But you've got something different

And I can't stop falling

I can't stop falling

No I can't stop falling for you

I'm falling.

—Laurell, "Can't Stop Falling"


Prerogative of the Brave

"A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave."

—Mahatma Gandhi


Day 7

It started snowing.

Hayate blinked, feeling the first soft flakes land on her cheeks and dot her eyelashes. Had she really been out here for so long? She slipped her hands into her jacket pockets, only aware of how cold they were when rough wool scratched over the backs of her hands.

Her old house didn't look any different after 12 years. It was too early during a holiday morning for there to be lights on, but Hayate didn't need to know if there were people living there. It didn't matter if the couple she had sold her house to still lived there or not. It didn't matter if they had taken out the elevator lift or if they had dug up the roses Signum had planted in the backyard.

Another bus rumbled towards her, and Hayate stepped back away from the bus stop sign. The bus gunned its engine and rattled on.

Hopefully Hayate looked like she was waiting for a bus, rather than appearing like a creeper.

She couldn't really remember having a life before this house. She knew that she had lived in a different house with her late parents, but over the years her memory for that old house and her parents had faded until they seemed more like characters from a photo album story than people and places she used to know. Sometimes an odd item or texture would trigger an old recollection, and Hayate held tightly to those moments with a hint of guilt. It wasn't like she didn't care about her family...just that she had to admit to herself that over the years she had made a new family.

She had gained family members, and lost them.

Hayate swallowed, staring at the shadow of her old house.

The wet slush of bootsteps warned her of company, making Hayate blink before calmly looking up at the arrival.

"Geez, Hayate-chan...not even a scarf or gloves?"

"Hey, Nanoha-chan," Hayate replied, smiling at the exasperated-mother tone her friend was using on her. "I'm not really cold."

Nanoha wound a pink scarf around Hayate's neck anyway, blowing on her own mittened hands. Her words came out articulated in frosty puffs. "Are you okay?"

Hayate smiled a little, turning back to look at the house. "I'm okay."

"Okay." Nanoha accepted that easily. "Do you miss your old home?"

"Old house," corrected Hayate, watching the falling snow coat the roof tiles with white powder. "I never lost my old home. Home is made up of people."

Nanoha nodded. "Yes."

Hayate sighed, forcing her gaze away from the house. "You're lucky you still have a place here, Nanoha-chan. It's kind of empty coming back and not having anything from your past."

Nanoha's expression turned soft. "We have to live going forward, Hayate-chan."

"I know," Hayate said sharply, a little too sharply.

An attentive gaze was directed her way, and Hayate wished that she could have taken that back. To her misfortune, Nanoha didn't let the outburst go.

Nanoha shook her head and took a small step back so that she see Hayate entirely, eyeing her with concern. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong."

"Uh huh," Nanoha rolled her eyes. Were Arisa's mannerisms rubbing off on all of them? "Hayate-chan, what's bothering you? Depressed that we're going home?"

"Gee, I wonder why I would be?" Hayate couldn't help snarking back, rubbing her temples. She was getting another headache.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Nanoha scowled, confused and annoyed.

"Never mind. Yeah, I'm depressed we're going home, it would have been nice to have a longer vacation," intoned Hayate. She fiddled with her jacket lapel, staring down at her boots.

"Oh, why?"

"Why do you think?" Hayate snapped, lifting her gaze to glare at the other brunette. "'Cause I need more time to finish seducing your daughter, that's why. Not that I should need more time, what with you guys practically throwing us together."

"What?"Nanoha's eyes bulged out. Then in a different tone, "What?"

"What?" demanded Hayate, folding her arms across her chest.

"Slow down a bit, Hayate-chan! I'm going to assume that the first part of that was sarcastic from frustration, but what did you mean about the second part?"

"Please! I came to Earth to get away from all the crap that's been going on!" Hayate threw her arms up, then ran both hands through her hair, aggravated. She took a breath and tried to control her tone—it wasn't really Nanoha's fault, and she should stop taking her anger out on her friend. "Look, it's just frustrating, okay? I wanted to get some rest and have some time to think, but instead I got all kinds of match-making stress from you guys. I just…I just wasn't ready for all that, so it's really bugging me."

"Match-making?" Nanoha looked both surprised at the concept and a little queasy as she processed the implications of that. "Um…okay, awkward. And kind of disturbing. I was not trying to throw you and Vivio together. That's…It's…I…" She inhaled then exhaled sharply, thinking over her words carefully. Even shaken up, Nanoha was still kind. "Let me start again. Whether or not you and Vivio…got together or made any major life decisions or anything, that wasn't what Fate-chan and I were trying to do. Okay? I just wanted you and Vivio to deal about this together. Like two adults. Not like two teenagers with all the drama of running away and misunderstanding each other and throwing melodramatic fits."

Hayate blinked. "…Oh."

"Uh huh. Look, I'm sorry that it was so stressful on you, Hayate-chan. I should have thought a bit more about your feelings, and that you might have needed some time, but I had been thinking about Vivio. She didn't need to be moping and angsting about a lack of resolution."

"I get it," Hayate said, her shoulders slumping. She watched Nanoha pace a little, agitated, before finally leaning against the bus sign to stop fidgeting. "You're her mother—Vivio's your priority. But…things are just complicated for me, okay?"

"Okay," Nanoha raised her hands placatingly. "Okay."

"Okay."

Hayate stared at the ground, and Nanoha's leg was bouncing slightly, jittery. Nanoha frowned, then bit her lip, then grunted a little, her arms coming up to fold sternly across her chest.

"So…"

"What?"

"Hm. Now that you've said your piece, could you elaborate on the part you said earlier about 'seducing my daughter'?"

**O**

"Okay," Vivio narrowed her eyes, squaring her shoulders to steady her fighting stance. "I'm not going easy on you this time, for sure."

Her opponent didn't even look at her.

"I mean it!" Vivio slid one foot forward, inching up towards the bed. She reached out with one hand holding a folded sweater. "I'm just going to—"

The fat calico cat yowled, slashing out with a paw. It was a good thing Vivio was a trained tactical combat expert; she whipped her hand back, managing to save her skin and her sweater from the sharp claws.

