"So, Fate…who will you spend your birthday with this year?"
"Nothing has changed over the past few years, Mother. With my family, of course."
"So, that's what you're calling it now, huh?"
Fate sighed, keeping her eyes focused on her task. It was rude to ignore her Mother, but today was not a good day. And Mother had become more and more persistant over the last few months, until Fate could barely get through a day without hearing some remark from her.
"It's good, this way. Why can't you just accept that?"
"Accept the fact that after twenty years, you've finally come crawling back to me? That you've finally come to understand what I had meant, all those years ago?"
Fate stiffened, her hand pausing over her weapons kit. She always packed that last in her suitcase. Just standard Enforcer training. Not that she needed to follow her training so strictly where she was going, but years of habit were hard to break. "You don't have to say it. I know. I'll always remember."
Precia Testarossa laughed, sitting on the edge of Fate's workdesk, her red nails flashing a bloody reflection in the awkwardly placed sink and mirror crammed into the small warship room. Even being an officer didn't get Fate a room larger than a glorified closet on the warships, but it wasn't like Fate minded, normally.
But having her mother in the same room as her had been making the room feel more claustrophobic than usual.
Precia inclined her head. "A call for you."
A holoscreen popped up right then over the desk, the screen blank and waiting for her confirmation. "Incoming video call, Location: Harlaown Residence. Caller: Amy Harlaown."
"You know what she'll be asking."
"I told you, I know what I'm going to say."
"You're not going to wimp out, are you?"
"No," Fate said angrily, slamming the top down on her suitcase. "Accept call."
Amy's smiling face flashed onto the holoscreen. "Fate-chan, how are you?" From the background noises, the kids were out of school—Fate could hear arguing and yelling coming from the living room door behind Amy, but as the tone of the inaudible voices was still in the harmless teasing zone, both of them ignored it.
"Well. How are you and the kids?"
"Karel and Liera loved the bicycles you got them—thank you so much for getting two blue ones; I think those two would have resorted to wrestling otherwise!"
Fate smiled slightly, her gaze drifting from Amy's face to her mother, who was smirking, so far refraining from saying anything aloud. "It wasn't any trouble. I'm glad they like them."
"Lindy-san is coming over for the weekend."
The room tilted suddenly—Fate grabbed for the desk chair to steady her weak knees. "Oh, Kaa-san is?"
"Yes," Amy said, a hopeful light in her eyes. "So will you come home for your birthday? If you need to see Nanoha and Vivio, you could go see them today, then come tomorrow on the actual day? Lindy-san would love to see you again."
Her breath caught in her throat for an instant. In front of her, Fate saw Precia open her mouth. "I'm sorry," Fate said first, cutting her mother off. "I'll be spending the day with my family."
She saw Amy flinch, a mixture of hurt and anger in her face. Not as much on her own behalf, but on her husband's and her children's. And on Lindy's. Fate felt a second twinge of remorse, but she didn't like how Precia was rising from her seat, moving closer with a dark smile on her lips. "Sorry, Amy, I have to go. Good bye."
The holoscreen winked out before Amy could reply.
"Now, that was just cruel of you."
"Who are you to judge me?"
"Ha! You're right. Besides, you're not lying, huh Fate?"
"No. I'm not."
Precia moved forward, and Fate retreated, turning to face the wall in a childish attempt to block her mother's presence from her mind. But she could still hear Precia's low voice as her mother said, "How ungrateful of you, to treat your second mother that way. Did I really teach you so well?"
"I guess you did, yes."
Precia snorted. "I never thought you would put so much value on the lessons I taught you."
Now it was Fate's turn to laugh mockingly. "How could I not? You're my mother, aren't you?"
"Yes. Of course."
"Incoming video call, Location: Supools Wildlife Preservation Base Camp. Caller: Erio Mondial."
Fate checked the time display on Bardiche. Good, she still had time. "Accept call."
"FATE-SAN!" Both Erio and Caro shouted delightedly, wide grins on their faces. Erio had grown again, but this time it looked like Caro had shot up a few inches too. Caro had cut her hair—Fate liked it. When had Erio gotten that scar by his eyebrow?
