It goes without saying that Maria didn't ask for this - serving as the United Nations' public face, that is. Masquerading as a hero who infiltrated the vile terrorist organization FIS and sabotaged it from within.
The fact that said terrorist organization only ever wanted to save the world and consisted of - aside from herself - her aging, mortally ill adoptive mother and her dreams of peace, two precious girls whose idea of a good dinner was a shared bowl of instant noodles, and an actual crazy person who was never actually onboard with the whole "saving the world" thing would, of course, be too much for the global public to deal with. Hence the cover story.
Some days it's all she can do to keep a straight face.
Maria coughs, breaking her own maudlin train of thought. "So, Chris."
"You wanted to to talk to me about something?" Chris says.
It's not the first time they've spoken to each other outside the battlefield. But it is the first time they've spoken to each other without Hibiki, Miku, or Tsubasa present. If Maria had been more astute, she might have noticed the obvious strain Chris is going through, trying to be civil to another human being without someone else acting as intermediary.
But no one has ever accused Maria Cadenzanva Eve of being perceptive.
"Yes. It's very important." Maria sighs. "Soon I'll be going overseas as an agent for the United Nations."
"You mean you'll be going overseas to go singing with Tsubasa, all-expenses-paid." Chris mutters.
Maria continues as though Chris hasn't said anything. "This is the first time in years that I'm going to be away from Kirika and Shirabe. As you know, they're very young."
Tactfully, Chris refrains from pointing out that Kirika is just a hair shy of a year younger than Chris herself is. Kirika and Shirabe aren't very young. Maria is simply old.
And obnoxiously pretty.
As Chris wonders how Maria manages to get her hair to do that ridiculous cat-eared tentacle thing (Chris herself never got past the jellyfish-hair phase, after all), the older girl sets her hands on her hips and smiles. "So, Chris. I want you to take care of them while I'm away."
Chris freezes in mid-woolgather. The air in the corridor seems to have suddenly gone gelid.
"Well?" says Maria, that expectant smile still planted on her face.
Maria laughs. "Oh, I know you've had your rough spots, but you seem very responsible. And you're older than Kirika and Shirabe. So I'm sure you'll be a great big sis to them. You know, set an example!"
"Of course!" Maria says. "You know better than anyone else how hard it is to adjust after spending a lifetime outside society. Plus, you have your own apartment! It'll be nice for them to get out of the school dorms every now and then."
"Why not Hibiki and Miku?" asks Chris. "They've got lots of experience with strays." She briefly considers mentioning that she was once one of those strays, but that would be far more information than she's willing to relinquish. "And they've got an apartment of their own too."
Maria sighs. "I considered them for a while. But..."
Maria leans in close, checking the corridor for eavesdroppers. "I think they might be a bad influence," she whispers.
"Well," says Chris. "The dummy might be a bit impulsive, but her heart is in the right place. And the other one is a lifesaver. Literally. She literally saved my life."
Maria waves a hand in dismissal. "Oh, I'm sure they're wonderful people. But I worry that their home life is a little..."
"Their home life?"
"You know how those two must be," says Maria, flushing a little. "Always up to this-and-that when nobody's looking. I worry that Kirika and Shirabe might get the wrong idea about how to behave, especially from those two."
Chris shakes her head. She has a very good idea of what Maria is talking about, but she doesn't quite want to believe it. She settles for a question. "This and that?"
"You know, "that". It's nothing for a pair of growing girls to be around."
Chris tries to smile, aware that the effort might be contorting her face into some kind of horrid rictus. "So... how well would you say you know Kirika and Shirabe?"
Maria tilts her head to one side, a far-away look in her eyes. "Well, ever since we first met I've been taking care of them. I'd say I know them as well as I know myself." She smiles wistfully. "They're very precious to me."
Chris rubs her forehead. "I'm not sure if you should be hearing this from me, but even I've noticed, so..."
"How do I say this," Chris begins. "Kirika and Shirabe are, well, a lot like you and Tsubasa."
Maria smiles. "I hope so. A friendship forged in the fires of battle is stronger than anything else."
"Friendship? I thought you and Tsubasa were-"
"Never mind. There has to be an easier way to- oh, the hell with it." Chris takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. "Kirika and Shirabe love each other."
Maria laughs. "Of course they do! They're like sisters."
"No. They love each other."
Chris reaches up and takes Maria by the shoulders. "No," she says. "Like Hibiki and Miku do."
She waits for the hammer to fall.
Chris gives the taller girl a tentative shake. Without warning, she crumples like tissue paper, taking Chris with her.
"H-hey!" Chris says. "Maria!"
It's no use. Maria has fainted. As Chris leans in to check her breathing, she whimpers something.
It sounds like "Serena".
Maria opens her eyes.
