Actions

Work Header

Building Blocks

Chapter Text

ONE

Who knows fate’s grand plans? Who is in control of their own life? Who understands the so-called meaning of life?

She doesn’t care. It’s not a question of destiny, of preordained paths, or even of humanity’s lauded “free will.” Ultimately, those questions do little more than bind and incense people (this, she learned the hard way). That line of thinking is best left to “the good guys,” those who need such things to keep them sane; otherwise, worrying about fate is pointless. Regret is the only measurement by which one can begin to determine whether they lived a “worthy” life or not.

So, when she finds Izak’s two daughters bickering over “the right thing to do” and sees her erstwhile protégé frantically making her way up the street—well, lying low (fighting for her life) has not diminished Finé’s penchant for cruel mischief, and she didn’t have to lift a finger for this to fall into place. It’s an opportunity too good to resist. After all, from her point of view this counts as minimizing her regrets.

(She’ll leave a note for them, alright? Let them stew for a couple of hours, let her reconfigure her plans first, and then she’ll let her cute protégé and the would-be heroes know that the kids are fine, they’re just catching up with their long-lost godmother. It’s just a bit of harmless fun.)

Her wide-brimmed hat, haughty sunglasses, fashionable long coat, and bold red lipstick makes her easy to spot and easy to dismiss. She steps into the little convenience store moments before her dear protégé rushes past with little more than a harried glance; she’ll let the mistake slide because it suits her.

Both of Izak’s daughters remember her vaguely.

(That is to say, they vaguely remember Ryouko Sakurai. She keeps a cocky, unaffected smile despite the unpleasant reminder: “Call me Finé, darlings. ‘Ryouko’ is such a boring name for a personality like mine, don’t you think?”)

“You were little more than toddlers when I saw you last,” she tells them, affecting a far-away, nostalgic, regretful gaze, “but Izak never failed to send me pictures. Naturally, I took notice when they stopped coming. I would’ve come sooner for both of you if I could have.” That last part isn’t even a lie.

“…He sent pictures?” the louder one (Carol, probably. They’re twins and she’s only been reacquainted with them for a few minutes, okay? Give her a break) mumbles, lagging behind the conversation.

They are quiet little things. Nothing like her Chris-chan, whose rage burned bright and grief bellowed loud. They don’t even notice when she leads them out of the store—Izak left them a void to fill, a hunger for resolution, a desperation for answers. Maybe, under the right tutelage, the proper guidance, the fitting supervision, they can step off the cliff. It won’t take much; disillusionment lends itself easily to bitterness, and they’re at that age where they’re so malleable and receptive to machinations.

Except, of course, that Finé is technically honor-bound to not corrupt youngsters anymore (she’s supposed to be on the “road to redemption,” like some twelve-step program, because one particularly foolish hero keeps dogging her dreams and her thoughts and it’s seriously putting a damper on her fun). That sort of shady business is a thing of the past.

Still, it’s almost four o’clock on a Monday. As she leads a couple of impressionable, naïve orphans further away from “the good guys,” Finé figures that even with her limitations, this particular Monday has worked out quite well for her.

Maybe it is fate.

Chapter Text

TWO

She ran away.

Wasser? Saft?” Carol (Carol!) asks and doesn’t wait for an answer before dragging her into a convenience store, going straight to the back where they have refrigerated drinks.

She ran away with Carol (Carol!).

Apfelsaft? Orangensaft?” It figures that Carol (Carol!) doesn’t remember that she prefers grape juice, but it’s not like Carol (Carol!) ever paid attention. That’s not a surprise; it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that she…

She ran away from her—from her m—she ran away from school. She knows that’s bad. She’ll be in trouble when (she tries not to, but part of her thinks if) they find her.

A few minutes ago (or maybe more, she doesn’t know, everything moved so fast), she had been reading at school, waiting for her mo—waiting for Ma—waiting to be picked up. Now she’s somewhere else, her wrist bruising under Carol’s grip (Carol!)

She ran away with Carol (Carol!). She has to keep repeating that, because otherwise everything slips away from her. It doesn’t make sense. Why did she even go with Carol (Carol!)? What had she been thinking?

“This is a mistake,” she says aloud to make it real, except she says it in German, somehow, despite not speaking it for ages. Das ist ein Fehler. Miss Darahim would’ve smiled to hear it; Carol doesn’t even turn around. Carol’s hungry gaze is on the rows and rows of cold drinks. The drinks here—more soda and tea flavors than she’d thought possible or even pa-la-ta-ble—are still a novelty. A distraction. “This is a mistake,” she forcefully repeats. “We have to go back.”

“Later.” There’s the dismissive Carol she tries—tried—not to remember. Is Carol like that with her—guardians? She thinks back, sort of remembers a woman’s voice talking about Carol, and wonders what Carol’s life is like now. Then, she tries to squash down her curiosity. She doesn’t-doesn’t-doesn’t care.

On her tip-toes, head craning upward, Carol absently says, “When you get lost, the right thing to do is stay where you are until you’re found.”

That makes something in her chest squeeze. At least Carol said that in Japanese. “We’re not lost. You—we—ran away,” she mutters. “We have to go back.” But, looking out the window of the store, she realizes that they are lost, if Carol really doesn’t know where they are.

Her par—they’re looking for her, right? She ran away, but she didn’t mean it, she didn’t!

“My, you’ve certainly grown since the last time I saw you, munchkins,” someone says, making her forget her panic about being lost (abandoned). Instead, she starts to panic that a stranger is talking to her, to them. Someone blurry, though she recognizes through the blurriness that the person talking is tall and wearing a really big hat. “Tell me you remember me, Wunderkinder.”

Child prodigies. No one’s ever called her and Carol that. No one, except, maybe in a vague memory: “Meine Wunderkinder, so süß!”

Elfnein blinks rapidly, her breaths slow, and she hears her papa’s loud laugh and a younger Carol’s boasts echo in her head. She knows that word in that voice. She knows this person. She takes a proper look; she’s seen that bold red smile with that hat and that coat before, in black instead of tan brown. She remembers warmth. Bright, happy laughter. This person is—

Tante Ryouko?” Carol demands, peering intently into the stranger’s dark eyes behind dark sunglasses. Papa had called them ‘Pilotenbrille,’ and scolded Tante Ryouko for using them indoors. How long ago was that? (She also wonders how far back the brain can remember, makes a note to ask her d—makes a note to look it up later.)

More importantly: Tante Ryouko, in Japan? Here? Right now? It’s impossible, impossible like Carol in Japan, here, right now.

“Call me Finé, darlings,” the cool woman, Tante Ryouko, says. “‘Ryouko’ is such a boring name for a personality like mine, don’t you think?”

She’s still stuck on here, right now, but she dutifully echoes Carol’s, “Yes, Aunt Finé.” It’s easy to say, easier than ‘Tante Ryouko’ would have been. This person is her, their, godmother.

It’s impossible, but she’s here, right now, with Carol and Aunt Finé.

“Good children!” Aunt Finé smirks, which falls away to a sad look. “You were little more than toddlers when I saw you last, but Izak never failed to send me pictures. Naturally, I took notice when they stopped coming. I would’ve come sooner for both of you if I could have.” Aunt Finé pats their shoulders in obvious regret.

Her chest hurts. She… doesn’t know why.

“He sent pictures?” Carol asks with a shine in her eyes.

She looks away from Carol. It’s too much. Everything is weird. Uncomfortable. She wants her paren—

“Plenty! He regularly corresponded, despite my ever-changing domicile and atrocious reply record.” Aunt Finé sighs, crosses her arms. “He was such a clever and diligent man. The world is… emptier without his mind.”

“Papa was important, wasn’t he?” Carol boasts, puffing up like she used to do.

“Invaluable!”

He was? Abruptly, she sees a chance to talk about Papa and learn about who he was and what his work was. Papa had always been making phone calls, rushing to lectures, running endless experiments, finding new places to live; she remembers him moving, constantly. She knows Papa was smart: everyone they met had said so. She doesn’t, however, know who Papa was.

Who was her father?

It’s a question that has an answer. It’s a question that won’t hurt her (like Carol hurt her).

That’s why, when she realizes that they’ve somehow left the store, she doesn’t stop. She just walks a little closer to Aunt Finé. Part of her wants her p—wants a hand to hold, but mostly she wants to know more.

She wants to know.

(It’s easier.)

Chapter Text

THREE

“Finé?” she repeats in a whisper. She can hardly hear over her heart pounding in her chest (where-where-where), but Tsubasa’s vice grip on her hand lets her shove her panic aside in order to be angry, angry enough for both of them. “You knew Finé was in the country and you didn’t warn us? You didn’t think to mention that she’s my daughter’s godmother?

(Finé died. Didn’t she?)

Genjuurou doesn’t say anything. His posture is straight, his shoulders are square, but his tie is crumpled, hair spiked in every direction, frown heavy and tired. He doesn’t get to be tired, not when Elfnein is who-knows-where with that, that—

(Who was Finé? The older Maria gets, the less she knows who the adults of her youth were.)

