubble from her chest.
Claudine's heart aches in the best of ways. Though she's angry that Maya has had to wait this long to have a proper Christmas, she's glad to have been there for her during it. And tomorrow is going to be even better, and this she swears.
Claudine holds her close, wrapping her in all the softest, warmest, and most tender feelings. All around them, the room is coated in the glow of twinkling rainbow lights, and the timely music brings joy to the night.
Eventually, Maya falls asleep nestled up against the rhythm of Claudine's pulse, clinging to her even in her sleep.
And only then, when Claudine is certain she's asleep, does she leave behind a small kiss in her hair, woven together with the shine of blinking lights.
Come morning, Claudine wakes first, likely because she'd been so eager and aware of things even in her sleep.
She finds Maya still curled up against her chest and almost takes a moment to be embarrassed until she realizes all of her other friends are equally as tangled up together. So she lingers for a short while, hugging her close and keeping her warm as she listens to the radio, soaking in the sight of the room, sparkling and ready for the big day.
When she's ready, she carefully eases herself away from Maya, making sure to tuck her in snugly as she slips away and gets to her feet.
Claudine quietly tiptoes around the bundle that is Futaba and Kaoruko, then over the pile of Hikari, Karen, and Mahiru. She hears a soft moan and finds Nana blinking her eyes open from where she'd been snuggled in against Junna's shoulder. Nana smiles, inquiring with her eyes if Claudine needs help with anything. But Claudine waves her hand dismissively, urging her to go back to sleep for the time being.
Claudine exits the lounge and retreats to her own room to procure the Secret Santa present she had bought for Maya. It really isn't much, but it was the best she could think of, and it was rather appropriate and useful.
Along with the gift, she also pulls out a bag of candies and chocolates, as well as a few other small things she'd picked up while shopping, little trinkets like hair clips and pens and stickers. All of these she takes with her back to the lounge and begins stuffing the stockings that have been hung all around the room, finding there are already things inside from other people.
Claudine puts a few extra chocolates and candy canes into Maya's stocking before placing her gift under the tree with the rest.
She then returns to her partner and slowly slips back under the covers with her.
And even though Maya is asleep, she moans and latches back onto her immediately.
"Mechante va…" With an affectionate huff, Claudine wraps Maya back up in her arms.
She dozes for a little while longer, until the rest of her friends begin to wake. Naturally, Karen's is the first voice everyone hears that morning.
"Mmn… ah! Aaaah! H-Hikari-chan, Mahiru-chan, wake up! It's Christmas!"
And from there, there isn't a single second of silence to be had for the rest of the day.
The girls begin pushing themselves up, yawning and grinning and hugging each other in excitement. A chorus of "Merry Christmas!" goes around from each to the other, though as Maya finally pushes herself up, Claudine makes sure she's the first to tell her.
Maya blinks and rubs the sleep from her eyes, her heart already overflowing with so many emotions. Claudine smiles back at her with childish joy in her eyes, and Maya can barely prevent herself from doing anything more than embracing her.
"Saijou-san…" She doesn't know what to say. She's never felt this Christmas morning excitement before. Her heart is flipping in her chest, dancing with such mirth she doesn't know what to do with it all.
Claudine hugs her back tightly, savoring the moment, relishing the quiet excitement she can feel radiating from Maya.
"I'm so glad," she murmurs. "Tendo Maya, get ready for your first real Christmas."
Maya nods, and another tear slips out.
Little by little, the girls help each other up.
"All right then," Claudine announces. "Our first order of business this morning is Karen's idea of an exchange of 'ugly' sweaters. For whatever reason, it's become a tradition in some places to wear those on Christmas."
"Oh, this is gonna be good."
Each girl had bought one for someone else in the group along with their Secret Santa presents. The sweaters involve all kinds of ridiculous things. Karen's depicts a bunch of cartoonish reindeer leaping about in the snow, Hikari's is a white polar bear face, Mahiru's is a snowman shaped like a cat, Junna's is Santa writing out a long list that actually rolls off the end of the sweater in fabric, Nana's is green and strung with small, real working lights to make her look like a tree, Futaba's has tiny colorful stockings hanging all over it, and Kaoruko's is a tower of penguins wearing Santa hats.
For Maya, Claudine had picked out a sweater of a swan wearing a Christmas wreath around its neck. And since Maya had not known about this exchange and had nothing to give back to her, Nana had bought Claudine her sweater, which was the Eiffel Tower disguised with fake tree branches and strung up with lights and a star to make it look like a Christmas tree.