"Fate-san, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!"
She laughed softly. "You're one day off, but thank you."
"Erio, I told you we had to subtract 3 in the date conversion equation, not 2!"
"But that's even better!" Erio turned to look at Fate, his eyes peeking earnestly through his red bangs. "You're on leave right now, aren't you Fate-san?"
They hadn't caught her with a call while Fate was on break for a while. She couldn't lie to them. "…Yes."
"I managed to get time off, but Caro couldn't…" Erio shuffled in place, sharing a look with Caro as she nudged him encouragingly. "So…could you come here to visit? It would be your birthday! We could celebrate?"
"I wouldn't want to…" Fate froze as she felt the brush of Precia's long hair at her back. She rotated in her seat, the holoscreen moving with her. "…impose."
"No, you won't be imposing!" Erio bit his lip. "We really want you here, honest. Will you?"
"Please?" Caro added, looking at Fate imploringly.
Fate took a breath.
She heard Precia cough once behind her.
"I'm sorry," she told them both, smiling gently and doing her best to spread the motion to her eyes as well, so that it would look convincing. "I'll be spending my birthday with my family."
Caro grimaced briefly before putting on a pained smile, while Erio just stared at Fate forlornly, clear heartbreak on his youthful face. He looked stunned and hurt, before he also tried to smile. Fate was so proud of them. They're doing well already without her.
"Well…" Caro coughed, giving her partner a worried glance. From the angle of her sleeve Fate knew that the pink-haired girl had taken Erio's hand in hers off-screen. "Happy early Birthday, Fate-san…we'll do our best to drop by anyway, okay? I'm sure the boss will understand, it's such a rare chance, he'll definitely be okay with it."
"Okay then," Fate answered mechanically, glancing over her shoulder again. Precia was leaning on the sink now, waving at Fate. Snapping her attention back to the screen, hoping that Erio or Caro hadn't followed her line of vision, Fate said, "I'll see you then. Bye."
"Lying to your children, now?"
"Don't talk to your mother that way."
Fate's hand twitched. She tucked it into a pocket.
"Really, how disappointing. After loving you for so many years, and this is how you repay me?"
Fate breathed in ten times, then walked over to her desk, delicately manuvering around Precia so that she made it into her chair without touching a fold of fabric or a lock of hair. She opened her drawer and pulled out a stack of white letters, shuffling through the envelopes.
"Have many of those, do you?"
"I've gotten to become a good letter writer."
"In a time of holoscreens and video calls, you write letters?"
"Well, you know why I write letters. Don't you? How could I have tried harder if you weren't always there, getting in my way!"
Precia laughed, her low chuckling making Fate duck her head and count the letters again. "You're worse than me. At least I was a bad mother to your face."
"Incoming video call, Location: Takamachi house. Caller: Nanoha Takamachi."
Fate quickly stuffed the letters under her bed covers, moving as far away from Precia as she could. "Accept call."
Behind her, she heard Precia snicker. "Speak of the devil." But thankfully, her voice was soft, so Fate didn't think that Nanoha had heard anything.
"Fate-chan!" Nanoha beamed at Fate through the screen. She actually looked like she was relaxing—Fate had heard from Vita that Nanoha had been overworking herself recently, and no one could make her stop except for Vivio, at times. It was good that Nanoha was taking care of herself. Fate hated to see her looking wan and strained, as she had heard Nanoha was appearing often of late. "Did your mission go well?"
"We found the traffickers, and just finished all the trials."
"So you're free now?" Nanoha's tone sounded forcibly casual, but Fate saw how her knuckles had turned white as she clenched at the collar of her shirt. Fate noticed these things about Nanoha. Some habits never changed.
"Yes," Fate admitted.
"Good…" Nanoha hesitated, staring Fate in the eyes for a moment.
Shifting, Fate awkwardly glanced to the side, to make sure that Precia was still out of sight. If she stared hard enough, maybe she could goad Precia into staying silent a little longer.
"If you have some time, then Vivio wants to talk to you."