No one says anything. She whirls around, accidentally rips her hand from Tsubasa’s grip. Heavy weights compress her lungs, she paces, and her mind asks over and over: where is my daughter?

She turns again and sees Hibiki, crumpled. Guilty-guilty-guilty while Elfnein is not here.

Something hot blooms in her throat.

This is your—”

“—Stop.” Miku steps in front of Hibiki even as Hibiki crumples further.

Tsubasa pulls her arm (for the second time, she belatedly realizes), murmurs, “The children, Maria,” and gestures to the main monitor while retaking her hand. “Finé’s note gives us a clue to their whereabouts,” Tsubasa says in a louder voice. Tsubasa’s strong, calm voice catches the tatters of Maria’s concentration.

Stop.

The children.

Elfnein isn’t the only child missing, and she and Tsubasa aren’t the only desperate parents; disgust for her selfishness roils in her throat for a moment, then she squeezes Tsubasa’s hand. Nothing matters except retrieving their children, safe and sound.

“How?” she asks. Her voice cracks.

“She mentions that the last time she had a child in her care, Chris was twelve years old. She said it makes her nostalgic,” Genjuurou highlights in a subdued voice. “They stayed in Ryouko’s family house. Ogawa and his agents are on their way to scope out the area.”

“We’re lucky,” Aoi adds, manages a weak smile, “Finé transferred ownership of it to Chris.”

A location.

Elfnein must be there, with Finé, right now.

(Impossible. Elfnein can’t be there, with Finé, right now. It’s impossible.)

(Who was Finé?)

Maria.” Tsubasa’s hand arrests her movement; it’s then that she realizes she’s turned to the door.

“What, Tsubasa? We’ve got to get our daughter! She tries to tug her shoulder out of Tsubasa’s grasp, but Tsubasa’s grip is adamant this time. She turns to the others for support—Genjuurou has a similar hold on Hibiki while Chris, Kirika, and Shirabe avoid her gaze. Aoi and Sakuya give her sympathetic looks.

“What are you waiting for?!” Chris was twelve years old in Ryouko’s family house with Finé—Finé’s alive—Elfnein is with Finé—“Every second we waste here is a second Elfnein has to endure Finé! We have to go!” Tsubasa doesn’t budge.

Only Miku answers: “You’re a civilian now, Maria.”

You’re a civilian now, Maria. Civilian?

When the meaning of that sentence hits her, she jerks toward Genjuurou so quickly that she drags Tsubasa along. He won’t keep her from rescuing her daughter, this isn’t a mission, it hasn’t even been that long!

“I will not return without the children,” is all Genjuurou has to say. Then, he strides quickly toward the exit, the non-civilians following hastily.

She finds her voice, shouts “Genjuurou!” and strains against both of Tsubasa’s hands on her shoulders, but it’s too late. It’s too late. Her daughter is out there while Maria’s stuck here.

“We’re not field agents anymore, Maria. We aren’t agents at all.” Tsubasa crushes her into a hug; it does little to comfort her or to muffle her heaving sobs.

Useless-useless-useless. She’s stuck here, a useless civilian, while Elfnein is somewhere else, right now, with Finé. She’s failed so many people so many times but this just takes the cake—this is unforgiveable. She’s so. Damn. Useless.

“Breathe, Maria,” someone tells her. It’s barely comprehensible past the ringing in her ears.

Great, she can’t even do that right. She’s here, breaking down, while her daughter is out there, right now, with Finé (which is still impossible, inexplicable, inconceivable).

“Please, Maria. We must endure while we tru-st—” Tsubasa’s voice breaks in the middle of ‘trust.’

That break, somehow, comforts her more than Tsubasa’s words. They’re both breaking, they both failed, and they’re both stuck here, waiting.

She returns Tsubasa’s fierce embrace.

Chapter Text

FOUR

Hibiki Tachibana tries to be positive, tries to resolve problems peacefully, and tries to be helpful to her friends and family. She also tries not to think about her personality… flaws.

That’s why she doesn’t stop to think before she yells.

She’s relieved, of course she is. How could she not be? But she can’t ignore the fact that Carol dragged Elfnein, Tsubasa, and Maria into this mess. Tsubasa and Maria have been saddled with fresh grief, their old wounds have been ripped open again, they’re in pain—pain that could’ve been avoided if Carol had just, if Carol had—!

“—Why can’t you just behave!”

She regrets it as soon as she says it, of course she does. How could she not? But words can’t be unspoken. She didn’t mean to, but she did and now her guilt spirals into manifold self-recriminations and self-justifications: yes, she was harsh, but she has a point, doesn’t she?

Carol stares at her for a moment.

Her heart stops in her chest, and she can’t bring herself to call after Carol.

No. There are no justifications. She hurt Carol. The pain in Carol’s eyes…. What kind of person, what kind of parent is she, to hurt her daughter like that? What kind of parent is she, to think of her daughter as a burden? How can she possibly be the parent Carol needs when she’s such a failure?

Miku spares her a look—a tired, scolding-but-understanding look that burns Hibiki to the quick (what is left of her, whatever part of her that isn’t already stewing in regret)—as she hastily follows Carol.

Hibiki stays behind. She’s done enough damage. The aftermath is where Miku excels; Miku knows them best, Miku has the patience and endurance to help them put themselves back together when they come back from their grand adventures, because Miku has been left behind so many times.

It makes her even more sick. She stumbles, turns in the opposite direction of her wife and daughter; she ignores the couches in the room and sinks to floor when her legs give out.

There is nothing worse than watching others deal with her problems while she remains uselessagain!

First her mother, her father, then Miku, and finally her friends; she’d thought that maybe working in the Second Division would make up for all the trouble she caused and would put a stop to her being so useless. She’d tried so hard to not be a burden. Now she’s hurt Carol because she failed at being the well-adjusted adult she’s supposed to be. She couldn’t even go on the rescue mission because Genjuurou said she was too caught up in her emotions to think clearly.

She thought he was exaggerating, but then she hurt Carol….

She buries her head in her arms, pulls her knees close to her chest. Somewhere else in HQ, Miku is comforting Carol. They should’ve been together. She should’ve been strong enough to save her daughter, to keep Carol safe from Hibiki herself, to protect her friends and her friends’ daughter from someone who’d promised to be good.

If only she weren’t so useless when it counted.

The door opens and closes, then familiar footsteps approach. She curls more tightly into herself. At least it’s not Miku. Carol needs Miku.

“Are you going to give up, Hibiki?” He sits next to her, close enough to place his hand on her head like he used to do when she was a young, dumb teenager. The weight of his hand helps her squash down the sobs that want to clog her throat.

Because he’s Genjuurou, because he knows, she mumbles, “I dunno what to do.” A sob builds up again in her throat. Her ragged breathing fills her ears. She doesn’t want to cry, but when Genjuurou pulls her into a one-armed hug, she can’t keep her sobs from escaping.

“No one knows,” he reminds her, squeezing her more tightly, and she takes a deep breath to listen. “What does that mean?”

The stagger in her lungs and throat subsides as she realizes: “I can fix this.”

Chapter Text

FIVE

Now that she’s found Elfnein, she sees her sister everywhere: clutching a woman’s hand just before class (“That’s Tsubasa Kazanari, an old friend,” Hibiki tells her with a guilty wince), ducking behind Darahim’s tall form in the hallways (“She’s nicer than you,” is the stony reply to faint her question of Did you know?), and slipping around bookshelves in the library (somehow, Elfnein’s been here for almost half a year).

Every time that Elfnein flinches away from her, she wishes she hadn’t wasted her chance (to do what?). But—Aunt Finé had talked to them about Papa. That’s important, too. There’s so much they don’t know about Papa! Every story Aunt Finé told them just led to more questions: who-what-when-where-why. Who else can tell them who their father was, if not Aunt Finé?

On the other hand—Elfnein changed. Elfnein has new parents. That’s… that’s….

She doesn’t think of Miku and Hibiki as her parents. They’re not her parents; it doesn’t matter how Miku’s solemn approval makes her feel, or how Hibiki’s relentless optimism affects her. They’re not her father. They’re just two people who are supposed to take care of her.

(“Hibiki and I would like to offer you our home.”)

It’s obvious from the way Elfnein looks at Kazanari that she thinks of that person as a parent. And the way they looked at Elfnein—the way the other Kazanari had crashed to her knees in front of Elfnein, the way both Kazanaris had crushed Elfnein into an emotional hug, the way both Kazanaris had sobbed so loudly she could hear them from the other side of the door—it’s obvious that they think of Elfnein as their daughter, as theirs.

Something twists in her throat, but she ignores it. She just watches Elfnein hide behind her new parents. Hibiki’s hand on her shoulder doesn’t make her feel better (not when she remembers Hibiki’s harsh voice asking her why she can’t behave). Miku’s close, tangible presence behind her doesn’t comfort her, either (not when she remembers Miku drooping over the kitchen table that night, face slack and breath staggered while Hibiki had whispered I’m sorry, over and over again).