They each hold up their sweaters and laugh, fiddling with the working lights on Nana's and the little stockings on Futaba's, which Kaoruko actually manages to stuff individual pieces of candy into.
They all take turns getting dressed and come back to admire each other and laugh some more.
"All right," Mahiru says. "Who's hungry? It's time for some gingerbread!"
The whole room fills with excited gasps and squeals.
The girls get into groups of three first to be able to take turns with baking, cleaning up blankets, and showering. They put a strong baker in each trio, with the resulting groups being of Nana, Hikari, Futaba, then Mahiru, Karen and Kaoruko, and finally Claudine, Maya and Junna.
In these groups they take turns with everything, until everyone has showered, done their part in cleaning up, and gotten a chance to bake.
Once everything is finished, the nine of them gather around in their sweaters to begin on their Christmas morning breakfast of sweet gingerbread and banana muffins.
It's when they're all just about finished when Junna excuses herself for a moment, then returns with a plastic bag on her arm. As the others look up curiously, she explains.
"Everyone, I managed to get my hands on a few more things from the prop department."
She opens up the bag to reveal an assortment of red Santa hats and light-up reindeer antler headbands.
"Oooh, lemme see!"
"I want one!"
"Aha! Junna-chan, these are perfect!"
"Santa has nine reindeer," Hikari says. "And there's nine of us."
"And did you know?" Junna says, adjusting her glasses. "Male reindeer shed their antlers in the winter, so technically all of Santa's reindeer are female."
She lets everyone pull something out from the bag. Each girl ends up with one set of light-up reindeer antlers with a different name sewn into the headband.
Karen claims Rudolph and finds a soft red ball to squish onto her nose. Everyone agrees that reindeer is best-suited for her.
The others are all a bit unsure of who gets what, but some of them get assigned due to good justifications.
"Well, Junna-chan has to be Cupid. She's an archer."
"You're so right!"
"I volunteer Kaoruko as Vixen."
"Wha-?! Fine then, Futaba-han you can be the lamest one, Daniel."
"Kaoruko-chan, do you mean Donder?"
"Yes, that's the one."
"Fine by me," Futaba grins. "I think that one sounds cool!"
"Mahiru-chan is Dasher! Cuz she's so fast with her baton!"
"And Hikari-chan should be Prancer because of her jumps in dance class!"
"Nana, you can be Blitzen! It just sounds so bright and happy!"
Claudine reaches for one of the last headbands and smiles.
"Then I guess Tendo Maya should be Dancer. It's only fitting."
Maya accepts the antlers from her, then gives Claudine the final pair.
"Then please accept Comet, as the title matches both your strength and your radiance, Saijou-san."
Claudine blushes, but accepts.
They all put on their antlers, and a few of them put Santa hats on as well. They all turn on the little bulbs to make the antlers light up and blink.
Nana encourages everyone to get together for a group picture in front of the tree. She sets her phone up on the back of the couch and puts it on a timer so she can jump into frame. Everyone smiles and laughs and holds hands and hugs, and then they do a silly-faces one after.
Nana sends the photo to everyone's phones, and promises to print out all the other pictures she's taken over the last few days to distribute.
From there someone starts singing along to one of the songs on the radio, and within seconds everyone has joined in. They all begin dancing around the room in pairs or trios, switching partners whenever they brush up against someone else.
Even as Claudine dances with Hikari, and then with Nana and then Kaoruko, she keeps an eye on Maya's smile.
After a few songs, the girls finally come together to sit down and catch their breath.
"Now then," Claudine says. "I think it's time for presents."
And right away, everyone pops back up from their seats and goes to the tree to pick up their gifts to distribute. All except Maya, who remains seated on the couch, blinking in confusion.
But before she can start to fret about not getting anything for anyone, Claudine puts a reassuring hand on her knee.
"Don't worry. We didn't tell you, so we don't expect you to know about it."
"That's right!" Nana chirps. "After all, this was mostly all a big surprise for you, Maya-chan!"
"Indeed," Kaoruko agrees. "Kuro-han worked rather hard. Oh, dear me! That just slipped out…"
Claudine shoots her a small glare, to which Kaoruko replies with a catlike smirk. But Futaba comes in to her roommate's defense for once instead of chiding her.
