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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-”

Happy birthday!

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.

“Elfnein-chan?”

“Ah! Are you okay?”

“Elfnein?”

“Elfnein!?”

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.”

Chapter Text

Kirika pushed Carol from behind, forcing her to walk faster than she already was. Carol’s instinct was to dig her heels in at being shoved around, but she kept her legs moving, curious about what was so important. Elfnein and Shirabe followed behind them, not keeping up with Kirika’s longer stride.

“So!” Kirika said when they reached the door of an ordinary conference room. “You need to be outside to go out camping, right?”

“I…guess?” Carol answered, unsure of how it was relevant. She’d read about camping at least, very briefly, but had never done it for herself. She clarified, a little bitter, “You know I’ve never been outside.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Kirika said, either ignoring or entirely missing that she’d said something a little hurtful, as Shirabe swung the door open. Kirika yelled, “Because you can camp inside, too!”

Behind the door was the expected room, rearranged. The long table was pushed against the wall, replaced with blankets all over the floor and too many potted plants. Carol didn’t understand what either of them were implying, and asked, “The conference room?”

“We turned it into a fake campsite,” Shirabe explained, as Kirika gave Carol a solid shove to stumble into the room. It was darker than any room she’d seen in the middle of the day; usually lights from outside and the hallway filtered through the blinds no matter how tightly they were closed, but they’d stapled heavier curtains over every window.

Carol didn’t get it, she lacked the knowledge of camping required to understand, but they went through this trouble to show her. “Thanks…” she said, not sure of what else she was supposed to say.

Kirika remained next to her with a proud hum, while Shirabe unpacked something Carol couldn’t see in the dark. One of those things must’ve been a flashlight, because Shirabe clicked one on and tossed it to Kirika.

“You can’t turn on the lights, you have to use lanterns and stuff,” Kirika said, handing the flashlight to Carol. “But we can’t use gas lamps inside so we have these.” Carol shined the light around the room, marveling at the novelty. If they were just describing it to her, she would answer that she could turn her lights off any day, but even standing in the dark now, she wasn’t sure why it felt so different.

Carol looked to Elfnein, gauging if a happy reaction was appropriate. Elfnein only smiled when she noticed that she was being watched, and Carol returned it, taking Elfnein’s happiness as a positive sign. Carol stepped closer to her so that she could hold her hand.

Kirika returned to Carol’s side, grinning, with her hand held behind her back. “We even thought of something to do while we’re alone.”

“I’m always alone,” Carol said. “Wouldn’t I just do the same thing I always do?”

“No, no, it’s different,” Kirika said, throwing her hands in the air defensively, and revealing the water bottle in her hand. She looked at it, and she frowned as if that was a surprise she just ruined. “It’s all of us alone, and no one to tell us we’re too young for this.”

“It’s.…” Carol paused, scrutinizing the bottle, even shining her flashlight at it, because there must have been something about it she wasn’t seeing. “I don’t understand the joke.”

“It’s not a joke,” Kirika said, mood flattened by Carol’s words. She opened the bottle and emptied it into one of the plants, confusing Carol further. “Haven’t you heard of spin the bottle?”

Carol turned to Elfnein again to see her reaction before Kirika’s explanation, but Elfnein gave an ambiguous sigh. “I haven’t,” Carol said when she turned back to Kirika.

“It’s easy, we all sit in a circle,” Kirika sat down on the floor to demonstrate while Shirabe walked towards them, “and take turns spinning it.” She spun it around and was silent as she watched it.

“And?” Carol asked, not believing for a moment that Kirika was going to suggest something that boring.

“Hang on, wait for it to finish.” Kirika held her hand up to motion to Carol to be quiet, and when the bottle started slowing, she grabbed it and turned the mouth end to Shirabe. “Whoever it lands on, you have to kiss them.”

“No.” Carol immediately rejected the idea, before Kirika and Shirabe could meet for a kiss as the bottle dictated.

“Why not!?” Kirika demanded, somehow surprised at her answer.

“I only kiss Elfnein,” Carol said, defensively tightening her grip on Elfnein’s hand.

“That’s what makes this so mature,” Kirika said, leaning forward. “Only the adults get to experiment like this, but we’ve all only kissed one person each.”

“And I only want to kiss one person,” Carol said, sitting down not to play, but because it was so awkward to talk to Kirika while standing. “I can’t kiss you.”

“No, it’s different. That’s what the adults don’t tell you.” She hummed knowingly. “I’m going to marry Shirabe, but I don’t have to date someone else to kiss them. You get experience in earlier relationships so you impress your wife, but since none of us have dated anyone else, we can get our experience with this.”

Elfnein spoke up as Carol started to think about it. “I’m not sure about this,” she said.

Carol asked Elfnein directly, “Am I bad without experience?” In the side of her vision, Carol noticed Shirabe taking the kiss that was interrupted.

“You’re fine, Carol,” Elfnein said. “That’s not important.”

Carol ran the scenario through her head, surprised at how attractive the idea sounded. She was fully devoted to Elfnein, but she could express that any time. There were restrictions on everything else she did, and Kirika set something up so they could all do something they weren’t allowed.

Before this, Carol didn’t even know what the game was. But now that she knew she wasn’t allowed, she wanted to know what other experiences were being hidden from her due to age or the past she’d forgotten. There were more important mysteries, but this was one she could solve now.

Elfnein watched Carol as she lost herself in thought before asking, “Did you want to?” in a cautious tone.

“Is it okay?” Carol asked in return.

“If…you want to,” Elfnein said. Carol ignored Elfnein’s palpable skepticism, and set aside her own worries about jealousy. There was finally a way for her to try something forbidden and expand her horizons.

“Great!” Kirika set the bottle in the middle between them, and scooted to the side so they were more evenly spaced apart. “We’ll go, umm…” she spun her finger clockwise, pointing from herself to Shirabe, Carol next, and Elfnein last, “this way. I’ll go first.”

Before the rules could be contested, Kirika gave it a quick spin. It flew off as all but Elfnein leaned in, as if getting a few inches closer would make the result more obvious. It slowed down and finally stopped, directed at Shirabe.

“Yes!” Kirika pumped her fist into the air and turned to her side, meeting Shirabe, who was already moving closer to her.

Shirabe’s turn was next, and without breaking the kiss, she blindly reached for the bottle to spin it again. Carol zoned her vision onto the bottle, too awkward to watch them, and not sure what else to do while waiting. She thought about what could happen when it stopped, and the reality of her decision sunk in.

The pair stopped kissing before the bottle slowed, while Carol realized it was entirely possible she was going to kiss Shirabe in a few seconds. Maybe worse, Elfnein might kiss her. It was a brief, passing thought, but Carol didn’t like the idea of Elfnein kissing someone else.

The conflict was delayed as Shirabe’s bottle stopped on Kirika. Less enthused than she was moments ago, Kirika said, “There’s no point in playing if this keeps happening. Carol, you’re next, land on one of us.”

As the two resumed their kiss, Carol looked back to Elfnein yet again. Elfnein’s face was buried in her palm, and she offered Carol no support. Without any other guidance than Kirika’s instruction, Carol took her turn to spin.

Shirabe and Kirika separated sooner than before, both of them seemingly more interested in the bottle than each other after two kisses. Time slowed as it made its final revolution, and stopped on Kirika.

“Finally!” Kirika yelled, and she immediately sat up straighter and put her hands on the floor in front of her to lean closer. Carol caught her throw a sudden, unsure glance in Shirabe’s direction. “Now, we have to, uhh….”

“Yeah…” Carol agreed, sure that the tension emanating from Kirika wasn’t just her own. If Kirika wasn’t backing out though, neither was Carol. She heard Elfnein sigh from behind her, but Shirabe watched them both in anticipation.

Moving so slowly it was as if they weren’t moving at all, Kirika and Carol closed the gap between them, before Kirika leapt forward, pressing her lips against Carol’s. They didn’t maintain contact long enough for Carol to even get an impression of what it was like before she recoiled and threw herself backwards in disgust, as Kirika did the same.

“I’m sorry, Shirabe!” Kirika yelled, as Carol vigorously rubbed her sleeve against her mouth to get rid of the feeling. “I’m really sorry!”

“Gross…” Carol mumbled, turning back to Elfnein, who was giving her an exhausted stare. “What?”

“Nothing,” Elfnein said, but Carol frowned.

“It’s not nothing. You’re upset, aren’t you?” she asked.

“No, I’m just,” Elfnein paused, “you have to make mistakes sometimes.”

“No I don’t, I wouldn’t have made that mistake if you told me it’d be wrong.” Carol crossed her arms, but immediately uncrossed them to wipe the phantom feeling of Kirika’s lips off her mouth again.

“If I told you not to, would you have listened? I already told you this wasn’t a good idea,” Elfnein said, and Carol’s arms returned to their crossed position. She pressed herself to think of a rebuttal, shutting out the sound of Kirika’s loud apologies, but Elfnein continued. “You only agreed to it because you were told you weren’t allowed.”

Carol’s immediate reaction to being told she was being contrary was to stubbornly deny it, even if Elfnein was right. “But you can’t prove that.…”

“Alright, Carol,” Elfnein said. She sat up and pulled Carol towards her for a kiss, and Carol threw herself into it, realizing the past few minutes had left her starved for Elfnein’s attention.

“Hey, Carol?” They were interrupted by Kirika walking up, Shirabe holding a further distance from her than usual. “I, uh….”

Carol glared at Kirika and turned away. “I don’t care.”

“Ah, but,” Kirika paused and Carol heard Shirabe whisper something to her. “I know, I know, but…ahh Carol I’m sorry.”

Carol huffed and ignored her, not wanting to talk. Elfnein spoke in her place, and said, “She’ll calm down later.”

“No I won’t,” Carol snapped.

Shirabe pulled Kirika away by the sleeve, and she walked away with a quiet, “Death….” Elfnein held Carol around the middle with a squeeze, pulling her attention back to her.

“Do you want to go talk to her?” Elfnein asked.

“I’m never talking to Kirika again,” Carol said, sinking her weight into Elfnein.

“If you say so.” Elfnein sounded like she didn’t believe her, but Carol was going to show her that she was wrong. She could stay mad at Kirika forever if she wanted to. In the end, Carol decided to separate herself for the night, no longer interested in taking advantage of having so much privacy with others.


 

When Carol woke up on the floor, she was at first confused, before piecing together the night before. Elfnein was asleep against her back, arm draped over her, and Kirika and Shirabe were awake and talking on the other side of the room. Kirika noticed her first, and raised an arm to get her attention.

“Morning Carol!” she said, alert and cheerful this early.

“Morning,” Carol returned groggily, pushing herself to sit upright. Her movements woke Elfnein, who gave a quiet groan as she rubbed her eyes.

“Ah, you aren’t mad anymore?” Kirika asked, perking up even more.

“Mad?” Carol rubbed the side of her head, separating dream from memory just seconds after waking up.

It was at Shirabe’s quiet, “Kiri-chan…” that Carol remembered what had happened.

“Wait, yeah. I’m mad at you.” Carol threw herself back down to lay on the floor, out of sight.

“Carol,” Elfnein groaned, placing a hand on her shoulder as Kirika whined to Shirabe. “It’s too early for this.”

