Elfnein had yet to adjust to waking up in her own room, even after countless mornings of doing so. It was more open than the workspaces she spent so much time in, despite how much everyone had helped her personalize it with clutter. Just little gifts with no practical use beyond reminding her of the people that gave them to her, taking up desk space and hanging from the walls.
It was already after seven a.m., so Elfnein knew she was the last one in the house awake without leaving bed to check. Tsubasa and Maria were such early risers, she couldn’t keep up with them without setting an alarm. Despite her insistence that she would be fine waking up when they did, they talked her into keeping her own schedule.
Yesterday, they told her nobody was working today. Today, she had no reason to wake up with the alarm and slept in. Not wanting to be any further behind the other two than she already was, she left her bed – Maria had repeatedly insisted it was Elfnein’s bed and her own room, and not just where she was staying – and made herself presentable to greet them for the morning.
When Elfnein left her room to find them, Maria was already at the stove, with Tsubasa doing cleanup behind her. This was the usual when all three were home; Elfnein had asked before why Tsubasa never cooked, but Tsubasa only sulked as Maria laughed through an explanation that she was still practicing.
“Good morning, Tsubasa-san, Maria-san.” Elfnein went towards her seat at the table, awaiting a request for help that neither of them had ever asked of her. She’d given up on telling them that she didn’t mind helping and left the offer standing.
“Morning, Elfnein,” Maria said, stirring something in a pan on the stove.
“Good morning,” Tsubasa said as well, as she turned to scoop rice from the cooker. Elfnein assumed Maria had filled it, as the little attempted cooking she’d personally seen from Tsubasa included her forgetting to plug in the rice cooker. A streak of guilt went through Elfnein as she noticed they had been awake for so long that they were finishing the meal.
“You want some, right?” Maria asked Elfnein, pulling her from that thought.
“Ah- yes, please.” Elfnein nodded, not hungry this soon after waking up, but she would be before long.
“Omelet rice again,” Maria told her over the clattering of dishes as Tsubasa washed them. A common breakfast, agreeable to the differing ethnic backgrounds in the house, and simple enough for Maria to make well.
“Thank you,” Elfnein said almost absently. She felt too awkward to do anything recreational while they cooked, but there was nothing for her to do to help, either.
“And there’s no working today. Remember that,” Maria said, pointing a spatula in Elfnein’s direction. “Did you make any plans?”
“Was I supposed to?” Elfnein asked; she hadn’t been told anything more than to stay away from SONG HQ for the day.
“No, but it’s better for me if you’re free,” Maria said as she dropped the rice Tsubasa handed her into a hot pan full of sizzling vegetables. “I have to run a few errands, can you keep me company while I’m out?”
“What about Tsubasa-san?” Elfnein asked as she watched Tsubasa pull out eggs from the fridge, but left them on the counter next to a bowl for Maria. Every morning, Elfnein watched for clues as to why Tsubasa never helped cook, because it seemed unlikely that Tsubasa, of all people, was so inept in the kitchen she couldn’t even crack an egg properly.
“I have business here,” Tsubasa answered, returning to the sink to rinse the utensils Maria would need again. “So I can’t leave with the two of you.”
“Ah, okay.” Elfnein agreed to go out, but her mind wandered to a phrase she’d learned from Chris recently: third wheel.
“I’m tired of third wheeling on that idiot’s dates,” Chris had said of Hibiki. “If she wants to go out she can do it without thinking I’m so desperate for company I’d rather watch them than be at home.” While Elfnein wasn’t tired of Tsubasa and Maria, she wondered if the same concept applied to her and the inseparable couple.
“Elfnein?” Tsubasa called Elfnein’s attention to the plate of omelet rice in front of her, and Elfnein noticed Tsubasa was standing in front of her.
“Sorry, I was just….” Elfnein shrugged, not having an answer as to why she was zoned out.
Tsubasa didn’t ask for an answer, and smiled at her. “Eat so you have energy. Maria is exhaustless when she’s shopping.”
“Don’t give her any bad impressions, Tsubasa,” Maria said from where she still was in front of the stove. “And you don’t have to be so mean while I’m making your breakfast.”
Tsubasa chuckled and ruffled Elfnein’s hair as she told Maria, “I’m only giving her a fair warning. You two have a full day ahead of you, don’t you?”
“Hopefully it won’t take that long,” Maria said, with a tone that was almost accusatory. “Elfnein, once we’re done, can you get ready to leave?”
“Ah, yes, I can,” Elfnein said before immediately starting to eat, as Tsubasa left her side to retrieve her own plate from Maria in exchange for a quick kiss. Elfnein was almost halfway done with hers when Tsubasa sat down next to her; she learned she was a fast eater when she compared herself to the others, finding the time spent eating to be wasteful.
“In a hurry?” Tsubasa asked her, nodding towards Elfnein’s plate.
“Maria-san wants to leave soon, so I don’t want to delay us,” Elfnein said after hastily swallowing so that she could open her mouth to speak.