"C'mon, Kuroko. Tendo should know about all the trouble you went through for her."
"That's right!" Mahiru pipes up. "Tendo-san, Kuro-chan took charge of all this for your sake, you know!"
"Yeah!" Karen joins in, nodding vigorously. "Spending Christmas working and by yourself is a big non-non! So Kuro-chan made sure to surprise you with all the most important things!"
"We all wanted to help," Hikari says. "But she did most of it."
"Guys, you're making her blush…" Junna informs them.
She's right, though. Claudine starts to feel a heat spreading across her face as everyone reveals her efforts in all of this.
And Maya had already known the truth of it all, but hearing all of her friends confirm it just makes her heart even fuller.
"And I cannot possibly thank her enough," she says.
Claudine huffs and looks away, but Kaoruko pointedly sits down nearly on top of her, forcing Claudine to move over and bump right into Maya.
With this, the gift exchange begins.
They all watch as one girl opens at a time, revealing an assortment of gifts that show just how perfectly they know each other. The gifts range from baskets of favorite treats to scrapbooks to heated foot baths, along with little ornaments or other trinkets.
Plus, Claudine reminds them all to check their stockings, and encourages Maya to do the same. She watches her partner reach in, cupping a handful of wrapped candies in her palm. Just from those alone, Maya lights up brighter than the tree.
Everyone pops little chocolates into their mouths and munches on leftover gingerbread as they show off and hand out more presents. And finally, Claudine hands Maya hers.
"Here," she says. "It's nothing spectacular, all right?"
Maya accepts the gift with both hands. The wrapped item is about two feet long and one foot across, and it's soft underneath.
"Thank you very much, Saijou-san. Truly, you did not need to go to such lengths."
But before Maya can begin to open it, she notes the vacancy of Claudine's lap. While everyone else has some kind of gift they've opened or received, Claudine has nothing. Maya frowns for the first time in days.
"Saijou-san? Did you not receive a gift yet?"
"Ah, it's fine," she says. "We'd decided to all get something for each other, but since we didn't tell you, one person would be left out. I don't mind."
"Don't make such a face," Claudine pleads. "I don't need anything. I just…" She pauses, glances around, then lowers her voice. "I just want you to have a good Christmas. That's more than enough for me."
Maya's heart aches.
"Tendo-san!" Karen blurts out, drawing everyone's attention to her. "What did Kuro-chan get you?"
"Yeah, open it!"
"This will be your first Christmas gift, won't it?"
"Ah." Claudine puts a hand to her mouth. "I didn't even realize…this really will be your first one, won't it? I should've gotten something better…"
"Saijou-san." Maya puts a hand over hers and squeezes tightly. "Please. Your thoughts in all of this are more than I ever could have wished for. Thank you, truly. I cannot say it enough."
Claudine still pouts a little, but she accepts that decision.
Everyone watches as Maya begins to tear the wrapping paper as neatly as possible. When she's able to pull out the contents, she finds it to be a brand-new bedspread folded inside a see-through bag, complete with a blue pillow and matching comforter. Claudine explains her choice right away.
"It's because you're always training or working, even during Christmas," she mumbles. "This is my way of telling you to remember to rest."
Maya is speechless for a long moment, pulling the bedspread a little closer. The gift itself was more than enough to make her happy, but the sentiment behind it has made her heart swell all over again.
"Saijou-san… thank you very much. I am certain I will rest better than I ever have from now on."
Claudine flashes her a glance and just nods, satisfied.
"That's a great gift, Kuro-chan."
"Now then…" Nana says, clearing her throat. "Everyone, wouldn't you say it's about time for 'that'?"
"That?" Claudine looks up curiously. She'd been in charge of most of the Christmas activities, and as far as she knew the gift exchange had been the last thing on the list.
Her friends are all smiling and nodding at Nana, who quickly stands up and scurries over to the tree. Behind the boxes of decorations, one more gift box is hidden.
"Of course!" she says, picking up the pink present. "Kuro-chan, you didn't really think we'd let you get left out, did you? Since the Secret Santa was a surprise for Maya-chan, you had no one to get you a present."
"That's a biiiig non-non!" Karen cries. "After all, it's Christmas!"
"So we all pitched in for a little something," Futaba explains.
Baffled, Claudine slowly reaches up to accept the present from Nana. Maya is also very relieved to see the others had gotten something for her.