The room is dim and cool. It carries the unmistakable scent of antisceptic and metal. There's also a faint hint of something sweeter.
She sits up. A quick glance at her surroundings confirms that she's in the S.O.N.G. infirmary. Someone appears to have left a pot of lilies on the windowsill, which would explain the smell, although whoever did should probably have the difference between "get-well" flowers and "we're sorry for your loss" flowers explained to them.
There's a barely perceptible weight on her chest. She reaches down and finds... a sticky note?
Cancel that. A very sticky note. In fact it might not be a sticky note at all. Whoever left the note appears to have used glue.
Maria peels the note off, taking a piece of fabric with it, and tries to read. Even with her eyes still barely managing to focus, she can make out the words.
Hey, I thought about what you said. I'll take care of them while you're abroad. Thanks for trusting me with this. Sorry you had to find out that way! <3 - Chris
So that's one problem solved.
Maria swings her legs off the bed and begins to feel around for her shoes. As soon as her bare feet touch the cold floor, she remembers how she ended up there.
Kirika and Shirabe love each other.
Which is impossible, of course.
They practically grew up together.
And who ever heard of people who grew up together hooking up?
That, Maria believes, is downright unthinkable.
And it's not as though they've been around Hibiki and Miku enough to pick up any of their... bad habits.
Why, in public, you would never think Hibiki and Miku were anything more than extremely close, extremely physically affectionate, extremely gay friends. Friends! Just gals being pals.
And Kirika and Shirabe are much more than friends.
They're like sisters.
She thinks back to when it was just the three of them, snuggled together in a threadbare, but cozy futon, sharing their warmth, with nothing between them but Maria.
Sure, they were on the run from the American government. And sure, they were about to embark on a dangerous mission to save the world. And sure, they spent a lot of time going hungry. But those nights were immeasurably precious to Maria. When she looks back on them, they still are.
And anyway, Maria says to herself, It's not as though snuggling up to them in nothing but my nightdress could have kicked anything off.
Or taking baths with them.
Or the tickle fights. In underwear.
Certainly, their formative years were spent almost entirely around Maria in various states of dishabille.
But cause and effect are not as simple as that. Not as simple as "I walked around half-naked in front of them all the time, and now they're gay for girls."
She thinks some more.
Certainly, it's ridiculous.
But Maria has noticed some things out of the ordinary over the years between the girls.
As she reflects, she realizes that "some" doesn't quite cover it.
How many times has she walked into the little room the three of them shared, caught them out of breath, red in the face?
How many times has she caught them with their clothes in disarray over the last year?
How many times has she noticed them sneaking off to be alone?
Could Chris be right?
How could she have missed something like that?
And anyway, we didn't raise them to be that way! Maria thinks. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But not my Kirika and Shirabe! They're too young for that sort of thing!
Of course, if she's being completely honest, they're too young for lots of things.
Like the flirtation with terrorism. And that fiasco with the Frontier.
And all the violence.
And leaving them alone with Doctor Ver and his complete inability to understand personal space more than once.
And that one time they tried to kill each other. She still hasn't gotten the full story on that one, although she does recall that Shirabe somehow ended up with six inches of Kirika's scythe in her chest cavity. And apparently the ghost of Finé got involved at some point.
It was all very confusing. The point is that things went really bad that day.
As Maria reflects on all her other failures she realizes something.
That if she was wrong about everything else, she could definitely be wrong about Kirika and Shirabe.
Resolved, she reaches for her phone.
She takes a deep breath. "Mr. Ogawa? Yes, it's Maria. Please tell Tsubasa the flight will have to be delayed. I have... personal business to take care of."
Although it's not as impressive as the original Lydian, which was destroyed by the madwoman Finé's kilometer-high - and suspiciously phallic - love letter to the creator of the universe, the current Lydian school grounds are nice enough. It's traded in the fountains and cascades for a courtyard and red brick. Presumably the upkeep won't be as fiendishly high.
Also, and perhaps most critically, it's not a pile of slightly radioactive rubble, like the original campus.
Maria watches from a distance as Kirika and Shirabe make their way through the school doors, hand in hand. But that's not too unusual, is it? They're always hand in hand. And the matching colour-coordinated bracelets are just something all extremely close friends wear. Still, she decides, a closer look would be better.
If Kirika and Shirabe were to turn around at this very moment, they would see nothing out of the ordinary. Or so Maria believes. She's taken a leaf out of their book and donned a disguise.
A much better disguise than theirs, which usually consisted of a pair of color-coordinated glasses.
Maria's disguise is composed of a pair of dark glasses.
Maria Cadenzanva Eve is a top artist and an excellent fighter. But like perceptiveness, no one would ever accuse Maria of subtlety. In fact, subtlety is the exact opposite of what you'd expect from a superstar.
