A/N: For this story, I decided to use honorifics, since I figured (not unlike in my Tokyo Babylon fics) that their use is a major tag for how the characters interact with one another, and because the cast is so small I don't need to worry about making any usage blunders (very much unlike Kannazuki no Shimai)! Then I realized that I have no idea whatsoever what Fate and Yuuno call each other. So, feel free to correct me and I'll fix that part.
Revised A/N (6/25/10): I updated the story to re-insert scene breaks when fanfiction dot net's formatting change removed them all, and I've changed the flawed honorifics as long as I was tinkering with it!
~X X X~
She said it reflexively. The door opened, she walked inside, and the announcement left Fate T. Harlaown's lips.
That was a mistake, she thought an instant later, even though there was some justification. The door lock still responded to her palm, after all. She could walk in and out at a whim. But it was a mistake.
"Fate-chan!" Nanoha Takamichi's head snapped up and around. Her wide blue eyes were shining, her smile instant, full of surprise and happiness. "You were supposed to-"
Her complaint about Fate not calling to let her know she'd arrived was interrupted by a small blonde missile that burst out of the kitchen and clamped its arms around Fate's thighs as tightly as any binding spell.
"Fate-mama! You're home!" squealed seven-year-old Vivio, burying her face against Fate's waist. Fate rested her free hand lightly on the girl's head.
"Hello, Vivio. You've grown a lot."
"Mmmm!" she answered excitedly and nodded. This made her turn her face up to Fate, showing off features still childishly round and cute, and mismatched eyes, one red, one green.
Funny that a girl's face could sum up the major dilemma of Fate's life.
She wanted to put her arms around Vivio and answer the hug with one of her own, but she didn't. What was the point of spending nearly three years on deep space missions if she was going to backslide the instant she came through the door?
"Is something wrong, Fate-mama?"
Yes, but nothing you can fix, so it's not for you to worry about it. She was a perceptive child, though; she took after her parents that way. Fate would have to do a better job of controlling herself.
"No, Vivio, nothing's wrong. I just haven't seen everyone in so long; it's a powerful feeling."
"Mmm! Nanoha-mama and Yuuno-papa and I all missed you, too!"
She was ready for that one, at least. It tore into her like a blade spearing through her chest, but she swallowed the pain and kept herself from flinching.
Why does it hurt so much to get what I wanted?
By that point, Nanoha's arms were around her in a hello hug, a firm squeeze of affection. The contact was electric; Fate felt as if their uniforms weren't even there, skin pressed against skin, and she began to tremble again, this time through her whole body.
"Fate-chan?" Nanoha said hesitantly, sensing that something was wrong, but she was interrupted.
"Sorry I didn't come out at once; I was basting the roast and dinner would have been ruined if I'd stopped." He came out of the kitchen wearing a poofy chef's hat and a pink apron over his shirt and trousers. His name was Yuuno Scrya, mage, archaeologist, and one of Fate and Nanoha's childhood friends. He had blond hair a shade lighter and nearly as long as Fate's and his green eyes were hidden behind glasses. Yuuno was smiling broadly, but Fate caught just a flash of something in his eyes, a momentary reaction to seeing Fate with Nanoha's arms around her.
Yes, Yuuno would understand.
"Yuuno," she greeted him happily. That was the worst of it. She liked Yuuno. She genuinely was happy to see him. It would all have been so much easier if she didn't, if she hated him, if she wanted to snap his damned ferret neck, if the idea of him having anything to do with the raising of her daughter revolted her. Then Fate could have been honest, not have to stand in front of the people she loved best and lie through her teeth.
"Fate; it's good to see you. I wish we had something better to offer you for dinner..."
She shook her head.
"Oh, no. I didn't call ahead or anything. I didn't want you making a big deal over me." She pouted slightly and added, "Chrono is already doing that. He says he and Amy are going to be throwing a welcome-home party tomorrow night." If he wasn't, would I even be here? Or am I just using the fact that my brother would invite them anyway as an excuse to come see them?
"Poor Fate-chan, having to put up with all the family and friends who care for you," Nanoha mocked. "How long will you be back for?"
"I'm not sure. They want me for the trial on the Excellon case, but my testimony won't take more than a day or two at most. The case was complex, but there's very little ambiguity so it's really just a matter of leading the Court through the steps of the investigation."
"I heard about that," Yuuno said. "That was the case where the criminal syndicate was harvesting resources from Non-Administered Planet 14 on behalf of the Excellon Corporation?"
Kind Yuuno, to steer the conversation to safe ground.