“It’s too early to not be mad.” She rolled over to face Elfnein. “I’m going to be mad forever.”

“Right.” Elfnein, eyes still closed, leaned over to kiss Carol’s forehead. “Wake up, we’ll get this place back in order.”

With a loud groan to emphasize her displeasure, which Elfnein wasn’t taking seriously, Carol stretched and dragged herself to sit up again. She waited for Elfnein to follow, and she acted as Carol’s mediator between the other two. While Shirabe and Kirika returned borrowed equipment that never got used, Carol helped Elfnein gather everything that the cleaning staff would take away and rearrange everything to the best of their ability.

When the door to the conference room opened again, Shirabe stepped in first, saying, “We’re going to get breakfast.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” Elfnein said, dropping the last armful of blankets into a stack in the corner.

“Did you wanna come with?” Kirika asked them.

“Yeah,” Carol said on reflex, but when she noticed Shirabe shoot Kirika a warning look, Carol added, “But not with you. We’re just going.”

“We’re ready to go,” Elfnein said, Carol taking her hand before she finished speaking.

Shirabe and Elfnein held a quiet conversation as they walked ahead, leading the way. They were too quiet to hear, and Carol was hit with a familiar spike of insecurity as she assumed Elfnein was complaining about her.

“So,” Kirika said, sliding up close to Carol. “I asked them to bring in doughnuts today.”

“That sounds really good,” Carol said, welcoming the distraction from her anxieties. They didn’t often bring doughnuts, so it felt special to have a dessert for breakfast. “Wait, I don’t want to talk.”

“Ah, you’re still mad?” Kirika rubbed the back of her neck. “Was it really that big a deal? Shirabe was mad, too, but…we all agreed to it, right?”

“You asked to play the game.” Carol crossed her arms and shuffled her feet as she walked, dragging them across the carpet to express her reluctance to follow despite keeping pace. She wondered if it was always going to be this hard to remember she was mad.

“Yeah, I’m really sorry, neither of us expected it to be like that.” Kirika waited for her to reply, but Carol bit her tongue. “And sorry for ruining the surprise, too.”

Carol kicked at the floor with the tip of her shoe. “You’re okay even though I was mad?”

“I told you Shirabe was too, so it’s not a big deal.” Kirika shrugged and smiled as if Carol had said she was over it.

“Even though I might’ve hurt you?” Carol asked in a near whisper, so no one else would overhear that. She still didn’t know who she’d hurt or how, but if she still couldn’t get forgiveness for that, she didn’t know if she’d gone too far with Kirika.

“If you feel bad then just apologize, and we’re all good.” Kirika held a fist up in Carol’s direction.

After much hesitation, Carol tapped Kirika’s fist with her own. “Then, I’m sorry too.”

“Then we’re friends again.” Kirika slung her arm around Carol’s much-scrawnier shoulders, making it more difficult to walk, but she didn’t hate the hug, especially not after thinking she would have to be mad at her forever after that. “And we already asked the Commander, we can try again next week.”

“You knew I’d stop being mad?” Carol looked up at her, eyebrows knitted. “But I said I wouldn’t.”

“I hoped you’d stop at least,” Kirika said, looking down at her with a wide grin. “And I was right.”

Before Carol could answer, Shirabe and Elfnein turned back to them as they rounded the corner to the dining hall. “Have you two made up?” Elfnein asked.

“Yeah,” Carol admitted, leaning into Kirika’s hold.

“I’m glad,” Shirabe said, smiling gently. “Kiri-chan was so worried you would never talk to her again.”

“Well, yeah, we’re friends.” Kirika let Carol go so that they could make it through the doorway. “Of course I don’t want her to be mad at me forever.”

The cafeteria was almost empty, save for a few people milling about on breaks. Carol wrinkled her nose when she saw Chris among them, standing in the drink fridge.

“Hey, Chris-senpai!” Kirika called out to her from across the room, and Carol ducked away from Kirika despite their just making up, to be out of Chris’s direct line of sight. “You’re here right now?”

“I was gonna ask you the same,” Chris answered. “Didn’t you have some long night planned?”

“Long story,” Kirika said, waving her off. “But we were promised doughnuts today.”

“Yeah, they saved you some on the counter over there.” Chris nodded towards a box wrapped in plastic. “We thought you’d still be asleep right now.”

“We can be responsible about bedtimes too,” Shirabe said, indignant.

“Yeah, sometimes we’re just as mature as everyone else.” Kirika followed it up with a grin everyone but Chris would have understood.

“Sure,” Chris said, openly skeptical. She was still standing in front of the fridge, so she reached in and grabbed a water, holding it out to Carol. “You want one?”

Carol took the bottle from Chris, and while looking her straight in the eye, dropped it into the trash can next to her.

“Carol!” Elfnein yelled immediately. “She didn’t know!”

“And I don’t care,” Chris said, slamming the fridge shut in a manner that showed she did care. “You can get your own damn water next time. I’ll see the rest of you around.”

“You two…” Shirabe said when Chris left.

“Really don’t get along, do you?” Kirika finished for her.

“I’m going to be mad at Chris forever,” Carol told them. “Not like with Kirika. I really mean this.”

Chapter Text

“Papa,” Carol called, watching her father busying himself with numerous vials before him, “where do people go when they die?”

Isaac put his tongs down to hold his hands in front of him, contemplating how to explain such a complicated concept to her; she was old enough to understand the basics of alchemy, and how to gather and harvest materials, but death was something she’d only recently begun to comprehend.

“Why do you ask?” he started, hoping to buy some time to answer, and to just answer her specific request to prevent further questions that she wasn’t prepared to learn.

She looked up at him with wide eyes, not sad, but curious, and said, “I want to know where Mama is.”

“Ah, okay.” He patted his lap to invite her up, and she crawled and kicked her way to sit on him with just a little help. “You go somewhere called Heaven.”

“Heaven?” She mumbled the word again to herself. “Where is it?”

“In the sky, above the clouds,” he said. Carol looked out the window with that answer. “That’s where God is, too.”

“And we can’t visit because it’s so high? Can’t you build stairs?”

Isaac laughed at the innocence of her solution. “You can only get in when it’s your time to die, and God takes you.”

“Oh.” Carol looked deep in thought again, a serious expression on her small face. “But we can’t die, or we won’t be able to help anyone.”

“That’s right, we still have a purpose in this world before we can move into the next. Your mama left because she had a purpose in Heaven.” Part of him was glad that she didn’t have to be as sad about the loss as he was, but he cursed the fact that she would spend so much of her childhood without a mother.

A look of frustration crossed Carol’s face. “Why was it Mama’s time to go?”

“Nobody knows why God does what he does, and we can never find out until we join Him.” Isaac patted her head, ruffling her hair in a way that always bothered her and made her try to smooth it back out immediately.

“What’s Heaven like?” she asked, trying to shake his hand off; if he didn’t keep the mood light and his spirits up, discussing the inevitability of death and his late wife with his too-young daughter might have been too much to deal with.

“It’s the best thing you’ll ever experience, and it makes everything that happens to us while we’re alive worth living through,” he explained, closing his eyes briefly and smiling. “We can’t comprehend such a place, but I’m sure your mother is happy there while she waits for us.”

“Okay…” Her brow furrowed in thought, and then she looked back up at him. “But you can’t go to Heaven before I do, Papa.”

He laughed a little, wrapping an arm around her to pull her in closer. It wasn’t a promise he could make, but that talk could wait until she was a little older. “I’ll do my best.”

Carol leaned into him, gripping the side of his hand with tiny fingers. The heaviness of the conversation forgotten, she suddenly asked, “Can we have lunch?”

“Sure, what do you want?” He let her go when she squirmed and kicked her way out of his lap to stand on her own.

“Sandwiches.” After a brief moment of thought, she clarified, “I want to make them this time.”

Another laugh, at how incompetent he was in the eyes of his daughter, who couldn’t even reach the stove without assistance. But still, he couldn’t deny that she’d already picked up the basics of cooking more easily than he had. “Alright, go get your stool.”


Heaven is the best thing you’ll ever experience. Carol had never forgotten these words, and the promise of an eternity spent with her father and near-forgotten mother. She would do her best like he’d told her too, so that they could meet again at the pearly gates when it was their time.

She was positive that it wasn’t Isaac’s time to go to Heaven yet. They still had so much work to do, and so many people to save.

It makes everything that happens to us while we’re alive worth living through. How great could any place be so great that being betrayed by your patients and burning to death was worth it?

The magistrate announced that the witches were destined for Hell if their souls weren’t purified, but Isaac was a good person. His soul was more pure than any of them, who would take him from her without warning or reason. If God wouldn’t take him, then she didn’t want anything to do with Him or his followers.

I’ll do my best, he promised. But Carol was going to have to wait a long, long time to see him again in Heaven.

Chapter Text

Kanade’s offer of a date seemed normal enough, until she told Maria that Tsubasa wasn’t invited. All Maria could ask her was why: why a date, why with her, why without Tsubasa? It went against the arrangement that all of them would date, a couple comprised of three, so Tsubasa wouldn’t have to decide between them.

“Why not?” was all Kanade said at first. At Maria’s silent skepticism, she answered, “We both work with Tsubasa, right? But I don’t know you very well.”

A twinge of annoyance went through Maria at the reminder that to Tsubasa, she was second to Kanade. “And you want to go on a date to fix that?” she asked.

“Well, yeah.” Kanade gave her a self-assured grin. “I’ll take you out for a good time, show you what I’m about, get a feel for you.”

“And this has something to do with Tsubasa?” Maria asked, still bothered.

“I told you, we don’t know each other as well as she knows us.” Kanade must not have noticed Maria’s insecurity with her place in Tsubasa’s life and continued. “So we need to make sure we can get along without her keeping us in line.”

Maria hesitated to agree with Kanade. She was reckless, almost careless in her actions, but her reason for this date was surprisingly thoughtful. “Okay,” Maria said, her mind running through scenarios about how badly it could go. While it was a romantic action, Kanade had proven to be one of the least-romantic people she’d known, and Maria dreaded the regret she felt was inevitable.

They'd picked a time and date, but Kanade insisted the location be a surprise. To Maria, this meant she didn't know what to prepare herself for, but as promised, she'd put on a nice outfit and was ready before Kanade said she'd pick her up. Her phone buzzed with a text notification from Tsubasa; it was still too early for Kanade to arrive.

Just trust her. Tsubasa's message caused Maria’s phone to ping with an alert. Maria envied Tsubasa's faith that this would work, and questioned if she really did believe it was okay, or if she was blinded by old memories of her teenage romance.

I'll try, Maria typed back, and followed with a second message. She should be here soon, I won't text back unless there's an emergency.

What constituted as an emergency was entirely up to Maria's discretion, and she had already decided on how to break it to Tsubasa that things weren't going smoothly between herself and Kanade, if it came to that.

It wasn't long until Maria's phone went off again, and what was expected to be a reply from Tsubasa was Kanade's. You ready?

Maria checked the time to see it was exactly five minutes before Kanade was supposed to arrive. Maria matched Kanade’s effortless nonchalance with forced confidence she typed out What do you take me for?