"That's my suitcase!" Vivio barked helplessly. She couldn't do anything but watch the cat yawn, nestling deeper into Vivio's half-packed suitcase among her t-shirts and pants. Honestly, she had turned around for less than fifteen seconds to fold her sweater, and when she had turned back, one of Suzuka's cats, a fat and fluffy monster, had taken up residence right in the middle of her clothes.

Trying to forcibly remove the unwanted occupant only resulted in a shallow scratch on the back of Vivio's wrist—she was sure that the light injury was due to a combination of her quick reflexes, and of the cat not really intending to cause gross maiming—and by now, Vivio was getting frustrated and desperate.

"Come on, Mr. Cat!" Vivio glanced at her watch again. "I only have, like, an hour before we have to teleport back home, and you're in the way."

One hour and ten minutes before they had to catch their transport.

One hour and ten minutes left before Vivio had to let this dream go. This dream of a vacation where she had fought for and gotten a taste of what she had always hoped to get.

At least she got a lazy, uncaring tail flick that time. The fat lard-ball had closed his eyes, his whiskers turning outward in a smug smile.

"Urgh." Vivio put her fists on her hips, glaring. She knew at least eight different ways to forcibly remove someone who was resisting, but that would be overkill in this situation.

(Particularly the method that required Sacred Heart and 80 square meters of clear space to avoid collateral damage.)

She turned to pack up her toiletry bag—she wasn't conceding defeat! But she might as well gather up all her belongings to be ready to jam them in last minute if she really couldn't extract that trespasser until they were about to leave.

"It would serve you right if you were taken away from all your friends, and had to live on Mid-Childa," Vivio informed her unwanted guest. "I'm on vacation, you know; the place I come from is super far from here."

Yeah, super far.

Far away, and out of sight, so out of mind.

But Vivio couldn't really put it out of mind now, not when she was packing to go home.

It was the end of her first visit to Earth…she kind of expected more wistful sadness, to tell the truth. How she would miss everyone, wonder when she'd be able to see them again, that kind of thing. Instead, Vivio just felt utterly glum.

This was practically worse than living with that huge not-secret secret. At least before Vivio had confessed, everyone could only tease her on the funny concept of her being in love with someone so out of her reach. But now?

Now it was real. Real to Vivio, too, and that just made it all the worse.

Because at least before, she had the hope that things could go well, and that she and Hayate would have some kind of happily-ever-after after some indistinct period of trouble getting together, et cetera—because of course romance couldn't be easy, and young!Vivio had anticipated that.

But now that it was real, Vivio couldn't hold onto dreams anymore.

*****O*****

Last Night

A loud beeping sounded from Hayate's jacket pocket, shrill in the late evening silence. Hayate sighed, thrusting a hand inside her pocket to fish out her Device, giving Vivio an apologetic smile as the younger woman broke off mid-sentence.

"Sorry, but I have to take this."

"Aren't you on vacation?" Vivio asked, a little dejected that Hayate had let go of her arm in order to take the call. They were taking the long route back to Suzuka's house, walking under the streetlights of the neighbourhood roads. The entire world seemed hazily silver, as if it were some kind of a dream instead of electroluminescent lighting.

Vivio wanted this night to never end.

"I am; which is why if Rein's still calling me then it must be important." Hayate pulled up a holoscreen, and Rein's exhausted, panicked face filled the monitor.

"Hayate-chan, I'm so sorry, but I have Councilor Hyund, Councilor Kia, Inspector Navis, Admiral Vauxhall, and Enforcer Parsons on the other line, and they're demanding to talk with you." Rein rubbed her eyes, her voice becoming shriller with stress. "Earlier today, Squad Six was out on a hold-up call with hostages when Officer Acur landed a lethal blow on the civilian owner of the store during the fight. He said that it was a necessary action to protect the other hostages and his team, and that he had made a judgment call, but Navis is insisting to detain him, and the Councilors are threatening things, and Admiral Vauxhall is saying all kinds of cryptic things and—"

"Rein, calm down," Hayate soothed, nodding at the silver-haired girl until Rein panted as she tried to breathe calmly. "What did you tell the Inspector?"

"I told him—and Lucino-chan told him, and Signum told him, too—that he can't take Officer Acur from Cranagan without your transfer approval, and that Acur still needs to report on the mission, but Navis wasn't listening! He went away, and we thought it would be okay until you got back, but then Navis called in with the Councilors and Admiral Vauxhall, and then Enforcer Parsons called you too and got mixed up in all of it." Rein winced at some signal off-screen, and added, "They're getting really impatient on the other line; they're yelling at Lucino-chan now."

Hayate took a breath, then turned so that Vivio was out of sight of the camera on the holoscreen. She made eye contact with Vivio then put a finger to her lips for silence, a protective gesture. Vivio nodded, leaning against a metal fence and trying to be out of sight, out of mind, as Hayate pulled up a video-conference on her screen.

"This is Lieutenant-General Yagami—please hold for a moment." Before any of them could make a response, Hayate flicked the conference screen to the side and opened up a new call channel. Vivio couldn't see who Hayate was calling, but when the call connected to a panicked and pale young man in a rumpled Ground Forces Defence Corps uniform, she guessed that it was Officer Acur. Vivio only ever saw squad leaders from other divisions, so she wasn't surprised that she didn't recognize him.

"Myles? Are you okay?" Hayate asked, her tone level and calm.

"Yes, ma'am—I'm sorry, I didn't—"

"Where are you right now?"

He swallowed, shoulders slumping. "The hospital, with my aunt."

"Okay. I want you to stay there as long as you need, all right? I will send someone to accompany you, but they can stay in the hall. Don't leave the city, understand?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Myles." With the single word, Hayate got the young man to look up hopefully. "Do you feel you made the right call?"

"I…Ma'am…" He stuttered, then let out a slow breath under Hayate's steady, trusting gaze. Through the fear and nervousness, a core of conviction now shone through his expression. He nodded abruptly. "Yes."