Claudine blushes a little as she unties the ribbon and slowly tears away the wrapping paper. Inside is a gift basket of various sweets and chocolates, as well as colorful macaroons.
"Ah! Mon Dieu!" Claudine cries. "Everyone, these look delicious! Merci."
"We should be thanking you, Kuro-chan!"
Claudine nods and sniffles just once, but everyone hears it.
"Aw, Kuroko! C'mere, you!" Futaba is the first to sling an arm around her shoulders and pull her into a hug. Kaoruko reaches over past her roommate and joins in.
The others all smile and begin spreading the love as well, hugging one another and offering words of gratitude. Maya simply puts a hand on Claudine's back for now to express her appreciation.
Only when Futaba and Kaoruko let her go does Claudine turn back to her partner, wiping her eyes quickly.
"Well," she says. "There you have it, Tendo Maya. Merry Christmas."
Maya puts her gift aside on the couch so she can pull Claudine into a tight hug for all to see. Claudine blushes just a little, but decides it's fine, all things considered, and she returns the embrace.
"Forget all your other Christmases," she mumbles into Maya's shoulder. "This is how it should be."
"Saijou-san…" Maya has to fight to keep her voice from wobbling. "I truly am so grateful to you for putting all of this together for my sake. I'm so happy, I don't know what to do..." Now it's Maya who begins to hiccup again, and Claudine has no choice but to support her in a firmer hug.
"Then that's good," she murmurs. "That's how you should be feeling on Christmas."
Maya holds her close, and continues holding her even after everyone else has finished their hugs. At that point Claudine has to gently pry her back.
"All right now, don't be so unsightly."
"My apologies." Maya wipes her eyes and gives a tearful smile. "Saijou-san, I truly am so happy I could engage in all of these activities with everyone over the past few days… But now, would it be all right if I made a request?"
"Eh? What is it?"
Everyone hushes as they listen for Maya's response. Claudine straightens up and listens attentively, almost nervous to think there was something she'd missed in all of this. Maya can tell she's fretting, so she places a hand over hers to calm her.
"Saijou-san, I apologize for repeating myself, but I cannot thank you enough for allowing me to enjoy such a wonderful experience. But there is just one more thing I would like to try in the spirit of Christmas."
"Name it," Claudine says readily. "I'll do what I can."
"Then please, if you would… I would like to go on a date."
There's a soft, mutual squeal throughout the room. Karen almost blurts out, but Mahiru and Hikari both cover her mouth. Junna has to fiddle with her glasses in an effort to hide her blush while Nana clasps her hands together in delight. Futaba and Kaoruko are the least surprised of all, but they still can't help but smirk.
Claudine is stunned by the request, but when she takes a moment to think about it, she realizes that Christmas dates are rather common in Japan. And if she wants to give Maya the full experience…
"Fine. Let's do it."
"Kyaa~ Kuro-han, so bold!"
"Shut it, Kaoruko!"
Claudine ignores the outburst and gets to her feet promptly, putting the gift basket aside for now.
"Well, then, if we're going to do this, let's get moving."
Maya's eyes light up even more brightly. She stands, as well.
"Yes. Right away."
As the two of them make their way around the couches, the others are wishing them a fun time. Claudine promises to help with the cleanup once they return.
They're sent off with coos of well wishes as Claudine and Maya head out into the hallway.
"Honestly," Claudine sighs. "To throw such a request at me out of the blue… But I suppose if there's any day for you to be a little greedy, it's Christmas."
"Would you rather not-?"
"I didn't say that," she snaps. "Now go get your coat, and don't forget gloves this time!"
They both go to their rooms to put on winter boots, coats, scarves and gloves, and decide to keep the reindeer antlers on for the spirit of things. The second Maya exits her room, Claudine takes her by the hand and begins leading her down the hall.
"A Christmas date," she mutters. "You know, in Japan, going on a date on Christmas is typically something you do when you're-"
As soon as they exit the dorms, they are met with a frigid winter breeze. The sky is white and overcast once again, and when the wind blows a light sprinkle of flurries tumbles down. They stand there for a moment, breathing in the crisp air.
"Well?" Claudine prompts. "What exactly do you want to do?"
Maya blinks. She hadn't actually thought about that.
"I'm… not sure."
"Mechante… then we're going to the mall. It's warmer inside."
So Claudine begins strutting down the sidewalk with her hand still tightly bound to Maya's. Maya sticks close to her side, softening her grip to run her thumb over the back of Claudine's hand. She can tell Claudine is still a little upset to think she might've forgotten something for Maya to do today, so now she's rigid.