The time could have meant anything – that Kanade had only started getting ready, that she was getting ready to leave her place – and Maria didn’t have the energy to spend on fretting over Kanade’s punctuality.

Seconds after hitting send, before she could lock her phone, she heard the doorbell. Maria stared at the door, caught off guard as she was expecting the next ring to come from her phone. Gathering her composure in case Kanade really was early, Maria took a firm grip on the doorknob and opened it.

Standing on the porch and leaning against the doorway was Kanade, in a suit vest and holding a pink rose towards Maria. She spoke before Maria could, saying, “You look nice.”

“And you clean up well.” Maria took the rose politely and said, “You’re a little early.”

“You seem the type to be ready early.” Kanade grinned as she looked Maria up and down. “Got it right, didn’t I?”

Kanade held her hand out, a classic, silent action to ask for Maria’s. Maria obliged and placed her palm on Kanade’s, letting herself be led towards a limo waiting on the street. “You certainly went all out,” Maria said.

“From how Tsubasa talks about you, you deserve all the work I put into this,” Kanade said with a proud smile that betrayed a blithe shrug. “So I'm hoping you'll show me what she sees, tonight.”

“I'll do my best then.” Maria stepped in through the door Kanade held open, rather than letting the chauffer do so. When a driver was nowhere to be seen, Maria wondered if Kanade was going to drive, but she followed her in and sat across from her.

“So how are you feeling about this?” Kanade asked, opening the floor for conversation as soon as the limo pulled away from the curb.

“I’m,” Maria paused, afraid to give an honest answer, “unsure.” It was more true than false; she knew exactly how she felt, that she was unsure of whether this was even a good idea.

“There’s nothing for you to worry about,” Kanade said as she placed a hand on Maria’s knee, but Maria crossed her legs and pulled it out of reach. Kanade’s hand didn’t follow. “I just have to impress you, right? Show you we’ll work out just fine.”

“Hm.” Maria crossed her arms as well. “That’s the goal, at least.”

An annoyed expression crossed Kanade’s face before she disguised it with a smile and the question, “I told you, you look great, yeah? Did Shirabe and Kirika help you put this together?”

“Yeah…” Maria said as she gave a self-conscious look downwards. “Is it that obvious?”

“They know what they’re doing,” Kanade said as she also gave Maria a thorough looking-over. “And you’ve got a different vibe than usual.”

“They saw me getting ready and insisted on helping.” Maria toyed with a strand of hair. “They…asked if I was going out with Tsubasa, actually.”

“What did you tell them?” Kanade cocked her head to the side like a curious animal.

“I told them about our…” Maria trailed off as she searched for an appropriate word, “situation.” She giggled as she recalled the memory. “I’m worried I gave Kirika some ideas, she looked like a whole new world opened up.”

Kanade barked out a short laugh. “I’m sure it’s fine. Those kids are too in love for you and me to cause a problem.”

Maria thought that over, and something didn’t add up. “Have you not been in love?” she asked in disbelief.

“Different situation,” Kanade said, waving her hand. “Tsubasa and I were never looking for a third before. It’s still not about us adding a third, you took my place and now it’s you and me working together, for her sake.”

“Hm.” Maria gave a token hum as she thought it over. “Are we?”

That sudden annoyance passed over Kanade’s face again, almost too quick to catch. “Why else would we be doing this?”

Maria paused before thinking over an answer. There wasn’t anything that she was willing to tell Kanade to her face; it was hard to accuse someone of trying to get between her relationship when she didn’t have evidence yet. With a quiet sigh, Maria said, “You’re right.”

Kanade leaned in, interested expression returning. “You said the kids helped you. Go back to that.”

“They saw me looking through my makeup when they asked.” Maria thawed as she recounted. “When I told them about you, Kirika demanded I change into another dress.” She smiled and raised her voice in her best Kirika impression. “You have to wear black to impress her! Black is sexy, dess.

Kanade went into a bout of uncontrollable laughter. Maria tried to remain stony, but couldn’t help but hold a hand over her mouth and join. It broke through the tense air, despite the notion that Kanade was laughing at her. For just that moment, Kanade’s contagious laughter eased Maria’s fears.

With a few deep breaths, Kanade stopped first to say, “Not the most unbiased opinion coming from her, is it?”

Maria settled herself with the sobering thought of Shirabe’s wardrobe. “I’d rather not think about them growing up like that.”

“What’s wrong? They’re…” Kanade was silent in thought for a moment, “almost 20, right?”

“Kirika is 20 now, yes,” Maria said with an inward shudder. “But it doesn’t feel like they’re that old when I watched them grow up. We’ve all changed, but they’re different.”

Kanade gave a shrug as carefree as a high school dropout watching their grades falling. “But they’re still adults. From what I hear, you and Tsubasa were even younger when you met.”

Maria balked at the thought of them doing anything she and Tsubasa had done, despite already having heard the evidence, most often from Kirika’s own mouth as she spoke her thoughts aloud. She didn’t want to be reminded of it at the start of this disastrous date, before they even made it to the restaurant. “I didn’t even know Tsubasa at their age.”

With another shrug and wave of her hand, Kanade said, “Tsubasa was 12 when we first met. Took me a few years to chill out though, she was about 14 or 15 when she said we were officially together.”

That bothered Maria, that Kanade was so blasé about Tsubasa. “You don’t remember that about her?” she asked, incredulous.

“Hey, I lost a big chunk of my life to that coma, it’s a bit blurry.” Kanade sounded defensive, and she slunk back in her seat. “We were together for a while before anyways, kinda. Went out on dates and everything, but it took her some time to accept it. Your kids are lucky, sounds like they were young when they knew.”

“I wouldn’t call them lucky,” Maria snapped. “You didn’t see them grow up. I did, and it’s hard to let that go.”

The irritated expression crossed Kanade’s face again, and didn’t leave this time. “Alright, I got another question,” she said as she hunched over, elbows on her knees. “Why are you so obnoxious tonight?”

Maria froze before being able to speak. “Excuse me?

“Yeah, you’re being difficult.” Kanade huffed and gestured vaguely towards Maria. “You’re just, angry, no matter what I say.”

“Why wouldn’t I be upset?” Maria retorted. Kanade’s arrogance was only furthering her aggravation.

“Why would you be? I’m just trying to get to know you like we agreed.” She dug around her pocket for her phone, unlocking it but holding it face down in her lap afterwards. “If there’s something I shouldn’t have said, you gotta tell me.”

“Maybe we just shouldn’t have done this at all,” Maria said, voice curt as she bit back the unsteadiness creeping into her voice. She retreated into the smug façade she hadn’t used in years, holding her ground. “This clearly isn’t going well.”

“Alright. You’re mad,” Kanade said flatly. “So lemme have it. What’s wrong?”

“What’s right?” Maria asked, fingernails digging into her palm. “Do you even care about this? Or anything?”

Kanade watched in silence, so Maria continued. “Most of us don’t know you. You can’t just come back and act like you have a place. You- you didn’t lose a place with us, only Tsubasa.”

Maria paused to take a breath, recomposing herself under Kanade’s intensifying stare. “I don’t even think you’re considering,” Maria took another breath, “that all of us need a new place now, because we’re not shutting you out. We all have to adapt around you-” Maria was cut off by Kanade giving her phone an underhand toss to Maria’s lap. “What’s this?”

Kanade crossed her arms and looked off to the side, breaking eye contact for the first time. “My texts,” she answered, voice unusually clipped.

Maria took that as a cue to read it, careful to not move to another app as she picked it up from her thigh. It was open on a conversation with Tsubasa, her contact name followed by various heart emojis. It was already scrolled up to an earlier reply, so Maria started there.

Hey was the first message at the top, from Kanade. The second was Kanade as well, reading only, Tsubasa. Most of Kanade’s texts lacked any sort of punctuation, a feat Maria felt took more effort than formatting them properly, but at least Kanade found it too much work to disable autocorrect. Her texts were readable, if sloppy.

Yes, what is it? Tsubasa’s reply was more familiar to Maria. Short and to the point, but maybe a little too short, as people often misinterpreted Tsubasa’s tone as hostile.

You rally think Maria and I would get along? Kanade wasted no time in getting to the issue. Maria checked the timestamps; these were sent in the afternoon, just hours earlier.

Of course I do. Tsubasa’s reply was followed by a smiling emoji. To make up for her abrasive wording, Tsubasa had started including smiles in most texts to show she wasn’t upset. Maria found the stern messages alongside smiles to be jarring, but at the least, it was reassuring as intended.

I mean REALLY. Tell me why was Kanade’s reply. Maria swallowed, wondering if this was too personal to read without Tsubasa’s permission, but she couldn’t stop now without seeing what Tsubasa thought of her.

I think Maria believes you two have nothing in common. When I first met you, I thought the same of us. When I listened to you, I noticed you’re more sensitive than you seem, and if she can see that side of yu, she’ll understand. She’s protective of the others and wary about letting you close to them, but you were just as protective of me then as she is now. The both of you care about others more than yourselves, but she’s too cautious to see that in you. Tsubasa’s reply was not only long, but according to the timestamps, it was sent almost a half hour later. A pang of guilt ran through Maria at the unfiltered honesty and kindness Tsubasa showed when Maria wasn’t intended to read it.

Were doing on a date tonight actually so I can show her was all Kanade sent.

That’s wonderful. Tsubasa followed this with a sparkling emoji, showing the joy that her flat sentence didn’t. But this is the first I’ve heard of this.

Yeah we agreed to get to know each other early

I trust it will go well. Tsubasa left another smile at the end, and Maria scrolled down, wondering why Kanade had offered this as an explanation.

Hey. Tsubasa was the next message, followed by another from Kanade. If Maria didn’t want to do this what would you do?

She already agreed to it, so that doesn’t matter. Tsubasa’s reply might have been unsuspecting – Maria still couldn’t decipher Tsubasa reliably – but Maria started forming suspicions about where this conversation was leading.

So you never decided between us? Kanade asked.

There was no reason to. Tsubasa left another optimistic smile, and Maria’s mouth went dry.

And you love Maria right? Another question from Kanade, and Maria’s eyes started to sting anew.

I love her as much as I love you. This time, Tsubasa punctuated it with a heart, and Maria’s cheek felt a streak of warmth as a tear rolled down.

Tsubasa. Don’t tell Maria this. Maria wasn’t sure she wanted to read Kanade’s text, or the next from her, either. If she can’t love me I’m going to leave you two alone

No! was sent within the same minute as the previous. There were a few more minutes between that and Tsubasa’s next message. That won’t happen. She’ll love you.

Maria bit her lower lip, feeling like she’d betrayed Tsubasa for expecting Kanade to have ruined the night. Kanade’s longest message followed.

You said she’s wary and I don’t wanna force her or shell chase herself off. I had my chance already and I lost my whole life. If she’s taking care of you then I still have the entire rest of my life to put back together

There was another gap in the timestamps before Kanade replied again. I’m gonna get ready. I’m doing everything to make this go right for you but if it doesn’t I won’t make you choose.

Please do. I trust you, Kanade…… Maria had to dry her eyes to read what Tsubasa sent.

There was more, but Maria could no longer read it. Tears blurred the text, and she held the phone out to Kanade to signal that she’d seen enough. The phone left Maria’s hand, and Kanade asked, “You get it now?”

