A pair of children, a heated argument; a memory of long ago.
"You can't blame yourself for this!"
"... But you can't deny it, can you? If I had never met her..."
The girl shook her head exasperatedly. "You have to stop thinking like that! What about all of the good things that happened because of you? Why can't you focus on those instead?"
"Good things? Like what?"
The slap that followed resounded through the air.
Holding his stinging cheek with one hand, the young boy turned back with a look of surprise, and - wait, was she crying?
"Yuuno-kun, you idiot!"
"Ha - Hayate?"
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha: Halfway There
"I've here to drop off the documents you requested, Commander Yagami."
"Ah, thanks as usual, Yuuno-kun. Oh, and like I'm always telling you, drop the titles when it's just the two of us - it sounds weird coming from you!"
"Right, right - pardon me, Hayate."
Having finished with their usual opening banter, Yuuno and Hayate put away their smiles and got right down to business - something that happened at least on a weekly basis. Like any other division, Riot Force 6 had its fair share of information requests and paperwork to file, and though these were usually doable by any of the numerous librarians who now staffed the Infinity Library, Yuuno was more than willing to deal with Hayate's requests personally.
Though all of their group of childhood friends knew how busy Yuuno was on a regular basis and had insisted, in the beginning, that he didn't have to, Yuuno had refused to budge an inch on the issue and they had since stopped trying. As he had put it then, with a smile - "This is the only way I can help" - and though they had insisted that wasn't true, Yuuno wouldn't have any of it.
".. And that's all we've managed to come up with so far, but I'll be taking another look this evening, so I'll let you know if something else comes up."
"There's no rush on this Yuuno-kun, so you don't have to push yourself - well, even if I say that, you probably won't listen to me anyway, will you?"
Hayate shot Yuuno a look that managed to be both exasperated and bemused at the same time, to which Yuuno could only respond with an embarassed smile. "Ahaha..."
"But honestly, Yuuno-kun..." At this Hayate schooled her expression into something a bit more serious. "Don't overdo it. If you collapse again like you did last time, we might not go so easy on you..." Hayate's lips curled into a playful grin. "... especially Nanoha-chan."
Yuuno could only keep up his nervous chuckling at the mention of their mutual friend. For all of their familiarity and the years they'd known each other, Nanoha could still be very scary when she wanted to be. "... I'll keep that in mind, thanks."
"That's all I'm asking for!" This time, an honest smile from Hayate. "Now that the business is out of the way... how have you been, Yuuno-kun?"
And as was usual, their conversation descended into more casual territory from there.
"Well, it's probably about time for me to get going. I've still got some work left to do today."
Yuuno and Hayate both stood up, with the latter making her way around her desk to see the former out. "Same here - and remember what I said earlier, OK? Really, don't be making us worry..." - Hayate emphasized her point by jabbing her finger at his chest - "... that's an order from me, got it?"
This time, it was Yuuno's turn for a little fun. "... You do know that I technically outrank you, right?"
With a pout, Hayate grumbled, "You just had to rub that in my face, didn't you... in that case, you'll just have to consider it a super-special personal request from your cute childhood friend, Hayate-chan!"
Somewhere in her reply, Hayate managed to regain her usual tension, complete with a wink at the end.
"If that's the case, then I suppose it can't be helped." With a soft smile and just slightly overly dramatic flourish, Yuuno gave Hayate a bow. "I shall do everything within my power to comply with your request, my lady."
"Oh, cut that out." Hayate slapped Yuuno on the shoulder, though she was all smiles. "Since when did you become one of my knights? Last I checked, you hadn't sworn any oaths to me yet."
"Is that all it takes? In that case, I've been your knight for a while now."
Hayate was quite amused that Yuuno was playing along - and with a straight face, no less! "Is that so...? When would this have been, pray tell?"
Yuuno's expression didn't waver in the slightest. "Since that time Nanoha was hospitalised."
"Eh?" Hayate had thought Yuuno was just joking around, but the sudden seriousness of his statement threw her off.
Yuuno, on the other hand, misinterpreted Hayate's look of confusion. "You don't remember? It was back when..."
"What do you think would have happened to Fate-chan if not for you?"
Hayate had rounded on him and was full-out glaring, tears still in the corners of her eyes. Somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered how a girl in a wheelchair had managed to corner him, but it really wasn't the time to pursue that line of thought.