"Saijou-san?" Maya says softly. "There is no need for you to be so tense about this. Please relax and enjoy yourself."
Claudine almost huffs a reply, until she realizes that behaving in such a manner won't allow Maya to enjoy herself either. So she draws in a deep, steadying breath, then lets it out in a puff of white. She loosens her vice-grip on Maya's hand, and slows her stiff pace.
"There. That's much better, is it not?" Maya pulls her in closer by the arm. Claudine mumbles something into her scarf.
So the two of them make the walk toward the mall, passing by various decorations and people as they go.
By the time they enter the mall, both of them are colder than they care to let on. They spend a moment inside the heated lobby rubbing their hands together. Maya opens her arms with a silent offer.
And Claudine is seriously considering the hug, even in public, because of how cold she is.
But just then, another pair of people walk in and she swiftly turns away, blushing red. Maya chuckles and settles for taking her hand again instead.
When they enter the mall, it is a dazzling sight. Every store has lights strung up, there are reindeer and snowmen and penguin decorations at every corner, presents in the displays, and large crystalline snowflakes are hanging from the ceiling overhead.
There are people bustling all about, holding hands or shopping or eating, and the same songs that had played on Junna's radio are playing here as well.
Maya and Claudine take a moment to admire it all, letting the cozy feeling of joy wash over them. But not a minute later, Claudine is turning to her with another tense look in her eyes.
"Well? Where would you like to go? Is there anything specific? What do you-"
"Saijou-san, please." Maya quiets her with an earnest smile. "You do not need to worry so much. I requested this date for you as much as for myself. So please, take a breath and enjoy yourself."
"It is as I've said," Maya affirms. "So you needn't fret so much about tending to me. Let us enjoy this date together, shall we?"
Claudine takes a breath as advised.
"All right. But if there's something you want to-"
"All I want," Maya says. "Is to be with you right now, Saijou-san."
Claudine's words die at her lips. She whirls around, giving Maya a tug to have her follow.
"Then let's walk."
And so they do, keeping close with their hands entwined as they set a sauntering pace.
For a good while they simply sight-see, admiring the festive displays and decorations. There's even a section of the mall where the main electricity is turned off and only Christmas lights are shining, and the walls are lined with silver trees covered in tinsel and glitter.
They spend a while here, taking pictures on their phones to send their friends, but for the most part they just enjoy the sights together.
When they've seen all there is to see in that section, they continue on around the mall, popping into a few shops here or there to look at things. Every item Maya's eyes linger on for longer than three seconds, Claudine is immediately offering to purchase for her, and every time Maya gives her the same answer.
"You have already bought me a present. And besides, you being here with me right now is a gift all on its own."
And each time, Claudine huffs and looks away, but squeezes her hand a little tighter.
Though at the next store they enter, Maya tactfully lets her go and has her look around on her own for a moment while she herself sneaks to the counter to make a small purchase. Claudine comes back just as the cashier is handing Maya a small gift bag. Claudine growls.
"You've got some nerve, saying I can't buy you anything, but then you get something behind my back-"
"Now, now," Maya smiles. "I never did say this was for you, Saijou-san."
The comment actually has Claudine clamming up and looking just a little bit hurt. Maya immediately regrets it.
"My apologies. It was a terrible joke on my part. Of course this is for you, Saijou-san."
Claudine is a little miffed and a little happy to hear that, but she can't think of anything to say back right now. Maya slips the bag over her wrist and pulls Claudine into a soft hug, murmuring multiple apologies to her. Claudine huffs, but eventually does hug her back.
"I truly am sorry," Maya sighs. "To have caused you to make such an expression on Christmas, of all days…"
"It's fine. I should've known it was a joke."
"Even so, please allow me to make it up to you, somehow."
"You bought me the gift," Claudine replies. "When you give it to me, that will be enough."
"Very well. But not yet," Maya says. "I would like to wait for the right moment."
"Eh? What are you going on about?"
"Please be patient until then."
Claudine heaves another sigh, but has nothing more to say at the moment.
They continue their walk, drawing the attention of several children who smile and point at their light-up antlers.
After a few more minutes of walking, they begin to notice a larger crowd up ahead, and it's quickly evident as to why. There are signs about meeting and taking pictures with Santa, and a line of excited parents and children has formed.
