It's a strange thing.

Life without the person who had been by her side for the longest time.

So strange, she doesn't know what to think of it.

And everything -- everything is different now.

It's as if nothing is recognizable to her, anymore. A world that changed into something so...unnatural.

Her hand brushes over the photo frames, over cabinets and walls and tables, and she ignores the thin coating of dust that collects under her fingers.

She stops when she reaches the bedside drawer.

An album of sorts, its cover of soft velvet, is on top of it. There's an almost tattered, old quality to it; the edges of it a pale shadow of its original color.

She picks up the book, and flips it open.

And something - something that is stuck between the pages - falls. She reacts, instinctively, to grasp it - only to feel an odd sort of tension settle on her shoulders the moment she touches it.

Pink and black ribbons.

How could she have forgotten what was placed in there..?

Her grip on the book tightens.

But it's only for a moment.

She places the ribbons back into the book, opens the drawer, pushes the album in, and slides the drawer shut.

No.

She isn't going to think about it.

She isn't going to do that at all.

So why is it that ifs and elses are all she thinks about?

-o-

Sonreír

I could even think,
That even if it was the last day of my life,
I didn't care.

- "Rainy Day,"
by Ayumi Hamasaki.

-o-

"I love you."

She froze.

"...I...I didn't mean for it to happen," Nanoha whispered, her voice a terrible mix of despair and joy. "But I do. I love you, Fate-chan. I really do."

Searching blue locked onto bewildered red.

"I - Nanoha - I'm -- "

A finger pressed onto her lips, silencing her.

"No," the brunette murmured, the tone hinting at bittersweet sadness, as if already sensing the words. "Don't tell me. We are -- we're still friends, and that's not going to change. It won't change. I won't let it change."

"But..I.."

"No. I don't want you...to distance yourself from me, just like I think you will."

Her mouth closed shut.

The smile on Nanoha's lips was both vindicated and sad. "That's what you were thinking, weren't you?"

It was a very long moment before Fate answered.

"...Yes."

Nanoha reached out to her, paused when she felt Fate tense at her touch, searched burgundy eyes, and stopped entirely.

Then she smiled again, an odd sort of note in her voice, understanding and resignation and sorrow all in one.

"And you will."

-o-

It was all she could think to do. Needed to do. Couldn't stop herself from doing.

And Nanoha knew.

-o-

The three quick raps on the door snapped her out of her reverie, not because she heard them, but because she felt them through the wood of the door her back was pressed against.

"...Fate-chan?"

Nanoha.

The blonde felt herself slide to the floor.

"You can't stay in there forever, you know," Nanoha said after a moment.

She certainly could try.

And somehow, Fate just knew that Nanoha had settled down on the other side of the door, her hands hugging her knees, and the back of her head resting against the hardwood to observe the ceiling.

For a while, silence reigned. And just when Fate began to think that Nanoha wasn't going to say anything at all, she did.

"You know, Fate-chan..." the voice, muffled by the door, felt so far. And it was strange, because she was just a few centimetres away, and the only barricade was the door.

So why was it that that particular thought amused her so?

She heard the faint sigh that came from Nanoha.

"Someone once told me...that you shouldn't regret things that made you smile before. Even if only just once. Because life is just precious that way, and so short. No matter how things started, how things ended...if it made you smile, then it's worth it."

Against her will, the blonde felt herself tense.

"..Think it's true?"

Absolute crap, Fate wanted to say.

Nanoha continued as if she heard the reply.

"I think it's true, you know." Her tone softened. "You shouldn't regret anything that made you smile, made you laugh, made you happy...because it's something so...fleeting. So fragile. One moment you have it, the next it's gone. You know this, Fate-chan."

Yes. She did.

"It's - it's all the more reason to not regret it, to keep it with you for as long as you can, because when the time comes - for whatever reason it may be - memories are all you have. And even memories...they fade with time, sometimes. And this...this is all the more reason to not regret it."

I don't understand, Fate wanted to say. Wanted to scream.

Wanted to cry.

"Because if you do...if you regret them..it would be as if you think they are not worth remembering. Not worth keeping close."

"That's not true."

The words slipped out of her mouth before she realized.

There was a hint of a smile and triumph in Nanoha's soft voice. "No. No, it isn't."

She didn't respond.

"So don't regret it, Fate-chan. You shouldn't have to."

She felt her fingers curl into tight, trembling fists.

"No matter how your team died - and it isn't your fault, Fate-chan - I know they are a group of people precious to you. They were your co-workers, friends, and team mates that protected you and you had protected...people that you smiled and laughed with, argued and fought with...they are not something you can forget, can you?"

"..."

"So don't."

Silence.

"And it's okay to cry, Fate-chan."

Was it really?

"You know it is," was the answer to the unsaid question.

Her eyes burned.

Nanoha smiled -- and somehow, Fate knew that Nanoha was smiling. She just knew.

-o-

Always, always her. The only one who could see through her, see what she was hiding, pull it out, lay it bare..

And she doesn't know how Nanoha does it.

She doesn't know how, even after she could not bring herself to respond to Nanoha's feelings, the brunette couldgo from heaven to hell just to pull her back from a path of self-destruction.

She doesn't understand the intensity of Nanoha's emotions.

Not one bit.

-o-

It was the soft chuckle from Nanoha that broke the silence.

"Do you know who was the one who told me that I shouldn't regret things that made me smile, Fate-chan?" Nanoha asked, suddenly. It was almost random, the question, and she was startled. A hint of mischief had crept into Nanoha's voice. "It's someone you know very well."