She leaves with Miku and Hibiki.

Eventually, Miku goes back to her normal shifts at the hospital. The stiffer Kazanari comes alone to pick up Elfnein. Leiur randomly explains in bits in pieces, like: “Mr. Oreki asked me to be Elfnein’s guide,” “I keep her company after school,” and “She doesn’t mind when I leave her alone.” Elfnein stops turning tail when she catches sight of Carol.

But things aren’t normal. They’re strangers to each other. Her sister—her annoying, timid, boring little sister—is someone else now.

Papa’s gone (forever). Aunt Finé had to leave, because she’s a bad person (was Papa a bad person?). Chris Yukine invades her house more often (she doesn’t mind it so much when Yukine makes Miku and Hibiki laugh, but sometimes Yukine makes them brood even more and that’s…).

“Are y’sad, Carol?”

“No,” she replies automatically, scuffing her foot on the blacktop and crossing her arms. Micha keeps her head tilted, eyes quizzical, so she grumbles, “I’m just bored. Recess is boring. There’s nothing to play.”

“Are y’mad that Rin said y’have to be on time out ‘cause y’made Shinji cry and she said it was grea’ but also annoyin’ an’ since he got kicked out last time it’s your turn?”

She cringes at the long-winded and too-detailed reminder and huffs, “I’m not mad or sad. Shinji’s stu—” she cuts herself with a glance to Micha, who watches her intently as always. “—Shinji’s a meanie. He hogs the ball and he’s a sore loser. It’s not fun to play with people like that.”

People like that. People like herself. She used to monopolize games and whine when she lost; she used to ignore people when they’d say: “Why don’t you ask Elfnein what she wants to play, hm? It’s not fair if you always decide, Carol,” “You’re just bullies!” and “Why can’t you just behave!” She used to be horrible like Shinji.

Obviously, it’s her own fault that Elfnein won’t talk to her now.

But Elfnein doesn’t know that Carol has changed, too! She has to show Elfnein, somehow, that she’s changed. She’s better, even if she still messes up like when they ran away from school.

“Hey, look! Rin’s wavin’ at us! D’you think she wants us to play now?”

She looks up in time to see Shinji stomping away. She’s tempted to ignore Rin’s calls (out of spite, which she knows is just another bad part of her personality, okay), but then she sees Elfnein watching the soccer game on the other side of the court.

This, this is an opportunity. She is better, and she’s going to prove it Elfnein!

“C’mon, Micha. Let’s go play.”

Chapter Text

SIX

The balance between past and present is ever fragile.

Merely being in this house, not to mention living in it, steeps her in memories of: Kanade, Yatsuhiro, Fudou, and the deep well of loneliness that defined her early childhood. Each of her I-will-never-return departures and each of her circumstance-has-forced-me returns only compound the tide of memories. She knows well the strain; she understands intimately how battered Maria has been left.

Finé has had a hand in making all of them, from the commander to the children, from the currently living to the long dead. How can one person have so much power? Power of the kind that Fudou craved, power that Finé wielded so cruelly and effectively—there is no comfort in knowing that the commander has Finé in custody.

(“Your uncle called.” Her father’s breath stuttered. “This time, this time I swear you will be safe.” He did not need her to tell him that he was too late.)

The commander had assured them—cold as he has never before been—that Finé was no longer a threat.

She… does not know. She cannot ascertain the veracity of that claim. She knows only that Maria’s hands shake even weeks after having their daughter safe with them, that Elfnein vacillates between astonished elation and panicked guilt, that her father still calls nightly to reassure himself of her family’s continued wellbeing. She knows these things to be true because she has seen them, felt them, heard them.

What else does she know?

She also knows that everything else matters little when her daughter carries such a heavy burden. She hurts more for her daughter than for herself. Not even her love for Maria may supersede the duty she has to her daughter; Maria, of course, would agree if ever asked to choose. She knows what to do. Or, she knows the first step, and she hopes that the path will reveal itself further as she goes.

However—and this is a painful but unavoidable truth—she knows herself enough to recognize that she needs to heal first. She knows her emotions: betrayals intertwined with pain, an anger that is perhaps exacerbated by a temper she inherited from Fudou, and agitated, stifled needs to fix it.

She knows she cannot see the commander or Yukine until she can maintain a level mind around them (until she can forgive them for letting her daughter be a pawn, until the vicious accusations in her throat transmute into rational questions). She knows that she has a long way to go before she can sleep through the night (without getting up constantly to prowl the house, lingering at Elfnein’s door, straining to hear every slight sound). She knows that as much she would like—would like, as if it were a mere, frivolous want!—to ease her family’s pain, she cannot until she has at least ascertained that she will not indefinitely repress all her emotions.

That is why she finds herself in the shrine room for the second time in a long time.

“Elfnein is at school. Maria is at Lydian. They are safe. There is nothing that need concern us,” she tells Kanade’s ever-grinning portrait, despite the words being meant for herself.

Worry gnaws at her nevertheless.

Perhaps she should check on Elfnein. Mr. Fukube certainly would not mind, and if she leaves soon she can catch an earlier train and get there during Elfnein’s lunch break, though that means she would have to remain in the area after the visit because traveling back to the manor would be a waste of time. That is not a hardship; she can scope the area while she waits for Elfnein’s classes to end. Better that she be there, immediately available, for hours, than be stuck here, away from her wife and daughter.

No matter what the commander said, she cannot trust that Finé will allow herself to remain in custody, and she cannot trust that Finé will stay away from Elfnein (and Carol). She needs to be there, not here, to anticipate any sort of scheme Finé might enact, and the longer she lingers here the more likely it is that Finé will escape, or, or—

—She is half-convinced that she should go, has turned to the door to leave, but when she glances at Kanade again, she remembers to take a breath. “They are safe,” she says more firmly. She breathes, keeps eye contact with Kanade’s ever-confident portrait. “They are safe.”

“You’re such a worrywart, Tsubasa. And a crybaby!”

Her burgeoning anxiety subsides as she ruefully shakes her head. She murmurs, “You’re as awful as ever,” and finally sinks into a proper kneeling pose in front of Kanade’s shrine. In the buoyant wake of her relief, she turns her thoughts inward once more.

She has a reason to be here, after all. Anxiety attacks or not, she needs to process the latest upheaval in her life, else she will fall into the same rut she did when Kanade—died.

“I adopted a child.”

She breathes.

“Maria and I, that is to say.”

Her jaw clamps shut as reluctance stays her words. It is silly to talk to the portrait of a departed person, is it not? Moreover, to speak aloud her private hopes and fears exposes her too much. Her thoughts are safer locked in her mind, where no one can use them against her. Making herself vulnerable on purpose is tactical madness. This is unnecessary, this is foolish, this is—

She sighs. She has a purpose. She does not shirk her duties or her promises, even the unpleasant ones; if she could stand to be paraded as Fudou’s precious heir with a smile, can she not do this for herself?

“I have a daughter….

“She is ten, nearly eleven. She has a voracious appetite for all sorts of knowledge….

“I think she has a curiosity about the world that would rival your own, Kanade.” Tears sting her eyes. “She has amassed quite the collection of stuffed animals. She is not a rambunctious child, for which I am thankful. Her sister, on the other hand….”

Elfnein’s sister, Carol.

“Hibiki’s child,” she says flatly. Betrayal suffuses her voice. “I did not know, until Finé took them.” The mention of Finé stirs something else. “Finé. Years of silence, of peace, shattered. We were happy. I wish she had not intruded on my life.” That gives her pause. Resentment? “I wish Finé were not my concern,” she tests, and yes, it is resentment that colors her voice. “She returns after a decade of uncertainty, takes my daughter, reopens countless wounds carelessly, and does not have to deal with the aftermath! If not for her, Chris and the commander and Hibiki wouldn’t’ve betrayed me!”

Something heretofore unknown in her chest unwinds a little as she shouts her grievances.

“Why? Why does she so enjoy causing pain? And why—why did the commander, Chris, Hibiki conspire against me?”

Her strident tone gives way plaintive confusion and hurt. She feels small. Her hands rest uselessly on her knees.

“A cryptic phone call is all Hibiki gave me. She left me to stew in panic. Maria was in no state to contact me. Were it not for Miku, I would have been waiting at the station for hours with only the knowledge that something was wrong.

“I was here while Maria was there and Elfnein was—somewhere.”

She trembles. Her shoulders and chin cave inward.

The root of the problem, the stubborn kernel of truth: “I was here, Maria was there, and Elfnein… was somewhere else.”

She stares at the single candle she had lit for Kanade. Its steady flame has nearly consumed the wick. Her faint breaths are not nearly enough to buffet it.

Even when the light diminishes to a mere ember, she does nothing else but breathe faint breaths.

How long will it take her to heal from this?

How can she help her family when her existence is stretched taut under the weight of this hurt?

