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Turn It Up Notch

Chapter Text

Tsubasa had just finished showering when she heard the doorbell, so she hastily put on some clothes and rushed to the door. Opening it, she was met with the sight of a petite, foreign-looking girl wearing a thick red scarf over a navy-blue winter coat. The girl wore a frown on her face, as if she was perpetually bored from the trivialities of the day.


“Oy, Senpai,” the girl greeted.


Tsubasa raised an eyebrow. “Yukine.”


Tsubasa let Chris in. Chris braced herself for the sight of Tsubasa's apartment in complete disarray, then she found herself gawking at how neat and tidy the place was. She settled herself on the couch and Tsubasa set off to prepare tea and coffee, the latter beverage being a preference of Chris'. Chris had paid visits to Tsubasa's apartment more times than Tsubasa can count, hence there was no need to ask what Chris would like to drink.


“I thought you had classes today,” Tsubasa said, putting the coffee mug on a coaster in front of Chris.


“The professor was sick and had to cancel,” Chris answered, taking a whiff of the brew. “His class was the only one I have on schedule today, so I left the campus as soon as we got the memo.”


“I see.”


“Heard you had a really wild live show last night.”


Tsubasa chuckled. “I was overly energetic that night compared with my past shows.”


“Well, if it’s for doing something you really love, the energy never dies.” Chris raised an eyebrow at Tsubasa. “By the way, your place…it's clean.”


Tsubasa flinched. “What about it?”


At that moment, there was a twinkle in Chris' eyes, as if she knew Tsubasa's darkest secret. Chris knew who was responsible for the whole thing, keeping in mind that Tsubasa wasn't really one to keep things neat and tidy. With that, she figured she'd try messing with her senpai.


“It’s not like you to maintain your apartment in such a way,” Chris told her. “Alright, Senpai, what did you do last night after the live show?”


“I cleaned up for a bit,” Tsubasa said defensively. “You can see how it ended up.”


“You don't usually do that, Senpai. Try again.”


“Look, Yukine, I just happened to put my mind into it last night. Couldn't you at least commend me for it?”


Chris grinned wickedly. “How's the neck? I thought you keep mosquito coils here.”


Tsubasa flinched. Chris would always end up knowing everything, no matter how much it's hidden.


Especially when Maria started spending nights with Tsubasa.


That was another thing. That one night in an onsen practically shifted everything. They were both drunk, scantily-clothed, and the strange heat that had been bothering them even during some of their duets were far too much to bear. Tsubasa was surprised at herself for not backing away from Maria after she kissed her. She was even more surprised when she returned it, albeit deeper. After hours of dealing with the tension, Maria proposed an agreement—they'd keep each other company under the sheets, but there will be no strings attached. Just good sex, nothing more. Crossing the line would mean ending the set-up.


Tsubasa had no qualms about it. She and Maria have been on good terms even before that night, and the sex is just somewhat an exclusive thing. Nothing else changes, she had thought. She figured she's practically old enough to have these types of experiences, and perhaps it may prove to be an educational endeavor in the long run.


And boy, is she learning plenty.


Chris was the first to find out. She was the one who slid open the door to wake them up for breakfast and was instead faced with their naked bodies entangled underneath the sheets. They told Chris about their agreement and forced her to be mum about it. It was unavoidable, with Genjuuro and Ogawa catching up later on after noticing the strange marks on both their necks and having their suspicions confirmed by Chris.


While Ogawa took it well, being the taciturn man that he is, Genjuuro was worried that their set-up might get in the way of doing their jobs properly. Tsubasa had assured her uncle that he had nothing to be deeply concerned about and that she will be careful. Genjuuro settled with that, but the tinges of worry reared up every now and then.


Since Chris was highly aware of the whole thing, she had been taking every chance she can get to tease, and Tsubasa was certainly not happy about it.


“I forgot to light one up,” Tsubasa said. “Got a nasty bite on the neck for that.”


Chris scoffed. “Sure you did, Senpai. I bet the mosquito that did a number on your neck had pink wavy hair and delicious boobs.”


Tsubasa fumed, ready to whack Chris with a throw pillow. “Why you little—”


There was another knock on the door, so Tsubasa retreated and rushed to see who it was. To her consternation, it was Maria who stood at the door.


“Maria, what are you doing here?” Tsubasa asked in a low voice.


“I forgot something in your bedroom—”


Senpai, who's at the door?” Chris hollered from the living room, making both girls flinch.


“Chris is here? I thought she had classes,” Maria whispered.


“Classes were cancelled, she dropped by here instead,” Tsubasa said. “Just…go get what you need.”


Maria walked into the living room, looking prim and proper as she always does. She then saw Chris booting up Tsubasa's game console. Tsubasa returned to her seat, looking squeamish. When Chris looked up, she didn't expect to be in for a lot of fun upon seeing who the visitor was.


“Oh, hello, mosquito—” Chris coughed. “—er, I mean, Maria. Fancy seeing you here today.”


“Well, I…I had to get something, I won't be long,” Maria said. “By the way, Shirabe wanted you to come over sometime. She wanted help on that one dish you made for them, the one you said you loved to eat back in Val Verde.”


“Oh, the empanada?” Chris chuckled. “Looks like Kirika loved it.”


“She couldn't get over it,” Maria said, shaking her head with a laugh. “Said it was probably the most heavenly meal she'd ever had. She practically begged Shirabe to cook it for us, and you know Shirabe…she can't say no to Kirika.”


Chris shrugged. “Oh well, love does that to people.” She looks over at Tsubasa. “Doncha’ think, Senpai?”


Tsubasa merely grunted as she drank the rest of her tea. She then excused herself from the living room, saying she had to drop by the store to buy items that had run out from her pantry.


“Would you mind buying me some chips, Senpai? I'll pay you back,” Chris requested.


Tsubasa nodded as she checked her wallet. “Sure, the spicy kind, right?”


Tsubasa soon left the apartment. Chris looked over to Maria, who still had her eyes on the front door. Maria then looked at her in return.


“What is it?” Maria asked.


Chris shrugged. “Nothing. I'm just thinking…you really have it bad for Senpai, aren't you?”


Maria huffed. “It’s a good thing she doesn't know.”


Chris scoffed. “That’s gonna bite you in the ass sooner or later.”


“I would rather have your Senpai biting it,” Maria said.


“Maria, what the fuck.” Chris scratched her head. “You really had to say that, huh?”


“You've been having way too much fun teasing Tsubasa,” Maria said. “Maybe turn it down a notch, hm?”


Chris sighed in exasperation. “Look, Maria, there's no point trying to hide it. You should have pursued her directly instead of making this bullshit of a set-up.”


Maria smiled. “It would have put her off and made things awkward. This is better.”


Chris huffed. “Suit yourself, European, but don't cry to me when you can't take it anymore.”


Maria left Chris at the living room and proceeded to pick up what she had forgotten at Tsubasa's bedroom. She then left the apartment, feeling disgruntled at Chris' words.


---


Ogawa discussed shows with Tsubasa later that day. However, he noticed that Tsubasa seemed to have her attention on something else. He cleared his throat.


“Tsubasa-san.”


Tsubasa snapped out of her thoughts and blinked at Ogawa.


“Yeah, you were saying?”


Ogawa sighed. “Was last night's performance too bombastic to your liking?”


“Wait, what do you mean?”


“What I meant was the live show last night.”


Tsubasa nodded. “Ah yeah, that one. Yeah, still can't get over it.”


Ogawa nodded. “I see. I bet Maria-san’s after-show topped that night off rather splendidly.”


Tsubasa raised an eyebrow. “Wait, there wasn't any after-show…”


Tsubasa's eyes widened upon realizing what Ogawa had implied, then she groaned and leaned back into her seat. Ogawa could barely hide his mirth at his charge.


“You know, Tsubasa-san, I was about to fetch you this morning, as per my duties,” Ogawa told her. “But before I could even park the car, I saw Maria-san walking from the direction of your apartment. I figured I shouldn’t disrupt you from your well-earned rest since you…definitely had been working hard all night.”


“Ogawa!”


Ogawa laughed. “I am merely jesting, Tsubasa-san.”


Ogawa took a seat across Tsubasa and poised himself to speak more seriously.


“Where do you want this to go?” he asked.


“What do you mean?”


“This whole thing with Maria-san. You two are basically an open secret now, what do you plan to do with that?”


“Nothing,” Tsubasa told him. “There’s nothing between us, except this set-up. I don’t think it should be given that much concern.”


Ogawa sighed and stood up, then he handed Tsubasa a list.


“Alright then, here are a few brands seeking your endorsement. You could at least make a solid decision for that.”


Tsubasa frowned, sensing some sort of oddness in Ogawa's tone. “What do you mean by ‘solid decision'?”


Ogawa was already at the door. “Just pick a brand, Tsubasa-san. I'm making calls in 15 minutes.”


---


The next day, Genjuuro called in Maria and Chris for an upcoming meeting with government officials from Val Verde. They were to fly there as diplomats, and Chris had the double duty as translator since she was fluent with Val Verde's language. After the short meeting, Genjuuro asked if Maria can spare some time for a chat. Chris hastily left the briefing room for lunch, sensing an incoming awkward conversation.


“Sure, Commander,” Maria said. “What do you want to talk about?”


“It’s about my niece,” Genjuuro said. “How’s she been?”


Maria chuckled. “Shouldn’t you be talking to her instead of me?”


Genjuuro scratched his nape. “Well, it hasn't been easy talking to her lately. I was thinking you'd know since you spend a lot of time together—day and night, so I've heard.”


For a second Maria thought Genjuuro was serious, then she saw the twinkle in his eye and realized that the man was in a good mood today.


“Commander, you really are a funny man,” Maria said.


“I get that a lot.” Genjuuro then let out a sigh. “So, she still doesn't know?”


“I try to keep it that way.”


“Doesn’t it hurt?”


Maria smiled. “Truth be told, it does. But since she doesn't seem to be aware of it, I just keep stuff to myself and let things as it is.”


“Just like that?”


“Just like that.”


“You know very well what that's gonna do to you.”


“We had an agreement.”


Genjuuro huffed and proceeded to leave the room. “Whatever you say, Maria.”


Maria watched as the doors closed on Genjuuro. The notion of Tsubasa suddenly gave an uncomfortable tug on Maria's chest.


---


Maria headed home early to prepare for the mission. She left Shirabe and Kirika instructions, which the two girls attentively jotted down.


“Now, let's see,” Maria said. “I might have forgotten something.”


“Have you said good-bye to Tsubasa-san?” Kirika asked.


Maria scoffed. “What for? It's not like I'm going off to somewhere really far or something.”


“Well, what if something happens? You'll never know,” Shirabe added.


Maria shook her head dismissively . “Nothing’s gonna happen, it’s just a diplomatic mission. I’m sure Genjuuro-san would tell her soon.” She zipped her duffel bag. “Alright, I'll be leaving really early tomorrow. Don't forget what I've told you.”


Maria retired to bed later after dinner. As the two girls washed the dishes, they talked about Maria.


“I wonder how long it's gonna be until it all crumbles down,” Shirabe said.


“Probably sooner than we expect,” Kirika said. “Maria’s a real softy.”


“You think so?”


“We grew up together, it's not that hard to see. Maria knows us from inside and out, and we're practically the same towards her.”


Shirabe giggled. “Sometimes I wonder how you get to be sharp-witted when I least expect it, Kiri-chan.”


“Eh?”


---


Chris tapped on Tsubasa's door later that night.


“Alright, before I come in, please tell me you don't have a naked Ukrainian on your bed,” Chris said with a wince.


Tsubasa rolled her eyes. “No, there isn't, Yukine. Aren't you supposed to be sleeping early for tomorrow? What are you doing here?”


Chris stepped inside. “I don't feel like sleeping tonight. Mind if I play the game I bought you weeks ago?”


“I haven't even opened the protective wrapping,” Tsubasa said as she closed the door.


“Pathetic,” Chris said, shaking her head.


Chris played the video game later on. Tsubasa settled herself on her couch and watched her kouhai breeze through the game. It was about two hours later when Chris decided to call it quits and head home.


“Oh yeah, you should call Maria,” Chris told her at the door.


“What for?” Tsubasa asked.


“Geez, Senpai, I don't know. Maybe wish her a safe travel or something?”


Tsubasa sighed. “Go home, Yukine.”


---


Maria was abruptly woken up by the sound of her phone. She had mumbled every curse word in her native tongue, only stopping short when she saw Tsubasa's name on the screen.


“Hey,” Maria spoke.


“Did I call you at a bad time?” Tsubasa asked.


Maria turned to the clock on the wall—12:30. “I can't say you did,” she said. “What’s up?”


There was a bit of silence on the other line, then Maria heard a sigh.


“You, um…you watch yourself out there,” she heard Tsubasa say.


Maria was surprised at that, but she kept her cool and smirked.


“I will,” Maria said. “Otherwise you'd have to find yourself a new partner in the sheets who's as good as me. We wouldn't want that now, would we?”


Tsubasa laughed on the other line, making Maria's heart skip. “Just…take care. You and Yukine. Even if it's just a diplomatic mission.”


Maria nodded. “Alright.”


“Yeah. Alright. Good night, Maria.”


“Good night, Tsubasa.”


The call ended and Maria was left staring at her phone in the dark. With a smile, she shifted in her sheets and dozed off.

Chapter Text

Tokyo – 9:00:00 AM 

Tsubasa dropped off at the Kazanari estate for a meeting about the management of some of the family's holdings. With Fudou incarcerated and Yatsuhiro gone, the job of handling the properties were passed on to Tsubasa and Genjuuro. Genjuuro asked to cover a huge chunk of the job since Tsubasa had a career of her own to look after, and it was agreed upon by the legal board. When the meeting ended, Genjuuro invited Tsubasa for tea.

Genjuuro attempted to start a conversation. “How’s work treating you?”

“It’s been hectic as of late,” Tsubasa told him. “It’s been one recording session after another, and I just had a shoot for one of the brands I picked to endorse. Are you sure about carrying most of the holdings? You still have the Second Division to watch over.”

“We are in peaceful times, save for pockets of Noise popping up here and there,” Genjuuro said with a chuckle. “I could afford to take care most of the family’s holdings. You, on the other hand, have a career to build. I don’t want you to lose focus since that is something you’ve always dreamed for.”

Tsubasa smiled at that. “Just call me when you need help. We’re the only ones left.”

Genjuuro nodded at that. He looked over at Tsubasa and noticed the worried look on her face, deeming that the cause of his niece’s worry was not within the walls of the estate, but somewhere else.

“You're worried about Maria, aren't you?”

Tsubasa almost choked as she sipped her tea. Genjuuro tried to suppress his laughter and was reduced to a shaking mess.

“Why is it that when we talk about Maria, you lose all your shit?” Genjuuro asked, smiling toothily.

Tsubasa hastily wiped her mouth. “Because you're all teasing me about it and I hate it.”

Genjuuro scratched his head. “Yeah, sorry about that..but you really have to work on keeping your emotions hidden so you won't be caught off-guard next time. If you weren't careful, you could have spat that tea out.”

“If you weren't pushing that topic like Yukine does, I wouldn't be this fussy,” Tsubasa snarled.

“Then why do you get fussy when it’s about Maria?”

“Because you blow things out of proportion,” Tsubasa said. “What’s wrong with two people just sleeping together without any attachments? So what if the person I’m sleeping with is Maria? We’re on good terms, there’s nothing really iffy about that...yet here you all are treating this as some sort of a tabloid issue. You’re just as bad as those intrusive journalists.”

“You’re fussy, alright.” Genjuuro shrugged. “Fine, no more talking about Maria.”

Genjuuro then had the urge of teasing his niece once more. It was just too fun watching Tsubasa lose her composure, especially when Maria is involved.

“Once Chris and Maria return from their mission, I can get you some coupons to that  onsen  we went to,” Genjuuro said.

“What, for all of us at the Second Division?” Tsubasa asked as raised the cup for another sip of her tea. “That’s gonna cost you a lot.”

“Nah, just you and Maria so you can relive your first night together,” Genjuuro jabbed, wasting no fraction of time.

This time, Tsubasa spat the tea.

--- 

Val Verde – 8:00:00 PM  

Maria sneezed out of the blue.

She and Chris were strolling around the plaza later in the evening. The meeting with the officials went by without any further trouble and had ended earlier than expected. With more free time on their hands, Chris and Maria spent the rest of the day strolling around the town close to their hotel as well as paying a visit to Sonia and Stephan.

“Hey, you alright?” Chris asked as she unwrapped the grilled squid she bought.

“I’m fine,” Maria said as she wiped her nose with her handkerchief. “This...just came out of nowhere.”

Chris pointed to a group of soldiers not far from them. “You definitely took these guys by surprise when you wheezed.” 

Although the tensions in Val Verde had been subdued, there was still a highly noticeable presence of military forces in almost every street in the area. Chris winced at this, thinking that things haven't changed even after more than ten years.

“You know, once this is over, I was thinking we could have a vacation with the girls,” Maria said. 

Chris, who was chomping on the grilled squid, hummed in agreement. “Kirika and Shirabe will flip once you tell them that.”

Maria giggled. “I’m sure they will, Yukine-san.”

Chris waved her off. “ Oi, oi, you can quit it with the honorifics. You're practically family to me now.”

Maria perked up at that. “Family, you say?”

Chris realized that she thought out loud with her last statement and blushed at that.

"I didn't say anything like that,” Chris denied.

“Hoh, is that so…Chris-chan?”

Chris sped up her steps. “Alright, you know what, European? Let's just get this over with and go home.”

Maria giggled. “Sure thing, Chris.”

The two girls continued their stroll. They dropped by a flea market to look at some of the stalls and peruse for souvenirs.

--- 

Tokyo – 10:30:00 AM – 6:00:00 PM  

“I will be taking my leave now,” Tsubasa said. “I’m sorry about the tea.”

Genjuuro shook his head with a barely noticeable smile and bid his niece goodbye.

“Make sure not to let that motorcycle explode,” Genjuuro said. “The insurance doesn't cover intentional accidents.”

Tsubasa chuckled and left the estate. She hit the road not long after and headed to the outskirts of the city. She arrived at a cliffside and parked her motorcycle there. 

You two are basically an open secret now, what do you plan to do with that?  

Tsubasa had given her answer. She shouldn't be dwelling on Ogawa's question any further.

She was perplexed at herself for being unsure.

On the way home, Tsubasa decided to head to a ramen shack—she wasn’t in the mood for making dinner at her apartment—and came across Hibiki and Miku at one of the tables.

“Yo, Tachibana,” Tsubasa called as she walked over to them.

“Tsubasa-san!” Hibiki exclaimed. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Just making a detour,” Tsubasa said. “I hope I haven’t interrupted your date.”

“Ah, no! You can join us,” Miku invited. “It’s been a while since we last saw you, you’ve been very busy lately.”

“Yeah, I guess I am,” Tsubasa said as she took a seat at the table.

The three settled on their orders and started a lively conversation about work and school.

“Oh, right, any news from Chris and Maria?” Hibiki asked not long after.

Tsubasa’s face became stern. “None so far. It's kinda worrying, actually. They should have reported something by now.”

Hibiki hummed. “Judging from what the mission sounded like, all Maria-san and Chris-chan had to do is talk with important people. I think they’ll be fine.”

Tsubasa grunted. “Yeah, but Val Verde…things haven’t improved there even until now, despite the political tensions being subdued. Who knows when some crazy radicalist suddenly open fires on a government building somewhere there?”

“I'm sure they'll be okay, Tsubasa-san,” Miku told her. “They’re among the sharpest people I know.”

“Yeah, but still…” Tsubasa trailed off.

Tsubasa's clasped hands fidgeted on her loss for words. She had asked Genjuuro how long the diplomatic mission was going to take, and he told her they'd be back not long after the meeting was done. Still, it’s Val Verde, and Tsubasa had grown anxious due to that. She hoped that the two would quickly finish their mission without any fuss. 

Hibiki turned to Miku questioningly, and Miku nodded with a smile.

“Tsubasa-san,” Miku called. 

Tsubasa's hands stopped fidgeting at the calm tone of Miku's voice. Miku placed an assuring hand on Tsubasa's arm. 

“It will be alright,” Miku told her.

Tsubasa took in Miku's words and sighed. Shaking her head, she told them she had been worrying too much. Hibiki shooed away the tense air with a laugh and told them to just dig in and enjoy the ramen. As they were enjoying their meal, Tsubasa's communicator beeped, and she answered it. In a flash, she stood up from the table. 

“I'll be there,” she said.

Hibiki and Miku nodded at her and she hastily left the ramen shack. Not long after, Tsubasa was on a carrier plane heading to Val Verde. She was convinced that political oppositions were to blame for the attack on Maria and Chris, given that they entered Val Verde as diplomats. The opposition may have thought that they were only working with the ruling officials and considered them a threat. The flight to Val Verde had to take almost a day, and Tsubasa couldn’t stay still in her seat. 

“Tsubasa-san, any second from now and you’ll break that seat’s hinges,” Ogawa said. “Please, calm down. Maria-san and Yukine-san are under the care of our trusted operatives in Val Verde, they are secured until we come and get them.”

--- 

Val Verde – earlier at 11:00:00 PM  

“And…done.”

Chris tapped the Enter key and the report was sent. She leaned back with a sigh and turned to the ceiling. It had been a day since they first arrived at Val Verde and they had no trouble speaking with the officials. She figured their stay there won't take long. 

Ah yeah, back home to my TV and  microwav e ables , Chris thought.  Ah, shit, wait. I have classes.  

The bathroom door opened and Maria walked into the bedroom clad only with a towel wrapped around her body. Chris let out a whistle.

“Yep,  Senpai  wouldn't be able to resist that,” Chris said. 

Maria frowned. “Resist what?” 

“That fine rack you have, European.  Senpai  has a thing for boobs, she wouldn't think twice about having her way with yours.”

“No wonder she's taken you in as her  kouhai ,” Maria said with a giggle. “You’re not bad yourself.”

Chris waved her off with a laugh. “Nah, even if I flash these babies at her, she wouldn't look at ‘em the same way she does with yours. I always notice her struggle to maintain eye contact with you—and most of the time, it's a losing fight.”

Maria laughed as she put on her sleepwear. “Now that, I am highly aware of.”

Chris took her turn at the showers and Maria headed to bed. Maria had half a mind to call Tsubasa, but she stopped herself and thought that it would be too much. To fend off her slight frustration, she took out a book she bought from the flea market and began reading. It was a second-hand mystery novel written in English— Perry Mason and the Case of the Perjured Parrot . Maria was not one to read mystery novels most of the time, but the notion of a parrot allegedly committing perjury caught her curiosity. 

She was two chapters in when Chris got out of the bathroom. In a few minutes, Chris was already snoring. Maria checked for the strapped progressive knife on her thigh—it’s Val Verde, anything can happen—and went to sleep as well.

It hadn't been long when Maria was snapped awake by the latch on the door—someone had intruded their room. She shifted quickly to check on Chris and found her wide awake. With a nod, the two feigned being asleep and waited for the intruder to step in.

The light from outside flooded in, and a shadow followed soon after. Two men entered, both heavy-set and armed. They looked around and found the two women in their beds. With careful treading, they readied their own knives and crept closer towards the beds to slit the women's throats. In a flash, both women jumped out from the sheets and took on the men. They dodged swipes from every direction and attempted to strike. The men were experienced combatants, but the women were on par with them. Eventually, they overtook their opponents and managed to incapacitate them. Once deemed that the men were out cold, Maria took note of the patches on the intruders and found the insignia of one of the political opposition parties. She then grabbed her communicator from her nightstand and made a call.

“We’ve been attacked,” Maria said between gasps.

--- 

Val Verde – the next day, around  4 :00:00 PM

Eventually, the pilot announced that they were landing in a few minutes, and Tsubasa headed off with Ogawa to Maria and Chris' rendezvous point. Tsubasa felt a wave of relief wash over her upon seeing both women safe.

“I know you miss me and all,” Maria said with a smile as she approached Tsubasa. “But, traveling all the way out here at such an ungodly hour? I think that's way too much, even for you.”

Tsubasa frowned. “I'm here because I was the only one who's free to respond.”

Maria pouted, feigning disappointment. “Sheesh, Tsubasa, how can you be so cold?”

Tsubasa shrugged and let the conversation drop. Meanwhile, Chris and Ogawa were keenly watching them.

“Don’t let appearances fool you,” Ogawa told Chris. “Tsubasa-san almost lost her wits on the way here.”

Chris stifled a laugh. “What the hell? Seriously?”

“Almost broke the plane seat because she’s fidgeting too much,” Ogawa said.

Chris let out a laugh at that while Ogawa merely smiled. The other two asked them what they were laughing about, to which Chris merely said that Ogawa made a joke—something that doesn’t happen much often unless one is acquainted with him to a certain degree. They all set-off back to the carrier plane for the flight home. 

Chapter Text

Following the safe return of Maria and Chris from their mission, Hibiki decided to throw a small party. While this was vehemently opposed by Chris due to it being an unnecessary thing, Shirabe and Kirika's persuasions got her to give in. Chris now found herself tagging along with Miku and Shirabe at the grocery store to buy ingredients and everything else they needed for the party.  

Chris had planned on having alcohol at the party, but Miku decided against it since they were not yet of drinking age, and also out of concern for Elfnein. They eventually arrived at a compromise—Chris would only get to bring out the drinks as soon as Elfnein goes home. Shirabe and Kirika knew better than to try drinking at all, so Chris had no problems with that. 

“But, seriously, there's no need for this,” Chris grumbled as she tossed in a bottle of mayonnaise into the cart. “It’s not like we saved the whole world or anything.” 

“Sorry about that, Chris-chan,” Miku told her. “But Hibiki knows that seeing you guys return home without any serious injuries is a miracle in itself and would always merit a celebration.” 

Chris huffed. “Yeah, I know, but still…” 

“Chris-chan, you don't have to hide it anymore,” Shirabe said as she picked out some fresh apples. “I’m sure you're looking forward to this party just like everyone else. After all, you only get to eat wholesome food whenever Tachibana-san throws parties on a whim.” 

Chris, now red-faced, fumed at Shirabe. “ Oi oi , Shirabe. It's not nice calling me out like that.” 

Shirabe laughed. “But it's true! Also, have you forgotten those occasional afternoons where you'd drop by our place and wait until dinnertime?” 

Chris had half a mind to snarl at Shirabe right there and then, but Shirabe had a point. Miku merely giggled at the banter between Shirabe and Chris. 

“I have one question, though,” Chris said after picking out five boxes of Pocky. “Why the fuck does the party have to be at my place?” 

--- 

Tsubasa made another swing of her practice sword at the space before her. Since the party will be at dinnertime, she had an ample amount of time to tune her swings. 

She stayed over at the Kazanari estate after returning from the recovery mission. Maria didn't say anything about heading over to Tsubasa's apartment, so Tsubasa decided that she could perhaps drop by the estate to at least catch up on her own training. 

