Originally written as a stocking stuffer for my wondermous fiancee Romana03 in the 2006 Yuletide rare fandoms challenge. Not my characters, Azumi's.

No substitute for the real thing

Sakaki bid her parents good night, her voice characteristically grave and earnest, closed her door quietly, then spun and spun and spun on the tips of her toes, repressing a shriek of joy.

"Maya, Maya, Maya!" she whispered to herself, with fierce triumph.

The stuffed cats on her shelves and bed seemed to smile at her, sharing her happiness, as she danced around the room, undressing and climbing into her pyjamas. She moved gracefully, her natural athletic ability displayed in a way that would seem impossible when her stiff, self-conscious dancing at school was taken into account. Here with no audience but her cats to notice that she was too tall or humiliating relegation to the boys' side, and buoyed up on her own bliss, she danced almost like a princess in a fairytale. She snatched up one particularly fluffy toy and hugged it hard, imagining the way Maya would mew with mock protest and then cuddle more closely into her embrace. Maya!

Her wild dance failed at last and she snuggled under her covers at last, shutting her eyes to better savour memories and hope. To be loved by a cat - not any cat but her perfect cat, brave and vulnerable and cute! Sakaki had been dreading leaving school and the only real friends she'd ever had; now, with a future shared with a cat, she could hardly wait for her life to come. She wished she could have found an excuse to sleep over Chiyo's house again, but it was only a matter of waiting before Maya would sleep snuggled against her shoulder every night. Her very own cat!

There was only one shadow on her consciousness of perfection, a shadow that deepened once she was in darkness and her high mood began to descend with approaching sleep. Somehow, Sakaki didn't quite like the memory of Yomi and Kagura scolding Tomo over her scratched hand the evening before. The memory kept replaying in her head, making Sakaki feel a little cold in the midst of all her warm, glowing feelings. It was completely irrational, because it didn't matter in the slightest to Sakaki that Tomo, for all her trembling lashes and her petulant whining, had lapped up being the centre of the other two girls' attention. Sakaki's own attention had been fully occupied with Maya. She... just didn't quite like it, that was all.

Of course, Tomo deserved scolding, although not quite so much as she received. It was hardly unexpected. Yomi gave Tomo hell, but it was transparently because she'd suffered a genuine moment of alarm when Tomo had cried out like that.

Kagura had hauled Tomo over the coals, too. That had been a little less expected, but Sakaki decided it was not all that remarkable, when she thought about it. After all, Tomo and Kagura had an abundance of things in common. They were both everything Sakaki was not: outgoing, spirited, vibrant, cute. There was a moment of envious bitterness in that thought, as Sakaki brought to mind the image of Tomo with her small, slender frame and a face that sparkled with mischief, beside Kagura with her glossy hair feathering around her winter-tanned, luminous face. Both girls had a vivid energy that made Sakaki feel grey and sullen and dull in contrast. They had some lively quality that was leagues away from how she saw herself in her jaded mind's eye. Sakaki herself was never quite sure when to laugh, when it came so readily to both of them; she could turn into the cat princess who saved Tokyo wwith quite as much ease as she could chime in with casual banter or snap a furious reply. It was natural that two girls as impulsive and open as Tomo and Kagura would find themselves partners in crime, while Sakaki, too quiet, too earnest, too restrained was left on the outside.

It was stupid to be jealous of that. After all, she was no longer prepubescent and friendless, weird, scary Sakaki with no friends, stuck forever on the outside. Ever since the day when Chiyo had asked her to come along on her summer trip, Sakaki had been part of a group, without ever quite being sure how it had happened. Friendship with Kagura had happened the same way: without apparently needing to say or do anything, Sakaki had found her self-appointed rival always, somehow, by her side. Her friend..

Sakaki rolled over and groped in the heap of fluff and felt until she found one particular toy. It was almost completely dark, but she had no difficulty picking out this precise one. She had long kept and surreptitiously added to her secret, shameful, beloved collection of stuffed cats, but this one was a shamelessly girly pink kitten, even if it looked white when the lack of light drained colour from the world. Sakaki knew, without needing to see, that it was embellished by bows that had been tied with completely incompetent hands. She kept her own things immaculate, but she had never been tempted to retie these bows.

It had joined her collection on her birthday, although as far as she knew no one had known. Parties were things to amuse adorable children like Chiyo, not for her. Yet somehow, little gifts had turned up on her desk and in her shoe locker throughout the day, while her friends grinned. Kagura had handed her the cat without attempting to hide what she was doing, her summer-brown skin flushed like a ripening apple and her slanted eyes luminous, transparently divided between embarrassment and pride. Sakaki, mutely amazed at Kagura's intensity, carefully took off the clumsily arranged wrappings of creased paper.

"You like cats, don't you? And cute things?" At Sakaki's mute nod, Kagura had beamed, although she was still blushing. Cute, Sakaki thought, with envy tinged with a touch of something else entirely. She suspected that when she blushed, she looked like a Coke billboard. "Well, yeah, I thought you might like this. I put the bows on myself. It's no big deal. It's not as if you'll ever find another cat that doesn't want you dead, so I thought I'd give you one you could cuddle and stuff, without losing a vital limb."

Sakaki had managed monosyllabic thanks, her own cheeks pink - pink! No one else had given her anything frippery and pink, even when she was a little girl. She'd been given practical, stylish, adult things that were too grownup for a little girl, even one who towered over children two years her senior, and no one had ever guessed her desperate craving for things that were frilly, feminine... cute.