Still, she's managing. They seem to be too absorbed in each other to notice that the bushes behind them rustle and shake every time they move on. Or that those bushes seem to be muttering to themselves in Maria's voice.
It's absurdly hot in the bushes, and Maria is sweating waterfalls. Somehow, at this moment, she's hotter and more bothered than she's ever been under the glare of stage lighting, or in the middle of a pitched fight.
It might be because the bushes seem to have a mind of their own and insist on forcing themselves into extremely awkward places.
She leans in, spitting out a leaf, straining to hear their conversation. The effort causes more rustling. She can only make out snatches of words.
As they sit down on one of the parkway benches, she takes the opportunity to get close enough to hear them talking about... her?
Shirabe leans against Kirika, her long, dark hair stark against the white of her school uniform. "You're worried about something, Kiri."
Maria can't see Kirika's face, but her voice undeniably sounds worried as Kirika murmurs in assent.
"Is it Maria?"
Shirabe looks up into a clear blue spring sky. "Me too."
"What are you worried about?" Kirika asks, tugging at Shirabe's sleeve carelessly. Granted, she does almost everything carelessly. Which may explain how she ended up shoving a scythe into Shirabe's vertebrae that one time.
"I'm worried that she's going to worry about us."
Kirika laughs, but even Maria can tell that her heart's not in it. "It's going to be so weird without her here."
Shirabe nods. "She's our family. Especially with Professor Nastassja gone now. We're all she has."
In spite of herself, Maria feels a warm glow welling up from inside. It's nice to be cared about. Even if she's the one supposed to be doing the caring.
Kirika sighs. "What is she going to eat? You always fix dinner."
"They have catering in London. She'll be fine." Shirabe kicks her legs out aimlessly, picture of a teenager with something on her mind. Maria realizes that Shirabe's feet actually touch the ground when she's sitting down now. And she has no idea when that happened.
Maria pulls absentmindedly at one of the long strands of her pale hair that trail behind her wherever she goes, wondering what else she's missed.
Kirika tugs at Shirabe's hand. "But she won't eat if she's worried about us."
Shirabe shakes her head. "I'm sure she'll be too distracted to worry. With the concert. And Tsubasa."
If either of them had turned around at that exact moment, they would have noticed that the bush behind them had sprouted what looked like sprouted a massive, bright red flower. And that said flower was sputtering in incoherent embarrassment.
"I'm glad she's found someone she can be close to," Shirabe says quietly. "Aside from us."
Kirika giggles. "Do you think they'll ever do 'it'?"
Thankfully, neither of them hear Maria's indignant gasp.
Shirabe turns to Kirika and gives her the fiercest glare she's capable of mustering. It's not very fierce. "Don't be lewd, Kiri."
"I'm not!" Kirika says. "It's just, you know. They're both really pretty, and they're going on a long trip together, all the way to London. The most romantic city in the world!"
"That's Paris, Kiri. Or Venice."
"Foreign cities are all romantic," Kirika says, turning her nose up. "Besides, I've seen the way Maria looks at her."
I do no such thing, Maria says to herself. It's not as though her every waking moment is spent dwelling on Tsubasa's toned, athletic body, thinking about the pale cast of her perfect skin, wondering how the softness of her lips would feel, or trying to tease out the way her eyes betray hints of tragedy masked by tremendous inner strength. Not remotely. At all.
Along with the other two things, no one would ever accuse Maria Cadenzanva Eve of being honest with herself.
"Hey, maybe they'll finally kiss backstage?" Kirika nudges Shirabe with her elbow. "That would be romantic."
Maria shudders. Tsubasa is her friend. Friends don't kiss friends, no matter how absurdly attractive they are. Or how effectively they would fill the aching void of loneliness in her heart.
Shirabe shakes her head again. "You're hopeless."
The two girls lean against each other for a while. They get along so well, Maria thinks. Even if they spend a lot of time talking about things that are none of their business.
"I'll miss her a lot," says Kirika.
"But there's one good thing about Maria not being here for a few months."
Kirika lets go of Shirabe's hand and turns toward her. Maria catches a mischievous smile on her face as she leans in close.
Shirabe places a hand on her chest. "Not in public, Kiri."
That smile is still firmly rooted on Kirika's face. "Lydian is private property!"
And she wraps her arms around Shirabe and kisses her.
Maria's heart plummets like a stone.
It plummets even further as Shirabe responds, pushing Kirika back onto the bench.
In spite of herself, Maria explodes out of the bushes, tosses her glasses aside, and attempts to say their names.
All she gets out is a choked whisper.
It sounds like Serena.
Kirika and Shirabe launch themselves off the bench in terror. "M-Maria?" Kirika stammers.
Shirabe elbows her, then puts on her sunniest smile. It's not very sunny. "We were just talking about you."