Chapter Text

SEVEN

Carol glares at her.

She raises her eyebrows in return.

“No. I don’t want to go to school.”

“Alright,” she agrees, closing the door behind her. She chooses to sit at Carol’s desk, relatively close but not too close to Carol’s position on the bed.

Carol’s glare intensifies.

Miku waits.

Carol’s glare drifts from Miku to the bedcovers. It’s less of a scowl, and more of a pensive, brooding frown.

This isn’t one of Carol’s tantrums about not wanting to put up with the Matou boy at school. This is… uncertainty. Carol glowers, but that anger masks something more like pain—Miku, after all, might as well be an expert at obfuscating hurt with anger.

“I’ll call the office to let them know, and I’ll ask Hibiki to pick up your homework.”

Carol shrugs. The movement isn’t enough to hide Carol’s flinch at Hibiki’s name.

She sighs. It’s one step forward, two steps back again with Carol and Hibiki. If only Finé hadn’t gotten in the way, if only Hibiki’s father hadn’t hurt Hibiki so deeply, if only Hibiki hadn’t gone to that Zwei Wing concert—if only, then none of them would be here. There’s no point in wishing for that, because that would mean... losing everything she has here, right now, with Hibiki and Carol and their friends. What she has here, right now, means more than hypotheticals. It simply must mean more.

Does Carol understand that? Has anyone ever explained this concept to Carol?

An idea blooms in her mind: food can serve as both a distraction and a medium, the perfect way to discuss these things without cornering anyone involved. They can talk, and they can feel safe. With that stroke of inspiration, she declares, “We’re going grocery shopping.”

“What?” Carol startles out of brooding, giving Miku the opportunity to hustle her out of bed.

“Since we have all this time on our hands, we can spend as long as we want in the kitchen.” Food. What kind of food to make? Something easy, like soup, but exciting, something like—“Crêpes. What do you think of crêpes? A crêpe bar? Sweet crêpes, savory crêpes, and whatever other kind of crêpes there are, we just need to pick up a few ingredients from the store. I think we ran out of flour, too.” She tries to figure out the last time she used flour, can’t recall, and realizes she doesn’t even know where the flour is stored.

Her heart somehow feels like it’s beating faster, she can’t contain a smile, and Carol thoroughly eschews brooding in favor of boggling at Miku.

It’s one of her more brilliant plans.

And so, they find themselves walking to the market. Over-large sunglasses hide her own surprise when Carol takes her hand as they walk; Carol isn’t a small child to guide through the streets, but Miku consciously tries not to draw attention to how her hand tightens around Carol’s small hand.

Miku isn’t… well, she isn’t an optimistic person. When she was younger, when she and Hibiki became friends and during the early stages of their relationship, she had been mostly happy and hopeful (except, of course, that time that Hibiki had died for a few months). That could have been called optimism: for a person constantly left behind while their significant other went on dangerous missions, optimism makes sense. How else would someone endure the constant give-and-take?

This is how.

The sun warms their faces, she swings their hands a little, and Carol starts asking questions—why are crêpes so popular here, how are crêpes here different than crêpes in Germany, if crêpes are like thinner Eierkuchen then does she think they could make Eierkuchen (also known as Pfannkuchen outside of Berlin)?

It reaffirms Miku’s quiet philosophy. This is how she endures (and more, when possible, which is often). She wants Carol to know this.

“We don’t have a list,” Carol says once they’re standing in front of rows and rows of aisles, baskets in hand.

“No,” she agrees. She scans the aisle names, finds the baking section, and nudges Carol’s shoulder in that direction. “We need flour. The rest… we’ll think of stuff as we go. It works for Hibiki, doesn’t it?”

Carol’s expression scrunches into displeasure, but then she says with a mischievous twinkle, “Sometimes,” and goes up on her tiptoes to reach for a bag of flour with both hands. Somehow, Carol manages to precariously wiggle and balance a bag into her hands.

Her own hand quickly steadies and takes the heavy flour. “Thank you. What else should we get?”

Carol hums, rotates to look at the shelves around them, and points, “Chocolate sauce! Caramel sauce, strawberry sauce, real strawberries, and pears, and apricots! Not the canned stuff. Can we make caramel?”

“Yes, and we can make chocolate sauce from scratch, too, and make whipped cream from heavy cream. Cream cheese for cheesecake flavors, and let’s get some ricotta—”

“—Nutella, peanut butter, bananas!”

“Mushrooms, bacon, spinach, basil.”

“Ham! Potatoes, sauerkraut with sausage!”

A crêpe with sauerkraut and sausage? It sounds like something Maria might enjoy. Maybe they can compare recipes, and she can ask how much Elfnein’s tastes vary from Carol’s… when they’re back on speaking terms.

She stops, watching Carol bound ahead to the produce section.

Elfnein.

Nothing else has changed, except Elfnein’s presence. Obviously, this is what troubles Carol.

She catches up to Carol, who’s critically examining a couple of pears, and smiles.

Regardless of ulterior motives, she and Carol are having fun. The rest can wait until later.

[***]

“Hmm.” She stares at all the ingredients cluttering the kitchen table. “I remember the basics… should we consult a recipe?”

“Google has lots of recipes,” Carol replies, already scrolling down the results page on Miku’s phone. “Sweet or savory?”

“Let’s start with the sweet ones, since we have more fillings for those, and we can save some savory ones for Hibiki’s dinner.”

“More for me!” Carol grins.

[***]

‘Later’ comes when Carol bumps into the bag, spilling flour down the side of the kitchen table.

She only hears a thump, an Eep!, and a sneeze. By the time she plates up the last of the sweet crêpes and turns around, the silence has taken root in Carol and the clouds of flour have settled. There’s powdered white on Carol’s blonde hair, which shadows Carol’s eyes and expression. Carol’s hands are in fists.

“Hmm,” she runs a finger over the table. “At least it’s not hard to clean up. Can you get some paper towels, please, Carol?”

Of course, Carol doesn’t move.

“Carol?”

Carol draws in a deep breath that trembles when she exhales. “I messed up. Again.” Carol shakes her head. Another deep breath. “I keep messing up.” Fists clench even more tightly, knuckles more distinct. “Why—?” Carol’s voice breaks. Then: “Elfnein hates me.”

Carol’s hand is even softer with the spilled flour. She pulls Carol into a hug—the kind of hug she learnt from Hibiki, the kind of hug that grounds her in the present.

She says the barebones of the truth to this child:

“You’re here, Carol. I’m here. We’re here, right now.” Carol’s little hand in hers shifts as she pulls back to meet Carol’s gaze. Carol regards her with wide eyes. Even behind the blocky frames and the sheen of tears, the blue of Carol’s eyes arrests her in its intensity, all of Carol’s attention focused on this peculiar fact. She returns that intensity solemnly, repeating, “You’re here, right now, and we can’t go back to then, somewhere else. Whatever else is true, this is real.”

Carol blinks, astonishment chasing away the tears. Her narrow shoulders straighten and her chin rises back to its usual confidence.

“Do you understand?”

“Yeah.”

[***]

And when Hibiki comes home—there’s still plenty of sunlight in the day, but it’s no rival to Hibiki’s immense smile upon finding them surrounded by crêpes and ingredients and smeared in flour—Carol drags her fearlessly by the hand to show off their creations with loud descriptions and slips of enthusiastic German.

That is more than enough to make her feel better about the uncertainty regarding Elfnein, Maria, and Tsubasa.

[***]

They’re in bed when Hibiki finally asks, “You let her stay home from school?”

She says, as casually as she can, “One missed day of classes does not matter more than her emotional wellbeing. Carol has a lot on her mind that would distract her from learning.”

Hibiki only hums and nods, turns the light off.

What’s better than one success? Two successes, of course. As cute as Hibiki is when she sulks over food, it’s disheartening when Hibiki broods over things that should be in the past (what other than Finé’s reappearance and its consequences can be the root of Hibiki’s current preoccupation?), so instead of letting them drift to sleep, she scoots closer to Hibiki and probes, “Carol’s not the only one with stuff on her mind.”

Hibiki twitches, shoulder brushing Miku’s.

She breathes slowly, keeping her eyes open to the dark grey ceiling of their bedroom, and lets Hibiki make a decision.

“I… I just don’t understand,” Hibiki finally says. “Finé kidnapped the children. We were so—so scared. Why would Finé do that?”

“Did you expect differently?” She doesn’t say it to be harsh; she’s genuinely curious. Almost all of Hibiki’s missions remain classified to this day, and all of Miku’s knowledge comes from little offhanded mentions, throwaway remarks, accumulated over the years.

“She promised.” Hibiki presses more closely against her, half on top and half not, head firmly tucked under Miku’s chin. Frankly, the arm underneath Hibiki has gone numb, but… she has missed Hibiki’s closeness. She has missed Hibiki’s body pressing against hers. She has missed Hibiki’s warmth—even the incessant fidgeting of limbs and chins digging into her.

“Promised?”

