I was tired of how in the dead of night you'd reach out for someone to comfort you, and call Yuuno's name.

Nanoha had left after that. There had been nothing left for her to say. She'd opened her mouth, one or two mewls of protest had come out, and then she'd turned and fled. Fate had flung herself down onto the bed, and when the anger drained away for lack of a target she wept bitter tears into her pillow until, exhausted more from emotion than the late hours, she'd fallen asleep.

The next morning she didn't feel any better. Her sleep had been fitful, broken up by dreams of her life at nine years old, how alone and empty she'd been before Nanoha had come along and brought-no, forced-happiness into her existence. Isn't the truth supposed to set you free? she thought as she hauled her body out of bed. Her back and limbs ached, probably from stress, so she staggered over to the shower and let steaming hot water beat down on her at full blast.

It had been another mistake, Fate knew. She should have kept her mouth shut, put Nanoha off-Ha! Since when can anyone "put Nanoha off" when she's determined on something?-done anything besides what she'd done. It didn't feel like it, but memories did dim over time, something Fate hadn't realized until now, with the taste of Nanoha's mouth under hers sweet and fresh in her mind.

I shouldn't have done it (how?)-shouldn't have kissed her (how?)-shouldn't have said anything-

"How?" she screamed aloud, beating her fists on the shower wall. "God, someone, tell me a way out of this damned mess!"

But of course no one answered her. She was as alone as always.

After a while she got out from under the water and dried herself off, hung up the towel by reflex, and put her clothes back on. They were badly wrinkled from having been slept in, but at this point she just didn't care.

Ready to face another day, she thought bitterly.

There was no way in hell she'd be able to attend the party. Even if she could somehow summon up enough of a poker face to make it through, Nanoha never would, and their friends just wouldn't let that go. That was the problem when people cared for you; they genuinely wanted to help and wouldn't be put off. Only there was nothing any of them could do and explaining why...Fate just wasn't capable of that.

She called Chrono and Amy's home, knowing they'd both be out, and left a terse message saying that she wouldn't be able to make it. After she hung up, she looked around the suite. It was attractive and comfortable enough, but it felt like a prison to Fate; the scene with Nanoha was still too fresh in her mind and staying in the room where it happened was like being sealed in with the memory. She had to get out, get away from it all.

"Bardiche," she said.

"Yes, sir," responded her device.

"Don't accept any calls until I let you know. I don't want to be disturbed."

"Privacy mode engaged."

"Thank you."

Lucky Bardiche, she thought. To just be a machine, not have to worry about love and loss and desire, that would be wonderful. And wasn't it just the bitterest of ironies that that would have been her life as an artificial mage, a tool, an object, were it not for Nanoha? Such cruelty, even if unintended.

Fate left the room, left the hotel, and got her car from the parking lot. She'd picked it up from the garage where she kept it when off-world on the way to Nanoha's and Yuuno's; the sleek black convertible was one of her prized possessions. In its way, being behind the wheel with the power of the high-performance engine at her command, the wind in hair, was better than flying by magic. She didn't really care where she went, just got out onto the road and quickly made her way to the highway where she could open up at high speed. Fate could feel the power of the engine thrumming away, and it was a thrill to control it, to keep that power deftly leashed to her whim by careful movements of the wheel, pedals, and gearshift.

Exactly opposite, in fact, how the power of her own emotions worked.

She drove on for quite a while, not exactly enjoying herself, but at least getting a chance to offset her worries with the pleasure of being behind the wheel. It was about an hour later when she pulled over and stopped outside the city limits, on a winding stretch of road leading up into the hills. The slope was sheer above and below the road, though covered in lush green grass that belied the danger. Fate got out of the car and walked over to the guardrail, looking down at the countryside laid out beneath her.

Where do I go from here? she thought glumly. She had a job that she was good at and believed in; she had people she loved and who cared for her in return. Hard to believe, isn't it, that my life is so fouled up?

"Damn you, Nanoha," she whispered aloud. "Why couldn't you just say yes or no?"

"Fate!"

She turned at the sound of her name.

"Yuuno?"

The archaeologist mage descended to the road next to her and adjusted his glasses.

"Yuuno, what are you doing here?"

"Chrono got your message and tried to contact you, but you weren't taking calls. We were worried, so I came after you."

"First Nanoha and now you. Doesn't anyone understand that privacy mode means that I actually want privacy? How did you find me, anyway?"

"Chrono traced your car through the city's traffic net, from where you passed certain automated trackers. He also fixed what would have been three speeding tickets for you while he was doing that, which frankly just added to the decision to send me after you. We're worried about you, Fate, all of us, especially after last night."

"My God, did Nanoha tell everyone?"

"No, she only told me. She could hardly avoid it, when she came home looking like someone had died."

"I should have guessed you'd take her side," Fate snapped petulantly. "Is that why you came after me, because of how she's feeling?"

Yuuno nodded.

"That, and I have a better idea of what's going on with you than she does, I think."

"So the winner can understand the loser?" Fate said. "So this is a 'hey, sorry about that, Fate, but you should cheer up; there's other girls out there' speech?"