Maria gritted her teeth and hid her face in her hand before nodding. She wanted to say yes, but speaking would open the dam holding her emotions back. Kanade spoke again, asking, “Do you want a hug?”

Maria nodded once more, not too proud to turn down the offer if she was already crying in front of her. Kanade left the seat across from Maria to sit next to her, and pulled Maria around to face her before pulling her into a too-tight hug. “Don’t go making me feel like the bad guy,” Kanade joked, but Maria felt at fault for that as well.

Unable to verbally apologize, Maria leaned into Kanade’s embrace, getting as comfortable as she could while at risk of being crushed. Kanade was shorter, but the two found an arrangement where Maria could support herself on her without a single word exchanged.

“I don’t really know what to say until you calm down enough to explain yourself,” Kanade said as she rested her cheek on top of Maria’s head. “Lemme guess, Tsubasa nailed it?” Maria remained still before admitting it, to both Kanade and herself, and nodding.

“So I showed up and changed things, and you got so worried about everyone that you protected them from an imaginary threat.” Kanade started stroking Maria’s hair, softening what might’ve sounded like accusations if she wasn’t speaking so gently. “I told Tsubasa that’s why I trust you. You’re twitchy, but everyone’s in good hands.”

Kanade chuckled before continuing. “But hey, I need to be protected sometimes. I kicked my own ass so hard I’m still in recovery.”

Maria matched Kanade’s laugh as before, and noticed that while listening to her speak, she found herself calmer. “I’m…” Maria’s breath hitched, but she caught herself, “I’m so sorry.”

“Feeling better then?” Kanade asked.

“Yes.” Maria shifted to sit up, and Kanade released her, but kept an arm around her shoulders. “If it’s not too much to start over….”

“Sounds great.” Kanade flashed Maria a huge grin. “I’m glad you’re everything Tsubasa says about you. You’ve got nothing to lose here, but-” Kanade cut herself off and changed course. “I mean, you aren’t losing Tsubasa. But you’d miss out on all this,” she said with a gesture to herself.

Maria laughed again, trying to open her mind to see Kanade’s confidence as charming, the way Tsubasa saw it. Kanade spoke again before Maria could, and raised her hand to flick Maria’s forehead. “But that’s what I like. You really don’t have to do this, but Tsubasa was right about you. Just gotta get into your head a bit first to make you understand.”

“Then show me what you’re about,” Maria said, parroting the promise Kanade made.

“Hang on.” Kanade pulled Maria against her side, and with her free hand, opened her phone’s front-facing camera. “Let’s tell Tsubasa it’s going well.”

“My makeup is a mess,” was all Maria said before smiling, hoping the joke came across.

“You can fix it later, this is more important.” Kanade took the picture before Maria could change her mind, and sent it to Tsubasa. “And…done.”

It was a struggle to settle her mind, but Maria had to trust Tsubasa, and Tsubasa’s trust in Kanade. There had to be a reason Tsubasa loved her, and Maria’s responsibility now was to find it.

Hopefully Kanade wasn’t going to make that too difficult, but Maria felt something move along her waist. “Watch your hands,” she said in a warning tone.

Kanade gave her usual laugh as she let Maria go. “Too soon then?”

With a playful sigh, Maria said, “Maybe when you show me a little more.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, Tsubasa, I gotta ask you something.” Kanade didn't often give warning before asking a question, but before Tsubasa told her she would listen, or even seemed to realize what Kanade had said, Kanade dropped the question, “Why do they keep calling you a guy?”

Tsubasa's throat bobbed, and she bit down on her lower lip. “Because I am one,” she said, as if ashamed.

“Huh?” Kanade looked Tsubasa up and down, but nothing looked out of the ordinary from the last time she'd checked her out. “If you're trying to sell a joke, your delivery needs work.”

Tsubasa shook her head and asked, “Why would I lie?”

Kanade frowned and crossed her arms as her brain ran through possibilities of what Tsubasa could be talking about. “So you're telling me the up-and-coming hit idol Tsubasa Kazanari is a boy.”

Tsubasa shifted in discomfort through the interrogation, but Kanade felt she needed some answers if they were to be spending so much time together. With a small nod, Tsubasa said, “Yes.”

Kanade's mind struggled to understand, but a forgotten concept snapped to the front of her mind. “Ohhh,” she said, smacking the side of her fist into her open palm. “You're a transgender then, right?”

“A…what?” Tsubasa looked as puzzled as Kanade did before.

“That's what it's called isn't it?” Kanade hadn't heard of it in more than passing, but she was sure that was what it was called. “When you're born as a girl, but you're actually a boy.”

“No, no, I'm…. “ Tsubasa waved her hands in front of her face in wild denial. “I've always been a boy.”

“Oh, is that how it works? I’ve never had anyone who could tell me about it before,” Kanade said with a grin that would disarm anything wrong she might have said. “You should talk me through it some time.”

Despite Kanade’s attempt to get them on the same page, Tsubasa looked further vexed. “I’ve...never even heard of that,” she said. “I wasn’t born like this, I had to change how I look. But I’m still the Kazanari son, even if I don't look it.”

“Wait,” Kanade said, holding up a hand to call for a time out. “Wait, alright, start from the beginning.” She leaned across the table and pointed a finger at Tsubasa, focus trained onto her. “So you were born a boy?”

Tsubasa’s gaze dropped and she took a deep breath before saying, “Yes, it wasn't until I awakened the Ame no Habakiri that I changed my body. My family wanted to use me to draw in potential wielders.”

“So...they turned you into a girl just for that?” Kanade kept a tight leash on her temper; if she lost it before getting the full story, she might scare Tsubasa out of ever explaining

“It was my own suggestion,” Tsubasa said, and even more pieces were added to the puzzle. “I told Father that I wished to be a girl, and they allowed my treatment.”

“That’s some dedication for a little kid.” Kanade bit the inside of her cheek and chose her words carefully. “You said you were five?”

“It…wasn’t just for drawing in potential welders for my family,” Tsubasa said, speaking like a child who was admitting to being caught in a lie. “I simply expressed interest,” her voice faltered “and they accepted under that condition, and that I were to remain male at home.”

Kanade frowned, letting out a little frustration with Tsubasa’s family when she said, “That’s not normal.”

“Wh-” Tsubasa looked back up to Kanade and recoiled in her seat. “What’s abnormal about that?”

“Tsubasa, I have never once, in my life, met a boy who wanted to be a girl,” Kanade said. If anything, she was becoming convinced that Tsubasa was a confused girl brainwashed by a family that Kanade had already learned were controlling.

“You’re a girl, you wouldn’t know.” Tsubasa dug her heels into the argument, something she’d never done with Kanade before.

“I know a lot about girls though, and you’re sure adding up to one,” Kanade said, taking a deep sigh to calm herself before she snapped at Tsubasa over her family. “Alright, let’s start over. You want to be a girl, you look like a girl, and you tell people you’re a girl,” she said, raising a finger to count off each point. “Explain.”

Tsubasa threw her head to the side and said, “I already told you that I was assigned to pretend to be a girl for the sake of attracting Symphogear wielders.”

“Alright, that’s one answer.” Kanade held up two fingers. “What else is up?”

Tsubasa turned back to Kanade, but then her gaze dropped down to her lap. “You’re just going to laugh,” she mumbled.

“Tsubasa.” Kanade clenched her jaw, steeling her focus on doing anything but laughing at her. “I promise, this is too serious to tease you. Please tell me.”

Tsubasa licked her lips and let out a shaky breath before saying, “Girls are beautiful.” She left that answer to hang in silence, which Kanade matched, before Tsubasa released the tension from her shoulders and slouched over. “That’s all. I gladly changed for my family to be like them.”

Kanade swallowed and bit down on her cheek again, hard, keeping the grin off her face. Tsubasa shuffled in her seat and continued, telling Kanade, “I think you’re lucky, honestly. You get to look like that naturally.”

Kanade held her hand over her the lower half of her face, covering the smile that she vowed wouldn’t happen. It was true that this was serious, but the answer was so obvious that she couldn’t believe Tsubasa hadn’t figured it out. Now that she had Kanade to help her, Tsubasa’s obliviousness was both amusing and adorable.

Tsubasa must have noticed, or at least suspected, that Kanade found something funny about it. Her expression clouded with a pout, and she said, “I knew you’d laugh.”

“No, no, no.” Kanade revealed her smile, but spoke in a careful tone. “I’m not laughing, I promised. I just figured it out.”

“What was there to figure out?” Tsubasa asked. Confusion returned to her face, replacing the hurt expression.

“That doesn’t make you a boy,” Kanade said, “it means you’re a lesbian.”

If Tsubasa’s brow could have wrinkled further, Kanade was sure it would have. Her eyes scanned Kanade’s face before she asked, “It means what?”

“Oh, jeez….” Kanade dragged a hand down her face. Tsubasa naivete was the answer to a question she didn’t know she had. “I guess that explains how you didn’t figure it out.”

“Kanade.” Tsubasa gave her a pleading look. “What’s wrong with me?”

“Nothing.” Kanade leaned over and flicked Tsubasa between the eyes, snapping her out of any harmful thoughts. “There’s nothing wrong with you. It just means you’re a girl who likes girls.”

Tsubasa stared back, and Kanade could see her mind spinning. “But-”

“Nope,” Kanade said, holding a finger to Tsubasa’s lips. “No buts. There’s nothing wrong.”

Tsubasa gave her a half-hearted glower, then dropped the look when Kanade lowered her finger. “Then,” she started, pausing for a breath, “you don’t like boys either?”

“Nah, I do,” Kanade said, but quickly followed it with, “Girls too though,” before Tsubasa could think that Kanade wasn’t interested in her. “Both are fine.”

“You can do that?” Tsubasa asked. Kanade was worried she was overloading Tsubasa with too much new information, but it was important, maybe even necessary, information.

“Yeah, some people.” Kanade shrugged and put on her usual tension-dispersing grin. “What about you?”

Tsubasa shook her head and said, “I’m not interested in other boys.” With one look from Kanade, she stumbled over a retraction. “Or, um, just boys, I think….”

Kanade rubbed the back of her neck. “Baby steps, I guess. But hey, feels good to know, right?”

“I’m not sure….” Tsubasa ran her tongue over her lips, and her eyes couldn’t settle on Kanade. “It’s a lot to think about.”

“I got an idea for a first step then.” Kanade had earlier pretended to not notice the implication that Tsubasa thought she was attractive, waiting for a good opportunity to spring one last question on her. “Wanna be my girlfriend?”

Tsubasa’s focus pulled to Kanade instantly, eyes wide and mouth open. She looked like she wanted to speak, but only made a small, confused noise. Without a proper answer, Kanade said, “I mean, you sound interested. I didn’t read that wrong, did I?”

Tsubasa shook her head and fidgeted before whispering, “Would that really be alright?”

“I asked you first, dummy,” Kanade said, letting out a laugh she’d been holding in. “Of course it’s alright.”

Tsubasa was still for a moment, the almost-unnoticeable rise and fall of her chest and shoulders the only sign she could still move. Kanade stretched her patience as far as she could, waiting for Tsubasa’s answer and silently praying that she hadn’t gone too far. Tsubasa’s mouth moved, but her answer was inaudible.