“Mhm…. She promised me. She said she’d stop hurting people. I believed her… and then she took Carol and Elfnein. Why?”

That’s one hell of a promise from someone who had been a villain for such a long time. Miku forgot how to live in the present. Chris forgot how to be soft. Finé must have forgotten these things and others, too. “Are you sure she meant to hurt anyone?”

Hibiki finally stills.

“She’s here, you know. Maybe you should ask her while she’s here now.”

“…I will.” Determination colors Hibiki’s voice.

It and the resolution in Carol’s posture earlier are enough to keep her going another day.

Chapter Text

EIGHT

She presses her face into the softness, shakily breathes in its crisp, clean scent, and wishes with her heart thundering in her chest and her arms squeezing so tightly they hurt—she wants Papa, and Carol, but also, also, also this.

Both. She wants both.

If she wishes on enough stars, if she makes enough paper cranes, if she counts enough sheep… will she get to have both?

Would you like to.. do you… I have received permission.

To visit your…

To visit. Izak.

His current… resting place.

If…

If you’d like.

Her chest hurts. She knows she can’t have both. Papa is gone.

Her throat squeezes shut again and her breaths stutter; she presses her face deeper into—into her—into Tsubasa’s sweater. The arms around her press her more tightly against solid warmth, tightly enough that her feet lift a little bit from the floor. A hand, Maria’s hand, strokes her hair.

Papa is gone.

Papa is ▯▯▯▯.

[***]

She doesn’t know how long she’s spent crying in this room—this room, the room, the room that, that holds, the room that holds Papa—but eventually, eventually, she can almost hear her thoughts over her heavy breathing. They skitter around the edge of the big hole in her chest, the vortex, trembling and slipping.

It’s like, like, like vertigo even though she’s not afraid of high places. She keeps her fingers tangled in her, in Maria’s soft shirt, and she lets Maria dry her face with the little blue handkerchief. As if reading her mind, Tsubasa’s hands come to rest firmly on her shoulders and help keep her steady. Maria remains kneeled on the floor, gently holding Elfnein’s hands, waiting, but letting her avoid eye contact.

Her thoughts rally again, more cohesive and coherent as questions: why is Papa here? has Carol been here? has Aunt Finé? where is Aunt Finé?

Then, her stomach growls. She blushes.

“Do you want to eat?” Maria asks.

She wants to say yes, but Papa is here. She can’t leave Papa (can’t look at him, either—she can’t look at the box, the little urn that holds, that, that holds, holds his ▯▯▯▯▯). Her wide eyes meet Maria’s.

Maria understands, somehow, and says, “We don’t have to go far. There’s a cafeteria here.”

“And we will return, if you would like,” Tsubasa adds above her, squeezing her shoulders.

I want Papa. That’s what I want, but Papa… Papa’s gone.

“…Okay.” She almost lets go when Maria stands up but at the last moment she tightens her grip on Maria’s hands; Carol isn’t around to make fun of her for it.

The wide, teary smile she gets in return makes her stomach churn. She’d, she’d called this person Mama before Carol had come back. The hand on her shoulder, guiding her through the maze of hallways, belongs to a person she’d called Dad before she had remembered Carol’s disdain. They are here, and Papa is not, and Carol has… her own guardians too, now.

She wants them to be her parents, but also…

She wants Papa, and Papa is… ▯▯▯▯.

[***]

“Why… why is Papa… here?”

She clutches the picture of Papa to her chest. Its frame digs into her arms and knees. She couldn’t stay standing, so Tsubasa had taken the urn off its shelf and carefully, gently placed it on the floor for her. He—the fire, the fire, the fire—instead of a long box, Papa… rests… in an urn. That’s what the vase-like container is called. An urn. An urn (all of Papa, kept in there), and a framed picture. He frowns into the camera, maybe angry, maybe frustrated, but less tired than she ever, ever saw him. When was this picture taken? Where? By who? Why?

Why is this room full of shelves with urns and pictures?

Why is Papa in Japan, not Germany?

“Izak broke many laws in many countries, but he was a Japanese citizen.”

Breaking a law is like breaking a rule, but a lot worse. Does that mean—if breaking a rule makes you bad, then does breaking laws make you….

Papa had loved her, loved Carol. Wherever they went, he had helped people. He was smart and respected. Everyone had wanted his advice. Aunt Finé was his friend. But Papa was… worse than bad. Maybe evil.

It’s wrong to love evil people, right?

She doesn’t want to, but Papa won’t ever be able to explain and Aunt Finé isn’t here (is Aunt Finé a worse-than-bad person, too? Is she in prison? Is that why she left?), and she needs to know, so she asks, “Was he evil? Do I… do I have to stop loving him?”

“No,” says Maria this time. Maria pulls her into a sideways hug, and she buries her face in Maria’s collar but doesn’t let go of Papa’s picture. “He put people in danger. He committed crimes. He was… not good.

“But… he was also your father. He loved you. He took care of you and Carol as best as he could. He wanted you to be good people. Even though he was a bad person, he was a good father. You can always love your father. That is—valid.”

Valid.

Her hands hurt. Her head hurts. She decides not to think about Papa’s morality right now, because right now the big hole in her chest, the void, is reaching its arms out to drag her back into it. Her thoughts sink back into: gone. Papa is gone. Papa is ▯▯▯▯.

“Papa’s gone.”

“Yes,” says Tsubasa on her other side. “We are here.” This time, Tsubasa strokes her hair while Maria holds her.

“You are not alone, Elfnein.”

Chapter Text

NINE

Were Fudou the director—alive, powerful, control tightly wound around his fists—she would have been chained and beaten and (the only true punishment) isolated in a dirty, cold cell.

Instead, she receives Kirika Akatsuki and Shirabe Tsukuyomi in an impersonal but decent apartment. Genjuurou, the sulky baby, refuses to step further than the threshold or let her family’s descendants enter before his agents have finished their swarm of the apartment.

She rolls her eyes, crossing her arms and leaning against the wall. “Why hello, Genjuurou-baby, what a pleasure to see you! I’m doing great, thanks for asking. I see you’ve brought guests! How exciting. Let us all hang out in the hallway and have tea and government-approved pastries and share the latest gossip in our lives!” Her ears strain to follow the movements of the agents behind her, but they are all light-footed and meticulous.

Genjuurou, of course, does not deign to take the bait, but over his shoulder, Kirika Akatsuki gives a cheery wave and Shirabe Tsukuyomi edges around his wide frame to stare dispassionately. Genjuurou-baby’s scowl deepens further when Finé waggles her fingers at the darlings. His eyes shift past her, probably acknowledging some signal from one of the many nameless, faceless agents. “I am watching,” is all he says.

She smirks as the agents troop past her in single-file line, “I’ll be sure to put on a show later.”

He rolls his eyes on the way out—small victories are nonetheless victories.

Kirika Akatsuki and Shirabe Tsukuyomi assure him that they will be safe and stay out of trouble, then he leaves (doubtlessly not very far).

“Come in, dears. Let’s see if I have any teabags left intact.” She turns, confident that they will follow her hand gesture to settle in the living room while she makes tea.

It turns out the agents replaced her tea with Genjuurou-approved packs, but that is better than no tea at all, so she gets the kettle going anew and sets out three mugs on coasters. It is another small victory, or a small mercy.

She can feel the girls staring at her. This apartment isn’t large, by any means. She will have to endure their questions, their demands for explanations, and probably even their justified recriminations. Still, this is an opportunity for answers to her own questions—she hurt her darling Chris too much to hope for a visit, and who knows when such an opportunity will come again?

She uses the few minutes it takes to heat the water and prepare the tea to settle her mind, to push back the shades of regret bundled together in a single murky thought: the greater good does not exist. When she breezes into the living room, tea set on a tray, she has her blasé attitude firmly in place.

“Here we go. If you have any complaints about the quality or flavor, be sure to mention it to Genjuurou during your debriefing!”

The girls on her bland, boring beige couch each take cups but do not drink or do much than stare at her and the coffee table (Shirabe and Kirika, respectively). The silence stretches; she did not coddle them as children and will not start now.

“Finé,” Shirabe starts, then stops.

Into the pause of infinite possibility, Finé decides to reply with, “Shirabe Tsukuyomi. Kirika Akatsuki.” Of course, ‘Akatsuki’ is not the real name of Finé’s adopted aunt, nor is ‘Tsukuyomi’ the name of Fine’s least favorite cousin—for that matter, ‘Cadenzavna Eve’ is definitely not the name of her oldest brother—but Finé (unlike some people) respects chosen names.

“You saved our lives,” Kirika blurts out.

She takes a sip of the surprisingly good-tasting tea.

“Maybe you don’t remember—I mean, it was years and years ago and you’ve probably done a lot more exciting things since then, but I wanted to thank you anyway because you saved Shirabe from, from me and that’s… I can’t tell you how important that is to me.” Kirika takes a deep breath, clutches Shirabe’s hand in both her own. “Thank you, Finé. I, I’ll always be thankful to you for saving Shirabe that day.” Kirika stands and folds into a deep, formal bow.