After one last round, Tsubasa took a break and sat outside the dojo. The weather was agreeable, giving Tsubasa the urge to take her motorcycle out for a drive. She was about to do just that when one of the attendants approached her and told her that she had a visitor. 

“Who is it?” Tsubasa asked. 

“Eve-san,” said the attendant. 

Tsubasa huffed. “Tell her to wait for me by the garden, I’ll be joining her shortly.” 

The attendant left with a bow. Tsubasa promptly replaced the practice sword back into its scabbard and onto the racks before making her way to the garden. While Maria's visits were not entirely unwelcome, the current situation between them made menial things like that somewhat of a chore for her. She met with Maria by the garden and a maid was serving tea when she arrived. Maria had made light conversation with the maid—she had always been the kind of person who talks easily with other people regardless of how long she’s known them. The maid then made her leave once Tsubasa was seated and had her tea. 

“What’s with the visit?” Tsubasa asked. “Aren’t you supposed to help with the cooking?” 

“I was aiming to, but Shirabe insisted that she and Miku would be the ones to do it. Told me it would be life-threatening to have me in the kitchen. I thought I'd drop by here since you weren't in your apartment.” 

Tsubasa chuckled. “You should try learning how to cook properly. Who knows when you're gonna marry someone and you still don't know how to cook?” 

Maria eyed her. “Says the woman who can't even clean her room to save her life.” 

The two laughed at each other after that. As they did, Tsubasa couldn't ignore the all-too-familiar warmth Maria had been exuding even before they first played under the sheets. It had been like that for a while. Tsubasa suddenly began feeling a peculiar fluttering in her chest whenever she was with Maria, accompanied by a certain kind of warmth that was so close to the one she once felt when Kanade was still around. Those feelings didn't fade away, and Tsubasa wondered why. 

Tsubasa shook away further thoughts from her head, guising it as amused disbelief in front of Maria.  

Maria, on the other hand, fervently wished that time would stop for the two of them at that moment. It was one of the rare moments where Tsubasa would temporarily let her walls down without any worries. However, Maria knew that such a wish cannot come true. They may have their Gears, but they don't have the power to tamper with time. All Maria could do was relish every single second she has alone with Tsubasa—she figured that she would be once again hard to approach the moment they join the others at the party. 

Maria eventually stood up and made her leave, saying she had to pick up some items that Kirika requested. Tsubasa walked her to the main gate. 

“See you at Chris' place, then,” Maria said. 

“Yeah,” Tsubasa nodded. “See you soon.” 

--- 

Tsubasa was the last to arrive at Chris' apartment.  

“You took your damn time,  Senpai ,” Chris told her when she opened the door. “I thought you weren't going to show up.” 

“I took a nap and overslept,” Tsubasa said. “Forgive me for being late.” 

“Yeah, yeah, just get in there,” Chris said. 

Squeals were heard from Chris' living room, which prompted Tsubasa to look over. 

“Are they…drunk?” Tsubasa asked. 

“Shit-faced, both Hibiki and Maria,” Chris said. “See for yourself.” 

Tsubasa could only stare at the scene before her. Hibiki was already on her fifth bottle, and Maria was ahead of her with her eighth. While Miku could barely hold Hibiki down with her drinking, Kirika and Shirabe were egging Maria on to grab another bottle from Chris' fridge. Elfnein merely stared at the other girls, eyes wide in bewilderment and wonder at the same time. 

Tsubasa was alarmed that Elfnein had to be among them. “Why’d you have to let them drink anyway? Elfnein's here, for heaven’s sake.” 

“It completely got out of control,” Chris said wearily. “The alcohol was supposed to be taken out once Elfnein goes home.” 

“Good thing you weren't drinking,” Tsubasa said. 

Chris huffed. “If I did, then who's gonna make sure this place doesn't fall apart because of Hibiki and Maria? Miku's got too much on her plate now, so I had to make sure I'm sober enough in case you really ditched us.” 

Tsubasa eyed her warily. “And how did you get your hands on all these liquor? You're not yet of age to buy any.” 

Chris smirked. “I have my ways,  Senpai .” There was no way she would tell Tsubasa that Genjuuro gave her the clearance to buy alcohol. 

Maria had just taken a swig from her ninth bottle when she saw Tsubasa at the doorway. She flashed a wide smile and hastily stood up to greet her despite her wobbly legs. 

Ara ara , Tsubasa's finally here!” Maria squealed. 

Tsubasa immediately rushed to catch Maria when she started keeling over, and they ended up with Maria's arms slung around Tsubasa's neck. 

“What took you so long, baby?” Maria drawled. “I missed you.” 

“Maria, you're really drunk,” Tsubasa said, grimacing at the fumes of alcohol coming from Maria. “Have you eaten?” 

Chris cackled. “Maria's practically ninety-nine percent booze and all  Senpai ’s gonna ask her is if she had eaten.” 

“I’m not drunk, Tsubasa,” Maria said slowly but loudly. “The food's delicious, but I'd very much like to eat you out as my dessert.” 

Hibiki and Kirika hooted at Maria's answer, while Shirabe and Miku could only sit still in shock. Elfnein looked here and there as if seeking for answers about what was currently happening. Chris slapped her forehead in dismay, even more so when she saw how red-faced and dumbfounded Tsubasa had become. 

Senpai , you should take Maria home,” Chris demanded. 

“But I just got here,” Tsubasa said, trying to steady herself while Maria was nibbling at her neck. “I haven't even tried some of the food.” 

“Well, damn it, you’ve got the food wrapped around your neck!” Chris snarled. 

Chris then noticed that everyone had fallen silent at her outburst. She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed.  

“Right, right, sorry about that,” Chris said wearily. “And here I thought Europeans can handle their liquor pretty damn well.” 

Ogawa fetched Elfnein sometime later, giving Chris her long-awaited leeway for drinking, and the small party continued well into the night. Maria clung to Tsubasa the whole time—much to Chris' chagrin—and Hibiki lost the competition, managing to down ten bottles compared to Maria's fourteen. Tsubasa had opted not to drink since she had to ride her motorcycle home. When it was time to go home, she had Maria sit on the motorcycle and pushed it while walking with Shirabe and Kirika, whose apartment was a small distance away from Chris'. Miku and Hibiki hailed a cab, being that they were the ones living the farthest from Chris. 

Shirabe relayed Tsubasa what she had missed from the party, from Hibiki and Kirika's antics to the dare that started the drinking competition. 

“Hibiki's not supposed to drink yet, right?” Tsubasa asked. 

“That's what Miku-san had told her over and over, but Hibiki-san wouldn't listen,” Kirika told her. “She said no one's gonna know about it but us. She got a point there, but still, Hibiki-san should have known when to quit.” 

“Or if it was right to start drinking at all,” Shirabe said with a laugh. 

They arrived at the apartment and Tsubasa helped Shirabe with making sure everything was set for Maria. While Kirika prepared Maria’s bed, Shirabe took care of Maria at the shower while Tsubasa fetched everything she would need in the morning. Once Maria was tucked in, Kirika set off to head to bed while Shirabe and Tsubasa took a moment to watch over her. Maria slept like a baby, as if she wasn't heavily inebriated hours ago. 

“She may look like she has everything under wraps, but in reality, she's a walking disaster,” Shirabe said with a smile. “Thanks for helping out, Tsubasa-san.” 

Tsubasa shrugged. “No problem.” She turned to her watch. “I should be going now.” 

Tsubasa hesitated for a bit, then she bent down and kissed Maria on the forehead. She then winked at Shirabe, who was surprised at the act. 

“Best be quiet about this, okay?” Tsubasa said. 

Shirabe nodded, grinning. “My lips are sealed, Tsubasa-san.” 

Tsubasa made her leave and drove home to her own apartment. Along the way, she looked back on kissing Maria on the forehead. 

For some reason, it felt as if it was a natural thing to do at the time. 

Chapter Text

Chris went over to Maria's apartment the next day. Shirabe led her to Maria's room before hastily leaving to prepare soup. Chris then saw Maria straining to sit up on her bed and began to think of a good quip. 

“Hello, European,” Chris greeted. “Looks like the hangover’s going along swimmingly.” 

“Shut-up, you D-cup Hobbit,” Maria growled. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the university?” 

Chris laughed and took a seat beside Maria, thumping herself on the bed on purpose to aggravate Maria's headache. Maria groaned in pain and cussed at Chris in her own language. 

“My classes aren’t starting until later at four, figured I spend a bit of time here. Seriously, why did you even dare Hibiki to a drinking competition?” Chris asked as she stretched out on the bed. 

“She was too proud,” Maria said with a shrug. “Had to put her in her rightful place.” 

“And to think you’re the adult.” Chris raised an eyebrow and eyed at her warily. “Alright, let it out. There’s more to that, Maria.” 

Maria was silent, then she let out a sigh. “I wanted an excuse to drink.” 

“What for?” 

“Come on, Chris, you know what it's for.” 

Chris grimaced in disbelief. “What? You wasted all of the booze I bought because of  Senpai ?” 

Maria gingerly rubbed her eyes. “Look, I know it's stupid, but you have to give me some slack here.” 

Chris let out an irritated huff. “You know what else is stupid? You getting all clingy and horny at  Senpai  right in front of Shirabe and Kirika…and Elfnein, for chrissakes! Do you have any idea what that might put in their heads? Those girls absorb everything they see and hear like a goddamn sponge.” 

Maria cringed. “I might have gone overboard with the alcohol.” 

“You  might ?” Chris cackled heartily. “Bitch, you basically did fifty backflips before completely going overboard.” 

Both girls were reduced to laughing fits after that. Maria then let out a chuckle and turned to Chris. 

“You know, sometimes I wonder how we two get along,” Maria told her. 

Chris scratched her chin. “I don't know…maybe because we were once the biggest threat to humanity and that we're basically redeeming ourselves by working under the people we almost killed?” 

“We’re not working  under , we're working  with  the people we almost killed.” Maria smiled. “Although, the thought of being  under  Tsubasa specifically isn't that bad.”  

“Your thirst for  Senpai  knows no bounds, European,” Chris quipped. “What will it take for you to stop flashing your horny card for at least a day?” 

Not long after, Chris had to leave. She left Maria a small bag of cookies and went off to the university. 

 

---

 

Tsubasa crossed paths with Miku at the grocery store, and the two headed to a café after shopping. Tsubasa asked how Hibiki was faring, given that she was very drunk the night before. Miku's cheeks flushed at the question, and it somewhat took a moment before she answered. Tsubasa had her suspicions as to what happened, but she kept them in the back of her mind so as not to alarm Miku. 

“She’s in bed the whole day, and her headache's keeping her there,” Miku said. “I bought her pain relievers and some of her favorite snacks to make her feel better.” 

Tsubasa smirked. “Ever the dutiful wife, huh? Hibiki’s really lucky to have you.” 

Miku laughed at that. “Tsubasa-san, ‘wife’ is such a strong word. We've only just started dating.” 

“It’ll end up with you two getting married anyway,” Tsubasa pointed out. 

Miku merely giggled at Tsubasa and shook her head at the remark. 

“Have you visited Maria-san?” Miku asked later on. 

Tsubasa slightly flinched at the mention of Maria. “I haven't.” 

“I see.” Miku bit on another cookie. “You know, last night before you arrived, her eyes looked really sad. She may be smiling and laughing with us, but I think it’s because she wanted to hide how sad she is. I wanted to talk to her about that, but the dare happened and Maria eventually got drunk.” 

Tsubasa leaned back. “Sad, huh?” 

“Yeah. And when you stepped in, her eyes lit up like a thousand light bulbs.” 

Tsubasa chuckled. “Blame it on the alcohol.” 

“Well, that may be the case, but what if it's another thing entirely?” 

“What do you mean?” 

Miku shrugged. “Just an assumption of mine, Tsubasa-san. Anyways, I do have to go back to the apartment now. Hibiki has to have her snacks.” 

Miku left the café ahead of Tsubasa. Tsubasa took a moment to ponder on what Miku said, then she shook her head with a sigh. 

No way.  Maria would never...  

 

--- 

 

Maria downed another pain reliever and winced. Although her headache had started fading away, her eyes still hurt from too much light and she had to close her blinds for the whole day. Shirabe would bring in her meals so she wouldn't have to join them outside her room. 

“You may not have been Mom's real daughter, but your penchant for alcohol takes after her,” Shirabe said as she brought in some soup. 

“She wasn't as dumb as me whenever she drinks,” Maria joked in a strained voice. “What’s in the soup? I smell ginger.” 

“That, and eggs. I read somewhere that it is a good remedy for hangovers.” 

Maria carefully brought a spoonful of the soup and gently blew it. To her alcohol-logged senses, the soup was like warm, viscous ambrosia. She let out a moan of delight at having tasted such a soup. 

Shirabe giggled at Maria's reaction to the soup. “I just tossed in some ginger and eggs, it's not that heavenly,” she quipped. 

“Try having a hangover, you'll see why I'm like this,” Maria told her. 

“No, thanks. I'll have to pass up on that.” Shirabe said with a smirk. “I’ll take care of lunch. You finish your soup.” 

Shirabe left the room and got Kirika to help her with preparing the next meal. They were interrupted by a knock on the door, and to their surprise, it was Tsubasa who stood by the door. 

“Tsubasa-san, what a nice surprise,” Kirika greeted. “Visiting Maria?” 

“Y-yeah,” Tsubasa answered, taken aback by Kirika's cheerful greeting. “How is she?” 

“The headaches seemed to have started fading, but the pain killers are still on standby,” Shirabe answered as they went to the living room. “Maria's having her soup, you can go straight to her room.” 

Shirabe led Tsubasa to the door of Maria's room and returned to the kitchen. Tsubasa huffed and slowly opened the door with a knock. 

“Maria,” Tsubasa called as she stepped inside the room. 

Maria hastily straightened herself up in bed. “Tsubasa. I didn't know you were coming over.” 

“I just wanted to check on you and Hibiki. You were both really drunk last night.” 

Maria chuckled. “So I was told countless times today.” 

Tsubasa sat at the foot of the bed. “How are you feeling?” 

“Well, my eyes still hurt from the light, and I can't move around because my body feels heavy.” 

Tsubasa crossed her arms. “That’s the consequence of drinking past your limits.” 

“Did you come over just to lecture me?” 

Tsubasa smirked. “No, I came here to laugh at you.” 

“You just missed having me in your bed,” Maria teased. 

Tsubasa scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Come on, don't tell me you got yourself drunk again?” 

“I'm eating soup and the only bottle on my nightstand holds pain killers, what makes you think I got myself drunk when I’m like this?” 

“You once hid a whole bottle of vodka under your bed.” 

Maria raised a finger at her. “Hey, that was back when I had nowhere else to put the alcohol gifted to me from one of our shows.” 

The two shared a laugh after that. A brief moment of silence then filled the air as they looked at each other. 

“Tsubasa,” Maria called softly. 

“Hm?” 

“Thanks for stopping by, and also…for helping out last night.” 

Tsubasa smirked. “I couldn't let Shirabe and Kirika carry you all the way here. Two teenagers busting their backs carrying a blind-drunk adult? Not a pretty picture, if you ask me.” 

Maria scoffed. “You’ve gloated well enough, Kazanari. Give me some slack, will you?” 

“Think of it as karma for going way beyond your limits, Miss Eve.” 

Eventually, Tsubasa bid her goodbye and left the bedroom. Shirabe later arrived with the lunch she cooked and found Maria sighing. 

“You know, you really should tell her,” Shirabe said. 

Maria scoffed. “It’s no use telling.” 

Shirabe smirked. “Take a gamble for once, Maria. And finish your lunch up until the last grain, you hear me?” 

 

---

 

Chris met up with Tsubasa at a diner later in the night. Tsubasa opted for a salad while Chris ordered three pastas and a soda. Tsubasa is still in awe at how Chris can maintain a good figure despite having a voracious appetite. They made light conversation as they ate, talking about college and recording sessions, and Chris asked Tsubasa about Maria. 

“I dropped by their apartment earlier,” Tsubasa said. “Hangover aside, she’s doing fine.” 

Chris smirked. “How nice of you to visit.”  

“I’m just checking to see how she’s doing like friends do.” 

“Sheesh, don’t be so stuck-up, I’m just teasing.” Chris chuckled. “She’d better lay-off the alcohol for a time lest she incurs the wrath of another hangover.” 

“She didn’t have to drink too much,” Tsubasa said as she looked out the window. “Good thing she’s fit enough to take it.” 

Chris shrugged. “Europeans sure love their alcohol.” 

“I thought it was just the Germans?” Tsubasa asked playfully. 

“Almost everybody drinks,  Senpai . The Germans just tend to take it to another level.” She sloppily slurped a forkful of spaghetti. “Meksh me wondurr if Maria’sh really a Uk-rain-ian.” 

“Chew your food, Yukine.” 

Chris took a moment to properly eat her food and washed it down with the soda, burping for good measure. “Sorry about that.” 

Tsubasa merely rubbed the bridge of her nose. “At least you’re enjoying your food. That’s the important thing.” 

 

---

 

Hibiki sluggishly climbed down from the top bunk and followed the scent of beef stroganoff, then she found Miku working at the kitchen. Miku, seeing Hibiki trudging towards the table, rushed to help her settle in her seat. 

“You should have called me,” Miku said. “How’s your head?” 

“I think I can bear the pain now,” Hibiki told her. “I’m hungry.” 

Miku giggled. “Of course you are.” 

The stroganoff was served and Hibiki slowly ate spoonfuls of it. Her eyes still hurt from the light, so she was squinting the whole time. 

“Man, who knew drinking can be a double-edged sword?” Hibiki said. 

“You know you aren't fit to drink yet, Hibiki.” 

Hibiki grinned toothily. “Heh, I think I have the potential for having high tolerance for alcohol.” 

“No, you were just stubborn. It's fortunate that you have a fit body, otherwise you could have broken down at the fifth bottle.” 

Hibiki scratched her head at that. “Thank heavens for those training sessions with the commander, I guess.” 

Miku huffed with a smile and resumed eating. She then took over the chores later on, refusing Hibiki's insistence at helping her out. 

“But I can already stand up and walk and move, I can help—” Hibiki curled up on the sofa shortly after standing up. “Ow, my head…” 

“You can't even stay upright after a jolt of pain like that,” Miku countered. “Alright, off you go to the bathroom. I'll join you in the tub once I'm done with the dishes.” 

Hibiki pouted and dejectedly walked towards the bathroom. Miku joined in not long after. 

“Say, Miku...” 

“Hm?” 

“Did I do anything funny when I was drunk last night?” 

Miku felt her cheeks burn at the question. “Whatever do you mean?” 

“You know how some people do things while they’re drunk and forget them once they sober up? I was thinking maybe I did.” 

“H-how much do you remember from last night?” Miku asked shakily. 

Hibiki hummed. “Well, I can still remember being at the party, then there was Maria challenging me to a drinking contest. After that, everything's a blur.” 

Miku squirmed in her place in the tub. “Well, um…you were rowdy last night.” 

“Rowdy?” 

“Y-yeah. Rowdy. Clingy, too.” 

“I was…clingy?” 

Miku nodded. “And you might have said things that you don't normally say.” 

Hibiki felt nervous. “What do you mean?” 

Miku shook her head. “Hibiki, I know we just started dating, and we agreed to take things slowly and—” 

“Miku, did I say anything stupid? Come on, tell me,” Hibiki urged, her tone shaky. 

Miku didn’t want to exacerbate the situation, so she stood up from the tub. “I think I'm feeling a bit dizzy, I'll go ahead of you.” 

Hibiki tried to rush after her. “Miku, wait, what happened last night?” 

Chapter Text

Both Maria and Hibiki have fully recovered from their hangovers, and everything was back to normal—including Maria's “nightly visits” to Tsubasa's apartment. 

Chris dropped by Maria's apartment as she had promised days before. Shirabe graciously received her and the two headed to the kitchen to work on the  empanada , while Kirika watched eagerly. The three of them made conversation as Chris watched over Shirabe and gave her tips. 

“Is Maria still asleep?” Chris asked. 

“Maria’s not here, Chris-chan,” Kirika told her, laughing as she did. “As usual.” 

Shirabe huffed and smiled. “She just had to wait for the hangover to go away,” she said. “As soon as it did, she's gone. She left last night, so I’m guessing she’s gonna be on her way home today.” 

Chris let out a long whistle. “Maria doesn’t waste her time.” 

“She's just making the most out of her set-up,” Kirika said. “What with all the uncertainties of being all hung-up on Tsubasa-san.” 

“They should just break the damn rules and start dating for real, it’s getting really tiring at this point,” Chris said.  

“Chris-chan, things like that take time,” Shirabe said. 

“I guess so,” Chris huffed. “Hup, take care not too over-bake that.” 

The  empanada  was finished some time later and Kirika couldn't wait to get her hands on the pastry. Once it was properly cooled down, Kirika helped herself and was rather delighted at having to eat the pastry again. 

“Shirabe-chan, I think I’m falling in love with you all over again,” Kirika exclaimed. 

Shirabe blushed, while Chris rolled her eyes and bit on her share. She gave Shirabe a nod. 

“You made it better than I did, kiddo,” Chris said. “Looks like you can do this on your own next time.” 

Shirabe's heart fluttered at the reactions on her cooking. “I have to thank you on that, Chris-chan.” 

Chris laughed. “The pleasure's all mine, kid.” She turned to the clock on the wall. “I better get going now. I’m set to study for a minor I’m taking.” 

“Wait, take home some of these,” Kirika said as she offered a small bag of the pastry. “It’s a good snack for studying.” 

Chris bade the pair goodbye and left the apartment. She then crossed paths with Maria at the corridor. Maria side-stepped to avoid Chris, but the shorter woman was quick to block her. Maria turned to the other way, and Chris followed suit. The two repeatedly side-stepped left and right, then Maria, fed up and exasperated, stopped moving and crossed her arms. 

“Alright, Chris, what do you want?” Maria asked. 

Chris didn't answer right away, and instead, she gazed intensely at Maria. Maria began to grow tense and squirmed at Chris, it was as if Chris's eyes were digging deep into her very soul. After what seemed to be a minute or two, Chris straightened up. 

“Nothing,” Chris said as she walked past Maria. “Shirabe made  empanadas , you should try them. See ‘ya.” 

Maria watched in complete bewilderment as Chris disappeared into the hallway. 

“What the hell did just happen?” Maria muttered to herself. 

--- 

The next day, Chris happened to meet with Hibiki and Miku when the former headed to a convenience store to buy some refreshments. Hibiki had returned to her chipper self, as if the hangover didn’t make any dents on her at all. 

“Good to see the idiot’s up and running again,” Chris told Miku as they lined up at the cashier. “ Oi , dummy, how’s your first time drinking?” 

Hibiki shrugged. “It was...okay, I guess. Burned my throat real good and gave me a heck of a headache but I think I can handle it the next time.” 

Miku swatted Hibiki on the arm. “There will be no next time until you turn 20,” she told Hibiki. “You made a promise.” 

Hibiki could only laugh sheepishly as she scratched her head. Once all three of them had paid for their items, Chris parted ways with them and made her own way to Tsubasa’s apartment. Ogawa later showed up at the apartment as per Tsubasa’s invite—Tsubasa didn’t want to be left alone with Chris lest she goes through another round of teasing from her  kouhai  especially since the apartment was neat and tidy. Chris challenged Ogawa to a two-player fighting game and was starting to regret it after losing more matches than she expected. Tsubasa merely settled herself on the couch and idly watched the two play. They were all interrupted by a knock from the door, and in came Genjuuro bringing with him a bag of snacks. He was taken aback at first upon seeing the favorable state of Tsubasa’s apartment, but he immediately deduced who was responsible for it and decided not to speak anything of it. Tsubasa served everyone some tea and settled back on the couch to watch. The room was quiet, save for Chris who was rather boisterous as she played.  

Chris lost more rounds than she won and could only pout at it while Ogawa merely celebrated his numerous victories by indulging in the  empanadas  that Shirabe made—Chris got hold of another batch earlier and brought it to the apartment. When Tsubasa took a shot at playing, Chris had her consolation by toppling Tsubasa in four games out of five. Genjuuro tried to play as well and brought Chris down again by beating her record. As he and Chris fought for another round, he mulled a bit and then poised himself to speak.  

“The apartment's…clean,” Genjuuro said. 

Snickers from Chris followed after, and Ogawa was fortunate enough to have already taken a swig from his juice, otherwise he would have spat it out. Tsubasa, clearly distressed, shifted uncomfortably on the couch. 

Senpai  must have hired a really good housekeep,” Chris jeered. 

“Must be one talented woman,” Genjuuro added. “Such people are hard to find these days, don't you think, Ogawa?” 

“So it seems, Commander,” Ogawa said with a smile. 

Tsubasa could only sigh in exasperation. “Okay, what do you want to hear from me?” she asked as she rubbed her temple to ease herself of her frustration. 

“Nothing, jeez,” Chris said. “We’re just—” she pans her open hand across the space before her— “—in awe at how clean your place is.” 

“One more word from any of you and you’re all leaving my apartment,” Tsubasa growled. 

Chris clutched at her chest as if she was utterly scandalized at Tsubasa’s words. “Goodness, is that how you treat your guests? Commander, as far as I recall this is not how a Kazanari should act.” 

Genjuuro cleared his throat. “We did everything we can to raise her to be a proper Kazanari, but it seems that the charms of a certain Ukrainian woman caused her to stray from the path.” 

Tsubasa groaned. “Get out.” 

A ring from the doorbell halted the teasing. Chris, Genjuuro and Ogawa exchanged knowing glances after taking note of the panicked look on Tsubasa’s face—it was clear that she knows who was at the door. Tsubasa got off the couch to open the door and lo and behold, Maria was at the doorstep. 

Maria noticed the weary look on Tsubasa’s face. “What’s wrong?” she asked. 

Tsubasa no longer needed to answer after they heard Chris’ wail of defeat from the living room. Maria huffed and smiled empathically at Tsubasa. The two walked into the living room, and Tsubasa headed to the kitchen to get tea. The other three people in the room all had their eyes on Maria as she stepped into the living room. 

“Hello, people who don’t live here,” Maria said, her eyes set on Chris. 

Chris smiled at her cordially. “Hello, person-who-doesn’t-live-here-but-has-booty-privileges. Wanna play?” 

“I’d very much like to take your offer, but I do have plans for today,” Maria said, sitting down the couch and taking the tea from Tsubasa. “Perhaps next time we can have a round or two.” 

“Oh, right,” Chris said as she played. “I forgot you’ll be getting more than a round or two with  Senpai  today. I shouldn’t have asked.” 

Maria felt the heat creep up her cheeks, but she wordlessly drank her tea. Ogawa, who had been hiding his smile with his clasped hands, stood up and told Genjuuro that it was time for them to go back to the HQ. Genjuuro ended the round with one move. 

“Damn it, boss, is there anything else in this world that you’re not good at?” Chris complained after they returned the console back on the shelf. 

“Come on, Chris, we’ve stayed here for way too long.” Genjuuro nodded at Tsubasa and Maria. “Ladies.” 