"Okay then. I will have someone meet you and I'll check in with you tomorrow."

"Yes ma'am!"

Hayate ended the call and opened her line to Rein. "Rein, send someone to watch over Officer Acur. Someone with a backbone, okay? Who won't let Navis or the Enforcers take Acur until I get back there."

"Okay!" Rein smiled determinedly, cheerful now to be focused on a task.

Hayate flipped back to the video-conference, and five different images popped up. Vivio winced as she heard their furious, ongoing debate. Why were politicians and authority figures so angry all the time? Not that they ever showed it on television, but Vivio had overheard enough high brass conversations to know better. It amazed her how grandma Lindy could still keep such a mellow demeanour, given these working conditions.

No wonder they never wanted little guys like Vivio to be listening in on these important calls. It would ruin their images.

"Yagami!" Councilor Kia was the first to notice the new addition to the line. "What do you expect me to release to the media tonight if you won't let Internal Affairs take Acur into custody? After last week's debacle, the TSAB needs to take more ownership if you don't want the Press to release another article."

"Lieutenant-General," Navis growled, "the recent memos about internal investigations state—"

"The proposals haven't been voted in yet, Inspector," Hayate replied, a steel edge lining her words. "I will be happy to cooperate with your investigation—after I've looked over the mission report and assessed the impact on our ongoing investigation."

That sparked a new furious debate, and Vivio gave up trying to understand which councillors and officers were on whose side. Contrarily, Hayate was paying intent attention, listening to more than just the words being shouted. Vivio couldn't read her expression, but then it hit her.

This was what Hayate does. It didn't even matter that half of the people yelling at her were higher-ranked than she was.

Behind that small half-smile, Hayate's mind was already working out a strategy and a solution.

"I'm prepared to call General Rove if this isn't worked out!"

An empty threat, Vivio knew—while General Rove technically out-ranked Hayate, they tended to work as peers managing separate parts of the Ground Forces, and the man avoided politics whenever he could. Besides, commanding the Capital Defense Corps was the real position with power, and since Rove had stepped aside for Hayate to take the position during the last appointments everyone knew whose word was final on Mid-Childa.

Vivio stopped in her idle scuffing, swallowing at the thought.

She watched Hayate speak, although she was numb to the words. It was so easy for Vivio to forget, even when they were back home. Hayate was always the kind, funny, and patient family friend to Vivio, but that wasn't her only place in the world. Back on Mid-Childa, Hayate was a political figure; a celebrity in the military world, and the hub of TSAB operations on Administered World #1. She had larger things to worry about than passing exams or getting a good evaluation score, unlike Vivio. Even the scope of Vivio's understanding of priorities and consequences were so far beneath the kind of things that Hayate dealt with as a commander of thousands. Hayate, the Lieutenant-General commander of the CDC, had to be assertive, cunning, and exceptional in order to excel at her station.

How did the awkward, hesitant, and shy Hayate from the last week fit into that world?

Vivio stared at her boots as Hayate ended her call, huffing in frustrated triumph as she quickly typed out a memo before closing the screen. "Hey. Everything all right now?"

"I'm taking steps to manage the situation," Hayate replied with an instant non-answer. She then blinked and looked at Vivio, wincing. "Sorry about that…it's just some jurisdictional problems, mixed with the victim being an informant in an Enforcer invest—well, never mind." She smiled again, waving off the earlier conversation. "Um, you were saying something earlier, before we got cut off?"

Vivio tucked her hands in her pockets and pushed off the fence with an elbow, shrugging with a distant smile. "That's okay, it wasn't anything important. We should probably get back before Nanoha-mama gets mad at us for being out so late, huh?" She could feel Hayate's confused gaze on her down-turned face, but Vivio couldn't muster the courage to look up.

"…Yes, you're probably right."

*****O*****

"Mr. Cat," Vivio confessed, swinging her toiletry bag glumly from a finger, "between you and me, I think that I am officially reaching the point of unconditional surrender."

Her mothers had taught her to never give up, to always keep trying…but Vivio didn't know what to do. She had no experience, no map of where to go…no solution.

A soft knock on the door frame made Vivio spin around. Fate stood in the open doorframe, eyes raised at the pile of still unpacked belongings crowded on the guest room desk.

"Still packing?"

"Sorry!" Vivio stammered, blushing. A military family was raised on quick packing and being prepared in advance for departure, and she felt mortified. "It's just…I have a problem."

Fate raised an eyebrow, then followed Vivio's pointed finger to the open suitcase. The Enforcer stifled a laugh, her red eyes squinting in amusement as she came in and surveyed the dozing tomcat with Vivio.

"I tried to pull him out, but he wasn't going to go quietly," Vivio grumbled. "Do you have any ideas?"

"Just enough generations have passed for Suzuka's cats to forget my involvement in an unfortunate incident in the past—I'm not going to mess that up." Argh, Fate-mama was a coward. And failing to hide her amusement at Vivio's fuming.

"Mama!" Vivio whined, crossing her arms.

Fate laughed aloud. "Have you tried dumping everything out?"

"That would be mean! And besides, I already packed everything in nicely." She saw Fate grimace and nod in understanding; after all, Vivio had learned her three-dimensional packing technique from Fate, finding a way to use up every cubic inch of her suitcase to pack tightly. Nanoha-mama had always teased Fate for bringing only one suitcase out on deployment, but Vivio could see how someone could get everything essential to fit if they packed properly!

"Okay, maybe Mr. Cat—" Vivio giggled when Fate called the interloper by the same name, "—isn't moving because he is nice and warm there. Grab that end?" Fate grabbed a handle on the top, and Vivio picked up the case by the wheels. Together, they carefully lifted the suitcase and set it on the dresser. Vivio jumped back when she saw the cat look up suspiciously, hunkering down deeper into his little hollow.

"Next time, I'll ask Hayate-san to bring Zafira along," threatened Vivio, narrowing her eyes. "Or even worse—I'll ask Fate-mama to bring Arf along. I bet you wouldn't be so complacent then, huh?"

Arf in wolf form, of course. Puppy form…wouldn't be very intimidating.