"Yes. With their political backing we were unable to press charges against the corporation's board, but one of their major divisions will take the fall as well as the harvesters themselves, so I think we can count it as a success. After that, I'm sure that they'll find something else for me to do soon enough."
"In that case, we'll have to pack in as much fun time as possible!"
"Um, Nanoha, I'm going to be spending most of my time working..."
"Fate-chan, we barely get to see you any more. We'll make time!"
Knowing Nanoha, she will, too. Probably, Fate wouldn't fight too hard, either. She wanted to go places with Nanoha and have fun together and just be with her. Time and distance had done nothing at all to dim those feelings.
This was definitely a mistake.
She was going to tear up, she could tell. Her control was slipping badly, and it wasn't going to hold much longer. She needed time. Damn it, I can't make a scene now...
Yuuno came to her rescue.
"Nanoha, I'm sure Fate needs to check into her hotel and have dinner and rest after her trip."
"You came here first?" Nanoha asked. "Fate-chan, that's so sweet!"
"Fate-mama can't stay for dinner?"
"No she can't, but don't worry, Vivio. I'm sure we'll see lots of Fate-chan while she's here."
"Yay!" Vivio exclaimed gleefully. Both she and Nanoha had sparkling, happy expressions, but when Fate glanced up at Yuuno, she saw something different.
She couldn't get it out of her mind all the way over to the hotel. The room she'd reserved turned out to be a nice suite with a balcony.
Stupid, she berated herself again. Stupid, stupid, stupid Fate! I shouldn't have gone there. I shouldn't have seen them again. I should have just come here, kept my head down, done my job and got out again!
But she hadn't been able to help herself. The moment her feet had hit the Mid-Childan surface, the wound she'd thought had been cicatrized over had burst open, what had been a dull ache turned into a burning need to see them, touch them, hear their voices.
They're not yours anymore, she told herself bitterly. Vivio isn't your daughter, and Nanoha isn't-
But no, that was a lie. Nanoha was still her everything. It was just the converse that wasn't true.
Fate dropped onto the bed. She was trembling again, shaking like a leaf. Now that she was alone, behind closed doors, there was no need for control, no need to maintain a facade. She lay on her back, staring off at nothing.
And her brother expected her to go to a party, of all things?
~X X X~
"Fate, when was the last time you took a vacation?"
"What would be the point?"
"Everyone needs down time, little sister. You've been on active status for the better part of three years now, constantly in the field. You barely keep in touch, you almost never see your friends, and you're not making any new ones."
"How would you-"
"There's such a thing as field reports, you know. Every superior you've had since the Jail Scaglietti incident reports your performance as exceptional, your demeanor professional, and that while unfailingly polite and kind you never socialize with anyone more than is absolutely necessary."
"What the hell are you doing, snooping in my records? Those are supposed to be for internal use only!"
"An Admiral can pull a string or two, call in a favor, particularly when he's concerned about his little sister!"
"Damn it, Fate, you're cutting yourself off from everything outside of work!"
"I am not!"
"You forgot Mother's birthday this year."
She'd been struck speechless, because he was right.
"I've sent the time and place to Bardiche. Be there. Spend some time with the people who care about you, before you burn yourself out."
~X X X~
Fate rolled over and punched the pillow, a useless action that suited her feelings. Why couldn't Chrono see? Work was her time off. It was her personal life, her human contacts that were causing her problems. In the field she could put those feelings behind her, get some relief from the pain and stress. What was the alternative? "Getting it all out?" or "talking it through"? What good would that do? It wasn't like she didn't know what was bothering her. She knew it all too well, in every detail. The truth would just be a burden to her friends and if she tried to cover it up with a happy face, she'd just be lying. And everyone who meant something to her knew not only Fate, but Nanoha and Yuuno besides. Was it any wonder she was more comfortable with co-workers who knew Nanoha only as a name, a reputation? She'd even gone out of her way to get Teana promoted out of aide status to full agent as fast as possible to cut that tie.
She'd buried her face in the pillow, exhausted, when she heard the tapping at the window. No, not the window-the glass doors leading out to the balcony. Curious, she got up.
There was Nanoha.
Fate's stomach clenched sharply, but she slid the door open. It wasn't like she had a choice, after all.
"Nanoha, what are you doing?"
"Eheheh..." she gave a sheepish chuckle, rubbing the back of her neck. "You weren't taking any calls, so I flew up directly. I thought it'd be easier than banging on the door if you were in bed."
"I meant, why are you here?" Fate snapped. She was angry at herself, angry at Chrono, so why not Nanoha? Wasn't it her fault when you came down to it? Even if it wasn't something you could rightfully blame her for, even so...