“Just be on your merry way, Uncle,” Tsubasa said, wearily. “Drive safely.” 

The three were soon out of the apartment, and an awkward silence filled the living room. Tsubasa then took a seat beside Maria at the couch. Maria still had the teacup in her hand, her eyes set on the beverage and nowhere else. Tsubasa broke the silence with a soft, exasperated laugh. 

“Ogawa said we’re an open secret,” Tsubasa said. “And they’re taking too much advantage of it when it comes to teasing me.” 

Maria chuckled. “Don’t think you’re the only one they’re teasing. I get some from Kirika and Shirabe, too.” 

“Well, I have it harder than you do,” Tsubasa countered with a smile. “I mean, there’s Yukine.” 

“So this is what we’re going to talk about now?” Maria asked with a laugh. 

Tsubasa could only laugh as well.  “You can change the topic.” 

Maria carefully put down the teacup on the coffee table and immediately straddled Tsubasa’s lap. 

“I didn’t really come here to play video games,” Maria said sultrily as she caressed Tsubasa’s cheek. 

Tsubasa rolled her eyes as she scoffed. “I should have known.” 

Maria let her hands wander southward. “I suggest you get right to it to relieve yourself of the stress.” 

“You mean, to relieve yourself of the itch.” 

“Isn’t that what this set-up is about?” Maria asked. “While we still can’t find someone to date properly, we might as well study ourselves to know what we really want...and scratch the proverbial itch.” 

Maria stood up from Tsubasa’s lap and made her way to the bedroom. Tsubasa smothered her face with her hand and followed Maria soon after. 

How long have we been doing this? Has it been three months? That night in the  onsen  was...right, yeah, three months.  

Tsubasa expected to grow tired of the set-up after a while, and she found herself actually looking forward for Maria’s visits, even if they only end up watching TV. While this was a statement that could be easily dismissed as having non-romantic implications, somehow for Tsubasa it was to a different degree. 

Let’s just get this over with , she thought as she closed the bedroom door before joining Maria at the bed. 

--- 

“Tsubasa.” 

Tsubasa shifted her gaze to Maria, whose head rested on her chest. “Hm?” 

“Can we go get crepes?” 

The two headed to a sweets shop not far from Tsubasa’s apartment. Tsubasa noticed that Maria was slightly chipper than usual, so she brought it up while they ate. 

Maria let out a giggle. “What’s wrong with enjoying desserts after a good few rounds of se—” 

“Maria, we are at a café, for heaven’s sake.” 

Maria merely shrugged at that and took another bite of the crepe. Tsubasa mulled over her sundae, her thoughts revolving around the round of teasing from Chris and the others earlier. 

“Tsubasa.” 

Tsubasa was startled. “Oh! Um, yeah? What is it?” 

Maria giggled at Tsubasa, who was shaken. “A yen for your thoughts?” 

Tsubasa sighed. “Nah, I was just thinking about the guys back at the apartment earlier. Yukine, especially.” 

“I’m starting to think you’re getting way too invested in Chris,” Maria said teasingly. 

“No, I’m bothered,” Tsubasa fumed. “It’s like...having a really pesky sister, I think.” 

Maria hummed. “Well, I guess I could relate to that.” 

“Was Serena like that?” 

“Hah, no. was the pesky sister.” 

Tsubasa scoffed. “Figures.” 

Maria pouted. “You weren’t complaining.” 

“I didn’t bother. I think I got used to it even before we had this set-up.” 

Maria was quiet after that. She then put down the crepe she was eating and mulled on what she was going to say next. 

“Tsubasa,” Maria called. Oh, how she’d love saying Tsubasa’s name. 

“Hm?” 

“What do you think of this set-up so far?” 

Tsubasa paused to collect her thoughts. “I think it’s been...going along fine, to say the least.” 

“Do you ever get bored of it?” 

“No, not really. It’s kinda surprising, especially since we’ve been doing this for about three months now. What about you, are you getting bored?” 

Maria chuckled. “I don’t ever get bored when you’re around.” 

Tsubasa scoffed. “Really.” 

“Well, sex aside, you are someone I really like hanging around with,” Maria quipped. 

Once they were finished with their snacks, the two took a stroll downtown. They stopped by a nearby park where they watched a live band that held a show there at the time. Tsubasa had to sign a few autographs and smile for a handful of pictures after people caught sight of her. Maria had pictures as well, but for the most part she stood at the sidelines, smiling at how Tsubasa slightly struggled with her fans. 

By sundown, the two returned to Tsubasa’s apartment. As Maria gathered her things, Tsubasa suddenly felt a sense of dread. She hesitated a bit, and the words flew out of her mouth before she could stop herself. 

“Can you stay over?” she had asked. 

Maria was occupied with putting on her other shoe, so she wasn’t able to hear it all. “What is it?” 

Tsubasa shifted uncomfortably on where she was standing. “Oh, um...n-nothing.” 

Maria huffed with a smile and resumed putting on her shoe. “I better get going then, the girls are expecting a dinner on me.” 

Maria stood up from the foyer and turned to the door. She then stopped in her tracks and faced Tsubasa again. She then walked over and left a kiss on Tsubasa’s cheek. 

“Thank you for today,” Maria said, and she left before Tsubasa can say anything. 

The latch clicked, and Tsubasa was left staring at the closed front door of her apartment. She then felt a blush blooming on her cheeks, starting from where Maria had kissed her—as well as a sudden pounding within her chest. 

Strange.  

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chris was watching a war movie when her communicator beeped. 

“Commander, you rang?” Chris said. 

“Whaddaya say we all take a vacation?” Genjuuro suggested from the other line. 

“What?” was all Chris could say at that. 

--- 

Maria switched to another channel, one that constantly features classic films from both Japan and abroad. She chose to tune in on that channel and slouched on the couch. Shirabe and Kirika were still at Lydian, so Maria was alone up until they arrive home.  

As she watched through the films, she constantly had Tsubasa on her mind. As much as she wanted to start letting go, she couldn't bring herself to take the first step. She scolded herself for being too careless, for having the set-up in the first place. She should have just started pursuing Tsubasa outright instead of beating around the bush. 

Chris was right, it was going to bite me in the ass.  

Maria stood up to grab a beer from the fridge, then she remembered the horrors of her recent hangover and placed the beer can back inside. She resorted to drinking juice instead and took some time at the kitchen counter to ponder on other things. She was then pulled out of her thoughts when her phone rang. Seeing Tsubasa's name on it made her wince, but she answered the call anyway. 

“Tsubasa, what's up?” 

“Are Kirika and Shirabe with you?” 

“They’re still at school, why'd you ask?” 

“We’re going on a vacation, all of us—boss' orders.” 

“This is rather unprecedented, but what's the vacation for?” 

She heard Tsubasa's weary sigh on the other line. “Well, he had an itch to hit the beaches. Couldn't stop him, really. Chris even complained at how unnecessary it is.” 

Maria laughed. “Chris really just wants to stay home all the time, doesn't she?” 

Tsubasa chuckled. “Sure is. Pass it on to the kids, will you?” 

“Yeah, sure. But wait, where are we going anyways?” 

“At an island in the Southern coasts of the country. We have a summer home there, if I recall correctly.” 

--- 

The party had arrived on the island and settled on the summer home. Once the bags were unpacked, everyone had gathered towards the beach. Maria and Shirabe took charge of the food along with Miku, while Hibiki, Elfnein, and Kirika dragged Chris along to wade in the water. Tsubasa took to setting up the mats and shades with Ogawa and her uncle.  

Sometime later, Chris walked back to shore and threw herself down on the mats. 

“These cretins, they didn't have to drag me out to sea like that,” Chris said through gritted teeth. 

“Being fun-size grants you the privilege to be thrown out into the water,” Maria told her. “Besides, there's nothing to be afraid of. You have your boobs to help you float.” 

With that, Chris took to chasing Maria. Maria immediately hid behind Tsubasa, who was just about to swim, and tried to dodge Chris' reach. 

Oi , leave  Senpai  out of this, European,” Chris snarled. 

Maria ignored Chris and pleaded at Tsubasa to help her. Tsubasa then crouched and hurled a handful of sand at Chris, forcing the latter to step back and wipe her face. Tsubasa grabbed Maria's hand and they sprinted away from Chris. All the while the two were laughing as they ran, even more so when they heard Chris shouting at them as she tried to catch up. Chris gave up and resigned to watch the two head towards the water, a smile on her face slowly forming. 

“Seriously…” was all Chris could say. 

The rest of the daylight hours were spent playing beachside games. No one stood a chance against Genjuuro and Ogawa in beach volleyball, not even Hibiki with her fighting spirit. 

“The next time we play beach volleyball, we should ban Bossman and Ogawa from joining,” Hibiki said amidst tears after the game. 

Tsubasa was challenged by Kirika to a swimming race, which she reluctantly took on after some prodding from Kirika. It ended with a draw—although it rendered Kirika gasping for breath upon hitting the shore. It was a good thing that Kirika had been training dutifully, otherwise she would have completely blacked out. Maria immediately ran over to catch Kirika from Tsubasa as they straggled on the shore. 

“What happened to her?” Maria asked Tsubasa. 

“She swam too much,” Tsubasa said. “It’s my fault for taking up her challenge.” 

Maria sensed the worry in Tsubasa’s tone and placed a reassuring hand on her arm. “Look, don’t fret about this. It’s just a miscalculation on Kirika’s part.” 

Kirika had to stifle a laugh at the two. “Guys.” 

Both Maria and Tsubasa turned their heads at Kirika, who was grinning widely amidst her fatigue. 

“I’m fine, just so you know,” Kirika said as she slowly caught her breath. “Don’t get your bikinis up in a twist.” 

--- 

They stayed by the shore later into the night for the campfire and shared jokes—most of which were at Hibiki's expense. When Hibiki turned to Miku for help, Miku could only shrug at how she was unable to do anything about the jokes. Eventually, the party decided to call it a night and proceeded to return to the rented cottage. 

In the middle of the night, when the moon was high and shining brightly, Tsubasa quietly left the summer house to take a walk along the shoreline. She then caught sight of Maria strolling outside.  

Tsubasa was treated to a sight she wasn't prepared to see. The soft sea breeze made Maria's hair sway and flutter like the waves of the ocean, as well as the sheer dress and shawl she was wearing. With the moon and the waves in the horizon, she looked as if she was a moon goddess incarnate who had visited the shores on a whim. Tsubasa's breath hitched at the sight, and she thought it was something that can only be seen in dreams. 

Maria sensed that someone was nearby, so she turned around. Seeing Tsubasa, Maria smiled at her in greeting. Tsubasa returned it with a shrug. 

“Couldn't sleep?” Tsubasa asked. 

“I think I ate too much squid back at the campfire,” Maria said. “You can't sleep either?” 

Tsubasa rubbed her nape. “Try sleeping alongside Chris, you'll see why.” 

Maria laughed softly. “Is it that bad?” 

“You have no idea.” 

Maria brushed aside a stray lock of hair as she laughed. “Say, why don't we sit down for a bit?” 

Tsubasa took the invitation and both girls sat down on the sand. They set their eyes on the waves, watching it advance and recede repeatedly. The water licked at their feet, the coldness of it no longer bothering them in the long while. 

When Maria looked over at Tsubasa, she pondered on whether she should take the chance to finally speak up about her feelings or let it be hidden for a bit longer. She didn't want to complicate things between them—which was a rather redundant statement since their current set-up was complicated right from the start. At the same time, she wanted to come clean and be serious about Tsubasa.  

With a resigned huff, she settled on keeping quiet once more and leaned on Tsubasa instead. She stared out into the horizon, musing about what she was going to do if ever Tsubasa wanted to end the set-up. 

Maybe I'll just find someone else.  

Maria internally shuddered at the thought. She just couldn’t imagine herself hooking up with someone else. 

So on the sand they sat, with Tsubasa’s mind wandering God knows where and Maria grappling with her emotions. Maria then suggested that they head back to the summer home and get as much sleep as they could. Tsubasa escorted Maria to where Shirabe and Kirika slept before heading off to her own. 

“You should be able to sleep now,” Tsubasa said. 

“Yeah,” Maria told her with a smile. “I guess I will.” 

“Good night, Maria.” 

“Good night, Tsubasa.” 

Maria stepped inside her room and slid the door close. Tsubasa then walked back to the room she shared with Chris, Hibiki, and Miku. Chris was still snoring loudly, while Hibiki and Miku were huddled together under the sheets, sleeping deeply as if Chris wasn't lying close by. Tsubasa smirked at the sight and settled back into her  futon

--- 

Tsubasa never got to sleep at all. She glared at Chris as they had breakfast, to which Chris returned with a confused look. Maria couldn't help but giggle upon seeing the bags under Tsubasa's eyes. Hibiki, on the other hand, was obviously rejuvenated from her sleep, gleefully commenting that having Miku by her side worked wonders. Miku blushed at this and resorted to giving Hibiki a huge slap on the back, causing Hibiki to almost spitting her food. Everyone at the table were greatly amused at the spectacle before them. 

Maria looked over at Elfnein, who was sitting between her and Tsubasa, and asked if she wanted another helping of pancakes. The girl nodded enthusiastically and Maria placed two on her plate.  

“Maria’s really cut out for being a mom,” Hibiki said. “Just look at her and Elfnein.” 

The others agreed at that, making Maria blush. She dismissed it by saying that she was just doing what she usually does with Shirabe and Kirika. 

“Chris-san eats a lot, but she doesn't gain weight,” Elfnein said later on. “Where does it all go?” 

“Her boobs, most likely,” Kirika chirped with a wink. 

Shirabe slapped Kirika on the arm, but it was too late. The quip sent the rest of them laughing, except Chris who turned red as a tomato. 

“I will drown you,” Chris snarled at Kirika. 

“Not if we dunk you in the water first like yesterday,” Kirika said, sticking out her tongue. 

After breakfast, the party spent their remaining time at the beach and set off for home by sundown. Elfnein had fallen asleep during the trip, so Maria took it upon herself to carry Elfnein. Tsubasa took care of Elfnein's belongings until the kid was brought back to her place.

 

Chapter Text

Genjuuro called in Maria, Chris, and Tsubasa for a briefing. The mission is to retrieve some alchemic artifacts which may serve a purpose in future researches. Elfnein joined the briefing and gave outlines on what the artifacts are and how they were to be handled. 

“The locations of these artifacts are within the same set of coordinates,” Elfnein said. “The area is isolated last we checked, save for pockets of Noise out and about. Now, from what I have read on the location, it’s equipped with traps that were imbued with elements that are found to be detrimental to the Gears. Exercise great caution in treading the area.” 

“You three will leave at noon tomorrow,” Genjuuro added. “Ogawa will accompany you as usual.” 

Chris elbowed Ogawa. “Looks like you're tagging along for another out-of-town trip.” 

Ogawa smiled. “Perks of working at S.O.N.G.” 

The briefing was adjourned. The three headed to the lounge and started idle conversation over drinks. It eventually turned into a teasing contest between Tsubasa and Chris. 

“Hard to think you were at your last year back then,” Tsubasa said. “You were too damn short to be a senior.” 

“And you were too damn flat where it counts,  Senpai ,” Chris jeered as she glanced at Tsubasa's chest. “I almost thought you were still fourteen years old.” 

Tsubasa winced and slouched into her seat, pouting as Maria giggled amidst the teasing.  

Chris then stood up from the couch and stretched. “Alright, I'm gonna skedaddle outta here so you lovebirds can have the privacy to smooch.” 

Chris walked out of the lounge, leaving Maria and Tsubasa in awkward silence. Tsubasa picked up a magazine and began reading, while Maria quietly finished her drink without so much as sparing a single glance at the woman across her. 

I have to stand up before this drags on for too long , Maria thought. 

One paragraph more, and I'm outta here , Tsubasa mused as she turned a page. 

In a beat, both girls stood up from their seats. They froze in their places, their gazes locked on each other. Maria took in the sight of Tsubasa before her and was the first to break eye contact and leave. Maria then set off to drop by Elfnein's lab for a casual visit, while Tsubasa fumbled for a moment and went to where Chris headed. 

--- 

Tsubasa found Chris at the game room, where she was playing a game of pool with Ogawa. Chris noticed her arrival and pocketed a ball before turning to her  Senpai

“You done smoochin', Senpai ?” Chris asked, smiling cockily. 

“There wasn't any smooching, Yukine, get your head out of the gutter for once,” Tsubasa told her. 

“I left because I could've sworn you two were so close to jumping on each other.” Chris held out her thumb and index finger sticking together. “This close, Senpai .” 

Tsubasa rolled her eyes. “Look, even if we want to, we can't.” 

Chris chuckled. “You say that as if you two are a couple who couldn't find a good ‘fuck schedule'.” 

“We're not a couple, Yukine.” 

“Yeah, you're a couple, alright. Couple of idiots.” 

Tsubasa scoffed. “Idiots, huh? Pray tell, O Smart One.” 

Chris pocketed another ball. “I don't get why you two have that friends-with-benefits thing you got going. Just because you had sex once in that  onsen  doesn't mean you're not free to take it up a notch.” 

Tsubasa didn’t say anything and just stared at the billiard ball close to her.  

“Is there anything you want out of that set-up?” Chris asked, her tone calm. 

Tsubasa looked up and was about to say something, then she paused. “No, there isn't,” she said not long after. 

“Why did you agree with the set-up?” Chris asked. “I just wanna know.” 

Tsubasa frowned. “For what? So you can tease me more about it?” 

Chris was unfazed despite that as she looked over at her  senpai . “Nothing. I just wanna know what went through your head when Maria proposed it to you.” 

“For the experience,” Tsubasa said.  

Chris fought back a laugh. “Experience?” 

“Look, it’s just for the fun of it. It’s not gonna last long, I’m pretty sure Maria will call it quits one of these days.” 

“What if she doesn’t? What if she suddenly asks for something more?” Chris added. 

Tsubasa’s heart almost leapt out of her chest at that remark—to her surprise, nonetheless—but she knew better than to let Chris sense it.  

“That means she’s breaching what we initially agreed upon. Ironic, considering she’s the one who said that crossing the line will end the set-up.” 

Hrm , I think I know what Maria’s playing at , Chris thought. “Okay, what would you do if she crosses the line?” 

Tsubasa couldn’t answer the question directly, and to avoid any more prodding from Chris, Tsubasa had to dismiss it. 

“I don’t think it’ll ever come to that,” Tsubasa said, then she turned heel and left the room. 

Chris and Ogawa looked on as Tsubasa disappeared into the hallway. Chris shook her head while Ogawa let out a sigh. 

Senpai , you’re such an idiot,” Chris said. 

--- 

Elfnein was taking a break from her reading when Maria knocked on the door. The young alchemist graciously received her and offered some cakes she bought. 

“How have you been, Elfnein?” Maria asked. 

“I just got done with my last experiment,” Elfnein said. “It didn't shift from the last results, though. There's ought to be a missing piece that I should look for.” 

“You’ve been working really hard. I think you should take a break every once in a while.” 

“Well, I do keep in mind to allot at least half an hour to recuperate.” 

Maria laughed softly. “Elfnein, what I meant is some time outside. Wouldn't it be nice to spend some time outside the lab for some fresh air?” 

Elfnein sighed dreamily. “It is a rather nice notion, but given that I constantly need to make improvements on your Gears, I think that sort of thing would be far off as of the moment.” 

“I do get your point, but you shouldn't push yourself too hard. On the topic of improving our Gears, I think it's more of a two-sided endeavor.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, since you're working to improve the Gears through your experiments, we also do our part by training ourselves in both body and mind so that we can use the Gears properly. However, we don't train all the time. We also take some time to catch up on ourselves and rest. You should do that as well.” 

Elfnein mulled on Maria's words for a moment, then she nodded. 

“I guess going out for a bit wouldn't hurt,” Elfnein said. 

Maria smiled at her. “Wanna come with me to the docks?” 

“In the middle of a work day?” 

“Yeah, we don't have much to do now that the mission is set. So, are you up for it?” 

Elfnein turned off the machines at her desk and removed her lab coat. 

“Count me in, Maria-san,” Elfnein said with a grin. 

The two strolled off to the docks and made idle conversation as they looked out to the bay. The conversation took a surprising turn when Elfnein asked Maria about her set-up with Tsubasa. Maria got flustered at hearing the question from someone as young as Elfnein. 

Despite appearances,  Elfnein  isn’t really that young...but still...  

“How much did you hear from Genjuuro-san?” Maria asked, knowing that Elfnein talked the most with Genjuuro. 

“Just enough to scratch the surface,” Elfnein said. “That you two are together, but not wholly together. It confused me a great deal when he told me that, so I figured I ask about it from you.” 

Maria laughed nervously. “Such things can be really confusing, I'll give you that.” 

Elfnein giggled. “Yeah. So what do you and Tsubasa-san really share, Maria-san?” 

Maria paused to collect her thoughts, then she breathed out with a smile. 

“We're keep each other from being sad and alone,” Maria told her. 

“Isn't that what we all do with friends? What makes your relationship with Tsubasa-san any different?” 

“We have our own way of doing that, Elfnein. It's something that is reserved only for the two of us.” 

“Well, if it's only for the two of you, does that mean you two are...what do you call it...a couple?” 

Maria laughed softly. “In our case, Elfnein, things are complicated. There are some things we agreed on that we shouldn't breach. Being a couple is a big no-no.” 

Elfnein frowned. “Strange. You want to be together, yet you don't want to as well. Isn't it confusing for the both of you?” 

“If you get to be around our age, it might not be.” 

“Might?” 

“It depends on how you see it. In my case, I see it as something we only do for fun. Just to keep us happy, per se.” 

“But that would mean you're only fake happy.” 

Maria was taken aback by Elfnein's words and realized that the alchemist was right. Sure, she'd get her usual kick in her nightly visits with Tsubasa, but once it's all over, she'd go back to dealing with her emotional turmoil. 

Sure, she was happy, but not  really  happy given the state she's in now. 

Maria could only smile sadly at Elfnein. She reached out and gently ruffled the child's hair. 

“You have a good head on your shoulders, Elfnein,” Maria said. 

Elfnein blinked. “Huh?” 

--- 

They landed at the site half-past noon. The three Wielders hacked and gunned their way through the clumps of Noise in the area, covering Ogawa as he looked for the exact location of the artifacts. Once he found it, he sent a signal to the three so they could follow him and retrieve the items. 

“Just one more round and we'll be right there, buddy,” Chris relayed. 

Deeming the area clear, the Wielders sped to where Ogawa was waiting. The four of them stood in front of what seemed to be a rock doorway, and there was a dark passageway up ahead. Ogawa confirmed that the artifacts are inside after detecting metal signatures. 

The four cautiously weaved their way through the passageway, with Tsubasa leading them and dismantling the traps before making another step. They arrived at an underground hall teeming with mold and dust. 

“Alright, we’re in the reliquary,” Chris said. “There are four items, right?” 

“Yep,” Ogawa answered while beaming his flashlight at the walls. “The artifacts are most likely hidden behind these walls. We just have to look for some sort of locking mechanism we can tamper with.” 

Maria noticed the mosaic patterns on the floor tiles. She took a closer look and pressed down on the tile in the center and was surprised to find that it was somewhat loose. She stood up and tapped her foot on the surrounding tiles, taking note of the loose ones until she had formed a circle from them. 

“The locking mechanism is under these tiles,” Maria told them. “These ones here are loose. Perhaps by pressing on these, we should be able to access the mechanism.” 

Chris walked over and checked for herself, then with a nod, she began to inspect the patterns. 

“There are scripts on the tiles, but they're not in order,” Chris said. “I recognize the letters—it’s a really old script, made before the Curse of Balal.” 

“What do the words say?” Tsubasa asked. 

Chris moved around the tiles. “It’s supposed to form a cohesive sentence. By arranging the words and pressing the tiles according to their correct order, that little circle over there would probably pop out and reveal the locking mechanism.” 

“It’s amazing how you're familiar with this kind of script,” Maria said. 

Chris flinched as fragments of her past hit her. “I’m not entirely proud of it, given that Finé was the one who taught me that.” 

Chris proceeded to mentally arrange the words on the tiles in order before pressing on them. One wrong move can trigger another trap. Once Chris was sure she got the right order, she pressed the tiles one by one. After pressing on the last tile, the circular tile that she had pointed at earlier began to rise from the floor. It was revealed to be a hollow rock cylinder, and within it was a lever. The lever was pulled and the walls around them began rumbling. Each wall slowly rose, gradually revealing smaller reliquaries where the artifacts are contained. Chris told the others not to take the artifacts immediately, for there could be traps. Maria made sure of this by checking each of the reliquaries. Once deemed safe, Ogawa placed the artifacts into the storage case he brought with him. 

“I guess that's that,” Ogawa said as he dusted off his hands. 

Just as they were about to leave the reliquary, some Noise had entered via the passageway and started blocking the only way out. The Wielders readied their Gears and began attacking the Noise. They started carving a path through the growing swarm and was halfway to the entrance when Tsubasa heard a snap from behind her. 

She had missed a trap on their way in. 

To her utter terror, she saw that Maria had been the one to have triggered it. 

Needles from the walls pierced into Maria despite her Gear still active and she fell to the floor, rendered immobile by the needles. Tsubasa immediately picked Maria up and hastily carried her out of the passageway. The Noise was steadily gaining on them as they caught up after Chris and Ogawa. Tsubasa’s thoughts were focused on the woman in her arms—pale and losing consciousness with each passing second. 

Not again, not again!  

The all-too familiar feeling from her ill-fated concerts came rushing back to her as she ran. Everything from those particular moments in her past flashed within her mind's eye, and all she could think of was that she had to move faster for Maria's sake. 

Not again, not again!  

The stand-by carrier plane had already arrived when Tsubasa reached the end of the passageway. Chris had them covered as they rushed back to the plane, shooting round after round at the Noise. Tsubasa frantically looked for Ogawa and found him creeping out from the cockpit after he had given instructions to the pilot. 

Tsubasa was turning hysterical. “Maria…she—" 

Ogawa immediately tended to Maria. He recognized the signs of heavy poisoning and put her on life support. Tsubasa and Chris watched as Ogawa made final checks on Maria. 

“It’s all my fault,” Tsubasa said, her eyes wide with shock. “I didn't check all the traps.” 

Senpai , this isn't on you,” Chris told her. “This is all an accident—” 

Tsubasa was quick to cut her off. “She's gonna die, Yukine!” 

Chris frowned. “We can't say that yet,  Senpai ,” she said, her voice growing stern. 

“You saw how she looked when we got on this plane! How can you say that you’re not sure—” 

Chris gave Tsubasa a ringing slap to the face, stunning her. 

“It’s all an accident, you hear me? All a fucking accident!” Chris snarled. “Now sit your ass down and wait until we get back to HQ.” 