Instead of responding with cutting sarcasm, which Shirabe certainly expects if the forewarning expression on her face is any indication, Finé inclines her head in return, saying, “You are welcome.”

“Why did you do it?” asks Shirabe, apparently unwilling to take Finé’s goodwill at face value. Smart girl. Kirika straightens and takes a seat, her expression more curious than accusatory.

“Death and discord had lost their appeal for me.”

The months following her confrontation with Hibiki Tachibana, intrepid teenage hero, had tormented her. She had not forgotten, but Hibiki Tachibana had reminded her of her regrets, and her ruthlessness towards her family’s descendants had been the source of most her nightmares. Saving Shirabe’s life, Kirika’s soul, had been an apology of her own.

“But why?” Shirabe insists. “If you were so reformed, then why save us but not Maria? Everyone thought you were dead, but you weren’t and you still made Maria go through all that—”

“—I molded Maria into an instrument of destruction.” She regards Shirabe Tsukuyomi, wholly and intently, without the help of a sniper’s sighting lens for the first time since the children were hardly more than bright-eyed potential. She left her regrets behind when she saved Shirabe and Kirika. “I will never deny that fact. I did not, however, intend for her—or any of you—to take up my mantel. It belongs to me, after all. Nastassja, as you should well know by now, had her own ideas.

“I know you were young, but surely you noticed the schism in our ranks?”

Kirika taps her fingers on her knees while Shirabe crosses her arms.

“…It was about your family legacy, wasn’t it? We were only involved because we were related to you,” Kirika says, somehow without bitterness or accusation, still.

From the old to the new generations, their family had sworn to defy fate and divinity; their line had fought for the betterment of humankind. These children, however, had known nothing of that gloried history. They had lived destitute, barely surviving on the streets of Warsaw, the last scions of a ruined house—and Finé had used that to her advantage. Finé had taken her family’s descendants, the women here in front of her, and shaped their young selves into disposable weapons, tools, child soldiers.

Nastassja had, ultimately, taken umbrage to Finé’s disregard of her familial duty.

“These girls are your family, Finé. You have a responsibility to them!”

“Yes, yes, I know, and that’s why they’re here. They are fulfilling their purpose here.”

“You know full what I meant, Finé.”

“…Don’t they have you for all that?”

She shrugs, “Nastassja was a headstrong woman, so when she disagreed with my plans, she took you all and left. Thus, her scheme with Maria was largely out of my hands.”

“You could’ve stepped in. It was your identity Maria was using,” Shirabe says, arms still crossed and expression still indignant.

“Is your only concern the pain Maria went through as a consequence of being involved in a war begun long before any of us were born? If so, you have wasted your time. Only Maria has the right to demand my reasons for not intervening on her behalf. I have explained myself enough to you.” She cocks an eyebrow at them, leaning back into her armchair.

To her credit, Shirabe does subside. “It’s just… we can finally get those answers.”

“Get some closure, you know?” Kirika adds.

“Yes, but do you understand that those answers are for Maria’s ears first and foremost?”

Like chastised children, Shirabe and Kirika nod.

She lets them drift back into silence as they finally drink their tea (which has gone cold, but it’s Genjuurou’s cheap, store-bought tea anyway). Her own question, the only question that matters, will wait.

“I, I think that’s everything we came to say,” Kirika says at last, and Shirabe nods.

“Everything else has stayed in the past. We can move on.”

“Ah, yes,” she smiles. “Congratulations on your engagement.”

“Thank you.”

When they finish their tea, she walks them to the door in silence.

They linger at the threshold, all having something left unsaid. Or, someone.

“Tell me—is Chris happy?” As far as commands go, this one falls short. Her sincerity shows through too much for her imperious attitude to be believed. It is the only question that matters (apart from Chris’s health, but Chris has friends to fret over that).

Kirika and Shirabe exchange glances. “Yes…,” Shirabe says.

“…Mostly. It depends on the day. And lately she’s been—”

“—Upset. For obvious reasons.”

That day in the mansion, she had made her own capture as painless as possible. She had told the children to stay put in the kitchen, that their families would come in a few minutes to pick them up, and then she had stepped out to the front yard. She had been sitting on the front steps by the time the Second Division had dared approach the building despite having been watching for almost half an hour.

She had offered her wrists to Genjuurou.

“Don’t alarm the children,” was all she had said to him.

Her cooperation had naturally made Genjuurou suspicious (more like nervous), so he had ordered the special force team to be on the rearguard, just in case Finé had something up her sleeve.

Had Chris chafed at that order? The Chris she had known, the one she had molded (and abused and mentored and protected and almost killed), certainly would have wanted the satisfaction of arresting Finé.

“I’m glad she has such cute juniors looking after her, then,” she tells them in her usual flippant tone. It’s too late to save face, but old habits and all that.

Beyond them, in a black town car across the street, Finé knows Genjuurou-baby is getting antsy with the delay. She smirks.

Kirika asks, “May I hug you, Finé?”

The smirk falls from her face.

Human contact.

Human touch—alien to her after such a long time alone. Not even her goddaughters, Izak’s children, had been allowed to touch her in any form (which had been quite a feat, avoiding four toddler hands). It was her penance. She had abused Chris, had used touch against her, had irrevocably hurt her. Denying herself human touch for just over a decade—well, it was of no use to Chris, but it had been something.

(Ne, Chris? Will anything ever be enough?)

She… nods, says yes.

Kirika… hugs her. Shirabe smiles at her over Kirika’s shoulder.

Chapter Text

TEN

As head of the Kazanari family, she has many responsibilities: oversee their financial interests, advance the Kazanari agenda within the government, monitor the movements of other prominent families and upstarts, manage the needs of individual family members and the needs of the family as a whole, and improve the Kazanari name.

“Nothing supersedes our name. Everything we do must be for our name. You may dally with Genjuurou’s little project for now, but remember—these are mere distractions.

Nothing matters more than our name.”

Fudou had learned from his mistakes with his sons. He confined Tsubasa’s childhood to the estate, taught her the strict adherence to tradition that he had been taught by his own father, but as she grew he also allowed Tsubasa a sense of choice. It was blackmail. He allowed her to sing, to perform, to serve in her uncle’s regiment with the knowledge that she was neglecting her responsibility to the family for her own selfish interests. He was certain that she would return to take up the mantel; her sense of duty would not allow her to run away.

“He would probably think of this as ‘following the letter of the law while undermining its spirit’ and then proceed to reeducate me on exactly what my duty entails,” she muses to herself as she presses the intercom to ring Chris’s apartment. “He would call this a distraction, something temporary with which to entertain myself while our enemies encroach on our power.”

Fudou had held their name as sacrosanct, and so had she, but their definitions had differed. He meant reputation and power whenever he said name, whereas she meant family. She had wanted to do right by those under her responsibility—to care to the best of her ability those who had placed their lives in her hands. From the moment she realized her father was not the man she had called ‘Father,’ it had been clear to her that power and reputation could never matter more than a family.

She sighs and pulls out her phone to check her messages. Chris still has not read, much less replied, to her text letting Chris know that she’s downstairs. Her calls ring and ring and go to voicemail. She presses the buzzer to Chris’s apartment again. Sleeping in is fine, but she worries for Chris. Besides, the fruit she brought should be eaten or stored in a refrigerator soon.

Kanade had liked to point out, on those long nights before their shows when Tsubasa would be too anxious to sleep: “What good is being the boss if you aren’t even happy and everyone hates you?”

If Tsubasa were to visit Finé, she would pose that question, the only question she has left. But, even this last question will go unanswered because she has no other reason for contacting Finé. The questions she would have asked of Dr. Sakurai no longer matter, she has little need for catharsis from Finé, and Fudou has faded enough that she no longer cares to know his reasons for his cruelty.

 “Whozzit?” Chris’s sleep-slurred voice finally answers.

“Tsubasa Kazanari. I heard from a pair of turtle doves that you have today free.”

Chris groans, then says, “Can’t you climb the fence?”

“Breaking and entering is against the law.” She rolls her eyes. “I brought breakfast.”

“…Mmmmnot worth it…”

“Then I suppose I shall share these homemade muffins with the twin terrors. I am sure they will appreciate Maria’s baking.” She smirks at her expert two-part blow; it is not long before Chris responds.

“…Don’t move.” The intercom goes silent.

From there, she waits only a handful of minutes for Chris in all her sleep-ruffled glory to shuffle into view across the apartment complex’s gates. The lethargy in Chris’s hand as she enters the gate code, however, hints at something more than drowsiness—or is Tsubasa reading too much into it?

“Good morning, Chris,” she decides to say. Simple, courteous, no pressure.

“Mornin’,” Chris grumbles, eyes squinting at her, then slowly shifting to squint at the picnic basket in Tsubasa’s hand. “…It could be a good one, I guess. C’mon.” The pivot of her heel is perhaps less impressive with bunny slippers, a fluffy pink robe, and a headful of outrageous bed hair.