Kagura paid attention.

Sakaki knew that the source of her discomfort and jealousy was only that, ever since Kagura had unilaterally decided Sakaki was her rival and began treating her as something like a best friend, all of her attention had been focused unwaveringly on Sakaki. Sakaki wasn't used to that kind of attention, not in that way. She was used to being the centre of attention because she was too tall, too smart and physically powerful, too scary. Kagura's attention was something entirely different: intensely, almost embarrassingly focused, and somehow personal. It took the concrete form of pink, bow-embellished cats.

Sometimes, Sakaki wanted to tell Kagura other things, to give her the other pieces of the puzzle. To tell her that sometimes she pretended to herself that Chiyo was her own daughter to love and cuddle and look after; to admit that she would touch the petals of a flower, so fragile that it made her shiver, and wish she could shrink and soften and become a blossom herself; to confess that she dreamed sometimes that she was capable of swooning into chivalrous arms. Sometimes, Sakaki suspected that Kagura already knew.

After all, she'd given Sakaki a pink cat.

Sakaki turned over onto her side and snuggled the pink cat into her arms, letting the jealousy drain away and pretending the cat was her Maya, that she could feel heat and sleepy purrs vibrating through it instead of unresponsive cloth. She'd slept hugging this toy nearly every night since Kagura had given it to her, but it was no substitute for the real thing. Still... she could pretend, while she must.

Just like she pretended there was warm, soft weight spooned against her back, gentle breath ticking her neck and a drowsily protective arm draped over her, cuddling both Sakaki and her cat close, keeping them from all harm. In the moments before sleeping, Sakaki felt her awkward consciousness of her size and her lack of feminine smallness and prettiness, the uncountable things she classed under the category 'cute', melt away. As she fell into her dreams she was delicate, shielded, feminine... adored.

Ridiculous, for a grim giant like herself, she knew. Boys were intimidated by her, unless they were hideously, uncomfortably fascinated by her outsize endowments. (Outsize, again; Sakaki longed to be small and sweet, but no matter how much she shrank inside herself, she was always took up too much room, was too generous, too much. She knew it and loathed it with helpless hatred.) In any case...

She'd been a little afraid of high school, but somehow she'd managed to evade the issue. The girls who had befriended her seemed entirely uninterested in either the rehearsals of husband hunting or the casual sexual encounters that other girls seemed to take for granted. Tomo and Yomi were too preoccupied with their queer, bristling, all-conquering friendship, Osaka was simply too, well, unique to comfortably contemplate in a relationship, and Kagura... Kagura had to focus on her training, that was obvious, and had no time or interest to spare for boys. Besides, there was Chiyo, and how could the rest of them date when they had a little girl as the centre of their group? It wouldn't be fair on her, when she already resented her lack of maturity.

Sakaki was glad that the subject rarely arose and was casually dismissed when it did. The concept of commitment-free encounters was alien to her serious bent of character and she had no desire to date, even if she had the opportunity. She knew that there were very few boys who would have the courage to even attempt to sweep a monster like herself of her feet. In any case, when she let herself imagine someone kind and gallant, it was rarely male. The thought was too familiar and somehow too at ease with her everyday female world to be shoved away.

She knew that some of the other girls at school played at crushes or even more adult games; their parents winked their eyes at it, trusting that they were only experimenting at love. By the time they graduated from university they were supposed to be ready for the real thing in the way of marriage and babies. It didn't feel like a substitute to Sakaki, despite the fact that she'd never been so much as kissed. When she'd heard the Westernised term 'bian, it had played in her mind for days afterwards, until it lost its half-terrifying fascination and had somehow sunk under her skin. 'Bian. It wasn't so bad, really, except that in her mind it would only work if she was petite and cute like Tomo. She'd be expected, she supposed, to be cool and hard instead, while looking after some dainty little thing who deserved attention and protection. She could never be the kind of 'bian who could aspire to a nice girl to come home to who would let her snuggle on her lap, as her own lap was filled with purring cats. Cats recognised Sakaki as their natural enemy, and no girl would want a great lumbering heavy thing on her lap.

In the last year or so, the girl in Sakaki's dreams had a deep tan and arms toned with swimming. She was maybe a little short, but she was strong enough to hold Sakaki close, and snuggle her from behind when they slept.

Sakaki burrowed closer under the blankets, holding her precious cat tight. Maya had broken her curse, she told herself if it had not already been broken the day she was befriended by Chiyo. If Sakaki could win the love of such a wonderful cat, perhaps her future would fall into place. She could learn to be a vetinarian after all. If the animals rejected her, she would, she planned dreamily, take Maya with her to the surgery, where her wonder cat could pacify her patients and teach them to love her. Miracles happened, after all: she, Sakaki, had real friends, and a cat.

Maybe, just maybe, there would be another miracle, a girl brave enough to tackle her, a girl who was brash and tomboyish and oddly sensitive, a girl who could make Sakaki, for a few short moments, feel like the girl she had always wished she was. Maybe the future could be wonderful, after all.

Sakaki kissed the head of the toy cat and settled to sleep. In her already half-dreaming mind, the toy cats in her room beamed kitty beams at her, lining up and waving flags, cheering her on towards to her future.

If she had Maya, anything at all was possible. Even Kagura.