Maria's condition improved, but it was not significant enough to deem her stable. She was whisked away to the medical bay upon arrival. Genjuuro and Elfnein headed to the briefing room to check on the rest of the party. Chris and Ogawa were sitting at one side of the table talking about what had happened, while Tsubasa was at the other side staring at the space before her. Genjuuro was alarmed—he had seen that look on Tsubasa’s face before. 

Chris saw Genjuuro and Elfnein at the door and stood up. “Commander, how’s Maria?” 

“She's in the clear,” Genjuuro told her. “The poison on the needles were nothing we haven't identified, and an antidote was immediately administered.” 

Chris and Ogawa let out sighs of relief. Genjuuro then asked if he could talk with Tsubasa alone. The two left with Elfnein in tow, while Genjuuro walked over to where Tsubasa sat and pulled out a chair for himself. 

“She’s okay, Tsubasa,” Genjuuro said. “And it's not your fault.” 

It took a moment before Tsubasa responded. “I thought I took care of all the traps. Turns out I missed one.” 

“It’s an accident, Tsubasa. No one saw it coming.” 

Tsubasa's jaw tightened. “If I had been keener and sharper, none of this would have happened. Maria wouldn’t even be in there.” 

Genjuuro sighed. “Look, I'm sure that's not what everyone else thinks. Not even Maria.” 

Tsubasa didn’t talk after that, and Genjuuro asked if she wanted to drop by Maria's room. Tsubasa fumbled, then she told him she'd head back to her apartment instead. Genjuuro didn't protest to it and let his niece on her own. 

--- 

Maria woke up two days after. She was disoriented for a bit, what with the last thing on her mind was that she was done for. The beeping from the monitors helped her ground herself to what was around her, and it dawned on her that she was in one of the rooms in the medical bay. She caught sight of Shirabe and Kirika sleeping side by side on the couch. It took a few calls until Kirika woke up from her sleep and found that Maria was up. She roused Shirabe as well and told her to call for a nurse. Kirika gave Maria a tight hug and began crying. 

“We thought you weren't gonna make it,” Kirika said amidst tears. “Elfnein told us that you were hit by a poisoned trap.” 

The nurse arrived and proceeded to check Maria's vitals. A physician came into the room soon after that and explained what had happened and how the treatment was done. A round of tests were ordered to assess if she is cleared to go. 

Shirabe then asked if Maria wanted to eat anything, to which Maria requested for a light meal so as not to upset her stomach. As Maria ate, Shirabe and Kirika asked about the mission. Maria told them what they had found, how Chris deciphered the patterns on the tiles, and how tricky and risky things had gone after they had retrieved the artifacts. Chris arrived at the room not long after, bringing Elfnein with her. Elfnein had been worried sick about Maria, so Chris agreed to take her to where Maria stayed. Chris did not miss the expectant gaze from Maria as they walked in. Chris shook her head and the room had grown quiet. Shirabe rubbed Maria's back as if to comfort her. Maria, on the other hand, let out a sad smile. 

“Of course,” Maria said somberly. “I should have known.” 

Chris frowned and crossed her arms as she looked over at Maria. Tsubasa hadn't been coming in since the day they returned from the mission. Her communicator was out, and whenever Chris would drop by the apartment complex, no one would open the door. 

In the meantime, she decided to keep Maria company—Shirabe and Kirika still had classes later in the day and Chris was on her day-off. As Elfnein and Maria were talking, Chris silently watched the bedridden woman and saw the ever-present sadness in her eyes. Maria was smiling, but it was all a farce so as not to worry Elfnein. Chris and Elfnein had to leave sometime later, and they promised to check on Maria again once they're free. Maria bade them goodbye. 

“I’ll be taking a nap,” Maria said. “I still feel queasy from all the medication I've been given.” 

Once outside, Elfnein's cheerful disposition melted away. Chris asked her what was wrong. 

“She was looking for Tsubasa-san,” Elfnein told her. 

Chris huffed to fend off the jitters. “ Senpai  might be too busy to drop by.” 

“Yeah, but still…couldn't she have spared a bit of time?” 

Chris shrugged. “Beats me, kiddo.” 

Elfnein returned to her lab while Chris made her way to Genjuuro's office. The commander was watching action movies when she knocked on the door. 

“Chris, what's up?” Genjuuro said as Chris stepped in. 

“She hasn't called in yet?” Chris asked. 

“Not yet.” Genjuuro sighed. “Man, I didn't think I'd be dealing with this sort of thing again.” 

“You mean something like this has happened before?” 

“It was when Kanade died in battle.” 

Chris froze. “Kanade, huh?” 

“Tsubasa has been really touchy when it comes to seriously-injured comrades during missions. She's afraid that what happened with Kanade would happen again.” 

“She's sulking because Maria got hurt on her watch.” 

“So it seems,” Genjuuro said with a frown. 

--- 

Hibiki and Miku were the next ones to visit Maria. Classes were over for the day, so the two went with Shirabe and Kirika on the way. Hibiki took care not to hug Maria too much when they finally got inside the room, and Miku seated herself at the side of the bed. 

“I heard you’re off to visit Kohinata-san's parents during the break,” Maria said to Hibiki, albeit with a knowing grin. “Are you going to ask for her hand in marriage?” 

“Maria-san, don’t say such things,” Hibiki blurted out, her cheeks red. “They just invited my family for a trip to the hot springs. Both my parents wouldn’t be available and my grandma had other plans as well so it ended up with me being the only one to tag along.” 

Maria let out a laugh. “Calm down, hard-hitter,” she said. “It’s not like you’re really planning on marrying her one of these days.” 

Hibiki froze as if a secret she had been keeping was revealed, and Maria was exposed to the truth. With that, she laughed once more while Hibiki and Miku fumbled in their places, their cheeks tinted red with embarrassment. 

“All joking aside,” Hibiki then said, her tone now being laced with concern. “Has Tsubasa-san dropped by?” 

Maria shook her head. “She must have been having troubles taking the situation in.” 

Hibiki nodded then she reached out and held Maria’s hand. “How are you holding up?” 

Maria shrugged, her eyes glistening with tears she didn’t want to flow. “Barely. I try.” 

“Isn’t it time that you tell her? At least, for your peace of mind?” Hibiki asked, reaching out to wipe a stray tear that slipped Maria’s notice. 

Maria shook her head once more. “I don’t think it will accomplish anything at this point. Perhaps even if I came clean about it in the first place it wouldn’t be reciprocated.” 

Hibiki nodded and gently squeezed Maria’s hand. “I understand. Whatever happens from this point on, just know that we’re always here for you.” 

Hearing that, Maria smiled. “You always know how to cheer someone up, Tachibana.” 

--- 

Chris let out a tired huff as she stood in front of Tsubasa’s front door. She rang the doorbell for the second time, hoping her  senpai  would finally open it. About a minute had passed until Chris heard the soft footsteps approaching the door from the other side and she then heard the latch lift. 

Chris did not expect to see Tsubasa in such a lowly state. There were bags under her eyes, it was clear that she slept so little—perhaps none at all. Tsubasa stepped aside and let her in while mumbling something—she was still groggy from either an interrupted nap or from the lack of sleep. The apartment was in its usual messy state, but Chris ignored it and followed Tsubasa to the kitchen and sat by the counter. Tsubasa quietly prepared coffee as Chris looked on, and only the sound of the stereo that had been playing in the apartment filled the air. 

“You wanna join me at the movies, Senpai ?” Chris asked not long after. “I think there’s this new flick, figured it would be up your alley.” 

“I’ll think about it,” Tsubasa said as she carefully poured the fresh brew. 

Chris frowned, then she decided that keeping quiet would be for the best at the moment. Tsubasa handed her the mug of coffee and proceeded to take one for herself as well. 

“I thought you didn’t like coffee,” Chris said. 

“I needed something to keep me awake,” Tsubasa said before gingerly taking a sip. 

“What for? It’s not like you have an all-nighter to pull.” 

“I don’t want to sleep, that’s all.” 

Chris hummed. “I see.” 

The two continued to drink their coffee, but it wasn’t until around several minutes later when Tsubasa broke the silence between them. 

“How is Maria?” Tsubasa asked, albeit shakily. 

Chris’ hand froze before she could raise the mug for another sip. She then put it down gently and wrapped her hands around it. 

“She’s been up since a few days ago,” Chris told her. “But she still needs to stay in the medical bay for further check-ups before she’s good to go. The poison was something that’s been in the reliquary for...I don’t know...centuries, maybe. We’re just lucky it got watered down as time passed...otherwise it would have stopped Maria’s heart the moment a drop of it got into her bloodstream—that's how powerful it was.” Chris saw the wince forming on Tsubasa’s face. “Look, it’s not your fault. Some traps are just way too hard to spot.” 

Tsubasa grimaced at that, and Chris knew her  senpai  wasn’t having any of it.  How stubborn.  

“She’s wondering when you’d come visit,” Chris told her next. “She wanted to see if you’re okay as well.” 

This got Tsubasa’s attention, as Chris had surmised when she saw how Tsubasa looked as if she had woken up from a trance. But Tsubasa was still mincing her words as she meekly asked how many more tests will it take until Maria is free to go home. Chris gave her a good estimate, and Tsubasa was back to her downcast self. 

“You wanna drop by and see her?” Chris asked. 

“It’s eight in the evening, Yukine. She’s probably asleep by then.” 

Chris blinked. “Oh, right. Tomorrow then?” 

Tsubasa scratched her temple. “I’ll think about it. I...I’ve got some stuff to sort out.” 

Chris looked around and scoffed. “Well, your apartment sure needs a good sorting-out. You can start with that.” 

Chris ended up staying over to help Tsubasa with tidying up the apartment. They finished at around three in the morning, and it was a good thing that Chris was on a day-off that day. As Chris set off to leave, Tsubasa escorted her to the front door. 

“Hey, Senpai ,” Chris called as she hefted her bag. 

“Yeah?” 

“It’s not your fault,” Chris told her, smiling wistfully. “Maria...she’s not one to think that way, especially when it comes to you.” 

With that, Chris opened the door and left. Tsubasa was again left to her muddled thoughts at the front door. 

--- 

Maria was eventually cleared to go and Genjuuro gave her a week-off for further rest. Maria spent the time tending to the apartment and to Kirika and Shirabe. 

One afternoon, when the two girls had already arrived home from Lydian, she set off for a stroll downtown. She was taking a rest at an almost empty park when she crossed paths with Tsubasa. Tsubasa happened to be taking a breather from a long day of recording sessions at the very same park, and both women were surprised to see each other. Tsubasa began to feel sheepish since she didn’t really get to visit Maria when she was still bedridden, and she had half a mind to turn heel and leave. Maria, on the other hand, wanted to run to Tsubasa right there and then. Despite that, the two stayed in their places, gazing at each other. 

“Hi,” Maria said with a breathy laugh. “Nice to see you out and about.” 

“Y-yeah,” Tsubasa said, her voice slightly shaking. “I could say the same to you.” 

Silence prevailed between the two of them once more. Both women were at a loss for words, each trying to gauge what would be the best thing to say next. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t pay a visit...back when you were still at the medical bay,” Tsubasa said, finally gathering enough guts to speak.  

Maria blinked. “Oh, that...Tsubasa, it’s okay, really,” she assured. “We’re both put under duress with what had happened. I know how you get when any of us gets gravely injured during missions.” 

“Still, it wasn’t proper of me to not even call you.” 

Maria stood up from her seat and walked over to Tsubasa. “Don’t fret about it any longer. I’m fine, you’re fine. That’s all that matters, isn’t it?” 

Tsubasa shifted on where she stood. “Yeah, I guess it is.” She then let out a huff and looked at Maria earnestly. “Do you have any plans later?” 

Maria was surprised at the question, but she kept her cool and put on an act. “No, why’d you ask?” 

“Wanna head over to my place?” 

Maria was stopped short for a second, then she sighed with a smile which alarmed Tsubasa.  

“Look, it’s not...,” Tsubasa said, getting queasy. “It’s just…” 

“Kind of like a sleepover? Without getting hot and bothered?” Maria asked, the smile on her face growing bigger. 

Tsubasa exhaled and smiled as well. “Yeah, something like that.” 

Maria shrugged. “If you say so, Tsubasa,” she said. 

Time to get fake happy , Maria thought to herself as she followed Tsubasa to where her motorcycle was parked. She sent Shirabe a message saying that she won't be home for dinner.

Both were quiet as they arrived at the apartment. Tsubasa then started preparing a meal for the two of them. Maria settled on the couch in the living room and turned on the set. She flipped through the programs and settled on a movie channel. It had seemed like hours later when Tsubasa called Maria for dinner. The two ate quietly, mulling on whether they should start talking or not. The meal ended without any further words shared. Even as they headed to bed, no one spoke a single thing. 

What compensated for a lack of words were the actions from both of them. Maria didn't think twice about wrapping her arms around Tsubasa's waist and snuggling closer towards Tsubasa's chest. Tsubasa returned the gesture by embracing her tighter, somewhat fearing that loosening her hold even for a bit would make Maria disappear. Tsubasa couldn't ignore the peculiar feeling she had been sporting during that moment, which had started to bother her. 

Tsubasa was reminded once more of the time Maria almost succumbed to the poisoned trap. Tsubasa hid away in her apartment, avoiding any means of getting in touch with her friends and her uncle for fear of hearing the worst. She was aware of Chris dropping by and leaving messages on the intercom and also of her uncle who would leave snacks by the door. Tsubasa worried herself for two days—she was scared of reliving the ordeal she went through when Kanade died in battle, and she thought at the time that avoiding the situation altogether would at least cushion the inevitable blow. It was a stupid thought, Tsubasa had to agree on that.  

As much as she wanted to pay Maria a visit, she couldn't bring herself to move an inch towards the door. She figured she wouldn't be able to hold up any further and break down at the sight of Maria in the hospital bed. She thought it wouldn't be right of her to show up since it was her fault that Maria was there. She thought it would end up being the last time she'll see Maria. 

Tsubasa didn't want that. She didn't like the feeling of Maria being out of the picture for good. 

She adjusted herself so Maria could lean comfortably. She was then reminded of the times she spent with Maria aside from her nightly visits. Thinking about it, Tsubasa noticed that during those moments she would always feel something that she was certain she wouldn't experience with someone else.

Elation.

Perhaps with a bit of joy and a dash of warmth.

She felt as if everything was just right with the world whenever Maria was around.

Above else, these moments brought forth a fluttering feeling in her chest, which definitely did not escape her notice.  

Tsubasa looked back on all of this and noticed that she had never acted, felt, or thought the way she did until Maria came along. 

Ah.  

Oh no.  

Tsubasa moved her gaze to the woman in her arms. Maria had always looked like a child when she’s asleep, which Tsubasa found to be greatly endearing. Looking at her now, with these new-found feelings, Tsubasa couldn’t help but feel a peculiar but not entirely unwelcome warmth start to bloom inside her. She then realized that her feelings were all for naught, and she cursed herself for falling deeper into the hole she made. 

Tsubasa shifted in her place and held Maria closer, sighing defeatedly at how unfortunate she was. 

Chapter Text

When Maria woke up the next day, Tsubasa was no longer in the apartment. There was food on the table, a breakfast consisting of omurice and a side of miso soup. There was also a note taped to the glass of juice covered by a saucer saying that Tsubasa had to leave early for a recording session.


Maria ate the meal while pondering on yesterday. Shirabe had texted her then that things will be alright at home and that she should just go on and enjoy her time with Tsubasa.


Tsubasa. Up until that moment, Maria thought it was strange of Tsubasa to extend an invitation to her home, especially since Maria has always been the one to initiate things when it came to staying over. Another strange thing was how Tsubasa was acting yesterday. Tsubasa didn’t say anything when Maria held her by the waist without any second-thoughts, and the way Tsubasa held her tightly in return did not escape her notice.


Maria didn’t want to get her hopes up, but a part of her wished that it was because Tsubasa might have started harboring feelings for her.


Come on now, don’t be so delusional!


Maria took her time in Tsubasa’s apartment as she washed the dishes and tidied up the rest of the place. In the time she spent with Tsubasa, she had grown used to seeing the constant unkempt state of the apartment, and her qualms on it was less severe than it had been in the first time. 


I must be so madly in love with this woman that I always keep her place neat and clean despite the fact that she has the ability and responsibility to do it herself.


Maria had to laugh at that thought, she still couldn’t believe how deep she had fallen for Tsubasa. At the same time, it brought a pang of pain on her chest. Maria shook her head to keep any further negative thoughts from coming in and finished her cleaning. Once she’s got everything settled, Maria left the apartment and went home. The two girls were still at Lydian when she arrived, and she spent the rest of the vacant hours watching television.


---


“Tsubasa-san, there’s a slight tilt in your tone at the bridge, we have to do it again,” Ogawa said through the intercom.


Tsubasa felt her cheeks burn. “Sorry about that. Let’s have another go at it.”


With a nod, Ogawa gave the signal to the sound operator and the minus one reached Tsubasa’s ears one more time. As the song neared the bridge, Tsubasa breathed in and then sang once more. She eventually got that part right, and Ogawa called for a break after that. At the lounge, Ogawa noticed that his charge was more quiet than what he was used to observing.


“Tsubasa-san,” he called.


Tsubasa, who had been staring at the fish tank in the lounge, snapped back up as if waking from a trance and turned to Ogawa. “Y-yeah? What is it?”


“Are you alright?”


Tsubasa held back a laugh. “I’m fine. Don’t I look fine to you?”


Ogawa scratched his chin. “Knowing you, Tsubasa-san, I have grown familiar of your tics and tendencies. Looking at you at this moment, I could tell that you are being more quiet than usual. Is there something you’re severely pondering on that you could share with me? I might be able to help you with it.”


Tsubasa paused, considering if she should tell Ogawa of what she had just realized about her and Maria, but she decided to be mum about it. “Not really, no. It’s just that–”


“Is this, by any chance, connected to Maria-san?” Ogawa asked.


“No, what makes you think that?”


Ogawa smiled. “Nothing, just a random guess. Maria-san has been a significant part of your life now, it’s normal for me to assume that she’s one of the reasons you’re dwelling over something for more than a few minutes.”


That’s when Tsubasa finally let out a laugh. “Just because we have this set-up going on doesn’t mean I’m thinking of her constantly.”


“Well, if what Yukine-san says about Maria-san’s skills is true, I bet anyone who’d have a taste of it will have thoughts of Maria in their heads almost every single day,” Ogawa said with a wink.


Ogawa had to smile when he saw Tsubasa’s cheeks take on a reddish hue. Tsubasa on the other hand tried to shrug the embarrassment away and turned to the fish tank again.


“I...I can’t deny that, really,” Tsubasa mumbled. “But I'm not thinking of her all the time.”


Ogawa had to thank his sharp ears. “I can see that. Anyways, ready for the last part of today’s recording?”


Tsubasa smiled and nodded in response, and the two headed back to the recording room. Somehow, Tsubasa was grateful that Ogawa, with all his abilities and talents, did not possess the power to read minds. He definitely hit the mark with his guess about what was in her mind at the time. Or rather, who.


But what Tsubasa had forgotten was that Ogawa was practically Holmesian in terms of observing other people. He had sensed the slight flinch from Tsubasa at the mention of Maria, and while flinching can be primarily attributed to Tsubasa simply being peeved off, Ogawa had noticed that this was a different kind of flinching. He got his answers in one sitting.


Tsubasa was definitely thinking about Maria, but as to what it was about, Ogawa knew it wasn’t because she was merely concerned with the teasing she usually endures from almost everyone at HQ. He had his guesses, but he wasn’t going to settle for any of them until he catches more signs and unusual reactions from his charge. For now, however, all he had to do is get the final song for the album wrapped up.


---


Senpai.”


Chris' voice tore Tsubasa from her thoughts. They were at one of the briefing rooms the next day, where Genjuuro called for them to discuss a retrieval operation. Chris noticed that Tsubasa's mind was onto somewhere else, so she called her out.


“You’ve been spacing out, what's up?” Chris asked.


Tsubasa waved her off. “Nothing important. Ogawa, you were saying?”


Ogawa resumed the briefing. “Intelligence has reported the coordinates of the hideout where the items are being kept. It was also reported that the hideout is guarded, most likely with heavy artillery.”


“We can handle that just fine,” Chris said. “When do we set off?”


“Later in the evening, eleven sharp,” Genjuuro told her.


---


Maria met up with Shirabe and Kirika after their classes at Lydian. She treated the two at a café not far from the school.


“How was work?” Shirabe asked.


Maria shrugged. “Nothing out of the ordinary happened,” she said. “Chris and Tsubasa are going on a mission later tonight. It's another retrieval operation.”


Both girls nodded as they ate. Kirika mulled on what she was going to say next when Maria beat her to the punch.


“No, I did not talk to Tsubasa,” Maria told her.


Kirika's shoulders slumped. “What then?”


“I’ll just keep all of these to myself and wait until she calls it quits.”


Shirabe and Kirika resolved to keep quiet at that. After footing the bill, they decided to head straight home without any further talk about Tsubasa.


---


Hours before the departure time, Chris went over to Tsubasa's apartment to play some videogames. Tsubasa joined in and the two settled on a fighter game.


“You wanna call Maria?” Chris asked.


Tsubasa chuckled sarcastically. “No. It’s not like I'm going off to war or something.”


No further words between them were shared after that. However, it wasn't until sometime later when Tsubasa broke the silence.


“Say, Yukine…”


Chris kept her eyes in the screen so as not to lose focus. “Yeah?”


“Have you and Maria been talking lately?”


Chris paused for a bit. Of all questions that her senpai could have asked…


“You have to be more specific on that, Senpai,” Chris said. “Maria and I talk about a lot of things—from utilizing ancient relics to satiate a horny body-hopping priestess to resorting to terrorism in order to achieve our life goals. It's a broad spectrum.”


“I'm not kidding around, Yukine."


“Well, so am I. You just threw me a general question, so it's apt that I'm giving you a general answer.”


“Is she saying anything to you? About what we're doing?”


“What, that no-strings attached fucking you've got going on? Aside from the very graphic details of your nightly sessions…there's nothing else noteworthy."


Tsubasa felt the heat creep up her cheeks. “Hold on, what?”


“Look, Senpai, you really have to try harder if you want to send Maria over the edge ten times over. Based on what she's told me you get a 6 out of 10.”


“And how would you know how to—” Tsubasa realized where her words were leading and that it could hurt Chris. “Ah, damnit, I'm sorry.”


Chris felt the usual sting, but she knew Tsubasa wasn't at fault. “Look, it's fine. It's in the past. And why did you ask that question all of a sudden—that one about Maria and I talking?”


“Nothing,” Tsubasa said, keeping her eyes on the screen. “Just wondering what you get to hear from her since you’re basically up-to-date when Maria's involved.”


Chris shifted in her seat. “That’s one hell of an excuse.”


Tsubasa pouted. “What are you talking about? I'm not making any excuses.”


“Then why ask about that?”


“I just wanted to know, okay?”


Chris huffed. She knew Tsubasa was hiding something, but she decided not to ask any further. “Alright, if you say so.”


The retrieval mission went along without any trouble, and the artifacts are safely stored. The party didn’t head home right away and stayed at HQ for a bit longer. Earlier during the mission, Chris noticed that Tsubasa was spacing out. Although the mission was without any casualties, Chris sensed that Tsubasa’s mind was somewhere else. Chris had her assumptions, given that Tsubasa is an open book without meaning to. However, she deemed it better that her guesses would be confirmed by words from her senpai’s mouth. With that, she took to the sidelines and began her watch on Tsubasa.


---


Chris didn’t have to wait long for noting anything out of the ordinary. 


It started when Hibiki held a small gathering at the apartment she shared with Miku. While things were as jovial as they could be—perhaps it was too jovial for her liking—Chris didn’t miss the uneasiness coming from Tsubasa when Maria had casually interacted with her, be it in conversation or simply when their eyes happen to meet.


Then came another time when Kirika had an itch to go to an amusement park, and of course, no one had the choice to decline (yet another cause of irk for Chris, who had plans to binge on Die Hard that very same day). Tsubasa seemed to aim in maintaining a distance from Maria in any way possible. She had tagged along with Chris for most of the time, as well as with Hibiki and Miku.


They were taking a break from the rides and Kirika had pulled Shirabe and Maria along to try out a ring toss game. Maria looked over at Tsubasa and asked if she wanted to join. Chris checked to see if Tsubasa would tag along, but her senpai merely shook her head.


“I’m still worn out from the last ride we got on,” Tsubasa said, her tone slightly shaking. “You can go on ahead.”


Maria nodded at that and went after Kirika and Shirabe. Meanwhile, Chris looked over at Tsubasa warily.


Senpai.”


“Hm?”


“That last ride was like...a long while ago. Unless you’re sick, it shouldn't have winded you out that easily.”


“I don’t think I can handle that much spinning.”


Chris had to fight back a guffaw. “You, with that spinning move you do when you’re in Gear, couldn’t handle those huge-ass cups we just rode on. Unbelievable.”


“Yukine–”


“Those cups spin slower than a damn hearse. What's  wrong with you?”


Tsubasa frowned. “Look, I’m just tired. What part of it do you not understand?”


Chris had to halt the probing for now. “Okay, okay. I get it. I’m sorry I asked.”


The other three returned from the ring toss carrying with them three stuffed toys just about the size of a toddler—all won by Shirabe.  Hibiki and Miku joined them some time after, and Hibiki seemed ruffled and woozy—and red in the face. Miku was oddly quiet and red-faced as well.


“Tell me you didn’t hop on that ride,” Chris said, raising an eyebrow as she glared at the two.


Hibiki tried to come up with a coherent response. “Well, um, ah...you see, Chris-chan, we uh...just wanted to try that one ride and see, um...what we can, um—”


Chris wagged a finger at her. “I’m gonna stop you right there, you bumbling dummy. I’d rather not hear the sordid details.”


Tsubasa merely chuckled at the scene before her. But she wasn’t aware of Maria sidling up to her, and she nearly squawked when she turned and met Maria’s eyes. Tsubasa stepped back, her chest pounding rapidly.


“Tsubasa, are you okay?” Maria asked, noticing the distress on the other woman’s face. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”


“N-no, I’m fine,” Tsubasa answered as she tried to regain her composure. “Please don’t sneak up on me like that again.”


“I’m sorry,” Maria said. “But, is something the matter?”


Tsubasa tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “No, I’m fine. Everything’s fine. I was just...surprised, that’s all.”


Maria nodded and apologized again, which Tsubasa laughingly dismissed. Meanwhile, Chris, who had started watching the two, took note of what had happened and kept it in the back of her mind. She may have decided on keeping tabs on Tsubasa, but her plans on binge-watching action movies once she gets home was far more important that day.

Chapter Text

Tsubasa has her bad mornings, but today was by far the worst she probably ever had. She woke up with dread hitting her straight at the face, all due to the fact that she had realized the extent of her feelings towards Maria. That dread was even more heightened when she remembered that she had to report to HQ to take part in renewing the Second Division’s professional ties with a neighboring country—and as expected, Maria is slated to join this talk as well. Maria always had a talent for excellently dealing with diplomatic affairs between their organization and other parties involved, which made her the go-to person for anything involving international affairs. 