"Fate."

"...Sorry," she sighed. "I...I know that's not what you meant. I'm just feeling a little self-pitying today."

"I know. That's why we thought you shouldn't be alone." His eyes flicked from Fate to the guardrail and she gasped when she realized what he was implying.

"H-hey, Yuuno, I'd never-"

Really? You'd never?

"Maybe," he said with a shrug. "You're like that, though. You fall into despair, only to be lifted out of it again with the support of the people who love you. Only you've cut yourself from them and you're killing yourself by inches anyway. Why did you do it, Fate? Why keep it inside all these years? Why didn't you just tell her then?"

"What good would it have done?" she asked. "Nanoha would have just blamed herself. If she thought I was the one who wanted out, then she'd be free to move on. And I was right, too. Within six months of my leaving, she was dating you. You can make her happy in ways that I can...and...and with you, she won't have to worry about all the slurs and insults that stupid jerks would give her about being in a same-sex relationship...and I knew you'd be a great father for Vivio..."

Damn it, I'm sniffling, Fate thought, wiping her tears from her eyes. Bad enough she was depressed; did she have to be depressed and maudlin?

"You could have spared yourself three years of suffering. You could have spared your friends, including Nanoha, all that worry. You could have spared Vivio three years of missing her Fate-mama."

"The point was to get her, to get everyone to forget."

Yuuno shook his head.

"That won't happen. You can cut ties of love, but they don't fade out on their own."

Fate brushed her hair back over her ear.

"Yeah, I can see that." Does it make me a bad person because I'm glad? She shook her head, clearing the doubts that had momentarily surfaced. "Look, Yuuno, I appreciate what you're trying to do-"

"Stop it!" he snapped, raising his voice for the first time.

"I will not!" she shouted right back. "Yuuno, you're a good man, a good father, and a good friend, but you'll excuse me if I don't want to talk about this with the man who has everything I walked away from!"

"Is that what you think?"

"It's a little hard not to think it, Yuuno-papa."

He winced at that one.

"No, Fate, all we did was switch places. Again," he said softly.

"What?"

He looked up at her.

"Why do you think that I took the post as librarian of the Infinite Library?"

Wait...He's not saying that...?

And all of a sudden Fate realized just why she'd caught him more than once with glances that seemed so knowing the night before. She stared at him in disbelief, green eyes meeting red.

Then she started to laugh. It was high, shrill and brittle with more, much more than just a trace of hysteria in it. She sagged against the guardrail, gripping its chest-high top to keep her balance, still laughing. And after thirty seconds or so of staring at her, Yuuno, too, got the joke and joined in.

The storm ended about five minutes later with Fate gasping for breath, tears streaming down her face-and the first genuine smile she could remember in far, far too long.

"We're a prize pair, aren't we?" she said, her voice choked.

Yuuno adjusted his glasses again, then came up beside her. He leaned up against the rail, arms folded, and after a moment she mimicked his pose, both looking down at where the city's edge thinned out into the countryside. It was easier, not having to look at him; perhaps he felt the same.

"Asking ourselves the same questions, feeling the same love, the same loneliness...yes, I suppose we are."

"It's true, then? You became the librarian because you wanted to get away from Midchilda?"

"Mm-hm. I knew that as an instructor, Nanoha would be permanently assigned here. I thought that if I didn't have to see her, it would be easier to forget."

"But you didn't."

Silence for a moment. Fate glanced in his direction and caught the last movement of a shrug.

"No, but I was happy enough."

Fate sighed.

"I can't imagine that."

"No, you wouldn't. I've thought something was wrong before now, more than once."

"You never said anything."

"No, I didn't. But then again, I'm not as proud as you," he answered, his voice soft and tinged with bitterness.

"Proud?"

Abruptly, he changed the subject.

"I know everything you said when you broke things off with Nanoha," he said. "It was the first time I'd seen her since you'd left her, and I'd happened to mention your name casually-something about it being hard on Vivio with one mother working and the other deployed far from home, I think. The next moment, she'd flung her arms around me and was sobbing out the entire story, how you'd basically dismissed everything you are to each other as schoolgirl fun and games."

Are, she thought, not were. Had he used the present tense on purpose? It was certainly true enough for Fate.

"And do you know what?" he continued. "I was glad. The woman I care for more than anyone was weeping about how you'd broken her heart, and I was happy, because it meant you weren't there to cut me out. I'd left her once already because what she felt for me couldn't stand up to what she felt for you. But now there wasn't any Fate in the picture, and I was the one, the only one, who she'd poured her heart out to. So I tried my very best to be the one for her."

"It couldn't have been too hard," Fate said. "She still had feelings for you even when she and I were living together."

"She has feelings for you now, when she and I are living together. You don't think I didn't know that? Nanoha would be furious at you for abandoning her, lying to her like you did and for doing such damage to yourself if you hadn't made it so clear that you felt like she'd driven you to it. It's like you just broke up with her all over again. You know how she values being honest and open with feelings, and she feels like she broke her own rule."

"Didn't she?"

"I'm not trying to argue guilt."