Fate laughed again, and Vivio grinned despite herself. She always loved making Fate laugh—she and Nanoha-mama both. Her blonde mother smiled a lot, but even now laughing was still a rare occurrence from her. "You realize that you're talking to a cat, right? At least TSAB medical covers mental health insurance," Fate teased.

Vivio grumbled in mock protest at that, and watched Fate pull the window latch and crack it open. "What are you doing?"

"A nice draft of cold air would probably convince your guest to leave," Fate said, looking at her handiwork with a small smile. "Do you have everything else ready to go?"

"Yup."

"Good, good. So, Vivio, how did you like Earth?" Fate sat on the edge of the bed, looking up at her daughter.

"It was okay," Vivio shrugged, hopping onto the bed and letting her legs dangle. "It was really cool to meet Grandma Momoko, Aunt Miyuki, Uncle Kyouya, and the others. And it was nice to just chill for a few days."

"Did you have fun?"

Vivio nearly bit her tongue, and she felt her face go hot red. How was she supposed to answer that?

She got to hold Hayate's hand.

She went out on a date with her.

She had gotten to see Hayate's warm, beautiful smile directed just at her, while in a romantic setting. That last part was so new and wonderful and fresh, Vivio couldn't help smiling just at the memory of it.

God, she was so lame.

They were about to go home, and then all…this…was going to stay here and not make it back with them.

Vivio felt her smile fall.

Yeah, Vivio had known that things would be different once they got back home. It was kind of sad how depressing the thought actually was.

Caro and Lutecia were going to ask her for details, and she was going to have to go through all those wonderful memories again, and forget about the pain of it all. Right until she reached the seventh day of vacation in her recounting; then she would become depressed all over again.

"Vivio? Is everything okay?"

"…Is there any way I can possibly get out of answering that?"

A small twitch appeared at the corner of Fate's lips. "Not really. But if you want me to leave you alone, I can do that."

Vivio sighed, stretching out her legs in front of her. "No…it's fine. Just…please don't say "I told you so"."

"Why would I say that?"

"Because I asked Hayate-san out and we did all this and it was so wonderful but in the end it didn't work out anyway so it was all pointless since I should have known that this would be the outcome, and I know you and Nanoha-mamathoughtthiswaythe wholetime—"

"Vivio."

"—what?"

"Breathe?"

Vivio obeyed, her face red.

Fate put a hand on Vivio's head.

"Good girl. Okay, in order: I'm proud that you gathered up the courage to ask Hayate on a date. I'm surprised that you think it was all pointless. And Nanoha and I never thought that it wouldn't work out between you two."

"Huh?" Vivio stared at her mother, feeling her mouth dry and her eyes prickled. She hoped she didn't start crying, and thankfully her shock had a greater hold over her body than her rising emotions. "You're proud? And surprised? And Nanoha-mama, really?"

And oh God, were her mamas really keeping such a close eye on her this last week? Vivio was going to die from mortification.

Fate chuckled, and tugged Vivio's hand. "Come on." They collapsed backward onto the bed, mussing up the pillows. Vivio sighed and rolled her eyes, but she scooted up and laid her cheek on her mother's shoulder.

"We haven't done this since I was eight."

"And now you're too old to snuggle with your mama?" Fate asked.

"…No…but that's, like, undignified?"

"So you're too cool to snuggle with your mama."

"Fate-mama!" Vivio whined, clutching a handful of Fate's sweater. "That's not what I meant at all! You're terrible."

She felt Fate's chest shake as the other blonde held back laughter. "So, what is it then? Something on your mind?"

Vivio chewed the inside of her cheek, silent.

Her mamas had always been on her side. Even about Hayate too, Vivio had to admit, now that she thought back over the years and noted how her parents had helped her along as she and Hayate tried to figure each other out. They've been nothing but supportive, so why was it so hard for her to talk now?

"…It's going to be over soon."

"Over?" Fate asked, laying a hand on Vivio's back.

Vivio nodded, smushing her face into soft cloth. She blinked harshly, and shrugged. "All this stuff. We're going home, right? So we have to get out of vacation mode and back to real life stuff. Kind of like how we have to move all the pillows off the couch and back onto the beds when Nanoha-mama comes home from her missions—we have to get back into the normal swing of things."

Fate laughed softly, remembering. "Yes, Nanoha is pretty strict about camping out on the couch. But why do you have to change everything when you and Hayate get home?"

"Because…come on," Vivio sighed. "She's…she's Lieutenant-General Yagami, Commander of the Capital Defense Corps. I'm her niece and just an officer…an officer in her chain of command, to boot." How could they possibly act the same way back home? Vivio couldn't just glomp her commanding officer. She could glomp her "aunt," but Vivio didn't want to glomp Hayate as an aunt. She wanted to give Hayate roses and hold her hand and lace their fingers together.

"Are you afraid that she won't love you once we get home?"

Vivio tensed despite herself, and she knew that she gave her answer away right there.

"Do you think she won't love you because you work for her?"

"That's exactly the thing—I work for her," Vivio broke in. "She's…she's Hayate-san. She's spent so much of her life working so hard to get to where she is, and look! She's in charge of a chunk of the TSAB, and she's so well respected and talented…I'm not putting myself down, but Fate-mama, I'm just average next to her. No, I'm worse than average…I'm just a kid."

"We're all kind of average against people like Hayate, Vivio. Just because she is exceptional doesn't make you any less outstanding."

"It's not just that, it's…" Vivio bit her lip, struggling to articulate her epiphany. "Last night, we were walking back here…and Hayate-san got a call from Rein. And she dealt with this situation so quickly, taking control and yet she still took the time to check up on lowly officers—like me. She was just so…distant." Vivio sighed. "Like, Hayate-san had to deal with Admirals and city councillors and fatalities. What do I deal with in comparison?" To her humiliation, Vivio felt her voice choking up, and she fought to keep from crying. "Passing my internship, getting a job, cleaning my room…Hayate-san lives in this totally different stage of life than I do."

"Vivio…" Fate winced. "Hayate is thirteen years older than you."