Tsubasa knew that sitting in the same room with Maria would be even harder now that she had these new-found feelings. With that in mind, Tsubasa rose from her bed in resignation to whatever troubles the day would most likely bring her. 

--- 

Chris crossed paths with Miku at the grocery store that same morning. After exchanging pleasantries and paying for the items they shopped, the two decided to stop by a nearby café for refreshments. Chris was in the mood for a lot of sweets, hence she ordered two slices of one of the café's decadent cakes while Miku settled with tea and biscuits.  

Senpai ’s been acting weird lately,” Chris said as they dined. 

“What sort of ‘weird’ is it?” Miku asked. 

“It’s the sort of weird that comes with Maria being around. She’s been acting out of the ordinary.” 

Miku raised an eyebrow. “I don’t see anything strange from Tsubasa-san's end as far as I recall.” 

“You wouldn’t be able to see it at first glance,” Chris said. “And from what I know of  Senpai , I can tell if something’s creating ripples in the water around her.” 

“What have you noticed, then?” 

Chris recounted the small gathering at Hibiki’s apartment, as well as their little spat at the amusement park. There was also that time Tsubasa had asked Chris what Maria had shared to her about their set-up. 

Senpai ’s not usually the one to get conscious of these things right from the set-up's get-go,” Chris added. “And I found it strange that she asked that sort of thing from me.” 

“Maybe she just needed a second opinion or something.” 

Chris had to chuckle. “If that’s the case shouldn’t she have asked Maria outright instead of me?” 

Miku nodded. “Makes sense. After all, Tsubasa-san is the one sharing sheets with Maria-san, not you.” 

“And that thing at the amusement park. Sure, we can dismiss it as her getting bushed out with the rides...but Miku, we rode the teacups, not the 4-loop rollercoaster that your girlfriend was so bent on getting on.” 

“Chris-chan, I think you’re dwelling too much on this. If they need help then we’ll be sure to give it to them.” 

“Maria needed help the moment she proposed the goddamn set-up,” Chris said with a scoff. 

Miku smiled and let out a tired sigh. “People do crazy things when they’re in love.” 

Chris rolled her eyes. “Sheesh. Love and all that schtick.” 

Miku merely giggled at Chris. “Being worried and all about Tsubasa-san and Maria-san...that’s one form of loving them, isn’t it?” 

Chris was about to protest, then she slumped in her seat with a blush on her face. “Oh, quiet, you.” 

--- 

The renewal process had been settled without any fuss and Genjuuro dismissed Tsubasa and Maria from any further duties at the HQ. Ogawa made his leave to attend to some business with his clan, while Genjuuro set-off to one of his rigorous training sessions. Tomosato and Fujitaka, who had planned their leaves days prior, were all too excited to leave their stations and catch their rides home. All of them assured that they would keep their lines open in case of emergencies. 

“Any plans tonight?” Maria asked. 

All the alarms in Tsubasa’s head rang at once. “Well, I—” She fidgeted in her place as she thought of a good excuse. “I do remember dropping by Tachibana’s apartment later today. She needed help with some of their stuff there.” 

“Oh, can I tag along? I can lend a hand with that.” 

Tsubasa frantically waved her hands. “Ah, no, no. We can handle it with just the two of us. I’ll be off now.” 

Tsubasa hastily rushed to the garage, leaving Maria at the foyer of HQ. Maria was perplexed at Tsubasa’s sudden refusal to her offer of help, but seeing that she couldn’t do anything else about it she went her own way home. 

--- 

Hibiki was poring over the manga she was reading when she was startled by the ring of the doorbell. Miku joined Hibiki at the door and both girls were surprised to see Tsubasa at the doorstep. 

“Tachibana, can I stay over until dinner time?” Tsubasa asked, her tone laced with slight panic. 

They let Tsubasa in and they all sat at the TV area. 

“Okay, Tsubasa-san, what’s the matter?” Hibiki asked at once. 

Tsubasa chuckled. “You’re not one to beat around the bush.” 

“I’ve decided to be more direct with people after going through crazy circumstances,” Hibiki said with a grin. “So, what are we dealing with tonight?” 

Tsubasa wrung her hands nervously. “I...I think I need to be away from Maria for a while,” she said. 

Hibiki was perplexed at what she heard, and she looked over at Miku, who was just as confused as she was. She then turned to Tsubasa. “Are you and Maria-san having issues with each other?” 

“It’s not exactly between the both of us,” Tsubasa said. “It’s just...I just need some space, that’s all.” 

“Have you tried talking to her about it?” Miku asked as she placed the cups of tea on the coffee table. 

“N-no, I...” Tsubasa winced. “I haven’t.” 

Hibiki and Miku shared a glance. Hibiki then gave a slight nod and turned back to Tsubasa. 

“Tsubasa-san, it is important that you talk to Maria-san about this instead of avoiding her. It’s not like she can read your mind and easily tell that you suddenly want a breather.” Hibiki then patted Tsubasa on the shoulder. “But for now, come join us at the table for dinner.” 

Tsubasa could only sigh and smile. “Thank you.” 

Hibiki let out a giggle and the three gathered at the dining table for the meal. Despite the jovial exchanges among the three of them, Tsubasa’s mind has been nothing but muddled. 

--- 

Tsubasa didn’t heed Hibiki’s advice. She spent the next several days avoiding Maria outright, from not answering her calls to ignoring her messages, even if Maria was simply asking if something was amiss. Tsubasa knew that Maria was getting worried, but she resolved to gradually cut her ties with Maria, which in turn would tear her from the feelings she had grown to harbor towards her—or so she thinks. 

Maria, on the other hand, was getting worried by the day. Shirabe and Kirika had opted not to say a word, but they have noticed Maria’s growing uneasiness with every unanswered call and text. One night, Maria had stayed up and watched television, her phone just beside her on the couch. She was then joined by Shirabe, who carried a tray holding two mugs of warm milk. 

“If you’re making a fool of yourself on a cold night,” Shirabe said jokingly as she sat down and placed the tray on the coffee table. “Might as well have something to warm you up while you’re at it.” 

Maria sighed and smiled sadly at Shirabe. “I’ve always been the foolish type.” 

“Heck, this is a different kind of foolish,” Shirabe said, handing the mug over. “Finish up the milk and let’s go to sleep.” 

“Okay, Mom,” Maria said with a chuckle as she started drinking the milk. 

Shirabe started sipping from her own mug and turned her gaze to the ceiling. “Maria, don’t you think this is a sign that the set-up's coming to an end?” 

When Shirabe looked over at Maria, she saw perhaps what she deemed was the saddest smile she had ever seen on her. Concerned, Shirabe began to apologize for her words. Maria was quick to dismiss it, saying that Shirabe was right. 

“I really do think it’ll come to an end,” Maria said. “It’s just that, I choose not to think about it all the time. People get bored, you know, and this...this set-up that we have...I know Tsubasa will eventually tire of it. After all, I’m the only one with the feelings in the equation.” 

Shirabe’s brow creased with worry. “Maria...” 

“I’ll be fine,” Maria said, reaching out to pat Shirabe on the head. “It will all be okay.” 

Once the mugs were empty, the two of them headed to their rooms to sleep. 

--- 

Two weeks after, Tsubasa was slated to rehearse for a charity event, and it escaped her mind that Maria was signed on to it as well. Tsubasa had half a mind to cancel her slot in the event when she saw a half-naked Maria at the dressing room. 

“Ah, shit!” Tsubasa blurted out, her body halfway out of the door. 

Maria seemed unperturbed by Tsubasa’s shock and she merely clutched her robe closer. “Tsubasa, kindly close the door.” 

Tsubasa stepped inside and closed the door behind her. Maria went ahead to the mirror to continue undressing while Tsubasa walked over near the closet to bring out her rehearsal clothes. 

“I must have forgotten to lock the door when I came in,” Maria said, her back turned towards Tsubasa. “Good thing it was you who was at the door while I was undressing.” 

Tsubasa laughed to ease herself of the jitters. “This isn’t my apartment, Maria. What if Ogawa had been the one to see you?” 

“He’d be modest enough not to cuss like you did.” 

Tsubasa shook her head and began to take off her shirt. Maria stayed in her place and merely watched Tsubasa peeling off one article of clothing after another. Tsubasa then noticed Maria staring at her and she recoiled slightly from her, causing Maria to snap back into her senses. 

“Tsubasa, I—” Maria began to speak, but she couldn’t find the next right word to say. 

They locked gazes on each other for a moment, and Tsubasa was the first to look away. 

“Just...hurry up and put on your clothes,” Tsubasa said as she walked towards the door. “Wouldn’t want to mess up Ogawa’s schedule now, do we?” 

Tsubasa left the room and rushed to the stage, where Ogawa was waiting. Maria joined them not long after and the rehearsals began. It hadn’t been long when Maria noticed that Tsubasa was acting out of sorts. She looked over at Ogawa, who was watching them from the front row along with some of the resting crew who were setting up the auditorium. Ogawa had a slight frown on his face. It’s as if he, too, had taken note of Tsubasa while she was on the stage. 

The two of them had the same thought—Tsubasa was keeping a physical distance away from Maria. As to why, none of them could guess. 

Maria was gradually getting bothered by this, while Ogawa had opted to sit back and watch. When the minus one ended, Ogawa called for a break. He was about to approach Tsubasa when Maria set the bluenette aside and the two of them headed backstage. Ogawa had the urge to interfere—he was on duty as Tsubasa’s handler, after all—but he chose not to muddle in the affairs between the two women. The cause of Tsubasa’s unusual actions may lie within the peculiar—and utterly ridiculous—bond that she and Maria share. 

As he watched the two leave the stage, he can’t help but feel a sense of foreboding. It’s as if he was becoming a witness to something unfavorably big, and he didn’t like every single bit of it. 

Backstage, Maria and Tsubasa were engaged in a tense conversation. 

“Maria, I don’t think we have that much time to talk,” Tsubasa said dodgingly. 

“No, you have been going at it for the whole time, it’s not something I can ignore anymore,” Maria snapped back. “Why does it seem like you’re avoiding me? Did I do something wrong?” 

“What makes you think I’m avoiding you?” 

Maria crossed her arms and chose not to speak. Tsubasa winced at this—she had to come up with a good answer to get herself out of the conversation. 

“Maria, don’t make this difficult for the both of us,” Tsubasa said. 

“Funny how it’s coming from you,” Maria said, her tone growing stern. “You’ve been acting out of sorts since we started rehearsing. It’s like you don’t want to do this at all.” 

“It’s not like that.” 

“Then what’s it like? You’re not just avoiding me today. You’ve done it in the past couple of weeks. You don’t answer my calls or even respond to my messages. I started thinking something must be wrong.” 

“I told you, there’s nothing to fuss about. Besides, it’s not like we’re together. Why do I have to answer every call and text like I’m somebody’s girlfriend?” 

Maria felt something pierce her chest, but she set it aside. “It’s the courtesy, Tsubasa.” 

Tsubasa was about to retort when they heard Ogawa calling from outside. Maria swiftly left the backstage, and Tsubasa followed suit. Before she stepped on the stage again, Ogawa tapped her on the shoulder. 

“What is it, Ogawa?” Tsubasa asked somberly. 

“Tsubasa-san, as your handler I am highly expected to make sure that your career is without any snags, both in and out,” Ogawa began. “Seeing that you are currently in a predicament with Maria-san, your fellow performer, I can’t help but assume that unless any rifts between you two are settled this show is as good as a flop.” 

“I know, and I’m sorry.” 

“Ah no,” Ogawa said. “Your apology is deserved to be heard by someone else.” 

Ogawa turned to the stage, where Maria was talking and making mock-ups with the choreographer. Tsubasa sighed and trudged up to the stage. The choreographer had just finished the mock-up when Tsubasa joined them. Ogawa walked back to his seat and was surprised to see Maria stop Tsubasa from talking, as shown by the open palm she had raised in front of the bluenette. 

Ogawa had to stop himself from laughing at the sight.  It’s  gonna  take more than an apology to appease her, Tsubasa-san.  

--- 

In the next few days of the rehearsal period, nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. By the time the day of the charity event had arrived, the performance was not met with any last-minute troubles, both from the production and between the performers themselves. 

For a moment, Tsubasa had forgotten her anxieties on having Maria around while they were onstage. But after the performance, when the last of the crew members had given their well-wishes and bid their farewell, Tsubasa was once more aware of these anxieties.  

She was snapped out of her thoughts when Maria called out to her as they made their way to the parking lot. 

“Tsubasa, can you hear me?” Maria asked, giggling. 

Tsubasa rubbed her neck in an attempt to ease off the jitters. “Sorry about that,” she said. “You were saying?” 

“I said I wanted to drop by your place tonight,” Maria said. 

Tsubasa definitely got the implication, and she was torn between refusing and agreeing to it. But in the end, she gave in and called Ogawa to have Maria’s belongings dropped off at the apartment she shared with Shirabe and Kirika. She added that Maria was staying over for the night, to which Ogawa responded to with a curt “Understood. I’ll get to that right away.” 

Tsubasa then had Maria ride the motorcycle and they headed straight to the apartment. On the highway, Tsubasa ruminated if she was doing the right thing that night. When they arrived at the apartment, Tsubasa took it upon herself to cook dinner and the two of them ate without saying anything. 

“I’ll be taking a bath,” Tsubasa said, breaking the silence. “Just leave the dishes at the sink.” 

It hadn’t been long when Maria took her turn at the bath, although Tsubasa assumed that she had washed the dishes first before stepping into the bathroom. With that in mind Tsubasa couldn’t help but smile. The smile flitted away as soon as it had arrived when Tsubasa was once more aware of what her situation was. The argument she had with Maria wasn’t truly settled, and she still had to come up with a substantial apology. 

So on the edge of the bed she sat, waiting for Maria to come out of the bathroom so that she can say sorry. 

The bedroom door opened and in came Maria, with a towel hanging from her neck and wearing one of the sheer nightgowns she had left behind at the apartment. It was clear that she wore nothing else underneath. Tsubasa felt warmth pooling within her cheeks and at the pit of her stomach, and her chest began to pound harder and faster. Tsubasa thought that her older self would have dismissed these sensations as mere by-products of her sexual desire, but with the recent circumstances, she knew that she was feeling more than just that particular desire. 

“You’re thinking about something,” Maria said as she draped the towel on the dresser stool. 

“I’m sorry,” Tsubasa said at once. 

“Sorry about what?” 

“About what happened during the rehearsals. I was just...not myself that day.” 

Oh,  Tsubasa .  “You’ve always been like that.” 

“Yeah, I guess.” 

Maria slowly walked towards the bed. “You may seem focused when you’re in battle, but not where it counts.” She then settled herself on Tsubasa’s open lap. “You really have to work on that.” 

Tsubasa took great care not to overly relish Maria’s fingers running through her hair. “I know. I’m sorry.” 

Maria smiled down at Tsubasa. “You apologize too much.” 

“I’m sorry.” 

Maria scoffed and leaned down to kiss Tsubasa. Tsubasa broke free from the kiss. 

“Apology accepted?” Tsubasa whispered. 

“You still haven’t explained why you were so bent on avoiding me these past several days,” Maria said matter-of-factly. “But that’s not what we should be doing now.” 

Maria claimed her partner’s lips once more and pushed her down on the bed. As Tsubasa surrendered herself to Maria, countless thoughts plagued her mind. 

Everything felt so good, and at the same time so painful. She was close, yet so distant. She was crossing every physical border imaginable with careless abandon, yet she was stuck on one side of the field and scared to make a move. 

She didn’t want that. She may be loath to admit it, but she wanted more. 

But it’s impossible.  

When they both reached the pinnacle, Tsubasa began to feel a sense of clarity. With that, she had come up with a decision. 

--- 

They had both calmed down, and no further words were shared between the two of them. Tsubasa set her gaze to the window, and settled back to the woman snuggled close to her. 

“Maria.” 

“Hm?” 

“Let’s end this.” 

Chapter Text

“Let’s end this.” 

Maria almost jumped off the bed after hearing that. It had been another long night, and she expected it to end like usual—her, pining for Tsubasa, and Tsubasa being oblivious to it. Sure, she knew their set-up would come to an end one day, but she didn’t think it would happen sooner than she expected. 

“This set-up?” Maria asked, making sure. 

“Yeah.” 

Maria felt her heart drop. She then slowly sat up on the bed, clutching the sheets close to her chest to keep her steady. She turned to Tsubasa with the best smile she could manage. 

“Feeling bored?” she asked. 

“No, I...” Tsubasa hid her face behind her pillow. “I think I need space...from all this.” 

Maria was close to shaking, but she fought to keep it unnoticeable. “A breather?” 

“Yeah.” Tsubasa hoped Maria wouldn’t ask any more questions. It was already painful as it is. 

“Alright,” Maria said. “If you say so.” 

With that, Maria stood up from the bed and headed to the bathroom. As soon as the water hit her, Maria began weeping in the shower, taking great care not let her sobs reach Tsubasa’s ears. 

Tsubasa, on the other hand, was now muddled into her own conflicting thoughts and emotions. She had hoped that Maria would object, but seeing as she seemingly shrugged it off, Tsubasa couldn’t be any more saddened about it. She sat up on the bed, grabbed the pillow Maria had laid her head on, and held it tight. 

Maria got out of the bathroom after several minutes and Tsubasa took her turn next. Maria didn’t hastily put on her clothes despite having the feeling of wanting to leave the apartment as quickly as possible. 

It’s the last time I’ll ever stay in this place for more than a day, just let me have this.  

Maria put up her hair in the ever-familiar style she had been acquainted with and by the time she was finished, Tsubasa had stepped out of the bathroom and proceeded to get some fresh clothes from her closet. 

“Wanna eat before you go?” Tsubasa asked sheepishly. 

Maria fought back another surge of tears. “No need, I’ll be having dinner once I get back home.” 

Tsubasa escorted Maria to the door. After putting on her shoes, Maria turned to Tsubasa with a smile. She took her time looking over at Tsubasa, as if she was deeply engraving every inch of her into the deep recesses of her memory—perhaps closer to where she kept the ones that belonged to her long-departed sister. Maria thought it was ridiculous since she’d probably see Tsubasa occasionally, especially since they tend to work together on some of Tsubasa’s shows. 

Maria smiled at Tsubasa—she couldn’t think of anything else she can do to keep herself from breaking down. “You had fun?” 

Tsubasa rubbed her arm and looked away, her cheeks flushing red. “Well, I...yeah. I guess you could say that.” 

Maria chuckled. “I had fun, too, just so you know. You’ve improved.” 

Tsubasa laughed nervously. “All thanks to you.” 

Maria couldn’t take it any longer. “Alright, I’ll be on my way. See you when I see you.” 

Maria then leaned forward and pulled Tsubasa towards her, locking their lips. Tsubasa was taken aback, but she kept her hold and tried her best to relish this one last kiss she’ll ever share with Maria. Knowing enough was enough, Maria was the first to let go. She gave Tsubasa one last smile and she was soon out of the apartment. Tsubasa stared at the closed door in front of her, and her knees then gave in and she found herself on the floor. 

--- 

Shirabe and Kirika had just finished a three-hour movie when they heard someone at the door. Both girls rushed there and were perplexed to see that Maria was home sooner than they expected. They came upon Maria sitting at the foyer and removing her shoes. 

“I thought you’re staying at Tsubasa-san's until tomorrow,” Shirabe said. “Maria?”  

Maria was quiet as she stood up and placed her shoes on the rack. When she looked up at the two, they were surprised to see her on the brink of tears. Shirabe and Kirika got a sense of what the situation is and were quick to wrap Maria in their arms. It was at that point did Maria finally break down and cried once more. 

--- 

Miku carefully removed Hibiki’s arm from her waist and rose from the bed. Hibiki was quick to notice the sudden lack of warmth by her side and was completely roused from her sleep. 

“Miku, what’s up?” Hibiki asked as she wiped her eye. 

“I think I want to drop by Maria-san's place,” Miku said.  

“Miku, it’s almost midnight, she might not even be there. She could still be at Tsubasa-san's apartment.” 

“We could try. If she’s not there, then we go back home.” 

Hibiki chuckled. “Okay, let’s get going.” 

The two girls headed over to Maria’s apartment with a box of snacks from the convenience store. Hibiki looked over at her girlfriend and noticed that she seemed to be muddled in her own thoughts. Hibiki nudged her at the shoulder. 

“You’re thinking about something,” Hibiki said. 

“Oh, was it obvious?” Miku asked, slightly flustered. 

“Yep. Why’d you want to head over to Maria-san's apartment?” 

Miku raised her eyes as if mulling on what she can say next. “I felt that I had to be there somehow? It’s weird, but I can’t seem to shake the feeling off.” 

“Well, if that thought makes you feel that way, I guess it’s important that we pay them a visit. It’s like the universe itself is sending you that message.” 

Miku giggled. “You and your wild imagination.” 

The two arrived at the front door of the apartment and Hibiki pressed on the doorbell. It was Kirika who opened the door, and she was rather surprised at the two’s sudden visit. Kirika took the box of snacks and escorted the two to the living room, where Maria and Shirabe were sitting. The TV was on, but neither of them were watching. Hibiki and Miku sensed that something wasn’t right. 

“Hibiki-san and Miku-san are here,” Kirika said. 

“Maria-san?” Hibiki asked. 

Maria raised her head and Hibiki got a good look on the sorrow traced across her face. Hibiki was quick to understand what might have happened and she walked over to the couch and embraced Maria. Maria was brought to tears once again. 

“Tachibana, it’s—” Maria said amidst her quiet sobs. “It’s over, I—” 

“Just cry it all out, Maria-san,” Hibiki crooned while running her hand through Maria’s hair. “We’re staying here.” 

Maria was eventually cried out and had fallen asleep. Shirabe rested Maria’s head on her lap as she talked to Hibiki and Miku about what had happened.  

“We all expected that it would come to this point, the set-up ending and all,” Shirabe said as she softly fiddled with Maria’s hair. “Maria may have asserted that she’ll be ready for it, but it can’t be denied that it’s gonna end up hurting her like this.” 

“What can we do to help?” Miku asked. 

“For now, I think it would be best to give her some time to herself,” Shirabe told her. “And also, we have to be quiet about this. This is a rather sensitive matter.” 

--- 

Chris reported to HQ one morning since it was her day-off from the university and she had nothing to do at home. There hasn’t been anything out of the ordinary when she arrived at the site, Tomosato and Fujitaka were at their posts and Elfnein was working on some sort of experiment at her lab. When she dropped by Genjuuro’s office to return the battleship DVDs she borrowed, the commander was at his usual demeanor. 

Chris was pretty much convinced that her day at the HQ will run its usual course, until she caught sight of Maria at the lounge. She was sitting by the aquarium and staring at the fishes. Maria can be quiet and somber, but on that day, Chris knew that there was something iffy with the Ukrainian’s silence. She purchased coffee for the both of them and took a seat by Maria’s side. 

“Coffee?” Chris asked, offering the canned beverage. 

Maria took the drink. “Day-off?” 

“Yeah. KIds aren’t home?” 

“Went on a date.” 

Chris had to chuckle at that. “I see.” 

“It’s over.” 

Chris’ hand paused just as she was about to take a sip from the can. “What?” 

Maria shrugged. “It’s over.” 

“What do you mean? What’s ‘over’?” 

Maria simply smiled and shrugged. Chris was quick to understand what Maria had implied, and a sharp pang of concern hit her, as well as the odd feeling that made her think that she had a responsibility in the matter. 

“What did she say?” Chris asked. 

“She needed a breather.” 

Chris was incredulous. “Did she say anything else?” 

Maria shook her head and Chris was dismayed at that. She was then alarmed when Maria quickly wiped a tear from her eye. 

“You should cry it out,” Chris said. 

Maria scoffed. “I bawled myself to exhaustion the other day. I shouldn’t be crying anymore and yet these tears show up to mock me.” 

“That’s because you were deeply hurt. If there weren’t feelings involved, this would have been something you’d have shrugged off in a day.” 

“Shouldn’t you be saying ‘I told you so’?” 

Chris smirked. “I couldn’t do it. All of a sudden it doesn’t feel right.” 

Maria let out an exasperated laugh amidst tears. “This is so weird. It’s so painful and somehow I’m still laughing.” 

“You’re still in denial,” Chris said. 

“And how would you know that?” Maria asked with a mocking smile. 

Chris returned the mocking smile with one of her own. “I technically got dumped by a certain priestess, went through the stages of grief in a matter of weeks. But I’ve long moved on from that. Turns out she wasn’t good for me as I thought back then.” 

The smile faded from Maria’s face. “Chris...” 

“Enough about me, I’m not the one crying here.” Chris put down the canned coffee on the table. “What are you going to do about this, Maria?” 

“Honestly, I don’t know.” 

Chris clicked her tongue. “Agh, what a pain.” 

“I don’t think there’s anything we can do here, Chris. If I pursue her, then she would think that I have crossed the line long before she decided to quit and that I only delayed the inevitable. Surely it would make Tsubasa think that I’m unfair for not following what was agreed upon.” 

Chris crossed her arms. “Whatever.” 

The two were quiet after that. Maria then leaned on Chris’s shoulder, much to the latter’s surprise. 

Oi , you might hurt your neck or something,” Chris chided. 

“How about your lap instead?” 

Chris felt her cheeks flush. “You could have just said so in the first place.” 

Maria chuckled and settled her head on Chris’ lap. Her eyes wandered up to the stark ceiling of the lounge, and her thoughts began to be filled with Tsubasa. Tears began to well up in her eyes, so she hid them from the light with her arm. 

“Chris.” 

“Hm?” 

“Your senpai ...she’s an idiot.” 

Chris laughed. “She sure is.” 

Maria ended up sleeping on Chris’ lap. Chris decided to stay put until Maria wakes up. 

She needs this, at least, Chris thought. 

--- 

The next few days that followed at HQ were...tense, at best. Or so Chris had thought. Not a day would pass by without her witnessing awkward exchanges between Tsubasa and Maria. It was as if they didn’t share months of intimacy at all. Chris found it bothersome, firstly because she couldn’t grasp why Tsubasa suddenly decided to end the set-up. Second is how Maria seemed to subject herself to more pain by interacting with Tsubasa altogether. 

It’s not that Chris didn’t want Maria anywhere near Tsubasa, or vice versa. It’s because she knew that Maria was still sporting fresh wounds from her recent heartbreak, and what she was currently doing would not be highly beneficial. 

She looks like she’s hugging a damn cactus.  

Chris had to laugh at the analogy, but it didn’t erase the fact that Maria wasn’t giving herself enough care. 

Tsubasa, on one end, was currently caught up with the inner turmoil of emotions within her. That had always been the issue with her—she keeps her woes and troubles to herself until it all builds up into a mush of uncomfortable musings and thoughts. She already had half a mind of coming clean to Maria once and for all, but the thought of Maria sneering at her for crossing the line kept on gnawing at her that she had turned chicken and decided not to say anything. It was cowardly of her, and she knows it. 