Fate trembled, closing her eyes for a moment. She could feel Precia leaning in and chuckling into her ear.
Vivio was a little old to still be calling her Fate-mama, but Fate couldn't make herself correct her. Even Precia stayed silent.
"Did you get the video of my graduation?"
"I did. Your speech was great."
Vivio gave her a wide smile, her red and green eyes twinkling. "I think Sister Schach wanted to faint when I added that last bit, and even though Carim was trying to look stern I could tell she wanted to laugh. Sein was just openly laughing, it was really funny."
"I'm sorry that I was on a mission during that time."
"It's…okay," Vivio said, but she was clearly lying. She hadn't even really been trying to hide it. "I understand. Fate-mama always has important things to do, right?"
Fate heard a tapping sound, and flicked her gaze quickly to the side to see Precia tapping on Bardiche's form, where the time display would usually pop up.
"You can't miss the time. If you do, you know what will happen."
"I still have lots of—"
Vivio's voice cut through the haze of Precia's words, making Fate jerk back to look at the concerned young woman's image in front of her. "Sorry…I'm sorry. I don't mean to."
"Liar," Precia laughed terribly.
"It's okay," Vivio lied.
"Are you taking care of Nanoha-mama?" Fate asked. She tried to convince herself that it was only because she wanted to distract Vivio.
"Yeah," Vivio said. "But I think she misses you a lot. Will you come home tomorrow?"
Precia taunted, "Will you?"
Fate's jaw clenched.
"Fate-chan?" Nanoha had joined Vivio on the screen, both of them watching her with the same hopeful expression. Clearly mother and daughter.
"I'm sorry…" Fate hesitated. She looked up, meeting Precia's eyes. Eyes that were empty and cold, unsmiling. "…I'm spending my birthday with my family."
"We're—" Vivio burst out, before Nanoha cut her off with a hand on her shoulder. She had a good daughter.
"Fate-chan, why…" Nanoha swallowed, her eyes gentle and begging. A shiver of cold bristled inside Fate's stomach, rising up her chest. And indeed, Nanoha slowly asked the question they had always avoided before. "…why don't we come with you? Then we can all celebrate your birthday…together."
"Yes, isn't the dear right? You can have everyone together, one big happy f—"
"I don't deserve that."
"What?" Nanoha asked, leaning forward to try and hear better.
Precia smiled at Fate. "I know. But you needed to say it aloud for yourself, didn't you?"
"Nothing," Fate said to Nanoha. "I'm sorry, it's not…I need to go."
"Fate-chan, I know you asked for space, but we want—"
BEEP! Fate turned off the screen. Any longer and she knew Precia would have done it for her, and the very least Fate owed to Nanoha and Vivio was to make those kinds of decisions herself.
"You know that they won't understand."
"What…what if they do?"
"Do you really think so?"
Fate sighed, putting her face in her hands. She was so tired. Did she think so…on some days. But not today. "No."
Precia rose, waiting by the door. "It's time to go."
With a soft crinkle, Fate drew out the letters from under her blanket, shuffling through them once again. She laid them on top of her suitcase, then after a moment's thought, turned them face down. Straigthening, she surveyed the room. A lifetime of travelling had given Fate the ability to personalize and depersonalize a room in minutes, and this room was thoroughly clean. Only her suitcase remained on the bed, with the stack of letters balanced on top.
"Yes." Fate laid Bardiche down on top of the letters, letting her hand drop from her old companion. "Time to go…"
Beep. Bardiche flashed yellow.
"Don't read it," Precia warned.
"What if it's important?" whispered Fate.
"There's no time! If you give in now, your chance will be gone. You had everything timed out perfectly—are you going to give it up now?" Precia's voice turned into a low, savage growl. "All your promises meant nothing, Fate?"
"I didn't promise you anything!"
"Didn't you? Ever since the day you took Nanoha's hand, didn't you feel the sting of an oathbreaker? You promised to be with me until the end—your own mother! And yet you just let everything we had—you, me, Alicia—fall away into memory."
"I never forgot you. Never! You know it."