"It's not just my age! How can I even have a relationship with Hayate-san if I'm so completely out of my league? She won't want to be with me," Vivio said glumly, feeling a tear slide out of the corner of an eye and soak into Fate's sweater.

"Maybe she won't," Fate agreed, much to Vivio's surprise. She wasn't expecting her mother to not be all placating and encouraging. Fate kept stroking Vivio's head, quiet for a moment as she chose her words carefully. "A relationship goes two ways, Vivio. You have all these reasons why you think you don't deserve to be with Hayate—have you ever thought that she might have reasons too?"

Vivio pulled away to look her mother in the eye, staring blankly. "Reasons why she shouldn't be with me?"

"No—reasons why she shouldn't be with you."

"What?" she said incredulously. "Like what?" What possible reasons could Hayate have to look down on herself for? Other than the shared concerns of their age gap and the "friend of my mothers" or "aunt-figure" issues…but how could Hayate possibly think that she wasn't good enough for Vivio?

"You like Hayate, so to use one of Nanoha's expressions—you have some rose-coloured glasses on, dear." Fate touched Vivio's cheek. "She's not a very good girlfriend, you know. She loves her family and her ideals so much she's willing to put those in front of herself. Hayate works too hard, and she knows that she doesn't make enough time for her relationships. And all those accomplishments you mentioned? To you, those are things that raise Hayate above your level; but to her, I know that those accomplishments are just more barriers between you two."

"I don't understand…"

"It's hard to live in a notorious limelight. I've had to grow up with it. And Hayate especially, which is why I'm not surprised that she doesn't want that kind of life for you. There's…something that cuts deep when people look down on you for something that isn't your fault." Fate smiled, a sad smile that Vivio and Nanoha both hated seeing. "Or for something that people shouldn't hate you for. Old history and reputations aren't easily changed. Nanoha is more famous than either of us, but it's different with her. I want you to have your name whispered about in Nanoha's light, not like Hayate or me. And I know Hayate would want that for you too."

Vivio bit her lip. "So she doesn't want me to be the officer who sleeps with her boss to get ahead in the world?" Then she flushed, feeling her face go boiling hot. "I—I mean, who dates her boss—" Her mother was laughing already, and Vivio moaned, diving down and burying her face into Fate's chest to try and hide from the embarrassment. "You know what I mean!"

Fate was still laughing, putting a hand to her eyes to wipe away tears. "Sorry, sorry…yes." She cleared her throat. "Hayate is a woman just like you, Vivio. So I can't promise you that things won't change when you go home…but it's not just you, okay?" Fate lifted Vivio's chin so that they could look each other in the eyes, and despite having been laughing just moments ago Fate looked deeply serious now.

"You're very brave, Vivio. But to make things work, Hayate has to be just as brave as you."

**O**

This must be what getting arrested feels like, Hayate thought frantically.

She was obediently marching slightly in front of Nanoha, the Ace of Aces holding firmly onto her upper arm and guiding her where to go. Yeah, this was definitely an odd feeling—a combination of dread and guilt and panic that sat like three heavy bricks in Hayate's stomach, weighing her down so that she couldn't run even if she wanted to.

Hayate hadn't said a coherent word since Nanoha's question, and eventually Nanoha had simply taken her prisoner and ordered her to walk with her in that mild, polite tone that made criminals tremble before the White Devil. And despite the fact that Hayate was miles ahead of her friend in rank and raw power, and was even technically Nanoha's boss, she had obeyed with all the meekness of a cadet.

Nanoha had even apologized for teasing her, after Hayate had stopped breathing for a full minute. That had gotten Hayate breathing again, but she couldn't speak.

Walking helped though, and Hayate thought that maybe that was what Nanoha was trying for. But why did it seem like Nanoha was leading them somewhere?

"Remember this place?" Nanoha asked, as she stopped in the middle of a cul-de-sac by the bridge, pulling Hayate to a halt with her.

Hayate let out a frosted breath.

Of course she did.

It had been snowing that day too.

Nanoha let go of Hayate's arm, rubbing her hands together to warm them up.

Hayate could feel the snow start to seep into her hair, but the cold didn't bother her. She felt wrung out, and it seemed too much effort to feel cold.

She didn't know what time it was, but it was probably getting close to their transport time.

"It's the one thing we never seem to have, huh Nanoha-chan?"

"What?"

Hayate sighed. "Time."

"Oh." Nanoha said. Then, "You wanted a longer vacation."

"I wish I had enough time to figure myself out before we had to go home. Back to, you know, real life."

"I get that, Hayate-chan," Nanoha said quietly, one hand on Hayate's elbow to turn her so that they were facing each other. "I do. But you know you can't do that, right?" She sighed, her matte-blue eyes filled with sympathy. "You can't make decisions here while forgetting about what's at home. You live there, not here."

Hayate looked down, feeling those rough stones in her stomach change to a rising warm sadness. "I know," she said, regretfully.

"Hey," said Nanoha. "That's not what I meant."

"You don't know that."

"Yeah, I do," Nanoha said sharply, impatience seeping into her voice for the first time. "You're thinking that what you had with Vivio here can't possibly make it back home with us. Well, you're right, but not for the reasons you think." She inhaled deeply then blew out an aggravated burst of white mist.

"On Earth or on Midchilda, it's not going to be any different."

"What won't be different?" Hayate asked, stunned. She swallowed.

Nanoha rolled her eyes. "You feel guilty."

Hayate flinched.

"You feel guilty, and you're being very selfish. Don't let your ego get in the way of your common sense." Nanoha inhaled, then let her shoulders drop. "Or your own happiness, you know?"

"How am I being selfish?" Hayate tried to say indignantly, but the words came out far more timidly than she had intended.

Nanoha laughed, exasperation mixed in with her amusement. "You're selfish, for wanting to be so damn selfless all the time."