--- 

“This is bad.” 

It had been half an hour of complete silence until Kirika broke it. She and Shirabe were snuggled up on their shared bed, having an idle conversation to while away the vacant time that they had. Maria was still at HQ, and they chose to stay home instead of going out. 

Shirabe shifted in her position and settled her head on Kirika’s chest. “What’s bad?” 

“This fuss about Maria and Tsubasa-san.” 

“There’s nothing we can do, Kiri-chan. This is something that they have to work out on their own.” 

“But Maria’s hurting.” 

“Which is actually something we had expected.” 

“Tch. I knew the set-up was a bad idea.” 

“I think so, too. But I guess Maria couldn’t think of anything else at the time.” 

“Do you think Tsubasa ended the set-up because she started having feelings along the way?” 

Shirabe’s eyebrows raised at that, then she nodded thoughtfully. “It’s plausible. I don’t think anyone can resist Maria.” 

Kirika grinned. “Oh, so you’ve thought of Maria that way, huh?” 

“Cut it out, Kiri-chan, it’s not funny. I’ve always seen her as an older sister, like Serena did,” Shirabe countered with a frown on her face. 

“Hey, I’m just messing with you. Smile for me, will you?” 

“Hmph.” 

Kirika let out a chuckle, but the smile on her face flitted away not long after. “From what Maria told us about that night, Tsubasa-san didn’t say much as to why she wanted to end the set-up."

"True," Shirabe said.

"Maria was too cautious about letting her feelings leak out that she didn’t bother asking further about Tsubasa-san's sudden call to quit. If there isn’t an elaborate reason, then I guess the only thing that’s left is that Tsubasa-san had started feeling something during those nights they’ve been spending together in bed.” 

--- 

Senpai , you’re not nailing the hits.” 

Chris headed over to the Kazanari estate after finding that Tsubasa wasn’t at the apartment. The bluenette had stayed over at the estate at that time. 

Tsubasa let out a growl and took another few swings of her sword. “What’s with the visit, Yukine?” she asked as she changed forms. 

“I missed the look of the old house,” Chris said as she took a sip of the tea served earlier. “Your apartment’s pretty much a bore at this point.” 

Tsubasa scoffed. “You really hate me that much?” 

“Nah, I’m actually in love with you,  Senpai .” 

“Ah, for shame.” 

“You wouldn’t talk like that if Maria were the one to say it.” 

Tsubasa almost missed a step, but she recovered fast and succeeded in the next swing she made. “She’d never say such a thing in the first place.” 

Chris did not miss the poorly-hidden tone of defeat in Tsubasa’s words. She found it intriguing and decided to prod further. 

“Ah, yeah. If she did, then your set-up would have ended faster than the blink of an eye.” Chris shifted in her seat. “Speaking of which, Maria told me you ended the set-up.” 

Tsubasa lowered her arm. “Y-yeah.” 

“Hoh...you crossed the line or something?” Chris asked mockingly. 

Tsubasa frowned. “N-no. It’s not like that.” 

“Then why? Even such a thing should have a reason for ending so suddenly.” 

“I...I don’t think it’s gonna go anywhere...and I need some space.” 

“What do you mean it’s not going anywhere? For all I know, one orgasm alone is worth more than a trip for eighty days around the world. That’s definitely going somewhere.” Chris raised an eyebrow. “And what do you mean you need some space?” 

“Is everything a joke to you, Yukine?” Tsubasa snarled. 

“I’ve had my share of bitter tears and deep emotional wounds,” Chris said nonchalantly. “What makes you think everything to me is a damn joke?” 

“Why’d you want to know my reason for ending it anyway? Is it important to you that you get to know everything involving the two of us?” 

“Did you want it to end,  Senpai ?” 

“What makes you think I didn’t want to? Like I said, I didn’t cross the line, and I never will, mind you. This set-up isn’t a forever thing, it’s not bound to be anything worth my time. It would be better to end it now before it drags on for too long.” 

“You had it running for three months and you think it’s not worth your time? That suddenly you needed some space? What were those days and weeks, then?” 

“What are you really probing around for, Yukine? What do you want to hear from me?” 

Chris stood up from the mat and glared at Tsubasa. Tsubasa kept herself in place, but the look on Chris’ face shook her. Chris eventually let out a tired sigh and eased herself of the tension building up within her. 

“In the short time I’ve known you, I easily figured out what you’re like when you’re hiding something,” Chris said wearily. “Right now, I can tell there’s something you’re keeping from Maria, and by Jove she has the damn right to know what it is.” 

Tsubasa had to be obstinate. “Then you don’t know me well enough.” 

Chris turned to leave. “If you say so,  Senpai . Anyways, thanks for the tea.” 

--- 

It had been a while since Hibiki last stepped foot on the ever-familiar watercraft that housed the Second Division. The workplace wasn’t as bustling as it was back then, perhaps because they were no longer facing world-shattering threats and were only dealing with traces of Noise scattered outside the city.  

Things have settled down since then ,  Hibiki  thought to herself.  I wouldn’t trade this for anything else.  

She then happened to cross paths with Maria and Tsubasa talking at the lounge. Tsubasa then caught sight of her and rushed to her side. 

“Speaking of which, I have something to do with Tachibana today,” Tsubasa told Maria. 

Hibiki blinked confusedly at Tsubasa, and Tsubasa responded with a pleading look that Hibiki read as “Play along, for my sake.” Hibiki obliged and agreed to have remembered that she indeed had some business to attend to with Tsubasa and that they had to leave. The two of them left Maria at the lounge. Hibiki sensed that something was off with Tsubasa, so she came up with an idea to ease her of the tension. 

“Say, wanna come with me to Flower?” Hibiki invited. “I’m craving for some  okonomiyaki   now. My treat.” 

Tsubasa chuckled. “Sure.” 

The two left the HQ and headed to Flower. As they ate, the two made idle conversation. Hibiki recounted the trip she made with Miku’s family at the hot springs, which was nothing short of fun given that Hibiki was the life of the party at that time. Tsubasa could only smile at Hibiki’s stories, laughing occasionally at a joke or two. 

“I’m glad things are going smoothly for you and Kohinata-san,” Tsubasa said. 

“How about you and Maria-san?” Hibiki asked. “Leaving her like that a while ago seemed off-putting if you ask me. Is something the matter?” 

Tsubasa winced at the question. “It’s a...complicated thing, I’m afraid.” 

Hibiki knew better than to force the truth out from Tsubasa, so she decided to let it slide for now. “Whatever that is, I hope you guys work it out.” 

“It might take a while, I guess.” 

Hibiki chuckled. “Only if you want it to be.” Hibiki paid for their orders and stood up from the counter. “Well, I’ll be off now, I’ve got a bowlful of beef stroganoff waiting for me at home.” 

Tsubasa laughed. “When are you ever going to get tired of eating that dish?” 

“I don’t think I ever will,” Hibiki said with a smirk. “As long as Miku is the one who cooks it for us.” 

“You’re definitely whipped, Tachibana.” 

Hibiki laughed and waved a hand as she left. “Funny. I could say the same to you, Tsubasa-san.” 

Hibiki left before Tsubasa could counter what she just said. 

How in the world could she have known?  Tsubasa thought. 

As Tsubasa settled herself to bed later in the night, she couldn’t help but think about Hibiki’s words back at Flower. 

Only if I want it to be. She thinks this is simpler than I thought?  

Tsubasa figured Hibiki said it since she didn’t have that much trouble with Miku, albeit their getting together happened after a series of cataclysmic events that almost cost them all their lives.  

But it is complicated. Everything about Maria is complicated. The set-up, these...feelings that came with it—all of it ,  complicated.  

--- 

Someone paid a visit to Nastassja’s grave one morning. The weather was bleak, with the skies taking on a grayish tinge. She carefully laid the freshly-bought flowers on the stone and began muttering a prayer. 

“You must be surprised that I’m here for no occasion,” the visitor said to no one after the prayer.  

She turned to the dark sky and winced at the first snowflake that landed on her nose. She then glanced back down on the stone before her and smiled. 

“Would you have believed me if I said that I got my heart broken recently?” she said. 

Silence. 

“Do you remember that blue-haired girl who left gifts here back then?” 

Silence. 

“I started sleeping with her three months ago.” 

She half-expected her mother to show up behind her and admonish her, crop and all. But no one did. 

“I was too afraid to ask her out and offered my body instead, like the fool that I am. I thought back then that it was the only way I can get close to her without compromising our friendship.” 

Silence. The sound of a car whizzing by tore through the air. 

“Of course, I didn’t tell her my feelings.” 

A dog barks in the distance. 

“It’s stupid, and I wake up every single day knowing so.” 

Snow began to fall, lightly coating the graves. 

“Then, eventually, she said she wanted out. She needed a breather, she told me. A breather. It looks like she had enough.” 

The ring of bells on bicycles reached the visitor’s ears, but she paid it no attention. 

“What else am I to do, Mom? I can’t blame her. I can only blame myself...for all of it. Chris was right. Shirabe was right. If you were still here, I’d say you’re right as well.” 

Eventually, she couldn’t bear it any longer and she broke down in tears. 

“I wish you were here, Mom. You and Serena.”

--- 

Nastassja’s grave received another visitor several days after. The flowers that had been brought days prior have been crumbled underneath the snow that had built up in the time that passed, and the new visitor had to wipe all that off the stone. 

This time, a bottle of wine was carefully settled close to it. 

“I...” began the visitor. “I needed to talk to someone.” 

The visitor let out a laugh. She knows how ridiculous it was, to look for someone to talk to and end up visiting someone’s grave. A forlorn look on her face then took over the smile she had managed to make. 

“I think I’m in love with your daughter—well, she’s not really your daughter but she calls you ‘Mom’ so I guess it’s just fitting I call her that way.” 

A gust of wind blew by and the visitor tugged her scarf to seal in more warmth. 

“It hurts to be around her, but at the same time, I still want to be with her.” 

Yet another dog barked from the distance, the noise cutting through the silence that permeated in the cemetery. 

“Before that, though, I slept with her for a few months, as a set-up of sorts. Stuff happened, and the next thing I knew I was...feeling things...for her.” The visitor laughed again. “Funny, right? And now I’d gone and ended it all.” 

The visitor shifted uncomfortably in her place. “I...I think that’s the only thing I can do to help me get over these feelings. What else could I have done, Professor? She’s not gonna return them anyhow, I might as well nip things in the bud before it gets worse.” 

The visitor crouched down and clasped her hands, a sad smile forming on her flushed face.  

“What would you have told me, Professor, if we had the chance to talk?” 

The silent air seemed to be good enough of an answer for the visitor, so she stood up and walked away from the stone. 

Chapter Text

Tsubasa -san has not been entirely honest,”  Hibiki  mused.  

Miku , who was scrubbing her back, halted for a moment. “What makes you say that?”  

“I might have forgotten to tell you. When I dropped by the HQ last time, we headed over to Flower for a quick snack,” Hibiki said.   

Miku  shrugged. “It’s just like you to forget things like that. So, what happened?”  

“Well, we got to talking about how she just...left Maria-san at the HQ that day. It  kinda  rubbed me the wrong way at the time, but I had to set that aside and get  Tsubasa -san out of her awkward situation.  Tsubasa -san said there’s something complicated going on between the two of them, but she didn’t elaborate on that. Made me think that something was up.”  

Miku  hummed. “Could it be that  Tsubasa -san...”  

“Yep. It could be.”  

Ne Hibiki , I wonder when they’d both come clean about their feelings?”  

“It’ll come at the right time, I guess,”  Hibiki  said. “ Miku ?”  

Hm ?”  

Lemme  scrub your back.”  

“Not until you promise not to stray your hands too far,”  Miku  said, her tone growing stern.  

---  

Tsubasa  was at a patisserie one morning and was perusing  the baskets  for something to buy.  Funny enough , it was where Maria had once quipped about buying her favorite pastry. She had stepped out of the apartment complex and walked aimlessly minutes earlier, and she found herself in front of the shop. She scoffed at herself then she stepped inside and decided she might as well buy something to eat.  Tsubasa  then found Maria’s favorite and saw that it was the last one in the basket. As she grabbed for it, another hand had also reached out.  Tsubasa  stepped back to see who the other person was.  

To her surprise, it was  Shirabe , carrying a cloth bag filled with groceries.  The younger girl was surprised to come across  Tsubasa  as well, and they were now at a standstill as to who gets the last piece of the pastry.  

Shirabe  was the first to retreat. “You can have it,  Tsubasa -san.”  

Tsubasa  shook her head. “Ah, no, you go ahead. It’s for Maria, isn’t it?”  

“You seem to have been aiming for it since you stepped inside.”  

“Well, you probably had your eye on it for a while. Go on, I can buy something else.”  

Shirabe  then sighed with a smile and picked up the pastry.  Tsubasa  settled with another variant and they headed over to the cashier to pay. As  Tsubasa  was about to head home,  Shirabe  called out to her.  

“If it’s not a bother to you, can we  stay a bit  for  coffee?”   Shirabe  asked.  

“Uh, yeah,”  Tsubasa  said. “Sure.”  

The two took a seat at one of the tables at the side of the patisserie.  Shirabe  ordered coffee for the both of them and declined when  Tsubasa  offered to pay for it.  Tsubasa  leaned back into her seat, nervous at what  Shirabe  had to say.  

Shirabe  was frozen in her place. She had jumped to the urge to keep  Tsubasa  from leaving, but she wasn’t ready with the words she wanted to say. She couldn’t just say that  Tsubasa  had caused Maria a great deal of pain, since the  bluenette  was actually unaware of Maria’s long-harbored feelings.  

“I...”  Shirabe  began. “I’ve heard about—”  

“The set-up,”  Tsubasa  spoke, a smile forming on her face. “Word gets around fast, huh.”  

Shirbae  shrugged. “We’re not that much of a huge circle of friends, it’s bound to happen.”  

“I’ll have to agree on that,”  Tsubasa  said. “ Yukine  definitely gets the news fresh and piping hot.”  

Shirabe  giggled. “So it seems,” she said. “So, how have you been doing,  Tsubasa -san?”  

“I’m doing fine.”  

“I see.”  

“How...is Maria?”  

Shirabe  took a sip of the creamed coffee. “She’s okay.”  

“Ah, I see.”  

Tsubasa -san.”  

Hm ?”  

“If you don’t mind me asking, why did you end the set-up?”  

Tsubasa  adjusted in her seat. “Did n’t Maria say anything about what I told her?”  

“She wasn't really elaborate.”  

“I see.”  Tsubasa  wrapped her hands around the coffee mug. “I needed some space, that's all.  

Shirabe  nodded thoughtfully.  “Was  she becoming too much for you?”  

Tsubasa  was internally mortified by  Shirabe's  question, but she concealed it with feigned perplexity. “No. No, she wasn't. It's just… she has nothing to do with it, to be honest.”  

“I see.”   

“It’s nothing to be gloomy about, really. It’s not like something’s changed after the set-up ended.”  

“Yeah, you’re right.”  Shirabe  then finished her coffee. “Oh, you should drop by our place sometime.  Kirika  misses playing videogames with you.”  

“I’ll let you know once I’m free.”  

The two finally parted ways. As  Shirabe  looked on at  Tsubasa  walking away, she tightly clutched at the cloth bag’s straps.  

There’s no harm in being honest,  Tsubasa -san , she thought.  

Maria had cheered up a bit when  Shirabe  gave her the pastry, and she helped around the kitchen for dinner.  Shirabe  had half a mind to tell Maria about seeing  Tsubasa  at the patisserie, but she decided not to so as to give Maria some respite.  

---  

“Ah, so you’ve talked a bit with  Senpai ,” Chris said before biting off the burger. “Oh, have some fries.”  

Shirabe  had met up with Chris this time, at a nearby diner. She and  Kirika  were on a date at the time, and they decided to grab a bite to eat before heading somewhere else. They came across Chris who had just sat down at a table by the window, a tray full of supersized combo meals laid out before her.  

“Thank you,”  Shirabe  said, picking up the  french  fry from the carton. “ Tsubasa -san seemed...dodgy. When I talked with her, that is.”  

Hmph . Just as I expected.” Chris sloppily wiped off the ketchup from her lips, earning cringes of discomfort from  Shirabe  and  Kirika . “That idiot...she’s too afraid of jumping in.”  

“I think it’s reasonable,”  Shirabe  said.  

Both Chris and  Kirika  turned to  Shirabe . “What makes you say so?” they both asked.  

Shirabe  was taken aback for a moment, then she composed herself and began her explanation.  

Tsubasa -san’s fear of admitting her feelings isn’t something we should just be mad about,” she said. “What if the situation here was that Maria had no feelings at all towards her? What if the set-up really had no strings attached? If you were in  Tsubasa -san's place, and you’ve developed feelings for Maria during those three months, surely you’d be scared of having those feelings out in the open without the assurance of having them reciprocated.”  

Chris blinked. “That’s...an insight.”  

“So you say,”  Shirabe  said. “But to be honest, I’d really like to give  Tsubasa -san a hit on the head for making Maria cry.”  

“My sentiments exactly,” Chris agreed with an eye roll.  

“So, what’s the big plan?”  Kirika  asked. “ Tsubasa -san’s too chicken, and Maria breaks down at the mere mention of the set-up. They are very much far from being capacitated to act on their feelings.”  

“There is no big plan, shortstop,” Chris said, wagging a ketchup-coated  french  fry at  Kirika . “We’re not  gonna  do anything major.”  

“But what about Maria?”  Kirika  asked.  

Chris frowned. “It wouldn’t be right of us to interfere. We can give nudges, but when it all comes to it,  Senpai   and your darling  onee  will be the ones throwing down. They should be.”  

As Chris spoke, she had turned her eyes to the window, frowning not at the bleak outdoors but at the matter at hand.  

---  

Genjuuro  knew that something was amiss.  

He dropped by the apartment one morning and was expecting to see it neat and tidy, only to be met with clothes strewn on the floor, dishes waiting to be washed, takeout boxes on every surface available, and a sulking  Tsubasa  on the couch.  

Tsubasa ,” he called.  

Tsubasa  didn’t respond.  

“You left your door unlocked,”  Genjuuro  said.  

No response.  

“I got takeout. You free for a dinner with your good  ol ’ uncle?”  

Tsubasa  didn’t say anything in return, so  Genjuuro  walked over to the dining table and cleared it out for the food he brought.  

“Has Maria dropped by?” Genjuuro  asked.  

“No, she hasn’t,” was  Tsubasa’s  terse reply.  

Whew, she can still talk.  “I see. Hey, come on here and grab a bite to eat. You look like you  haven't eaten for days .”  

It took almost a few  minutes before  Tsubasa   rose from the couch  and joined  Genjuuro  at the table. They began eating the takeout meals without so much as exchanging words. After the meal,  Genjuuro  took to cleaning up the mess while  Tsubasa  resigned to head over to the bathroom and take a quick shower.  

Something must have happened, but Chris hasn’t said anything yet , he thought.  

He  found it oddly humorous that Chris would be the first one to know what’s up with  Tsubasa .  

Genjuuro  took care of the unkempt living room and settled himself on the couch.  Tsubasa  joined him at the living room as he watched TV.  Genjuuro  made small talk as they watched and bit by bit  Tsubasa  had begun to open up a little.  

“You okay, kiddo?”  Genjuuro  asked later on.  

Tsubasa  stared at the TV  as  she propped her arm under her head , then she slowly nodded while biting her lip. It didn’t take long for her to start shaking her head, and a tear started to trickle down her face.  

“What happened?”  Genjuuro  asked.  

Tsubasa  sniffled then she sighed and smiled wistfully. “I crossed the line.”  

He was quick to understand what his niece had meant, but it surprised him nonetheless. “W-What did she say?”  

Tsubasa  grasped at her hair, her smile forced and watery.  “I didn't tell her  that I started having feelings.  I  just ended  the set-up and told her I needed space.”  

Genjuuro  was incredulous.  He had the urge to spill out what he knew  from Maria's side, but he chose to keep quiet about it and focused on his niece instead.  

“You could have at least tried to tell her the truth,”  Genjuuro  said.  

“Then what? She'll distance herself from me and things will get  awkward  between us,”  Tsubasa  said indignantly. “ We agreed not to fall for such things when we started the set-up. I failed my end of the  deal, and it's only right of me to end it before I lose whatever control I have over my feelings for her.”  

Fool.   But still, you could have taken a shot at it,” he said. “You were not one to back down from a fight, even if the one you're fighting against is yourself. How is this any different?”  

“It ’ll hurt me a thousand times over, I just know it.”  

“How can you even tell? You’re sitting here, moping.”  

“What do you want me to do, then?”  

“I don’t know. I’m not you,  Tsubasa .”  

Tsubasa  fell silent at that. With that,  Genjuuro  settled in his place at the couch and let  Tsubasa  simmer down. He eventually had to leave for home a couple of hours later.  

“There is one reason why it’s impossible for us to see a definite and solid future,”  Genjuuro  said as he headed for the door. “It tends to change depending on what we decide to do in the present, so we can’t exactly get a clear image of it no matter how hard we try.”  

“What are you getting at?”  Tsubasa  asked wearily.  

Genjuuro  sighed. “ Tsubasa , how could you tell that something’s  gonna  happen in the future when you haven’t done anything at all now?”  

---  

Miku  visited Maria’s apartment one afternoon. Maria was cooking when  Miku  rang the bell. She had taken to watching  Shirabe  in the kitchen in the past few weeks and decided to focus on honing her cooking skills.  Shirabe  then gave her easy recipes to practice, and Maria was close to perfecting them.  

“It’s nice how you’ve gotten better with these dishes, Maria-san,”  Miku  said after tasting the latest meal that Maria had made. “I still have a long way to go in making Hibiki’s other favorites.”  

“You focused too much on stroganoff,” Maria said with a laugh. “But that’s not to say you haven’t gone far.”  

Miku  nodded thoughtfully, then she sighed. “So, how have you been, Maria-san?”  

Maria shrugged. “I’m doing okay.”  

Miku  smiled knowingly, but not with the intent to mock Maria. Maria let out a weary sigh.  

“I’m doing okay,” Maria said. “For the most part.”  

Miku  nodded again. “Have you ever thought about making a move, Maria-san?”  

Maria blinked for a bit in surprise, then she let out a laugh and shook her head. “I don’t see the point of it, really. She ended the set-up, and if I tell her the truth, she’ll—”  

Maria gestured with her hand and Miku  hummed in response.  

“I  once thought  that  Hibiki  would only see me as a friend,   Miku  began. “Like, in  the same way she does with our classmates. I asked myself what the point would be in coming clean about my feelings when it ran the risk of not being returned.”  

“But it turned out that Tachibana is just as deep in it as you are.”  

“Yes, thankfully so. But here’s the question—what if she didn’t? Then I’d surely get rejected and it would be painful for me. I wrestled with that possibility so much that it ended with me clamming up and keeping it all to myself. One is not forbidden to keep secrets, but sometimes, Maria-san, it pays to reveal some truths in you because it frees you.”  

“What if it ends up badly? It’s not like the two of us share the same fate when it comes to confessing to the people we love. You were lucky that Tachibana’s feelings were mutual with yours. As for  Tsubasa ...you know how she is.”  

“True, but still, Maria-san, you can fight for it. I refused to fight for my feelings in the past because I let my fears get to me, and I ended up suffering disastrous consequences. I should have stepped up and took a gamble in the first place.”  Miku  reached out and held Maria’s hand. “I do not want you to suffer the same pain I went through just because of fear.”  

Maria leaned on the table and rubbed her hands nervously. “Tell me,  Kohinata -san, how should I go about it?”  

Miku  smiled like a sage. “That, Maria-san…is merely up to you.”  

Chapter Text

Elfnein didn’t expect visitors coming in to the lab that day—and Tsubasa, even more so. They may have spent time together during their field missions, but a casual visit to the lab was something the Wielder was not often inclined to doing. If anything, it was always Maria who’d drop by to say hello while holding a box of cake slices. 

“Tsubasa-san, what a surprise,” Elfnein greeted. “Anything I can help you with today?” 

“Nothing important, really,” Tsubasa said with a shrug. “I just thought I’d walk around the HQ to pass the time and I saw that your door was open.” 

“Oh dear, I must have forgotten to close that,” Elfnein said. “It was a good thing I wasn’t working on something that’s bound to explode, otherwise it’ll turn out to be a big mess.” 

Tsubasa took note of a few worn and tattered tomes on Elfnein’s desk. “Are those the books we recovered from the last field mission?” 

Elfnein looked over at her desk. “Ah, yes. I’ve finished deciphering about five percent of these books altogether, so there’s not much significant progress to it. I asked Chris-san for help since she’s familiar with the code, but she couldn’t be available for most of the time since she is attending her classes.” 

“Five percent is significant enough, you know. It’s better than having none at all.” 

“I guess so, but I wish I could work faster.” 

Tsubasa pulled a vacant chair and took a seat across Elfnein. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get the job done, but I think it’d be more okay if you go through this at your own pace. There's no need to rush.” 

Elfnein nodded. “I guess you’re right.” 

“Say, when your shift ends, how about we go to the park and play for a bit?” 

“Don’t you have other stuff you need to do later?” 

“I’m pretty much open for the rest of the day.” 

“I’ll take you up on your offer, then.” 

Tsubasa was about to leave the lab when they heard a knock from the door. Elfnein then stood up to open it. She then heard Elfnein’s excited voice, as well as the name of the person she didn’t want to cross paths with at the time.  

Maria certainly didn’t expect Tsubasa to be in the lab, let alone at HQ. She almost dropped her cake when she caught sight of the familiar blanket of blue hair and troubled eyes that she had seen more often than not. 

“What’s with the visit? Needed some upgrades?” Maria asked jokingly. 

Tsubasa let out a nervous laugh. “Not really, I just dropped by to talk a bit with Elfnein.” 

“Oh, Tsubasa-san invited me to go to the park after today’s shift,” Elfnein told Maria. “Want to come with us?” 

Maria and Tsubasa looked at each other at that, and there was a tense pause shared between the two of them. Maria didn’t want to go, yet at the same time she couldn’t bring herself to refuse Elfnein. Tsubasa had thought about backing out as some sort of reflex, then she realized that it would be rude to Elfnein to suddenly cancel out. 

Both of them resigned to deal with the awkwardness between them so that Elfnein wouldn’t worry. 

“I’ll meet you at the garage later, how’s that sound?” Maria suggested to Elfnein. 

“You got yourself a deal, Maria-san,” Elfnein enthused. 

“I’ll leave you two for the time being,” Tsubasa said as she walked to the door. “See you later.” 

--- 

Genjuuro was playing mini golf in the office when he sensed someone walk in, and without turning around he acknowledged the presence of his visitor. 

“Either you’re going to sulk in my office or come up with a stupid plan to confess to Maria,” Genjuuro said as he tapped on the golf ball. 

Tsubasa sighed. “I’m not gonna tell her.” 

Genjuuro shrugged and faced Tsubasa, who had settled on the couch. “Then what are you doing here?” 