As they pass by, Claudine can see a portly man with a white beard dressed in a red suit, with people dressed as elves all around. She pauses briefly when Maya does and notes her gazing at the line. Claudine nudges her side.
"I assume you never got a photo with Santa, is that right?"
Maya shakes her head.
"No. For a child, I can imagine it must be quite a wonderful experience."
"Well, you aren't a child anymore, and we can't wait on that line," Claudine says. "But maybe we can do it this way."
"Stand here." Claudine pulls her over and takes out her phone, removing her glove on that hand so she can use it. She reverses the camera and positions Maya and herself accordingly so that the Christmas-y scene and Santa are captured in the background of the shot. Once Claudine is satisfied with the positioning, she coaxes Maya to smile.
With this, she snaps the picture of herself and Maya with Santa and the elves and their lavish Christmas Tree in the background. She shows it to Maya, who marvels at it with shimmering eyes.
"May I make it my wallpaper?"
"Seriously? I mean, if you want to…"
Claudine sends her the image, and as Maya is making it her wallpaper, Claudine secretly does the same.
Once they've put their phones away, they take each other's hands again and continue walking.
The next stop they make is at a very promising spot. A massive Christmas tree covered in lights and ornaments stands at the center of a large indoor ice skating rink, with dozens of people laughing and gliding all around it. All it takes is one shared look for the girls to come to a decision.
They leave their belongings at an empty table at the food court nearby, then get onto a short line to purchase the ice skates. They take a moment sitting at the edge of the rink to tie them on, each unable to conceal her excitement.
"I haven't ice-skated in years," Claudine says. "Hopefully I haven't lost my touch."
"I highly doubt that you have," Maya assures her. "This will be the perfect way to warm us up a bit, as well."
When they're both ready, they help each other onto the ice and get their balance, holding onto each other for a solid moment until they're certain they're both steady.
"Well then," Maya says, lifting her hand. "Shall we?"
Claudine blushes and looks away, but she doesn't let go of Maya's hand for a second.
They start slowly, letting their bodies remember the sensation of gliding and how to move across the ice. Of course, Maya eases into it as if she were just walking normally, which might've irked Claudine just a little bit if they weren't on a Christmas date right now. But as things are, she just keeps pace beside her, making sure to lean her weight appropriately to help with their balance.
It's clear that they are perhaps some of the most skilled patrons on the ice at the moment, as they are able to glide and twirl and move effortlessly, lapping the entirety of the rink within a minute. They weave in and out around other people, keeping hold of each other as the Christmas songs play overhead and all around.
It's no different from a dance for them, and they don't need words in order to turn it into one.
They circle around one another, extending their arms to let each other twirl time and again. Inadvertently, they draw a few onlookers to admire their grace, in spite of the comical sweaters and antlers.
They skate for the duration of several songs, until they're actually working up a bit of a sweat. But the smiles never leave their lips for a second, and their hearts soar along with their skates on the ice.
They're just finishing up another bout of spins when Claudine feels a sudden shove against her back, followed promptly by an apology as someone speeds by her. But it effectively throws off her balance and steals her footing from under her. Maya, who hasn't taken her eyes off of her for a second, dives forward to tug her wrist and pull her close.
"Saijou-san-" She positions herself just right and catches her, working her skates to compensate for the extra weight and angling herself just so she can maintain her balance.
Claudine clings to her on reflex, eyes squeezed shut and still bracing herself for a hard fall until she realizes just how soft it is. She opens her eyes slowly and finds herself looking directly up into Maya's.
Maya clears a lock of hair from her face and carefully helps her straighten her posture.
"Are you all right?"
"Thank goodness." Maya keeps her arms at Claudine's sides, making sure she is steady as they slide along slowly. "Perhaps this is a good time to stop? You seem a little breathless."
"As if you aren't… but all right."
So they slowly help each other to the exit, where they sit down and remove their skates to return them, then get back into their boots.
From there they go back to gather their things and put their coats back on just for convenience's sake. And as soon as they're ready their hands come together without question.
They walk around the ice skating rink for a few minutes, until Claudine hears a very distinct rumbling sound coming from Maya's stomach. Smirking, she casts a bemused glance over at her blushing partner.
"Oh, silly me. I should've known you'd be starving by now. "
"It's quite all right," Maya mumbles.
"Don't give me that. Let's go get something to eat."