In the elevator, thankfully empty, she is careful to press an arm against Chris’s shoulder. Chris makes no motion to acknowledge the gesture, nor does she put space between them; it seems Chris has slipped into dozing.

Fudou had derided this; Finé had weaponized this. And more.

The elevator chimes. She nudges Chris, who grumbles a little but moves forward quickly.

“Pardon the intrusion.”

“You can…,” Chris squints again at the picnic basket, “er, just, wait in the living room. I’ll be back.”

While she waits for Chris, she unpacks the picnic basket on Chris’s coffee table. Elfnein, upon hearing Tsubasa’s plans, had insisted on a picnic as the perfect way to open discussion.

“Papa… Papa used to take me and Carol on picnics whenever we were really, really mad.” Elfnein had paused, kicking her feet against the sofa, fidgeting with the pages of her book. “Whenever Carol was really, really mad. We helped him make sandwiches, fruit salad, and… and Papa bought pastries or cupcakes for dessert.” Elfnein’s head and shoulders had sunk significantly at that point.

Maria had swept Elfnein into a sideways embrace. Tsubasa had remained rigid by window, where she had been pacing.

After a few, trembling minutes, Elfnein had continued, “And me and Carol would collect flowers to put in Papa’s favorite cup. We had fun. Carol’d forget she was mad, and I’d forget I was scared…

“I miss that.”

Elfnein had fallen into contemplative silence, sinking further into Maria’s arms, perhaps thinking of the concurrent tension between her and her sister. Meanwhile, Tsubasa had found her anger giving way to the root of the problem—hurt and a lack of understanding why the hurt had occurred. From the mouth of babes, indeed.

“Then, Elfnein, would you help me?”

Elfnein had brightened and the suggestions had come easily, though tinged with a nostalgia strange (painful) to see in a child. Elfnein talked about fields of flowers, picnic blankets, ants and bees, and why sandwiches were the best choice for a picnic.

The estate has plenty of fields, settings fitting for storybook picnicking, but inviting Chris to the estate would have… would have been an imbalance of power. Even an informal invitation would not have been enough to override the tone set by having Chris come to her. Chris would have been too aware of Tsubasa’s agitated, betrayed anger to meet her with anything other than mirrored hostility.

Connotation, again.

She smooths away stray wrinkles on the blanket, adjusts the placement of containers and the little succulent terrarium, straightens the pile of napkins. Her anger burns in her throat. She breathes deeply to try to temper it. She needs to be calm, for Chris, until she has ascertained for herself Chris’s mental state.

Her anger will have a place and a time.

“What’s all this?”

When she meets Chris’s tired gaze, she finds it easy to escape the anger. “A picnic,” she says.

“An indoors one, apparently.” Chris rolls her eyes but kneels on the other side of the coffee table to better inspect the spread before her. “I bet it was Kirika’s idea.” Chris picks up the thermos on her side.

“Elfnein, actually.” She takes a sip out of her own thermos. Grape juice, white grapes.

“Hmm, should’ve guessed it from the western touch…. Juice boxes would’ve been better.”

“I will keep that in mind.”

Chris samples a sandwich (a peanut butter-and-jelly one), hums, and finishes it quickly. She grabs another sandwich from the same container while her eyes linger on the glass container of brownies. Her aggressively nonchalant slouch acknowledges the tension between them.

Tsubasa chooses an omelet; she chews slowly, watching Chris devour an intimidating number of sandwiches in the time it takes Tsubasa to finish her single omelet.

Chris’s appetite is as impressive and messy as ever, despite Chris’s divided attention.

She considers starting the conversation once Chris has eaten her fill of sandwiches and started on the fruit salad, but Chris holds the reins now, so she waits.

Instead, she nudges the stack of napkins closer to Chris, who rolls her eyes but in-between sandwiches she takes one to wipe crumbs off her face.

The fruit salad meets a similar fate, as do a couple of omelets, and then—

“—Would you be here if Kirika and Shirabe hadn’t asked?”

Unfair question or not, it is nonetheless valid. “Yes,” she says. She holds Chris’s gaze. “I do not shirk my duty to our family.”

“Even though you think I betrayed you?” Chris returns her level stare.

“…I still care.” She wrangles the urge to retort, ‘You did betray me.’ “I could not, would not leave you alone without knowing checking on you, first.”

Chris crumples a napkin in her hands, muttering, “Thank you.”

She waits. “How are you?” she asks when it becomes clear that Chris needs encouragement.

“Peachy.” Chris begins tearing the napkin into small pieces.

Slowly, she reaches across the endless expanse of the coffee table to touch her fingers to Chris’s wrist, which ceases its movements. “Chris. You do not need to lie. Not to me.”

Rolling her shoulders in a shrug, Chris shifts away from Tsubasa’s touch and resumes tearing the napkin.

“I care, Chris. That is why I am here.” She keeps her hand stretched, palm upwards.

Agitation bleeds into Chris’s motions. Finally, Chris blurts, “She asked if I’m happy.” Chris scowls, shoves the mess to the side. “What kind of—who—that—does she—what right—why would she ask that? Why? Why now? Who does she think she is?” Chris curls her fingers around the edge of the table, fingertips white under the pressure. “Why?”

“What do you think?” she asks in her softest, most careful voice.

Chris grips her hand in a bruising grip. “She hurt me. I won’t ever forget that.”

“Finé has not asked you to forget—nor forgive.” She squeezes Chris’s hand.

“Forgive her?” Chris laughs, partly a wheeze and partly a sob. She breathes for a long minute before continuing, “She hurt me. Strapped me to the table, told me only pain can connect us, seared her way across my body, and then, then, then she left me.”

The bones of her hand ache as her knuckles compress, but the ache pales in comparison to ache in the chambers of her heart, which itself cannot compare to the pain Chris endures.

“Just because I wasn’t useful anymore. Useful. She was just so full of shit.”

Chris trembles.

I can’t believe I loved her.

The tears, when Chris allows them, fall silently but messily. Chris’s entire body shudders.

What can she say to Chris? Which words will breach the chasm? How can she assuage hurt, anger, humiliation, the need for comfort and affirmation in mere words?

(Fudou sired an heir using his son’s wife.)

(Was it consensual?)

(Or was it—)

(—rape?)

The wound is an old one, presumably healed, but Finé’s return has seared fresh agony into it.

But she has something other than words: human touch, learnt by Kanade’s hand, refined by Maria’s hand, and encouraged by everyone in between.

Pulling her hand from Chris’s grip takes very little effort; Chris slumps deeper into her silent sobs. Tsubasa stands—from her new perspective, Chris could easily be just another nameless, faceless petitioner (such as: her mother) at Fudou’s feet—and pulls Chris into a sideways embrace, pressing Chris’s face into the crook of her neck.

Chris ceases to breathe for a long moment.

“This is real,” is what Tsubasa says without knowing why or whence the words come.

Chris sinks deeper.

Later, she will be witness to Chris’s full account of her life under Finé. Even later, she will address the perceived betrayal.

For now, she holds Chris in her arms. She offers what little consolation there can be had when the wound has been sustained years from the present.

Chapter Text

ELEVEN

Do Elfnein's parents let her watch the stars?

"We shouldn't—" Hibiki interrupts herself with a jaw-popping, full-body yawn that almost topples her down the back porch, flailing arms barely discernable against the night—"heh, oops. Anyway. We shouldn't stay out too long, Carol. Growing kids need at least eight hours of sleep and I need, like, twelve hours to make up for Miku's terrible schedule, hehe."

She stops biting her lip long enough to whine, "It's Saturday," but Miku had asked her to go easy and to be in bed by midnight ("remember, you have that playdate with Darahim tomorrow"—"it's a study session, not a playdate!"), and she will. It's just, there's a, there's, there's something wrong, something that's been churning for days. Elfnein comes to mind, but why?

She tugs her jacket sleeves over her fingertips, kicks her feet against the side of the porch, and measures her breaths: in-one-two-three, wait-one-two, out-one-two-three, wait-one-two-three. In-one-two-three, wait-one-two, out-one-two-three, wait-one-two-three. In-one-two-three, wait-one—

—she just can't stand the weird melancholy that's taken residence in her sternum!

Conscious breathing disrupted, her eyes wander to the sky again. Even in the middle of the city, lots of bright stars and other celestial things fill the sky (well, some might be satellites, or airplanes, or aliens). Is Elfnein asleep right now, or is she watching the sky, too? Is Elfnein counting sheep, or is she counting stars?

What is Elfnein doing?

What is Elfnein feeling? And why?

Eventually, Hibiki says, "You know what might be fun? Stargazing with a telescope. We could go camping over summer break, or maybe over a weekend? Catch a meteor shower or an eclipse or something. Genjuurou's almanac should have some stuff. Or I could just look online; that might be easier…. What do you think, Carol?"

What can she think? Somewhere, something is wrong. Elfnein—?