"Fate-chan told me about her mother! About how she met you and Nanoha-chan, and how the two of you changed her life! So tell me - where would Fate-chan be now, if not for you?"
Yuuno didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. Given what Precia Testarossa had done and how she had treated Fate, he didn't even want to begin imagining how else things could have ended up.
At this point, he noticed that Hayate was now seemingly staring into her lap - had she calmed down? "Hayate..."
Head snapping back up at the sound of her name, Yuuno could now see that Hayate was crying again, a sad expression replacing her angry one from earlier. "Where would I be now, if not for you...?"
The look on Hayate's face caused Yuuno's heart to clench, sending a pang of pain through his chest. All of a sudden, he knew exactly why he'd been slapped. And worse still, it made him feel extremely guilty.
"I definitely wouldn't have found the happiness I have now if it weren't for you, Yuuno-kun, however indirectly you brought it about. In fact... " She reached for his hand. "... I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that... I probably wouldn't be alive, if it weren't for you."
When she grasped his hand in the both of hers, gently, Yuuno sucked in a sudden breath but otherwise stayed silent. Instead, he watched as she drew her arms back to her chest, as if embracing the arm she had taken with her. He felt her pick apart his fingers with hers, and the next thing he knew, she had his hand on her breast.
"Ah..." Yuuno couldn't help but flush a little, but Hayate didn't seem to notice, or at least if she did, she paid it no heed.
"Hey... can you feel this? My heartbeat..."
"This heartbeat is the precious life that you gave me. So... if you think you need to take responsibility for Nanoha-chan getting hurt... don't forget to do the same for me too, OK?"
At long last, Hayate managed a smile, and Yuuno -
"Say, do you know where Hayate-chan is right now?"
With training over, Nanoha was thinking of spending dinner with everyone for the first time in some time; having recruited Fate and the two vice captains, Nanoha was now looking for the third member of their childhood trio. Signum was about to answer, but Vita, who already had an idea, beat her to the punch.
"Ah, Hayate's prolly in her office with Yuuno, saw him come by earlier-"
Anything else Vita was about to say was abruptly cut off by the magical pressure that had suddenly sprung up around Nanoha.
"... Yuuno-kun is here?"
"Of course I remember that! It's just that... I didn't expect you to... take it so seriously..." Hayate trailed off, ending with an embarassed blush.
Comparatively, Yuuno seemed almost entirely unaffected, following up for a two-hit combo: "Well, you were like an angel to me back then, Hayate, so your words really left a deep impression in me, you know?"
"Gah! How can you say things like that with such a straight face?"
"I guess... because it's true?"
Three hits, and Hayate was down for the count, her face down to the neck an impossibly bright shade of red. Stepping closer to her, Yuuno reached out and took hold of her left hand with his right, as if reversing their roles from all those years ago. Bringing them up, he placed them over Hayate's chest once more, though he took care to keep her hand in the way this time - they weren't kids anymore, after all...
"I can't believe you didn't tell me Yuuno-kun was here!" Huffing, Nanoha was making a beeline to Hayate's office, walking as fast as possible without breaking into a full-out run. Along the way, they (Nanoha) had run into (nearly bowled over) Rein, and she had opted to tag along after Nanoha had explained (somewhat hurriedly) that they were on their way to see Hayate.
"Sorry, slipped my mind," was Vita's reply, "Thought you'd already know."
Having managed to defuse Nanoha's wrath earlier by suggesting that they should invite Yuuno to dinner as well, Fate looked over and shot Vita an apologetic look, to which Vita replied with a shrug - it wasn't like Fate had anything to apologise for, after all.
As they neared the office, they noticed that the door was only slightly ajar, in spite of Hayate's usual open-door policy - "Ah, if Yuuno-kun's still there, they might still be discussing something..." - so Nanoha made to knock, but before her knuckles made contact -
"That's why... I swore to take responsibility for the new life I gave you."
As one, the group, minus Rein, froze.
Hayate had managed to recover somewhat, despite still effecting an excellent tomato impression. "You didn't have to go that far, you know!" All of a sudden, Yuuno's persistence in personally helping with all of Riot Force 6's requests, his insistence on and diligence in tutoring Fate for her enforcer exam - a number of things suddenly made a lot more sense. "Just because I said so..."