"I'm sorry I hurt her. And I'm not," she admitted, because part of her was glad that she'd been able to return a measure of her own suffering to its source.

"I'd hoped that you'd meant it," Yuuno said, and Fate realized then that he'd never actually changed the subject at all. "At first I said, 'Fate doesn't love Nanoha as a woman, so it doesn't matter.' Then, when I started to suspect what you were hiding, it became, 'Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'm reading too much into it because of Nanoha's feelings.' Then, when I couldn't ignore it any more, I told myself, 'Fate has her own reasons for not wanting to be involved; it's her decision.' So I closed my eyes to how badly you were hurting, until now, because I wanted to keep what I had. Like I said, I'm not as proud as you are. I was willing to be second in Nanoha's heart if it meant being first in her life. I'd already walked out once and regretted it, you see."

"Yeah," Fate replied. "Yes, I do see."

"I won't do it again, Fate. If Nanoha says she'd rather be with you, that's her choice, but I won't make it for her."

"She won't do that. She wouldn't have put over two years into your relationship if she didn't love you. And there's Vivio to think of, besides." Fate smiled sadly. "She calls you 'papa' now."

"She still calls you 'mama,'" Yuuno sent back.

They looked at one another. It wasn't an angry look they shared, more one of resignation. Each one of them had tried to cut their ties with the woman they both loved and each had failed miserably. Yuuno had come running back at his first chance, and Fate had nearly destroyed herself. Maybe it was a good thing that the truth had come out between the three of them. Fate felt empty, utterly drained.

But isn't that better than where I was before?

She didn't know.

"So where does this leave us? Look her in the eye and tell her to stop cutting us to pieces and pick someone?"

"Don't you think she would if she could? When she was with you, there was part of her that wanted to be with me. And I know she's never given up on you, either, Fate-san. Why do you think she's feeling so guilty right now? She knows she's hurt the people she loves the most through her own indecision."

"And what does it do to a child to have her parents fighting among themselves over who makes up her family?" Fate said. Vivio made an already complex situation so much worse, because whatever happened would end up spilling over on her. Remembering how the girl had been so excited to see her when she'd walked in the night before, she added, "You're right about her. I though she would substitute you for me, a father for one mother, but instead she just sort of added you on. Maybe it's because Nanoha didn't want her hurt any more when she'd already had so much pain in her life, so she protected her from knowing about our breakup, or maybe because I didn't love Vivio any less. But she's older now, too old to keep things hidden from her."

"Fate..." Yuuno began, then broke off.

"Yes?"

"Do you ever wonder...if maybe it's Vivio who's right?"

"Right about what?"

"Her family."

He had this weird, embarrassed little grin on his face, like whatever he was saying was so silly he didn't really feel comfortable saying it. Wait a minute-he can't seriously be suggesting-?

"Both of us?"

He rubbed his hand through his hair, wavering beneath her incredulous gaze.

I'm not as proud as you are. Fate figured that he had to be telling the truth, if he could suggest something like that.

"I'm sorry. Forget I said anything, okay?"

But is where we are right now any better?

"No. Tell me more. Why?"

He blinked in surprise, then like the scholar he was began ticking off the points on his fingertips.

"I love Nanoha. You love Nanoha. Nanoha loves the both of us. That's pretty much been the case since before any of us even knew what adult love was. You and I are still, somehow, friends. Vivio thinks of all of us as her parents, and we all see her as our child."

There had to be something wrong with that.

Didn't there?

Nanoha wasn't going to just stop loving Yuuno. That was what Fate wanted, but she wasn't going to get it. But...she wasn't going to just stop loving Fate either.

Am I really considering this?

She found, to her surprise, that she was.

"I..." She licked her lips nervously. "I'm not sure I can do this, but...I'm willing to try. For Nanoha and Vivio's sake." And for mine.

She pushed off the rail and walked back towards her parked car, then stopped when she got to the door.

"Just for the record," she added, grinning at Yuuno, "I don't kiss ferrets."

"At least not boy ferrets," he replied.

~X X X~

"I'm home!"

She said it reflexively. The door opened, she walked inside, and the announcement left Fate Testarossa Harlaown's lips.

Because I am.

~X X X~

A/N: Let the ferret-bashing begin!

All kidding aside, though, this fic was suggested to me by Vivio, as I suggested in the summary. Given the amount of ship-tease (particularly NanoFate ship-tease) the various Nanoha series play with, I can't believe it's coincidence that Nanoha adopts a daughter...with blond hair (like Fate and Yuuno), with one green eye (like Yuuno) and one red eye (like Fate). The girl's a walking metaphor for her mother's relationship conflicts!

~X X X~

Vivio's Magical Omake Theater!

"Squeak!"

"Oh, how cute!" Fate exclaimed, seeing the tiny mammal wrinkling its nose. Her mood changed quickly when it looked up at the sound of her voice and she saw it's heterochromatic red and green eyes. "Nanoha...what's going on here?"

Nanoha blushed, tapping her fingers together in a nervous little gesture.

"Well, um, Vivio's been trying to copy her Fate-mama's Sonic Form, but every time she tries it, she...er...ends up turning into a hedgehog..."