“I’m going to wait here until Elfnein’s shift ends so we can go to the park.” 

As Tsubasa spoke, she kept herself from making eye-contact with her uncle. Genjuuro certainly did not miss this and deemed that Tsubasa was brooding over something else—or  someone , rather. 

“I assume Maria dropped by Elfnein’s lab the same time you invited the kid,” he said. 

“W-well, um—” 

“Ah, Maria did drop by.” Genjuuro crossed his arms with a smirk. “And how did things go back there?” 

Tsubasa hesitated a bit before she answered. “Elfnein asked Maria if she can come with us.” 

“Oh, is that so?” Genjuuro hummed. “Don’t tell me you cancelled your trip to the park with Elfnein after that.” 

“I didn’t!” Tsubasa simmered down. “I didn’t. It’d be rude of me to do that.” 

“At least you still have a sense of courtesy,” Genjuuro remarked. “What did Maria say after Elfnein invited her?” 

“She told the kid that she’ll meet up with us at the garage later.” 

Genjuuro had to laugh. “Okay, so what are you going to do? Maria’s gonna be around, you have a shitstorm of emotions swirling within you, and Elfnein is definitely bound to trip over her own feet a few times while you’re there. How are you going to handle it?” 

“I’ll be fine,” Tsubasa said dismissively. 

“I doubt that,” Genjuuro smirked. 

Tsubasa merely rolled her eyes and rested her chin on her hand. Genjuuro resumed his game and shot a few more holes before leaving the office to get some coffee. 

These girls...how troublesome , he thought to himself with a smile as he punched in his favorite coffee flavor on the machine. 

--- 

Maria headed over to the garage, where Tsubasa helping Elfnein on the motorcycle’s seat.  

“Are you sure about using your bike for the three of us?” Maria asked as she approached them. 

“The three of us can fit fine,” Tsubasa said as she adjusted the helmet on Elfnein. “Although we have to take alternate routes to avoid getting arrested.” 

Maria was incredulous. “You’re joking.” 

Tsubasa picked up another helmet and tossed it at Maria. “I’m not,” she said. 

Tsubasa made sure the motorcycle was balanced and they took off. They avoided the main roads, as well as streets that are close to downtown. They passed through alleys and outlying roads, ones that were close to the city limits where traffic is deemed as minimal to none. They arrived at the park sometime after and the three of them took to strolling around. Even in the late afternoon, some spots in the park were still open for sight-seeing. A small night market had popped up in one of the open areas so the three headed there to check the wares on display. 

“You wanna buy something, Elfnein?” Maria asked when they stopped in front of a handicraft booth. 

Elfnein had eyed the music boxes in one of the shelves at the booth. “I’ve read about music boxes, but I never got to own one before.” 

“Go ahead and choose, I’ll cover it,” Maria said. 

Elfnein’s eyes twinkled as she smiled. “Really?” 

“Yeah. Take your pick.” 

Elfnein went over to the music boxes while Tsubasa and Maria waited close by. While they both wanted to fill the awkward air with conversation, none of them spoke the first word at once. Maria kept her eyes on Elfnein, who was chatting up with the vendor about the music boxes, while Tsubasa set her eyes in the direction of the food stalls. Maria then took note of it and found her opening. 

“You want to grab something to eat?” Maria asked Tsubasa. 

Tsubasa, easily startled as usual, almost jumped back at Maria’s voice. “Oh, um...yeah. But, um...let’s wait ‘til Elfnein gets her music box. I’ll...I’ll pay for the food, since you’re covering for the music box.” 

Tsubasa took to rubbing her arm nervously and kept from meeting Maria’s eyes as she spoke. Maria thought that Tsubasa was queasy at her being around, and she couldn’t help but feel twinges of pain in her chest. 

If she hated me being here, she could have at least talked to me about it by now , Maria thought to herself, smiling bitterly as she did. 

Elfnein joined them with a paper bag in her arms and Maria paid the peddler. The three of them headed to the food stalls and took a seat at one of the tables. Tsubasa took their requests and left them at the table to buy the food they wanted. Maria watched as Tsubasa walked over to the stalls, then she felt a slight tug on her sleeve. 

“Elfnein, what is it?” Maria asked. 

“You don’t look happy,” Elfnein told her. 

Maria let out a laugh. “And what makes you think that?” 

“Your eyes, Maria-san,” Elfnein said. “They look sad while you were looking at Tsubasa-san.” 

“Is that so?” 

“Did you have a fight with Tsubasa-san?” 

Maria paused for a bit to gather her thoughts. “No, we didn’t fight. Tsubasa-san and I...we just have to make time for ourselves for a while.” 

“That thing you two do...you don’t do it anymore?” 

“We decided to end it,” Maria told her. “But it’s not like we’re not getting along or anything.” 

“But why are you sad?” 

Maria patted Elfnein’s head. “I’ll tell you some other time, Elfnein.” 

Tsubasa joined them at the table with food in hand and the three of them began eating. Although they were talking happily, Elfnein couldn’t help but feel an uncomfortable tension in the air. 

The three of them stayed a bit longer in the park, and when the clock struck eight, Tsubasa deemed that it was time for them to head home. After dropping off Elfnein to HQ, Tsubasa then escorted Maria to her apartment. None of them tried to speak out over the sound of the motorcycle’s engine up until they arrived at the front yard of the apartment complex. 

“Thanks for the ride,” Maria said as she alighted from the bike. 

“No problem,” Tsubasa replied in kind. 

Maria stayed on where she stood, while Tsubasa still had the motorcycle on neutral. They looked over at each other, debating within themselves if they should talk more or not. 

“Tsubasa.” 

“Maria.” 

Both of them called out to each other in unison, and after a brief awkward pause, the two of them let out a light laugh. 

“Take care...on the way home,” Maria said. 

Tsubasa felt warmth blooming within her chest, but it was promptly replaced by another jab of pain that she couldn’t seem to be ready for. 

“I’ll try not to let the bike explode, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Tsubasa managed to quip. 

“Make sure of it, you’re the only one of your kind,” Maria said. 

Maria turned heel and went inside the apartment complex. Tsubasa winced at what had just transpired between them and revved up her engine once more. Maria, on the other hand, fought the urge to call Tsubasa once again and listened to see if she had already left. Once deemed that Tsubasa had gone home, Maria let out a heavy sigh and went up to the apartment. 

Shirabe had just finished the dishes when Maria arrived. 

“You're late,” Shirabe said. “Is work piling up?” 

“Not really, no,” Maria told her as she sat down at the table. “I actually left HQ like usual. I just went somewhere after that.” 

“A stroll?” 

“Yeah, something like that.” 

Shirabe noticed that Maria was trying to avert her eyes as she answered, and she realized that Maria may have been hiding something. With that, Shirabe sighed with a smile. 

“Have you eaten?” Shirabe asked. 

“Yeah, I did.” 

“Y’know, Maria, it’s not that hard to tell the truth,” Shirabe told her. “Where did you go and who was with you?” 

Maria fumbled. “Well, I...” Her shoulders drooped in resignation—she couldn’t seem to bring herself to lie to Shirabe. “I went to the park with Elfnein...and Tsubasa.” 

Interesting , Shirabe thought. “Lemme guess, you were the one who invited them for the stroll.” 

“Actually, it was Tsubasa. Well, she only invited Elfnein, I just happened to catch wind of it when I dropped by Elfnein’s lab and saw her there. Elfnein then extended the invitation to me and I couldn’t refuse.” 

“How did it go? With Tsubasa-san around, it must be hard for you.” 

Maria rested her chin on her hand. “It was...stiffening. It’s like she doesn’t want me hanging around. When we talked, she was...sort of evasive.” 

“She’s always been the evasive type.” 

“But not tonight. It was a different kind of evasive.” 

Shirabe walked over to Maria and embraced her. “There now... I’m sure everything will be sorted out in time.” 

“I just hope it happens sooner,” Maria said. “It’s not really good for my health. I almost spilled everything out earlier before she left.” 

Shirabe’s eyebrows raised at that particular development and let Maria go at that. “Then why didn’t you?” 

“I was scared.” 

Shirabe rolled her eyes. “Maria, you’re such a klutz. You could have taken a gamble there and it would have been worth it.” 

“Worth another stab at my already wounded heart, huh?” 

“You haven’t even tried it yet.” 

“Shirabe, I don’t want to cry anymore.” 

“Then confront the source of your tears and put a stop to it. The way I see it, you’re groping in the dark. You don’t really know why the set-up ended, and despite Tsubasa-san saying that she needed space, you know very well that it’s not just the case.” 

“Shirabe...” 

“Don’t deny it, Maria. You know there’s more to it than ‘needing a breather’. You had fun for three months and suddenly she wanted out?” 

“Shirabe, I think you’re getting way too angry over this.” 

“I am not. I am merely concerned for you. I could have asked Tsubasa-san directly the last time we crossed paths, but it wasn’t my place to do that.” 

It was Maria’s turn to raise her eyebrows. “You’ve...met with Tsubasa?” 

Shirabe winced a bit—she had forgotten that she didn’t tell Maria about that morning in the patisserie. 

“We happened to see each other, and we got to talk for a bit. I tried to ask, but I stopped myself and threw only a casual question at her. She didn’t say much about why she ended the set-up, perhaps because it’s me and not some other person who isn’t entirely related to you. Believe me when I tell you, Maria, I know a liar when I see one, and Tsubasa-san definitely did not tell me the entire truth.” 

“Shirabe, that doesn’t mean that she’ll tell everything when I ask her.” 

“But it’d be better if you were the one to confront her, right?” 

“Shirabe, I don’t think I can.” 

“No, Maria, you can. You just don’t want to because you’re afraid to risk it all. Is it not better to fight and lose than to not having fought at all?” 

Shirabe was frowning now, and Maria knew that she was dead serious about the conversation. She chuckled at that, thinking that if Serena were with them, she would have frowned about the matter, too. Maria was silent for a moment as she pondered on the situation. Shirabe was right, she was making excuses for herself instead of facing her problems head-on. While a part of her still wanted to shut itself off and keep her feelings hidden, another part of her wanted to just let it all out and leave the rest to fate.  

Maria weighed in her odds, and truthfully, she knew it would not end up in her favor. With a sigh, Maria reached a decision. 

“I suppose...” Maria began. 

“Suppose what?” Shirabe asked. 

“Shirabe, I...I think I might have to give this one a final shot.” 

--- 

Genjuuro sent out Chris, Tsubasa, and Ogawa to a scouting mission in the far west, and it ended up in a brief scuffle between them and the hostile forces surrounding the location of their mission. Tsubasa had been almost out of it, and if it weren’t for Chris on the lookout, she could have been compromised. Chris scolded her on the flight back to HQ, but Tsubasa remained monotonic in her responses, if not being silent at all. 

There was a cloud in the air as they all sat in the lounge. Chris sulked over her canned soda, Ogawa took to reading a magazine to fend off the jitters, and Tsubasa was merely staring at the space before her as the minutes passed. 

“Alright, let's address the fucking elephant in the room,” Chris said.  

“What are you swearing at for?” Tsubasa asked, clearly irritated at Chris' potty mouth. 

Senpai , you've been lost in the sauce for the whole fucking time. What's up?” 

Tsubasa didn't answer and Chris rolled her eyes in exasperation.  

Must I do everything myself?  “Is it Maria?” she asked. 

Tsubasa raised her head for a moment, then she looked away. “No.” 

“Liar.” 

“No, it’s not Maria. Drop it.” 

“I’m not dropping it.” Chris stood up from her seat and stomped over towards Tsubasa, glaring all the while. “We are going to talk about this right fucking now.” 

Tsubasa returned the glare with her own, but Chris remained standing in front of her. Ogawa had already put down the magazine he was reading as he was preparing himself to deal with an imminent conflict. He sat still as he watched Chris and Tsubasa, and he hoped that he wouldn’t use any of his techniques to subdue the two of them. However, seeing that the situation was escalating even with glares alone, Ogawa had no choice but to butt in at once. 

“Tsubasa-san, Yukine-san,” Ogawa called. “If I may?” 

Chris knew that Ogawa meant to dissipate the situation, and as much as she wanted to shrug him off, she knew better than to counter him at that point. With that, Chris backed off with an exasperated sigh and motioned at Ogawa to continue. Ogawa then cleared his throat. 

“Tsubasa-san, what are you afraid of?” Ogawa asked right off the bat. 

“I’m not afraid of anything,” Tsubasa told him. 

“It’s not what we all see right now,” Ogawa countered. “Tsubasa-san, don’t you think that it’s high time that you let these thoughts and feelings out and leave it all to the wind?” 

“So, you think that I should be careless about it?” Tsubasa asked, her voice terse. 

Ogawa shook his head as he adjusted himself in his seat. “No, no. What I mean to say here is that you should free yourself from the cage that you made. You may think that you’re making a fortress to keep yourself from being hurt, but in reality, you’re merely confining yourself with your fears and justifying it as playing safe.” 

“Ogawa, I don’t want to—” 

“Stop right there, Tsubasa-san.” 

Tsubasa halted as she was told. Chris shook her head disappointingly. 

“You want to, Tsubasa-san. You want it so bad, that it nags at your very core—” 

“Ogawa, you’re blowing this way out of proportion.” 

“Oh, do I now?” Ogawa chuckled. “Am I not merely saying the truth?” 

Tsubasa shook her head in dismay. “Look, these are  my  feelings, not anybody else’s. What I wish to do with these is my business alone.” 

“At the cost of your sanity?” 

“It’s not like I’m losing my mind over her.” 

Ogawa raised an eyebrow. “Really now? Last I checked, you couldn’t wait for that stroll in the park to end because having Maria around for too long is too much for you to bear. “ 

Tsubasa jerked in her seat. “W-Wait, who told you about that?” 

“Elfnein is still a kid, despite having lived for thousands of years,” Ogawa said. “And like other kids, she asks questions based on what she sees, feels, and hears. You get my drift.” 

“You can’t get mad at Elfnein here,” Chris said mockingly. 

“See how your actions are affecting the rest of us?” Ogawa said. “This isn’t something that involves only you anymore.”

“Ogawa, I’m telling you, there’s no point in coming clean even if I really wanted to.” 

Ogawa fell silent for a moment, then he clasped his hands and rested on his lap as he shifted forward. Tsubasa didn’t like the look on his face as he did so, and she knew that Ogawa wasn’t having any of her excuses anymore. 

“Tsubasa-san, for the love of God...don’t be such a coward.” 

Chris clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes—she's had enough. “Face it,  Senpai …you really have to tell the hot Ukrainian that you’re in love with her.” 

Tsubasa tried to protest. “I can't exactly say it's love—” 

Senpai , it's love. You fell head over heels in love with Maria. Anything else you say are nothing but fucking excuses. You are in love with this woman not only because she's got God-given sexual talents. You're in love with her even if she's shitfaced with booze. You're in love with her even if she's mad at you. You're in love with her even if she embarrasses you in front of everybody with her occasional debauchery—” 

“Look, it’s not like she's gonna return them,” Tsubasa retorted. 

Chris felt as if she had heard the most ridiculous statement in her whole life. She sighed and shook her head in dismay.  

These fucking idiots...  

Chris clasped her hands together, as if preparing to expound on a topic from one of her classes. 

Senpai , you feel deep shit for this woman,” Chris said. “So deep I can choke from it because I'm sick of watching you tiptoe around Maria. Isn't it time that you grow some balls and deal with it once and for all?” 

“Yukine, I don’t think that phrasing applies to me—” 

“Oh, hush it!” Chris said as she rubbed her neck. “Now back to Maria. You love her, right?” 

“Well, I—” 

“Just say ‘yes’, goddamnit!” Chris fumed. 

“Alright, alright! Yes! Okay, yes! I do! For chrissakes…” 

Chris smirked.  Oh boy, this is gonna be fucking fun.  

Senpai , have you ever gambled before?” Chris asked. 

Tsubasa pondered on that. “Well, I may have played some  jan-ken-pon  with money involved. Is that counted?” 

Chris blinked. “I can't believe I just heard that—” She waved her hand. “Anyways, have you ever taken a really huge risk, aside from the many times we fought Noise and sickeningly powerful beings?” 

“I can't think of anything.” 

Chris clasped her hands together and breathed in. She exhaled shortly and glared right into Tsubasa's eyes, making the latter squirm. 

“You really should tell Maria how you feel,” Chris said. “Pronto.” 

“Yukine, you know I can’t,” Tsubasa countered, wincing at the thought of Maria rejecting her. 

Chris walked over to Tsubasa and grasped at her arms. “Okay, this was what I meant when I asked you if you ever took a really huge risk. Have you ever wanted to tell someone you like them so much, it feels like you're gonna burst if you kept it in for much longer?” 

“Well, I…” Tsubasa words trailed off. 

“Tsubasa-san, just jump,” Ogawa said. “This is the kind of thing where you don't have to use your head too much.” 

Tsubasa mulled on what she had been told, then she let out a sigh. They meant well, but she was just too afraid of coming up with a decision in regards to Maria that she couldn’t put their words to heart. 

It’s not like they can tell what’s  gonna  happen next , Tsubasa thought. 

“I didn’t realize there was an intervention going on,” said a voice. 

All three of them were startled at the big booming voice from the corner. Genjuuro then showed himself with an odd smile on his face. 

“Damnit, Boss, you scared the shit out of me,” Chris said after recovering from the slight shock.  

“Wait, how much did you hear?” Tsubasa asked. 

“I think from around when Chris mentioned the ‘fucking elephant in the room',” Genjuuro said. “Tsubasa, whatever happens, it’s not like you’re going to lose the rest of us. We got your back even if Chris here wouldn’t say it outright.” 

“Small-fry here is a  tsundere ,” Ogawa said with a chuckle as he pointed at Chris. Chris gave him a shove in return. 

“Think about it, Tsubasa,” Genjuuro continued. “How can you find out what Maria has to say if you haven’t tried talking to her at all?” 

Tsubasa was quiet and began to ponder on what she wanted to do. If she were being honest, the chances of Maria returning her affections is at a solid zero. Their friendship was at stake, and what she wanted to do could either let that friendship crumble like dust or have it turn into something more. 

But she had to make a choice, and eventually, she reached a decision. 

“But how should I go about it without throwing her off?” Tsubasa asked. 

“So, you’re finally coming clean?” Genjuuro asked back. 

Tsubasa fumbled and she looked away. “Well, I...I think I’m gonna give it a try...” 

There was brief moment of pause in the lounge until Chris began to hoot at realizing that Tsubasa was deciding on making a move.  

“There’s always the option of seducing her to your bed,” Chris said afterwards. 

Genjuuro cleared his throat, and Chris promptly apologized for the off-hand comment. 

“So, Tsubasa,” Genjuuro said as he turned to his niece. “What’s your plan?” 

Chapter Text

Maria woke up the next morning with a sense of clarity in her mind. She looked around as her eyes slowly adjusted to the blurred sunlight peeking from the curtains, then in one breath she swung her legs off the bed and joined Shirabe and Kirika at the dining area. It was Kirika’s turn at the stove and Maria hoped that she hadn’t burned anything this time. Her hopes were kept intact when she finally caught the scent of bacon wafting from the kitchen. 

“Bacon for today, huh?” Maria asked. “It’s going to make you gain extra pounds.” 

“We have training so it’s okay,” Kirika said as she dished out the bacon from the pan. “The commander makes sure we keep at it even if we don’t have to fight that much anymore.” 

“You have a point,” Maria said in return. 

“So, Maria, what are you going to do today?” Shirabe asked. “Today’s a day-off.” 

Shirabe had smiled knowingly at Maria when she asked, and Maria returned it with a smile of her own. 

“Is somebody going to tell me what’s going on, or do I just smile and pretend that I know what’s up?” Kirika asked, a frown forming on her face. 

“Let me just say that...Maria has regained her courage,” Shirabe said cryptically. 

Maria chuckled. “Now, now, Shirabe, Kirika wouldn’t be able to figure that out—” 

“Ah, so you’re finally coming clean about your feelings to Tsubasa-san?” Kirika asked. 

--- 

“Alright,  Senpai, what’s the gameplan?” Chris asked. 

Chris called Tsubasa that same morning while waiting for the class to start. Tsubasa had initially complained about the call, but she eventually simmered down when Chris asked her about her next move. 

“I was thinking of meeting up with her somewhere and wing it from there,” Tsubasa said meekly. 

“Hah, ‘wing’ it,” Chris mocked from the other line. “Nice wordplay, Senpai, but leave the humor to Maria later, hm?” 

“Shut it,” Tsubasa snarled. “All it’s gonna take is some small talk to ease things down and once I’ve found the right timing, I’ll drop everything and spill the beans.” 

“Easier said than done, Senpai, easier said than done,” Chris said. “Alright, prof’s here, lemme know how it works out so I can buy drinks beforehand.” 

“I really appreciate the support, Yukine,” Tsubasa sneered. 

“Ah yeah, classic me,” Chris snapped back. 

The call was cut-off before Tsubasa could say anything else, and before she got to put the phone down, another call came in. She almost threw it away when she saw the caller ID. 

“Maria, what’s up?” she answered.  So much for all that bravado, huh.  

“I was thinking of going back to the park with the flea market later, wanna come with?” Maria asked from the other line. 

Ack, she beat me to it.  “Uh, yeah, sure, I’m free for that,” Tsubasa replied. “You have something you want to buy?” 

“More or less. See you at eight, then?” 

“Sure, I’ll be there.” 

The call ended and Tsubasa merely stared at the space before her. 

“Eight p.m...” she whispered to no one. 

--- 

Maria breathed out a heavy sigh of relief. The ability to fake it until she made it was still intact, and she was extremely grateful for it.  

“What did she say?” Shirabe asked. 

“She’s free later,” Maria said. “We’ll meet up at the park.” 

“Will you be okay?” Kirika asked, worry laced in her tone. 

Maria reached out and gently ruffled Kirika’s hair. “Of course. Nothing I can’t handle.” 

Kirika crossed her arms. “I highly doubt that.” 

Shirabe nudged Kirika on the arm. “Hey now, be a little more supportive, will you?” 

“You angels,” Maria said with a laugh. “I’ll be fine, regardless of how this one will end up.” 

“Okay, since your big event won’t be happening until eight in the evening, what do you say we watch a few movies on TV?” Shirabe suggested. 

--- 

“Ah, so she beat you on the ‘meeting up’ part,” Chris said on the phone. 

“Looks like it, but I still have the upper hand,” Tsubasa told her. 

Chris cackled on the other line. “Look at you, sounding all confident and shit. I wonder how much longer you’re going to keep up that act you got going on?” 

“Can you at least give some motivation in a way that doesn’t insult me?” 

“Hah, tough luck, Senpai, I don’t do soft-spoken inspirational speeches. I’m not a softy.” 

“Says the girl who melts into a puddle when being pampered by Kohinata and Tachibana.” 

“Shut up. That’s not what we’re talking about here.” Chris cleared her throat. “I bet five thousand yen you’re going to chicken out at the last minute.” 

“Make it ten thousand, will you.” 

“Fine, if you want it that way,  Senpai . Ten thousand for me if you chicken out...I can already smell the wad of cash you’re going to give me.” 

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Yukine, it’s only two in the afternoon.” 

--- 

Maria was in awe at how the time had quickly passed by. By 7:45, she was already on her way to the park. Shirabe and Kirika saw her off at the bus stop, and Maria was now completely on her own. When she alighted from the bus, the park was already bustling with people, most of them were ones who had been to the flea market. Maria felt a bit of unease, thinking that she might have arrived too early. She also thought that she might have dressed up too much—she smoothed out the sundress she wore underneath a light shawl and hoped that she wouldn’t end up sitting on the grass later. She was about to pick up her phone to call Tsubasa and give her a heads-up when someone called her from the small crowd. 

Approaching her was Tsubasa donning one of her riding jackets over a plain white shirt paired with dark jeans and boots. Maria fought the urge to swoon at the sight and steeled herself as Tsubasa walked towards her. 

“You’re early,” Tsubasa said as she rubbed the back of her neck—it might have cramped a bit on the ride to the park. 

“I had to avoid the traffic jams,” Maria said. “So, shall we?” 

The two walked side by side to the flea market and began to look around the various booths and kiosks. Since both of them weren’t dressed enough to keep themselves from being recognized, they cross paths with avid fans and spent a good amount of time taking pictures and signing autographs. They moved to a less-populated area of the flea market after that. 

Maria then spotted a booth showcasing hand-carved wooden statues, so she went over to take a look. Some of the pieces were originals, and a few were replicas of famous sculptures around the world. An old man, which she assumed was the sculptor, was sitting behind one of the three-foot statues and was whistling as he whittled on a small piece of wood.  He took notice of the new customers so he halted what he was doing and greeted them with a smile. 

“Anything I can help you with?” the old man asked. 

Maria was flustered for a bit. “Oh, um, I was actually looking for a gift,” she said. 

Ah, I wonder who’s it for , Tsubasa thought. 

“What’s the person like, if I may ask?” the old man said. 

Maria pondered for a bit. “Well, they tend to keep to themselves and won’t often speak their mind. But once they’ve managed to open up, they have a lot of stuff to tell.” Maria let out a soft laugh. “Actually, this person...they tend to think too much about a lot of things, and they worry a lot.” 

Tsubasa tried thinking about who it was, knowing that Maria didn’t really have that much friends outside of S.O.N.G. 

Maybe she made a few in some of our tours, it’s not like we’re always together during those times , she mused. 

The old man laughed at it as well. “I think I got the right statue for you, dear.” He picked up a replica of Auguste Rodin’s  The Thinker  and handed it over to Maria. “How about this one?” 

“Rodin’s sculpture,” Maria mused. “It’s amazing how you got to duplicate the original itself even if the medium you used is different.” 

“It took a lot of practice” the old man said proudly. “And a lot of guts, too. It’s not really easy working with wood. Almost quit the whole thing in the past, but I took a gamble on myself and here I am, selling this brooding figure to you.” 

Maria then paid for the statue and the two left the booth to check out the rest of what the flea market had in store. It was around ten when they left the flea market and headed to an area in the park that had few people around so that they can take a rest. They sat down on one of the vacant benches and took their time admiring the night sky. Both Maria and Tsubasa were racking their heads as to when they’d start talking about the really important matters they have towards each other. 

Tsubasa fidgeted a bit, then she spoke up. “Maria, I...” 

A wave of panic then began to flow within Tsubasa, and she couldn’t bring herself to speak another word. It was then she realized that she wasn’t entirely ready to come clean. 

Shit, all that haughty talk for nothing?  Tsubasa thought to herself. 

“What is it, Tsubasa?” Maria asked. 

Tsubasa didn’t say anything after that and Maria began to worry.  

“Tsubasa, what is it?” 

Somehow, Tsubasa manage to speak. “I...It’s nothing.” 

Maria began to get the feeling that Tsubasa had thought of saying something else, but only backed out of it for some reason. She became bothered by this, and in that moment, she knew she had to pry. 

So that it wouldn’t end up the same as on the night Tsubasa ended the set-up. 