"You—" Hayate stopped. Those words sounded horribly familiar. "…I don't see how that's relevant to the current problem…"

Nanoha gave her a look—it was her I expected more from you; you're smart enough to figure it out look. Vivio had complained about it often to Hayate, lamenting about how her mama would never give her a straight answer when she had that look on her face. Nanoha patted Hayate's shoulder firmly, turning her boots in the snow and pointing. "We've got a few minutes before we should head back. I'll be over there, on that bench. Just, well…" Her gaze turned to the spot in the center of the cul-de-sac, then flicked upward, then landed back on Hayate. "Just take all the time you need."

Hayate closed her eyes, biting her lip.

Rank and honours aside…Nanoha was still the smartest one of them all.

She was right.

Hayate was smart enough to figure it out, five years ago after she had finally thought about her travesty of a love life long enough to realize why she was so screwed up.

She had a few minutes.

Hayate could feel a warm tear cut a swathe through her numb cheeks. She could taste the salt of it on her lips.

She opened her eyes, staring up into the grey-cloud sky.

"Hi, Reinforce."

She talked to Reinforce all the time—not always out loud, but often enough. So why did it feel different here, standing with her boots deep in snow, between the darkened streetlamps?

Hayate had grown up here, after all. Even after travelling through space often during her childhood, it wasn't hard to look up into the sky and imagine that the people she loved were watching over her. And this is where Reinforce had died, and no matter how little sense it made, Hayate felt different standing here.

"Would you agree?" Hayate whispered softly. She traced the circlet on the Device in her pocket with her thumb, letting the chain run like liquid gold over the cracks between her fingers. "Am I just being selfish?"

Nanoha had said that the guilt Hayate felt was a mark of her own ego, one that was unwilling to let go of her own past failures. Hayate couldn't really protest that, because she knew that it was true: the Book of Darkness, the JS Incident…Hayate hung all those failures like the millstones they were around her neck, hiding her shame under her smiles and determination. She hid it so well she even fooled herself on most days.

"No…" Hayate sighed, pressing her hand against her eyes. "That's not right. I…I really am okay, Reinforce. Isn't that so strange? I'm…happy. I don't know why I…why I keep wishing, sometimes, that I'm not."

Maybe Hayate felt guilty because she was happy.

Moving on almost seemed like a betrayal, even if in her head Hayate knew that Reinforce would have wanted that for her. Even if all of Hayate's friends and family had never for an instant wished for Hayate to dwell upon her mistakes, a small corner of Hayate's heart still felt so guilty.

"Lindy-san would just tell me that that guilt meant I was only human. And I agree with her—I tell my officers that all the time. So why can't I do it for myself?"

When she was a young girl, Hayate hadn't noticed just how lonely she had been. It wasn't until her knights had come to her that Hayate realized just how desperate she was not to be alone again. Perhaps…perhaps she wanted to give out more love than she received to make sure that people didn't leave her? And that seemed almost shameful, that underneath her profuse love for her family there was such a…selfish reason twisted in alongside.

But that wasn't exactly right either.

"I think that I like taking care of people, Reinforce. It makes me happy to see them so happy, I'm glad when I see that the people I care about are safe…I don't know why the thought of being on the other end of that concern makes me so uncomfortable." Hayate scuffed a boot across the snow, smiling involuntarily at the motion. "It's weird, to be selfish for wanting to do selfless things…but I kind of get what Nanoha-chan was trying to tell me, Reinforce. The way she was talking about it, I think that maybe someone else told that to her, don't you think?"

It was ironic, because Hayate vaguely recalled being part of the team of loved ones who had tried to impress a similar message into Nanoha's head after the Ace of Aces had barely survived one too many risky missions.

"…I'm such a hypocrite."

But no, Hayate couldn't let herself fall into the downward spiral of self-recrimination. She owed it to her friends not to do that anymore.

She owed it to Vivio not to dismiss herself so easily. Because Nanoha was right, as she often was. Vivio deserved someone who loved herself, in addition to loving Vivio.

And Hayate had already given in to the fact that she did love Vivio.

So there was only one thing she could do.

"I'll be okay," she said softly up at the white snowflakes that drifted down on her in light cold kisses. "I can be happy, right? I am happy. And it's because of you."

That was the truth.

Hayate owed so much to Reinforce. She had set her friend free—they had both done it for each other.

Reinforce had surrendered to her, and from there Hayate had found a way out for both of them. Even though at the end Reinforce had been still chained to the corrupted Book's defence program, it had been her friend's choice to accept her tethers. Reinforce hadn't died to hold Hayate down with her.

They were free.

"I don't know if I can do it," Hayate confessed. She wiped at her icy tears. "I just don't know."

Being brave meant that Hayate had to be stronger than she knew herself to be.

**O**

Vivio nearly broke her neck just walking.

"Ah!" she yelled, stumbling frantically like Falin as she tried to avoid falling or smacking a hole in the wall with Hayate's suitcase in her hand. She collided with a painting with an embarrassing crunch, then finally regained her footing in time to see an gray and white streak zip down the hall and vanish around the corner with a swish of a fluffy tail.

"Damn cats," Vivio muttered, panting. See, this was why she preferred dogs—growing up around Arf and Zafira may have biased her, somewhat. But the fact that Suzuka's cats seemed out to get her today may be contributing to that prejudice.

Vivio pushed herself off the wall and straightened out the painting while surreptitiously checking to see if she had accidentally scratched the wall.

"Looks like you got lucky there."

"Urk!" Vivio jumped, and felt her words falter. "Um…yes, that's lucky," she stammered, looking down at her shoes. It was like she was ten again, all tongue-tied when speaking with Hayate, and that feeling wasn't helping her mood right then. She sidled to the left, hefting the suitcase. "We're jumping out from Suzuka-san's backyard, Fate-mama is setting up the circle outside."

Hayate nodded. "Okay. Let me—"

Vivio stepped out of Hayate's attempt to take her own suitcase, smiling crookedly. "No, I got it. It's only polite." Her smile faded, and Vivio ducked her head and walked down the hall as quickly as she could, hoping to out-pace Hayate.

No such luck—despite the fast pace, Hayate fell in beside her, hands jammed into her jacket pockets as she followed Vivio silently. Her dark hair was damp, and Vivio cast a glance at the wet wool on Hayate's shoulders—what if she caught a cold? It was below freezing outside.