“Hm?” Kanade asked her to repeat it.

“I…” Tsubasa started, and Kanade had to strain her ears to hear her. “I do, yes.”

“Then you just have to say so!” Kanade said, volume rising in excitement and relief that she didn’t know she needed until now.

Tsubasa flinched at Kanade’s sudden ecstasy, but a tiny smile crossed her lips. “I…just did. I want to be your boy- your…girlfriend.”

Chapter Text

Tsubasa kicked the door to her place, arms too full to knock or open it herself. Maria was visiting her and Kanade when Tsubasa had left, but hours had passed since, and she prayed either of them were still there. It would have been troublesome to set down what she was holding to let herself in.

She pulled her foot back to kick again when Maria opened the door, starting to say, “Why can’t you….” Her question trailed off as her eyes fell lower, to the white-haired fae held protectively against Tsubasa’s chest. “Who is this?”

“I saved her,” Tsubasa said, careful to move as little as possible to not jostle her and exacerbate any injuries.

“Is, um,” Maria seemed at a loss for words, “does she, do you,” she turned to the girl, “have a name?”

Instead of an answer, the fae clenched her jaw and held onto Tsubasa’s neck more tightly. “She said her name is Chris,” Tsubasa said in her stead. She stepped through the doorway past Maria, glancing around from the entryway. “Is Kanade home?”

“I’m right here!” Kanade yelled from the living room, and from the thump that followed, she’d jumped over the back of the couch rather than walking around it. “I’m overhearing something suspicious.”

Maria sighed at the sound but called back, “You’re right.” She closed the door behind Tsubasa, and Chris flinched, digging her fingers into Tsubasa’s shoulder. “Kanade, is this something you already know about?”

Kanade’s eyes opened in surprised when she saw Chris huddled against Tsubasa. She set a hand on her hip and tilted her head to the side as she said, “I know fairies exist, yes.”

Maria gave a frustrated groan and told Kanade, “Don’t be smart.” She addressed Tsubasa next, “What is she doing here?”

“Don’t tell them,” Chris said, pressing herself closer against Tsubasa. Maria took on an annoyed glare, but Kanade was unmoved.

“Tell us what, Tsubasa?” Maria asked accusingly.

“She’s mine now, and I am unable to pick locks,” Tsubasa said, moving into the living room. Kanade turned and jogged towards the bathroom

“She’s your- wait-” Maria stumbled over her words, “Kanade, get back here and make her explain!”

“Let’s patch her up first!” Kanade yelled back, and she appeared moments later with the shoebox that acted as a first aid kit. “It’s nothing serious, right?”

Tsubasa looked to Chris for an answer, but she only gritted her teeth audibly. “I don’t believe so,” Tsubasa said, and she knelt to place Chris on the couch.

“No!” Chris shouted, and Tsubasa froze. “No don’t put me down!”

“We can’t help you if I’m holding you,” Tsubasa said, ducking out of Chris’s hold and lowering her to sit sideways on the couch, giving space for her wings off the side. Chris winced and adjusted the cloth Tsubasa had stuffed under the heavy chain around her neck to prevent iron burns. Her wrists were still bound as well, but Tsubasa was afraid of hurting her by breaking metal so close to her skin.

Chris slunk against the back of the couch and spat, “You never told me about them.”

“I was clear that I already have two partners,” Tsubasa said, narrowing her eyes. “You said it wasn’t a problem.”

“You didn’t say they were humans!” Chris curled in on herself, then jolted and readjusted the cloth around her wrist. “Just that you had two girlfriends.”

“Tsubasa,” Maria said, but she turned to Kanade instead. “Are you okay with this?”

“What are you gonna do to stop her?” Kanade asked with a carefree shrug. “She’s 160 centimeters of scales and teeth.”

Maria returned her attention back to Tsubasa. “Who is she, Tsubasa? You can’t bring home a stranger, Kanade and I can’t handle danger like you can.”

“I saved her from human slavers,” Tsubasa said, assuring Maria that Chris wasn’t a threat.

“I said don’t tell them!” Chris yelled, and she trembled. “They’re- they’re humans too!”

Tsubasa set a hand on Chris’s shoulder and looked at Kanade for help. Tsubasa trusted her and Maria completely, but Chris wasn’t accepting that vote of confidence.

Kanade stepped forward, and speaking in a low, even voice, asked Chris, “Can I get a closer look at those?” Chris glared at her. “You want them off, right?”

After a moment of visible consideration, Chris held her wrists forward. Kanade leaned in and said, “These look like basic handcuffs. I have a key, we can get you out of these.”

Chris seemed to perk up before slinking back and glowering towards her lap. “So what?” She picked at her fingernails. “And there’s still the other.”

Kanade reached for the chain looped around her neck, but Chris recoiled out of Kanade’s reach. She drew back, keeping a distance from Chris, and said, “That’s just a padlock. Give me five seconds with it and it’ll be off, alright?”

Chris looked between Tsubasa and Kanade, to Maria and back to Tsubasa. Tsubasa smiled in a way she hoped was encouraging, and Chris huffed before agreeing. “Five seconds, then.”

“Great, Maria, can you patch her up?” Kanade patted the box of medical supplies as before leaving.

“Don’t need it,” Chris growled. “Just get these off.”

“You’re all scraped up,” Maria said, sorting through the box for disinfectant. “It’ll be worse if you leave it.”

“Don’t touch me!” Chris yelled. Tsubasa set a hand on her knee.

“Maria, that’s not necessary,” she said. “She’s capable of taking care of her wounds.”

“If you’re sure,” Maria mumbled. Before Tsubasa could explain, Kanade turned the corner from the hallway, twisting a paperclip.

“Alright, got the stuff,” Kanade said, brandishing a small key. “Hold out your hands.”

Chris looked between Kanade and Tsubasa once more before putting her wrists out as if some invisible force was dragging her somewhere unpleasant. Almost too fast to track, Kanade grabbed one of her wrists and unlatched it, and before Chris could regret letting Kanade touch her and draw back, the other was off.

Kanade held the cuffs up as Chris rubbed her raw, blistered wrists. “Better?” Kanade asked.

“Whatever.” Chris sat up straighter. “Five seconds,” she reminded Kanade.

“Just put the first clip in,” Kanade said, narrating her actions, “and then drag this one out, and….” A click followed her words, and Kanade unwrapped the chain. “And you’re free.”

Chris gulped loudly, and she felt around her neck with an expression of disbelief. “Thanks,” she whispered so quietly that it was possible Kanade didn't hear it.

Maria started to speak, saying, “So is she-”

“Don’t talk to me,” Chris interjected. “I need to concentrate.” Tsubasa put a hand up and gave her Maria a direct stare, silently promising to apologize for allowing the rude interruption. Chris set both of her hands over a large scrape on her thigh, and the area glowed red.

“God, finally.” Chris stretched her leg out, and where she’d touched was healed over with fresh skin. She repeated the action with her right side, over her ribs. “This’s been killing me.”

“You aren’t gonna fix up….” Kanade left the question hanging and tapped the side of her own neck.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with an iron burn?” Chris scrunched her face in pain when she set her hand on the side of her face, but when she lowered it, the bruise around her eye had disappeared.

“Then you can at least let us treat that,” Maria said, immediately digging through the box.

Before Chris could protest, Tsubasa spoke to her. “As Maria was asking, are you staying?”

Chris’s eyes darted away from Tsubasa. “I mean, I don’t have anywhere else to go now.” She rubbed her shoulder. “It’s not safe where I was before. And I’m kinda tapped out on the magic now.”

“The other bedrooms aren’t exactly made up, but they’re free.” Kanade said. She and Tsubasa shared one of the beds and had no need to keep other rooms furnished. “I think there’s a spare futon somewhere, if that’s alright.”

Maria’s jaw set and she asked Kanade, “You’re really okay with this?”

“I was okay with you,” Kanade answered. “What’s one more?” Chris shied away as Maria reached for her wrist, and Tsubasa took Chris’s opposite hand in a reassuring hold.

“It will help,” Tsubasa promised.

“Can’t you do it?” Chris asked, squeezing Tsubasa’s hand.

“Not as safely as with human hands.” Tsubasa tapped a claw on the back side of Chris’s hand, careful to not prick her. “Trust her.”

“Tsubasa,” Maria said, pausing, “is this really going to work?” She rubbed a disinfectant on Chris’s wrist, and Chris took in a sharp breath and gripped Tsubasa’s hand tighter.

“It has to work.” Tsubasa stroked Chris’s hair with her free hand. “Would you have me put her out?”

“Of course not. But- please try to hold still,” she instructed Chris as she moved to her other arm, “I’m being realistic. It feels like we’re getting off on a bad foot.”

“You don’t have to talk about me like I’m not here,” Chris grumbled.

“Would you address me if I did speak to you?” Maria asked. Chris turned her head. “I thought so.”

“Look, just- ow,” Chris jerked her arm away when Maria reached for bandages, “gimme a few days to think about it. I’ll stay out of the way.”

Kanade dropped a rolled futon onto the floor and said, “I’m cool with that.” Maria threw Kanade a sideways glance while taping gauze around Chris’s wrist.

“Are you going to let me treat your neck?” Maria asked her.

“I can do it myself.” Chris held her hand out for the materials, which Maria provided.

Kanade returned to Maria’s side and asked Chris, “You want some time alone to get-”

“No!” Chris yelled again, and she leaned back against Tsubasa. “Don’t- don’t leave me alone.”

Tsubasa wrapped her arms around Chris. She hadn’t considered that Chris wouldn’t get along with the others, but if she was willing to stay, Tsubasa would keep her safe from the imaginary danger.

“Hey, Maria.” Kanade patted Maria’s shoulder. “Let’s go out tonight.”

“She said she doesn’t want to be alone,” Maria said.

“Nah, just you and me. We haven’t gone out in a while.” Kanade acted as if her plan was unrelated to Chris’s arrival. “Tsubasa has things here.”

Maria let out a heavy sigh. “You’re driving.”

Chris buried herself into Tsubasa at an awkward angle, remaining still even Maria and Kanade left. “Chris?” Tsubasa started to release her, but Chris pressed closer. “How are you?”

Chris asked a question of her own. “Is it really safe?”

“I vowed that I would protect you.” Tsubasa adjusted herself to better accommodate Chris. “Why would I take you somewhere unsafe?”

“I know,” Chris said, voice full of doubt. She released Tsubasa to let her join Chris on the couch, then returned to Tsubasa’s embrace, melting into her side. Her finger traced the scales on Tsubasa’s leg. “If I sleep, I’m going to wake up here?”

“Of course.” Tsubasa felt a burning in her stomach at Chris’s fear, that whatever had happened left her so shaken after her rescue.

“And this is real?” Chris’s words started to slur together. Tsubasa assumed she was on the edge of sleep, crashing after an adrenaline-fueled day neared its end.

“I promise,” Tsubasa said. She couldn’t reach a blanket from where they lay, so she draped her tail over Chris for an extra layer of security.

“Then just,” Chris rubbed her eye and her head drooped against Tsubasa’s shoulder, “please, give me some time.”