"No...I don't. One of your family members?"

The smile grew. "No."

"Yuuno?"

"Nope."

"Hayate?"

"Wrong again."

"..."

"No more guesses?" Nanoha was clearly grinning now, even if she could not see it from the other side of the door.

And though Fate wasn't really into it, she felt herself sigh.

"I don't know, Nanoha.."

"That means your memory's getting bad, Fate-chan."

The blonde ignored the jibe. "Just tell me, won't you?"

"It was you."

-o-

She had forgotten.

-o-

Fate frowned at the screen.

"Are you having a fever?"

"Ahh...just a slight one?" Sheepish.

Burgundy eyes flickered with suspicion.

"Really?"

"Really. Nyahaha.."

But she didn't look that well.

Not at all.

"Maybe you should take leave for today, Nanoha."

The concern was dismissed.

"It's fine, it's fine! And besides, I won't be doing much today aside from observing my students in their exam."

"Now wait a sec - "

"It's time. I got to go. I will call you later, okay?"

She sighed. She knew she wouldn't be able to change Nanoha's mind, even if she tried.

"...Alright."

Nanoha smiled.

It was the sort of smile that Fate was beginning to see more and more often. A smile that told her Nanoha had noticed more than she wanted the brunette to know.

Before, it made her tense.

Now...now she didn't know what to think of it.

It was a smile that was meant for her alone.

"I'll see you later, Fate-chan."

-o-

That 'later' came soon.

Too soon.

-o-

When she took to the sky, she knew she was breaking protocols. Rules. Because in Mid-Childa, flying in the sky was banned, and only allowed in dire circumstances.

But she didn't care.

How could she?

How could she, when just moments ago, the ground beneath her had completely given way?

And all, with just a call.

A call that informed her, non-too-subtly, that Nanoha had decided to play a hero again and get in between two cadets who were in a brawl of explosive power.

And that, right now, at this moment, she was a walking disaster and a ticking time bomb that could die anytime?

Nanoha had smiled, and instead of talking about her own situation, she talked about -- about them.

"I do love you, you know."

Her fists tightened and shook uncontrollably.

No. Focus on getting there.

"I like it when you smile. I like hearing you laugh, because it's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard."

No, it's not.

"I...like seeing you happy."

Then don't die, dammit.

"And I'm...I want to be there for you."

She had been. She had always been there for her.

Without fail.

"But I -- I don't know if I can, anymore. Shamal-san said it wasn't good and...ahahah...I'm in trouble, aren't I?"

Focus. Focus.

But her vision was blurring.

"Hey...if I live after today..."

You will. You will. Don't say you won't.

"...Go on a date with me?"

-o-

She had given in.

She made a promise with her.

And that promise was broken.

-o-

She hadn't cried when she found out.

A part of her wanted to.

But she couldn't.

And she didn't know why.

Hayate merely observed her, calm, but sorrowful. And she was crying.

"Fate -- "

"No," Fate cut in, abruptly. "No. Just...don't."

The brown haired girl's only response was to take in a deep breath. "Okay. Okay. I -- do you want to see her?"

It was a long time before Fate answered.

A very, very long time.

"...Okay."

-o-

She hadn't been sure what to expect.

A part of her expected Nanoha to just open her eyes and say, "Surprise!" followed with an apology when the brunette would realize just how cruel a joke she was playing.

Another part of her saw what she expected to see.

It was Nanoha, eyes closed as if she was sleeping peacefully, so peacefully that Fate could not bear to try and wake her up.

And she was smiling. Smiling as if she had everything in the world.

"She..."

Hayate's voice was cracking.

"She seized after she called you."

"...Ah."

"It wasn't -- it was a side effect from the bleeding in the brain that she had."

The blonde did not respond.

"And while -- while she was seizing, she wanted me to tell you that...that.."

The shorter brunette couldn't continue.

She was breaking.

Fate knew that. She knew, but she wanted her to continue.

"..That?" It was a cruel thing to do. To ask. Because she wasn't the only one grieving.

"She -- " Hayate stopped, again, and her words were soft, sad, and exhausted. "She wants you to be happy. She --"

The blonde's fingers curled into tight, shaking fists.

" -- just wants you to be happy, Fate."

I know, Fate wanted to say. But she didn't, because she couldn't bring herself to say anything.

And she didn't know why.

-o-

A/N: I don't know where I'm going with this. Honestly, I don't. I don't even know what I'm writing, only that I am. I see no start nor end and...I know that if I leave it to linger, I'll delete it, because I really don't know what I'm writing. This is...somewhat different from what I've written in the past. You may notice it to be different in more than one way, you may not, and...yeah. I don't even know if I actually want to post this, because this...this is sort of semi-true. In real life. And sort of not.

But I am posting this. For three reasons. One, is because Diana prodded me to. Two, is because this fiction is for a good friend of mine who had...passed away, recently. And three, because he was the one who told me that hesitation is pointless. If you don't know what is better, or what you want to do, you go ahead with it. Or so...he told me. I suppose I'm taking that advice. Before I change my mind and delete this.

I'm not promising updates. This is probably the most difficult thing I've ever written. And it's not because I couldn't write this. I could. The words just...flowed. Rather...it's because this, as a whole, is a difficult thing to deal with. If I were to give it any thought as a critic, I imagine that this is, by far, my worst work. But I will...try. Or I may leave it as it is. I don't really know.

As my final note...it is 5 AM right now.

(31/05/2009: Thanks to Rae for beta-ing.)