"I was worried about you, Fate-chan! There was something wrong; I could tell, and I figured that you wouldn't want to make a scene in front of Vivio so that's why you stayed quiet."
"There's nothing, Nanoha," she lied smoothly. "I was just tired."
"It's not nothing." Nanoha stepped forward, getting a better look at Fate. "You've been crying!" she exclaimed.
"Fate-chan, what is it? Whatever's wrong, you can tell me about it. Friends are supposed to help each other through hard times, right?"
She was so earnest and intent about it. Fate knew that she meant every word. Nanoha wasn't stupid; she'd seen that something was wrong with Fate and with her usual determination intended to share the burden, whatever it was, to help Fate in spite of any stubbornness.
And she had no damned idea what the problem was.
That-even though it was exactly what Fate's own lies had been calculated to create-gave the anger its wings.
She grabbed Nanoha by the upper arms and thrust her back against the wall beside the balcony doors.
"We're not friends, Nanoha," Fate wielded her voice like she did Bardiche, as a cleaving scythe. Nanoha's brilliant blue eyes were wide and confused, and Fate demonstrated her point by crushing her lips to the other girl's. "We haven't been friends since we were sixteen." She kissed her again, ruthlessly, even brutally, her mouth taking, claiming Nanoha's for its own. It was a kiss born of three years of frustration, a fire born of going without what she'd once had freely. The flame had always been hot between them, and now it seemed an inferno.
Nanoha shivered under her, her back arching, the curves of her body pressing against Fate's. She, too felt it then. Shock had made her freeze at first, but she was starting to respond, almost out of reflex. Her tongue curled against Fate's, and the blonde felt the sudden throb, the sharp clench at the juncture between her legs.
This is madness!
As suddenly as she'd claimed Nanoha, she shoved herself away, unable to believe what she'd just done. Was she insane? For her part, Nanoha sagged back against the wall, her face a mask of confusion, her eyes wide and staring.
"Fate...chan..." she said, her voice no louder than a whisper.
"Are you satisfied?" Fate growled. "Now you know what my problem is."
"But...but if you still...then why? Why did you...?"
~X X X~
She was hanging up her uniform jacket when Nanoha's arms closed around her from behind.
"Fate-chan! Come to bed."
"Nanoha, I need to pack-"
Nanoha nipped lightly at Fate's neck, sending sudden tingles through her. Her tongue then flicked soothingly over it, making Fate's knees tremble. The other girl knew every sensitive spot on Fate's body and just how to use them.
"Mmm, Fate-chan, you're shipping out tomorrow," purred her lover, her breath making Fate's skin tingle. "We might not see each other for months! I want to give you something to remember me by."
It would have been so easy to give in, to give her what she wanted and put off what had to be done until morning. One last time in Nanoha's arms...
No. She had to be strong. She couldn't let her body dictate to her.
Her hands were working Fate's shirt free from her skirt. Fate dropped her own hands and pulled Nanoha's away.
"Stop it, Nanoha."
She stepped out of the circle of Nanoha's arms and turned to face the brunette.
"This needs to stop," she repeated.
"I'm sorry. I guess you really aren't in the mood, huh?"
Fate shook her head.
"No, I don't mean just right now. I mean for good."
"We're growing up now, Nanoha," she said firmly. "You're Vivio's guardian, besides-a mother. This kind of thing is fine as a game among girls, but it's time to put it aside and grow up."
Tears welled up in Nanoha's eyes at Fate's harshness, making the blonde waver in her determination. The desire rose up in her to confess her lies, to take her words back, but she fought it off.
"I thought...but you said that you loved me!"
"I do love you, Nanoha. You're my best friend. For the other...girls experiment, don't we? I enjoyed myself, I admit, but...it's time to grow up."
Her heart was breaking, but she kept her voice level, without wavering. She had to, or Nanoha would break through that crack in her armor and end it all.
"I'm sorry if it hurts, Nanoha, but I thought it was important to say it before I left, so you didn't waste your time waiting for me."
And then, with a tremendous act of will to keep from shaking, she turned back to her packing and finished the ruthless destruction of her own happiness.
~X X X~
"You mean," Fate shot out as if her words were bullets, "if I still love you, if I still ache to hold you as a woman, if it's driving me mad to be apart from you and making my heart bleed to be away from a child I love as much as I could a real daughter, if all that is true, why was I the one who broke it off with you in the first place and deliberately arranged to be away from Mid-Childa as much as possible? Is that what you're trying to ask?"
Nanoha nodded mutely, the naked pain in Fate's voice silencing her better than a gag.
"I was tired of being second in your heart. I was tired of how in the dead of night you'd reach out for someone to comfort you, and call Yuuno's name."