"No, of course you never forgot me…you tried to be better than me in every way you could. But in the end? Look at you, Fate—are you any better?"
"I…I tried to be."
"But in the end, you failed where I failed. And remember Erio's face…you succeeded where I did, Fate. Congratulations."
"I wasn't always like that! I…" Fate ground the heels of her palms into her eyes, gasping. "Before…before, I wasn't…"
"Few years too late for regrets, isn't it?" Precia said snidely.
"You're right." Fate quivered. "…you're right."
"At least, now you have the option, right? If you still had her, you couldn't be doing the right thing now."
Blood welled on Fate's lip—she had bitten through the skin. "Don't say that…how could you say that!"
"Oh, by this point, you can stop lying, can't you? You know that you've wanted to be with us many times, long ago. But she'd always held you back."
"I loved her, Mother."
"Yes, you did. And where did that love get her?"
"Dead." Fate let her hands drop. She must look terrible, if her face was just as pale as her bloodless hands. "She's always protected me from you."
But her protector was gone. It always surprised Fate, in a dull, impassive way, how long Fate had lasted against her mother without Arf's protection. In the end, though, Fate knew that she couldn't hold out forever. And indeed, she had been right.
Precia had been waiting for her.
"Yes, Arf drove me away before. The others helped, a little, but she was the only one who truly knew what I was. Isn't that right?"
Silence. Blessed silence for a moment.
Silence had always been a double-edged sword with Fate. Hearing Precia's voice always hurt Fate inside. But hearing nothing at all meant that there was space for old nightmares to drift into Fate's head, whether she was sleeping or not.
Some days, Fate feared the nightmares more than Precia.
Thankfully, Precia spoke again, her voice soft…as soft as when she spoke to Alicia. "It's for the best, you know."
"I know. That's why I'm doing it."
Fate glanced one last time at the blinking message on Bardiche's core before turning her back, opening the door and shutting it behind her with a decisive click.
"Alicia and I are waiting," Precia said from beside her.
"At least now, you won't have to worry anymore. You know where you stand, with us."
"Hey, Fate?" A voice called suddenly from behind.
No one was supposed to be here! Fate jumped, shaking badly as Yuuno trotted up to her, carrying two thick texts under one arm. He must have been heading towards the teleport pad at the end of the hall by the huge glinting windows on the underbelly of the warship.
Precia had been right.
She should have left on time.
"What are you doing here?" Fate demanded, staring at him with horrified eyes.
"Uh," he stuttered, startled at her vehemence. "I was picking up the reference texts we had lent Admiral Lowran for your last mission. Why are you still here? Weren't you all given leave time?"
"I was finishing packing."
"Oh." Yuuno frowned at her, and Fate kept her face as blank as possible.
"I can't believe you're going to get caught because of him," Precia groaned.
"I won't," Fate ground out.
"Fate?" Yuuno asked, pushing his glasses up and narrowing his eyes.
"Nothing. Sorry." Fate took a half step around him. "I have to get going now."
"Are you going back for your birthday with Nanoha and Vivio?" Yuuno inquired, a flash of emotion crossing his face as his body twitched, as if to follow her, but he ultimately stayed put. "They were talking about wanting to spend the day with you…"
Fate blinked distantly, her gaze drifting over to Precia again. Her mother was standing down the hall in front of the glass windows, watching Fate with intent purple eyes. They flashed red.
"I'm sorry," Fate told Yuuno absently, walking towards Precia.
"I'm going to spend my birthday with my family."
Author's Note: ...DON'T WORRY, THERE IS A CHAPTER 2! ^_^;;
I had originally wanted to end the short here, with all the lovely implications that go along with it =P, but I was re-reading some of my reviews as I was writing this...and someone had said that reading my stories gave him "clinical depression"* all the time, so I felt guilty and therefore I planned out a nicer ending to this story XD.
But of course, my definition of "nicer" is quite subjective…heh heh heh… ^_^
*(Of course, this is not actually possible in the very psychology-nerd way of thinking of things…which is actually adds a reader bonus when reading this fic! ^_-)