Claudine leads them into a fine restaurant where they settle in and enjoy a warm Christmas dinner together. When it comes time for the bill, Claudine insists she pay, while Maya argues she should be the one to do so for proposing the date.
"Oh, no, you don't," Claudine growls. "This is your first real Christmas, Tendo Maya. I'm treating you and that's that!"
Maya pouts just a little bit, but she has no choice but to accept.
"Then I will make it up to you, somehow…"
"There's no need."
By the time they're ready to leave the restaurant, it's well into the evening. They walk around just a little longer to enjoy the beautiful lights one more time before both girls agree it's time to head back.
The outside air is even colder than it had been earlier, and it's soon apparent as to why.
A thin layer of snow has fallen, coating the sidewalks, trees, and surrounding areas in silver. More flurries continue spiraling down, as well, glinting in the light of the street lamps and all of the Christmas lights that have been hung up around the town. Some of the lights are rainbow, some are white, and some are blue, all of which reflect off the snowfall. With the music from the mall still audible even outside, the scene is nothing short of magical.
And in spite of all the beautiful sights around her, Claudine's eyes go only to Maya. To see her so joyful, so excited, so indescribably happy in exchange for all the Christmases she'd missed…
Claudine brings her free hand to her mouth and exhales a wobbly breath, fighting to keep the tears in.
But not a moment later, tears begin dripping freely down Maya's cheeks.
"H-Hey! Tendo. Maya-!"
"Ah…" Maya rubs her sleeve across her face. "My apologies. I simply… can't contain them any longer. I'm just so very happy, Saijou-san."
It's no use now. Maya's tears just unlock Claudine's and they start to spill over. Maya chuckles softly and pulls her right into another hug.
"Look at us… But I am so grateful that you would accompany me today, Saijou-san. Thank you."
Claudine bites her lip and tries to keep herself steady as she hugs Maya's shoulders tightly.
"Idiot. You don't have to thank me for it…"
Once the tears have been dried, they dust the snow off each other's hair and begin the walk back.
With all the lights and music and snowfall surrounding them, it truly is the perfect Christmas night. And in spite of the temperature, they're awfully warm.
They take their time and enjoy the journey back to Starlight Hall, then take one last look at the snowy world before hurrying inside.
Only when they're in the heated building does the cold really register, but it's nothing another tight hug doesn't soon fix.
The dorms are quiet as they head back to their rooms to put away their coats. It's a night where it feels only right to sleep in their Christmas sweaters and sleep over at the festive lounge one more time.
They meet up once again in the hallway, with Maya concealing the gift bag she'd bought earlier behind her back.
When they enter the lounge, neither is particularly surprised to see all of their friends already fast asleep. They're all over the floor and couches, with presents and plushies and blankets strewn about. Like last night, only the Christmas lights remain on, and the music is still playing faintly.
Claudine and Maya both smile.
"Well," Claudine whispers. "I suppose the cleaning can be done tomorrow."
But before Claudine can take another step into the room, Maya draws in a deep breath and reaches out to grab her wrist.
"Please… one moment."
Claudine pauses and turns back to her curiously.
"What's the matter?"
Maya shakes her head, indicating it's nothing bad. Quietly placing the small gift bag onto a nearby shelf, she takes a moment to think it through, and Claudine waits for her. She can tell it's something that's really difficult for Maya, so she slips her fingers between hers and gives a light squeeze.
"Hey, don't worry yourself. You can say whatever you'd like."
Maya exhales slowly.
"Yes. Thank you."
She takes another moment, and Claudine waits patiently. When Maya is finally ready, she swallows and manages to meet her eyes.
"Saijou-san… you've done so much for me these last few days. Truly, I can't possibly express my gratitude fully. Thanks to you, I really was able to experience the true joys of Christmas. It was so… so very wonderful…"
"I'm glad," Claudine smiles. "But you don't have to cry, you know."
"You really are a handful."
Claudine reaches up to dry her tears away, rubbing her arm softly until Maya gets ahold of herself. When she can speak again, she goes on.
"With that being said… I would like to ask if I can make just one more selfish request."
"Eh? Now?" Claudine feels a pang of worry travel through her chest. "It's already nighttime. I can't promise I can fulfill it but… I'll do my best. What is it?"
Maya chuckles, wiping her eyes again.
"Well… that would be…" She tapers off and lifts her gaze to the ceiling.
Claudine tilts her head in confusion. But when she follows Maya's gaze upward, she understands.