“You have plenty of time,” Tsubasa assured her before cutting into her own omelet. “Maria still has to get ready, as well.”
“You make it sound like I always spend hours getting ready,” Maria said as she swirled the pan containing her own breakfast. “I can hurry, too.”
“I’m sure Elfnein would appreciate it if she wasn’t left to wait long for you,” Tsubasa said with a look in Elfnein’s direction. Elfnein grew conscious under Tsubasa’s stare, and looked down at her plate again, almost empty after only a few words exchanged between the two.
“S- sorry. I don’t mind waiting.” Elfnein tried to slow down for the last bit on her plate, but she wasn’t sure what to do while pausing. It really was a waste of time that she could spend making sure she was ready before Maria.
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” Maria said turning to Elfnein after dropping the last of the fried rice in the pan. “I’ll be ready soon, so you won’t be waiting long.”
After a few hours out, Elfnein remembered what Tsubasa had said about Maria never tiring when shopping. It felt like they hadn’t accomplished much, and despite all the stores they went to, and scoured front to back to front again, they had so few things that Elfnein could probably carry the bags herself. Maria checked her phone constantly, telling Elfnein she was only comparing things between the stores, but the phone didn’t ever factor into her decisions.
Elfnein didn’t mind, but not being bothered didn’t stop her from being confused about what Maria wanted to buy in the first place. In the end they bought bedsheets and pillowcases, some throw pillows Maria liked, curtains Elfnein didn’t know they needed, and a dress Maria said Elfnein would look good in. For as long as they were out, it seemed like they could have done this far more efficiently.
At one point, Maria looked away from her phone and asked Elfnein, “Are you hungry? Tsubasa wants to go out for lunch with us.”
“I’d like that,” Elfnein said, smiling. Perhaps it was an inefficient trip, but she enjoyed getting to spend a day off with Maria, and bringing Tsubasa in could only make it better.
It was a quick drive, and when they pulled into the driveway, Maria told Elfnein, “I’ll bring the bags in. Can you open the door for me?”
“Alright.” Elfnein hopped out of the car and made a light rush to the door, making sure she would get there before Maria. She was surprised the door was locked with Tsubasa home, but thought nothing of it when she unlocked it and entered, staring to call, “Tsu-”
Elfnein stood, stunned to silence, at what was front of her. A small crowd of the other wielders alongside Tsubasa, in front of a table full of gifts in the rearranged living room, greeted her as soon as she opened the door. A banner reading “Happy Birthday Elfnein!” hung from the ceiling.
“It took you long enough to set up,” Maria said, having come up behind Elfnein while she was surprised and unaware. “I thought she was going to catch on.”
“Sorry, Maria-san!” Hibiki said, amongst a chorus of laughs and apologies. Chris had started bickering with Kirika and Shirabe over something Elfnein couldn’t hear, and Tsubasa appeared to step in to break it up.
“Everyone….” Elfnein choked on a sentence she couldn’t start. She rubbed her eyes as they started to sting, and she looked up at Maria, questioning.
“You said you don’t know your birthday, right?” Maria said with a warm smile. “So you’ve never celebrated it?”
“No, n- never,” Elfnein said. When asked just weeks before if she wanted to pick a birthday for herself, she said she wasn’t interested.
“We decided this for you, if that’s okay,” Maria explained before Elfnein could ask. “You were the only one being left out.”
“I…didn’t feel left out,” Elfnein said, drying her eyes on her sleeve again. “Or, I did, maybe, I didn’t notice….”
That feeling of exclusion over the past months all caught up to her, but that wasn’t why she stood there crying, surrounded by friends now voicing their concern. It was those friends that made her feel so appreciated, showing a hard contrast between her life before them and since.
A cry of “Dess!” snapped Elfnein out of her thoughts, as Kirika slammed into her for a hug. Hibiki was on the opposite side to catch them when Kirika tackled too hard and almost sent them both to the ground. Elfnein let herself fall into Hibiki, laughing uncontrollably as Kirika stood to free Elfnein from where she was sandwiched between them.
“Ah! Are you okay?”
Their voices faded until Elfnein couldn’t determine who was speaking anymore, and she continued to laugh as if the part of her brain that caused reactions was broken. She cried, whether it was because she was laughing so much, or she was so overcome with emotion, she couldn’t tell. The others surrounded her, and she smiled and cried.
“You guys…” she said with a final sniffle. “This is….”
“A party!” Maria finished for her. She patted Elfnein on the back and pushed her from the doorway into the room. “You can’t cry at a celebration.”
“Yes,” Elfnein said, perking up and wiping her eyes dry for the last time. She looked around – her friends, the decorations assembled while she was gone, the table filled with food Shirabe must have labored over, wrapped gifts arranged on the far end of the same table – and couldn’t help but realize just how good her new family was to her.
“Everyone…” she pushed away the tears with an even bigger smile, “thank you.”