 

Living with Chris was like housing a feral cat. She was just as skittish, and Maria was filled with guilt every time she startled Chris when going about her daily life. She was just as scarce, keeping such a small presence that Maria could be in the same room as her and not notice. And she was just as hard to get along with, no matter Maria’s best efforts.

Maria found Chris in the living room, sitting openly on the couch for once, focused on her phone. Taking careful steps to not make any loud noise, Maria walked to the couch and sat across from her. Chris flinched and her eyes darted to Maria when the cushion creaked. Maria’s stomach sank, but Chris flicked her gaze back to her phone, brow lowered.

Moments passed in silence as Maria waited for Chris to acknowledge her beyond that, but she was deliberately ignored. Maria cleared her throat, drawing attention to herself, but Chris’s stare hardened.

“Chris?” Maria spoke, deciding she’d done her due diligence and given Chris a fair chance to set the pace.

Mm.” Chris didn’t look up from her phone.

“Hey.” Maria reached out to tap Chris’s knee, but she withdrew her hand before touching her, worried that would frighten her. “Chris, please.”

“What?” Chris asked, glaring up at Maria. Her slow transition from fear to hostility was probably a sign of her growing comfort, but Maria found it harder to deal with. The sooner Chris would accept their accommodations, the sooner home life would feel like home again, with an addition.

“I was just thinking about how you’ve been here for a few weeks now,” Maria said. She hadn’t moved in herself, but she spent enough time visiting to become familiar with Chris.

“What about it?” Chris curled in on herself, fear returning to her face.

“No, it’s fine,” Maria raised her hands up and shook her head, “I just want to ask you something.”

“Get on with it,” Chris said dismissively, looking back to her game.

Maria didn’t feel that she had Chris’s attention, but she tried anyways, saying, “We should trade phone numbers in case we need to reach each other.”

“I don’t have a phone.”

Maria’s conscious thought froze as Chris’s incomprehensible statement ran through her mind. Stunned into silence, she could only watch Chris play a game on a phone she claimed to not own. “You mean, you don’t have service?” Maria suggested.

Chris shrugged. “I’ve never used a phone in my life.”

“Hang on,” Maria pressed her palm to her face, “what are you holding right now?”

With a straight face, Chris said, “Glamor.”

Maria sighed and hung her head. “I’m going to be honest. I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.” She also wasn’t sure if it was acceptable to question her claim, there was a lot she was still learning about non-human cultures, but it seemed fair to doubt Chris when she had been so disagreeable.

Chris grit her teeth. “Then stop asking about things you don’t get.” She pulled her knees to her chest, and Maria’s eyes were drawn to Chris’s neck, still as red and painful looking as the day Tsubasa brought her over.

“Listen, Chris,” Maria said, forcing herself into an old, criminal confidence. “I’m worried about you. You won’t tell me what happened before you came here, but what if that happens again? Kanade and I are trying to help you.”

“I don’t need you or the other human’s number,” Chris said, and Maria could swear her voice cracked. “I have Tsubasa’s.”

“Then you do have a phone!” Maria shouted, the revelation snapping her calm. Chris jolted and dropped her phone in her lap, hands flying to the couch cushions like she was ready to jump away at any moment. “I,” Maria dropped her gaze, “I’m sorry, I’m so s-”

“Go,” Chris said, audibly shaken. “Just leave me alone.”

“One last thing,” Maria said, ignoring Chris’s protests for the time it took to dig through the end table drawer for a pen and paper. She wrote her number down and handed the torn page to Chris. “If you change your mind….”

Chris snatched the page from Maria and crumpled it in her fist before dropping it to the floor. “I don’t need your help!” She pounded the seat next to her. “You can’t- there’s nothing you can do for me that I can’t do myself!”

Maria’s own temper neared the surface, and guilt was the only thing that kept her from lashing out again. Leaving Chris’s words hanging, Maria left without further exchange, hoping that if Kanade or Tsubasa overheard them, they would have the tact to not bring it up. Especially not Tsubasa; Maria didn’t want her to know that they weren’t getting along.

The discomfort of the situation, living with someone who continuously picked fights with her, was compounded by Chris’s past. She’d never explained what happened when Tsubasa found her and brought her here, but what Maria and Kanade had gathered was serious. It felt selfish of Maria to focus on her own problems, but selfish of the others to expect Maria to set them aside in favor of an unappreciative Chris.

The sound of crinkling paper tore her from those thoughts. She squeezed her eyes shut, knowing that if she turned around and looked back into the living room, she would only become angrier. Chris was probably tearing the paper up, planning to leave it scattered as a statement. Curiosity overtook Maria, and she turned back to peek around the hallway.

Chris had retrieved the paper with Maria’s number from the floor and smoothed it back out. It was held up next to her phone, and she glanced between the page and the screen as she typed.

Slowly, as to not make any movements that would let Chris know she saw, Maria ducked back around the corner. Maybe, she thought, it wasn’t impossible that they could learn to tolerate each other.


 

It was a full week before Chris would touch anything in the apartment that was supposed to be her new home. Several more weeks passed before she would do anything without Tsubasa as an escort, and even more until she would come out of hiding if Tsubasa weren't home, setting a minor illusion to keep attention diverted from herself. At some point, Maria had moved in, but Chris didn’t know when. She only had an idea of how much time had passed because the others kept track for her, months blurring together in one fear-riddled fog.

Chris realized she was hungry an hour before standing up to go to the kitchen. No matter how often she was told that nothing was off limits, that she wasn't in the way, that everything was hers as much as it was theirs, it took more effort to convince herself to do something than to get over herself and do it. Maria and Kanade had been moving about all day, and while Chris had grown past hiding her presence when they might see her, walking into another room when she might intrude was different.

Still, she had to eat. Their lectures when she skipped meals were more troublesome than bothering to get food. It would only take a few minutes to put something in the microwave, and even less to get a box of crackers from the cupboard that was overwhelming.

She’d kept her nerves in check before turning into the kitchen, and immediately backpedaled out with a surprised yelp. Her eyes only caught a flash of Kanade pinning Maria against the fridge, but that was all she needed to see for heat to rise to her face.

Maria’s shaky voice came from the kitchen. “Is that you, Chris?”

“I,” Chris’s voice raised to a squeak, “I’m sorry, I can wait!”

“Nah, get in here,” Kanade said, following Chris around the corner. “We’re the ones who should be sorry.”

Chris wrung her hands and looked up at Kanade. Words caught in her throat before she could speak. “Didn’t know you’d be coming in,” Kanade said. “Hungry?”

Chris nodded and took small steps back into the kitchen, heart pounding as if she’d been caught doing something wrong. Maria seemed just as embarrassed as she said, “I was going to cook lunch, but we got,” her eyes flicked to Kanade, “distracted.”

“You’re too quiet!” Kanade yelled with a laugh, and Chris flinched when Kanade ruffled her hair. “We oughta get you a bell so we can hear you coming, you’re so red.”

Chris ducked out of Kanade’s reach and smoothed her hair back down; it was messy enough without Kanade’s interference. “My magic is red,” she said in flimsy defense of herself.

Kanade grinned and reached over to brush her finger against one of Chris's wings, the transparent surface tinting pink. “And these too?” she asked.

Chris's wings snapped back to fold behind her, and her heart jumped into her throat. “Don't mess with those.”

“Gotcha,” Kanade said, still smiling, but she leaned against the counter rather than pursuing Chris. “You want in on lunch?”

Chris nodded again, feeling guilty as she realized she’d skipped breakfast, and they were already working on lunch. “Is Tsubasa coming home?” she asked, changing the topic before they could find out she had no idea it was already that late.

Kanade glanced at the time on her phone and said, “If she's not already home she may be a while. Just us for now, that alright?”

“Mm, yeah.” Chris nodded for emphasis but didn't look up at either of them. Resisting her fight-or-flight response was hard enough without being reminded of how much larger they were. “Can- can I ask you something?”

“What's up?” Kanade asked.

“You two, um,” Chris bit back the instinct to pretend to forget their names, “you and Maria. I thought you were Tsubasa’s.”

“Yeah, that's the arrangement,” Kanade said. She moved out of the way so Maria could dig through the fridge. “Something wrong?”

There wasn't a way to dance around the topic, so Chris told her, “I think I've seen you two kissing.”

“Yeah,” Kanade said, and she fell silent. Chris looked to her for a reaction, but Kanade offered no further explanation. “Is that it?”

“But humans are monogamous.” Chris’s face scrunched in confusion as she looked between the two. “Is that allowed?”

Maria answered in Kanade’s stead. “I thought so too, at first. I didn’t even know Kanade was in the picture when Tsubasa and I started dating.” She looked at Kanade with a tired expression. “It was a hard adjustment.”

“That’s what’s great about people though, it’s not all stereotypes,” Kanade said before Chris could ask Maria how that arrangement happened; she filed it away for later. “Most humans are straight too, but that hasn’t stopped us. We’re all different.”

“You’re pretty arrogant if you think that’s only you.” Chris folded her arms. “And that doesn’t answer my question.”

Kanade chuckled. “Fair enough. But I don’t get what’s so weird. What else are we supposed to do?”

Chris leaned against the counter opposite Kanade, hit with self-consciousness at being the only one confused. “If dragons partner with a monogamous species, it’s not like you two. They aren’t involved with each other.”

Kanade hummed in thought before saying, “You don’t think they’re just missing out?” Chris could only look at her, eyebrow cocked, and Kanade continued. “Think about this. I can share Tsubasa and get one-third of a girlfriend, or I can have,” she counted on her fingers before giving up, “the number doesn’t matter, I get more than that if I have Maria too.”

“Why do you need more?” Chris asked. “One is enough for everyone else.”

“What about you?” Kanade asked, looking Chris up and down.

Chris hugged herself tighter, awkward under the scrutiny. “What about me?”

Kanade glanced at Maria, then back to Chris. “You exclusive?”

Chris glared off to the side at the implied proposition. “I think so. I didn't grow up….” She froze, having said something she hadn't planned on telling Maria and Kanade. Swallowing back her resistance to cover her slip, she continued, “I didn't really grow up with other fae.”

“I’m not asking about that, you dummy,” Kanade said, and Chris flinched when Kanade surprised her with a flick to the forehead. “What about you? You just said everyone’s different, so the others don’t matter.”

Chris rubbed her forehead and tried to look up at Kanade, but her gaze dropped to the floor. “Never thought about it.”

“You wanna think about it now?” Kanade offered, and Chris’s eyes snapped up to her. Kanade held her arms out. “You’re kinda short, can I pick you up?”

Chris scanned Kanade, and her heart pounded. Kanade towered over her, and her arms were almost as big around as Chris’s entire body. Maria on her other side was leaner than Kanade, but taller, and still larger than Chris herself. She wasn’t as engrossed in the pot of water on the stove as she tried to appear, constantly turning away to look at Chris and Kanade.

The knowledge that Tsubasa wouldn’t be home for hours screamed through Chris’s mind. That she was alone with them for that time.

Chris took a small step towards Kanade. She released a long, shaky breath. “Okay.”