"Are you sure I can't help?"

"Huh?" Oh, because Vivio had suddenly stopped moving. Vivio felt her ears burn as she realized that she had been staring at Hayate, with God-knows-what kind of expression on her face. Hayate tilted her head—adorably, Vivio noted shyly—and looked at Vivio with an odd emotion clear on her face. That clear expression surprised Vivio; normally Hayate was harder to read than that, since she'd either have a polite mask on or a smiling one, and it had always thrown Vivio for a loop. But Hayate was looking right at her, and instead of calm the older woman seemed to be deliberating something.

Vivio lowered her gaze again—she didn't want to know.

She had a sinking feeling about whatever Hayate was deliberating.

"N-No, that's not needed." Vivio started moving again, mumbling a goodbye to Falin as they passed the kitchen. She had said her respectful farewells already, and she knew that her parents wanted the time to say their final goodbyes with their old friends. "Um, aren't you going to go say goodbye?"

"I already did," Hayate responded quietly. "This morning and then just now."

"Oh." Vivio bit her lip, shifting her grip on Hayate's suitcase slightly as her fingers went numb. It wasn't insanely heavy or anything, but she didn't want to give in and start wheeling the thing. She was a healthy young person who could throw grown mages twice her size, for goodness' sake; her ego dictated that she could carry it.

They walked out the solarium door, and Vivio quickly lengthened her stride to meet her parents and Arisa-san and Suzuka-san in the centre of the paved courtyard. She set Hayate's suitcase on top of the other luggage and put her hands in her blazer jacket, trying not to shift too impatiently and ruin the farewells. Peeking at Sacred Heart's watch face, Vivio scuffed a shoe in the snow when she saw that there were still fifteen minutes to go. Her bare legs were freezing—maybe she should have worn pants instead of a skirt, but there was no way she was going to dive into her suitcase to pull out a change of clothes now.

"So…did you have fun?" Hayate asked, super-awkwardly. She seemed embarrassed at the old-person-question the moment she had said it aloud.

"Yeah," Vivio said charitably, sliding her foot back and watching the motion intently. "It was…different. And it was nice meeting Nanoha-mama's family, and spending time around where you guys grew up, and getting to go out with…" She froze, and trailed off as she felt her stomach clench at the raw emotions her memories had stirred up.

Damn it, she can't start crying.

It would just be humiliating.

Hayate averted her own eyes, and her breathing seemed to pick up speed. "Yes," she said quietly, her tone carrying a sad note. "It was…nice, wasn't it."

Vivio pulled in a silent, ragged breath, and held it.

Oh, that hurt.

Of all the cruel things that had ever been done to Vivio, this was probably one of the worst. And it wasn't even Hayate's intention to stab Vivio in the heart.

She waited until the twisting in her chest settled, then said lightly, "Yup, it was."

It was fine, it was fine…Vivio could get over this. In maybe about thirty years. And maybe after finding a way to avoid Hayate forever at work, despite being a squad leader—maybe she could pretend to be in the washroom every time there was a meeting. She was sure that Shamal would help her come up with a fictional disease that explained it. Or maybe Arf would help instead—the familiar had a better imagination.

Hayate's face had gone blank, and Vivio could imagine how the lieutenant-general's thoughts were grinding and churning behind her calm expression. She was probably trying to figure out how to salvage things without embarrassing both of them.

God, Vivio hated that.

Even if it hurt, she preferred that to demeaning what they had shared.

"…Vivio—"

Her words came out wounded. "Please don't."

She could hear Hayate's hesitation.

"Hayate-chan, Vivio!" Nanoha unknowingly broke in, as she walked to the center of Fate's lightly glowing teleport circle beside them. "Ready to go?"

Neither of them said anything for a moment, causing Nanoha's cheery expression to change to confusion, before Hayate replied, "Sure."

Fate and Nanoha exchanged a short glance, then Fate lifted Bardiche to her lips. "Fate T. Harlaown on Non-Administered World #97 to the Claudia, requesting transfer at 11:00 hours, local time."

"Request granted. Transport in ten seconds."

"Bye!" Suzuka waved, standing at a safe distance away with Arisa, who looked disgruntled yet surprisingly glum at the goodbyes. "Come back and visit again! Vivio-chan, it was great getting to know you!"

"Likewise," Vivio answered, smiling a little.

"Three," Bardiche announced, "Two…One."

Vivio closed her eyes as golden light flared around them, but even with her eyes closed she couldn't stop feeling Hayate's presence, so close to her.

She needed to learn to quickly forget that presence.

To forget it all.

**O**

Hayate staggered, and felt herself collide with another body as she blinked away the spots in her vision. Wait, this looked like the inside of a ship—they were supposed to have teleported directly to Mid-Childa. She felt strong hands catch her under the arms as she tilted off-balance, and Vivio lifted her back on her feet before quickly letting go as if the contact stung.

"Sorry," Chrono's voice crackled from the Claudia's intercom system, apologetic. "There was an unexpected interference in the space nearby, so we had to cut the transport short. Don't worry, Nanoha and Fate made it through, but we're just going to wait for a few minutes before sending you two along. I apologize for the delay."

"Don't worry about it, Chrono-kun," Hayate said, stepping off the teleport pad to wait. "Just let us know when to step back in."

"Will do. Sorry again, it won't be long."

Hayate brushed her hair out of her eyes distractedly, fighting the urge to look over at her taller and silent companion. Actually, why was she fighting the urge? Boldly, Hayate turned towards Vivio, swallowing before saying, "A few more minutes added to our vacation time before getting back to work, huh?"

God, Hayate lamented, why am I so lame? What was with all the stupid-adult questions she was asking today?

Vivio shrugged, her entire posture exhausted. Her slumped shoulders half-hid her hands in her long, wrinkled sleeves, and she seemed engrossed in scraping away the bottom of her shoe on the ship deck. "Yeah. I only got leave until today, so I have to go in tomorrow."

"So do I," Hayate sighed, dreading the thought of her backed up desk. Rein hadn't sent her anything during her vacation, and she had resisted checking her inbox at all. Despite the capable staff that she had though, Hayate could predict the amount of overtime she'd have to put in over the next week to catch up on everything. It wasn't a pretty number.