“Tsubasa.” 

“W-what is it?” 

“What were you going to tell me just now?” 

“What do you mean?” Tsubasa asked. 

“Don’t play dumb with me, I knew you were gonna say something.” 

“Look, I wasn’t going to say anything.” 

“Tsubasa—” 

“I was just thinking out loud.” 

Maria adjusted herself so that she can face Tsubasa directly. Tsubasa saw how defiant Maria’s eyes had become and she started to have the urge to stand up and just run for it. Somehow, she mustered enough guts to keep herself in place, although she found it difficult to stay where she was with Maria looking at her like that. 

“Maria, look, it’s not really that important,” Tsubasa said. 

“Can’t you be honest for once?” 

“I told you, I was just thinking out loud.” 

Maria became indignant. “You’ve been very evasive since that night we ended the set-up. If you had a problem with me, you should have talked to me about it.” 

Tsubasa was starting to become suffocated with holding in her feelings for much longer and she knew she had to spill everything to finally get things over with. The fear and doubts she had were still tugging at her to keep quiet and hope that Maria would eventually let it pass, but knowing how Maria was indignant at finding out the truth—which she rightly deserved to know—Tsubasa firmly shoved aside ther reservations and decided to leave everything to fate. 

“I don’t have a problem with you, Maria,” she said, standing up to face her. “If anything, I am the problem!” 

“Tsubasa, what do you—” 

“I love you, Maria!”  

Tsubasa finally said what she needed to say, and it was as if a strong gust of wind suddenly cleared up the fog that had wrapped around them for so long. Tsubasa then realized she was panting, and that the pounding in her chest was more noticeable than before. The surprise and confusion on Maria’s face was as clear as day, and once more Tsubasa felt a growing surge of anxiety creep within her. Even so, she gave herself one more push. 

“I love you,” Tsubasa repeated, her voice strained but somewhat firm. “And I ended the set-up because of that.” 

Maria was speechless, which greatly alarmed Tsubasa. Nevertheless, she gritted her teeth and continued her confession. 

“I tried to distance myself from you because I know that you’re not going to return my feelings. I avoided you as much as I can for both our sakes.” 

Maria finally managed to speak up. “Tsubasa, I—” 

“Look, I know, this isn’t going anywhere. I just wanted to let you know the truth.” 

Maria shook her head in protest. “No, Tsubasa—” 

“We had an agreement, right? As soon as the feelings come in, we get out of the set-up. And that’s what I did.” 

“Tsubasa, I—” 

“I don't see the need of talking about this any further. What else is there to be said, anyway?” \

“Tsubasa, for heaven’s sake can you let me talk first?” Maria snapped. 

Tsubasa held her tongue at that. Maria calmed down a bit and in one swift motion, she stood up, pulled Tsubasa close and kissed her hard on the lips. Maria then pulled back and was met with a confused look on Tsubasa's face. 

“Maria,” Tsubasa said. “Wha—” 

“There is something else that needs to be said, Tsubasa,” Maria told her. 

“W-what?” 

Maria leaned in and rested her forehead on Tsubasa's. “That I love you, too.” 

Tsubasa couldn't believe what she just heard. “Maria, you—” 

Maria chuckled. “I always have, right before this whole damn set-up that you so carelessly ended.” 

“I don’t understand, wha—” 

“About that...I want to apologize...for taking advantage of you during those three months. I could have told you about my feelings outright...but I went ahead and pushed you into something that you weren’t probably even ready for all because you slept with me when we were both greatly intoxicated.” 

“Ah...” Tsubasa blinked, and an awkward pause settled between them.  

It took a few seconds until Tsubasa got to talk again. “That might have been a questionable path to take but...” 

“Tsubasa, I really am sorry.”

Tsubasa sheepishly rubbed her neck. “Look, um...enough about that...” 

“Tsubasa, I practically took advantage of your body. It’s harassment, if you look at it.” 

“I know, but it got the two of us somewhere, I guess...” 

Yet another awkward pause. The two looked away from each other, overwhelmed by the sudden surge of emotions that came with revealing the truths they had kept hidden for a long time.  

It wasn’t until a few minutes later when Tsubasa broke the silence. “Maria, I don’t understand...why you’d have a thing for me in the first place.” 

“I don’t even know how to answer that,” Maria said with a sigh. “I didn't ask for this, but you were just so kind…and brave…and so damn charming…that the next thing I knew I was already head over heels for you. I couldn't tell you back then about my feelings, because I knew it would end up making things awkward for the both of us. The set up was the only thing I could think of in my desperation to have you by my side.” 

Tsubasa bit her lip. “Maria, I'm sorry, I didn’t know.” 

“No, no,” Maria assured. “I don't have any hard feelings on you for not being aware of it. I made sure you didn't. While doing that, I gradually built myself up to face the inevitable—that one day you'll call it quits. After all, to you, we were only having sex for the fun of it. That sort of thing is bound to go nowhere. I did it to satisfy myself...it’s selfish and despicable, and even today I regret proposing it to you on that night in the  onsen . When you slept with me that night, I thought I could sway you further towards me by making that set-up.” 

Tsubasa winced. “Well, you could have thought of other ways, yeah.” 

Maria hid her face in her hands. “I know...hell, this is so humiliating. What would Mom and Serena think of me now...” 

“That you were just acting stupidly because of love?” Tsubasa quipped. 

Maria paused for a bit, then she broke into laughter. Tsubasa, gradually unnerved by the smile on Maria’s face, joined in and laughed as well. Tears then began to flow from Maria’s eyes, which greatly concerned Tsubasa. With that, she reached out and gently wiped them away with her thumbs. 

“You are utterly ridiculous,” Maria said, giggling. 

“Still, I have to apologize,” Tsubasa said. 

“What for? It’s not like I was the victim here.” 

“I wanted to say sorry for not being aware of your feelings,” Tsubasa said. “If I had known sooner—” 

“That doesn’t matter anymore, it’s in the past,” Maria told her. “What’s important is that we no longer have to hide what we feel for each other.” 

“Maria, allow me to make up for lost time.” 

Maria took a moment to gaze at Tsubasa. The sincerity in Tsubasa's words relieved her greatly, and she almost wept at the thought that she could be finally be open about her feelings. Maria took a gamble, and by Jove it was a rewarding one. 

Maria leaned in close. “Tsubasa.” 

“Hm?” 

“Can you say it again?” 

“What?” 

Maria laughed. “What you said earlier, idiot.” 

Tsubasa's cheeks reddened as she looked away. “Well, I…” 

Maria pouted. “Come on, just say it. Let me hear it again.” 

Tsubasa fussed for a bit, then she breathed out and gazed at Maria straight in the eye. Maria froze at the sudden change in the look on Tsubasa's face. It was the same stern look she had when she was greatly serious, be it in battle or during those nights when they still had the set-up. 

“Maria,” Tsubasa called. 

Maria swallowed thickly. “Yes?” 

“Maria, I love you.” 

Tsubasa then leaned in and graced Maria with a kiss. Maria smiled into the kiss, then she pulled back. 

“Really? You love me?” Maria asked, grinning slyly. 

“Yes,” Tsubasa answered, kissing Maria again. 

Maria broke away again. “You really do?” 

“Yes.” Tsubasa kissed her again. 

Maria broke away once more. “You said you want to make up for lost time.” 

“Yeah, I did,” Tsubasa said. 

“Then make sure you don’t miss every single second of it,” Maria said. 

--- 

They somehow managed to hold themselves back during the ride back to Tsubasa’s apartment until they reached the bedroom, and once Tsubasa closed the door, nothing else was standing in their way to each other. Despite the surges of emotions swirling within them, they decided to keep things slowly.

Making up for lost time wasn’t something they should rush. After all, tonight, they had all the time in the world. 

They started with gentle kisses, accompanied with soft laughter and whispers of words they so longed to tell each other. Their hands wandered in places long considered familiar, yet every touch felt so new, so raw. It was overwhelming—intoxicating, even. Perhaps it was due to the fact that they can now express the truths about themselves without any fear or doubt, that they can love without the risk of not being loved in return. It brought them to tears, followed by the sweetest of smiles that they would ever give to each other. 

They gave and took at every turn, each stroke and caress heavily-laden with a certain kind of passion so different from before. The warmth that had started to settle within them then grew into an incandescent flame that burned and soothed them at the same time. 

The desire to reach the breaking point nagged at them, and they eventually had to give in to it. Their pace quickened, the pounding in their chests were all but inconspicuous, they clung tightly to each other to ground themselves as they slowly neared the pinnacle. 

The rush and high that came with the blissful release greatly overwhelmed them, and the only thing they could do was to ride with it until it all ebbs down. When it did, they were left catching their breaths and their hearts filled to the brim—close to spilling, even more so. 

They whispered soft words of love to one another, accompanied with yet another burst of tears upon realizing that they finally had what they wanted.

Chapter Text

Tsubasa woke up to the scent of food cooking from the kitchen. She gingerly stood up from the bed, every inch of her body still sore from last night. She made good on her word to make up for lost time, and it wouldn't be right of her to complain about aching joints and sore lips. Her gaze wandered over to the wooden sculpture sitting on her desk. She wondered why the woodwork was out of the bag, knowing that Maria had intended to give it to someone else. She stood up to check on it, pulling the sheets with her as she did, and she found a piece of paper slipped underneath its base. 

The note read:  For you, Tsubasa .  

Tsubasa let out a laugh at that.  And to think I was wracking my head as to who it was for.  

After putting on underwear and one of her shirts, Tsubasa sluggishly walked to the kitchen and found Maria busy at the stove. Maria greeted her and asked Tsubasa to wait a bit more until she was done. Tsubasa then wrapped her arms around Maria's waist and settled her head on Maria's shoulder. 

“I reckon you had a hard time getting out of bed,” Maria said. 

“We’ve both been really busy last night, of course I'd have a hard time,” Tsubasa told her. “But I'm not complaining.” 

Maria laughed. “I had to make sure you'd make good on your promise. But I think I might have overdone it.” 

“Nah, it's all good. As long as it's you.” 

Maria bit her lip and laughed. “Flattery won't get you anywhere, Kazanari.” 

“I know that, but it won’t hurt if I try.” Tsubasa kissed Maria on the cheek. “Oh, and by the way, thanks for the statue.” 

“Quite fitting for someone of your character, isn’t it?” 

“Based on what you told the old man last night, I’d say it was too on the nose.” 

“Well, you really do think too much.” 

Tsubasa helped set the table and the two of them sat down for breakfast. Tsubasa found the meal surprisingly delicious, to which Maria proudly attributed to her lessons with Shirabe. 

“What are we gonna tell Chris?” Maria asked as they ate. 

Tsubasa chuckled. “There’s no need. She'll know.” 

“And then Ogawa and the commander will be the next ones to hear about it,” Maria quipped. 

Tsubasa sighed, but this time with a tired smile. “I can already hear Yukine cackling.” 

Maria giggled and brushed aside some stray hair from Tsubasa's face. “It can't be helped. Chris will always be around to tease you.” 

Tsubasa grinned. “Like a pesky sister.” 

Maria chuckled. “Yeah, like a pesky sister.” 

Since there weren't any missions assigned to either of them, nor were there any other important businesses to attend to, they opted to stay in the apartment for the rest of the day. By late afternoon, their idle conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door. Tsubasa walked over to open it and was greeted by the sight of Chris, Shirabe, and Kirika standing expectantly. It was clear that all three of them had just left their classes for the day, with Shirabe and Kirika still in their Lydian uniforms and Chris lugging her laptop bag. On Chris' other hand was a bottle of cognac. 

“Oh,” Tsubasa blinked. “Well, uh, come in.” 

“Pardon the intrusion,” Shirabe and Kirika said in unison as they stepped in. 

Chris tugged at Tsubasa's arm and was about to ask what happened when they heard Kirika's cheery greeting from the living room. Chris let go of Tsubasa's arm, and Tsubasa merely shrugged. They joined the others at the living room. 

“Hey Chris…what's with the…” Maria wagged her finger at the cognac in Chris' hand. “…fancy alcohol?” 

Chris lifted the bottle to peer at it. “Well, uh…I bought this in case…someone needed a good drink. From the looks of things, I don't think the drink's needed anymore, at least not for the reason I bought it in the first place.” 

Shirabe and Kirika looked at Maria, then at Tsubasa, and back to Maria, who shrugged. Both girls realized what Chris implied and they immediately jumped on Maria to give her a big hug. 

“Girls, girls, easy on the hug,” Maria choked out. 

Chris nudged Tsubasa in the arm as they watched the girls happily chattering.  

“I see you've made a move, Senpai,” Chris said. 

Tsubasa smirked. “Yeah, I did. Then I made a bunch of other moves for the rest of the night.” 

Chris' cheeks burned at the implication. “You didn’t have to fucking say that, and yet you did.” 

“I had to beat you to the punch.” Tsubasa ruffled Chris' hair. “You’ve done me a lot of teasing for the longest time.” 

Chris whacked Tsubasa's hand. “If you weren't such an idiot, this whole shebang wouldn't have dragged on much longer than it should have.” 

Tsubasa scratched her cheek, having nothing else to say at Chris. “W-well…I did screw up along the way.” 

Chris huffed. “All’s well that ends well, I guess. I can finally get my well-earned rest from the two of you.” She then joined Maria at the couch. “ Oi, Maria, Senpai and I had a bet. Did she try to chicken out in confessing to you?” 

Tsubasa flinched, and Maria, oblivious to what was at stake for Tsubasa, promptly told Chris what had happened at the park. 

“She already said something, then she backed out and gave the excuse that she was merely thinking out loud. She would have chickened out completely if I hadn’t intimidated her into telling me everything, or so I thought I did,” Maria said thoughtfully. “Either way, she ended up telling me she loves me, and I pretty much did the same.” 

Chris was stumped. “Wait, so she did chicken out, but she got herself to talk...” 

“What did you bet on, Yukine-san?” Shirabe asked. 

It was Tsubasa who answered. “Ten thousand yen was at stake. If I chicken out and ended up not saying anything, she wins the money. But if I went ahead without any hints of wanting to back out, I win the bet and she pays me the ten thousand yen.” 

Kirika scratched her head. “Tsubasa-san tried to ditch...then she eventually got to tell the truth...who wins, then?” 

“It seems that we haven’t properly settled the conditions of the bet, Yukine,” Tsubasa told Chris. 

Chris frowned. “I know, I know...what we agreed on was that if you backed out and kept the truth hidden, I win the dough. You get the money if you went to it straight away.” 

“Agh, this is too much for me to think over!” Kirika whimpered. “Tsubasa-san chickened out, so Yukine-san wins, but at the same time, Tsubasa-san went ahead and spilled the beans so she wins, too. Why don’t you just split the money and be done with it?” 

Tsubasa and Chris turned to each other, both expecting that they won the bet somehow. But Kirika had a point—there was an overlap on what had happened. Tsubasa excused herself from the room to fetch her wallet, while Chris took to teasing Kirika about how she had gotten smarter than usual. When Tsubasa returned, they started counting. Amidst all of this, Maria could only sit back and sigh. Shirabe scooted over to Maria as they watched the three settle the bet. 

“How are you feeling?” Shirabe asked, leaning on Maria’s shoulder. 

Maria looked over at Tsubasa, who was giving a snarky response to Chris, and she let out a soft laugh. “I’m doing fine, Shirabe. We’re doing just fine.” 

--- 

Ogawa picked up Tsubasa from her apartment for a meeting. As Ogawa drove, he noticed that Tsubasa was differently quiet than usual. With that, he asked his charge what she was brooding about. Tsubasa reacted as if she was startled by Ogawa's voice, and Ogawa could only chuckle. 

“You have a lot on your mind, and it's only eight in the morning,” Ogawa said. “Perhaps this concerns a certain European?” 

Tsubasa flinched in her seat. “What makes you think that?” 

“Simple deduction,” Ogawa told her. “We're not fighting Noise or any other freaks of nature, nor do we have any missions at hand. That means you can't possibly be worrying about any attacks that may come our way. You're also not worrying about the meeting, since we’re only going to discuss finances with your uncle and the family’s shareholders. You're not worrying about your kouhai either, she's a tough cookie —tougher  than you, actually.  With that in mind , what else is left…rather, who else is left? The answer to that is the very friendly and endearing Ukrainian woman you’ve been really acquainted with for quite some time now.” 

Tsubasa conceded and huffed with a smile. “Nothing gets past you, Ogawa.” 

Ogawa smirked. “It’s part of the job. What is it about Maria this time?” 

Tsubasa leaned on the window. “We’re a thing.” 

Ogawa chuckled. “Weren’t you already since you started that set-up?” 

“No, I mean…we're an actual couple now. No more set-ups.” 

Ogawa blinked. “Wow, that’s…wonderful…does the commander know?” 

Tsubasa chuckled. “You don't look surprised, given that you were gravely serious when you were trying to convince me back then to confess to her.” 

“I got used to seeing you going forwards and backwards when it comes to Maria. Hearing about you being together-together feels like…watching a follow-up news report.” 

Tsubasa laughed at that. “Alright, alright. I can see that.” 

Ogawa smiled at Tsubasa. “Good for you to finally settle things down.” 

Tsubasa huffed. “Yeah, I just wished I took the first step sooner.” 

“Better late than never, right?” Ogawa chuckled. “Either way, I'm happy for the both you.” 

--- 

Tsubasa wasn’t one to hold small gatherings at her apartment, so when she did, it came as a surprise to everyone. As to why, Tsubasa had only reasoned that it was something she had been considering on doing for the longest time and only got around to do it now that she had a lot of free time. 

Maria, of course, was aware of the real reason. 

Tsubasa had decided it would be better if she talked to her uncle about their relationship in a setting that’s not too rigid or uncomfortable, so having the important conversation at HQ was out of the question. 

“Besides, if we let Uncle drink to his heart’s content, he might become a bit more lenient towards us when we tell him about us getting together,” Tsubasa added with a shrug. 

Maria found that hilarious, and she could only agree to it with a laugh. “Alcohol does a lot of wonders.” 

So, the dinner party took hold. It was boisterous, to say the least, with Kirika and Hibiki talking the most about almost everything, and the rest could only shake their heads at some of the stories the two had to share. Chris merely kept to the side with a drink in her hand, although she’d throw occasional snarky comments here and there. However, Miku’s endearing words would knock her back and cause to her turn red as a tomato. 

When the meal was over, they flocked to the living room for a board game that Kirika had brought along. When Chris looked for Maria and Tsubasa, she found the two of them at the balcony. Chris remembered that Genjuuro wasn’t yet aware of the development between the two, hence they were at the balcony and not with the rest of them. Miku and Hibiki had also noticed that Maria and Tsubasa had separated themselves from them, and they both nodded at Chris to tell her that they, too, knew what was going on. After all, they tend to do it themselves whenever they have small gatherings. 

They weren’t the only ones to notice the two. Genjuuro only had an unreadable expression on his face when he looked over and walked to the balcony. Chris was about to rush after Genjuuro when Ogawa stopped her. The reassuring smile he had was enough to tell Chris that there was nothing to worry about. 

“It’s nice to know that things are doing well with them, ne, Hibiki?” Miku asked, leaning on Hibiki’s shoulder. 

Hibiki grinned as she turned to her girlfriend. “Yeah, sure is.”

--- 

“Nice night, ain’t it?” Genjuuro asked. 

Tsubasa and Maria jumped at the sound of Genjuuro’s voice. Genjuuro, who had a vague sense of what the situation was, kept himself from grinning and maintained the blank expression on his face. 

“Uncle, I thought you’re playing games with the others,” Tsubasa said. 

“They’re far too many already for such a boardgame,” Genjuuro told her. “Mind if I join you here?” 

“It’d be a pleasure, Commander,” Maria said. 

Genjuuro leaned on the handrail. “So, is there something the two of you should tell me?” 

Both women flinched at the question. Initially, they had nothing to worry about since they were sure that Genjuuro had little qualms on them being together, but still, the sheer nervousness was there. 

“You’ve finally worked things out?” Genjuuro asked, taking a swig of the beer he held. 

“Yes, we did,” Tsubasa answered. 

There was a long pause from Genjuuro, but it was too long for the two of them that they began to suspect that he might not be happy about the situation at all. He just stood with them at the balcony, sipping at the beer can in his hand. 

“Well, it’ll eventually get to this point, so it’s not really that surprising,” he finally said. 

“Uncle, you’re not mad about it?” Tsubasa asked. 

“About what? Maria had long harbored affections towards you, and while you were late in recognizing yours, you ended up reciprocating them. It’s about time you two got your shit together.” 

Tsubasa laughed sheepishly. “We did go through a lot of troublesome stuff.” 

“All because you were oblivious to Maria’s feelings,” Genjuuro said. “Damn, everybody in HQ knows that Maria here got the hots for you, and by the heavens I couldn’t fathom how you of all people didn’t know, much less suspected, even a shred of it.” 

Maria was embarrassed at how Genjuuro described her feelings for Tsubasa at the time.  “Commander, when you put it that way...”  

“Either way, all’s well that ends well, ain’t it?” Genjuuro said, his tone mellowing. “Just be responsible about it is all I can say, but I think you’ll handle that one just fine, hm?” 

Both women smiled and nodded. The three of them continued to talk at the balcony, then Genjuuro walked back inside to catch up with the fun the others were having. He smirked at Chris after noticing the concerned frown on her face, and Ogawa proceeded to pat the her on the head—much to her irk. 

Genjuuro later asked who was up for pizza for the planned movie night, to which the other girls excitedly answered to. Tsubasa went to the kitchen to fetch more snacks and drinks while Maria went ahead and joined the rest in front of the television. 

“Hah, better settle on a good spot on the couch before the movie starts,” Chris said as she threw herself on said couch. “I’d rather not end up sitting beside those two.” 

The pizza arrived not long after and everyone had gathered in front of the TV. To Chris and Tsubasa's chagrin, the movie that the majority of them had voted on was a melodrama. Genjuuro had no protests, saying that he had to take breaks from watching action flicks. 

A couple of hours passed and it was now time to go home. No one had gotten blind-drunk that night, much to Tsubasa's utter relief. Hibiki didn't want to risk another hangover, and Maria was not in the mood to be inebriated. Chris was tipsy, and despite her insistence that she was functional enough to go home, Genjuuro decided to escort her home along with Elfnein. 

Maria told Kirika and Shirabe that she will stay over at Tsubasa's for the night. With that, the two teenagers bid their farewells and made their way home. Hibiki and Miku left as well, taking a cab back to their apartment. Before leaving, Genjuuro, Chris, and Ogawa helped with the cleaning. 

“Big Bro's gonna love it once he hears about you two,” Genjuuro told Tsubasa later on as he picked up Elfnein, who was fast asleep. 

Tsubasa smirked. “We’ll make sure to tell him soon. I’ll call you once we we’re off to visit the graves so you can join us.” 

Genjuuro nodded at that and shared a smile with his niece. 

“Thank you for tonight,” Ogawa said. “I haven’t had that much fun for a long while now.” 

“Well, you certainly had been entertained after seeing the girls cry during the movie,” Maria joked. 

Ogawa laughed. “I knew Kirika and Shirabe would shed tears, as well as Hibiki and Miku, but I didn’t expect Chris to sob like crazy.” 

Chris, who was still sitting by the table, frowned at Ogawa. “Look, buddy, I'm a human being, I have the right to cry.” 

The rest of them let out a laugh at that. Genjuuro turned to Tsubasa and Maria. 

“Well, I guess that's that,” he said. “We’ll be leaving now. See you when I see you.” 

Tsubasa and Maria escorted their remaining visitors to the door.  

“I guess I’m outta here,” Chris said as she turned to leave. “ Ciao, bitches.” 

Tsubasa frowned at Chris' language and was about to retort when Maria held her back and closed the door. 

“There’s no point going after her, she's already on her merry way,” Maria said, tugging Tsubasa by the hand. “Run after me instead.” 

Tsubasa let out a laugh. “Really now.” 

“Come on, let's see if you can keep up with me.” Maria grinned slyly. “I'll have you know, I'm really good at playing tag.” 

Maria let her go and moved at a distance away from Tsubasa. Tsubasa shook her head with a laugh and began chasing Maria within the apartment. Their small chase ended up with Maria getting pinned down on the couch, and Tsubasa became eerily quiet. 

“What is it?” Maria asked. 

Tsubasa reached over to brush the stray locks of hair from Maria's face, then her fingers lightly traced down Maria's cheek and settled below her jaw. 

“You’ve always been really pretty,” Tsubasa said, her voice low. 

Maria lifted her free hand to caress Tsubasa's cheek. “I could say the same to you.” 

Tsubasa scoffed and rolled her eyes. “I’m too stiff and rough around the edges. I wouldn't call that pretty.” 

Maria chuckled. “I’ve always had an eye for rough stuff.” 

Maria sat up and planted a kiss on Tsubasa's lips to stop her from saying anything else. 

“Now that you've caught me, what are you going to do with me?” Maria asked after breaking away. 

Tsubasa immediately rose and deftly lifted Maria off the couch. 

“I'll think of something as we go along,” Tsubasa answered her sultrily. 

--- 

The time was around midnight. The once bright lights from the nearby shops and boutiques were replaced with those from the ever-present street lights. A cool wind, perhaps coming from the bay, blew right by every minute or so. The moon still shone brightly in the clear night sky, flanked by glistening stars believed to hold countless wishes from people of all walks of life. A few cars would pass by, disrupting the silence in the air. 

Maria and Tsubasa were still awake. They lay in bed, talking idly of things that pop up in their heads in a moment’s notice. The faint light from the moon was all that illuminated the room. 

“I used to hate these nights,” Tsubasa said. “They were too quiet, like they constantly reminded me that at the end of the day, I'd always end up alone. While I would prefer some time by myself every now and then, being alone is something I don't really dig.” 

Tsubasa looked over at Maria, smiling warmly. “When you came around, the hate started to fade away. And by the heavens, ever since you started staying over, my nights have stopped getting cold. That was the reason I didn't have any misgivings on the set-up. You made me love these nights, even before I knew that I love you.” 

Maria huffed with a smile. “Sometimes I think I should have done a different approach. Looking back, the set-up was a complete waste of time.” 

“It wasn't.” Tsubasa smirked. “If anything, it was highly educational.” 

Maria laughed heartily. “I can't believe you, Kazanari. I really can't.” 

“Thanks to you, I now have a few tricks up my sleeve when it comes to making you happy in bed,” Tsubasa said, grinning slyly. 

Maria kept on laughing and Tsubasa merely smiled contentedly. The sound of Maria’s laugh was music to her ears. 

“Tsubasa,” Maria called out not long after. 

“Hm?” 

Maria rolled over on her stomach to face Tsubasa. “I’m thankful.” 

Tsubasa raised an eyebrow. “For what?” 

“That we turned things up a notch,” Maria told her. 

Tsubasa smirked. “Oh did we, now?” 

Maria let out a laugh and leaned in for a kiss, and Tsubasa met her halfway to close the distance.