Without hesitation, Kanade scooped up Chris in her arms like she weighed nothing before Chris could second-guess her agreement. Chris threw her arms around Kanade for support, realizing only after that it was Kanade who had her off balance. In seconds, Kanade had her steady, hands at Chris’s thighs so that she could sit upright.

“Not so bad, right?” Kanade asked, and Chris leaned away, keeping her hands on Kanade’s shoulder.

“Feels weird,” Chris mumbled. Conflicted feelings fought within her, and she couldn’t describe the mess with words. Fear was the most identifiable, but she wouldn’t admit that she was afraid.

“Good weird or bad weird?” Kanade asked. Chris shrugged, unsure herself. Kanade leaned closer, and Chris’s stomach sank with dread as the distance she’d put between them narrowed, and she pressed a firm kiss to Chris’s cheek.

All Chris was aware of was Kanade asking, “How about that? Still weird?”

“S, stil-” Chris’s mouth went dry, head clouded and dizzy. If Kanade weren’t supporting her, she might’ve collapsed under her own weight. “Still weird.”

“Hey, Maria,” Kanade called her from the stove, “you too?”

Maria looked at them as if she hadn’t been watching. “If that’s alright.”

Kanade turned to the side, and Chris turned as well to face Maria, granting her permission. Maria bit her lower lip, appearing almost as skeptical as Chris felt. Despite her doubts, Maria leaned down and kissed Chris’s forehead.

Chris burned where their lips had touched, heart racing so loudly they might have head it, and she touched Kanade’s neck. “You’re soft,” she said, voice unable to rise above a whisper.

Kanade let out a short, barking laugh that startled Chris. Kanade didn’t seem to notice and asked, “What’d you expect, razors? We’re not that different, are we?”

It had been a long time since Chris had touched a human willingly, and she’d almost forgotten they were more than painful hands and iron chains. It had been even longer that she had felt anyone less rough than Tsubasa, covered in scales and tense, lean muscles. Kanade was more muscular, she probably could’ve carried all three of them at once, but Chris was surprised at how pliant she was compared to Tsubasa.

Chris tapped Kanade’s shoulder, overwhelmed with the new experience. “Put me down.”

“Yep.” Kanade bent her knees to set Chris’s feet on the floor. “Hey, what are you casting?”

Chris looked up at Kanade but immediately averted her gaze, unable to look at her. “What?” she asked.

Kanade laughed. “You’re all red again.” She pulled Maria to her, and part of Chris was glad for the first time that there were two of them rather than just one. They kept each other occupied in Tsubasa’s absence, and their attention and hands off Chris herself.

“None of your business,” Chris grumbled. She cursed her inability to hide her embarrassment and considered if there was a glamor that could hide the color of the blood rushing to her face and wings. “Can, um, can you come get me when lunch is ready?”

Maria answered, “It’ll be done soon, don’t get too settled in.”

“It’d be done sooner if you wouldn’t preheat the oven,” Kanade said, moved on from Chris.

“Then it won’t cook right,” Maria said, equally caught up in the beginning of an argument. “It’s a habit, Shirabe is really adamant that you follow the directions and preheat it.”

Chris took the opportunity to leave the kitchen unnoticed. The past few minutes felt unreal, but with each second that ticked past, reality crept into the foreground. It was humans who sold her family out, and more humans who took them from her. And now it was humans whose lips left a pleasant and shameful tingling on her face.

She wondered what the next step would be. If Kanade and Maria even noticed she left. What she was going to tell Tsubasa, or if they were going to tell her first. If she even trusted them enough to follow through, or if she’d mistakenly gotten caught up in the moment.

Her skin crawled. She regretted leaving the kitchen without getting lunch for herself, with the looming dread that she would have to go back in and face them any time. What she wanted most was time to think it out alone, but she’d guaranteed that she would have to see them again.

Maria’s voice broke through her thoughts. “Chris?” She nearly jumped out of her skin. “It’s ready.”

“I’m- okay!” Chris’s voice skipped and rocketed in pitch. After a deep breath, she stood from the couch and returned.

Kanade handed Chris a full plate as soon as she entered and said, “Here you go.”

Chris stood and stared at the plate in her hands. “Thanks,” she said on reflex, mind whirring.

“You gonna go eat?” Kanade asked, filling her own plate.

“Yeah.” Chris looked between her and Maria. “I guess.”

She waited for either of them to ask about the kiss, but all Maria said was, “You can’t eat standing there.”

“Right.” Chris scurried off to the table, mind slowing in relief. If she couldn’t be alone to think about it, the best alternative was their respectful silence.

Chapter Text

No matter how often Genjuuro had visited Chris to convince her to open up, she refused to comply. Her walls were built with her desire for him to leave her alone, and reinforced by his tone-deafness and persistence. She didn’t need anyone to take care of her, especially an adult whose poor judge of character hadn’t done her any favors the past two years.

Genjuuro sat on her couch without being offered a seat, and she joined him when he had settled himself in. His first few visits, the only seat he’d moved in was this couch. Suspecting he had only brought it to force them together, she sat on the floor, and then later in a cheap chair she bought herself and parked on the opposite side of the coffee table. With no acknowledgement of the distance from him, and with more furniture added later as promised, she migrated to sit closer.

It wasn’t as if the distance was any safer. He had enough physical strength and government resources that a few feet granted nothing more than a false sense of security. So she might as well sit next to him.

Genjuuro spoke aimlessly, but his attempt to loosen the atmosphere only dragged out Chris’s anxiety. He asked about TV shows. She answered that she didn’t watch the television much, even though she’d been watching something before he knocked on the door. He spoke of good local restaurants. She told him that she had enough take-out menus.

He suggested opening the window and letting sunlight in. She said, “Stop dragging this out and just ask me about Finé.”

Genjuuro’s eyebrow raised, and Chris jerked her head away. She was prepared for him to get angry or deny it, but for not deafening silence. It was worse, somehow. If he were to yell, she would be justified in feeling afraid, and if he denied it, she could be angry that his small talk was a false front to push useless help onto her, just like everyone else. In silence, she could only drown in her own thoughts.

When Genjuuro spoke, he asked, “Is that what you want to talk about?”

“Not really, so don’t try.” Chris braced herself against the side of the couch and uncrossed her arms.

“I came here to apologize for allowing her to go free for so long,” Genjuuro said, bowing his head. “You don’t have to say anything.”

“Apology accepted,” Chris spat. “We’re done.”

“We both know you haven’t forgiven me.” He sighed and adjusted himself, setting his hands flat on his thighs. “If you’ll allow me to stay, I’d like to be more open with you before asking forgiveness.”

Chris shrugged and mumbled, “Whatever.” If she were to kick him out, he would only come back again another day and try again.

Genjuuro straightened himself, tall, serious, and imposing, with his eyes to the floor. “You know Ryoko-kun had been with us for a long time.”

“We’ve been over this, get to the point,” she said, shifting in her seat in discomfort. She’d suffered through enough conversations and apologies about no one looking into Finé sooner, and she was tired of it after the first time.

“This is about myself. Ryoko-kun and I…” he closed his eyes and hummed, “we were close.” Chris almost pointed out that were they close, he would have noticed something wrong, but she let him continue. “She agreed to go on a date with me one time, but changed her mind the next day and asked to remain friends.”

Chris had a lot to ask. How had he trusted Finé? Why was he interested in a romance? What was she like when she was working with them? If they were close, why didn’t he suspect her?

All she said was, “Why?” It was vague considering everything she wanted to know, but if he really did have her best interests in mind, he was going to answer the right unspoken question.

Genjuuro breathed out hard and leaned his head back. “There’s a lot to answer for why, isn’t there?” Chris grit her teeth; he’d seen through her. “But,” he exhaled again, “I should explain why I’m telling you.”

Chris settled in as he spoke, her curiosity piqued at the promise of an answer she hadn’t realized she wanted. “The Ryoko-kun I first met wasn’t the same one I knew for most of our time together, so I don’t know which one I fell for. If I noticed she changed, I was blinded by that affection.”

A sarcastic, “Great,” slipped through Chris’s lips. She flinched when she realized she’d said it aloud, and gripped the arm of the couch, but Genjuuro only smiled sadly.

“You’re right to think poorly of my choice,” he said. “And I understand that you don’t trust my judgment. It’s why I’m asking for your help.”

“I, uh,” Chris rubbed a lock of hair between her fingers, temper simmering as she processed his question, “trusted her too. You should ask someone else.” Being asked directly, it was hard to yell at him for trusting Finé, even if she had no help to offer.

“I’m not asking for your judgment.” His lips pulled into a wider smile, and he reached his hand out. Chris’s body tensed, but he only rested his palm on her knee. “I need somebody who can understand.”

Chris looked up at him, frozen and silent. To be asked for help rather than offered it, to listen to someone else’s story rather than being pressured to share her own, there had to be a catch. “You just want me to talk,” she accused.

“If you talk, then we’ll both be helped, won’t we?” Genjuuro scooted closer to Chris and slowly raised his hand from her knee to place it on her shoulder; she didn’t push him away. “But right now I’m going to be selfish, I’m only asking for you to help me.”

Chris tore her eyes away from him. “Whatever.” It wasn’t the first time in her life she’d dealt with selfish adults. Asking first didn’t change that he was just trying to use her. She’d learned the hard way that just because something was better than it was in the past, that didn’t mean it was good.

“We can’t know who can be trusted anymore,” he said, squeezing Chris’s shoulder. “So I don’t know who it’s safe to talk to, except someone who feels the same.”

Chris stared at her knees as Genjuuro continued. “Not only had we lost a friend, we’re losing each other in the aftermath. Mistrust is powerful. Only one of us betrayed the division, but the entire division is suspicious of who might be next.”

“Y, yeah….” Chris intended to stay quiet and listen only until she’d lost her patience, but she hadn’t expected him to say something that she understood. They weren’t the same. There was no one she trusted before this that she now feared, because she hadn’t trusted more than one person in years. Still, she now struggled to establish trust with new people, including those who saved her, because she’d already been betrayed by a savior.

Genjuuro was respectfully quiet as she thought about what else to say, but she came up with nothing. In her silence, he said, “Harder is the fear of your own misjudgment. You trust your friends and colleagues, but you don’t trust yourself to identify suspicious behavior, which creates a cycle of doubt.”

Chris stared downward and picked at her fingernails. She nodded, many words wanting to come out, but she bit the inside of her cheek and voiced none of them. Genjuuro reached his hand up and his finger brushed her hair, but she leaned away, and he returned his grip to her shoulder.

“I thought it was my fault that she turned down our date,” Genjuuro said in a weary tone. “That something I’d done had created a rift between us.” Chris fidgeted with the seam at the hem of her shirt. “I questioned my leadership abilities, and whether I was effectively communicating with the team.”

Chris tried to laugh, but it sounded bitter to her own ears. “I, uh, I wouldn’t worry about that. You probably didn’t do anything. She just didn’t need you because she had me.”

Without warning, Genjuuro closed in on Chris, too quickly for her to jump out of the way, and wrapped his arms around her. She shoved against him, and he was too heavy to move. The sound of strained breathing reached her ears as she panicked, and she could almost feel her blood rushing faster as she struggled.