"It's not just because you said so, Hayate." Yuuno was still looking her in the eyes, and his proximity to Hayate wasn't helping her complexion any. "It's because I want to."
"Really... you don't have to think that you owe me anything! Thanks to you, I was able to get the family I'd always wanted... "
Back outside the room, the overheard conversation, taken grossly out of context, was eliciting all the wrong kinds of reactions.
Take responsibility..? New life...? Vita made eye contact with Signum, who frowned and shook her head - she hadn't heard of any of this before, either. Together they turned to Rein, but the device had a blank look on her face as she tried to figure out why everyone else had stopped – you could almost see the question marks floating in the air around her head.
It wasn't too hard to tell what Fate was imagining, if the "awawa" she let out was any indication. She had a hand over her mouth, and traces of a blush were beginning to colour her face.
Nanoha... Nanoha was still frozen in time, a smile on her face and her fist poised to knock...
Hayate was babbling, but both she and Yuuno were blissfully unaware that their dialogue was being terribly misconstrued just meters away. "... and in the end, you're the reason why I'm happy now, so that's why-"
"That may be so, but this is something I decided to do of my own volition, you know? Both for your sake, as well as my own. I want to take full responsibility for my actions, so..."
Yuuno drew her hand between them, and placed his other hand over hers.
"... even if I'm not one of your knights, won't you let me stand by your side?"
There might as well have been steam wafting from Hayate's forehead.
"... just do as you want."
I think we've heard enough. Vita followed her telepathic message with a quick look over to Signum; with her nod of assent, the two members of the Wolkenritter moved as one.
Slamming the doors open, the two strode into the room, Graf Eisen and Laevatein at the ready.
"Scrya! You've got some explaining to... do..."
Yuuno and Hayate both snapped their attention over to the door, with the former letting out a "Hm?" with his characteristic calm. Hayate, on the other hand, had been caught quite off-guard, and was mumbling something along the lines of "this isn't what it looks like!"
The reason that Signum had started trailing off, however, was where Hayate's left hand was... or rather, what Yuuno was doing to it. If she recalled correctly, in her Mistress's culture...
"Hmph. I see." With that, Signum lowered her weapon, prompting an inquisitive look from Vita. "It seems that you are, indeed, fully prepared to take responsibility for your actions... by becoming a member of our family."
There was a moment of silence in the wake of Signum's bombshell, broken only by Hayate's soft and rather dazed 'what?'.
Sensing discomfort from her Mistress, Signum attempted to make things better. "If it's you, Scrya, then I don't have any complaints."
Vita, who finally made the connection to what Signum was talking about, lowered her hammer as well. "Ah... yeah, guess there's nothing to worry about if it's you, Yuuno."
A look of understanding came over Yuuno, and he quickly opened his mouth to say something, but -
A deathly silence descended upon the room as the devil herself stepped forward.
"Would you like to explain... what's going on here?"
At once, the colour drained from the faces of everyone present, including Yuuno, whose only response was to reach into his pocket and take out... his cell phone? Fingering a speed dial, the opposing party picked up immediately.
"Hey Chrono, I need authorisation for an emergency teleport for two right now. Thanks!"
Talking rapid-fire, likely ignoring whatever confused response Chrono had, and hanging up right after, Yuuno immediately began a spell one-handed, which quickly manifested into the spell circle for a standard Transporter High.
"Do you think you can run away, Yuuno-kun?" At some point in time, Raising Heart had been activated, and Nanoha held her device at the ready, smile never leaving her face.
"Please let Arf know when Nanoha has calmed down, Fate. And, uh, sorry about this!"
With that, Yuuno and Hayate disappeared in a flash of green light, leaving the others to deal with...
Nanoha turned around and started for the door, but Signum and Vita, knowing what would likely become of their Mistress if they didn't stop her, moved to block her way. Fate, as well, finally had the presence of mind to ready Bardiche. Rein, on the other hand, had since fled the scene.
"Are you three going to stop me...?" Nanoha cocked her head to the side, the ever-present smile having never left her face.
As one, the aforementioned three gulped. Vita summed up the situation via telepathic link:
This... is gonna suck.
I have a lot of ideas but not the patience to flesh them all out fully, so this seemed like the best solution.
Much thanks to my beta NGTM-R for his sound advice.