"Reviews are coming up, huh?" Vivio said stiltedly.

Hayate made an affirmative sound. "The personnel reviews are fine…but I'm not looking forward to the program reviews. There's…lots of politics involved with that. And money. Neither of which can be dealt with expediently." She struggled to stop blabbing nervously. "And the TSAB Unified Branch conference is coming up too, and there'll be lots of committee meetings…um…and you have mid-internship exams, don't you?"

"Yeah. On the twenty-second."

"Oh. Um, it might be best…it might be best if someone else writes your review. I mean," stammered Hayate, lifting her gaze to Vivio's face but the blonde wouldn't meet her eyes. "Not that I don't want to! It's just…since we're—"

"Don't worry about it," Vivio interrupted, her mouth turned down in a defeated frown. "I…I know to keep to myself, you know, when we get back home." She had stopped fidgeting and was just grimly still. "I know that things are different there, not like…not like when we're away."

"I had meant because people know I'm friends with your mothers," Hayate said in a small voice.

"Oh." Vivio looked flustered for a second, then sighed, somehow looking even more haggard. "Okay."

"Vivio…" Hayate felt her hands shaking, and she gripped the fabric on the insides of her pockets tightly. "What…what you just said…"

Was that all? Was that it?

Vivio's cheek spasmed as she chewed at the inside of her mouth, then reluctantly, said, "I know. I'm…I'm just a teenager, and you're an adult, the same age as my mamas, and we don't think the same way about stuff like this. I know that it's strange, even if I really do like you, and it's not…it's not easy. You're my commanding officer, and you're so…so far above me. And we're like, kind of family, and there would be this weird incestuous taint that people aren't going to understand, even if we're not exactly like that. I still want…" she trailed off, her red and green eyes glazing. Then she turned her head so that they were finally looking straight at each other. "Even if I know that we…that I want this, I'm not a kid. I know that life isn't as simple as just wanting things," Vivio finished, with more weariness than women five times her age. "And besides, it's not like…it's not like…" She shook her head, lifting her shoulders and letting them fall.

Hayate could finish that for her—she could tell from the hopelessness in Vivio's eyes.

It's not like you love me too.

That's what Vivio didn't say.

It's why Vivio could let this go, despite it clearly breaking her heart with every second they stood next to each other.

But Vivio hadn't mentioned all the things that Hayate saw stacked between them.

At fifteen, Vivio had so many other chances in life for love—people who weren't embellished with the glorified memories of a childhood crush.

Love and commitment meant different things to someone who hasn't experienced the exhausting duration of either.

She didn't understand how much a reputation meant in life, because she's never had to suffer from the dark side of one.

All those things that Hayate saw and that placed glass barriers between her and Vivio's implied declaration of love.

And…Hayate didn't know.

She couldn't, because Vivio was too young to say the words and too wise to say them now, when no one would take her seriously.

Not knowing, that was the terrible part. The uncertainty chewed away at all the confidence and faith that Hayate might have had.

She felt like a coward for letting it do that.

"The storm passed, we're ready for you now," Chrono's voice appeared again. His tone was warm as he said, "It was my pleasure having you on board, even for a short time. Thirty seconds until teleport."

"Time to go," Vivio said, half-crestfallen, half-relieved. One step of her long legs placed her back on the teleport pad, the white light shining up beneath her.

Hayate stared at Vivio desperately, drinking in all the little things she normally missed. The way that her hair was pulled back in an off-centre high ponytail, mixing Nanoha's and Signum's hairstyles together, or the clear mark of Fate's understated and neat taste in clothing evident in Vivio's blouse and blazer choice. The thin, pale scar on her knee just below her skirt-line from a few too many energetic falls, or the ever-present bruises on her knuckles from the job she loved.

This was a girl who adored her odd family and who loved life in general, taking its hits and getting up determinedly each time. This was a young woman who was as good and faithful and earnest as the Strike Team oath that she had swore when she had gotten her badge, at a job that she had proudly earned for herself.

This was someone who liked Hayate enough to go grocery shopping with her and to give her delicate, perfect flowers. Someone who would toss out her nervously prepared plans in order to cheer up someone's day, and smile even as her heart was being broken.

This was Vivio.

Vivio.

The teleport pad glowed brighter, signalling its imminent activation. Vivio was looking at Hayate with an alarmed expression, starting to reach out to pull the older woman in since Hayate seemed to be frozen there.

Hayate locked eyes with Vivio, making the younger girl freeze mid-motion.

Neither of them noticed the tingle nor the light of the teleport pad as Hayate stepped forward once, twice, until she had stepped onto the circle right up in front of Vivio.

All Hayate could see were the depths of Vivio's candid eyes, and then all she could feel was the silkiness of Vivio's hair tangled in her fingers.

Then nothing but the soft warmth of her lips as Hayate kissed her, genuine truth in every touch.

**O**

"I love you."


Author's Note: And so ends "Prerogative of the Brave"…but not the end of Hayate x Vivio! "Prerogative of the Brave" isn't an end, after all, but just the beginning. That line, while cheesy, is nevertheless true ^_-. There are many more Files stories that take place after this story, written by myself, Shigan, Extrinsical, and a few others. Look forward to their appearance on soon!

The stories will all be listed in chronological order on my profile page, even the ones that I didn't write myself ^_^.

I wanted to thank the friendly gang who have never ceased to support me as I wrote this story, and kept my enthusiasm going when I was tearing my hair out when Hayate or Vivio wouldn't do what I needed them to do as I wrote. You guys are the best! And a special thanks to DezoPenguin, for patiently reading draft after draft of my chapters (sometimes even multiples of the same chapter!).

And of course, thank you readers for sticking with me for this story's run, and for reading this crack pairing that no one ever thought would amount to anything. Your reviews, story alerts, and favourites tell me that you guys have come to love Hayate x Vivio as much as I have, or at least are satisfactorily entertained by them =). I hope you enjoyed this story and I hope you enjoy all the others.