When Genjuuro released her, she grabbed her pendant, snapping the chain in her haste. She opened her mouth to sing, but with herself wound so tightly and ready to snap at the first sign of movement, it was his stillness that caught her attention. Hunched over, face buried in one large hand, his other hand gripping the back of couch like he was trying to break it.

The sound of pained breathing and crying wasn’t coming from herself, but from him. She rolled her pendant between her fingers, afraid to accept that this was real. He wasn’t vulnerable. He wasn’t weak. He’d been a cheerful and positive man in the admittedly-little time she’d known him, and more importantly, stable and collected.

He took a deep breath and almost too quietly to hear, said, “I’m sorry,” before his breath hitched again. Chris stared, confusion weighing down her stomach. “I’m sorry,” he repeated.

“It’s….” She didn’t know what to say. It’s fine. It wasn’t. It’s not your fault. She couldn’t admit that when he had narrowly escaped what she lived. It’s in the past. That was true, but its effects were in the present and future.

Unable to find the right words, she reached forward and touched her hand to his knee.

His hand covered hers, resting on top much more gently than when he was holding the couch like it was his only hold on life. He sniffed and wiped his eyes, and Chris caught a peek of his face, pulled tight with grief, before he covered it again.

When Chris broke the silence, she couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper. “Was it really that bad?”

Genjuuro answered by taking her hand and pulling her closer. With the warning, she was able to stay in place against his chest, stiff and uncomfortable but resisting the urge to fight back. “It wasn’t…” she said before her voice caught, and her pendant dug into her palm. “Don’t….”

Her eyes burned, and she pressed herself into his chest, wider than her entire body. “Stupid,” she mumbled. He brought her closer into a hug, and she willed herself to not care. “Idiot.” All her attention was occupied with not panicking over being held tightly by someone so much larger than her, leaving no capacity to process the sound of his crying. “Big idiot.”

Genjuuro sniffled, a sound that didn’t fit his stature. “You’re right,” he said, holding her tighter. “And selfish, too.”

Chris’s whole body tensed with the desire to jump away, but he didn’t move, and as long as he remained as such, she would willingly stay nestled in his grip. His torso heaved with deep breaths, like she was being rocked. It was just soothing enough to keep herself from sobbing as hard as he was. A tear slid down her cheek, leaving a hot trail.

“I was worried about Tsubasa,” Genjuuro said. “When I heard what happened, my first fear was that something had happened to her. She was close with Ryoko-kun.”

The thought had occurred to Chris, that she wasn’t the only person, not even the only girl her own age, in Finé’s life. To know that sometimes when she was alone, Finé was with other people, she was envious. When Chris had found out about Hibiki and Tsubasa, she did everything she could to monopolize her again.

“Nothing happened with her,” Chris told him. Back then, she was relieved to find out that she was the only one receiving Finé’s direct and inescapable attention. That didn’t change now; she was relieved that the others didn’t have to go through what she survived.

“I should have worried about you more.” Genjuuro pulled her closer into a near-crushing grip. “When we learned what happened, I should have assured your safety first.”

“That, ack,” Chris struggled to speak, and Genjuuro released her into a looser hug, “it makes sense. You’re her uncle.” She took a fistful of his shirt in each hand, giving him as much of a hug in return as she was able. “You’re supposed to care about her.”

“I promised to keep you safe.” His voice broke again, and Chris could feel his arms tremble as he resisted holding her tighter again. “I couldn’t even do that much, and I presumed to take custody of you.”

Chris’s stomach flipped, and with no warning that her hold on her emotions had broken, tears spilled forth as she cried against his shirt. Genjuuro brought a hand up to pet her hair and repeated, “I’m sorry, Chris-kun.”

Chris shook her head, begging him to not apologize. “No- nh,” her throat closed, but she needed to explain that she wasn’t upset, “no one….”

“Take your time.” His hand shook with each stroke, but he continued the motion. “Is something wrong?”

She shook her head again. “That’s the,” she gulped, took a deep breath, and moved her face to rest against a dry part of his shirt, “the most anyone’s cared about me in a long time.”

Genjuuro gripped her shoulder, hard enough Chris feared it would bruise. “I don’t have parents anymore,” she said. “No one is going to care about me first.”

She paused to collect herself, mind reeling with thoughts she couldn’t verbalize and unsorted emotions. “Everyone would expect you to worry about her. That makes you a pretty good dad.”

Genjuuro released her shoulder to wipe his eyes dry and laughed, then asked, “You think so?” Chris nodded. “I can’t replace your parents, but I can keep my promise to protect you like they would have.” She nodded again. “I wish I could have met them to tell them how wonderful their daughter is.”

“Yeah,” Chris said. “Me too.”

Chapter Text

Whenever Tsubasa thought she had adjusted to Kanade’s return, a passing thought would remind her of how different things felt. Kanade’s comfortable familiarity lacked its former security, that ever-present assurance that it was permanent. After losing her once before, Tsubasa’s mind couldn’t relax around her.

Kanade wound her fingers between Tsubasa’s and rubbed her thumb along the side of Tsubasa’s hand. Her head rested on Tsubasa’s shoulder, with her whole body pressed so closely that Tsubasa could feel her breathing. Tsubasa squeezed Kanade’s hand back.

The worst reminder of the differences in the present was how much Tsubasa couldn’t forget. Kanade’s hand in hers, the warmth, the tickling sensation of their skin brushing together, the physical reminder that she was there, was a feeling fresh in her memory. Equally vivid was the weight of Kanade’s body leaving her arms, and carbon dust tactile through the gloves from her gear.

“Hey.” Kanade’s voice pulled her away from her own head, and she tapped Tsubasa on the nose. “You hear me?”

Tsubasa released a shaky breath before speaking. “I must have missed what you said, I’m sorry.”

“I asked if you had plans tonight. Short notice but I wanna go out.”

“Mm.” Tsubasa mentally shuffled through her schedule. “I believe I’m free.”

“How about I pick you up at,” Kanade paused to check the time on her phone, “right now?”

Tsubasa hummed and shifted closer to her. “Shall I get ready?”

“You still need to get ready?” Kanade set a finger under Tsubasa’s chin and turned her towards herself. “You look perfect to me.”

“Kanade….” Tsubasa stared back into Kanade’s eyes, shrinking under her predatory gaze as her fingertips traveled along Tsubasa’s jaw to cup her cheek.

Tsubasa wrapped an arm around Kanade’s middle to pull her closer and tried not to think about how foreign it was to hold her. Kanade’s solid form filling her arms and against her chest, something she had rarely allowed herself to experience before, was one of the few welcome changes, an assurance that there was a reason she still loved Kanade and would continue to in the future.

Kanade’s lips closed over Tsubasa’s for a slow kiss. Tsubasa’s heart skipped and she tilted her head for a better angle as Kanade pushed herself upright to lean over her. Her free hand moved to Tsubasa’s waist to hold her by the small of her back.

Kanade broke the kiss but didn’t pull away, her lips still brushing against Tsubasa’s as she spoke. “Not gonna get up?” she whispered with a low chuckle. “I’m hungry.”

Her tongue ran across the crease of Tsubasa’s lips, reinitiating the kiss. If you sing a lot, you get really hungry. Tsubasa held Kanade tighter.

She tried to forget. Tsubasa pulling Kanade to her chest, heavy and limp, holding her close so that she would stay with her. Kanade being taken anyways, leaving Tsubasa kneeling in the dirt hugging herself.

Kanade inhaled sharply as Tsubasa tightened her grip again, dug her fingers into Kanade’s sides. Nothing Tsubasa did kept Kanade with her before, and that wouldn’t change now if history were to repeat, yet she couldn’t stop herself from trying to melt into Kanade through their embrace and a deepening kiss.

Tsubasa leaned forward and Kanade’s hand wandered up her back, and the other at Tsubasa’s cheek moved to hold her in place by the back of her head. Physically, Tsubasa couldn’t have felt any safer than when Kanade was pulling her into a desperate kiss.

She still wasn’t close enough.

Kanade pulled away with a hard breath out and pressed her forehead against Tsubasa’s. “Missed me or something? You’re excited today.”

Tsubasa’s answer was to lunge forward and retake Kanade’s lips. Her eyes began to sting, but she kept them cracked open, wanting Kanade to overtake every sense. Kanade returned the kiss with matching enthusiasm and adjusted to pull Tsubasa into her lap.

Tsubasa straddled her thighs, pressed forward and supported her weight against Kanade’s front, and gripped her shoulder for support. Her fingers ran along Kanade’s skin, traced prominent vertebrae and corded muscle, to carve the distinct feeling over the nightmares that still haunted her. Tears clouded her vision until she couldn’t see her face anymore.

Kanade winced and jerked her head to the side before she took Tsubasa’s hand from her neck. “Damn, you gotta trim- Tsubasa what’s wrong?”

Tsubasa buried her face into the space between Kanade’s neck and shoulder, unable as her body started shaking with sobs. Kanade made a hushing noise and wrapped both arms around her, before she said, “I’m right here.”

She wasn’t always with her. Kanade promised she would stay with her forever before she was taken too soon. Tsubasa took fistfuls of Kanade’s shirt in an effort she knew was futile.

“C’mon, you did this well without me.” Kanade made long strokes down Tsubasa’s hair. “You’re such a crybaby sometimes. We’re back together and you still can’t stop.”

Tsubasa pulled herself upright without drying her tear-streaked face and set her hands on Kanade’s cheeks. “Yes,” she whispered, voice cracking as she looked into her eyes. “It doesn’t seem real.”

Kanade turned her head to kiss Tsubasa’s palm and said, “Don’t know how to fix that. I can’t stick around forever, that’s just how time works.” Tsubasa’s breath hitched. “But if you focus on that, we can’t enjoy what we have now.”

Tsubasa nodded, words escaping her, and brushed Kanade’s bangs aside to see all of her. Her glowing eyes, her lopsided smile, each feature that she’d memorized years before had changed with maturity, reminded her of their time apart. She blinked away tears as Kanade ran her thumb along Tsubasa’s cheek.

“That's the smile I missed,” Kanade said, lips pulled into a toothy grin.

“You’ve changed,” Tsubasa said, and Kanade closed her left eye as Tsubasa’s hand explored her face.

“Think so? You went and grew up without me, you know.” She kissed Tsubasa’s fingertip when she reached her mouth. “Change isn’t all bad, it’s a good look on you.”

“You’re still teasing me, that hasn’t changed.”

“Why fix what isn’t broken?” Kanade reached up to Tsubasa’s cheek, mimicking her touch. “You’re still cute when you’re embarrassed.”

“And you’re still beautiful.” Tsubasa released a shuddery breath as tears continued to stream down her face. Disbelief combatted the reality of Kanade below her, attempted to convince her that this was going to end.

Kanade sitting under her was real. The rise and fall of her chest against Tsubasa was real. Her rough hands, her quiet breathing, the heat radiating from her body, all were sensations more clear than even the most haunting memories of the concert.

“How about we stay in instead?” Kanade suggested. “Get you cleaned up and order something.”

Tsubasa nodded and dismounted Kanade to curl up into her side, arms around her middle. In the past, she’d regretted being too afraid to express how she felt. If she were to try to move on, she decided to start there, shamelessly holding Kanade as if she could disappear at any moment, but knowing that it wasn’t necessary this time.