Maria finds her voice. It's a strangled shadow of what it normally is. "You were just kissing each other!"
Kirika and Shirabe share a miserable look. "We meant to tell you-" Shirabe begins.
Kirika raises a finger. "But we were worried about how you would react-"
Shirabe shakes her head. "It was only a little-"
"There is no such thing as 'a little tongue!'"
"Too young!" Maria stammers, coherency lost to the winds.
She's dimly aware of Kirika and Shirabe calling her name as the darkness rushes up to greet her once again.
For the second time today, Maria opens her eyes.
There's a ghost of a breeze coming from somewhere. As she sits up, she finds Shirabe squatting next to her, fanning her face with a sheet of newspaper, her twin tails fluttering apathetically. It's clear that the effort of fanning is dramatically disproportionate to the comfort it produces.
She smiles, panting. "I'm glad you're okay."
Kirika pops into view. "You passed out. And hit your head!"
Maria reaches up and feels her scalp gingerly, wincing as she runs her fingers over the beginning of a nasty bump. With her luck, it'll leave a scar.
She looks at Kirika and Shirabe. There must be something in her expression, because Shirabe's smile shrinks into nothingness, and Kirika's face falls. Maria watches as she reaches for Shirabe's hand again, as though instinctively, and pulls her closer.
She notices the way they're standing - Kirika's arms wrapped around Shirabe's shoulders, almost protectively.
"We really did mean to tell you." says Shirabe quietly. She looks sad, but resolute.
"There was just never the time," Kirika adds. "With the Frontier. And being on the run. And the terrorism! And Doctor Ver."
Maria nods mutely.
Shirabe reaches out with one of her hands and lays it on Maria's. "Please don't hate us," she says.
Maria can't help but notice how small her hand still seems.
But it's bigger than she remembers.
Both of them are much bigger than Maria remembers.
She realizes she must have been remembering them wrong.
Even though she watched them grow up, even though she didn't go a single day without being separated from them, even though in a very real sense she was a woman who could have been a mother to them, to her they stayed the same scared children she and Serena met all those years ago.
But... they're not.
They followed her into battle. They helped save the world.
They made their choices. Sure, some of them were really dumb choices. But Maria looks back at all the choices she's made, and decides that if dumb choices made someone a child, then she herself would probably still qualify for the kiddie pool.
Being a grown-up is all about making choices - and living with them.
So Maria makes a choice now. She finds her voice again and smiles gently. "How could I ever hate you?"
"Well, we were lying to you."
Maria shakes her head. "You didn't lie to me. I just wasn't paying enough attention."
Kirika slides over next to Maria and crosses her legs. "To what?"
"To you two."
Kirika coughs. "That's never happened before."
Maria laughs in spite of herself. "Really though. You're not little girls any more. It's wrong of me to think of you that way. You're both so much taller now, and stronger. And you're smarter than I ever was at your age."
The two of them join her in laughter. It feels nice, laughing as a family. Maria realizes that this is one of the things she'll miss the most in London. She wipes away a tear. "I'm sure Professor Nastassja wouldn't be mad either."
"So you forgive us?" Kirika chirps.
"There's nothing to forgive," Maria says, drawing them into a hug, blissfully unaware that she's very close to smothering Shirabe in her breasts.
Kirika cocks her head. "So... I guess you heard us talking about you and Tsu-"
"Not up for discussion," Maria says primly.
"Well, I think the two of you would be cute together," Kirika says. Shirabe, her face still buried in Maria's chest, tries to jab her in the ribs with an elbow, but misses by a mile.
"I will actually be mad if you go on."
Kirika pouts - or tries to. The effect is spoiled by the grin that keeps threatening to freeze itself on her face.
"Fine," she says.
Shirabe withdraws herself from Maria's embrace and takes a breath. "So..."
"So?" Maria says, smiling.
"Are you okay with this?" Shirabe says. "With us, I mean."
"Of course," she says. "I was just... surprised, that's all."
Shirabe looks down, her hands folded in her lap. "I'm glad."
Maria gets to her feet, pulling both of the girls with her. "I would approve of anything you two do."
"Anything?" Kirika says, grinning even wider. She leans in to kiss Shirabe again.
A hand darts out quicker than lightning, interdicting Kirika's lips against its palm. Maria sighs as she wipes her palm on her skirt. "As long as you don't do it in front of me. I'm not sure my heart could take you two growing up that fast."
"Well... not in front of you," Shirabe says.
Maria laughs, turning to leave. She has a plane to catch, after all.
A thought strikes her as she walks away. She turns back to the girls. "Are you two going to start making out again the moment I turn my back?"
Kirika and Shirabe shrug, almost as one, blushing.
They don't say no.
But they also don't say yes.
Maria smiles wistfully. It'll have to be enough.