Not enough information. Her heels hit the side of the porch with a final thunk.

"Hey, you're shivering." Hibiki shuffles closer with the sound of cloth sliding across wood and a hand bumping into Carol's shoulder. "Here," Hibiki says, haphazardly wrapping an intensely warm blanket around her—the blanket Hibiki had brought instead of proper outerwear.

"Aren't you cold, too?" It's warm, smelling of the usual detergent and fabric softener and, and is that Miku's perfume? She finds her hands clutching fistfuls of the blanket and her inhalations deepening.

"Nah, I was just keeping it warm for you." Hibiki yawns again, this time without the flailing. "I'll stay awake better without it, anyway."

"Oh." At least here, in the dark, no one (Hibiki, Miku, Darahim, Suyuf, Yukine, Elfnein) can see the relief and gratitude in her expression; even if they had seen, her own yawn overtakes her expression quickly enough. Why are yawns contagious?

Hibiki starts humming, kind of tunelessly but cheerful and soft and somehow both not intrusive and not distant: not unaware of Carol's presence beside her.

Hair flopping over his eyes and ears, neck and shoulders hunched deeply, muttering "Politik" under his breath like a swear word, Papa would rarely notice that Carol and Elfnein were slipping out the cabin-of-the-week to count stars.

Day had faded into dusk had fallen into night, melted wax had dribbled down tall white candles in long rivets, and the few papers Papa had been studying over dinner hand multiplied into flurries that completely covered the kitchen table. "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, c'est la même chose," he would start to say in his lecture voice, as if about to deliver a lesson, but he'd quickly lapse back into that single word.

What had Elfnein's thoughts been while watching the night sky of the countryside? Had Elfnein searched for specific stars, planets, constellations—Polaris, Jupiter, Libra—or had she been content to take in the cosmos without distinctions? Does Elfnein know the difference between a Berlin sky and Tokyo sky?

Who was Elfnein?

(Who was Papa?)

She fights against yawning, fails, and scrunches her face against the sheen of sleepy-tears that renders everything an incomprehensible blur and scrambles her thoughts into ones longing for the comfort of her bed (her bed, all hers, for today and yesterday and tomorrow and next month and maybe, maybe, maybe all the way to next year). She yawns again, gaze swimming and eyelids drooping. Not even the stu—the annoyingly persistent sense of DOOM will keep her awake.

"C'mon, Caaaarol, you'll be more comfortable sleeping in your bed. Trust me, the porch gets pretty cold and actually kinda creepy if you wake up when it's still dark. Better to be in a proper bed, where you can pretend the monsters can't see you as long as you're covered by your blanket. Also, you're a lot less likely to wake up with a sore body."

For lack of a will to say something coherent, she merely whines when Hibiki nudges her.

Then: she's airborne, but not.

Hibiki's carrying her, blanket and all.

"We just have to be patient, Carol," Hibiki murmurs. "Everything's going to be a-okay."

[***]

There's something… a sense, or a feeling, or a knot in her sternum. Yes, a knot. She doesn't dare look at it too closely in Darahim and Suyuf's presence; suffice to say that something flares in her chest when she opens the door of Hibiki and Miku's house to welcome (well, that's a bit of a stretch) Darahim and Suyuf.

"Please pardon the intrusion," they say as they bow, then toe off their shoes.

"Welcome! Come in! I've got tea going and plenty of snacks—oh, wait, do either of you have allergies or other dietary restrictions? Nuts, gluten, lactose intolerance? The pretzels should be safe, right? I should've asked before, I'm such a bad host, darn it—"

Suyuf raises both eyebrows at Carol, who can only glance back at Hibiki with the helpless, horrified bewilderment of watching someone step in front of an oncoming train. They haven't even made it past the doorway.

"—I can go to the store really quick to get you guys something else, let me just find my keys—"

"Um, Hibiki—"

"—jacket, wallet—"

"—We're fine," Darahim says loudly enough to stop Hibiki.

"Oh." Hibiki slowly pulls her arm out of her jacket.

Suyuf closes the front door with a click,like punctuation. A stupid smirk crosses her face. Who invited Suyuf? She doesn't even go to the same school!

"We'll be in my room," Carol declares, dragging Suyuf by the arm down the suddenly interminable hallway.

"Do you have oatmeal cookies?" she hears Darahim ask Hibiki. "Phara likes them, sometimes, if they're not too sweet…."

[***]

Once they've eaten, Darahim breaks the silence first. "How do you usually study the vocabulary?" Darahim asks as she pulls from a metal tin a bundle of laminated, cardstock flashcards held together with a dark blue ribbon.

Moving their plate of crumbs and tea out of the way, Carol says, "Flashcards are boring and good only for rote memorization. I prefer to incorporate vocabulary into coherent paragraphs to prove that I truly understand," and pulls a face against Suyuf's raised, mocking eyebrows.

"Surely you can't be the judge of that," Suyuf says, pointing out the obvious. "And isn't that a lot of work?"

"I get Hibiki or Miku to check for me. It works," Carol replies in as level a voice as she can manage when Suyuf insists on being Suyuf.

"I happen to like flashcards." Darahim spreads them out in a fan across the desk. "Easier to keep track." To demonstrate, she picks one up: kanji, radical, common compounds, and stroke diagram on one side; the traditional on reading, Japanese kun reading, and translations in standardized German on the others side.

"Right: your parents. Or do you prefer to call them 'guardians'?" Suyuf says, sitting up from her perch on Carol's bed.

She narrows her eyes at Suyuf. They're not my parents, she doesn't say. "I guess your guardian checks for you, too," is her response. To Darahim, she says, "This isn't your handwriting," comparing one card's hiragana and romaji (technically not romaji, since it's for the German translations) to another's kanji. The hiragana and romaji are in Darahim's carefully round script, but the strokes for the kanji resemble calligraphy far more than a student's penmanship.

Overall, she gets the sense that these cards were made with (almost excessive and old-fashioned) love. Homemade is one thing, given that German is Darahim's first language, but the lamination? Calligraphy? Cardstock? Ribbon and special container?

"Aunt Iris wrote them for her," Suyuf answers for Darahim. Her smirk temporarily vanishes in an effort to look guileless as she says, "I hear Elfnein's parents help her out extensively, you know."

This 'Aunt Iris' must really care for Darahim, then. And, given that neither Suyuf nor Darahim have ever mentioned having parents of their own, Suyuf has no right to be taking such a sly tone toward Carol!

"What does that even mean? Of course they help her," she rolls her eyes and sweeps Darahim's flashcards into a neat pile to start. Then, she stops. "Where'd you hear that, anyway? You don't even go to our school." She frowns at Darahim, remembering that Darahim is Elfnein's official school guide, even though Darahim has a bad reputation for being a troublemaker….

Has Elfnein made any friends?

"Jealous that I know something about your sister that you don't? Oh, not from Leiur, don't worry," Suyuf cuts in before Darahim can say anything. "Leiur can be so stubborn sometimes; luckily, she's not my only contact at school." This is said with a renewed smirk and an air of smugness.

Something twists in her chest, but it's not a big deal. Miku said so. She breathes out, slow and controlled. Hibiki promised that everything will be okay.

"Phara's homeschooled. It makes her feel left out," Darahim suddenly says.

"Shut up, you!" Suyuf scowls impressively.

Darahim doesn't even look at Suyuf, continuing tonelessly, "Her grandfather pulled her out because she was being so—hm!"

—Suyuf threw a pillow, Carol's pillow, at Darahim's head.

"Hey!" Carol protests, picking up her pillow from the floor and dusting it off. "Don't drag me into your problems, Suyuf," she says, tossing her pillow onto her bed, past Suyuf.

"Neither of you are any fun," Suyuf grumbles and flops back down.

"I'll quiz you first," she says to Darahim, who nods and sits up straight. That puts Darahim's eye level a little higher than Carol's used to, which is totally unfair. Even Garie and Micha are a few inches taller than her.

Without further comments from Suyuf, they go through this week's kanji set a few times before Hibiki pokes her head in to ask if they want more tea or snacks.

"Tea, please. And some Madeleine cookies," Carol replies, most of her attention trying to figure out what the kanji Darahim's holding up means. It has the tree radical….

"A few more oatmeal cookies if it's not too much trouble, ma'am," Suyuf pipes up in a sweet voice.

Humph.

"Coming right up! Anything for you, Miss Darahim?"

"No, thank you, Mrs. Tachibana."

Hibiki comes and goes with their snacks, Carol and Darahim finish with the flashcards and move onto their arithmetic homework, and Suyuf's voices drifts in and out of their awareness as they work.

By the time Darahim and Suyuf have to go, Carol has mostly forgotten the sting of Suyuf's words. She takes a moment, however, to pull Darahim back a few paces from Suyuf to whisper, "Take care of Elfnein, please."

Darahim stares back with those bored, passive eyes of hers. "Alright," Darahim shrugs, and walks away.

Everything will be okay, right? She just has to be patient….