The bushel of mistletoe dangles directly above their heads, and Maya's request is suddenly made crystal-clear.
Claudine feels her throat go dry. Her jaw drops just a little as she frantically seeks out Maya's gaze again.
"I… you mean…?"
Maya only maintains eye contact for a moment before looking to the floor.
"Saijou-san… I have been agonizing for months how I might tell you of these feelings. I simply… did not want to upset you. I did not want to jeopardize the relationship that we had. I was hesitant…"
"Please, allow me to finish." Maya inhales shakily, trying to hold back more tears. "Today was… absolutely wonderful. I've never been happier in all my life. But I don't want to be putting any pressure onto you. You've done so much for me already-"
"And I know it's selfish of me," she chokes. "So please, if your feelings aren't the same… if you do not see me in that way, I understand. I simply-"
She doesn't get out another word.
Claudine pulls her in by the collar of her sweater and kisses her full on the lips.
All at once, the sweetness and warmth and joy of the Christmas season are eclipsed by this moment.
She consciously struggles to remain grounded in this reality, lifting her arms to embrace Claudine as tightly and as tenderly as she can. She sobs softly into the kiss, but gives back as much as she can manage.
Claudine's lips are softer than any sweater, warmer than any stocking-clad fireplace, and sweeter than any gingerbread.
Maya clings to her, whimpering with the weakest, purest joy.
When Claudine slowly eases away, Maya pulls her right back, kissing her again with a little more force. But she quickly withdraws, eyes flicking nervously to hers.
"My apologies. I didn't ask-"
Maya can't obey quickly enough. She wraps an arm around the small of her back and pulls Claudine flush up against her, kissing her deeply. Maya pours everything into that kiss, all of her gratitude and affection, all of the love that has been quietly building up over these last few months, and perhaps even years.
Claudine locks her arms around her tightly in return, pushing back with just as much force. She kisses Maya until she begins to feel dizzy and her breath becomes short. Her knees tremble, and she sways just a little. Maya quickly supports her, running both hands up her back and through her hair.
They stay close for a long moment, hearts pounding as one, breathing shakily, shivering less from the cold and more from other things.
Maya holds onto her until she can feel Claudine regain her balance. It's at that point when she moves to pick up the small gift bag from earlier and offers it to her.
Claudine opens it without a word. It's a hair clip of tiny mistletoe leaves and berries.
Maya gently takes it from her and clips it into her hair for her.
"This way… we will always have a mistletoe to kiss beneath."
"Mechante va… You seriously-"
Maya kisses her again, and then again, and Claudine does her part to kiss back just as many times.
They lose track of how many Christmas songs begin and end on the radio before neither of them can handle any more. They part breathlessly and lean against each other, holding tight as their hearts drum together.
Not much more needs to be said with words.
Eventually, they make their way over to where their friends are all asleep, removing their antler headbands, though Claudine keeps the mistletoe clip in.
Maya quietly opens up the brand new pillow and comforter and lays them over the old ones where she and Claudine had slept the night before.
Together they settle in and lie down, wrapping each other in the plush softness. They kiss softly several more times, noses brushing and cheeks pink. Pressing close, they keep each other snugly warm, counting the mutual heartbeats they share.
When at last the kisses start becoming interrupted by yawns, they hold out one more before parting. Eyes sparkling, heart singing, they hold each other close.
Claudine kisses the top of her head, giving her a good, firm hug while threading through her hair.
"Merry Christmas, Tendo Maya."
Maya breathes in her scent that wreathes around her, savoring the rhythm of her pulse in her chest. Claudine has done so much for her. Maya silently vows to repay her for the rest of her life.
"Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Merry Christmas, Saijou Claudine."
One last kiss, and then they let themselves drift off to the lingering scent of chocolate and gingerbread, the cozy hum of music, and the soft twinkling of lights.
But most of all is the warmth dancing in their hearts; this powerful, profound feeling of joy, wonder, and the most tender love.
A/N: Ahh I tried to make it as sweet and heart-warming as possible! There wee so many Christmas events for them to do with Maya, I tried to get to all of the ones 0mn asked for, and then threw in some of my own as well! Personally, I think it's just too perfect that there are nine Stage Girls and nine (female!) reindeer lol
I feel Claudine would definitely do this kind of thing for anyone, but especially Maya, whom she knows never experienced a proper, loving Christmas before.
Happy holidays to all!